I’m sure many of you are by now aware of what happened this past week at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. I don’t want to rehash everything again here (you can read about it here, here, here, here, here, and here). Suffice it to say that I am extremely disappointed, deeply saddened, and frankly appalled at the actions of one M. Gerald Bradford, Executive Director of the Maxwell Institute, as well as others at the Institute (some unknown), most specifically for the unimaginably rude and utterly undeserved public firing of Daniel C. Peterson, Editor of the Mormon Studies Review (formerly the FARMS Review), who has served fervently and with untiring dedication for the past twenty-three years since its inaugural issue in 1989, as well as his entire team of associate editors, including Louis C. Midgley, George L. Mitton, Gregory L. Smith and Robert White (some of whom are out of the country and may still not even know yet that they’ve been summarily handed their coats). There aren’t words to describe how unprofessional, uncalled for, and how exquisitely ungrateful these actions are towards these devoted scholars, and the many other FARMS scholars who have been a part of the organization since 1979, and who in many ways have given their lives in sustaining and defending the kingdom of God. For that, this is the curt note they got.
One view that has been mentioned several times by those involved is how these inconceivable few days of events has in reality arrived as the exclamation point on a very long internal struggle at the Institute over the last decade in defining its core mission. That mission has consequently evolved in recent years.
The organization that became the Maxwell Institute was organized originally and independently as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) in 1979 by John W. Welch. When President Gordon B. Hinckley invited FARMS to become part of BYU in the late 90′s, he noted its particular and long established apologetic nature, saying:
FARMS represents the efforts of sincere and dedicated scholars. It has grown to provide strong support and defense of the Church on a professional basis. I wish to express my strong congratulations and appreciation for those who started this effort and who have shepherded it to this point. I see a bright future for this effort now through the university.
This mission to sustain and defend the Church (something which we all must do, which is what the term apologetics means from the Greek for “speaking in defense”) included scholarship in a number of subjects such as history, language, literature, culture, geography, politics, and law relevant to ancient scripture, especially the Book of Mormon, areas which have been targets for critics and enemies of the Church since Joseph Smith and the Restoration. Indeed, the original FARMS logo itself conveyed this multifaceted ancient focus as well:
The logo of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies is composed of characters from four of the main ancient languages and cultures relevant to Book of Mormon research. The Hebrew “aleph” in the upper left corner and the Greek “omega” in the lower right are the first and last letters of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, standing for “the first and the last” (Isaiah 48:12), who is Jesus Christ.
The Mayan glyph in the upper right is stylized, representing Mesoamerican studies. The Egyptian “Wd3t-eye” in the lower left corner represents Egyptian studies. This character, the pupil of the sun god Re, was an ancient symbol of resurrection, since a myth told how the eye was torn to pieces and then put back together. The round pupil of the eye was also used as the model of the round outline of the hypocephalus placed under the head in royal burials, of which Figure 2 in the Book of Abraham is an example.
Of course, the preeminent scholar-apologist of the Church and restored gospel in this past century was none other than Hugh Nibley, who set an incredibly high standard for those who would follow him. Hugh Nibley became very much an advocate and conduit of the mission and purpose of FARMS until the end of life, and then even posthumously. His last collection of works were published in 2010, five years after his passing. The printing presses couldn’t keep up with him, even at 94. As many of you know, the impetus and inspiration for my starting this website was to do my small part to help continue the legacy of Hugh Nibley, and his unconquerable spirit and quest to defend what he knew to be true of the restored gospel, a knowledge which I have also come to share.
In about 1998 FARMS became part of BYU. Many disagreed with that merger, fearing it would hinder what FARMS was doing by tying it too close to the Church, and causing it to be viewed as an “official” voice, which it was not. Of course, the university promised that FARMS could continue doing what it was doing without fear of change or disruption.
Unfortunately, and in an ironic twist of fate, those who were the leaders and original founding organizers of FARMS in the beginning slowly began to be replaced by managers and administrators by the university, people who had not been involved at all with the organization in the past, in order to “run” it. Anyone who has even the slightest recollection of Nibley’s work knows he addressed such a lamented situation in one of his most well remembered speeches, in which he subtitled the scenario “the fatal shift.” How right he was. Those with no core passion for the organization, personal interest, or invested desire to fulfill its original purpose began to take over, and make it their own.
During the past decade, things have begun to change at the Institute as this transformation has taken place, most acutely in the last few years, as the vision has changed from Mormon apologetics to a focus on studies that will appeal to non-Mormon academia. William J. Hamblin, once a Board member and FARMS scholar who has published many fantastic works over the years, has taken note of the change in the organization over the past few years:
Astute observers will note that there has been a steady decline in both quantity and quality of Institute publications over the past few years. (Indeed, more cutting-edge books on the Book of Mormon have being published in the past few years by Kofford Books, Salt Press, and even Oxford University Press than by the Institute.) They may also observe that most of the original core of FARMS scholars from a decade ago, including me, have nearly ceased publishing with the Institute, having been systematically marginalized, alienated, or ostracized by the Institute as it tried transform itself to conform with this new vision. Needless to say, most of the original FARMS scholars have been dismayed by this inexorable movement to remake the Maxwell Institute.
I hadn’t taken note, as of yet, of the decline of the number of publications coming from the Institute until I read this note, although I think I knew things weren’t the same as in the “good old days” of FARMS. I read a similar viewpoint again today by Jamie Huston at Gently Hew Stone:
I guess I could have seen something like this coming. It seems the MI hasn’t had its heart in it for years. Consider this: A collection of short articles from the FARMS newsletter in the 1980′s, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, had 85 entries and was extremely wonderful–a seminal classic in bringing Book of Mormon scholarship to the non-specialist world. A book collecting their updates of the 1990′s, Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, had 74 entries and was almost as good.
There was no collection published of the brief updates in the 2000′s, perhaps because there was nothing substantial enough to print. Or they just didn’t care anymore. The quality and quantity of work went down hill pretty steeply. I subscribed to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies from 1998-2003, and ended it because I just wasn’t getting my money’s worth. Ironically, I just gave those issue away last week.
This got me thinking. Could you actually chart the rise and fall of FARMS based on its publications? From its inception, to its prolific golden age, to its uneasy decline in the midst of “forward” thinkers? Indeed, you can. The chart you see at the top of the post isn’t scientific by any means, and I’m sure I’ve missed some things here, but this is what a cursory counting of the FARMS publications looks like over the years from 1981-2012, based on what is currently available online at the Maxwell Institute website. (Note: It’s a stacked chart, to show the total number of “publications” per year for all types. I’ll update this chart, if I can get more accurate information, just contact me. It’s also, incidentally, exactly how long I’ve been alive. In addition, this only takes into account “quantity” of material, not “quality,” something which is much more difficult to statistically quantify, but which has also seen a decline by censorship and “design by committee.” Finally, I did not include more than a handful of articles or books by Hugh Nibley in my count, as he would have single-handedly skewed the whole picture.)
I didn’t make this chart for fun. I don’t like to see FARMS fade away and disappear into oblivion. FARMS has been a tremendous inspiration and a source of faith affirming knowledge and study for me for many years. I did it to see if what these people were saying was true in any degree, or if they were just caught up in the emotions of current events and making exaggerations for maximum impact. If this chart is any indication, they are, in fact, quite right. Since the year 2000 (nary a year or two after becoming part of BYU!), the Maxwell Institute seems to have suffered a prolonged and slow dearth of published material, until very little at all in 2011. This current year’s 2012 publications to date can be counted on two hands. Two hands.
I want to be very clear that this decline is not, even moderately, the fault of Daniel Peterson. He has wanted to publish more for many years (as has been the desire of many other scholars!), but was systematically stopped short at the behest of the Institute’s administrator(s), who thought they knew better the direction to take it than its original creators, former contributors, and current editors. The decline was so gradual and subtle, over such an extended period of time, that many people probably didn’t recognize it was even occurring, or only had a faint feeling that something was amiss. Hindsight is 20/20. After the firings, Dr. Peterson implied that now he recognizes that all of this was likely a work in progress for quite some time, a sloppy plan of sorts, the wool being pulled white-knuckled over his eyes the whole time. This was, perhaps, his only shortcoming in this whole ordeal, not seeing the freight train approaching from a distance, while looking through a glass, darkly (1 Cor. 13:12, which incidentally has apologetic reference to the Urim & Thummim, I come to now realize, a sublime irony!). I suspect a large part of the decrease in publications since 2000 is a combination of administrative red tape that came from the merge with BYU, as well as this new “direction” that’s gradually taken hold over so many years, which censored apologetic works written by a number of scholars. These scholars consequently picked up their bags and left to find other publishing houses with vacancy signs that were fully lit (e.g. Kofford Books, Salt Press, Oxford University Press). Some might point fingers and say that they were improving the quality, at the expense of quantity. But I think most scholars would agree that the FARMS scholarship before the union with BYU, and shortly thereafter, was in many cases better than in recent times. (“Well, yea, that’s because of Nibley!” Ok, then, where are the Nibleys of today? Again, I note, you could count the Nibley articles, chapters, updates, etc. included in my graphic representation on one hand). FARMS scholars had more freedom at that early time, to do the passionate work that they wanted to do without bureaucracy standing solidly in front of the printing press. Thank you Dan, for your years of selfless service and resolute testimony in the face of untold harassment from the Church’s detractors. I have personally learned abundantly from your hand, and have been able to share that with many others. You’ve been a tremendous influence for good, and we mourn what this has done.
William Hamblin rightly notes that this is the end of what has traditionally been known as FARMS:
Dan Peterson was the only scholar of the original FARMS Board who was left as a “director” of the Institute; with his dismissal classic-FARMS is gone. There is not a single voice left in the leadership of the Institute to represent the original goals of classic-FARMS. This is why Dan’s dismissal and marginalization is seen as such a massive betrayal. It is the removal of the last vestige of classic-FARMS. The pretense of the MI as the heir of FARMS can no longer be maintained.
It’s a sad day for those who loved the work of the Church’s most extraordinary defenders. Of course, they are still around, with more up and coming scholars coming to the fore, and they will most assuredly continue to do their great work via other avenues (perhaps with FAIR?), but what was once their home and haven has vanished. The nest has been knocked clean from the branch.
Thank you FARMS, and all those who’ve been a part of it, for all you have done for so many countless people across the world, including myself. You will be acutely missed!
I don’t know what Hugh Nibley would say about all of this, if he were still with us. But I’d sure like to be in the same room.