Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The First Presidency reviewed Saints before publication

It’s no secret that Jonathan Neville has serious problems with Saints, the Church-published, multi-volume history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Neville maintains an entire blog called Saints Review that he uses to criticize what he considers to be its “censored” version of Church history.

For example, concerning Saints, Neville has written:

  • “[Accepting the history in Saints] wouldn’t be a problem if the editors had decided to accurately present the historical events from the perspective of the people involved; i.e., if they had presented an accurate historical narrative. Instead, they chose to promote modern ideas about Cumorah and the translation of the Book of Mormon.” (September 25, 2021)
  • “The Saints books, especially volume 1, created a false historical narrative present (meaning, how did historical figures think and act in their day) to accommodate M2C and SITH.” (August 12, 2021)
  • “The Saints books…are anonymous. We don’t know who wrote or edited them, we don’t have access to editorial decisions, and despite the numerous footnotes, readers can’t tell what was omitted or spun unless they have extensive background in the source materials.” (May 17, 2021)

Neville is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but that last statement from him is not even factually accurate: Jed Woodworth is the Managing Historian for the Saints project, and Scott Hales is also an editor. These facts are easily discovered with a simple Google search, which Neville apparently didn’t even attempt.

In a podcast produced by the Church about Saints volume 2 and published to the Gospel Library, Jed Woodworth had this to say about how the books have been produced:
My main duty is to ensure that the history [published in Saints] is accurate, to make sure that our writing measures up to the highest standards, [and] that we’re source-accurate. And I also incorporate feedback from a number of reviewers—external reviewers, general authority reviewers, including the First Presidency.
(The Saints Podcast, season 2, episode 1, “Gather Up a Company,” timestamp 0:59–1:19; emphasis added.)

Saints volume 1 has been reviewed and approved by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints So, contrary to what Jonathan Neville has been telling his readers for almost three years, the editors of Saints have “decided to accurately present…an accurate historical narrative.” Not only that, but the the manuscripts for Saints have been reviewed by general authorities, including members of the First Presidency. The First Presidency also wrote a foreword to the first volume, in which they encouraged “all to read the book and make use of the supplementary material available online” and expressed their hope “that this volume will enlarge your understanding of the past, strengthen your faith, and help you make and keep the covenants that lead to exaltation and eternal life.”

The raises an important question: Whom are we to believe? The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Jonathan Neville, conspiracy theorist, ark-steadier, and critic of the Church?

—Peter Pan


  1. Funny how a history that weighs in at ~3000 pages (once completed, and not including supplemental online materials), and which provides far more information, detail and background than was ever available through the Church before (e.g., Our Heritage), is censored. In addition to Saints I-III and its podcast, the Gospel Library app provides these other official historical resources under the Library > Church History tab:

    • Historical Resources (this was part of last year's CFM materials)
    • Revelations in Context
    • Joseph Smith's Revelations
    • Joseph Smith Papers podcasts
    • First Vision resources (all published versions, etc)
    • Prophets of the Restoration (old 'Teachings' series, so heavily curated it's almost obscene)
    • Church History Topics
    • Gospel Topics Essays
    • Answers to Church History Questions
    • Stories from Saints
    • Global Histories
    • At the Pulpit
    • The First Fifty Years of Relief Society
    • Daughters in my Kingdom

    So much for censorship. Are each of these necessarily limited in scope? Yes. Almost everything published by the Church itself is written to the lowest common denominator (see Come Follow Me, for example), since they must be accessible to someone who was literally born again yesterday.

    But no one is preventing Neville or anyone else from publishing anything. Nothing is being censored.

    Just for fun, I did a check of Our Heritage, the old, ~150-ish page (a paltry sum!) history first published nearly 30 years ago. Here is what it says about "Cumorah" (taken from my paper copy):

    "Moroni...had buried [the record] in the Hill Cumorah. He had also buried the Urim and Thummim... [no context or meaning is provided for these terms at this point in the narrative]

    "The angel directed Joseph to go to the [unnamed] hill which was nearby...”

    "On the day following the angel’s visits Joseph went to the Hill Cumorah as instructed. He said of this experience:

    "’On the west side of this [unnamed] hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box...’"

    "The Angel Moroni appeared and told Joseph to meet him at the [unnamed] hill in one year…"

    "Emma Hale…was waiting at the foot of the Hill Cumorah when her husband returned with the plates. " (pp 5-7)

    As far as I can tell, "Cumorah" is used exclusively by the editors; Moroni never once named the hill Joseph was to find the record in. Joseph never once named the hill either. The use of "Cumorah" here merely follows common convention, for a modern audience who is used to calling it a certain name; it is not indicative of what the indigenous peoples of any time period called it. It’s like saying Brigham Young led the Saints to Utah in 1847, when in fact, they settled in Mexico; “Utah” would not be US territory for another year, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. We call it Utah so as not to confuse people today. This is a stupid hill to die on.

    1. Hard to say "“The Saints books…are anonymous..." All three volumes have a list of contributors and writers. I checked

  2. Sorry for commenting twice, at the risk of hijacking your post. A few further thoughts:

    A few years back I read Leonard Arrington’s memoir “Adventures of a Church Historian”. He recounts how in the late 70s/early 80s he was trying to establish a credible Church History Department, and had some success writing real, thorough (i.e., factual, not sentimental) history, warts and all. He wanted the department to be known as professional historians, not mere Church defenders, so that they would have some credibility amongst their peers at professional conferences; so that their publications would carry some weight. He had some success, but the endeavor was eventually quashed, because it rubbed a few apostles the wrong way to see some dirty laundry aired. (Evidently, according to Arrington’s observation, unanimity amongst the brethren was maintained by accommodating the most conservative voices in the Councils.) Publishing the warts would damage the faith of the Saints, went the argument, and so the department as it stood was disbanded. It seems that now, 40 years later, those voices have passed. With JSP and Saints, we’re seeing what Arrington was trying to accomplish, WITH FULL APOSTOLIC SUPPORT – even the most conservative among them are on board.

    Add to that, writing history is messy and often subject to new facts and ideas coming to light. As an example, about 10 years ago, I went to Ford’s Theater in DC. Across the street is the room where Lincoln died, and next door to that is a museum. In the center of that museum is a stack of biographies FOUR STORIES TALL, all about Lincoln. Each is distinct from the others, as information has accumulated over the past 160 years. So, in Neville’s simple calculus, which one is “right” and which of them are “wrong”; and which details are worth emphasizing and which should be left out of the One True History Of Lincoln?

    Really, Arrington’s memoir is worth the read.


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