Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Why die on this hill? A reply to Robert Thornton

My July 2020 blog post, “Wayne May and the apostasy of the Heartlanders,” is probably my most-viewed post. Last month, Heartlander Rian Nelson gave it some attention on the FIRM Foundation’s blog, which has increased the view count of my post from Heartlanders who disagree with my conclusions.

One such person is Robert Thornton, who recently left a lengthy comment on that blog post. He raised some interesting points, so I’ve decided to respond in this blog post.
I put my trust in God not men or the philosophies of men.
This claim is often made by those who assert that they are right because they supposedly trust in God while others are wrong because they supposedly trust in men.

I’m reasonably certain that Robert believes the things that Jonathan Neville, Rian Nelson, Wayne May, and Rod Meldrum have taught regarding the hill Cumorah and Book of Mormon geography. How are their beliefs different from “the philosophies of men”? They’re interpreting scripture and Church history, and their interpretations are at least as prone to error as anyone else’s.

Robert puts his trust in “the philosophies of men” like Neville and Meldrum; he just doesn’t recognize that he’s doing it.
I give little credence to those touting the superiority of intellectuals and scholars over prophets and apostles.
Heartlanders frequently level this accusation at people who believe the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. The claim that scholars and academics are “rejecting the prophets” goes back to Rod Meldrum’s 2008 DVD presentation; it’s now essentially a Heartland article of faith.

Despite what Jonathan Neville and other figures in the Heartland movement have said, no Book of Mormon scholar who believes in a Mesoamerican geography has claimed to be intellectually superior to prophets and apostles. In fact, many academics in the Mesoamerican camp have been invited to speak to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and have good working relationships with them. (Daniel Peterson is just one example of such a scholar.)
I flee from those who cast stones from the great and spacious building in order to demonize others for their sincere beliefs.
Robert is implying that I’m in “the great and spacious building” and “casting stones” at Heartlanders. It intrigues me that he sees this disagreement over Book of Mormon geography and how the Book of Mormon was translated as an issue of good vs. evil. If I disagree with Jonathan Neville and criticize his claims, I’m apparently in the “evil” camp. Not mistaken. Not in error. Evil—or at least wicked (1 Nephi 15:28).

Also, sincerity proves nothing. There have been many people throughout history who have been very sincere but still wrong in their beliefs.
Rather, I trust the Lord and those servants He has called.
Actually, Robert trusts specific statements from specific Church leaders that support his views. He probably ignores or rationalizes away the statements of Church leaders that disagree with his beliefs. I’m reasonably certain that Robert, like Jonathan Neville, dismisses the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon geography, even though it represents the official position of today’s Church.
I don’t pretend to know many things, but I do know that the Hill Cumorah is in New York and the “plains of the Nephites” are in the Heartland because that is what the prophet Joseph Smith taught.
Actually, Joseph Smith said very little about Book of Mormon geography, and he never made it the topic of any sermon. He had beliefs about it, but it’s a real stretch to assert that those beliefs were based on revelation. There’s no evidence whatsoever that his comment about “the plains of the Nephites” in his 1834 letter to Emma was derived from inspiration rather than simple assumption.

Heartlanders have planted a stake in the ground that the contents of his letter were revealed, and they accuse anyone who disagrees with them of “rejecting the prophets” or “claiming Joseph was an ignorant speculator.” That’s not the same thing, however, as providing actual evidence that Joseph’s letter was revealed.
Yes, I know all the arguments you will trot out to try to invalidate the prophet’s words and make him contradict himself, so you can spare me the repeating of them.
No one, least of all me, is trying to “invalidate” the words of Joseph Smith. The hard truth is that his words (or anyone else’s) don’t speak for themselves—they have to be interpreted. The best way to interpret them is in the light of what his close associates and other Church leaders of his day believed he meant, along with what Church leaders today affirm.

Robert and other Heartlanders are clinging to a specific set of statements made by Joseph Smith and disregarding the rest, along with contemporary context and nuance. They are pushing the simplistic—not simple, but oversimplified—version of Church history that they were taught in Primary classes and by well-meaning but under-informed Sunday School teachers.
When evaluating any theory, I don’t look at the men promoting it, but for the fruits it produces. I’ve tasted good fruit as I’ve learned about some theories and bad fruit as I’ve learned from others.
This is the most interesting of all Robert’s statements. What “fruit” is there from the assertion that the hill near Joseph Smith’s home was the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon? What does one learn about the Atonement of Christ, the doctrines of salvation and exaltation, the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith, or any other central teaching of the restored gospel? In short, why die on that hill? (Please pardon the pun.)

Lest you accuse Mesoamericanists of the same thing, let me remind you that people in the Mesoamerican camp don’t believe that the truth of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s calling hinges on where it took place. Book of Mormon geography and the location of the hill Cumorah are interesting fields of research, study, and discussion, but if it turns out that the Book of Mormon actually took place in New York State, the American Midwest, the Panamanian Isthmus, or South America, Mesoamericanists wouldn’t be crushed by this revelation. For Heartlanders, however, the Book of Mormon had to have taken place in the area around western New York, because Joseph Smith supposedly knew this by revelation and therefore the legitimacy of his prophetic mantle depends on it being true.

So what, exactly, are the “fruits” of the Heartland movement? During the four years I’ve been blogging about it, the fruits that I’ve seen have been irresponsible scholarship, dishonest claims and statements, misuse of historical sources, use of logical fallacies, criticism of the modern Church and modern Church leaders, misrepresentation of those who are critical of their theories, hypocrisy and double standards, promulgation of wild conspiracy theories, and a frequent lack of self-awareness.

My assumption is that the “fruit” that Robert has experienced has been mostly confirmation of his own biases and preexisting beliefs. It can feel good to have someone tell you that everything you already believe is true; it’s much harder for people to be told that what they believe isn’t quite correct and needs to be amended, updated, and revised.
I honestly don’t know why some people are so obsessed with calling this or that believer a deceiver, charlatan, or apostate simply for expressing their beliefs. It stirs up contention and turns those involved into servants of the adversary.
This goes back to my earlier comment about sincerity. “Simply expressing one’s beliefs” sounds harmless, but it’s troubling when those expressions lead people to believe things that aren’t true. Even worse, when those expression lead people to reject the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, disparage Church employees, scholars, and publications, and praise anti-Mormons and use their resources, then it’s clear that those expressions are leading people astray and down the road to apostasy.

The Savior admonished the Nephites to avoid contention because they were disputing over the proper manner of baptism (3 Nephi 11:28–30). His injunction was never intended to prevent people (such as your humble author) from pointing out dangerous falsehoods that are being promulgated within the Church of Jesus Christ.
I also use my real name when I blog and comment on others’ blogs because I am not ashamed of what I believe and I have nothing to hide. I’ve learned that those who criticize others under an alias are often wearing a costume in order to deceive the elect.
I’m far from “ashamed” of what I write. I stand by it, in fact. I don’t expect Robert to have read every blog post on my site, so I’ll repeat the following for his benefit:
I go by the pseudonym Peter Pan for a couple of reasons. The first is that I thought it was funny and that it tied in with the name of the blog (which was created first). The second is that, to be honest, there are some unstable people in the Heartland movement—Stephen Reed being just one prominent example—and I’d rather not expose myself or my family to being stalked or harassed by them.
I appreciate Robert’s comment and for giving me the chance to clear up any misunderstanding and confusion he or other Heartlanders may have about me and this blog.

—Peter Pan


  1. Something I recently posted on Facebook about the current CFM lesson is relevant here:

    ' “Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them, a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?” – Brigham Young, as quoted by John A. Widtsoe, “In Search of Truth” (1930).

    ' “We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours.” – then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Joseph, the Man and the Prophet” May 1996.

    'This is a very difficult task, especially in a tradition that largely emphasizes emotional over intellectual engagement with scripture … One of my favorite approaches to scripture is this: instead of asking ‘why did things happen this way?’, ask rather ‘why was it recorded this way? What is the author(s) trying to convey?’ (ht Ben Spackman). Such a question lets me see people in scripture as real human beings with real human motivations, rather than as storybook characters in morality tales – that’s fine for Primary, but there comes a time to “put away childish things” (1 Crth 13.11, KJV). For me it makes a significant difference. Your mileage may vary, but “traditions which were not correct” proved to be a significant problem for Book of Mormon peoples. '

  2. Let the past speak for itself, on its own terms. That means doing the hard work of learning the terms without imposing your own requirements. You could call it a "primary directive".

  3. Hello Peter Pan,

    It is a shame that I couldn't report on this sooner, but it appears that a group called the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently hosted a Heartland seminar back in the first weekend of November...


    Look at the names on there...even Wayne May was on the list. As well as the "symbologist" Amberli.

    1. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Bryan. It doesn't surprise me to see Heartlanders reaching out to the Remnant Church—the RC is a conservative offshoot of the old RLDS church, so it seems like a natural fit for the two of them to connect.

  4. Was reading Maxwell, oct1992, and found this quote applicable, "A little criticism of the Brethren, which seems harmless enough, may not only damage other members but can even lead to one’s setting himself up as a substitute “light unto the world.” (2 Ne. 26:29.) Yes, happily, some such prodigals do come back, but they usually walk alone, unaccompanied by those they once led astray!"

    1. Indeed. Elder Maxwell was always insightful.


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