As the field of Mormon studies has expanded and moved into the academic mainstream, LDS scholars are divided about which path to take into the future: Explore a broader, more complex swath of history and belief, or remain focused on defending the faith’s unique scripture? Write as neutral analysts or as well-versed believers?
A year after the two sides publicly parted company over the direction of the Mormon Studies Review, each group has launched its own writings, with separate boards of editors and mission statements.
In the first, more expansive camp is the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, which publishes the Review. It has gathered a "who’s who in Mormon history" as its new board of advisers - including Richard Bushman at Columbia, Kathleen Flake at Vanderbilt, Terryl Givens at University of Richmond, Va., Grant Hardy at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, Philip Barlow at Utah State University - and continued an ambitious program of publications, including three separate journals.
"The most exciting aspect of the new Review is the energy and diversity of approaches to the faith," says Blair Hodges, the institute’s communications specialist. "There are still plenty of questions that have never been asked, so the field is ready to harvest."
On the other, more traditional side is Daniel Peterson, who served as the Review’s editor from its founding 23 years ago until last spring, when he was abruptly dismissed from the publication.
"The time has come for us to take the Review in a different direction," Maxwell Institute Executive Director M. Gerald Bradford wrote in a June 17 email to Peterson, who was out of the country at the time. "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."
Peterson - an expert on Islamic and Arabic studies, a tenured BYU professor and a weekly columnist for the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, continued at the school and as editor of the institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, but he was confused and angry about being pushed out as editor.
He was also concerned about what he perceived as the group’s goals.
"I never opposed [objective historical] scholarship," Peterson says, "but our original goals were more expressly Mormon."
Within a month of his ouster, Peterson and a group of scholars previously associated with the Review established their own online publication, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. Since then, it has published at least one article a week, filling nearly four volumes of up to 250 pages each.
In Interpreter’s first volume, retired BYU anthropologist John L. Sorenson critiques statements by non-Mormon archaeologist Michael Coe about ancient America, the setting for the faith’s Book of Mormon.
That fits with the new journal’s purpose, Peterson says, which is to "carry forward with the old FARMS approach - which is expressly faithful scriptural study."
Peterson was part of the 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 Review came with it. Review writers responded to critics’ allegations by dissecting their arguments and sometimes deriding the motives of those who challenged LDS origins. It was, they believed, the essence of apologetics.
In subsequent years, though, Mormon researchers have emerged at universities across the nation and have expanded their focus from scripture and ancient history to American history, comparative religion and religious studies.
Several schools such as USU in Logan and Claremont Graduate University in Southern California have established full-time positions in Mormon studies while others, including the University of Utah, have provided fellowships and classes on the topic.
Now the Maxwell Institute is tapping all those resources, Hodges says. "At this point, the biggest challenge might be trying to keep up with the variety and volume of scholarship about Mormonism."
One institute publication, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, will focus on LDS texts. A second one, Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, will examine Mormon scripture as well as ancient Christianity and other faiths, Hodges says. The Review will provide an overview and analysis of all the publishing in the field of Mormon studies, whether by a Latter-day Saint or not.
Will the institute give up its former role as institutional apologists, responding to attacks by critics? Not necessarily, Hodges says.
The new mission statement speaks of "commending and defending the faith," he says, "which will sometimes involve responding to criticism."
But it has to be done "as charitably as possible," Hodges says. "We want to cultivate an ethic of hospitality - even in disagreement."