Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Someone should really bring Jonathan Neville up to speed

In dozens of blog posts dating back to at least September 2018, Jonathan Neville has relentlessly criticized Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack’s theory that the syntax of the Book of Mormon matches structures and patterns found in Early Modern English.

Neville incorrectly ascribes this theory to “LDS [sic] intellectuals” who are part of the “M2C* citation cartel.” He insists that these intellectuals (which include people associated with the Interpreter Foundation, Book of Mormon Central, FAIR, and religious instructors at BYU/CES)
are telling us that Joseph didn’t really use the Urim and Thummim, didn’t really use the plates, and didn’t really translate anything. Instead, according to them, Joseph merely read words that appeared on a seer stone he put in a hat (or read words that appeared in vision). They’re trying to persuade us that the “actual translator” was some unknown supernatural being who, inexplicably, used Early Modern English combined with early 1800s expressions, complete with anachronisms that critics have long claimed are evidence of 19th century composition.
Neville, as usual, is simply wrong about all of this. His claims are misrepresentations.

There are two corrections that he should immediately make to his claims:

First, as I explained over a year ago:
[Neville’s] accusation that “all the M2C intellectuals agree with Brother Skousen’s views of the translation” is yet another overstatement on Neville’s part. There is, in fact, rigorous debate among legitimate Latter-day Saint scholars (of which Neville is not one) about Joseph’s translation method. For example, Brant Gardner, a prominent scholar and author whom Neville mentions in his blog post and whom he certainly considers a leading “M2C intellectual,” disagrees with Skousen on numerous points. (Gardner has written an entire book that sets forth his views on the translation.)
Royal Skousen, interview, The Translation of the Book of Mormon, March 22, 2021
Royal Skousen
Far from being some monolithic theory that dominates the discourse among Latter-day Saint scholars, the translation method of the Book of Mormon is, in fact, a point of ongoing debate. There are scholars in the “tight control” camp (e.g., Skousen), scholars in the “loose control” camp (e.g., Gardner), and some scholars who take a hybrid approach.

But Neville shows no evidence of even being aware that there are multiple views held by the broader scholarly community. He’s so hyperfocused on defeating the dreaded and dangerous “M2C citation cartel” that he’s left himself ignorant of what the people in that supposed cartel actually say and write and believe.

Second, Neville’s claim about Royal Skousen’s theories are both fallacious and out of date. Skousen himself has publicly stated that he’s abandoned a theory he unwisely floated early on his research into the text of the Book of Mormon.

This example is from an answer Skousen gave at a conference panel in August 2017:
[Question:] Can you share any thoughts you might have on why the Lord chose Early Modern English?

[Royal Skousen:] Well, I don’t know. A lot of people want me to answer that question, and I’m studying it. And Stan Carmack is helping me, and we’re going to publish a book in next few months, part 3 of the Critical Text of the ,Book of Mormonpart 3, volume 3—that will go through the whole language, showing all the phrases, the words, and some of the syntax that all derives from Early Modern English, not from Joseph Smith’s time.

Joseph Smith is not the translator of the text. The evidence is really very strong for this. A lot of people want me to explain why, and one time I foolishly suggested there was a “translation committee.” That was a mistake, because, first of all, it gets in the way—everybody wants to know who’s on the translation committee.… The real question is, what’s this language of this text like? So that’s what we’re studying, and it’s going to be made available, and you can study it yourself. And a lot of people have a lot of views, but they’re not studying it. Someday you can ask the Lord; he’ll tell you how he did it. But I myself don’t know, and I think it just gets in the way, and so I take back my statement. I put it in print, even. “The Lord or his translation committee”—it was dumb, dumb.

In a more recent interview an interview recorded a few years ago and released on March 22, 2021, Skousen again clarified his view on a “translation committee” and what he meant by “Joseph Smith is not the translator of the text.”

The following is a long extract from his interview, but I believe it’s worth quoting because it gives Skousen the opportunity to explain his views are and shows how complex and nuanced they are—far from the oversimplistic caricatures that Jonathan Neville continually gives us:
Some people have said—I even entertained it a while—“Well, maybe God didn’t do the translation of the Book of Mormon.” That he had a committee. I’ll state it—I’ve stated it once; I don’t state it anymore because I don’t believe it—and God had a committee, though, of Protestant Reformers, you know, in England—English guys that had died—and got them all together and said, “Here’s the translation; I want you to do this Book of Mormon for me, and we going to give it to Joseph Smith down the road,” or something. [Laughs]

So this is the “committee” idea, and these guys are from the 15 and 1600s. Now, first of all, the committee has to go from before 1540, and it’s got to go up to 1730, because you’ve got vocabulary that some of it’s coming in and so forth, so it’s a mix—that’s one of the things. But you can imagine lots of things; just because I can imagine it doesn’t mean it happened this way.

But then there’s one real problem with this theory of the “committee.” So, this is the problem: Stan [Carmack] and I were sitting there studying Early Modern English writers, and we’ve got this guy, [Nicholas] Harpsfield who wrote the life story of Sir Thomas Moore. He wrote it in about 1557 or so. And Stan is reading it to me. It’s in the time period of the kinds of things we’ve been seeing in the Book of Mormon. And about every other sentence, Stan reads a word that I don’t understand at all. So, there’s something like ween—it doesn’t mean “to wean a baby”; it’s just in there.… So we stop, we get out the Oxford English Dictionary, and say, “Okay, let’s find this word.” We don’t know it. We go down another couple of sentences and we find another word. We don’t know it; we gotta look it up. So, if we have a group of guys [in the] 15- [or] 1600s who are putting together a text, there should be words in there that we don’t understand—at all. Well, we have that in the Book of Mormon when Isaiah is quoted: carbuncles, the besom of destruction. We get words, in fact, [that] we have no idea what they mean, and we have to look them up.

But when we get to the Book of Mormon, we don’t get that kind of vocabulary at all. We may get errand, which originally means “message” but now means ”task,” but it’s still in English. So when Joseph Smith says “errand,” the scribe is going to recognize the word, [and] he’ll write it down. Even though the meaning may have changed, the words are still the same. This is true of virtually every word in the Book of Mormon—they’re all understandable to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as far as words go; they haven’t dropped out of the language. Whereas if I read a 1570 book, I’m going to find, “Oh, I don’t know this word,” “I don’t know that word,” “Stan what is this? We’re going to have to look it all up!” And when we read Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, we’ve got to look up all these words that irritate us—all these women with their wimples and all the paraphenalia [that] they’re wearing. “What are these things?” We’d like some notes; we gotta be told. But you don’t have to do that with the rest of the Book of Mormon.

What does this mean? Well, it means that the translation is being prepared for Joseph Smith so that he can read it off, and the scribe can write it down, and they will recognize the words, even though they may not recognize their meanings quite right.… So, however this text is being prepared, it’s being prepared for Joseph Smith’s time. It’s being sort of “filtered,” so there won’t be the besoms in there and the carbuncles and the wimples. So it can’t be that there’s some committee that just got together and put it all together and said, “Okay, we’ve done our job; now we’ll just wait for Joseph Smith.”

So, I think it shows, however this translation is prepared, it’s been prepared for Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and the other scribes. And the Lord has his hand in it; he’s overseeing it.… When you get this idea of a committee, you sort of think, “Oh, it was done, and it’s just sort of sitting there, and now we can just wait for Joseph Smith.” Well, no—no, the Lord just doesn’t let this thing go; he’s preparing it, he’s working with it.

Ultimately, we’re just finding evidence that this text is well-crafted; it looks like it was worked on, beginning in the 1500s, but it’s been worked on—the translation—for a long time, and it’s been worked on going towards Joseph Smith. So we’re talking about a long period of time. It’s very well-controlled.

It’s got things in it which aren’t Early Modern English, too—it’s got these Hebrew [artifacts?], these extra ands, which we’ve never found: “If you come / and surely you should / and I will come” we haven’t found in any dialect of English anywhere. But there are lots of them in the Book of Mormon; I’ve got a whole list, ten pages of them in the original text. They’re in the Book of Mormon. So, we’re not going to just dismiss them and say, “Joseph Smith had too much beer that day,” or something. People come up with all kinds of crazy theories to explain anything, but what we want to do is say, “What’s actually in there? And what does it mean?”

The conclusion is, it’s a text that looks like it’s controlled, word-for-word, down to the ands. Those extra ands are being put in there. All those and it came to passes are there for reasons, and all the ors—correcting ors—are there for reasons, but they’re there. Before we jump off the cliff with theories of why they’re there, we want to know what exactly it is and where they might be coming from and whatnot.

That’s what I do, and I think too many people have already figured out the Book of Mormon. I gave a talk, “A Theory! A Theory! We Have Already Got a Theory, and There Cannot Be Any More Theories!” And I’ve given another talk where I’ve changed my mind on ten different things, because evidence, evidence, will make you change your mind. When I started out this project, I thought Joseph Smith got ideas, and he put them into his own language; it was the only way I could explain the bad grammar. That’s what I thought. But the evidence is becoming, to me, overwhelming that, no, that isn’t the way it occurred. So I think that we have to be able to be willing to change our mind; we have to look at the evidence. And I may change my mind again on various things, but I’m not going to hide it—if I discover I’ve made a mistake, I’m gonna say something, and I’m gonna put it in writing.

Notice how Skousen’s explanation sounds nothing like Jonathan Neville’s distorted summary of it? Skousen’s theory of translation is complex and rich and full, but Neville doesn’t seem to deal well with complexity or nuance.

What Skousen appears to be saying, if I’m interpreting him correctly, is that the translation of the Book of Mormon came by revelation from the Lord. Joseph Smith didn’t “translate” the Book of Mormon in the usual sense of a translator who uses his intellect to convert the meaning of a text in one language into another language; rather, the Lord gave Joseph the translation by inspiration.

That explanation should be thoroughly uncontroversial, but Jonathan Neville insists, for reasons that are not clear to me, that Joseph was the translator in the sense that he controlled the language of the English Book of Mormon text and that text reflected Joseph’s grammar. Skousen’s work contradicts that hypothesis.

Neville is certainly welcome to advance his own explanations for how the Book of Mormon was produced. He’s not, however, going to misrepresent the arguments and the characters of those who disagree him without getting some pushback. (Hence this blog’s raison d’être.)

—Peter Pan
* “M2C” is Jonathan Neville’s acronym for the theory that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and that the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon is not the same hill in New York where Joseph Smith received the plates of Mormon.


  1. "...evidence, will make you change your mind." I love that.

  2. Would it be incorrect to say that it is Heartlanders, not "LDS intellectuals" who universally accept any theory put forth by someone in their group? It seems like any new theory put forward by one of them is immediately embraced by all, and they all act like they have always believed it. (For example, the "two sets of plates" theory).

    1. Maybe not all, but a vast majority if the Facebook page posts and comments are a reliable gauge. Or at least those who are active with following the page, as well as podcasts/blogs.

      It comes down to tribalism, and wanting to belong to something (a group, movement, etc.), something that fills a void. Just my thoughts though.

  3. For what it’s worth, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Skousen’s off-the-cuff hypothesis of a committee of translators from different time periods. In fact, I think it’s the obvious answer. He probably feels like he needs to withdraw from that arena of questioning because he needs to maintain his scholarly posture as he continues to head an academic project, and I suppose that’s prudent.

    But I don’t think there’s anything actually problematic, unscholarly, or unintellectual at all about the idea of a committee of translators—especially if you believe in an afterlife, a spirit world where people from different eras are currently rubbing [spiritual] shoulders as we speak. If someone familiar with multiple strands of human languages did the translating, why not them?

    To someone unaccustomed to Christian perspectives that heartily presume an afterlife, it sounds far-fetched and highly speculative. Sure. But to someone who accepts all the supernatural claims of the Restored gospel, it’s actually quite a parsimonious theory that doesn’t posit additional factors—it limits itself to know entities. I don’t think Royal has any need to feel sheepish about considering the idea.

  4. Out of curiosity, do Neville and Heartlanderism in general not believe that Joseph translated by reading words/phrases/sentences that appeared to him? I think that is what the evidence points most strongly to, as well as what witnesses have stated. On the other hand, Neville has a problem with eye-witness testimony.

    1. I don’t know if there’s a single Heartland theory on this. Neville is the only Heartlander I’m aware of who’s making an issue over Joseph’s method of translation.

      I haven’t seen anything in Neville’s blogs indicating how he believes Joseph accomplished the translation. He recently self-published a book on the subject; his theory may be in there.


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