[Apologetics is] necessary as long as investigators are asking missionaries questions. It’s necessary as long as cynical fourteen-year-olds are testing their seminary teachers. And it’s necessary as long as the membership of the Church has access to Google… We don’t have the choice of making apologetics go away. We only have the choice of doing what we can to improve the enterprise. –Julie M. Smith, Panel Discussion on “Faith, Reason, and the Critical Study of Mormon Apologetics”
Hawkgrrrl’s post on Neo-Apologists got me thinking about recent developments in the field of Mormon apologetics. The last few years have brought about many changes, and it appears we continue to be in the midst of major shifts. Over at Times & Seasons, Dave Banack reported on the creation of a page at LDS.org listing external apologetic resources for seminary teachers. At the Mormonity blog, Jeff Lindsay wrote about Elder Holland’s pro-apologetics address at an August 16th conference celebrating John Welch’s discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. And at By Common Consent, Kevin Barney discussed the fascinating August 3rd roundtable discussion on the recent Kofford Books publication, LDS Perspectives in Theology: Apologetics, a collection of essays covering a variety of apologetic approaches and concerns. All of these tie into two larger movements in the field: (1) increased recognition of the importance of different apologetic styles, and (2) the institutional church openly supporting and facilitating access to apologetic resources for churchmembers.
Background: FARMS, the Maxwell Institute, and the rise of The Interpreter Foundation
The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), established in 1979 by John W. Welch, has long been iconic of Mormon apologetics. FARMS and it’s “patron saint,” Hugh Nibley, were veritable powerhouses. In 1997, FARMS officially joined BYU with President Hinckley remarking, “[FARMS] has grown to provide strong support and defense of the Church on a professional basis.” Officially, FARMS was “a research and publication center that focus[ed] on scholarly analysis of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Old Testament, the New Testament, early Christian history, and ancient temples.” It’s logical, then, why BYU placed FARMS with two existing ancient religious text preservation projects (CPART and METI) under the umbrella of a new Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART). In 2006 ISPART was renamed the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. As FARMS became nested in increasingly academic/scholarly ventures, some began to feel uncomfortable with vestiges of contentious apologetics, especially visible in the Mormon Studies Review (formerly FARMS Review). Eventually it all came to a head in 2012.
In May of that year, Dr. Daniel C. Peterson, editor of the Mormon Studies Review, Maxwell Institute Director of Outreach, and editor-in-chief of METI, was called into a three-hour meeting with the director of the Maxwell Institute. He was informed that the institute (and, by extension, the Mormon Studies Review) was to pursue a more academic approach to Mormon studies. Peterson, editor of the Review from it’s inception as Review of the Books on the Book of Mormon in 1989, expressed deep misgivings.
I responded that if he intended by that to abandon the Institute’s long-standing commitment to commending and defending the faith, to turn away from its goal of serving a non-specialist Latter-day Saint audience as well as scholars, I would be unable to support him in that change.
Peterson felt that reducing the audience to merely scholars would turn the institute and Review into an “anodyne and elitist project of little relevance to ordinary members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Peterson was proud of the fact that the Review was the institute’s publication “most overtly willing to confront critics, most prone to engaging in controversy or polemics or overt apologetics.” He considered it a feature, not a bug, that the journal had an irreverent and sometimes biting sense of humor,
The Review has always had an impish sense of humor and a penchant for irony and satire. This has offended some who have, I’m convinced, quite misunderstood what was going on. But it has entertained many, and, personally, I’ll choose dry wit over dry tedium any day of the week.
Unable to support the “new course” the director planned for the institute and the Review, Peterson resigned his decades-old position of editor of the Review and as MI Director of Outreach in June 2012. The next year he resigned as editor-in-chief of METI. Peterson’s departure from the Maxwell Institute and the apparent abandonment of apologetics by that organization sent shockwaves across the Mormon apologetic community. Many were deeply concerned and, like Peterson, felt it was a betrayal of all FARMS stood for. How could the Maxwell Institute and, by extension, the Church’s flagship university abandon apologetics?
Immediately after his abrupt departure from the Institute, Peterson began receiving communications “from people who had been closely associated with FARMS and who believed the torch FARMS had carried since its founding in California in 1979 needed to be picked up, now that it had been dropped, by a new organization.” Accordingly, in late July 2012, Peterson met with seven other Mormon scholars and apologists over lunch. There, at a Provo restaurant, The Interpreter Foundation was born.
A month later, in August 2012, Peterson introduced the fledgling organization in a FairMormon conference address. He said,
…I’m convinced that apologetics is an important part of scholarly discourse in religious studies, that it should be considered a kind of religious studies, and, therefore, of Mormon studies.
Accordingly, I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new venture in Mormon studies, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture—the product of a team that came together only a few days back, after my return from overseas less than two weeks ago….
It will not be purely an apologetic journal, but it won’t exclude or disdain apologetics, either.
Did the Maxwell Institute Abandon Apologetics?
It depends on the definition, and this is key. At the time of the split, some people considered the academic field of Mormon studies wholly separate from faithful apologetic endeavors. Peterson argued they shouldn’t be divided, that apologetics was a legitimate scholarly subset of Mormon studies. But what if it was the other way around? What if participation in Mormon studies itself was apologetics?
As Blair Hodges argued years later, the Maxwell Institute didn’t abandon it’s defense of the faith.
Rather than asking whether apologetics could or should be done here, the Institute has been asking all along: what kind of apologetics shall we do?
Although the Mormon Studies Review was no longer the place for “explicit testimony bearing,” Hodges argued the Institute’s commitment to academic ideals “commends and defends the faith and kingdom in a wider sense by manifesting core LDS values…” These include acquiring knowledge by study and faith, showing by example that “faithful believers can engage in the rigors of the academy without diminishing faith in the gospel…,” and charity. Especially charity.
We acknowledge the rich LDS history of vigorous defenses, sometimes witty, snarky, or even contentious, from the days of Joseph Smith to the present, and we expect to see it continue. At the same time, crafting a mission statement and institutional perspective always requires selection….
If smashmouth apologetics has a place, it isn’t at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. We want civility and gentleness to infuse all of the work we produce for Latter-day Saints, as well as the scholarship we produce for the benefit of the wider academy and other religious traditions.
In the wake of the 2012 turmoil, Kevin Barney was asked his thoughts about apologetics and offered a helpful paradigm of thinking about the field. He proposed that apologetics operated in “three different spheres.”
- Engagement apologetics: “…[W]hen you engage directly with the critic. That’s like debate, the aggressive style people think of. Rhetorical combat in the octagon; two people enter, one leaves, that kind of mentality. Today a lot of that takes place on message boards…”
- Scholarly apologetics: “Scholarly apologetics is applying the tools of scholarship assuming Mormon faith claims. It involves things like peer review and cite checking and footnotes and linguistic tools and dead tree publication… [N]ot directly engaging anyone but providing a scholarly apparatus around Mormon faith claims.”
- Educative apologetics: “FAIR’s mission became one of educative apologetics. Its focus is inward, on members of the Church…. People come to these things with fundamentalist, black and white thinking, very presentist, so sometimes you just need to inculcate a little historical consciousness in them.”
These categories help clarify what happened with Dan Peterson and the Maxwell Institute. It was a conflict of engagement apologetics versus scholarly apologetics. Dan Peterson felt the Maxwell Institute was obligated by it’s FARMS heritage to offer a sometimes contentious engagement approach, but leadership at the Maxwell Institute felt that detracted from the academic goals of the organization. The Interpreter Foundation then took up the mantle of offering a journal where scholarly, educative, and engagement approaches could be presented to a non-academic audience.
In the last few years, however, it has become clear that apologetics operates in a fourth sphere as well, a pastoral sphere. In the 2016 FairMormon conference, Grant Hardy presented these 4 categories in terms of conversation partners.
- Conversations with Academics asking, “What do you believe and why?”
- Conversations with Critics asking, “How can you believe that?”
- Conversations with Faithful Members asking, “Aren’t our beliefs great?”
- Conversations with Wavering Mormons asking, “What can I believe?” or “Can I believe?”
In Hardy’s conversations with wavering Mormons, or pastoral apologetics, matters of intellect alone are not sufficient. Joey Stuart, a Maxwell Institute Nibley Fellow, gave an apt description of this approach earlier this year,
My academic knowledge only mattered in this conversation as much as I was also willing to share my own spiritual experiences, providing both intellectual and devotional frameworks in which others can reconcile faith and knowledge. My expertise only mattered so far as I was willing to speak to my relationship with God and the Church—to be as vulnerable as the person asking me questions. I had to learn to speak about experiences where I had felt the Holy Ghost. I learned that I needed to provide an example of how someone comes to grips with difficult truths and decides to remain planted in the gospel.
While practitioners of different apologetic approaches in the past may have been at odds with each other, the last few months have shown an increased tolerance in the field. I first saw it in the wake of Duane Boyce’s infamous 3-part Interpreter article attacking fellow apologists Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, and Grant Hardy. I obviously wasn’t wild about Boyce’s work, but it was refreshing to see notable apologists with differing backgrounds in the field, like Jeff Lindsay and David Bokovy, step up to defend Givens, Mason, and Hardy.
Also important was the roundtable discussion with the release of the Kofford Books publication, Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics. What I appreciated was seeing Stephen Smoot, a self-avowed Dan Peterson protégé, offer his admiration of David Bokovy’s pastoral apologetic approach. And then there was Amanda Brown reflecting on Juliann Reynolds’ essay about female involvement in apologetics. Apologetics isn’t just publishing in Interpreter or presenting at FairMormon conferences, Brown said. Defending the faith can be as simple as social media posts and everyday interactions among colleagues.
Facilitating Churchmember Access to Apologetic Resources
In the last decade, the institutional church has become more overt in supporting apologetic endeavors. On August 16th, a very public display of institutional approval occurred at a celebration to honor John W. Welch and the 50th anniversary of his discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke at the event, and conveyed the Brethren’s appreciation for the honoree as well as the “legion of other men and women across the Church who are putting their shoulders to the wheel of reasoned, determined, persuasive gospel scholarship.” In his closing statement, Elder Holland asked for a blessing on “an ever-larger cadre of young scholars around the Church to do more and more to discover and delineate and declare the reasons for the hope that is in us…”
The Church’s increasing involvement in apologetics over the last ten years was in fits and starts. First there was an emphasis on scholarly apologetics with the Church History Department producing materials intended to meet the highest academic standards (e.g., Joseph Smith Papers project). Then, in the wake of Bottgate and the Swedish Rescue, the Church entered the educative apologetic sphere by commissioning scholars to create the Gospel Topics essays, published from 2013 to 2015. An “inoculative” strategy was adopted to combat growing disaffection among youth, and church curriculum began incorporating information from the Gospel Topics essays, first at the institute level (2015), then with Doctrinal Mastery at the seminary level (2016).
Last July, the Church published an online resource for seminary teachers in it’s Doctrinal Mastery section, a list of links to “Gospel Topics, Essays, and Other Resources.” Among the more than two dozen links are various apologetic organizations, including the Maxwell Institute, FairMormon, and The Interpreter Foundation. Although some may quibble about what made the list, it serves a need. As Blair Van Dyke pointed out in the August 3rd roundtable discussion, Elder Ballard gave a mandate to CES Instructors to seek after the “best books,” specifying this referred to scriptures, teachings of current church leaders, and the “best LDS scholarship available.” Van Dyke explained that CES instructors deal with a lot of ambiguity with this charge, “What are those best books? I do not see that type of a compilation of literature being formulated. Maybe this should be an individual thing, great, but most people need a jumpstart.” As it’s unreasonable to expect seminary instructors to spend a fortune on a required reading list, the online option provides that type of jumpstart for instructors worldwide to access current LDS scholarship.
But it’s shortsighted to believe that a list of apologetic resources will only be accessed by seminary teachers. Acquiring spiritual knowledge is a foundational principle of the Doctrinal Mastery program, and closely tied with that is teaching students how to help friends who come to them with tough questions. Although the curriculum emphasizes students first consulting “divinely appointed sources,” it also notes helpful knowledge can be accessed from other trustworthy, reliable resources. It would be easy for anyone to assume the resources on this list are those the Church deems most trustworthy and reliable.
The field of Mormon apologetics continues to evolve. There are more legitimate ways for churchmembers to “defend the faith” than ever before. At the same time, the Church is doubling down on getting apologetic materials into the hands of CES Instructors and, by extension, their students. Will this create any noticeable effect among the membership at large? After all, as Julie Smith noted, “We can’t all be apologetic experts and expect the shifts at the cannery to be covered.”
 2015 UVU apologetics roundtable [39:44]
 I just began reading the book, so I can’t give my thoughts directly on that.
 Kofford Books apologetics roundtable [1:15:07]
 2015 UVU apologetics roundtable [1:44:43]