Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Jonathan Neville misrepresents Jack Welch, Stephen Smoot, and BYU Studies Quarterly

Title page of BYU Studies Quarterly 61:4 A Guide to the Book of Abraham
The title page of BYU Studies Quarterly 61:4
BYU Studies Quarterly volume 61, issue 4, is entirely dedicated to the Book of Abraham. This issue was coauthored by Stephen O. Smoot, John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, and John S. Thompson; it’s a wonderful resource on this precious book of scripture.

In his , blog post, “More good news from BYU Studies” (screenshot) Jonathan Neville delivered a backhanded compliment, praising BYU Studies Quarterly for what he believes is its “changed editorial approach” and “more diverse and open direction,” before using the same post to unfairly attack the supposed “citation cartel.”

In his blog post, he refers to mainstream Latter-day Saint scholars as “gatekeepers who insist on conformity with their own views,” citing the Interpreter Foundation as an example, whose editors he claims “have assumed a role reminiscent of the biblical Pharisees known for their ‘insistence on the validity of their own oral traditions concerning the law.’”

Neville is also critical of John W. Welch, the former editor of BYU Studies Quarterly and founder of Book of Mormon Central. Neville had this to say about Welch:
The name of this blog—Book of Mormon Central America—reflects the sad reality that Book of Mormon Central has chosen to promote its Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory exclusively, thereby excluding alternative faithful interpretations of Church history and the teachings of the prophets. Years ago, when Jack Welch told me he was offended by the name, I explained that I would gladly change the name and even remove the blog from the Internet if he would change his editorial approach by recognizing alternative faithful interpretations of Book of Mormon origins and setting. All I ask is a fair and accurate comparison of the alternatives, including the New York Cumorah.

To this day he has refused to do so. Thus, the blog endures.

Back then, as editor of BYU Studies [sic], Jack used the journal as a vehicle to promote his M2C agenda. After he left, though, BYU Studies [sic] has improved significantly.
Neville’s comment about the name of his blog is something I may revisit in the future, but for now I’d like to focus on his last claim: According to him, since John Welch left as editor of BYU Studies Quarterly—which Neville incorrectly refers to by the name it went by prior to 2012—the journal “has improved significantly.”

He repeats this claim later in the same blog post:
BYU Studies [sic] recently released a volume on the Book of Abraham. In the Conclusion, the authors make a statement that, if actually followed by LDS [sic] apologists and historians, would mark a sea change for LDS [sic] scholarship. Such a paradigm shift would benefit everyone, LDS [sic] or not, who is interested in the Restoration. The paradigm shift would also benefit those who read and follow the critics of the Restoration, who adhere just as rigidly to their own critical dogma as does the LDS [sic] citation cartel.
Although it should be evident that we tend to favor certain theories over others when it comes to explaining the nature and translation of the Book of Abraham, we do not presume to impose our understanding on others as an article of faith. We are happy to acknowledge that Latter-day Saints can in good faith come to different conclusions about the nature of this book of scripture and “pursue a faithful study of the Book of Abraham from different backgrounds and approaches.” In fact, we welcome these different approaches and encourage a multitude of voices to contribute to the conversation.

Imagine how much healthier LDS [sic] scholarship would be if LDS [sic] scholars generally, and Jack Welch specifically, adopted such an approach.

We note first that such a declaration probably could not have been published while Jack Welch was editing BYU Studies [sic]. For whatever reasons, he has long been opposed to alternative faithful interpretations, and his approach remains in effect at Book of Mormon Central.

[emphasis Neville’s]
(Neville persists in using the acronym “LDS,” even though Church leaders have asked that we no longer use that abbreviation.)

To recap: According to Jonathan Neville, BYU Studies Quarterly has “improved significantly” since Jack Welch left his role as editor of the publication in 2018, and the declaration in the conclusion of the most recent issue “probably could not have been published while Jack Welch was editing” the journal.

But Neville’s claim is explicitly contradicted in the introduction to same issue of BYU Studies Quarterly:
In January 2020, Pearl of Great Price Central published its fortieth Book of Abraham Insight before shifting attention to Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price in anticipation for the April 2020 general conference of the Church, which had been designated by President Russell M. Nelson as a bicentennial celebration. It was at that time that the authors of this present volume, who were the principal researchers behind the Book of Abraham Insights on the Pearl of Great Price Central website, felt it was appropriate to revise the Insights and make them available in print. Accordingly, the subsequent months of the year 2020 were spent revising the Insights to incorporate feedback from readers, update material in response to advances in scholarship, take into consideration constructive critiques, expand some material that was at first kept deliberately short, and include new material that could not appear in the initial run of the Insights due to constraints in Pearl of Great Price Central’s publishing schedule. With the kind assistance and cooperation of John W. Welch and Steven C. Harper, the former and current editors of BYU Studies Quarterly, respectively, we are pleased to now find a home for the final result of these revisions and expansions as an issue of that journal. [emphasis added]
Please note that Pearl of Great Price Central is a subsidiary of Book of Mormon Central. The articles in the very issue of BYU Studies Quarterly that Neville is so pleased with came from Book of Mormon Central and were printed due in part to the efforts of John Welch.

Stephen Smoot is one of the authors of the volume, and his name is listed first among his coauthors on the cover and on the title page. In his blog post, Neville had this to say about him:
At least one of the authors credited with this [declaration], Stephen O. Smoot, has a well-earned reputation for eagerly and fiercely attacking anyone who reaches different conclusions than his.

Smoot “is currently an adjunct instructor of religious education at Brigham Young University and a research associate with the B.H. Roberts Foundation.” We are left to speculate whether this paragraph marks a sea change for him personally, or whether his authorship was attached to this conclusion by accident.

Time will tell on that question.
I reached out to Stephen Smoot about all of this, and he replied with the following statement. I quote him with his permission:
As explained in the introduction, this issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, titled A Guide to the Book of Abraham, originated in 2019 as a project by Book of Mormon Central (as part of its subsidiary, Pearl of Great Price Central). At that time, John W. Welch approved of and encouraged the work of my coauthors and I. Some time after posting this material online, we revised, expanded, and updated this content and prepared it for publication in print. Jack was instrumental in helping us work with Steven Harper, then the incoming editor of the journal, to get this material published. So, from day one Jack Welch has been involved in this project, and we thank him in our introduction for his kind assistance. We are indeed grateful to both him and Steve for all of their hard work and dedication in helping us get this new issue of the journal past the finish line. To somehow suggest that Jack must have disapproved of the publication of A Guide to the Book of Abraham or the views expressed therein is plain folly.

Jonathan Neville has speculated whether my name might have been “attached to this conclusion [of the issue] by accident,” since, as he alleges, I have “a well-earned reputation for eagerly and fiercely attacking anyone who reaches different conclusions than [mine].” Rest assured, I am the primary author of the conclusion, and so this blogger need not wonder at all about potential misattribution. The paragraph Brother Neville appears so concerned about also doesn’t mark “a sea change for [me] personally.” I mean everything I wrote in the conclusion, and the views expressed therein I have long maintained. I have always been fine with honest, sincere disagreement over matters of religion, both within and without the Latter-day Saint community, and I count myself fortunate to have friends and acquaintances across the religious spectrum. Who I do not tolerate are bad-faith actors who use harmful rhetoric and identity politics to attack others or who willfully manipulate the evidence to suit their particular ideological agenda.
Jonathan Neville could have discovered for himself the nature of John Welch’s involvement in A Guide to the Book of Abraham by reading the introduction to the volume or contacting any of its authors or the staff of BYU Studies Quarterly, but he didn’t. Instead, he made false statements about Brother Welch based on misrepresentations of Welch’s character and a complete lack of factual knowledge of Welch’s responsibility for getting the volume published.

This is yet another example of Neville’s inadequate research and his apparent eagerness to misrepresent those with whom he disagrees.

—Mike Parker [“Peter Pan”]


  1. Just a week ago President Nelson pleadingly said: "My dear brothers and sisters, how we treat each other really matters! How we speak to and about others at home, at church, at work, and online really matters. Today, I am asking us to interact with others in a higher, holier way. Please listen carefully. “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” that we can say about another person—whether to his face or behind her back—that should be our standard of communication."

    Peter, for several years I have been perplexed by Jonathan's continuing attacks on those who do not share his views. In spite of my months-long email correspondence with him of over 207 written pages I could never figure out why his disparagement of those who see things differently should take up more space in his writings than a simple defence of his own position. You should get a medal for slogging through his many blog posts in spite of the jarring, ugly language of his personal attacks.

    Since April General Conference last week and President Nelson's plea for us ALL to be peacemakers, I have wondered if President Nesons words would penetrate Jonathan's lack of self-awareness and cause him to focus more on his theories and less on his distain for those who do not see the world through his eyes. Apparently not! So much for "rejecting the prophets."

    1. Thank you, FDH. Sometimes I ask myself why I do it. 😁

      We could all take President Nelson’s remarks to heart. He told us, “I also hope that you will look deeply into 𝑦𝑜𝑢𝑟 heart to see if there are shards of pride or jealousy that prevent 𝑦𝑜𝑢 from becoming a peacemaker.” And that includes me!


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