Friday, September 25, 2015

Setting the Record Straight

Jonathan Neville first visited me at my office at the Maxwell Institute on January 11, 2015. He told me he had previously spoken with Jack Welch and that Jack had sent him to me. He told me he had recently read the article on the Times and Seasons editorials that had been published in 2013, which he had only recently been made aware of.[1] He told me we were wrong in our conclusions and that he thought they were really written by Benjamin Winchester. He wanted Paul and me to do a new study that took Winchester into account. When he told me this, I was somewhat puzzled by the suggestion, as Winchester was not in Nauvoo at the time. I was interested in Neville’s historical arguments, which I wanted to understand before proceeding with a new study. He said he had set out his arguments on Winchester in his book. I had never heard of this before. The book he had when he first visited me was called Who Can Hinder: How a Forgotten Mormon’s Zeal Influenced the Church for 173 Years. I asked if I could borrow it in order to examine his historical arguments for Winchester. He reluctantly allowed me to do so. With some embarrassment he explained that it was only a preliminary version, did not contain all the historical evidence he had, and that there was a more complete discussion in the revised version which would be out very soon. While allowing me to borrow the book, he asked me to not be too hard on it, because the revised version, which would be out shortly would be much better and that when it was out he would get me a copy. He told me that he had shared his research with many unnamed BYU professors, Church historians, and scholars working on the Joseph Smith Papers and that he had their support for his work and ideas. He did not provide any names.

We discussed generally the idea that it might be useful to have a comprehensive database of all known early writers in Church history.  I indicated that our team was working toward such a database. I had previously compiled an electronic collection of published literature on the Book of Mormon which was freely available through the Harold B Lee Library, which would be useful to anybody who wanted to pursue that endeavor. I said I would check with my associate Paul Fields who oversees and directs the statistical analysis on our projects to see if we could add Winchester to the list of potential candidate authors for the 1842 articles. Paul agreed that we could do this provided we had the needed data on Winchester. I then told Neville that I thought it was a good suggestion to look at Winchester’s possible influence. Before he left I gave him my business card with my email and office phone number.

I had other projects and responsibilities at the MI and Paul who runs his own business also had other work of his own and was getting ready to leave for his teaching stint in Grenada, but since it would take some time to gather samples of Winchester’s writings to do the data entry and prepare the material for analysis, I began right away gathering samples of Winchester’s writings for Paul and Larry Bassist in preparation for the new study. 

As I read through Who Can Hinder I noticed the conspiratorial nature of his argument about Winchester, which did not strike me as very sound. I also had concerns about his claim in the book that the Times and Seasons editorials on Central America somehow “cast doubt on Joseph Smith’s role as a Prophet.” This and other elements of the book seemed to echo earlier false claims by Rod Meldrum (and others) that I had previously addressed in 2010. When he visited me he had simply focused on his interest in Winchester. None Can Hinder, and his book proposal raised some concern, but since he had told me not to be too hard on him for this first revision and had said that the revised versions would be more scholarly, I decided to wait until I saw the new edition before passing judgment. In the meantime, I saw nothing wrong with taking a look at Winchester.

On February 20, I wrote him and told him I wanted to return his book and was looking forward to meeting with him again. I told him that I had spoken with Paul Fields and we should be able to run the data on Winchester. 

Due to scheduling conflicts Neville and I were unable to meet again until March 5. He visited my office then and returned the copy of None Can Hinder and he gave me a copy of the updated version of his book, now under a different title, The Lost City of Zarahemla: From Iowa to Guatemala and Back Again. He told me that he had a friend helping him on the statistics material whose name was Daniel Hardman. I suggested to Neville that it would be a good idea for Dan to get into contact with Paul Fields. Neville wanted us to run the data on Benjamin Winchester. I asked Neville if there was anybody else he thought we should consider as possible candidate authors. He said, William Smith. I indicated again that we would be glad look at this and share our findings when we were ready. After he left that afternoon, I contacted Paul and discussed our visit, mentioned Daniel Hardman and passed along Daniel’s email. I wrote to Paul, “John would like us to run the data and include Benjamin Winchester and William Smith in the mix for the T&S articles. I told him we would be glad to do this and then meet with him.”[2]
In the time available to me I began gathering up material from William Smith, so that Paul and Larry could prepare the data for analysis. In addition to William Smith I was also gathering up additional data on other potential candidates from the Nauvoo period to include them as well in hopes of being a thorough as possible. I continued to work on this as time permitted throughout the remainder of March and April. Once this was done, Paul and I anticipated sharing the results of our analysis and publishing something in a scholarly venue. 

After March 5 I began reading the new edition of Neville’s book. One of the first things that caught my eye was a chapter that was very critical and dismissive of our earlier (2013) statistical analysis. He wrote:

On 9 January 2015, I met with Roper to discuss his article. He agreed that a stylometry analysis is only as good as the candidates tested. I suggested we collaborate to assess Winchester’s potential authorship of these articles. He said he would need the historical context, and I reluctantly left him an early draft of this book, along with my contact information. As of this writing (20 February 2015), I have not heard back from him and he has not responded to my efforts to contact him. Consequently, I have arranged for an independent stylometry analysis and will update this section as soon as that is available.[3]

I was surprised to read this. The statement seemed very inappropriate given the context of our previous interactions. He knew where my office was. He had visited me before. I had previously given him my card with my phone number and he could have called me or visited my office at any time, but apparently did not consider it important enough to do so before putting that statement in print. I thought it was unprofessional for him to do so without consulting with me first. Meanwhile, I had been proceeding exactly as we had discussed in gathering and preparing data on Winchester for analysis. I was holding off making comments on the earlier draft of his book as he had requested until I saw the revision he was to bring me and which I was still waiting for and expected to see at our next meeting. As far as I knew things were proceeding just as we discussed. He never once indicated to me that he was going to provide a partial representation our meetings and discussions in print and without informing me. It was unnecessary, self-serving, and unprofessional for him to represent our interactions in a way that implied that there was something furtive in my behavior. This was troubling and made me wonder if I was being set up. 

Additionally troubling was the revised version of the book. For me this was not because of his personal opinions of Book of Mormon geography, although I found them weak and unpersuasive. The real problems had to do with his attempt to wrap those personal interpretations in the cloak of prophetic authority, while characterizing those who interpreted things differently as stupid, mentally deranged, or undermining Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority. I had already seen this kind of thing before and I was tired of such nonsense.[4] Less offensive, but no less problematic was his apparent inability to accurately characterize the arguments and interpretations of past writers on the Book of Mormon and those of contemporary scholars.  His representation of our 2013 study was also deeply problematic. 

All of these things concerned me, and I wondered what to do. The awful book, self-published, even under the new revision was not well put together, but I was reluctant to hurt Neville’s feelings. On March 10, I consulted with Paul Fields and told him I was feeling increasingly uneasy about our association with Neville. I told him, I did not mind pursuing our course and sharing the results of our findings when we were done, but I had serious issues with other elements of his book which were unsound. I asked Paul what he thought we should do and we both agreed that we should just continue as we had planned preparing the data and analysis on Winchester and others which we would then share with Neville when it was complete. At that time we could sit down with him privately, walk him through our results and discuss our data and conclusions on the Winchester question. We continued to pursue this course until the end of April.

On April 2, I received a last minute request from a friend to submit a proposal for the John Whitmer Historical Association Meeting in September. Although, our research was not complete, we were getting closer and I thought that by September we ought to have results that we could present and publish in a scholarly venue. I submitted the proposal which was accepted on May 19. 

On April 29 Neville wrote to me. He wanted to know about the status of our work. He seemed to be under the impression that our association extended beyond sharing the results of our findings with him when they were complete and thought that we were building a data base together, something we had never agreed to. In fact, aside from suggesting that we were wrong, and that we should look at Winchester and William Smith as potential candidates, he had up until then contributed nothing to our research work. Our team (Paul, Larry, and I) had done all the work of data gathering, preparation ourselves. By this time I had also finished reading The Lost City of Zarahemla. I was uncomfortable with his criticisms of the Church, and the scholarly essays on the Church website. By that time I felt that, given his clear agenda as shown in his book the gentlest thing to do would be to disassociate with him, leaving him free to pursue his own agenda along with the understanding that we would still, as we had always said we would do, make the results of our analysis available when it was ready. The next day I wrote to him as follows:

The BYU library has an electronic database which I put together a number of years ago called “Early Publications about the Book of Mormon: 1829-1844” which is accessible and contains most of what was published on the Book of Mormon during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. If you and Dan would like to prepare a database for your research that would be a good place to begin.
Now that I have been able to read your book and seen where you are coming from in your discussion of Winchester and the issue of Book of Mormon geography I have come to the conclusion that it would be best for you to pursue these things on your own. I am deeply uncomfortable with the way you have framed the discussion (Winchester as evil villain and mastermind of an essentially apostate Mesoamerican geography which you think hurts the Church). The historical discussion in the book is also deeply problematic and in my view the work perpetuates a great deal of misunderstanding which is not helpful to the study of the Book of Mormon. You have not adequately addressed the literature on these questions either, including a great deal that I have written myself. Additionally, you have represented things in such a way that I, reluctantly, may find it necessary to write a response myself in order to correct the record, although I don’t know when I might have the time to do so or where it would be published.
I do thank you for the opportunity to read your book, for your courtesy in providing me a copy and for suggesting that we look at Winchester as a possible author of the Times and Seasons articles. Paul and I will pursue the Winchester suggestion and see what comes of it. Once we have completed our work and if we find something worthy of publication we will be glad to share those findings with you.
Matt Roper 

On May 17 and 20, a friend shared an email he had just received from a recently called mission President who was then preparing to serve and had been encountering difficulties with some advocates of the Heartland theory. He wrote:

I have been attacked by my sister, [Rod] Meldrum, and others concerning my testimony and worthiness to be a mission president because of my belief that the Book of Mormon, for the most part, took place in Central America and Mexico. This has been a belief I have had, but never really thought much about it until my dedication and loyalty to the Church, and Christ himself have been questioned by the “Heartlanders”[5]
Just to be straight, I have received my criticism from Meldrum through my sister.  I have not met or spoke with Meldrum myself.  I have spoken to Neville on the phone.  Neville told my sister that he has concerns about my beliefs and how it will effect the missionaries I will be presiding over.  I think that is why he wants to meet with me.  I have never been around such strange people.  I loose the spirit every time I get around these folks.  I do not mind their theories, but I do mind being questioned about my faith and devotion.  Thank you for taking some of the brunt from Meldrum.  Again, feel free to share my experience with anyone. [6]
I had my 2 and a half hour meeting with Jonathan Neville yesterday.  He had just come home that day from a dig in Iowa where they KNOW Zarahemla to be.  All they have found so far is sand.  The book that Neville wrote is about a man named Benjamin Winchester.  I have read the book.  I think it is poorly written and not very well documented.  Neville contends that Winchester along with William Smith, with evil design, wrote the articles in the Times and Seasons referring to Stephens and Catherwoods books on Central America and the Book of Mormon.  Neville admits all his evidence is circumstantial.  His explanations as to why Joseph never corrected the articles are really lame.  Neville claims to have the interest of many in the Church History department.  He claims to have support from many "high officials" that are "grateful" for his efforts and discovery . . . .  
These folks that promote the "heartland" theory seem to be on the edge.  Neville was very critical of the information on the church web site about DNA.  He expressed his criticism of the church having pictures of Christ in churches and Temples depicting Christ in Mesoamerica.  I have never felt that kind spirit from anything I have read on the Mesoamerican theory . . . .  Feel free to share this email and my story with anyone.  I need to start focusing on the mission, but I always have time to discuss the great Book of Mormon and everything about it.[7]
On May 21 he wrote to me as follows:

I'm not sure if you know or not but two of my sisters have been influenced greatly by Meldrum and now Neville.  They worry about me and my ability to lead a mission because I have an interest in Book of Mormon geography.  Over the years I have purchased books by Sorensen, Lund, Allen, Nibley, Warren and Ferguson, and Washburn.  I even bought Porter and Meldrum's book.  The "heartland" theory really never made much sense to me.  I have felt the Mesoamerican theory did make sense.  I had some interest in the heartland just because I like to look at all possibilities.  When I heard my sisters talk of absolutes and very critical of other theories and the people who had them, I began to be turned off in a hurry . . . .  I hope to someday kindly persuade my sisters to not be so critical of those who have a different point of view.  I even feel they are being critical of many of the leaders of the church.  I have seen too many times how this leads to apostasy.  Any info I can get is helpful.[8]
After my first essay was published in Interpreter Garth Norman wrote to a friend of mine about an encounter with Boyd Tuttle.  Tuttle has been the publisher of Rod Meldrum’s books and apparently was also promoting Neville’s book even before I met him. Norman wrote:

I would really like to know Tuttle's response to Roper's review. I had a short visit with Tuttle at the Roots Conference last Fall. He approached me and introduced himself, shared Neville's book in press, and stated it was devastating to the 1842 Times and Season's editorials attributed to Joseph Smith as the foundation of the Mesoamerican geography theory. He even mentioned that Jack Welch and other BYU professors had given this new research discovery a favorable review. He expressed his conviction of the Heartland geography theory, and invited me to pray about it to come to the truth. When I responded with my own conviction of Mesoamerica, based on geography requirements of the text, archaeological support and much prayer, and invited him to pray about it, he suddenly had to rush off to an appointment.  Has he been praying, or just promoting his publishing business?[9]

When Neville first contacted me on January 9, 2015, I had no idea who he was or how informed he was about scholarship on the Book of Mormon or Church history. Our conversation had been cordial, his manner friendly. Given his interest in the subject, I recommended that he become familiar with the literature including what I had written. He indicated that he already knew all about what I had written. He did not tell me that he had been running a blog since June 2014 entitled “Book of Mormon Wars” devoted to defending the “Heartland” theory and attacking proponents of a Mesoamerican interpretation of the Book of Mormon. One of the targets of his attacks was me. He had described what I had written about the Zelph story as “deceptive” and characterized my writings as “casting doubt on the early brethren.”[10] When Neville visited me in January, he told me none of this. He never informed me that he had a blog or that he had said anything about what I had written there. In fact, until the later part of May the only awareness that I had with his writings or arguments were those which he shared with me in his book in both its earlier and later incarnations.

On May 22 a friend informed me that Neville had a blog. As, noted already, this was the first time I knew of this. It seemed that Neville had a great deal of time on his hands and was “driven” by some motivation to attack all things Mesoamerican associated with the Book of Mormon. I saw now that instead of addressing these issues privately, in a meeting where we could take him through our data and analysis and conclusions, it would now be necessary given some of his very public activities and criticisms, a measured public response. It would also now be necessary to address some of the historical issues publicly as well. We would share our analysis and findings and criticisms of his work in a more public way and in a scholarly venue. 

I was greatly surprised that during the very period when I had in good faith been gathering and helping to prepare data on Winchester and others with the objective of sharing the results of our analysis, he had been posting public comments critical of my work. On February 12 and February 18 he had for example posted entries that were critical of two articles I had published for the FARMS Review in 2010. The February 18 entry claimed that “LDS Scholars” including me, contrary to what I had affirmed, “do undermine Joseph Smith’s knowledge and prophetic role.”[11] The blog entries conveyed an agenda and animosity that had not been apparent in Neville’s friendly manner during our visits.

One noteworthy entry was posted on March 18. There Neville made disparaging comments about a review essay of Earl Wunderli’s essentially anti-Mormon book. Paul Fields, Larry Bassist and I had written a critique of the book that was published in BYU Studies. In his blog post Neville wrote:

On this point I have personal experience with Roper. I approached him to collaborate with me on the Winchester theory of the Times and Seasons articles. He agrees to do so, but then reneged because he didn’t like my conclusions. He refused to provide me his database or to test Winchester using his own software. In my view this is astonishing. Rather than seek the best data, Roper’s primary objective appears to be defending his own theories about authorship. Roper’s publications don’t explain his methodology or his data assumptions. In the case of the Times and seasons, he won’t even reveal what texts he used as samples of Joseph Smith’s writings, let alone other candidates. 

The truth of the matter is that I had told him in each of our meetings that we thought looking at Winchester was a good idea and that we would do it and share our findings and analysis when they were complete. We never “reneged” on this verbally or in writing. We never refused to use our software to examine the question. We had been and were at that very time working on this, as we had previously, using the best scientific methods available and were looking forward to sharing those results and explaining our work when it was done. As we were working toward that end, we had no idea that he was misrepresenting us on a blog which we knew nothing about.

In another comment from the same post he referenced our discussion of statistical problems in Wunderli’s attack on the Book of Mormon. Neville wrote:

I’d like to agree with Roper about his authorship analysis, but I have zero confidence in either his objectives or his methodology, based on my own experience, Wunderli’s observations, and the content of Roper’s published explanations.[12]   

I thought this was very strange. Less than two weeks before (on March 5) I had met with Neville in my office where, for the first time he gave me a copy of Lost City of Zarahemla, and I had at time reaffirmed that Paul and I would look into the Winchester issue and look at William Smith as well and share the results when we were done. Just eight days before, his Nephew, Daniel Hardman had written to Paul Fields, introducing himself for the first time.[13] Now just more than a week later, unbeknown to us, Neville was writing the above on a public blog.

While I had concerns about the many problems with his book (Paul and I had privately discussed some of these), I had refrained from making these an issue with Neville. I thought, few people would actually read the book and so the poor historical material could be ignored without needing to embarrass him. The main issue for us at the time was the authorship of the editorials. Paul and I agreed that we would continue carrying out our research into the question exactly as I had told Neville we would in January and in March. His March 18 claim that I had “reneged” on pursuing the question of other potential authors because I didn’t like his conclusions was outrageous and the claim that we refused to test Winchester or share the results and analysis of our data is not true. 

In another post on May 1, Neville had written:

The other day Matt Roper of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship told me `You have not adequately addressed the literature on these questions, including a great deal that I have written myself.’ In that same exchange, he declined to respond to any of my facts in my book, The Lost City of Zarahemla, and has refused further collaboration . . . . I not only specifically addressed this article on this blog and in my book, but I visited Matt three times, in person, all on my own initiative, to discuss it with him. His response was to stonewall, make promises he wouldn’t keep, and then accusing me of not addressing the literature. Which is pretty much what everyone told me to expect” (“You Have not adequately addressed the literature,” Book of Mormon Wars, 1 May, 2015).   

The fact of the matter is that he never told me of any blog and his book Lost City does not adequately address the literature, as his discussion of the Zelph issue was just one example.[14] I had counseled him about this in our first meeting and he should have known better. His blog entries (oddly self-anointed “peer reviews”), from February until now have the appearance of someone who is still not familiar with the academic literature and was playing catch-up, even though he had told me he had previously addressed it. He also seemed to have serious difficulty in following arguments and understanding what he reads. We never refused to examine the Winchester data and in my last letter to Neville on April 30 I had again said, “Paul and I will pursue the Winchester suggestion and see what comes of it. Once we have completed our work and if we find something worthy of publication we will be glad to share those findings with you.”[15]

Other things about the blog were troubling. On April 12 Neville had posted a cartoon that he indicated he had shared to the amusement of crowds at a public Conference at UVU. The cartoon portrayed the US/Mexican border with a fence separating the two sides. On the Mexico side is a table with a sign that says “maps to USA” and a line of Mexican people crawling under a fence. On the US side is a big sign that says “USA Keep OUT” with tables with smaller signs just below which say “Free Lemonade” “Free Education” “Jobs” “Free Health Care.” On the Mexican side of the border in big red letters it states “Mesoaamerica (Sorenson/BYU) promised land.” On the US side in green it says “Heartland promised land.” Aside from the inaccuracy of the message (Sorenson never argued that the United States was not part of the land of promise), I found the cartoon, coming from member of the Church, divisive, distasteful and offensive.

On June 26, Neville posted a video on his blog of Adolph Hitler’s last days in his Berlin Bunker surrounded by his top Nazi Henchmen. Neville posted not one but two different versions of the parody, noting, “The Hitler video has been used for just about everything, but this version is one of the best I’ve seen.” The parody, based on a classic scene from a German movie portrays the men breaking the news to Hitler that the war is lost and Hitler’s ballistic reaction. In the parody on Neville’s blog, the evil murderous Nazi henchmen, identified as Winchester, Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson, Matt Roper and Dan Peterson, and others tell Hitler in English subtitles that Joseph Smith actually revealed a North American geography and that the Book of Mormon didn’t happen in Mesoamerica. I guess I could understand why some might find humor in such parodies. What I cannot understand is why a fellow member of the Church would compare fellow Saints to such people. It reflects a shameful insensitivity and a juvenile lack of introspection and I can’t imagine why any scholar would want to collaborate with a person who engages in such behavior.

[1] Matthew Roper, Paul J. Fields, and Atul Nepal, “Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins,” Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 84-97.
[2] Matthew Roper to Paul Fields, 5 March, 2015.
[3] Neville, The Lost City of Zarahemla, 220.
[4] See my discussion under “How Not to Have a `Conversation’ about Book of Mormon Geography,” in my, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 22-26.
[5] Scott Palmer to Tyler Livingston, 16 May, 2015.
[6] Scott Palmer to Tyler Livingston, 20 May, 2015.
[7] Scott Palmer to Tyler Livingston, 20 May, 2015.
[8] Scott Palmer to Matthew Roper, 21 May, 2015.
[9] V. Garth Norman to Tyler Livingston, 23 August, 2015.
[10] “The Tone of the Discussion,” Book of Mormon Wars, 7 December, 2014,
[11] “Peer Review of the FARMS Review 22/2 (2010),” Book of Mormon Wars, 18 February, 2015,
[12] “Peer Review of `If There Be Faults,’” Book of Mormon Wars, 18 March, 2015,
[13] Daniel Hardman to Paul Fields, 10 March, 2015.
[14] See Matthew Roper, “The Treason of the Geographers: Mythical `Mesoamerican’ Conspiracy and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 170-75.
[15] Roper to Neville, 30 April, 2015.
[16] The cartoon can be found  at “Promised Land Filter,” Book of Mormon Wars, 12 April, 2015,
[17] “Just For Fun,” Book of Mormon Wars, 26 June, 2015, in

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