Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

“If we start wrong, it is a hard matter to get right.”

In his powerful King Follett Sermon, Joseph Smith taught, “If we start right, it is very easy for us to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, it is hard to get right.”

Jonathan Neville’s fundamental claims “start wrong,” which is one of the reasons why his arguments so often fail to convince informed people. Here’s a recent example of his thinking:
President Oliver Cowdery said it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place at the Hill Cumorah in western New York (Letter VII).…

Of course, it’s not only Oliver Cowdery who was wrong or correct. The New York Cumorah has been taught by every prophet/apostle who has addressed the topic of Cumorah. But Oliver takes the blame/credit for putting it into print (even though historical evidence shows Joseph taught it even before he got the plates, which he means he learned about Cumorah from Moroni.)

Book of Mormon Central (BMC) and the rest of the M2C citation cartel assume Oliver was wrong, and everything they produce flows from their obsession with offering evidence to oppose what Oliver taught. Their employees and followers amplify the message.

BMC employees know perfectly well that M2C is based on the assumption the prophets were wrong and have misled the Church. You can see them on the Internet trying try to justify their position. As good employees, they promote the BMC message and pretend their M2C theory is “evidence driven.”
Neville himself purports to know what participants in the “M2C citation cartel” have “assumed,” yet he’s seemingly unaware of the assumptions he himself makes. Let’s review five flawed assumptions he made in the quote above.

Neville’s faulty assumption #1: Oliver Cowdery’s “fact”

Oliver Cowdery wrote in Letter VII of “the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.” Neville assumes that Oliver was making a claim based on revealed knowledge and not inference or supposition.

Because the plates of Mormon were retrieved from a hill not far from Joseph Smith’s home and because the angel Moroni told Joseph that they contained “an account of the former inhabitants of this continent,” it would have been natural and understandable for early Latter-day Saints, including Oliver Cowdery, to assume that the final battle described in Mormon 6 took place at the same hill where the plates were retrieved. However, the Book of Mormon doesn’t doesn’t state—or even imply—that Moroni buried the plates in the same hill where his people met their end, and Mormon 6:6 explicitly says that Mormon buried all the records he had in the hill Cumorah “save [i.e., except] it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.”

(Neville seems to understand this, which is why he tries to bolster his claim by citing Lucy Mack Smith’s late reminiscences that refer to the New York hill as “Cumorah” as evidence that “Joseph taught it even before he got the plates” and therefore “he learned about Cumorah from Moroni.” As I pointed out almost three years ago, it’s a misuse of Lucy’s memoirs to place that much evidentiary weight on them.)

Just because Oliver used the term “fact” in Letter VII doesn’t necessarily mean that he knew it to be a fact, for many people, then and now, use that word for things they believe are true. (Merriam–Webster’s dictionary includes “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” as one definition of fact.) Neville also fails to mention the historical errors in Oliver’s letters, possibly because he knows that would undercut the authority of Letter VII and its supposed statement of “fact” concerning the New York hill Cumorah.

Neville’s faulty assumption #2: Prophetic and apostolic teaching about Cumorah

Neville is correct that most prophets and apostles since Oliver Cowdery’s time who have said something about the location of the hill Cumorah have affirmed that it is the same hill in New York that we call Cumorah today. He’s incorrect, though, in claiming that “every prophet/apostle who has addressed the topic of Cumorah” has affirmed this; as I’ve pointed out before, apostle John A. Widtsoe, in an article about Book of Mormon geography in the July 1950 issue of the Improvement Era noted that there was doubt concerning this matter: There are also examples of prophets and apostles (including Elder Harold B. Lee) publicly and privately questioning if the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon and the hill Cumorah in New York are the same hill.

Ultimately, this—like Oliver Cowdery’s Letter VII—comes down down to the question of whether the prophets and apostles who affirmed a New York Cumorah did so based on revelation or on conventional wisdom. Since there is a complete lack of any revelation or official statement from the First Presidency about the location of Cumorah, that question remains unresolved and is open for research, discussion, and debate.

Neville’s faulty assumption #3: “M2C” means “the prophets were wrong”

Neville’s persistent, key assertion is that if the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon wasn’t in New York, then the prophets who claimed it was (including Oliver Cowdery) were “wrong.”

But Neville is simply begging the question here: He assumes that prophets cannot be wrong without undercutting their prophetic authority. His assumption is incorrect, though: For example, several explanations for the priesthood ban were used by Church leaders and members for over 100 years; the Church declares now that “none of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” (In 2006 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said that “almost all of [these explanations] were inadequate and/or wrong.”) One ancient example of a prophet being wrong is when Nathan told David to build a temple, declaring to the king “the Lᴏʀᴅ is with thee,” only to have the Lord tell Nathan that night that he authorized no such project. (See 2 Samuel 7.)

So, prophets can be and have been wrong on occasion about some matters. Since the location of the hill Cumorah has no bearing whatsoever on salvation or on faith in the Book of Mormon—including faith in it as a historical record—it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that prophets and apostles who affirmed the New York location for this hill were honestly mistaken. Today the Church affirms that its “only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.” (Because that statement casts doubt on Neville’s central thesis, he’s done his level best to cast doubt on its authority.)

Neville’s faulty assumption #4: Book of Mormon Central and others “assume Oliver was wrong” and are “obsessed” with “opposing what he taught”

Those who argue that the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon was in Mesoamerica don’t “assume Oliver [Cowdery] was wrong,” neither do they “oppose” his passing remark in Letter VII. The truth is the reverse: It is Neville and his comrades in the Heartland movement who are “obsessed” with Letter VII; Neville appears to be projecting back his own obsession onto those who disagree with him, supposing that they must be as obsessed about their opinion about Book of Mormon geography as he is about his.

The truth is that scholars and informed lay people who believe in a Mesoamerican setting for the hill Cumorah don’t really spend any time thinking or worrying about Oliver Cowdery’s passing remark. His statement in Letter VII is interesting and informative from a historical perspective, but it’s not remotely as important as what the Book of Mormon itself has to say about its geography. The text itself is always going to be infinitely more illuminating than what its readers have had to say about it.

Neville’s faulty assumption #5: Book of Mormon Central employees “know perfectly well that M2C is based on the assumption the prophets were wrong and have misled the Church”

This is probably the worst of Neville’s assumptions, because it’s yet another example of his intimated ability to read the minds of those who disagree with him.

Here, Neville claims to know the thoughts of the people who work for Book of Mormon Central. Through this amazing power, he has learned that they know and actively believe that Church leaders were wrong and these Church leaders have misled members of the Church. This is a breathtaking claim, not only because extrasensory perception has never been shown to be a real ability, but also because Neville himself regularly and continually accuses Church leaders of misleading the Saints! (Here are four examples of that; there are many more under this blog’s Church leadership tag.)

The truth is that legitimate Latter-day Saint scholars (of whom Jonathan Neville is not one) rightly divide between revealed and/or authoritative statements made by Church leaders and passing remarks and statements of personal belief made by Church leaders. I don’t work for Book of Mormon Central, but I can guarantee you that no one affiliated with them believes that “the prophets were wrong and have misled the Church”; rather, they carefully examine the text of the Book of Mormon for clues about its geographical setting and use the best possible evidence to craft a plausible—but, lacking a revealed solution, still tenuous—explanation of where it may have taken place.

Six years ago, Jonathan Neville started on the path he is on now by deceiving Matthew Roper about his intentions when they met at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. In Joseph Smith’s words, he “started wrong,” and so it’s been hard for him since that time to “get right.”

—Peter Pan


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