Shake-up hits BYU's Mormon studies institute
As this "Mormon moment" continues to ratchet up public scrutiny of the LDS Church, Mormon apologists are assessing the best way to shield the faith: Play offense or stick to defense?
Last week, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University fired Daniel Peterson, who served as editor of the Mormon Studies Review since its founding 23 years ago.
Peterson,a recognized expert on Islamic and Arabic studies and a weekly columnist for the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, remains
employed at BYU and as the editor of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He was part of the original team that established the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) in 1979 to "promote and coordinate Book of Mormon research and to make the results of such research available to the general public."
In 1998, FARMS was brought into BYU under the umbrella of the Maxwell Institute, and the Mormon Studies Review came with it. Review writers responded to critics' allegations by dissecting their arguments and motives sometimes writing scathing and often personal attacks on those who challenged LDS origins. It was, they believed, the essence of apologetics.
The tipping point against that approach may have been a 100-page article about John Dehlin, a church member in Logan who launched Mormon Stories, which welcomes those who question aspects of LDS history, practice and theology. Dehlin's group has published articles about reasons Mormons leave the fold and research on gay members, among other topics.
After hearing about the piece, Dehlin called an LDS general authority who was a personal friend. Eventually, Maxwell Institute Director Gerald Bradford pulled the article from the journal, leaving a giant hole and putting it behind in its publishing schedule.
"I have had enough conversations with general authorities to know," Dehlin said this week, "that they don't view ad hominem attacks as a constructive way to do apologetics."
The episode exemplified escalating tensions between the two positions either to answer critics as Peterson advocates or to let well-reasoned scriptural scholarship speak for itself as Bradford hopes.
"The time has come for us to take the Review in a different direction," Bradford wrote in a June 17 email to Peterson, who was out of the country. "What we need to do to properly affect this change in the Review is to ask someone else, someone working in the mainstream of Mormon studies, who has a comparable vision to my own for what it can accomplish, to edit the publication."
Bradford declined to speak to The Salt Lake Tribune, but BYU spokesman Joe Hadfield confirmed that the institute is changing course.
"We want to ensure that the journal is clearly aligned with the established scholarly goals of the Maxwell Institute," Hadfield said. "We want to contribute in the area of textual studies, focusing both on LDS scriptures and on texts important to other traditions."
Peterson, who could not be reached for an interview, balked at the move.
"I regard this as an utterly wrongheaded and disastrous decision, and will not pretend to support it," he wrote in an email to Bradford and copied to several of his friends. "It's a betrayal of Elder Maxwell [the late Mormon apostle], who explicitly approved of what we were doing."
Late Friday, the institute posted a statement about its new direction, hinting that Peterson's editorial team might also be replaced.
When the news of Peterson's ouster hit Mormon blogs and Facebook groups, it generated heated debates.
William Hamblin, Peterson's longtime associate, shares Peterson's opposition to the new direction.
"This is the culmination of a long-term struggle between radically different visions for the future of the institute," Hamblin wrote on his blog. "Peterson wishes to continue the traditional heritage of FARMS, providing cutting-edge scholarship and apologetics on LDS scripture. Bradford wants to [focus] on more secular-style studies that will be accessible and acceptable to non-Mormon scholars."
But some LDS researchers are celebrating the new direction.
"It's a great move for the Maxwell Institute to catch up with the Mormon studies community," said Benjamin Park, doctoral student in history at the University of Cambridge. "By following the example of the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City, which engages with broader academic disciplines and communities, the Maxwell Institute will provide a much better service for the average member as well as the academic world."