On Loving Both FARMS and the Maxwell Institute

By Joseph Spencer

Few, if any, of the voices assessing the stakes of the “shake-up” at the Maxwell Institute (MI) issue from individuals with a vested interest in promoting serious academic study of Mormon scripture. I find this a bit baffling. The only reason to care about what’s happened at the Mormon Studies Review—except for those seriously committed to a certain style of apologetics—is because the MI, as the heir of FARMS, is ostensibly the only place in the academic study of Mormonism that at least claims to give priority to scripture. The “new direction” of the MI, if there is such a thing (and I’m skeptical), is neither to move in a secular direction (apologetics is already, by its very nature, emphatically secular) nor to cast its lot with Mormon history (the sort of apologetics that are being curtailed are, remember, those focused more on history and culture than on scripture). What’s the future of the MI? Scripture, at last.

The recent changes shouldn’t, in fact, be much of a surprise for anyone who has followed developments at the MI for the past several years. The organization expanded the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, now under the title of the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, to address all of uniquely Mormon scripture—in part to see if the work being done on the Joseph Smith Papers couldn’t be turned to profit the close study of the Doctrine and Covenants, as well as in part to encourage study of the Book of Abraham that goes beyond debates about the length of the scrolls. A new journal was launched at the same time, Studies in Antiquity, an explicitly Mormon journal dedicated to study of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Shortly thereafter, the FARMS Review became the Mormon Studies Review, and the aim was, I’ve been led to understand, to produce reviews of serious work on scripture—as much by non-Mormons (think N. T. Wright or Walter Brueggemann) as by Mormons (think Grant Hardy or Mark Lyman Staker).

Is this a new direction? I’m not sure I see how it could be. An expansion? Sure. An increase in rigor? I hope so. A tightening of focus? It appears so to me. A growing recognition that an established academic research institution can leave direct responses to facile criticisms of Mormonism to online venues that have a more immediate impact and wider accessibility? I don’t doubt it. But a new direction? I don’t see that.

You see, people in Mormon studies need to be careful about how they regard the history of FARMS. I share the concern, let’s call it, of many folks in Mormon studies that the sorts of apologetics that have appeared in the FARMS Review and, to a (slightly) lesser extent, the Mormon Studies Review are not only passé and unnecessary but even, often enough, re- rather than progressive. But we should all recognize that the Review has been only a part—and, in my eyes, a rather small part—of FARMS and now of the MI. When I think of FARMS, I don’t think of the Review, but of King Benjamin’s Speech or Isaiah in the Book of Mormon or Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem or An Ancient American Setting; I don’t think of hand-to-hand combat with anti-Mormons, but of the crucial publication of Nibley’s collected works, a dozen or two really important articles on the Book of Mormon over the years, and the efforts to produce a critical text of the dictated Book of Mormon. A hundred years from now, only historians—if anyone—will be revisiting the Review, but much of what FARMS produced will still be important for those doing serious academic work on Mormon scripture. FARMS wasn’t principally the producer of combative apologetics, although it has to be said that it took advantage of popular interest in combative apologetics to draw attention to study of the Book of Mormon. FARMS was a research institution that produced some of the first serious work on the Book of Mormon.

The MI, I can only hope, will continue to foster that sort of serious work, though on all of what Mormons embrace as scripture. I’m thrilled if recent changes mean that that sort of serious work can be expanded to include scriptural theology of the sort I do, simply because I wouldn’t mind an extra outlet or two. And I’m even more thrilled if the same changes mean that people can produce serious study of Mormon scripture without having to say anything about how that study confirms the truth of the gospel, simply because I think fewer and fewer people read about scripture in order to determine whether it’s true or not. But thrills aside, I’m happy just if there continues to be an institution that promotes serious study of scripture.

Now, of course, none of this is to say that I think the same old sort of work should be done, that the MI should just be FARMS redux. Far from it! What’s really promising about changes at the MI over the past several years is the hint that the best kinds of things FARMS produced are to be harbored, while new directions will be pursued and encouraged. There’s only a hint, but as someone fully invested in careful work on scripture, I’m happy to put a megaphone to the lips that have been whispering that hint. Perpetual optimist that I am, I think there’s reason to be rather pleased at what’s been happening for a long time now. Whether it turns into something genuinely productive will likely depend on whether serious scholars send articles (and book proposals?) of real interest to the MI for publication. What have you written on Mormon scripture? On biblical texts from a Mormon perspective? What could you write about the historical backdrop to a particular revelation from the Doctrine and Covenants? What serious work on Mormon scripture could you review in the soon-to-be-revamped Mormon Studies Review?

Of course, I haven’t any idea whether the MI will be genuinely open to the sort of work I’ve been doing—they haven’t been so in the past—nor have I any idea whether they will be genuinely open to anything you’re working on. But they should be. And I think recent developments are, much more than grist for the rumor mill, reason to get thinking about what sort of thinking we haven’t done.


  1. “apologetics is already, by its very nature, emphatically secular”
    Clarify? You mean, pertaining to a particular sect? Or non-religious?

  2. Joe: Thanks. Would you say what you think those “dozen or two really important articles on the Book of Mormon” have been?

  3. the Mormon Studies Review, and the aim was, I’ve been led to understand, to produce reviews of serious work on scripture—as much by non-Mormons…as by Mormons

    I don’t recall hearing this, was this in the first issue of the MSR?

  4. James S. says:

    I will forever be grateful for the bare-knuckled apologetics that was published by the scholars of FARMS. It provided me with much needed answers during times of spiritual uncertainty. To borrow from Farrar, it created an environment where my faith could flourish.

    The self-ordained wizards of modern progressive Mormon studies should take a moment to reflect on the debt they owe Latter-day apologists. It was in those venues that much (most?) of serious thinking about Mormonism was first done. Who knows but that Mormonism would be even less respected by secular and sectarian academics –the employers and darlings of today’s young hipster Mormon scholars — were it not for the Mormon defenders of FARMS.

  5. James: It seems to me you only wind up contributing to the present acrimony with your “hipster Mormon scholar” comment. I’m grateful for FARMS, myself. I don’t know that I’d be where I am right now, working on a degree in religious studies, were it not for FARMS. But I also don’t conflate precise means with intended ends when it comes to apologetics, nor do I believe that various approaches could have been better executed than they were. There are pragmatic as well as moral reasons to feel uncomfortable with some of the more polemical stuff we’ve seen from FARMS, despite it having also been useful to many good saints, and regardless of the factual basis of particular reviews. There’s a oft-repeated phrase that comes to mind: not everything that is true is useful. On the flip-side, some of the triumphant cheers from various folks not too fond of FARMS are seriously overlooking some actually-good work FARMS has produced in the past. It’s true.

  6. Ben S. #1 – I mean that apologetics as it is usually done presupposes the canons of scientific knowledge established by modernism, the canons that underlie secularism. I don\’t mean sectarian, for certain. And I don\’t mean non-religious in a strong sense—only in the sense I\’ve just explained.

    Grant #2 – It\’d take me a few minutes to dig those up, but sure, I\’ll do that when I\’ve got a few minutes. Hopefully later tonight.

    BHodges #3 – This is what I\’ve been told by folks at the Institute.

    James S. #4 – Well, I think I\’ve just done what you\’re suggesting folks in Mormon studies should do, no? That said, I don\’t know that most folks in Mormon history owe that much to Mormon apologetics—at least in the FARMS vein. They\’re much more indebted to the work of Arrington and company in the 60s and 70s, and to the brilliant historiographical inventiveness of Bushman and Shipps in the 80s than to anything else, I should think.

    BHodges #5 – Yes

  7. “nor do I believe that various approaches could have been better executed than they were.”

    –should read “couldn’t” have been.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this, Joe. (One question: you talk about the type of apologetics that have occurred to a lesser extent in the Mormon Studies Review, but the MSR was never published; did I misread you there?)

    I would like to invite people in this raging internet discussion with such a strongly negative impression of the FARMS Review to actually peruse some of the issues:


    There are 23 volumes. I’ve read the Review consistently since it’s founding. I think if you’ll peruse the back issues you’ll find some great stuff in there.

    If you’re not sure where to start, here’s one from the first volume by the dreaded Lou Midgley. It’s fantastic!


    Or take a look at the eight reviews I myself have contributed. There’s nothing violent or aggressive about them, and I continue to stand by them:


    A lot of people are throwing around a negative stereotype of a long bookshelf of reviews, authored by hundreds of LDS contributors. Naturally the quality is going to be uneven, and yes, there are some aggressive pieces. But it’s unfair to those of use who have contributed to the Review over the years to smear our contributions with the broad brush that has been used in recent days.

  9. unknwon says:

    “Few, if any, of the voices assessing the stakes of the “shake-up” at the Maxwell Institute (MI) issue from individuals with a vested interest in promoting serious academic study of Mormon scripture.”

    I think Hamblin and Petersen have proven over the past decades that they have an interest in promoting the study of Mormon scripture.

  10. #5 “some actually-good work” is damning with faint praise. To say the least. What about the work that was not “actually-good”? (which the word “some” seems to imply was the larger part)

  11. pd: You think I’m damning with faint praise by saying I like some of what FARMS in general has produced and don’t like other things? I disagree. By “actually good work” I mean work that is “actually good.” Does it help if I add that I think some of it is even “great”? I’m not really an “all-or-nothing” type of person, but a lot of the stuff I’m reading in various blog comments tends to assume one can’t simultaneously like FARMS (now NAMI) and criticize FARMS (now NAMI). I personally don’t share that perspective.

  12. Trudat, Kevin. They can check out my review of Shawn McCraney’s book, too, with its unfortunate title that I lobbied to change unsuccessfully:


  13. Kevin #8 – I thought the one issue published in 2011 was published as the Mormon Studies Review. At any rate, Peterson’s introduction to that issue discusses the name change, etc. And as for the rest of your comment, I couldn’t agree more.

    unknwon #9 – I understand what you mean, but I think I actually disagree. That’s not to say that Peterson and Hamblin haven’t promoted close study of the Book of Mormon, but they’re arguably more interested in apologetics for the sake of apologetics than they are in serious academic study of the Book of Mormon. Neither was ever a major contributor to FARMS’s most interesting projects—Hamblin’s contributions to Warfare in the Book of Mormon being the only exception. I don’t say any of that by way of criticism. I haven’t any argument that apologetics shouldn’t be pursued. But I do think that apologetics on behalf of Mormonism more generally isn’t the same thing as close study of the Book of Mormon.

  14. Few, if any, of the voices assessing the stakes of the “shake-up” at the Maxwell Institute (MI) issue from individuals with a vested interest in promoting serious academic study of Mormon scripture.

    Here’s something from one of ours: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2012/06/why-i-laud-the-maxwell-institutes-direction/

  15. Just curious… Do you think there will be a day when Mormon Studies publications will be 99 percent authored by individuals with PhDs in religious studies or other relevant fields? I think it would be fascinating to be in a field where people cared enough, who weren’t employed in the field, to do the serious research so many of you who are not full-time academics do. Hats off to all of you!!! In my field everyone who publishes in the top journals is at the very least a PhD student.

  16. Kristine says:

    giat, we’re closer to that than you think.

  17. Peter LLC says:

    unfortunate title that I lobbied to change

    That’s good to hear, because if there is something I find grating about this “certain style of apologetics” it would be the penchant for gratuitous plays on the names or titles of its targets.

  18. Joe, I can only hope that the new MSR will go in the direction you would have it go. Such a journal would be of great value to scholars and members.
    I’m glad you are the ever optimistic person. Having lived a few more years than you, I tend to be a little more cautious. I don’t like to look gift horses in the mouth, but when someone describes to me a gift horse that I have yet to even see, after taking away my current gift horse, I tend to be reserved in my judgment.

  19. Kevin Christensen says:

    I’ve read the Review from the beginning, every one of the 20 issues, all 23 volumes, and over 250 authors, and even managed to make some contributions. I remember that tracking down any good stuff before FARMS appeared involved a lot of leg work, and prowling bound periodicals sections in the library, doing lots of xeroxing, and scurrying about in used bookstores. Now it’s easy to find excellent material and a range of perspectives on all LDS topics.. I remember what it was like as a missionary in England in Colne, to have spent at times 15 hours a week in LDS sponsored activities, from Seminary and Institute to various meetings, and finding myself unprepared to answer questions posed by a bunch of rowdy Lancashire middle schoolers passing around their first anti-Mormon pamphlets. And I remember ten years ago, while standing in a hallway at an SLC Sunstone Symposium spotting a friend from a California book group walking past. I called out her name and she recognized me and asked “What are you doing here?” I held up a copy of my newly published Occasional Paper, and she glanced at the cover, frowned and said, “Before you say anything, the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fiction, and nothing you can say will ever change my mind. I never read anything from FARMS. It makes me mad.” Taken aback her surprising hostility and closed-mindedness, I asked if my JBMS 2/1 article, “Nigh Unto Death”, had made her mad when I had her read it. She admitted that it hadn’t and left in a huff not wanting to spoil a perfectly good attitude by confronting examples that did not fit her paradigm. Having read every article in every issue of the FARMS Review, and knowing something about how paradigms are established by selecting which examples to generalize from, I find I’m well placed to learn a great deal about the perspective of the ones making generalizations about the Review.

    I’m adopting a wait and see attitude about future directions. I think it’s clear that over the past 23 years, the Review filled an important need, has produced many important articles from the start. I’ll second Kevin Barney’s recommendation for Midgley in the first issue. I’ve personally grateful for Alan Goff’s essays, both for pointing me to Robert Alter but also for demonstrating allusion and type scene function in the Book of Mormon. He changed the way I read. And he’s just one of many who have done that for me in the pages of the Review. I’m pleased with John Clark’s ongoing evaluations of proposed Book of Mormon geographies. I’ve appreciated insights from Lavina Fielding Anderson and David Wright in their contributions. (Yes, they are FARMS Review writers.) I was thrilled when the review republished Mark Ashurst-McGee’s essay on “Moroni as Angel or Treasure Guardian?” exposing it to a larger audience. I was fascinated by the dialogue between Michael Heiser and David Bokovoy on Psalm 82 and John. I learned a great deal from Robert Briggs and Robert Crockett about Mountain Meadows. I’ve read about Joseph Smith and his plural wives, money digging, DNA, evolution, atheism, Zelph, Kinderhook plates, Shirley Ricks on Hugh Nibley’s footnotes and footnoters, Beekeeping, modalism, Evan Stephens, creato ex nihilo, Egyptology, Nephi’s Neighbors, stylometry, Ethan Smith, ,Sidney Rigdon,.. the amazing essay by Alyson Von Feldt reviewing Dever’s Did God Have a Wife? that opened my eyes to things in the Book of Mormon and Ezekiel I’d not imagined. The list is not quite endless, but the range is vast. I’ve found it amazing and thrilling at times to see the breadth and depth of specialist knowledge that could be brought to bear on LDS issues. I appreciated the way I felt the individual personality of each reviewer, so that even where I disagreed, I knew I was disagreeing with a person. If the Review ends up going in another direction, that does not do away with the needs that the review has successfully addressed. I trust that the vacuum will be filled in someway. Mormons, in all their diversity do tend to find ways to express themselves.

  20. Personnel is policy. There is no basis for optimism at all unless you think apologetics are regressive and so on.

  21. The FR introduced me to Kevin Christensen, who introduced me to Thomas Kuhn and Ian Barbour, two other thinkers who have strongly influenced the trajectory of my own academic/religious interests (which increasingly intersect).

  22. g.wesley says:

    re: “Few, if any, of the voices assessing the stakes of the “shake-up” at the Maxwell Institute (MI) issue from individuals with a vested interest in promoting serious academic study of Mormon scripture.”

    it probably would have been best to stop at ‘few,’ and maybe to have just not said this at all. or perhaps i am the only one who thinks it comes across as incredibly arrogant.

  23. Terry Hutchinson says:

    I agree with Kevin Christensen. My own small contribution to Mormon Studies (so far) was the note for Rough Stone Rolling before the longer reviews (I had a galley from the publisher and FARMS didn’t). I will seriously miss the Review in its current form and always looked forward to it more than any other publication, even though its quality has diminished the last few years and when I often didn’t agree with the reviewers, thought Book of Mormon geography was a waste of my time (not that I don’t believe in its historicity), and sometimes thought some criticisms of those against the Church were a little over the top. This step has culminated what I feared would happen when FARMS joined BYU in an official capacity. It needs to be independent. It is just unfortunate that many of the great benefits to the Institute (especially NIbley Fellowships) may be harmed. I have a special gratitude for the Review introducing me to the Hermeniea (Nickelsburg’s Enoch volumes in particular) and the excellent interchanges between non-Mormons like Heiser and Blomberg and Review contributors.

  24. FPR #14 – Thanks for the link. Nice discussion there.

    giat #15 – I think there are both costs and benefits….

    Rameumptom #18 – Thanks for your kind words. I’m sympathetic to the concerns you’ve expressed elsewhere about all this, but I’ve also been on the short end of the stick over the past years. I’ve had several things rejected from FARMS/MI because scriptural theology “isn’t the sort of thing they do.”

    Kevin Christensen #19 – Yes.

    Adam G. #20 – Or unless you think there’s a better way to do apologetics, or unless you’re hoping that apologetics can be supplemented by some other kinds of work on scripture. I don’t anticipate apologetics disappearing so much as making room for some other sorts of work at the MI.

    g.wesley #22 – It might be arrogant; I won’t defend myself against that accusation—at the very least because I’m the last person to decide whether I’m arrogant! (Though I should say I didn’t mean to be arrogant.) But I’ll nonetheless defend the claim I made. I’ve seen two sorts of discussions, for the most part, floating around. The first consists of discussions between apologists and their “enemies.” These discussions aren’t really about scripture, and their participants aren’t—so far as I’ve observed—people producing serious work on scripture. The second consists of folks in Mormon studies who focus their work on history and other related disciplines, not on scripture. I don’t mean to suggest that none of these people want to see serious study of scripture take place; just that none (or very few) of them are systematically producing work on Mormon scripture. I’d be happy to see evidence to the contrary, but I’ve not seen any myself as I’ve watched the discussions unfold.

    Terry Hutchinson #23 – If you find all those sorts of things irrelevant or uninteresting, why wouldn’t a tightening of focus at the MI be productive? And what suggests that things like the Nibley fellowships are in danger? I’m a bit baffled by any talk that sees this change as radical. At most, a certain kind of apologetics is being curtailed, but other sorts aren’t, nor is there any talk of moving away from work on Mormon scripture. Indeed, from what I understand, the aim is actually to focus the MI’s efforts more directly on Mormon scripture….

  25. Joe: “scriptural theology “isn’t the sort of thing they do.”

    Really? That is news to me. I thought that is what I was doing in my ex nihilo piece and responding to Beckwith and Parrish. David Paulsen’s arguments regarding modalism could only be terms as scriptural theology. Are you sure it is that, or is it because no one is bright enough to really grasp what you are saying? [grin]

  26. Joe, you know I love you and your work, but it’s hard not to read this post as you basically saying your way is the best and ought to be privileged. :)

  27. Blake #25 – That particular statement came in response to a set of essays in which one of mine was included. The essay has since been published elsewhere, and I don’t think it’s particularly obscure. Certainly others in the collection are perfectly straightforward and clear. So….

    BHodges #26 – Well, I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing if I didn’t think it’s the best approach (theology) to the best thing (scripture) and that, therefore, it ought to be privileged! :) More seriously, though, I’d be thrilled to see more serious exegetical work done on scripture, more serious structural work done on scripture, more serious sociological work done on scripture, more serious literary work done on scripture, more serious pastoral work done on scripture, more serious political work done on scripture, etc. I don’t know what in my original post suggests that I only see good in the future of the MI because it might allow for the publication of more scriptural theology—except that it’s I who wrote it.

  28. Kristine says:

    Has any blog post ever said anything else, Blair?

  29. Has any blog post ever said anything else, Blair?

    Certainly none of mine, I suppose.

  30. Kristine says:

    There should have been a smiley after that, but I’m trying to give them up.

  31. Well, I took it that way! And also resisted putting a smiley, believe it or not.

  32. Well. That’s the sign. Everything has now been officially discussed. Time to shut down the the blog. Good run, friends.

  33. I certainly know that all of my opinions are right. I am not so sure about you guys though. :)~ <~~Not a true smiley

  34. It has been interesting to read the criticism that comes from academic pride, vs. other perspectives. I came to this discussion after leaving one from that perspective. I very much appreciate Kevin Barney’s response to being slandered generally by context — reasoned, complete, with references and logic.

    Joseph — I don’t see how FARMS was closed to what you would like to submit in the past, but I wish you well in the future.

  35. I think it is rather ironic that, at a time when public interest in and discussion of Mormons and Mormonism is increasing steeply, one of the established vehicles for responding to the vast amount of misleading information published about the Church is being shut down. If there was a felt need for a different kind of journal of a more academic character, that would solicit articles from the new Mormon Studies programs at Claremont, UVU, and Utah State, as well as from non-Mormon scholars studying Mormonism, I see no reason that it could not have been created as a new entity without messing with the FARMS Review.

    As many have pointed out in other discussions, the function of the FARMS Review had many parallels to the journal First Things. While the FR defended Mormonism against both secular and religious attacks, the FT journal defends the role of religion as a participant in the debates over public policy against a secular culture that wants to silence religious voices in public debates. FT combines scholarly studies of the religious cultures it defends with book reviews and essays responding to the threat of secularism in Congress, the White House, bureaucracies, and the courts. The editorial voice of the late Richard John Neuhaus was especially noteworthy for his often humorous and ironic observations of how society, including many religious leaders, was losing its way. Just as FT deals with real timely issues affecting the ability of religious Americans to live their religion in public, the FR dealt with issues which affected the ability of Mormons to live their religion in public, and helped make it intellectually respectable to be a Latter-day Saint.

    FARMS developed around an armature of the scholarship already produced by Hugh Nibley. In even his most esoteric scholarly writings, published in international journals, there was a common theme of finding the Gospel in all sorts of odd corners of the ancient world, in precisely the way that the Book of Mormon and the Books of Moses and Abraham tell us we should expect to find them. Nibley’s work was apologetic all the way through, sometimes more explicitly than others, and he was criticized for being too vehement in his criticism of our critics. FR was very much carrying on the same endeavor.

    It was reported not too long ago that Elder Marlin K. Jensen told students at the USU Institute that many young LDS adults had been leaving the Church because they had encountered criticisms of the Church, largely over the internet, that no one in their close acquaintance could respond to convincingly. It seems to me that a key to responding to this challenge of limited understanding, the problem of not just young adults but also their adult leaders not even knowing where to look for answers, is to use the Church’s resources to point members with questions to resources like the books and articles that have been published by FARMS, including, for example, the excellent issues of the FR that presented articles from DNA experts responding to attacks on the Book of Mormon based on an “exclusive Lehite ancestry” misunderstanding of what the Book of Mormon itself says. Yet at a time when the resources of FR are needed more than ever to answer the questions of young Mormons, it is being shut down, and what has been proposed in its place has nothing to do with serving that pressing need in the Church.

    I think the earlier comment that only a small percentage of the Church membership is aware of FARMS and NAMI is correct. Other than occasional reprints of FARMS articles in the Ensign, there is little in the official Church publications that point people with serious questions to resources like FARMS/NAMI .

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