Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Correlation ≠ causation

I’ve mentioned before the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”), otherwise known as the Questionable Cause. The essential idea is that just because B followed A, A did not necessarily cause B.

For several years Jonathan Neville has claimed that the decline in the growth of Church membership is directly connected to the belief that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica (what he calls “M2C”) and to the use of internal Book of Mormon maps in Church publications (which he calls “computer-generated fantasy maps”).

Neville is making this claim again, and he’s added to it the assertion that teaching Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon (which Neville calls “SITH”) is also responsible for declining Church growth rates. He admits, “Of course, correlation does not prove causation. There are lots of factors.” He nonetheless presses forward with his assertion, with his only evidence of causation being “it’s worth considering the impact of changing the narratives regarding the origins and historicity of the Book of Mormon.”

Neville created this chart to show the supposed connections between “M2C/SITH” and Church membership growth: Here is Neville’s key to the annotations on his chart:
  1. 1975, 1978. The last time New York Cumorah was taught in General Conference
  2. 1978 [John] Sorenson’s Ancient American Setting published, promotes M2C
    1979 CES manual on Book of Mormon reaffirms NY Cumorah
    1979 FARMS organized, promotes M2C
  3. 1990 In response to increasing confusion about Cumorah, a letter from office of First Presidency reaffirms NY Cumorah and is widely circulated, but criticized by scholars
  4. 1997 FARMS joins BYU; FairMormon (now FairLatterdaySaints) organized
  5. 2000 CES drops the NY Cumorah from curriculum
  6. 2004 BMAF organized to promote M2C
    2004 This Land: Only One Cumorah teaches NY Cumorah
    2005 Rough Stone Rolling teaches SITH
    2006 BYU Studies teaches M2C
  7. 2007 The last sermon in General Conference to teach the Urim and Thummim
  8. 2011 Book of Mormon in America’s Heartland teaches NY Cumorah
    2012 Interpreter founded by leading LDS scholars to teach M2C and SITH
    2012 FairMormon agrees with CES Letter re: M2C and SITH
    2013 Gospel Topics Essay (GTE) on Book of Mormon Translation teaches SITH, doesn’t even quote Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery regarding the Urim and Thummim
  9. 2015 Ensign teaches SITH, publishes photos of “seer stone”
    2015 Book of Mormon Central (BMC, a subsidiary of BMAF) organized, begins spending millions of dollars to teach M2C and SITH
    2015 BYU and CES adopt a fantasy map based on M2C to teach the Book of Mormon
  10. 2018 Saints, Vol. 1, teaches SITH and censors New York Cumorah to accommodate M2C
    2019 GTE on Book of Mormon geography ignores Cumorah, accommodates M2C
    2020 January Ensign quotes David Whitmer’s "To All Believers in Christ" and depicts Joseph using SITH with plates covered
    2020 BMC introduces SeminaryCentral to promote M2C and SITH to younger students
Neville’s list of dates and events is, of course, nothing more than highly selective “cherry picking,” using only events that he considers noteworthy or significant and ignoring the question of how many Latter-day Saints are even aware of any of these developments. (How many Saints read BYU Studies Quarterly or even know that it exists? Neville doesn’t tell us.)

If Neville’s cherry-picked list of events is responsible for Church growth rates, why isn’t it responsible for other developments in the Church as well? For example, we’ve seen explosive growth in the number of operating temples since 1999, about a decade after “M2C” became entrenched in CES (according to Neville) and just as “SITH” was starting to be taught (again, according to Neville). Perhaps the number of temples is directly related to the teaching of “M2C” and “SITH”! Or perhaps the teaching of “M2C” and “SITH” has resulted in a surge of new translations of the Book of Mormon into foreign languages! More concerning, however, is the rise and decline of the number of full-time missionaries in service. The number of missionaries surged after the age for full-time mission service was lowered in October 2012, but it’s been declining since its peak in 2014. What’s happened since then? What could have caused this? Jonathan Neville published his first book and began blogging in 2015! Of course, correlation does not prove causation. There are lots of factors. However, it’s worth considering the impact of the changing narratives about Book of Mormon geography and translation introduced by Jonathan Neville and other Heartlanders.

—Peter Pan


  1. Jonathan Neville's annotations chart says John Sorenson's book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon was published in 1978. It was actually published by Deseret Book in 1985.

  2. I had no idea Interpreter was formed for the sole purpose of teaching M2C and SITH! They must have missed putting it into their mission statement.

    1. That's how deep the conspiracy goes! Interpreter only mentions M2C in their top-secret, oath-bound meetings!


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