Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

FARMS and the Interpreter: History repeats itself

There are parallels between the history of FARMS and the Interpreter that, in my opinion, explain what has been going on lately at the Interpreter.

History of FARMS

Wikipedia does a good job summarizing the history of FARMS here:

FARMS was organized by John W. Welch in California in 1979 as a private, not-for-profit educational organization, and Welch brought the foundation with him when he came to teach at BYU in 1980. In 1997, FARMS was invited to become part of BYU by Gordon B. Hinckley,LDS Church president and chairman of the BYU Board of Trustees. Hinckley noted: "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."[1]
In 2001, BYU consolidated FARMS with the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) and the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI) to form the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART). In 2006, ISPART was renamed as the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.[2] Welch was tasked with editing BYU Studies, which was originally slated to join the Maxwell Institute with FARMS. BYU Studies did not ultimately join the Maxwell Institute, however, and Welch's role with FARMS diminished.[3] FARMS continued as a nominal sub-unit of the Maxwell Institute without a distinctive cluster of BYU faculty and staff. It has since been subsumed into the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies, which "deals principally with the Book of Mormon in ancient and modern settings, as well as with the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and related subjects."[4]
As of 2013, M. Gerald Bradford is the director of the Maxwell Institute, with Brian M. Hauglid as the director of the Willes Center.
In late 2010, Daniel C. Peterson, editor of the FARMS Review for over twenty years, announced the journal would be renamed Mormon Studies Review to reflect "readjustments over the past several years in what is now known as the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship; the old title, FARMS, no longer reflects the way we're organized. ... We look forward to continuing under the new name."[5] 

My take

In the early days of FARMS, it was fantastic. Welch, Magleby, and the others did a great job bringing an academic focus on Book of Mormon studies. However, in my view, they made a big mistake by assuming a Mesoamerican setting. They incorporated a Mayan glyph into their logo, which pretty well answered what should have been an open question about Book of Mormon geography. Everything they published on that topic assumed the Mesoamerican setting and sought to reinforce it.

I took a class at BYU from John Sorenson and, at the time, I agreed with the Mesoamerican setting, persuaded by the many books and articles published by FARMS and by FARMS contributors and supporters. I didn't even know there was a plausible alternative setting; no one reading FARMS material would know.

In retrospect, I think FARMS was simply blind to alternatives because they assumed Joseph Smith had written the anonymous Times and Seasons articles about Central America. They sought to vindicate what they thought Joseph Smith had taught. Looking back, it is apparent that this required a lot of rhetorical flexibility (pretzel twisting, actually). The Mesoamerican model, I've since concluded, is fundamentally flawed on every level. The "correspondences" between Mayan and Nephite civilization are illusory, the geography described in the text doesn't remotely fit Mesoamerica, and the original premise--that Joseph Smith wrote the Mesoamerican articles--is false.

At any rate, apart from the Mesoamerican material, FARMS published a lot of great stuff, as depicts here.

Gradually, though, the tenor and content of FARMS publications became less academic. Sarcasm replaced scholarship. I won't take the time to provide examples, but anyone can look at the later FARMS material, which is still available on the Maxwell Institute web page, and see what I mean.

Finally, in 2012, the Maxwell Institute director fired Dan Peterson and his associate editors. TempleStudy reflects a common reaction to the event: "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...."

At first, I shared this sentiment; I thought they shouldn't have fired Brother Peterson. Now, though, in my view, again looking back, Bradford took the right action, but he should have done it sooner (and with more explanation).

Several commentators blamed the firing on an article by Gregory Smith about John Dehlin. See here and here. That seemed to be the most common narrative at the time.

But there's another view, which is that the firing of Brother Peterson and his editors followed two issues of the FARMS Review that attacked the "Heartland" model of Book of Mormon geography. See here.

Maybe that's just a coincidence. But it was those FARMS articles, in part, that helped me realize there was an alternative to the Mesoamerican theory, and the way FARMS attacked that model left me thinking there must be some merit to the North American setting or FARMS would not have resorted to such foolish rhetorical tactics.

Those articles also made it clear how far FARMS had degenerated.

(To be sure, the Maxwell Institute still embraces the Mesoamerican theory. They retained most of the FARMS logo and still publish articles about illusory "correspondences" between Mayans and
Nephites, but at least they haven't resorted to the late-FARMS era sarcasm and unprofessional rhetoric that now characterizes the Interpreter.)

History of the Interpreter

The 2012 Conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) took place in Sandy, Utah, in August, 2012, The formation of the Interpreter was a significant announcement at the conference. Here's the Deseret News report:

Daniel C. Peterson, former editor of "Mormon Studies" for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, took advantage of the spotlight afforded to him as the concluding speaker during Friday's final session of the 2012 Conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) to announce the formation of a new resource for those interested in scholarly perspectives on the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture ( is intended as a "nonprofit, independent, peer-reviewed educational journal" focused on LDS scriptures, Peterson said.

"We will exist primarily online," said Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and a regular Deseret News columnist. "Our goal will be to increase understanding of scripture."

At the same conference, John Sorenson presented some of the 420 "correspondences" between Mesoamerican civilization and the Book of Mormon, (all of which I consider illusory). But the point is, FAIR (now FAIRMORMON, with a website here) is a staunch proponent of the Mesoamerican theory, as is the Interpreter. At the 2015 FAIRMORMON conference, for example, Brant Gardner introduced the latest Mesoamerican book, Traditions of the Fathers. Brother Gardner is on the Executive Board of the Interpreter and acts as one of the filters to keep alternative perspectives out of the Interpreter.

My take

Back in 2006, Brother Peterson gave an interview to PBS in which he described FARMS in these terms: "We wanted to use the training we were getting in ancient languages, ancient history, Middle Eastern studies and so on to examine the Book of Mormon on the assumption that it really is an ancient text with roots in the Middle East or in Mesoamerica."

That same assumption about the Mesoamerican setting continues at the Interpreter (although lately Brother Peterson claims he thinks the Book of Mormon took place in North America, by which he means Mesoamerica). Like FARMS, the Interpreter publishes only articles that support the Mesoamerican theory. The Interpreter rejects articles that challenge the Mesoamerican theory. Also, like FARMS, the Interpreter has replaced scholarship with sarcasm when their Mesoamerican theory is challenged.

Although it may appear surprising that it took 25 years for FARMS to devolve into a caustic and polemical mess, while it has only taken the Interpreter 3 years, in fact this should surprise no one. The Interpreter was founded shortly after Brother Peterson and his editors were fired from FARMS. The Interpreter is really a continuation of FARMS, with the same editorial staff and approach. True, there are some new people at the Interpreter, but so far as I know, the new people haven't engaged in the FARMS-like tactics characteristic of the holdovers from FARMS.

At least,not yet.

I hope they never do, but it's difficult to imagine why these new people are affiliated with the Interpreter if they don't approve of these tactics.

What makes this all the more bizarre is that the Interpreter, like the late-stage FARMS, uses sarcasm, sophistry, phony stylometry and the like to defend an indefensible position; i.e., that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. Well, okay, it's understandable in one sense; the editors have to resort to these tactics because facts and rational argument don't support the Mesoamerican theory. I get that. What I find bizarre is the ongoing adherence to the assumption about Mesoamerica in the first place.

We all know it is difficult to change one's mind. I accepted the Mesoamerican theory for decades before finally realizing--or maybe I should say admitting--how ridiculous it was. Some of the psychological terms for this difficulty include "motivated reasoning, "confirmation bias," and 'cognitive dissonance," and I'm going to write a separate post about all of that.

I imagine it is even more difficult when one has decades of publications that must be discarded. (FWIW, I think the Mesoamerican research has been valuable, not because it supports the Book of Mormon, but because it disproves the Mesoamerican theory and describes a pathway for scholarly analysis of the North American setting.)

But here's the bottom line. Unless the Interpreter editors change their approach, they are going to repeat the mistakes we saw at FARMS.

Hostile ridicule, polemicism, and blind adherence to a faulty assumption caused the downfall of FARMS and will be the downfall of the Interpreter.

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