Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Neville’s Book of Mormon geography makes no sense, part 2

Over a year ago, I posted the first in a series of articles critiquing Jonathan Neville’s proposed geography of the Book of Mormon. This is my long-delayed second entry in that series.

The river Sidon

The river Sidon is a signficiant geographic feature in the Book of Mormon. It played a prominent role in several battles described in the book of Alma, including the Amlicite War (Alma 2) and Captain Moroni’s defense of Manti against the Lamanite forces (Alma 4344).

The river Sidon ran on a north/south axis through the land of Zarahemla, and the great city of Zarahemla was situated on its west bank (Alma 6:7). The head of the river was near the Nephite land of Manti, which itself was near the border between Nephites on the north and the Lamanites on the south (Alma 22:27, 29; 43:22; 50:11). The Sidon flowed into the sea (Alma 3:3; 44:22; although which sea the text does not say).

On the facts above, there is no dispute between Heartlanders and Mesoamericanists. The major point of disagreement between the two groups concerns the direction in which the river Sidon flowed and, hence, the meaning of the word head.

The direction of the river Sidon

Detail from Lands of the Book of Mormon map by Rian Nelson and Jonathan Neville
Jonathan Neville’s fantasy map of the southernly course of the river Sidon
The Heartland theory of Book of Mormon geography is based largely on starting with a conclusion—that the events of the Book of Mormon took place inside the modern boundaries of the United States of America—and then working backwards from there to force the evidence to fit into the predetermined narrative. The direction of the river Sidon is just one example of this: Since Heartlanders insist—per their tortured interpretation of D&C 125:3—that the ancient city of Zarahemla must have been on the western bank of the Mississippi River, across from modern Nauvoo, Illinois, and therefore the Mississippi River is the Sidon.

The Book of Mormon identifies the “head” of the Sidon as being near the land of Manti, in the borders between Nephite and Lamanite lands (Alma 22:27; 43:22). Lamanite lands (and therefore Manti) were south of the city of Zarahemla (Alma 16:6; 50:7). The common definition of “head,” as it pertains to a river or stream, is its source or origin; that is how Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defines it. (See def. 18.) If the head of the Sidon is south of the city of Zarahemla, then the Sidon must have flowed north past Zarahemla. This presents a problem to the Heartland geography, since the Mississippi River flows south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Jonathan Neville and other Heartlanders have tried to get around this obvious problem by claiming that “head,” as it pertains to the Sidon, doesn’t mean origin or source, but rather refers to a confluence, where two rivers come together. They base this claim on Webster’s 23rd definition of head, which is “body; conflux,” and then cross-referencing his definition of conflux, “a flowing together; a meeting of two or more currents of a fluid” (def. 1). Therefore, according to Heartlanders, the head of the Sidon was not its source; it was the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, downstream from Zarahemla and Manti.

Why a south-flowing Sidon is impossible

As with many other claims made by Heartlanders, this one is too clever by half.

The most obvious problem with it, as other critics of the Heartland theory have rightly pointed out, is that the Book of Mormon itself defines the head of a river as the place “from whence it came” (1 Nephi 8:13–14).

Another significant obstacle to Heartlanders’ claims is that a close reading of the Book of Mormon clearly demonstrates that the land of Manti was higher in elevation than the land (and city) of Zarahemla:

  • “And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying [in the opposite direction, i.e, north] towards the land of Zarahemla” (Alma 17:1). I’ve already established that Manti was south of Zarahemla, and Heartlanders do not dispute this. I mention it again because it’s important to understanding the next point.

  • “And Alma returned and said unto them: Behold, the Lamanites will cross the river Sidon in the south wilderness, away up beyond the borders of the land of Manti” (Alma 16:6). The Book of Mormon is rigorously consistent in its uses of up and down to refer to elevation, not compass directions. It always describes people traveling from the Nephite-held land of Zarahemla “up to the land of Nephi” where the Lamanites dwelt (e.g., Mosiah 7:2, 4, 9:3; 20:7; 28:1, 5; 29:3; Alma 17:8; 20:2; 24:20; 26:23; 29:14), and it also always describes people traveling from the land of Nephi “down to the land of Zarahemla” (e.g., Alma 27:5; 51:11; 57:15–16, 28, 30; Helaman 1:17).

  • That Manti was higher in elevation than Zarahemla is further demonstrated in Helaman’s epistle to Captain Moroni, in which he mentioned the land of Manti among the lands the Lamanites had captured (Alma 56:13–14). Helaman told Moroni that, from these strategic vantage points, the Lamanites dared not “march down against the city of Zarahemla; neither durst they cross the head of Sidon, over to the city of Nephihah” (Alma 56:25). Here again we see, in the plainest of readings, that Manti was higher in elevation than Zarahemla, and that nearby was the head or source of the river Sidon.


Since the lands of Manti and Nephi in the south were higher in elevation than the land of Zarahemla in the north, any river that ran through both lands would have to run in a northward direction from higher to lower elevation—unless, of course, Heartlanders wish us to believe that the laws of physics operated differently in Book of Mormon times.

Since the river Sidon ran from south to north, it therefore could not have been the Mississippi River, which runs from north to south.

This is another considerable problem with the Heartland theory of Book of Mormon geography. Heartlanders claim that “it just makes sense” that the Book of Mormon took place in the Midwestern region of the United States. It can only “make sense,” though, if one does not pay attention to the text of the Book of Mormon.

—Peter Pan

1 comment:

  1. It has been my experience that "it just makes sense" Latter-Day Saints are ripe candidates for becoming "it just makes sense" ex-Latter-Day Saints.


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