long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Historians, lawyers, and stakes

From time to time people (mainly the Interpreters* and their followers) complain that I'm not a historian, so I shouldn't be writing or even commenting about Church history. They complain that I apply principles of legal analysis to the historical evidence.

The distinction between trial lawyers and historians is understandable in terms of education and career identity, but the practical, real-world distinction seems to boil down to the stakes involved.


Every judicial trial is an exercise in competing versions of history. Lawyers occasionally hire historians to help research and prepare a case, just as they hire investigators and other experts, but ultimately it is the lawyer who must assemble and present the facts of the case to support the client's position. 

Some facts are objective; everyone agrees with them. 

Other versions of reality are disputed--witnesses disagree, circumstantial evidence is ambiguous--which leads to competing narratives. The competing narratives are explored through cross-examination and other tests of reliability and credibility, presented to a fact-finder (judge or jury) who decides which version of history is proven according to the applicable standard (preponderance, clear and convincing, beyond a reasonable doubt).

For lawyers in civil trials, accurate history is a matter of money; who pays whom depends on which version of reality satisfies the applicable burden of proof according to the fact-finder. Lawyers for each side present alternative interpretations of history for the fact-finder to decide.  

For lawyers in criminal trials, accurate history is a matter of freedom vs incarceration, or even life and death. 

For historians, though, accurate history is a matter of intellectual debate with few if any real-world consequences, apart from their own reputations and compensation for books or teaching.


This different sense of the stakes involved explains why, in my view, so many LDS historians seem to succumb to a "groupthink" approach that reinforces consensus views they've inherited from their teachers and peers. (The critics do likewise, albeit with opposite groupthink and consensus).

In many cases the historians seem lackadaisical, both (i) willing to edit and even omit original sources that contradict their theories and (ii) unwilling to apply what lawyers consider ordinary truth-testing techniques. 

I've been astonished at some of the examples of this tendency among LDS historians, such as the Saints book (vol. 1) and the Gospel Topics Essays. 

Tomorrow I'll post some more specific examples from recent publications.


A seminal article on this topic includes some useful thoughts. It observes that "Another difference between the historian and the lawyer is that, generally speaking, the material before the historian is documentary, whereas many of the matters with which a lawyer has to deal are concerned with the evidence of living persons."

Sankey, "THE HISTORIAN AND THE LAWYER: Their Aims and their Methods" in History, NEW SERIES, Vol. 21, No. 82 (SEPTEMBER, 1936), pp. 97-108


This experience with living persons conditions lawyers to examine psychology, perception, motive, and other factors relating to reliability and credibility that historians seem to largely overlook. 

On this point, Sankey further observes, "It being the function of both the historian lawyer to take part in an investigation of facts, the historian is at a disadvantage compared to the lawyer. How does a historian propose to test the truth of the material which he has to consider? The lawyer has the advantage of cross-examination—the historian no such advantage."

This is why, in my work on history, I challenge witness statements along the lines of cross-examination. That seems natural to me, yet many LDS historians seem to take witness statements at face value without considering such basic elements as motive, opportunity, and means. 

Another excerpt:

"But when the historian or the lawyer has collected his evidence, two questions arise : How and to whom is he to present it ? History being a narrative, the first thing for the historian to remember is that he is telling a tale.... that the art of narrative is the principal craft of the historian.... Here again, the advocate's task is the same as the historian's. However simple the case in which the advocate is engaged, he is, in fact, telling a tale, and the better he tells it the greater effect will it have."


"... the position of the historian is rather that of the lawyer advocate than the lawyer judge. And there is another reason why this should be so. The historian differs in one respect from the advocate in a Court of Law. There is no check on him. As already pointed out, there is no one to cross-examine the witnesses at the time, although later on some other historian may, on fresh facts, criticise one of his predecessors. Neither is the historian in the position of the judge, who has the advantage of hearing both sides, with the assistance of counsel on either side. However careful he may be, it is only his unaided judgment that leads him to his conclusion. The verdict of history, therefore, can only mean the opinion of some individual historian."


*As used in this post, the Interpreters are those who embrace the editorial bias and tactics of the Interpreter journal in favor of SITH, M2C, and related theories. Based on their complaints, they wouldn't mind in the least that I write about history so long as I agreed with them.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Podcast: the narrow neck of land

In the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding, I'll begin by re-emphasizing that we like and respect everyone involved with Book of Mormon studies, including the awesome people at Book of Mormon Central. We seek unity in diversity, meaning we are happy for people to believe whatever they want. 

We hope all faithful Latter-day Saints share our pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding, which leads to nomorecontention.com. As we seek to understand multiple working hypotheses, everyone can get along as we work together to establish Zion, despite different opinions about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon .


In this podcast, we discussed the topic of the "narrow neck of land."


One of the most common questions people ask me about geography is "where is the narrow neck of land." I always respond, "It's in Ether 10:20." 

Most people are surprised to learn that is the only reference in the Book of Mormon to the "narrow neck of land." 

There are other features--a small neck of land, a narrow passage, a narrow neck--but different terms normally describe different things. People conflate these terms because they have been conditioned to think that all of the geography must fit within an hourglass shape with the "land northward" separated from the "land southward" by "the narrow neck of land."

In 1917, RLDS scholar L.E. Hills published his M2C map based on his "hourglass" interpretation. 

In the 1980s, LDS scholars copied Hills' map as their own (now found on the BYU Studies website) and more recently, M2C scholars created the BYU fantasy map.
BYU Studies M2C map with Cumorah

BYU fantasy map with Cumorah

When we look at how the term "narrow neck of land" was actually used in the days of Joseph Smith, we see that George Washington and others used the term to describe local features such as in Boston Harbor or along the Hudson River.

While it's easy to see how people simply assumed the "narrow neck of land" was the isthmus between North and South America, it's even easier--and more rational--to interpret the text using the ordinary and contemporary meaning of the terms, as we discussed in the podcast.

I've discussed this in my books as well as here:


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Podcast notes Feb 19-20

These are some notes on recent podcast interviews I've done.

The Last Dispensation: Cumorah's Elephant in the room

In this podcast, we discussed the Gospel Topics entry on Book of Mormon Geography, which includes both Joseph Smith's letter to Emma (crossing the plains of the Nephites in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois) and the 1842 Times and Seasons articles (ruins in Mesoamerica were left by the Nephites).

I used a white board to show how everyone can weigh the evidence on the scale however they want. 

But the bizarre thing about the Gospel Topics entry is how it completely ignores the elephant in the room: the Hill Cumorah.

Fun discussion!

On Ward Radio, we discussed the top 3 reasons for Heartland and the problem of censorship.

There are more than 3 arguments for Heartland, of course, but this interview was a good introduction for people new to the topic. I showed the "pocket edition" of Moroni's America, which is an abbreviated version of the longer book.

In the next interview, we discussed the problem of academic censorship, all in the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding. Censorship is the antithesis of clarity. To eliminate contention (nomorecontention.com), we need clarity (accuracy, openness, candor, etc.), charity (assuming people act in good faith), and understanding (seek first to understand and avoid the compulsion to demand agreement).

The specific example we discussed was from the Church History Department, actually, and involves the Wentworth letter.

Several years ago, the lesson manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith included a chapter on the Wentworth letter, originally published as "Church History" in the Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842.

Here is the chapter in the manual:

As we discussed in the video, Joseph started the letter with a simple request:

As  has taken the proper steps to obtain correct information all that I shall ask at his hands, is, that he publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation.

It turns out, Joseph didn't need to worry about Mr. Bastow or Mr. Wentworth. 

It was the Church History Department (and/or Curriculum Department) who refused to "publish the account entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation."

Instead, the lesson manual censored important sections of Joseph's letter by replacing important material with ellipses in all the dozens of languages it was translated into. 





For the vast majority of Latter-day Saints around the world, this manual is the principal, if not only, source of Joseph Smith's teachings in their native language. I'm not aware that the entire Wentworth letter has ever been officially translated into other languages.

Thus, this censorship has deprived most Latter-day Saints of Joseph's actual teachings in this important letter. 

English readers can still read the account entire in the Joseph Smith Papers (if they can find it), but the vast majority of Latter-day Saints will never know what Joseph wanted people to know when he wrote this letter.

Obviously, this is an easy fix. Most Latter-day Saints use these lesson manuals digitally today, whether online or downloaded. The lesson manual could be easily corrected to provide the account "entire, ungarnished, and without misrepresentation" for the benefit of everyone.

But this has been going on for years, the Church History Department knows it, and they won't correct it.


Next, let's look at what was censored. The part censored by the ellipses is in bold below:

Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.

In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people.
The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph.
The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. 

This book also tells us that our Saviour made his appearance upon this continent after his resurrection,

I've been given various reasons for this censorship, including the so-called "DNA problem" that led to the rewording of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. 

As I read this passage (others may disagree), Joseph accomplished several important things. To appreciate the significance, it's important to recognize that much of the Wentworth letter was adapted from an 1840 pamphlet by Orson Pratt, as I've discussed many times.

Some key takeaways.

1. He corrected Orson Pratt's error about the Israelite identity of Lehi's people by explaining they were "principally" Israelites, suggesting there were non-Israelites among them.

2. He refuted Orson Pratt's extensive musings about the identity of the Lamanites by explaining that the "remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country," which is consistent with both D&C 28, 30 and 32 and Joseph's direct teachings to the Native Americans he met.

3. He did not claim or imply that the Book of Mormon peoples were the only inhabitants of the western hemisphere.

4. He explained that ancient America was inhabited by two distinct races, a concept that was not only contrary to popular belief but the basis for an anti-Mormon book called Cumorah Revisited that led to the development of the two-Cumorahs theory. Not surprisingly, Joseph's explanation has been vindicated by modern archaeology and anthropology.

While scholars can debate the significance and relevance of the Wentworth letter, Joseph expressly declared it contained "correct information." He wrote it and published it in the Times and Seasons so that all the Latter-day Saints would have access to it. 


Another topic we discussed in the podcast was the book Opening the Heavens, which I've discussed before here:

Basically, the book omits the documented statements from David Whitmer in the 1870s about the messenger taking the plates to Cumorah before going to Fayette, and about Joseph identifying the messenger as one of the Three Nephites (which is consistent with David's mother saying the messenger identified himself as "Brother Nephi"). 

Instead, the book cites a typewritten document from 1918 that it attributes to Joseph F. Smith (whose contemporaneous account from the 1870s differs on these points) and claims the messenger took the plates to Fayette, which contradicts the entire narrative. David explained that the messenger specifically declined a ride to Fayette because he had to go to Cumorah first.

The problems I identified there are also easy fixes that will likely never be made. Readers deserve to have all the relevant references.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Ward Radio podcasts

On the way home from the South Pacific I had a chance to stop in California and spend some time with Cardon Ellis at Ward Radio. He's awesome, very energetic and knowledgeable, as well as thoughtful and insightful.

It's cool to be able to discuss these issues openly with no contention, all in the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding. And with some fun as well.

Here is the first of our interviews. Hopefully we'll get a chance to explore more issues in the future.


Enjoy and comment.

(click to enlarge)

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

L'Amerique de Moroni

About 5 years ago we visited the island nation of Comoros and its capital, Moroni. While there my wife took this photo of me holding a copy of L'Amerique de Moroni, the French translation of my book Moroni's America.

(click to enlarge)

My phone cover at the time featured the cover of the English edition.

If you (or people you know) have not read Moroni's America, this would be an ideal time because it helps people relate to the setting of the Book of Mormon as we go through Come Follow Me.

If you don't accept a North American setting based on Cumorah in New York, that's fine. In the interest of clarity, charity and understanding (see nomorecontention.com), it's still a good idea for you and all Latter-day Saints to understand why other Latter-day Saints do accept a North American setting.


I wrote a summary of the book several years ago.

Book Summaries - Moroni's America

I wrote Moroni's America for members and nonmembers because I wanted to explain why Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery insisted that Cumorah was in New York.

Anyone who still believes in a non-New York Cumorah, whether in Mesoamerica or Chile or Baja or Malaysia or Eritrea, ought to read Moroni's America, if only to understand why so many members of the Church accept what Joseph and Oliver said about Cumorah.

You might enjoy reading the book because it is the only chapter-by-chapter explanation of the North American setting. (Amazon or Digital Legend).


Once I realized that Joseph Smith had nothing to do with the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons that were the genesis of the Mesoamerican theory (see The Lost City of Zarahemla, 2nd edition), the next step was to analyze the text itself.

People who focus on the text have come up with myriad settings that, in their view, fit the text. We can apply the FAITH model to see how this happens.

We start with the Facts. In this case, the facts are the text itself.

Then we apply our Assumptions. In this case, some people (including me) assume Joseph and Oliver accurately identified Cumorah (Mormon 6:6) in western New York. Others assume they were wrong, which opens the door to any number of alternative locations for Cumorah. 

Then we make Inferences to fill in any gaps, analyze everything pursuant to our Theory, and finally develop a Hypothesis to explain everything.


My wife made a list of around 300 geography-related verses and told me she wanted to know where everything took place. It was an awesome challenge. I started with 1 Nephi 1 and ended with Moroni 10.

I was actually surprised to see how well the Book of Mormon describes North America.

When you consider what Joseph and Oliver actually said and wrote, as well as what their successors have said and written, including in General Conference, and you factor in the prophecies and promises, and the fulfillment of those prophecies, you realize that no matter how you look at the question of Book of Mormon geography, everything points to the North American setting. 

Framework from Moroni's America - pocket edition
(click to enlarge)

How they arrived in the New World
(click to enlarge)

The North American setting is commonly known as the Heartland model. I like Moroni's America because the significance is not merely geography, but the prophetic destiny and responsibility of the covenant land of promise, exemplified by General Moroni and clearly delineated by Moroni son of Mormon.

The principal alternative to the North American setting is called the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory (M2C). M2C proponents readily acknowledge that Joseph, Oliver and their contemporaries and successors identified the hill in New York as Cumorah, but they think all of these people relied on a false tradition because to make M2C work, the "real" Cumorah must be in southern Mexico.

Which is fine. 

People can believe whatever they want. 

When we apply the FAITH model, we see clearly that the fundamental assumption of M2C is that the prophets were wrong, while the fundamental premise of Moroni's America is that the prophets were correct.

This clarity enables Latter-day Saints to make informed decisions.

Which assumption do you make when it comes to Cumorah and the setting of the Book of Mormon?

Regardless of which assumption you make, you owe it to yourself to understand why so many Latter-day Saints still believe what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah and how that setting fits in North America.

Note: M2C promoters like to say they are using the text as their primary rationale for locating Book of Mormon events in Central America. The text, they claim, is the highest authority on their hierarchy of evidence.

This is a cognitive fallacy, of course. In the first place, it is not the text itself, but their interpretation of the text, that they deem the highest authority. The text doesn't use any modern terminology to explain its setting (unless you accept what the prophets have taught about Cumorah in New York).

Secondly, everyone interprets the text to confirm their pre-existing bias, aka choice-supportive bias, also called post-purchase rationalization. It is a cognitive bias whereby people retroactively justify choices they've made. Once you decide where you want the Book of Mormon to have taken place, the text is vague enough that you can adapt it to almost any site in the world. You can "see" any culture in the text as well.

The common human tendency toward choice-supportive bias is why I take the approach of starting with what Joseph and Oliver said, and then seeing how the text supports and corroborates what they said. When you do this, Cumorah is in New York and everything else flows from there.

M2C promoters started with that same process. The difference is that they chose the anonymous Times and Seasons articles instead of Letter VII and other statements by Joseph, Oliver, David Whitmer, etc.

They chose to accept what Joseph did not say instead of what he did say

This is why they have come full circle to the point now that to rationalize their choice of Mesoamerica, they outright reject what Joseph and Oliver actually said.

Anyone can follow the history and see that the M2C promoters first decided where the events took place, based on the 1842 Times and Seasons articles, before they even considered the text.

The authors of those articles, some combination of Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, and W.W. Phelps, made their claims based on discoveries of ruins in Central America. They barely analyzed the text, and they didn't care that the ruins themselves were anachronistic in terms of the Book of Mormon. They were focused on promoting the Book of Mormon for missionary work, and if that meant linking it to sensational finds in Central America, then why not?

Their successors, the modern-day M2C promoters, have confirmed their Mesoamerican bias even though they acknowledge that the anonymous articles were incorrect (i.e., Zarahemla is not Quirigua, the ruins don't line up to Book of Mormon time frames, etc.). Some even acknowledge that Joseph Smith had nothing to do with the anonymous articles.

Yet they persist in finding "correspondences" between Central America (Mesoamerica) and the text, all the while repudiating what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Again, we emphasize that people can believe whatever they want.

In the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding, we encourage everyone to seek first to understand, then to be understood, to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt, and make our own informed decisions based on clarity.

Moroni's America includes lots of details and footnotes. 

Some readers asked for a shorter version, so I wrote a "pocket edition" that summarizes the setting. 

Moroni's America-Pocket edition is available in print and Kindle, here: https://www.amazon.com/Moronis-America-Pocket-Jonathan-Neville/dp/1944200126


For more detail, there is a third-party website that has adapted my material with some variations that you can explore here:


Thursday, February 1, 2024

Citation cartels in the news

From time to time I still hear people complain about my use of the term "citation cartel" to refer to the small group of LDS intellectuals who promote M2C and SITH.

I've explained that I didn't coin the term. I borrowed it from the larger academic literature because it's an apt description of what is going on with LDS academics and apologetics. 

Here's a recent example of a citation cartel from Science magazine:


[see excerpts below]

We all see this at work in the Interpreter, Meridian Magazine, and the content of Book of Mormon Central. Another example is the way certain scholars have their work cited/referenced in the Joseph Smith Papers and Gospel Topics Essays, then in subsequent publications cite the JSP and GTE as authority for their own theories.

In the pursuit of clarity (no more contention), soon I'll be releasing an in-depth analysis of the problem, focusing on SITH initially.

"Soon" meaning whenever we've finished enjoying the southern hemisphere...


Excerpts from Science magazine:

Citation cartels help some mathematicians—and their universities—climb the rankings

Widespread citation manipulation has led entire field of math to be excluded from influential list of top researchers


The article points out how some scholars and universities use citation cartels to artificially boost their own influence as measured by the number of citations.

The conclusion is relevant to my point about the M2C/SITH citation cartels:

Cliques of mathematicians at institutions in China, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere have been artificially boosting their colleagues’ citation counts by churning out low-quality papers that repeatedly reference their work, according to an unpublished analysis seen by Science. As a result, their universities—some of which do not appear to have math departments—now produce a greater number of highly cited math papers each year than schools with a strong track record in the field, such as Stanford and Princeton universities.

These so-called “citation cartels” appear to be trying to improve their universities’ rankings, according to experts in publication practices. ...

Other researchers say citation manipulation is simply a symptom of a flawed system of evaluation. Citations and similar metrics are not refined enough to monitor individual performance, says Ismael Rafols, a researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies of the University of Leiden, and people are always going to find ways to game the system. Holden agrees: “The bottom line is that citations are not a good measure of scientific quality.”