Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Scholarship vs. activism

James W. Lucas and Jonathan Neville are coauthors of the new book, By Means of the Urim & Thummim: Restoring Translation to the Restoration.

Lucas has one other published work, Working Toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World, coauthored with Warner P. Woodworth and published in 1996. (This book was favorably reviewed in the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 10/2.)

Lucas and Neville’s latest book returns again to a subject of much passion for Jonathan Neville: the means by which the Book of Mormon was translated. Amazon’s description of By Means of the Urim and Thummim tells us exactly where the authors stand on this matter:
Joseph Smith claimed the Book of Mormon was his translation of writings on ancient plates made using an even more ancient translation device called the Urim and Thummim. By Means of the Urim and Thummim explores the many controversies surrounding this claim. Did Joseph actually use a magic rock he put in a hat rather than the ancient interpreter device? Did he write the Book himself rather than translating an ancient record? Was Joseph really a near illiterate country bumpkin, or was he plausible as an actively engaged translator? And if he was a real translator as he claimed, how would such a translation process have worked to produce the Book of Mormon as we have it, with its strange melange of 1820s American English and the Bible underlain by ancient concepts and linguistic forms in an incredibly complex narrative? By Means of the Urim and Thummim will be a must read for anyone interested in the unique and unusual work that is the Book of Mormon.
The phrasing in that description sadly follows the same polemical approach to Church history that Neville has almost made a career out of. It refers to Joseph Smith’s seer stone as “a magic rock” and implies that those who believe that Joseph translated with a seer stone think he was “a near illiterate country bumpkin.”

James Lucas has recently made similarly antagonistic comments regarding Joseph’s seer stone. When asked about the stone, the Salt Lake Tribute quotes him as saying, “It’s just a rock, just a dumb rock. A dumb brown rock.

Just a dumb, brown rock that President Wilford Woodruff consecrated upon the altar of the Manti Temple.

Lucas also owns a baseball cap that, the Tribune explains, “touts his belief that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon” and “his rejection of the narrative that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by peering at a ‘seer stone’ in a hat”:
James W. Lucas baseball cap Urim and Thummim seer stone
This is totally normal and not at all weird.
All of this once again demonstrates that, if Heartlanders wish to be taken seriously, they need to act seriously and present their evidence and conclusions in a more objective manner. Perhaps Lucas and Neville’s book does this—I haven’t read it yet—but their public statements manifest that for them, this an us-versus-them battle against historical evidence that they reject wholesale because of their zeal for traditional narratives that no longer hold up.

—Peter Pan


  1. You know you have a gospel hobby problem when you make clothing accessories for it . . .

  2. I'm curious what the difference is between the "Urim and Thummim" and the "magic rock". Aren't the "Urim and Thummim" just rocks themselves, albeit somewhat translucent? Magic rock vs. magic spectacles, if you want to use the same polemical adjective for both. Joseph never described the "how" of the translation--only that it was "by the gift and power of God." It seems foolish to worry about what the instrument or instruments were that he used to translate the record. It is far more important to simply acknowledge that it was indeed translated "by the gift and power of God," and then focus on the actual record itself and what it has to teach us.

    1. I agree with you, Jeff. An Urim and Thummim is a seer stone and vice versa. The Nephite interpreters were ancient seer stones. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter what device the Prophet Joseph used to translate various parts of the Book of Mormon.


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