Looking Back, Almost Five Years On

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Abstract: As the axiom states, hindsight is 20/20. As Volume 24 of Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture nears the press, it seems relevant to look back to a tumultuous time nearly five years ago when the Interpreter Foundation was visualized and launched. If history has any value at all (particularly recent history), it provides a context for understanding the course on which we find ourselves. For the Interpreter Foundation, that course continues to be full of surprises and promise.

I was in Jerusalem on 14 June 2012. That night, winding down in my hotel room after a long day of guiding a large family group around to significant sites in the city, I received an email from the director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He informed me that my nearly quarter-century-long tenure as the founding editor of the FARMS Review was finished.

Immediately prior to my departure for the Middle East, toward the end of May 2012, he and I had met at his request. At that meeting, which lasted at least three hours, he told me of his desire that the Maxwell Institute begin doing “Mormon studies.” 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. However, I continued, if he wanted to add a non-confessional, academic Mormon studies component to what the Institute was already doing and to focus some of our publications primarily on a scholarly audience beyond the Latter-day Saint community, I would be pleased to endorse the addition. Furthermore, I said I would be happy, in my capacity as the Institute’s Director of Outreach, to seek funding to support it. I had long thought that Mormon voices needed to be more prominent in the wider world of academic religious studies and that the Maxwell Institute could play a useful role in encouraging such a change.

I was confident, when the meeting ended, that we had reached a consensus.

The 14 June email, however, made it starkly obvious to me that the change he sought was no mere add-on and that he was determined to fundamentally alter the purpose of the Institute. Its peremptory tone was also a dramatic departure from the collegial and collective decision making that had always been characteristic of the organization’s leadership. He spoke in his email of a “change in direction” and a “new course” for both the Review and the Institute as a whole. I realized then that my belief that we had reached a consensus or an agreement had been grievously mistaken.

I received his email as a flat repudiation not only of me but, much more importantly, of the kind of Latter-day Saint scholarship that FARMS and its successor, the Maxwell Institute, had been established to foster, to publish, and to distribute. Moreover, since the very substantial endowment undergirding the Institute by that time had overwhelmingly, if not entirely, been given by people who wanted to support its apologetic work, I felt the “new course” betrayed them. I did not believe I would be able to raise money to support the “new course” — not only because I did not think that donors would rally around what I saw as a rather anodyne and elitist project of little relevance to ordinary members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but because I thought there were innumerable other causes, frankly more worthwhile than the research interests of the small community of “religious studies” academics interested in Mormonism, to which donors could contribute. And, since I myself felt little enthusiasm for it, I could not imagine myself being able to generate much enthusiasm in any potential donors. So, responding to the 14 June email, I immediately resigned not only as editor of the FARMS Review (which, by this time, the director had renamed the Mormon Studies Review) but as the Institute’s Director of Outreach.1

My stay overseas continued, as long planned, for another month. It wasn’t a very pleasant time, as my thoughts were dominated by what I regarded (and continue to regard) as effectively the destruction — certainly the hijacking — of an organization to which I and others had given a great deal of our time and effort, at considerable cost to our own personal academic interests and careers.

Soon, though, I began to receive emails 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, within just a few days of my return to the United States in late July 2012, several of us — David Bokovoy, Bill Hamblin, Bryce Haymond, Louis Midgley, George Mitton, Mark Wright, Stephen Ricks, and I — met over lunch at The Olive Garden restaurant in Provo, Utah, to discuss whether we should launch such an organization, and if so, what it should be called and what, exactly, it should do. We had no funding and no institutional backing from anybody; it was just us.

We decided to proceed under the name of The Interpreter Foundation. We also decided, since we had no office, no office staff, no space for warehousing an inventory, and no mailroom, that we would publish an online journal rather than a printed one. This had the strong advantage, too, of making us a fully twenty-first century operation — working primarily online and electronically — with print media as a secondary focus rather than a primary one. Someone had once insightfully observed that FARMS had been an internet organization avant la lettre; The Interpreter Foundation began its life attuned to the internet and social media.

We decided that, in order to establish a presence rapidly, to make a splash, to make ourselves known, we should take advantage of the fact that I was slated to be the concluding speaker at the annual FAIR Conference.2 If we could get our act together, I would announce Interpreter’s launch there, on the late afternoon of Friday, 3 August 2012. (That was only nine days away.) We also decided that, if possible, we would publish an article that day and follow it up with an article every week, ideally for several weeks in a row.

David Bokovoy kindly offered us a paper that he had written to be our first publication.3 Mark Wright offered a paper written by himself and Brant Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” for our second week.4 For our third week, George Mitton provided a review of Jeffrey M. Bradshaw’s Temple Themes in the Book of Moses, and, for our fourth, Bill Hamblin came through with “‘I Have Revealed Your Name’: The Hidden Temple in John 17.”5 Bryce Haymond undertook the urgent task of creating a website and preparing the articles for publication.

We were on our way. As I indicated in my editor’s introduction to the first volume of Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, our initial burst of productivity was facilitated by the fact that several of the articles in that initial issue came from the ill-fated, never-published last volume of my tenure at the FARMS Review. That volume was jettisoned under the Maxwell Institute’s “new course,” but the articles planned for it had already been edited and prepared for publication and, knowing the Maxwell Institute’s new regime had cast them off, their authors gave Interpreter permission to publish them.6

On 3 August 2012, less than a week and a half after we had decided to launch Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture and to establish The Interpreter Foundation, we had a new website up; David Bokovoy’s article had been edited, typeset, and published; and I announced the new organization at the conclusion of the fourteenth annual FAIR Conference.7 We hadn’t requested donations — we hadn’t even applied for tax-exempt status yet or established a bank account — but donations began to come in immediately after I had finished speaking. People handed me checks while I was still standing at the speaker’s rostrum.8

We were and continue to be deeply grateful for such expressions of support, even moved. And we have tried our best to be worthy of the confidence placed in us and to use the funds contributed to us efficiently and wisely. When this introduction of mine appears, we will have published at least one article every Friday — sometimes, we’ve published two or even three — not merely for an opening splash but, now, for roughly 250 consecutive weeks. The Interpreter Foundation has published multiple books, posted over 200 recorded scripture roundtables, hosted a blog, sponsored several conferences, put up a number of podcasts, and is now dipping its toe into film production.

As history reminds us, life is definitely full of surprises, some painful and others refreshingly pleasant. Personally, I feel continually thankful for the authors, editors, technical experts, speakers, and donors who have made the Interpreter Foundation possible. And I hope it’s not too tacky to say, candidly, that we’ve just begun. There are very, very good things on the horizon, and people who want to join in the cause will be warmly welcomed.

1. Years earlier, I had conceived and founded the Islamic Translation Series, which had eventually become the more comprehensive Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. Comfortable within FARMS and seeking some sort of institutional home for it, I eventually brought it into the Foundation. When I resigned as editor of the FARMS Review and as Director of Development, I indicated my intention to remain editor-in-chief of METI. But, in the aftermath of the 14 June 2012 email, I was frozen out of the project to the point that, in the latter of half of 2013, seeing no practical alternative, I resigned as its editor-in-chief and have been unaffiliated with it ever since. I posted a blog entry about my resignation on 7 September 2013, under the title “The Middle Eastern Texts Initiative: Farewell and a Retrospective.” For reasons unknown to me, that entry seems to have disappeared. Fortunately, I copied it into a subsequent entry on 3 August 2016, and it can be read there: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2016/08/a-gracious-note-from-the-new-director-of-the-maxwell-institute.html.

2. Since that time in 2012, FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) has changed its official organizational name to FairMormon. Thus, the organization’s conferences are currently known as “FairMormon Conferences,” though at the time they were known as “FAIR Conferences.”

3. David E. Bokovoy, “‘Thou Knowest That I Believe’: Invoking The Spirit of the Lord as Council Witness in 1 Nephi 11,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 1 (2012): 1–23, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/thou-knowest-that-i-believe/.

4. Brant A. Gardner and Mark Alan Wright, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 1 (2012): 25–55, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/the-cultural-context-of-nephite-apostasy/.

5. See, respectively, George L. Mitton, “Book Review: Temple Themes in the Book of Moses by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 55–59, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/book-review-temple-themes-in-the-book-of-moses-by-jeffrey-m-bradshaw/ and William J. Hamblin, “‘I Have Revealed Your Name’: The Hidden Temple in John 17,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 1 (2012): 61–89, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/i-have-revealed-your-name-the-hidden-temple-in-john-17/. Dr. Jeffrey Bradshaw — a computer scientist and polymath who, as I write, is serving a mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with his wife — is now one of the vice presidents of The Interpreter Foundation. He has been absolutely indispensable to the consistency and productivity of the Foundation.

6. See Daniel C. Peterson, “Charity in Defending the Kingdom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 1 (2012): i–ix, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/charity-in-defending-the-kingdom/. There was some bitter irony in the Maxwell Institute director’s 14 June email to me, in which he referred to “how far behind it is” and “our breach of expectations with its subscribers.” It was ready to go to final editing and onward to publication and had been for many weeks, but he himself had directed members of the editorial staff to devote their attention to other projects. He had also ordered us to drop a lengthy article that formed part of the next issue, although he had not read it. (That article was Gregory L. Smith’s review of John Dehlin’s “Mormon Stories,” which was eventually posted on the Interpreter Foundation’s website at https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/gregory-l-smiths-review-of-mormon-stories/.) We had complied immediately and had very quickly substituted another very long piece for it. (That substitute piece ultimately appeared in Interpreter 6 [2013] as Gregory L. Smith, “‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’: The Uses and Abuses of Evolutionary Biology in Six Works,” https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/endless-forms-most-beautiful-the-uses-and-abuses-of-evolutionary-biology-in-six-works/.) But we were still denied editorial services. Although, so far as I am aware, the director had read none of the articles in the volume, he indicated in his 14 June email that “I’m unwilling to publish 23:2 as it stands” — an unwillingness that had become quite obvious to us by that point.

7. A transcript of my remarks (and of my announcement of the Interpreter Foundation) is online as “Of Mormon Studies and Apologetics” at http://www.fairmormon.org/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/2012-of-mormon-studies-and-apologetics.

8. This was both gratifying and surprising. Fortunately, the leadership of FairMormon very kindly allowed us to use their bank account and their tax-exempt status for the receipt of donations until we were ready to receive them directly, ourselves.

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About Daniel C. Peterson

Daniel C. Peterson (Ph.D., University of California at Los Angeles) is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and is the founder of the University's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, for which he served as editor-in-chief until mid-August 2013. He has published and spoken extensively on both Islamic and Mormon subjects. Formerly chairman of the board of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and an officer, editor, and author for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, his professional work as an Arabist focuses on the Qur’an and on Islamic philosophical theology. He is the author, among other things, of a biography entitled Muhammad: Prophet of God (Eerdmans, 2007).

21 thoughts on “Looking Back, Almost Five Years On

  1. Thank you and all the contributing scholars for all your work. I was worried that the work of apologia put out by FARMS that was so central to helping me work through my concerns with the authenticity of The Book of Mormon would be scattered to hundreds of individual websites. Then you announced Interpreter and I knew then that the spirit of FARMS and the spirit of Neal A. Maxwell would live on in Interpreter even if it wasn’t named after him.

    It still sickens me to this day that the organization he so strongly supported, that led to it being renamed in his honor, was gutted so callously for the sake of scholarly ego.

    I’m glad you did not let the machinations of men with lesser vision, stand in the way of the great work you do here. Again thank you.

  2. Thanks for continuing to provide this wonderful journal, Dan Peterson. Your writings and thoughts have contributed greatly towards my growth and understanding of the Gospel, both spiritually and intellectually. I look forward to seeing what kind of films Interpreter has in mind! As always, keep up the good work!

  3. Please add me to the standing ovation. Most every day i look forward to email notifications from the Interpreter. The substantive output has been staggering and enlightening. The Scriptural Round Table videos have helped me to appear smart in Sunday School–no small feat. Prayers and blessings going forward.

  4. Let no one underestimate what good-willed people of talent and perspective can do with persistence and dedication! There is a place I suppose for academics to explore lines of reasoning and understanding. But there is an ongoing, crying need of faithful members to understand their place, their beliefs, and how they might interact with what the world or people of opposition are saying about their beliefs so they can navigate that faith and their lives in such a world. The Interpreter meets that need and for that I am grateful.

  5. Dan, since I brought you to the Pacific many years ago in my then role as Area Director of Public Affairs for the Church, I have long admired your work. Hearing you respond in such an eloquent and knowledgable way to the piercing enquiries about the Church by journalists from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation during those early visits began my own version of ‘old school’ loyalty to you individually and the organisations which you led at BYU and in later incarnations.

    The Middle Eastern Texts Initiative bore fruit of us, too, in our distant part of the world where Islam was becoming a constant part of the discourse in intellectual, academic and political circles.

    I have long felt the need for a robust apologetic approach by the Church, particularly through its academic organs. And, nowadays, with the sophistication of oppositional forces on the internet and in other forums – such that even some of the elect are being deceived – the need for strong Mormon apologetics has never been greater.

    Attacks by opponents need not be met with invective, of course, but they can be met with vigor, tenacity and assertiveness, calling out disingenuousness and falsehood for what it really is. And, in all the time I have observed your work, I have never seen you present the apologists’ case with anything but such a posture, and yet always maintaining professional courtesies.

    Following my retirement, I now serve with my wife as a senior missionary in England and, in part, am seeing the impact on some whose testimonies have not been adequately bolstered by strong defensive information about Church doctrine, practice and history.

    The Church’s essays on LDS.org are excellent but, of necessity, cannot tend towards the speculative in their presentation. If anything, they go out of their way to avoid the merest hint of speculation. In my mind, Mormon interpreter can fill that void. Not that we want speculation in the pure sense of the term, but we do need critical analysis and interpretation – effectively the provision of alternative opinions and options – if we are to defend our position against the many alternative viewpoints that are ‘out there’. It is not going to get any easier. Thank you, thank you for what you are doing.

    • Alan, thanks so much for your faithful voice. So welcome to the heart, especially when we recall the contempt for apologetics had by members of the Mormon Liberal culture.

      You know, I have a vision that won’t leave me. It is the creation of a set of PDF documents that answer and/or give Faithful Perspective to the spicy issues in Church history and practice. The docs would feature artistic headers maybe with a logo, and a format that would make for clear reading on handheld devices. I think of it: Seminary teachers, college Institute instructors, bishops, Sunday School teachers, etc, having these highly helpful docs right in their cell phones ready to beam to anyone in need.
      God bless you, and Salam Alaykum Dan.

      • Thank you, Glen. Good thoughts. I have similarly wished for some ‘pocket answers’ that one could pull out when required on the few challenging issues that arise occasionally.

        Shortly before we began our senior mission last year, I started reading Jesus the Christ again….a most enjoyable experience. As I’ve been reading, I believe I have understood more fully the processes Elder Talmage used as he wrote the book. He interpreted doctrine, scripture, history and practice according to the inspiration he received at the time, the writings of Church leaders and prophets throughout the ages, and the views of various Christian commentators from whom he quoted liberally. While being very careful to avoid speculation, nevertheless even he had to arrive at conclusions on scriptural meaning for which there would have been alternative points of view.

        To return to my earlier point, the Church’s essays on LDS.org are strictly factual in their descriptions of modern-day Church history and practice. In my opinion, it seems they describe WHAT happened but, unless there is clear evidence in Church records, they deliberately do not describe WHY the Church or its leaders took certain actions at certain times.

        This is what I attempted to explain in early 2016 to a friend who had left the Church. He was looking for the “why” in some of the essays but could not find it. Hence, here is where the Interpreter website has the capacity to fill the gap…not through questionable speculation of course but, in careful, detailed and credible analysis, presenting perspectives on our doctrine and practices which are alternatives to the “conventional wisdom” promoted by our opponents. No doubt this is not the website’s only purpose but surely it is one of them.

        If Talmage was able to faithfully weigh up alternative perspectives and come to conclusions on doctrine and history related to Jesus Christ, so too should Latter-day Saint apologists be able to offer faithful analysis and interpretation in a robust defense of our faith…coming to conclusions using whatever evidence might be available or weighing up options where the evidence is limited.

        Yet, no matter how careful the analysis, ultimately a testimony of the truthfulness of Gospel principles can only come from a witness from the Holy Ghost. There are so many claims and counter-claims about our faith (and indeed every other faith), our Heavenly Father has provided a spiritual vehicle for sorting out fact from fiction that sits above all of the intellectual analyses by pundits of every variety.

        Finally, I have often thought that Brother Peterson could have ascribed to him a title bestowed upon British monarchs since Henry VIII. He could well be described as one of our most capable “defenders of the faith.”

        • Thanks, Alan. I agree.

          What is crucial, I believe, is Faithful Perspective. Careful, detailed and credible analysis is much needed. And for those troubled by the effusive output by the more scholarly apostates and their Mormon Liberal playmates, Interpreter is such marvelous news for us. So thankful for it. Faithful scholar-voices like Dan Peterson’s, Louis Midgley’s, and Ralph Hancock’s just thrill me. Defenders, yes!

          In addition, I think responses to apparent problem issues should also be available in a more direct, capsulized format. The lds.org Church essays prove that brevity can be effective. And then, thorough treatments could immediately follow even in the same PFD document. This is the format I would favor — a synopsis ‘capsule’ essay followed by Thorough Thing.

          We lose too many of our youth and young adults. I wonder if it is sometimes only a single sucker-punch item—a distorted or skewed fact or non-fact, or cluster of uzi-spewed propaganda bytes. While adolescent testimonies are young, they can be vulnerable. I love that recent landmark talk by M. Russell Ballard, “Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century,” that describes a need to have responsible replies to challenges.

          It dismayed me to see a Liberal LDS scholar-deity describe an alleged need to ‘re-write’ our Church history narrative, saying that our current one is not sustainable. I flashed on my own memories as a new convert during my college years. I remember hearing at our university’s LDS Institute about Fawn Brodie, the Tanners (Jerald & Sandra), seer stones, blood atonement, and other spicy issues. At the same time I came into possession of a handful of primary source documents on the Adam-God theory. None of these things threw me off the horse. So brother Brigham was spouting off about some strange thing! I had had a spiritual experience before being baptized, and somehow I decided to trust in it. This is why I am so glad to see you mention the Holy Ghost and the need for personal responsibility for our testimony. Faith is a choice.

          But re-writing our narrative? Faithful Perspective might rather be: our knowledge about our history improves and advances. And our emphasis and focus in Church education must broaden in the Information Age in order to meet the challenges that come from enemies and Liberal unfaithful’s.

          Joseph used a seer stone to translate. What of it? Moses used a burning bush that did not consume; what if the Prophet had used an ignited tumbleweed? What if he had used a talking horse?

          THAT is Faithful Perspective.

          Thanks so much for your thoughtful post.
          God bless,

  6. Dan, you are right to get this on the record and this is a most appropriate time. I hope that Latter-day Saints will read this carefully and see that this is an important moment for us. There is a persistent temptation for the Saints to find the meaning of their faith in terms of academic scholarship. On the face of it, an innocent temptation. But over time we come to expect that the Gospel will reflect the argument in a graduate seminar room rather than divine revelation, which often tries our faith because its truth runs contrary to scholarly expectations. It is at these moments that we find out where our loyalties are. Sometimes the distance traveled will not allow us to return. Mormon Interpreter never lets us forget this problem. Where our faith is consistent with scholarship, Interpreter provides us with a means of framing it. But it also serves to shore up our faith, showing its proper intellectual grounds, when the winds of academic fashion would steer us in the wrong direction. Your recollection is an important marker on the road we must travel.

  7. I love interpreter’s mission of promoting appreciation and understanding of our scripture through faithful scholarship, and I really like its model of free, open access and the ability to comment on papers. Thanks for your leadership over the years.

  8. Congratulations on the continuing vitality of The Interpreter Foundation. I was at the FAIR conference when all this came down. I didn’t understand then why it was done that way and still don’t understand it now. Be assured your invaluable service of defending the faith of the every-day, salt-of-the-earth Saint in the tradition of Elder Maxwell is much appreciated. In addition to reading and listening myself, I share many articles with family and friends. Thank you all for doing this. Best wishes for continued success.

  9. I was a regular user and supporter of FARMS and when the change came I noticed an evident difference in content. I am ‘old school’ loyal and don’t jump at something new right away. I visited your website and felt compelled to become a regular reader. It is nice to hear the “other side of the story” because I was very disappointed when I found out about the parting of ways. I commend your work and support it. I look forward to great things from you in the future. Thank you for all you do.

  10. While I have enjoyed many of the published papers at the interpreter I’ve also been a bit dismayed at times by the use of this form to publish articles like this — that well may be appropriate for a blog are not for a journal.

    • I disagree. I think it is quite appropriate for an article in a journal — particularly an article that is an introduction to a single volume of that journal — to provide a first-hand account of the history of the Foundation that publishes the journal.

    • I think nothing inappropriate at all in this article. It’s germane to this Institute – a brief reminiscence by its founding scholar. Scholarly journals will sometimes feature brief pieces like this.

  11. Bravo! Nice to hear the full details after all these years. Stay independent and never cede control to another organization.

    • Yah, Jason. I think there is greater strength now the autonomy Interpreter now has — something the faithful’s didn’t have while under BYU auspicious. A stunning irony, I think, that “the Lord’s University” allowed the 2012 hostile takeover of a faithful institution. Mormon Liberal culture wins in a fallen world — even in Provo.

  12. Thanks so much, Dan, for this delightful reminiscence and review of the genesis of the Foundation. Responsible scholarship with Faithful Perspective must live on. You, Br. Midgley, Br. Hamblin, and the others continue to bless the Saints with faithful word.

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