Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Friday, January 21, 2022

Jonathan Neville, Lucy Mack Smith, and responsible historiography

One of Jonathan Neville’s frequent assertions is that the 1844/1845 memoirs of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the Prophet Joseph, provide evidence that the hill where Joseph received the plates from Moroni was called Cumorah as early as 1823. In his “classic post” on the subject, Neville wrote:
Lucy Mack Smith explained that Moroni identified the hill as Cumorah the first night he met Joseph Smith. She also quoted Joseph Smith referring to the hill as Cumorah before he even got the plates.
Neville also regularly criticizes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church Historical Department, and Latter-day Saint historians for “avoiding” and “omitting” Lucy’s use of the term Cumorah in her memoirs. In one recent blog post, he told us:
Many LDS [sic] intellectuals are schizophrenic about Lucy Mack Smith. They think her history is credible and reliable about everything except (i) Cumorah and (ii) the First Vision, which she didn’t mention.

For example, in the Joseph Smith Papers, Translations and Revelations, Vol. 5, Original Manuscript, the Introduction cites or refers to Lucy 36 times. But the editors carefully avoid what she said about Cumorah.

The Saints book, Volume 1, follows the same approach, citing Lucy’s history dozens of times but omitting what she said about Cumorah.
As is his wont, Neville has misrepresented what historians believe about Lucy’s history. His claim that “they think her history is credible and reliable about everything except Cumorah and the First Vision” distorts what scholars have actually written. For example, the “Historical Introduction” to Lucy’s memoirs in the Joseph Smith Papers explains:
“Much of the value of Lucy Mack Smith’s account lies in her offering a wife and mother’s perspective on her family’s role in the early church. She illuminates the family setting that fostered the birth of Mormonism and retells incidents and interactions recounted nowhere else. Though there are errors in the dating of some events and occasionally in place and individual names, overall her account is of inestimable value, providing a rarely heard woman’s voice as it traces [Joseph Smith’s] life from beginning to end. She was present at many seminal events and offered insights no one else could provide.” [emphasis added]
But Neville was not satisfied to simply misrepresent the opinions of credible Latter-day Saint scholars; he then went a step further and invented reasons why they supposedly “avoid” and “omit” Lucy’s mention of Cumorah:
The intellectuals who reject (and censor) these accounts [in which Lucy mentions Cumorah by name] offer two justifications for their choice, both patently outcome-driven rationales designed to accommodate the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory (M2C).

  • Some say Lucy’s reference to Cumorah must be attributed to her erroneous adoption of a supposedly false tradition about Cumorah started by unknown early persons at an unknown time.
  • Others say Lucy wasn’t credible because she didn’t describe the First Vision in her original dictated account (the 1844/5 version).

Obviously, these two objections contradict one another.
Neville didn’t bother to cite any sources for the “justifications” he claimed are being offered by Latter-day Saint “intellectuals.” Without a source to examine, I’m forced to conclude that he has once again misrepresented what others have actually written or even invented these justifications out of whole cloth. (Sadly, he has a history of doing such things.)

The truth, of course, is more nuanced and less conspiratorial than Neville would have us believe.

Careful and responsible use of sources

Like all historical documents, memoirs and autobiographies cannot simply be taken at face value. By their nature, they are written many years after the events they describe, and memory is often fallible. As the authors of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “Memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it may be unlikely that anyone is immune.” (You can read more about this in The Atlantic.)

This is especially true when quoting from memory what someone supposedly said: Can you remember the details of conversations that took place last week? Last month? Last year? How about over twenty years ago? That is what Neville is relying on Lucy Mack Smith to have done when she quoted over twenty years later and purportedly verbatim what the angel Moroni told Joseph Smith in September 1823. (And this was a conversation that she herself did not participate in but heard about later from Joseph!)
The angel spoke [“]I perceive that you are enquiring in your mind which is the true church there is not a true church on Earth No not one Nor <​and> has not been since Peter took the Keys <​of the Melchesidec priesthood after the order of God> into the Kingdom of Heaven the churches that are now upon the Earth are all man made churches. Joseph there is a record for you and you must get it one day get it There is a record for you and Joseph when you have learned to keep the commandments of God but you cannot get it untill you learn to keep the commandments of God <​For it is not to get gain.> For But it is to bring forth that light and intelligence which has been long lost in the Earth Now Joseph <​or> beware <​or> when you go to get the plates your mind will be filld with darkness and all man[n]er of evil will rush into your mind. To keep <​prevent> you from keeping the commandments of God <​that you migh may not suceced in doing his work> and you must tell your father of this for he will believe every word you say the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place remove the Grass and moss and you will find a large flat stone pry that up and you will find the record under it laying on 4 pillars <​of cement>[”]— then the angel left him
Any honest person would be compelled to admit that that is an exceptionally lengthy quote. Almost no one has a memory good enough to remember, word for word, something like that after nearly two decades. There’s no doubt that Lucy was generally accurate about the broad themes in what she learned from Joseph about what Moroni said, but it’s irresponsible of Neville to hang evidence of the use of the word Cumorah on such a slender thread. That’s the difference between his pseudoscholarly approach to history and what real historians do.

Anachronistic use words

Title page of George F. Kennan's Memoirs, 1925-1950 Another consideration to keep in mind is that individuals frequently use anachronistic terms when writing their memoirs. This is partly because their vocabulary and understanding are tainted by what they know at the time that they write about past events and partly because they will consciously use terms that people contemporaneous to the events would not have understood but their (later) readers will. Allow me to give you an example:

George F. Kennan (1904–2005) was an American diplomat and historian whose views were important in the development of the U.S.’s post&–World War II policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union. In 1967 he published the first volume of his personal history, Memoirs, 1925—1950, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography the following year.

In his memoirs, Kennan, writing in the mid-1960s, recalled a vacation he took in Wisconsin in 1937, where he had been born:
In an effort to rediscover the soil from which I had grown, I rented a bicycle and pedaled through the central portion of the state, even spending a night at the farm my grandfather had owned in the years just following the Civil War. The experience only emphasized the degree of my estrangement. The rural Wisconsin I remembered was largely the Wisconsin of the pre-automobile age. The intervening years had seen the completion of the revolution in transportation that followed World War I. [p. 75]
Wait—“World War I”? Kennan was recalling his memories of Wisconsin in 1937; at that time that war was called by Americans The Great War. There had been no World War II yet—that war didn’t begin until 1939—so it was anachronistic for Kennan to call it “World War I” at that point in his history.

But we must keep in mind that Kennan was writing thirty years after the events he described, by which time everyone in America referred to the 1914–1918 war in Europe as World War  I. Similarly, Lucy Mack Smith dictated her memoirs in 1844 and 1845, long after the hill in New York near the Smith home had come to be called Cumorah by Latter-day Saints. It’s indisputable that her recollection of 1823 was affected by what she knew in 1844.

Direct claims vs. passing mentions

A final important way in which responsible scholars interpret historical documents is how they treat words that are used in a casual, fleeting, or superficial manner.

In her late recollection of what Joseph had told her Moroni had said to him, Lucy quoted the angel as saying, “The record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place.” Her main point was that the plates of Mormon were buried in a hill near the Smith family farm.

Neville’s use of Lucy as evidence that Moroni called the hill Cumorah in 1823 would be greatly strengthened if she had written something like, “The angel told Joseph that the hill 3 miles from this place was called Cumorah in ancient times,” or “The angel said that his people anciently had all been destroyed at the hill 3 miles from this place.” But she said neither of those things—her focus was entirely on the record that was in the hill a few miles south of where the Smiths lived.

Neville is using this passing remark as evidence of something that Lucy almost certainly never intended it to mean. Her point was about the record; she was not asserting that the hill had a certain name. This is similar to the error that Neville and other Heartlanders fall into in their use of Oliver Cowdery’s mention 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.” It’s too much of an evidential burden to for such statements to be used in such a manner.

These are just three examples of the ways that responsible, careful historians use sources. Jonathan Neville is not responsible or careful in the way his misuses Lucy Mack Smith’s words to suit his own agenda.

—Peter Pan


  1. I have a test for Mr. Neville, et. al.: If the hill in New York was the site of the annihilation of millions of people from two civilizations two millennia ago, surely nearly three centuries of farming and building will have turned over enough soil to uncover archeological evidence for that (after all, no one was left who cared enough to bury the dead). If extant farming and construction didn't go deep enough to uncover such remains, they could mount an expedition of say, 15 dig sites within a 5-mile radius of the hill. They would of course need a genuine, respected archeologist to lead the effort, someone of unimpeachable reputation and character. Indiana Jones just won't do in this case.

    Now I don't know if environmental conditions in New York are as hostile to the preservation of unprepared, unburied remains as they are in the tropics, but that is a question for the expedition to answer before launching their go-fund-me. For that matter, what has the New York Historical Society, or the archeology departments of NY's various universities, already got on file for the region? (Cousins History, Journalism and Intelligence all demand multiple, credible sources to make a valid assessment.)

    1. Heartlanders usually reply to that by quoting 19th century statements about the whole land around the hill being turned over for farming and many arrowheads and axe heads were found. None of this evidence still exists, but it was there once, supposedly.

    2. 42 follow-up questions raise themselves to my mind. Only some are snarky.

  2. Have you seen recent comments the founder of the Heartland theory Ed Goble? He now does not believe in the theory. He now supports the Meso idea even with it's many flaws.


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