Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Jonathan Neville and the limits of knowledge

History bookshelvesOne of the problems with Jonathan Neville’s approach to Latter-day Saint history is his apparent belief that historical research and scientific inquiry can both come to some form of ultimate truth. In his April 20, 2021, blog post “An accurate account,” he quotes from a Wall Street Journal article and comments:
[“]Mr. Koonin says he wants voters, politicians and business leaders to have an accurate account of the science. He doesn’t care where the debate lands.[”]

That observation struck me as describing the way I approach issues of Church history.

I want members of the Church to have an accurate account of all the history, and I don’t care where the debate lands.
The problem with having an “accurate account of all the history,” is, of course, that there is no such thing. Not all historical events were documented, and not all historical documents are extant or available. For the historical accounts we do have, we must acknowledge that eyewitnesses are subject to personal biases and interpretations, as well as to inaccuracies in their recollections due to the passage of time. Neville seems to believe that historical accounts are either true or false, accurate or inaccurate, so he accepts historical accounts as true that confirm his biases—that the Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is in New York State, that Joseph Smith didn’t use a seer stone to translate, etc.—and rejects or tries to explain away historical accounts that run counter to his biases.

Neville almost seems to grasp this point. He writes:
Narratives by nature involve interpretation, assumptions and conjecture. Each individual can assess an author’s views and make an informed decision—but only if they have all the relevant facts available.

As Mr. Koonin said in the WSJ article, I want people to have an accurate account of all the history.

I think it makes more sense to assess all of the available and relevant evidence, and then see if there is a narrative that explains all of that evidence.
He’s so close to understanding, but he’s missing these key elements: How does one know if one has “all the history”? How does one determine what is an “accurate account” and what is not? How does one determine if certain facts are “relevant” or irrelevant? All historians—including Jonathan Neville—favor certain accounts and minimize other accounts. All historians are limited by having only certain accounts available to them, and the accounts they do have are likely to contain inaccuracies, biases, or wording that was couched in such a way that it’s easy for the historian to misinterpret or misunderstand what the author intended. (And sometimes authors intentionally wrote in such a manner that it would difficult for their readers to understand!)

This is where Jonathan Neville and other Heartlanders go wrong: They rest their beliefs primarily on a single passage from Oliver Cowdery’s Letter VII, but they refuse to consider the possibility that Oliver’s assertions were based on his personal beliefs and interpretations rather than on divinely inspired revelation. They just assume and assert, without evidence, that Oliver was inspired by God and therefore his statements on the hill Cumorah were completely accurate in a divine sense. They do this because they are prejudiced against a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon and prejudiced for a New York setting, and Oliver’s account confirms their prejudices.

Someone made an important comment today on this subject in a Facebook group in which I lurk. I repost his comment here, with his permission:
I’m a big fan of all of us developing theories based on the knowledge and the skillset we have. I think that’s important, and I think it shows a valuable diligence and drive.

However, we need to balance our theories with a gauge of how likely we are to be right, based on our understanding of the subject matter. Where my expertise is limited (due to time and life limitations), I develop theories that I’m passionate about, but that I hold loosely. What else don’t I know? What have others written on the subject? What have experts said about my ideas? If experts disagree with me, why am I holding on to my theories so tightly? Do I need this to be true because of faulty assumptions?

Experts are not always right. They’re human, like the rest of us. But if we amateurs ignore the work of experts, we increase the likelihood that we have gotten it wrong.
All of this speaks to the subject of academic humility. Neville regularly accuses his ideological opponents—the so-called “M2C citation cartel”—of bias and using positions of power to control the debate. What he doesn’t bother to do is to ask himself if his views need to be reassessed, if his theories need to be rigorously tested, if his interpretations best explain the available evidence.

Sadly, his attitude is quite common among the amateur historians, self-taught anthropologists, and armchair theologians that make up the Heartland movement.

—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.
 

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