Another Response to Jonathan Neville, Critic of the Church

Unfortunately, critics of the Church take their high pedestal and preach their views and attempt to drown out all other voices. I’ve talked about one such critic before, and as much as I hate spending time discussing his views, I feel the need to respond to Jonathan Neville’s claims one more time.

Neville is in an interesting position – as a member of the Church, he seems to rather spend his time criticizing the Church rather than admit that it is okay to have differing opinions on some unrevealed matter, and he will love to pull out a handful of historical sources to back him up while ignoring the plethora of sources that contradict his claims and pawning it off as the fault of some “citation cartel” that has entrapped the very leaders of the Church themselves.

If you couldn’t tell from that paragraph alone, Jonathan Neville has some, to put it lightly, unorthodox beliefs. For example, he believes that Mary Whitmer could not have seen the angel Moroni, it had to be Nephi and anyone who teaches otherwise is either misinformed or lying. There are a few fallacies with this line of thinking:

·   Neville takes issue that Moroni is described as being an old man. He claims this implies that resurrected beings can be shapeshifters, which is not supported by doctrine. Here, Neville appears to know more about the resurrection than has been revealed. Neville’s argument also stems from a straw man fallacy of what others teach – nobody has taught that resurrected beings are shapeshifters, but it fits his narrative that his opponents do, so he keeps it up. While I don’t pretend to know the first thing about the resurrection beyond what we definitely know (that it comes through Christ, it is the eternal binding of spirit to body, etc.) through the scriptures, I also do not want to fit the gospel into a box, where the second something happens that doesn’t fit, or if I learn that resurrected beings are exceptional at disguising themselves in Mission Impossible-like fashion, I reject the whole altogether and limit my potential growth and understanding.

·   Occasionally, resurrected beings are described in the scriptures as having white hair (see, for example, Rev. 1:14 and D&C 110:3). If Mary Whitmer is remembering an event from many years ago and she remembers seeing someone with white hair, it would be a natural assumption for her to remember her brief encounter with an angel to be a brief encounter with an old man. Historians have to take factors like this into account all the time when trying to piece together history from the extant records. (Or, perhaps there is a face-mask device from Mission Impossible we don’t know about in the Celestial Kingdom?)

·   Neville believes that the visitor must be Nephi, one of the Three Nephites mentioned in 3 Nephi 28. His argument is that the Three Nephites must have been translated at the age of seventy-two (see 3 Nephi 28:3, where Christ promises the other nine disciples that they will die at the age of seventy-two, although Neville mistakenly says the age was seventy). However, the Book of Mormon makes no mention as to the timeline when the Three Nephites were translated, and believing that they had to be translated at an old age is unfounded in scripture. Absolutely no timeline is given near the end of 3 Nephi, and so it is just as likely that they were translated that very same day. It is possible that they were translated at an older age, you won’t hear me complain there, but again Neville appears to know something more than what has been revealed.

·   And, of course, the biggest, no-brainer issue: we don’t know the names of the Three Nephites. In fact, the Lord commanded Mormon not to share that information. Why, then, would Mary Whitmer know and name him? (While stories do exist in Church history of the Three Nephites visiting the Saints, such as Zina Young’s experience in 1832, they are never named and only identified by Joseph Smith afterwards as having been a member of that group, and they are never given a name.) Again, Neville appears to be privy to some knowledge or revelation that the rest of the Church is woefully unaware of.

There is a lot of historical information behind this event that I do not have time to discuss in scope, but it is clear from the multiple sources that

a)  This event did in reality happen.

b)  A divine messenger, whose name is still not known with certainty, showed Mary Whitmer the plates.

c)  That messenger was equated with and called the angel Moroni by everyone who heard Mary Whitmer’s testimony or those who heard it repeated from close family members (who also called him Moroni). Mary Whitmer is stated to have called him “Brother Nephi,” but even her own family believed she truly referred to Moroni.

Much to Jonathan Neville’s chagrin, this event was quoted in the most recent General Conference. Now remember, to believe it was Moroni (according to Neville) means you are either misinformed or lying to push some other agenda of your own.

Well, guess who named the angel Moroni during his phenomenal talk? None other than Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Neville had a chance to take a step back and correct some of his earlier statements at this time. I don’t care who anyone thinks the angel’s name was, but Neville could have said he was wrong about his characterization of all those who believe this angel is Moroni.

His response (a week after Conference)? Not so great a look for him. Let me use his words (emphasis mine):

The issue has resurfaced because in the October 2020 General Conference, one of the speakers repeated the story, citing Saints as authority. (I won't mention the speaker's name out of respect.) 

Right in the same talk, the speaker described Moroni as "as a glorious messenger from God," which is consistent with the description of Moroni in Letter IV. 

By contrast, the individual who showed the plates to Mary Whitmer was a "strange person" she called "Brother Nephi" who, according to David Whitmer, was a heavyset man with white hair and beard, wearing a brown wool suit, around 5'8" tall.  

There are lots of problems with this, but here we'll just discuss one. Thanks to the fake history in Saints, we now have General Conference precedent for the principle that resurrected beings don't really have restored bodies, but instead can change their bodies at will for inexplicable reasons. 

This is an example of our scholars providing bad information to Church leaders.

Neville then goes on to give his doctrinal treatise on shapeshifting as apostasy and anyone who believes it is a horrible scholar who is trying to lead people away from what the prophets have taught (ironically). 

Now let me clarify a few things:

·   We do not know exactly how the resurrection works or all the physics behind it.

·    As seen on the Road to Emmaus incident, people can walk next to a resurrected being and not immediately know that they are in a divine presence (see Luke 24:13–35). If that was true then, why can it not be true now? That faithful reasoning also destroys Neville's claim that a "glorious messenger" cannot be the same as a "strange person," which by itself means a person Mary Whitmer was not familiar with. You will also notice that there is little description Neville uses that cannot be reconciled between the two events  one provides many details about Moroni's appearance, the other doesn't.

·    We do not know what Moroni looks like.

·    Even if Joseph Smith didn’t outright describe Moroni as having a beard in his 1824 visit, is once-shaved-always-shaved a true principle?

·   Nobody – nobody – has ever taught that resurrected beings are shapeshifters. This is a straw man fallacy that Neville constructed to try and substantiate his own pet theories. I will be one of the many who does admit and will admit that we do not know all the details about the resurrection, and what we do know, we can’t always explain so well with our limited understanding.

Forgive me for repeating myself from earlier, but they are important points to understand.

Finally, Neville states that this is an example of how scholars have led the Apostles astray. Go ahead and read it again – in fact, to be sure I quoted him right, feel free to read his blog post I referenced so you can catch the rest of it. I’m not usually one to recommend you read Neville’s blogs (I would say the opposite), but since I did add those darn ellipses to cut the unnecessary ramblings out of the quote, it is important that you know I quoted him honestly and in the proper context. There is no other way to read it ­­– Neville actually believes that Elder Gong has been led astray by some dastardly historian working for the Church.

Neville can’t be wrong; Elder Gong must be. And to show how he doesn’t actually believe that an apostle is deliberately leading you astray, he has to keep that General Conference speaker’s name anonymous, despite the fact that Elder Gong, one of the leaders of a worldwide Church, delivered that address.. to the entire world.

Is Elder Gong or any other apostle really that na├»ve? Are they incapable of finding out any information for themselves? No! Of course not. That mentality is foolish and self-destructive, a mentality that will only lead you down a path separating yourself from the leaders of the Church. In fact, Wayne May (one of Neville’s pals) is already taking it a step further and released a video stating that the Church was under condemnation for not believing the same Book of Mormon geography he does.

When presented with the opportunity to take a step back and admit that they said some things that were incorrect, they double down. They can’t be mistaken, how can you challenge them? No, everyone else is. When presented with the facts that don’t fit their narrative, they change the facts.

The Prophet Joseph had something to say about men like Neville and May:

That man who rises up to condemn others & finding fault with the Church saying that they are out of the way while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly that that man is in the high road to apostacy & if he does not repent will apostatize as God live[s].

Unfortunately, they become further entrenched in their statements and worldview as time passes. In a recent blog post Jonathan Neville responded to new videos recently put out by FairMormon, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing faithful answers to questions regarding the history, doctrine, and practice of the Church.

For those of you who keep track of the Latter-day Saint apologetics scene, you may be familiar with some new videos created by FairMormon called “This Is the Show,” video responses to the document created by Jeremy Runnells intent on driving people out of the Church.

This document, “The CES Letter,” as it is commonly called, is terrible.

Not just for the reason that it is filled with lies to drive people out of the Church. It is filled with half-truths, unsubstantiated claims, a twisted and cruel rendition of history that paints the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in as terrible a light as possible. Not a single true statement can really be found. If Jeremy Runnells ever even had a testimony or a basic understanding of the history, doctrine, and practice of the Church, he does not show it.

(I should know – I have read every response to the CES Letter and formulated my own document of my own responses to its claims. One of my favorite responses is written by Jim Bennett and actually quotes Runnells sentence by sentence and responds to each and every claim Runnells makes, sentence by sentence, so I also read the entire document Runnells crowd sourced from Reddit’s infamous r/exmormon to pass off as a “sincere list” of questions he had.)

FairMormon has already responded in-depth to the CES Letter, and Michael Ash published a book through FairMormon responding to the CES Letter.  Recently, they took a new approach to the apologetics scene with This Is the Show. It is not your average kind of apologetics, and you will either love the videos or you will hate them (I haven’t seen a lot of middle ground). They take an upfront, in-your-face attitude and (according to those involved) are an “anti-anti” form of response, “fighting back” against the lies that Runnells and his followers spread.

I’m not here to talk about those videos, or even the CES Letter though. I will just say, try those videos if you would like. I do enjoy them, though there are some aspects in the videos that I am not the biggest fan of myself. Overall, I won’t complain about them. We are all welcome to our own opinions, and that is fine.

As unfortunate as the CES Letter is, Neville’s response to these videos responding to a critic of the Church is just as unfortunate.

It can’t really be said he “responds” to them, since he spends barely any time actually talking about them and tries using them as a reason for people to stop donating to FairMormon while also plugging an ad in for a forthcoming book of his at the beginning of the post, whether he intended to or not. Soon, though, he sidetracks into non-profit organizations such as FairMormon and Book of Mormon Central asking for donations and, oh, the horror of it. (The FIRM Foundation, however, the organization Neville associates himself with to spread his pseudohistory and doctrine, is a for profit organization. The amount of money that passes hands at their conferences is sickening, and the cost for their Annotated Edition of the Book of Mormon is far too overpriced for the poor quality and craftsmanship that went into it, especially for the “evidences” they provide, if you can count an Irish skeleton as proof for the Book of Mormon. And no, I am not exaggerating.)

I hate to break it to Neville, but of course a non-profit organization

a)  Asks for donations to survive as an institution.

b)  Pays their employees (yes, that really is something he finds a way to squeeze in).

c)  Spends money to produce material, host conferences, etc. to help spread their message.

Of course, Neville’s source for the money figures is questionable at best and dishonest, deceitful, and horrible on any other given day of the week – John Dehlin of MormonStories. That’s right – to quote numbers to his audience, Neville uses the figures of a man who not only has nothing to do with any of the organizations mentioned, but is a known critic of the Church who has spread countless lies about it. And Neville knows that the source in question is bad – he even links to Daniel C. Peterson’s response to Dehlin saying that Dehlin’s numbers were way off but passes it off as a “good enough response, I suppose” (yet refuses to acknowledge that his numbers are off still).

[UPDATE: On December 24, 2020, FairMormon released their own statement regarding their finances, again refuting Dehlin and Neville's arguments. In the meantime, Neville has continuously referred to Dehlin's numbers and acts as though these responses to Dehlin do not exist, even after he explicitly pointed one such response out in his own post.]

So not only is Neville quoting bad numbers from a bad source, he knows he is doing so and continues to do so because it fits his narrative.

Next, Neville targets a new website produced by some independent scholars who are members of the church, https://latterdayorthodoxy.org/. The Latter-day Saint Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto is, I believe, a good thing. I have read through it and support it. It is important to have an open mind, to think critically, to trust in the prophets above all else, etc. Unfortunately, it allows critical thinking to happen, which allows you to disagree with Neville. So, Neville points to the list of signatories as examples of mislead or misleading people.

Then, immediately after Neville calls out literally an entire list of people (along with an Ensign article author earlier in the same post), he says “Notice: I have not used any names in this post. But you’ll see my critics will complain about me by name, as they always do, because they are well-trained by their mentors in using such logical fallacies.”

If this was an isolated incident I might be tempted to pass it off as bad editing or just not thinking. However, here is a list of people that Neville called out people by name and attacked them for having the audacity to disagree with him:

·   John W. Welch (he also made a meme comparing Jack to Kim Jung Un)

·   Neal Rappleye

·   Stephen Smoot

·   Matthew Roper

·   Daniel C. Peterson

·   John L. Sorenson

·   Kirk Magelby

·   And many, many more. Go ahead, do a search on one of his many blogs for any one of those names and see what you find.

So, yes, Neville, we do use your name when responding to you because you started it by calling us out as misleading the prophets in the first place.

Then Neville further digs himself down a hole of zero self-awareness: “But if past is prologue, we’ll see our M2C and SITH scholars continue to double-down, lash out, and strive all the harder to confirm their biases.” 

(M2C and SITH are acronyms he created to stand for Mesoamerican-2-Cumorah and Stone-in-the-Hat, respectively, referring to geographic models for the Book of Mormon or how it was translated as a way to delegitimize his opponents' arguments).

Just like you doubled down when Elder Gong called the angel Mary Whitmer saw “Moroni?” Or when you have had literally any interaction with anyone who asks you to think critically, examine all the sources as a responsible historian would, and not attack them over a difference of opinion for something so insignificant as an angel’s name?

In fact, in another recent blogpost, Neville calls “This Is the Show” by an acronym that (as I have been told by friends who keep wider track of these circles to know how to respond to these critics than I do) is crude and in poor taste and created by Dehlin or his cohorts – TITS. In that same post he calls John Dehlin and Jeremy Runnels “calm” and “respectful,” though if anyone has had any dealings with either you would know that they are anything but that. (He also falsely claims that FairMormon doesn’t have any supporters anymore and that they are losing all their donors ­– unsubstantiated and false claims through and through, likely received from Dehlin given Neville’s track record the past few days).

Neville has made it clear: he would rather stand with known critics of the Church and defend them than he would defend the Church itself over a petty squabble of "not everyone agrees with me."

Make no mistake: Jonathan Neville is a critic of the Church. His unorthodox views would be forgivable if he did not make them unofficial articles of faith for the Church and attack those who disagree with him incessantly while trying to claim he respects them. He is by all intents and purposes in the “high road to apostacy” Joseph Smith taught about, and I hope and pray he soon realizes what he is actually saying and chooses to repent. As Nephi said, to be learned is good IF one hearkens to the counsels of the Lord and, if I may add, you do not find yourself in a position akin to the Jewish elites of Nephi's day, who mocked the prophets and believed that they had been misguided and were no longer teaching truth.

Most importantly of all, please remember one thing in nothing else. When you are presented with a statement that doesn’t make sense or that seems confusing when learning about the Church, there are answers. God is not a god of confusion. If you have come across a critic of the Church and find yourself in the middle of a faith crisis, hold on, trust on, and I can assure you that you will see the salvation of God. Keep praying, keep studying. Good answers depend entirely upon the work we do to find them, and spiritual questions need spiritual work to find an answer.

I can testify to you that I know that the Church of Jesus Christ has been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is led by a living prophet today. God lives! He restored His gospel for you today! Always remember that there is hope in the world, and you will be able to know that God loves you more than anything in the universe. 

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