Remembering Chris Henrichsen

Note: This post was written by John C.

I lost my friend the other day. Chris Henrichsen was a scholar of Rawls, a Mormon, a father, a teacher, a husband, and a great friend. We were not as close as I’d like (especially geographically) and, outside of birthdays, we probably hadn’t really spoken in years. This is probably my fault; Chris was always active on social media and I tend to be quiet lately.

I’m to blame for getting Chris into blogging and into the wider world of Mormon blogging. We were teaching assistants in Pierre Lamarche’s Ethics class together at UVU (along with Emily Asplund). Chris and I would sit around and talk ethics and Mormonism and I’d learn about Rawls and social justice. I had started a blog called “Faith Promoting Rumor” and I asked him to join me there, because he was interesting, passionate, and funny. He did and thus began his lengthy love/hate relationship with the bloggernacle.

Chris was inspiring. Whether it was running for Congresss in Wyoming or teaching high school, he put his whole heart into whatever he did. His anchor was his family, he loved his wife and children immensely and put them above his other ambitions. Behind them, only slightly, was his love of John Rawls and political philosophy. He was passionate in debate, often letting his feelings get the better of him, but he was quick to seek amends once he cooled off. He had the fire of conviction, having had a change of heart in grad school from conservative to socialist. And he was loyal, sticking by me even when I thought he was being a raving lunatic. Because we were longtime friends.

I loved my friend, Chris. He once told me that he wasn’t sure what he thought about Mormonism, but he believed in the Mormonism I taught. Well, I suppose now he knows if I was right about anything. Actually, he’s probably trying to convert Rawls to Mormonism, or failing that, Orioles fandom. Chris was a great man, a better friend, and an exemplary Mormon. The world is smaller for his passing.

Literacy, Imitation, and Literary Borrowing in Early Mormon History

Recent academic discussions about the composition of the Book of Mormon and the concept of translation in Joseph Smith, Jr.’s worldview have tended to revolve around the question of what Smith meant by the use of the term translation when dictating his texts. Although most attempts to explain early Mormon concepts of translation in relation to Smith’s texts have focused on data pulled from the texts themselves, no single theory has yet to reach a consensus. Two broad theories have tended to attract the most scholars and represent the clearest divide. The first argues that Smith produced his texts in the same way as any linguistic translation occurs—including either Smith himself doing the work of translating the text or some kind of divine translation for Smith—and the second that Smith enjoyed the broader semantic possibilities of the term translation, allowing it to mean more than a 1:1 correspondence between two languages.[1]

Others have approached the question of the production of Mormonism’s texts by focusing on how outsiders portrayed Smith’s intellectual abilities.[2] Since most portrayals of Smith as “illiterate” in this literature are sometimes read as pointing to his inability to produce a text like the Book of Mormon, this argument is found most often in writing with a devotional leaning and meant rhetorically to separate him from the composition of the Book of Mormon, rather than engaging directly with the literary and historical contexts of the literature that Smith produced. The desire to defend rather than to analyze has often stifled academic exploration primarily because the main goal is to provide just enough evidence for a plausible defense rather than an attempt to understand all of the historical data.

While doing research for a related project I recently stumbled onto a newspaper article circulated during the earliest years of Mormon history, in 1831, which includes an appended correction to the article’s mischaracterization of Smith’s literacy.[3] This article suggests there is still much to discuss about early public perceptions of Smith’s involvement in the production of the Book of Mormon in the months and years soon after its publication. This also presents an opportunity for scholars in Mormon studies to more directly engage with the literature on literacy in late colonial and early national Anglo-American history. Very few publications in Mormon studies have attempted to contextualize early Mormon history with what is known about the trends in early national literacy of Smith’s youth.

An essential part of studying the history of the book in early America has been the estimation of literacy rates at different points of colonial and antebellum history. Since the Smith family was originally from New England—Smith himself was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805—New England literacy rates at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries have a direct bearing on our understanding of the younger Smith’s abilities. Literacy is defined as one’s ability to both read and write,[4] and it should be obvious that for the texts Smith produced in the late 1820s, Smith’s ability to read and engage with print culture are more relevant to his abilities and knowledge than writing. Smith relied heavily on scribes for most of his textual productions during his lifetime, a common approach to composition and publishing in early America that allowed cultural “outsiders” to engage in print culture.[5] It is also important to take his writing abilities into account as well, since they have a bearing on the question of his overall literacy (i.e. his ability to read and write). As we find in the response to the article “Mormonites” below, Smith’s “friend and relative…says that the statement made in our article which appeared in ours of week before last, that Smith could neither read or write, is untrue.” All of the historical data available to us, except for the pejorative declarations by some of his early critics who did not have firsthand knowledge, indicates that Smith could both read and write in 1829.

The first broadly successful attempt to estimate literacy rates in Anglo North America, and still the study cited most often, is Kenneth Lockridge’s Literacy in Colonial New England.[6] Lockridge focused his quantitative analysis on whether or not a person could sign their own name and this became an established approach to literacy rates in early America.[7] This has been rightly criticized as a too restrictive approach to literacy in colonial and early national America,[8] but other data points have proven helpful in buttressing the evidence of signatures depending on the demographic being studied.[9] These numbers also focus on early Americans’ abilities to write, not read, suggesting to historians that while estimates help to show that by the end of the eighteenth century at least 90 percent of white male New Englanders knew how to write, even more knew how to read. By the end of the colonial period white women had similar rates as white men.[10] Since early Americans first learned how to read before they were taught how to write, it would make sense that many more students in early Anglo-America would accomplish the first step to literacy while not as many would successfully learn the second step.[11]

What do these methods say about Smith’s literacy? First, we know that Smith could sign his own name as early as 1829 but certainly much earlier than that since his signature by then indicates years of practice.[12] Smith’s cousin, George Albert Smith, reported in 1857 in his autobiography that in the fall of 1828 Joseph Smith, Sr. sent a letter to Asael Smith and three or four of his sons (Smith, Jr.’s uncles) with “information that his son Joseph had had several remarkable visions.” Not long after, Smith, Sr. sent his letter the family received a letter from Smith, Jr. “in which he declared, that the sword of vengeance ^of from ^the the Almighty hung over this generation, & that except they repented, & obeyed the Gospel, and turned from their wicked ways, humbling themselves before the Lord, it would fall upon the wicked, & sweep them from the earth ^as with the besom of destruction.”[13] It is possible that Smith, Sr. helped Smith, Jr. to compose this letter, since his earlier letter to the family worked functionally as a primer for the one Smith, Jr. would send, but it is more likely that Smith composed the letter entirely by himself because he was already dictating new scriptural productions as early as July 1828 and forming his own prophetic voice.[14]

A key piece of evidence of Smith’s composition of the fall 1828 letter is its echo of Cicero’s Sword of Damocles, that “the sword of vengeance…hung over” them.[15] Although the wording is not the exact same, probably reflecting George Albert Smith’s memory of the letter, it is striking that George Albert Smith would remember this specific imagery. Smith, Jr. also echoed the Sword of Damocles in a revelation in March 1829, in a portion of Doctrine and Covenants 5:19 that was later edited out of the published version. This suggests that George Albert Smith’s memory of the contents of the letter is accurate and that Smith was a capable writer as early as 1828.

Later, on January 16, 1830, Smith entered into an agreement with Martin Harris that allowed Harris to try to recuperate the money he paid to have the Book of Mormon printed. Oliver Cowdery wrote out the agreement while Smith only signed the document.[16] Smith’s personal journals, which he started almost three years later in November 1832, support the notion that although he preferred having others write for him, he was perfectly capable of doing it himself. He wrote brief entries each day from November 28 until December 6, 1832, but did not write again until October 4, 1833.[17] Beginning with the October 6–12, 1833 entry, Smith wrote short parts of his journal entries and then had a scribe finish them for him,[18] but from the November 25, 1833 entry on it was almost always a scribe that wrote in his journals.[19]

Smith more than fits the academic criteria for being literate. As early as July 1828 he was already dictating complex revelations, writing letters, and producing new literature. What we learn from the following document, specifically, is significant because even though the author was under the incorrect impression that Smith could not read his name or write—and therefore he would have been completely illiterate—they still believed that his natural talent and retentive memory could have helped to assist him in the process of composing the Book of Mormon. It is a given in early American education that children were memorizing hymns, catechisms, and full chapters of the Bible.[20] It is not unlikely that Smith would have also had chapters of the New Testament committed to memory from his days in school and through his reading and engagement with Bible culture during 1810–1829. The evidence from his textual productions suggests that he was most familiar and comfortable with the gospels of Matthew and John and was able to recall portions of those books as he dictated new revelatory texts.

Introduction and Transcription

Edward D. Barber, “one of the most radical of the Anti-Masons,”[21] edited the Middlebury Free Press from 1831­–1834 and then co-edited the paper with Elam Jewett from 1834–1837.[22] In the August 3, 1831 issue Barber reprinted an article from the neighboring “Hartford (Conn.) Intelligencer[23] that provides new insight into the specific details that were being shared with the public about Mormonism in its earliest years. Scholars are used to seeing early sources claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. was uneducated and illiterate, but many have noted that these comments were more likely rhetorical invectives meant to malign Smith’s public character rather than accurately portray his abilities.[24]

Although William Davis has recently shown that Smith spent more years in common school than historians have most often assumed,[25] he was still not an educated, cultured, erudite college graduate or professional. However, historians should not allow assumptions about Smith’s education to distract from his clear compositional abilities. These are becoming clearer through the close study and analysis of his literary productions,[26] and through the discovery of new sources that help us to understand that some of our assumptions are based on second or thirdhand pejorative accounts in early Mormon history.

Middlebury Free Press, August 3, 1831


We have always laid it down as a maxim, “let superstition alone, and it will do no harm.” Keeping this saying in view, we have heretofore forborne to mention a sect of religious fanatics known by the name of Mormonites. But, as this new sect has been introduced to the attention of the public, through the medium of the contemporary press; and as we are personally acquainted with its history from the commencement, we have concluded to give our readers a brief account of Mormonism.

In the year 1828, one Joseph Smith, of Palmyra, Wayne county, New-York, pretended to have found a number of gold plates, from which, by assistance of a pair of spectacles found with the plates, he said he could read certain revelations from God. He said these plates contained what he termed the Book of Mormon;—which consisted of several unpublished books of the Holy Scriptures, such as the Book of Mormon; the Book of Nephi, &c. &c.

This Jo Smith was a young man, so illiterate that he could not read his own name in print.[27] But being a person of some natural talents, he could with his spectacles on, read so fluently from his plates, by placing them in his hat, and his hat over his eyes, that he succeeded in gulling an honest, wealthy farmer of Palmyra, of the name of Martin Harris, into the belief, that these plates contained a revelation from Heaven; and Jo Smith was at least a prophet, who only was “worthy to open the book.” Jo once showed one of the plates, (or said he did, but no one ever pretended to have seen them,) and the result was, he was deprived, for six months, of the power of reading them.[28]

Finally, after frequent and fervent pray- [page change] er, Jo’s spectacles were restored to sight, and he again permitted to open the book. Jo had, during his spiritual blindness, by the assistance of some one, committed several chapters of the New Testament to memory; and the better to carry on his deception with the deluded Harris, had inquired and found out the words inserted by the translators; (which are distinguished by Italics, both in the New Testament and the Old.) So, that in order to convince Harris that he could read from the plates, Jo deposites [sic] them in his hat applies spectacles, and refers Harris to a chapter in the Bible which he had learned by rote: and which he read from the plates with surprising accuracy; and what astonished Harris most was, that Jo should omit all the words in the Bible that were printed in Italic. And, if Harris attempted to correct Jo, he persisted that the plates were right, and the Bible was wrong.

Jo possessed a remarkably retentive memory; and having convinced Harris beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he was commissioned by the Almighty, to reveal some hidden mysteries, he commenced translating, and Harris commenced transcribing, as Jo dictated; and to avoid mistakes, Jo required his amanuensis to read what he had written; and nothing was allowed to pass, until Jo pronounced it correct. It must go as Jo said,—sense or nonsense.

But before a translation was completed, the Lord informed Jo. (or, at least, so Jo said,) that the work must be published. As Jo was possessed of no funds, the expense, of course, must fall upon Harris; who accordingly made application to the printers in Palmyra. One*[29] of them refused to have any thing to do with the concern. The other made a charge, which Harris’ unfledged zeal could not, at first, encompass, with his purse, without too hard a stretch of the strings. But, as he grew in faith, his purse-strings became more elastic; and, in 1830, the Book of Mormon was published.”

As is usually the case with new systems, however absurd, Mormonism found quite a number of deluded followers.—Jo and Martin, of course, were the principal leaders. Jo, by some revelation from above, as he pretended, was informed that there was a ‘Promised Land’ for him and his disciples, in the West. This information was communicated to the deluded Mormonites, who immediately took up a line of march for New-Connecticut, or the Western Reserve, in the State of Ohio. There they found a tract of land which they deemed the “Land of Promise.” But some of the wicked owners refused to sell it; and thus the Mormonites were deprived of their ‘inheritance.’ They however, occupied what part of it they were able to obtain, living, and sharing all their goods in common.

Many miracles were pretended to be wrought among them. They professed to receive direct communications from the Deity. At one time, a young man gave information to his brethren, that he was about to receive a message from heaven; and specified the time and place. At the appointed time, they repaired to the spot designated; and there, they solemnly assert, a letter descended from the skies, and fell into the hands of the young man who was expecting to receive the message;—the purport of which was, to inform him that he was about to be called to preach Mormonism, and to exhort him to increase his faith.[30] The deluded Mormonites declare their most solemn belief that this letter was written in heaven, by the finger of the Almighty: and the youth who pretends to have received it, says, the writing was in a round Italian hand, and the letters were in gold;—he attempted to copy it; but, as fast as he wrote, the letters disappeared from the original, until it entirely vanished.—Some of them pretend to have received a ‘white stone, on which is written a new name, which no man knoweth save him that receiveth it.”†[31] Revelations, ii, 17. Some of them pretend to see these stones moving about in the air, and others to hear them rolling about the floor; at such times, they spring and jump about, trying to catch them,—till some one, more fortunate than the rest, succeeds. But, when one of these stones is caught, no man can see it “save him that receiveth it.”

The Mormonites have among them an African, (or, Garrison, would say, an Africo-American,)[32] who fancies he can fly.—Caesar at one time, took it into his head to try his wings: he accordingly chose the elevated bank of Lake Erie as a string place, and, spreading his pinions, he lit on a tree-top some fifty feet below, sustaining no other damage than the demolition of his faith in wings without feathers.

The land of promise in Ohio, not exactly suiting Martin Harris and Jo Smith, they have lately discovered another Promised Land in the valley of the Mississippi; whence they, together with most of their followers, some 50 or 60 in number, have Departed.

As to their Creed, it is similar to that of the Mahometans: “God is great and Jo Smith is his prophet.” They pretend to believe the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; and say the book of Mormon is but a continuation of God’s Word. They believe that they are visited by the Holy Ghost; that they are commissioned to cast out devils, and work miracles; and report such stories as those above related of them, with the most solemn asseverations of truth.

As most of the Mormonites have emi- [page change] grated to their new “Land of Promise, in the “far west,” it is to be hoped that we shall hear from them but very seldom; and, as the wilderness to which they are bound is an ample field for meditation and reflection, our earnest desire is that they may be restored to right reason.—Hartford (Conn.) Intelligencer.

The Middlebury Free Press, August 17, 1831

A friend and relative of the founder of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith, says that the statement made in our article which appeared in ours of week before last, that Smith could neither read or write, is untrue. Let us have the truth and nothing but the truth in all cases.

[1] For examples of the former see Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 61–93; and Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 29–35. For a recent example of the latter see Jared Hickman, “‘Bringing Forth’ the Book of Mormon: Translation as the Reconfiguration of Bodies in Space-Time,” in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2020), 54–80.

[2] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 72f.

[3] As far as I have been able to tell this newspaper article has not yet been published or included in any previous academic treatment telling the story of the dictation of the Book of Mormon. It is not included in any of the following: Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (5 vols.; Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003); Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011); Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005); Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Provo: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2015); Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones (Provo: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2016).

[4] Cf. Karen A. Weyler, Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2013), 7; and E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press and American Antiquarian Society, 2005), 365.

[5] Weyler, Empowering Words, 42. See also Ann Fabian, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

[6] Kenneth A. Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West (New York: Norton, 1974).

[7] Cf. Hester Blum, The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 28–29, nt. 31.

[8] Blum, The View from the Masthead, 26–32; David D. Hall, Cultures of Print: Essays in the History of the Book (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 79–96; Ross W. Beales and E. Jennifer Monaghan, “Literacy and Schoolbooks,” in A History of the Book in America, Volume On: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and American Antiquarian Society, 2000), 380–387; Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Expanded Edition; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 121–126.

[9] In her study about the place of sailors in early American literary culture, Hester Blum focuses on five sources of data in reconstructing literacy among early Anglo-American sailors: “signature estimates, charitable organization surveys, naval library records…mechanics’ library histories” and “written narratives of sailors themselves.” Blum, The View from the Masthead, 27.

[10] Beales and Monaghan, “Literacy and Schoolbooks,” 380.

[11] Cf. E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press and American Antiquarian Society, 2005), 344.

[12] See “Agreement with Isaac Hale, 6 April 1829” in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, et al (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 28–34.

[13] History of George A. Smith, circa 1857–1875, page 2, George A. Smith Papers, 1834–1877, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[14] MacKay, et al, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 6.

[15] MacKay, et al, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 17. See Colby Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith and the Reception of Genesis 1–6 in Early America” (MA Thesis, Utah State University, 2019), 89–90.

[16] MacKay, et al, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 104–108.

[17] Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 9–12.

[18] Jessee, Esplin, Bushman, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1, 12–19.

[19] For the cases where Smith later wrote in his journal rather than a scribe see Jessee, Esplin, and Bushman, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1, 24, 28–29, 34–37, 62–64, 135.

[20] See Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon,” 81–83.

[21] Andrew S. Barker, “Chauncey Langdon Knapp and Political Abolitionism in Vermont, 1833–1841,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Sept. 2000): 449.

[22] Barker, “Chauncey Langdon Knapp and Political Abolitionism,” 449, 452.

[23] This is probably the Anti-Masonic Intelligencer published in Hartford from 1828–1831 and edited by Noble Davies Strong. See Edgar J. Wiley, Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and of Others Who Have Received Degrees, 1800–1915 (Middlebury: Published by the College, 1917), 29. The paper Strong edited was referred to colloquially as the Hartford Intelligencer. See Boston Masonic Mirror (Boston, MA), February 12, 1831, 260.

[24] See William L. Davis, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 194–195.

[25] William Davis, “Reassessing Joseph Smith, Jr.’s Formal Education,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter 2016): 1–58.

[26] See especially Davis, Visions in a Seer Stone. Cf. Colby Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon,” 75–131.

[27] See the correction in the August 17, 1831 issue of the Middlebury Free Press transcribed below.

[28] This might be in reference to Smith allowing Harris to take the initial 1828 manuscript to his home in Palmyra in 1828 where it was then lost. Smith claimed to have had the plates and his spectacles taken from him as punishment by God.

[29] The author included the following footnote: “The editor of the Hartford Times, last week, classed the Mormonites with the Anti-masons. We therefore mention the fact, that the anti-masonic printer, in Palmyra, refused to print the Mormon Bible; and it was printed by the publisher of the Wayne Sentinel, a masonic paper.”

[30] There are thematic connections here to the earliest revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. See section 11 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Cf. Townsend, “Rewriting Eden with the Book of Mormon,” 102–107.

[31] The author included the following footnote: “The reader is here referred to the Mark Master’s degree in Freemasonry. We are of the opinion that even Gideon will confess the striking resemblances between Mormonism and Masonry. What…”

[32] According to W. Paul Reeve, this man’s name was Peter, although commonly known as “Blake Pete.” Communication with author, August 10, 2020. See Matt McBride, “Peter,” accessed September 24, 2020,

John Gee’s Book is only a Symptom of Serious Intellectual Disease at BYU

A few recent posts have called attention to a deeply problematic, unethical, and even possibly traumatizing book authored by John Gee and published by BYU Religious Education (RelEd) through the Religious Studies Center (RSC), jointly with Deseret Book. Gee holds one of the few endowed chairs at BYU–in Gee’s case, the William (Bill) Gay Research [!!] Professorship, now housed in the department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages. He was moved there recently from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, which itself was, when Gee was appointed, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). I will leave the other posts to do the work of pointing out the atrocious, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims the book makes on virtually every page. But John Gee is not The Problem. What is, and what I want to focus on here, is the system that allowed this book to be produced, because in a healthy system, this book never would have made it past the editor’s desk, let alone to peer review.

Even if it had followed the standards of peer review in RelEd’s own “Rank and Status Document”, it would never have seen the light of day. This (theoretically binding) document, adopted in 2017, reports that all publications that shall count for faculty as “Gospel Scholarship” (more on this below), “indicates a double-blind review performed by scholars whose specific area of expertise, as demonstrated through their own quality publications, overlaps with the proposed publication in question. This is the standard employed by the Religious Studies Center publishing office, and generally constitutes the standard expected of all publications counted for advancement” (“Rank and Status Document,” 2017, p. 4, emphasis added). It is a standard recognized by LDS second-in-command President Dallin Oaks, who said in 2018 that “expertise in one field should not be taken as expertise on truth in other subjects” (here). Clearly it is not the standard employed in this case; we can assume that the editor, whose responsibility it is to make sure these standards are upheld, was asleep at the wheel in one way or another, or, worse, and more likely in my opinion, deliberately avoided rigorous review.

The BYU Religious Studies Center has been helmed since 2018 by Scott Esplin, a full professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine who received both his graduate degrees from BYU in “Educational Leadership and Foundations”. Esplin was appointed by Dean Daniel Judd, who himself was also educated at BYU, with a PhD in Counseling Psychology, an MA in Family Science from BYU, and a prior career in the Church Seminaries and Institutes program, as is the case with many faculty in Religious Education. 

I note their graduate degrees because it highlights the fact that they have no graduate training outside BYU between them. So far as one can tell from the Web, neither of them has any publications outside of LDS and BYU venues to speak of [EDIT: see note, below], where such standards are likely to be more rigorously followed. So it comes as little surprise that Esplin failed 1) to recognize immediately the potential pitfalls of publishing a book that makes outrageous claims, presuming he read the MS at all, 2) of publishing a book by an author with exactly zero training or expertise in the subject matter about which he was writing, nor is it surprising that he failed 3) to engage actual experts in social science research to vet the manuscript. Gee had no business writing such a manuscript, but it is Esplin who ultimately failed. And before him, Judd, because he promoted a party-liner, and not the healthiest candidate for the job, which would have been one among the handful in his “College”* who have professional experience in actual research and publishing in academic venues outside of BYU and the Church. 

I do not say this to pick on these men particularly, because the fault lies not only with them. For all I know they are fine humans, full of personal integrity. Rather, the problem is deeply rooted in a system chock full of unchecked privilege and power. To further illustrate this: Daniel Judd is not only dean of Religious Education and ultimately in charge of the RSC, he is also on the board of Deseret Book and a former general authority of the church. Scott Esplin is enmeshed in the LDS administration as well, including, sources tell me, a current appointment on the Church Correlation Committee, which oversees all LDS Church publications, which means that, given how his employment at BYU is tied to his standing in the Church, the Church can easily exert its influence in Esplin’s oversight of the RSC. 

How these men (like most of their predecessors) end up in key leadership positions in a division of Religious Education without a hint of religious studies training, let alone outside BYU, is a question that should prompt some serious soul searching in the BYU administration building. The existence of the Religious Studies Center itself is both the result and the engine of a series of perverse incentives within a system that needs the status and prestige (and salaries) of a university, but that has for decades now mostly avoided rigorous engagement with the academy. But because the majority of these faculty have little-to-no incentive to participate in conversations outside the academy (also because they possess little training that would allow them to do so), they are a pond that, without an influx of freshwater, festers and sickens those who drink from it.

The RSC’s publications regularly include a significant number of contributions by faculty members (and others in the Seminaries and Institutes program who hope to be RelEd faculty someday) who have no expertise nor training in the things they write about. When the RSC does engage peer reviewers outside a narrow slice of party-liners within RelEd, those who recommend against publication are allegedly regularly ignored or overridden (say multiple sources). And, most troubling from a professional standpoint, the kinds of publications that are RSC staples were written into the “rank and status document” (elsewhere known as “promotion and tenure”**) for Religious Education, under the label of “Gospel Scholarship”. The 2017 “Rank and Status Document” referenced above says that “Gospel Scholarship is defined herein as peer-reviewed work published in journals and other venues whose principal readership is Latter-day Saints, who, while they may be interested in the field of study represented in the publication and even teach in gospel-related settings, generally do not have advanced degrees in the field and are not actively publishing in the field” (4). I will say more in a different post about the thicket of problems inherent in this definition, but for now we can take their definition at face value: it’s directed at Latter-day Saints outside the academy. They go on to note the primary venues for such publishing, whose institutional affiliation I’ll note in brackets: “Religious Educator [RSC], Sperry Symposia [RSC], Church History Symposia [RSC], BYU Studies Quarterly [BYU, edited by Religious Education professor Steven Harper], Journal of Book of Mormon Studies [edited by RelEd prof. Joseph Spencer, published by UI Press], and Latter-day Saint presses such as Deseret Book and Covenant Communications” (4). Thus all primary “Gospel Scholarship” venues flow through Religious Education, and the majority of them through Scott Esplin and the Dean’s office. 

To achieve BYU’s version of tenure (i.e., to not get fired after 6 years), all professors in RelEd are now required to produce nearly as much “Gospel Scholarship” as they do (actual) scholarship–more, if they choose. RelEd requires 5 publications for “tenure”, at least 2 of which must be “Gospel Scholarship.” (Were he in RelEd, John Gee could have used his book for promotion!) This means that Esplin, who serves at the pleasure of the Dean and sits on the Correlation Committee that oversees all Church publications, has a heavy and singular hand in deciding who gets promoted, practically speaking. This is probably unprecedented in the academy, or very nearly so–that a dean and his appointee quite literally control virtually all of the venues of publication that are required for tenure in their own institutions (especially when one considers that even the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies is directed by a junior faculty member, who needs his dean’s approval for advancement). Let that sink in for a second. Imagine if you had had friction, or disagreements with them of any kind, or if they were holding grudges since you were hired over their objections or in place of their favorite candidate. They could see to your firing without actually having to pull the trigger. And this is to say nothing of what this circular system does to the quality of the publications. For that, we need look no further than John Gee’s latest travesty. There is a reason the academy has standards that try to avoid the exact kinds of structures erected in this closed system at BYU.

If I were a BYU administrator, and I cared about the reputation and accreditation of BYU, the publication of Gee’s trainwreck would be a clear signal that it is time for Esplin, and probably Judd, to return to the faculty ranks. There’s a lot at stake, and these men seem not to understand just how much nor how complicit they are in it. As long as BYU Religious Education continues to turn its nose up at robust scholarly processes, real peer review, and basic academic standards, it will continue to produce dreck like this that hurts individuals and the church. It calls into question the viability of Religious Education at BYU. And it will continue to call into question the extent to which BYU is deserving of the accreditation it enjoys as an institution of higher learning with a high emphasis on research.


ERRATUM: Quinten Sorenson notes, in the comments, that Esplin does have publications outside BYU, including a book from University of Illinois Press (which has a close relationship with BYU and publishes the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies), and a few articles in non-LDS venues. As I say in the comments, even though this is a fairly thin record still for a full professor at an R2 university, it’s all the more reason he should have known better when it comes to Gee.

*For reasons unclear to me, BYU does not call Religious Education a “College”, as it does the other units with deans at the university. It may be related to the fact that it doesn’t grant degrees, but there may be other reasons related to accreditation. Ancient Scripture and Church History and Doctrine, however, are called “Departments.”

**BYU doesn’t have tenure; it has instead a thing called “Continuing Faculty Status”, which allows professors of all statuses to be fired at any time, usually if they have run afoul of honor code or ecclesiastical endorsement. 

Sensationalism? Nauvoo and the Angst of Tradition

Book reviews, especially as done back and forth among the academic community, are not always the friendliest areas of engagement but for the most part are professional and informative for a broad audience. Most often they are a reliable space where readers can quickly turn to get a sense of the feeling of a book and what it has to offer them as they figure out whether or not to spend their money on that volume or another. Fortunately, for readers, the author, and the publisher, Benjamin E. Park’s The Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier has enjoyed praise from across the spectrum of lay and academic reviewers. From what I can tell almost every review has been positive or constructive except one.

Dr. Susan Easton-Black, then Susan Lindsay Ward Easton, completed her Ed.D. at Brigham Young University in 1979. Her dissertation, “Developmental Approach to Counselor Education: Progressive Model for Training Institutions,” evaluated the training models of counselors—”elementary school, secondary school, college, community agency, and in some instances, church setting” (p. 2)—and argued that counselors at the time received adequate intellectual training but were not shown how to implement that training in real life situations and therefore struggled to complete their tasks. The goal of her dissertation was to implement new methods in the curriculum of the counselor training master’s program at Brigham Young University in 1978, the year she started working at BYU.

One might wonder how an education scholar with no peer-reviewed publications as sole author (that I am aware of) in the field of early American history would get to the point where she felt comfortable enough to write such a condescending and belittling review, if we are generous enough to call it that, of a book written by a scholar trained at the University of Cambridge in early American history. According to the review, Park is a sensationalist who “uses few dates, his documentation is infrequent…and his summaries are superficial.” Beyond that, Park “pick[s] and choos[es]…facts” that “support [his] perspective.” If true, these critiques would seem to be detrimental to a book that hopes to shift scholarship and general knowledge about early Mormonism and American religion toward new horizons.

In her comments Easton-Black offers one possible way to explain the disparity between her approach to Nauvoo and Park’s. According to her, it is precisely that their perspectives are dissimilar that drives the problem. That is, surely, a key part of the disagreement, but it appears that Easton-Black is unaware that in the field of history perspective is not the key driving factor. Perspective, again, is an issue but the word should not be misunderstood as it applies here. Easton-Black does not have training in the historical method, did not go through a rigorous program of historical training at the graduate level, and is known for her approach to Mormon history through unsourced and oft-repeated anecdotes in her travels and love for Nauvoo and tourist destinations.

The fact that she is not a trained historian and shifted from a degree in education to teaching early Mormon history at BYU in the Religious Education department does provide key context to understand the divide. As another review has recently noted, many historians in Religious Education at BYU—historians who do not have graduate training in history or its related fields—have for years painted the Nauvoo period of Mormon history in strokes and brushes that don’t particularly reflect the reality of the historical moment. That review portrays the feeling of loss for the author when she realized that the Nauvoo she visited as a teenager was lost, “buried under layers of other people’s sentimentalized and grandiose pretensions.” It is disingenuous of Easton-Black, for example, to suggest that Kingdom of Nauvoo is infrequently sourced when pages 288–319 of the book are strictly covered in endnotes and her “review” provides her audience with two endnotes. One to cite the book and the other to cite a presentation Park gave at BYU.

Easton-Black suggests that readers will question Park’s ability to be a scholar because, as she implies, his book does not tell the truth. She had ample time and space in the review to offer specific responses to why “historians in yesteryear” rejected the depiction of Nauvoo, as she suggests, in their writing. She could have also clarified how those scholars would have been able to write better histories than a historian today when they did not have the important manuscripts now provided by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Her previous work will unfortunately be the one not viewed as scholarly in generations to come, and “the truth” in the coming generations will rest more firmly on evidentiary ground than what can be found in the work of previous generations.

In a passing comment, Easton-Black also disparages Park’s education by suggesting that his graduate mentor did not train him well, “wondering who had been his mentor.” Michael O’Brien, Park’s mentor a Cambridge, might not be well known to Easton-Black but he is to any scholar deeply interested in the study of early American history. O’Brien won the Bancroft prize in 2005 for his two-volume set Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life in the American South, 1810–1860, besides being nominated twice for the Pulitzer prize, among other awards he received during his academic career. While this may seem like a minor note it actually highlights the disconnect between Easton-Black and the important work done in broader early American history.

Final Thoughts

Some readers of the blog have noted that my posts have been, over the past couple of years, fairly negative toward the Religious Education department and related organizations. I would prefer that it wasn’t this way. I would prefer to not write the above response and others like it. But, as long as some members of the Religious Education department continue to write similar reviews of books that in reality, outside of that small group, are receiving broad praise for their contributions, these kinds of posts will remain relevant. It is far better to keep the broader readership in Mormon studies informed than to keep completely silent on these topics. In this case, I would hope and expect that most readers who stumble upon Easton-Black’s review will be able to read between the lines for what her “review” really is: an opportunity simply to ask: “Where is the author’s knowledge that Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Lord revealed his words to him?” Boundary maintenance is the function for this review and others like it, and with the supposed expansiveness of Mormon theology you would hope that the culture itself would allow scholars to be just that: scholars.

The Problem of Claiming Liberal Bias in Biblical and Mormon Scholarship

Blake Ostler’s 1987 essay on the Book of Mormon as a modern expansion, by Joseph Smith, of an ancient source has been an important part of academic discussion within Mormon studies for over thirty years. Early responses were negative, leading Ostler to walk back some of his arguments in the original essay. Since those early criticisms in the late 1980s and up until the early 2000s it seems that Ostler’s theory has come to enjoy new life with both academic and lay Mormon audiences as a way to engage the Book of Mormon as history but also account for many of the historical issues in its pages as well.

Responses to Ostler’s paper are good examples, though, of a common flawed argument in Mormon studies that I would like to highlight. This regularly happens when scholars with a more traditionalist bent engage in knee-jerk reactions to new academic material that they are uncomfortable with. In this case, I will comment on the response to Ostler linked above, Stephen Robinson’s paper “The “Expanded” Book of Mormon?” First, though, a look at Robinson’s own scholarship on early Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha will help to both contextualize and problematize his response to Ostler.

Robinson was, as he mentions at the beginning of his paper, trained in biblical studies at Duke University in North Carolina, a prestigious institution known for rigorous training and academic standards. Because of Robinson’s training and engagement within his field he was a part of the important two-volume set edited by James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. He was one of the editors of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel and the editor of both the Testament of Adam and 4 Baruch. I cannot overstate the importance of these two volumes for the development and growth of the study of Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha; Robinson was lucky to be involved in such a project and his work on each of the three texts represents good scholarship for the time that the volumes were published. Although many things have changed in the field since the 1980s, the volumes are still recommended and for the most part reliable. Anyone who wishes to understand early Jewish and Christian texts outside of traditional canons should own these books.

In his introduction on the Testament of Adam, for example, Robinson discusses the dating the dating of this text in standard, academic jargon. There are three separate sections to the Testament that were written at a different time by different authors, and in its final form the text dates to sometime around the middle or late third century CE. Robinson argues for a final “Christian redaction,” to the text because “the testament is familiar with the Christian traditions found in the New Testament and must therefore be dated after, say, A.D. 100” (Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:990). Robinson argues that the text’s original language is Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic used by early Christians. These are important notes for understanding the historical composition of a book that claims to have authorial connections, at least in part, to Adam, the first man of the book of Genesis.

The fact that Robinson uses the presence of Christian traditions in the New Testament as a key part of his argument about the dating of the Testament is key to understanding Robinson’s response to Ostler. I assume that it would be awkward for the reader if I were to argue that Robinson denies predictive prophecy in his essay. In this case, his application of the basic methods and tools of modern critical scholarship on the Testament of Abraham would mean that he was jumping to conclusions, that the “hidden assumptions” at the core of his argument were unfounded and therefore his entire dating of the Testament of Adam needed to be rejected. He wasn’t leaving any room for a divine element in the construction of the Testament, only human and natural elements, and therefore limiting the evidence he was willing to look at. Why should we also, then, take at face value the important work he and others before him had done toward understanding the multiple authorship of the text? The text doesn’t say it was written by multiple authors, it provides a prophecy whose authorship is explicitly tied to Adam.

I hope that to each person who reads this post the above seems absurd. The years of training and deliberations behind the scenes of Robinson’s writings would have included taking into consideration all kinds of different historical, literary, and textual considerations into account for him to make the judgment that the Testament of Adam was written not by Adam but possibly (although now very unlikely) first Jewish authors with later Christian redactors. Language, ideas, and texts do not appear in vacuums, they all grow organically within specific social, political, and historical moments, and it is clear from the evidence that Robinson’s dating of the Testament of Adam is grounded in sound historical scholarship. What does this suggest about Robinson’s response to Ostler, though?

The hypothetical responses to Robinson’s work above come directly from Robinson’s response to Ostler’s paper. According to Robinson, Ostler had a naturalistic bias which clouded his judgment. Ostler can’t be right in his observations because he hasn’t considered that if he were to reframe the anachronistic sections of the Book of Mormon as being “predictive prophecy,” then he would understand that characters in the Book of Mormon could easily have known the theological developments that occurred not in the New Testament but in the centuries after within developing Christian theology.

Robinson appears to cut down the strength of his own work when he says, “It should be noted that the rejection of predictive prophecy is characteristic of the secular approach to the scriptures, for the exclusion of any supernatural agency (including God) from human affairs is fundamental to the methodology of most biblical scholarship.” Maybe if Robinson was here to discuss this issue he would say that his work on the Testament of Adam is different because it isn’t canon; it isn’t the Book of Mormon and therefore it doesn’t require the same kind of treatment. That might be true for an individual within the Mormon faith community in a devotional setting, but for anyone who wishes to seriously engage the compositional history of any given text the fact that a faith community includes it in its canon is irrelevant to the question of when the text was written.

The major breaking point, then, between what Ostler was attempting to do in 1987—similar to what many scholars within Mormon studies today are trying to do—and what Robinson did in his response in 1989 are drastically different. Ostler was attempting to engage seriously with the problems of historical anachronisms within the Book of Mormon. Although he was also trying to make that work with his belief that the Book of Mormon is still ancient in its origins, the primary effect of his approach was to take seriously the historical issues in his understanding of the authorship of the Book of Mormon. Robinson’s approach was purely devotional and apologetic since he desired Ostler and his readers to read predictive prophecy eisegetically into the text of the Book of Mormon. He never demonstrated how the Book of Mormon characters came to understand Jesus’s atonement the way they did through predictive prophecy, he just assumes that this is the catch-all problem of liberal scholarship and once you apply belief in predictive prophecy then everything is taken care of.

On the contrary, this cop-out answer in certain traditionalist Mormon circles is too heavily applied as a response to sound historical scholarship. For example, Monte Nyman, one of Robinson’s contemporaries at BYU, used this cop-out (like others before him) to argue against critical scholarship on Isaiah. “Actually, the authorship issue revolves around one’s acceptance or rejection of divine revelation” (Nyman, “Great are the Words of Isaiah”, 254). This isn’t even close to being an accurate portrayal of the issue in regards to either Isaiah studies or work on the Book of Mormon. H. G. M. Williamson, one of the most influential scholars on the study of Isaiah (meaning that his work is meticulous, careful, and encompassing), responding to this line of reasoning in his study The Book Called Isaiah (page 2), that

“in view of repeated accusations, it should be emphasized that this opinion [multiple authorship of Isaiah] is not necessarily motivated by a wish to circumvent the possibility of predictive prophecy. Indeed, there remains plenty of ‘prediction’, both general and specific, within Deutero-Isaiah itself, for example, if the bulk of Isaiah 40–55 is to be dated before the end of the period of Babylonian exile, and indeed it has frequently been maintained that part of the purpose of the concluding chapters of Isaiah was precisely to answer the problems raised by the apparent failure of these predictions to be borne out by the experience of the return and post-exilic restoration.”

Just like the apologists of the middle of the twentieth century that Williamson responded to, Robinson himself assumes too much about the methods that Ostler employs in his essay. Robinson attacks the devotional and theological straw man that he constructs while acting like the conversation wasn’t about strict historical discussion. Unfortunately, it seems like some of the personal and intellectual attacks on Ostler made him move away from some of his earlier, more sound historical observations about the literary construction of the Book of Mormon. It is unfortunate that he did not continue on the more reliable path that he set out for himself and others in 1987, but this might reflect a shift more toward theological construction than historical and therefore a different project than his earlier paper seems to have been out to do.

In any case, Robinson’s accusations against Ostler were totally unfounded and could be used against his own sound scholarly work on early Christian pseudepigrapha like the Testament of Adam. The evidence within that text is clear that the author was engaging with a Christian audience in a post-NT world, incorporating texts, language, and ideas that grew organically in specific social and historical contexts that then influenced the composition of the Testament. No one should ever use Robinson’s own arguments regarding Ostler’s essay against his work on the Testament, but at the same time no one should ever take Robinson’s response to Ostler’s paper seriously either. Fortunately, over the last twenty years or so more and more academic and lay Mormons have found that Ostler’s essay is essential to their reconstruction of understanding the Book of Mormon the more they learn about its internal and external problems. I would hope, though, that the knee-jerk reaction within Mormon academic circles to claim that scholars studying biblical texts and scriptures unique to Mormonism would leave behind the idea that at the heart of the issue is a belief or non-belief in predictive prophecy. Not only is it not true, it is a distraction that enables scholars like Robinson and others to not engage with the actual substance of sound, historical scholarship. Scholars should be able to expect better.

The Curious Announcement of Donald Parry’s Editorship for Biblia Hebraica Quinta

Back in 2009 BYU University Communications announced that Donald W. Parry, professor of Asian & Near Eastern Languages, had been selected as the editor for the book of Isaiah of the prestigious Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ), the official scholarly critical edition of the Hebrew Bible used around the world. To put that into perspective, BHQ will be, on completion, the fifth edition of the famous Biblia Hebraica originally published in 1906 under the editorship of Rudolf Kittel. The academic study of the Hebrew Bible for over the last century has been driven by this edition and its legacy is huge. The announcement that Parry was going to be “one of about two dozen editors from the world wide community and one of only a few from the United States,” was a seemingly huge step forward for the academic study of the Bible within Mormonism. Seemingly.

The problem is, it doesn’t look like there was ever an official announcement from Deutsche Bibel Gisellschaft that Dr. Parry would be one of the two dozen editors. The Deseret News ran the story a couple of times in the summer of 2009, the Daily Herald ran it that May, and it was referenced again in the Deseret News later that year. The only officially named editor in BHQ for the book of Isaiah is Arie van der Kooij of the Universiteit Leiden.

Recently, Dr. Parry published an important new book, Exploring the Isaiah Scrolls and Their Textual Variants, in the Supplements to the Textual History of the Bible through Brill, one of the most prestigious publishing houses in biblical studies. The study itself could indicate that Dr. Parry has been doing the kind of background work necessary for a text-critical edition on the book of Isaiah, but, again, it is not clear if Dr. Parry is one of the official editors of BHQ. After searching online for any indication that this was the case from any source that did not simply go back to the announcement at BYU, which seemed to have Dr. Parry as its sole source, was not fruitful. And, if one takes a quick look at Dr. Parry’s publicly available CV, he does not have his supposed editorship of the BHQ listed there although he does have his most recent publications as well as forthcoming projects listed.

Based on the above I have to wonder about the possibility of each of the following scenarios in relation to the 2009 announcement:

(1) Dr. Parry was never assigned as “one of about two dozen editors” of the BHQ. Maybe this means that Dr. Parry thought he was going to be assigned and jumped the gun a little too early before finding out that was not the case. Maybe Dr. Parry loves the study of Isaiah so much that he believed things were moving in that direction. Or, maybe less likely, Dr. Parry made it up and there was never any direct indication from the BHQ team that he would edit Isaiah. In any case, if this is true then the 2009 announcement was based on someone claiming Dr. Parry was assigned as an editor when he wasn’t. That’s obviously problematic.

(2) Dr. Parry was assigned to edit Isaiah for the BHQ but then removed himself from the project. I find this highly unlikely. Not only has Dr. Parry continued to do extensive research on the text of Isaiah (see the link to his recent volume) that is directly connected to creating a text-critical edition, it would be foolish and surprising for a scholar in this field to willingly drop themselves from this weighty of a publication. If this was true then the 2009 announcement was accurate but a follow-up announcement indicating he had taken himself off of the project was never published, likely because of the awkwardness of announcing publicly that he had taken himself off the project.

(3) Dr. Parry was assigned to edit Isaiah but then the assignment was revoked. If this is the case then it would be interesting to understand why. Why would such a high profile assignment, something that would have taken serious deliberations by a committee to decide upon, be taken away? What would a scholar need to do for that to happen? Nothing has been announced in Dr. Parry’s past or recent scholarship that seems to be problematic (although his more devotional publications show a completely different person and/or side to Dr. Parry). This would also mean that there was no follow-up announcement in Deseret News or at BYU that Dr. Parry was no longer an editor on the project.

(4) Dr. Parry was never assigned on the main team of two dozen editors but instead to assist the main editor, Arie van der Kooij. If this is true, and it is probably the most likely of the four options I have outlined here, then that means that the original 2009 announcement was inaccurate. Dr. Parry was not one of the two dozen main editors of the BHQ, but on a broader team that would assist those editors. It means that his role was greatly amplified for the press announcement than what it was in reality. If this is the case then it would be even more necessary to understand who the original source for the 2009 story was out of BYU because that person was telling barely a half-truth. And by all accounts, it seems like Dr. Parry was the source for the announcement. In the original link the author said at the end of the write-up “For more information, contact Donald W. Parry at (801) 422-3491.” Assuming that is or was his office phone at BYU, I wonder how Dr. Parry would explain the situation if he was to respond.

Rel Ed Faculty Who Fail to Launch

There is a curious rash of legitimate PhD holding, BYU Rel Ed faculty whose professional and intellectual development essentially culminated in their dissertations. This represents wastage of time and resources, both on the side of top flight training left fallow and, more disturbingly, vast expenditures of university monies, benefits, research funds, etc., to leave the sunk costs to students to the side in this discussion.

Rel Ed faculty with BYU’s version of tenure make, on the very low end, $80,000 per year, and many are near, over, or well past the $100,000 mark, plus excellent benefits. In the academic world, that is very good pay. Of course the constant churn of popular books and materials augments these numbers still further. Rel Ed faculty are very well remunerated.

But what is the university getting for all that expenditure on purported experts in their fields? In the case of several, the university is paying for what amounts to outdated knowledge, expertise level that is no higher than a newly minted PhD, refusal to participate in the standards of professional organizations, and inevitable atrophying of language, critical, writing, and research skills that should increase over a career, not begin to gather rust upon the PhD hooding ceremony.

I’m sure that colleagues in other BYU colleges and departments must be annoyed if not furious with these free-loading Rel Ed professors. Do you think that business school professors are granted tenure or promoted to full professor based upon Ensign articles, a Sperry Symposium paper included in an annual collection, and maybe a handful of BYU Studies publications? I’m sure if we looked closely we could find two professors, one in a normal department, one in Rel Ed, that graduated with legit PhDs in more or less the same year and compare their professional development. That would be instructive.

Here are some puzzling cases of BYU Rel Ed faculty who are pulling down enviable salaries and who were trained at premier graduate programs but have done nothing or next to nothing in their professional fields since their dissertations 10, 15, 20 years ago.

OK, who makes the list? Daniel Belnap, Frank Judd, Eric Huntsman, Kent Jackson (now retired), and Gaye Strathearn are first round ballots from the ancient scripture side. Who else? List anyone that comes to mind in the comments, and if you are aware of publications by these scholars in their respective fields since they completed their PhDs then that is likewise helpful. It would make everyone’s lives easier if they all posted academic CVs to their faculty profiles, but here we are.

BYU Religious Education’s Investment in Its Students

A major theme over the years at the Faith Promoting Rumor blog has been the department of Religious Education at Brigham Young University. Because BYU is known around the world as a religious university with a dedication to promulgating knowledge about the current and past state of religion in society, as well as training and preparing it students for the workforce, it would be natural to expect the university to house a department analogous to, say, the department of Theology at Notre Dame University, the department of Religious Studies at Brandeis University, the department of Religion at Baylor University, or the Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies.

This is not to say that BYU has to be “of the world,” but BYU itself recognizes the centrality of academic integrity and accredability to its mission. Since religion courses are part of the “University Core” of requirements (basically BYU’s general education requirements), one might assume that BYU is investing in a pool of professors in Religious Education that have training and expertise directly relating to the courses that they teach. This is important because BYU understands that it is training students to go on to jobs around the world, as well as prepare undergraduates for graduate work at prestigious universities around the globe. Two signs on campus at BYU intentionally welcome visitors and newcomers with the following slogans: “Enter to learn, Go Forth to Serve,” and “The World is Our Campus.” Coming at the question of how BYU invests in its students through the selection of faculty in Religious Education from the perspective that BYU is part of a broader academic community, it should go without saying that BYU would want to select only those who have the most relevant training for teaching students at the university level about religion in both its Church History and Doctrine and Ancient Scripture departments.

What would a potential faculty member in this sense look like? What makes them prepared to teach these courses? The requirements included in job postings at BYU for full-time faculty positions are all pretty similar: a potential hire must have a PhD in the specific area of expertise for the job or in a related field; they must be willing to teach a certain number of courses a year; they must be actively publishing research in their area of specialization; and most job descriptions end with the range of specializations that would qualify the person for the position. This list is both a good and a bad thing when it comes to Religious Education at the university. A quick description of the course requirements in the department will help to clarify.

First, according to the university’s website, all religion courses required for graduation must be taken at the Provo campus. No courses taken at other BYU campuses or in LDS Institutes qualify. The number of religion credits may vary depending on the number of transfer credits each student has, but all incoming freshman at the university will be required to take 14 credits in Religious Education (which amounts to seven classes altogether). Among those fourteen, and for every student regardless of credits transferred, it is required that each student takes four specific courses (with their departments): The Eternal Family (Church History and Doctrine), Foundations of the Restoration (Church History and Doctrine), Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel  (Ancient Scripture), and Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon (Ancient Scripture). There are exceptions to the requirements of the first, third, and fourth courses—you can substitute them for other courses—but the differences are minimal.

The content taught in these courses—courses again required of every student that wishes to graduate from BYU—suggests that students should be able to expect a short list of specific qualities they would find in their professors. The professors (1) will have a PhD from an accredited university that is relevant to the course, (2) will be engaging with other specialists in their field by researching, writing, and publishing their work that allows others to engage with and critique what they have found or are arguing, and (3) that the university and department have done their due diligence in selecting the very best from a broad range of applicants. Unfortunately, it appears that departmental politics and a lengthy history of an aversion to “worldly” academic study have allowed a certain perspective to retain authority in Religious Education in regards to hiring new faculty members. This is seen among other things, for instance, in the fact that many of the faculty members in Religious Education who have received Continuing Faculty Status (BYU’s soft version of academic tenure) have been allowed to do so despite having little to no peer-reviewed publications in their respective fields.

Currently, there are 74 faculty members, 1 visiting faculty, and 24 part-time or Seminaries & Institutes employees listed on the faculty directory. Of the 74 faculty 6 of them are women (8%), a dismal number given the fact that many qualified women have applied for job openings and been rejected on grounds that might question the role of sexism if they took place in other university settings. While there are several faculty members in the department who have degrees that are relevant to the subject matter they teach, many of them have doctoral degrees in Computer Science, Educational Leadership, Family Studies, or, in one case, claims to have a PhD in Biblical Studies from an unaccredited bible college, ultimately a degree that would not count as fulfilling the PhD requirement in the job posting at BYU today. Many other faculty members were trained in Early American History, Religious Studies, Early Christianity, Archaeology, Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible, etc. Not all of these faculty members continue to engage directly with their fields upon getting hired at BYU, though, a focus that one would expect to find in any other academic setting.

There is a saying sometimes heard in the halls of Religious Education soon after a new hire is beginning to settle in: the faculty members there have a “higher purpose” in their teaching and that “it takes about five years to wash away the PhD.” This is unfortunate because if not for the PhD degree faculty members never would have been hired by the university in the first place. The effect of this mentality is seen on the CVs of the majority of the professors in the department (if they have a CV at all!). Most of them play inside baseball to the extent that they are not even engaging with the academic conversations of their fellow Mormon scholars but mostly writing and publishing the same thing over and over again for a devotional Mormon audience in Deseret Book (and its smaller imprints), Cedar Fort, self-publishing, or other related venues that allow them to circumvent the very foundation of the training that made them qualified for their jobs: peer-review.

To what extent does BYU ‘s department of Religious Education invest in their students? Currently it is not in providing faculty high in academic quality. To be sure, as previously mentioned, there are wonderful exceptions to that rule, but of the 74 faculty members how many of them fulfill the description in the regular job posting? The department also focuses on student evaluations that presumably show the high quality of spiritual engagement students are receiving, but I am skeptical that the evaluations really say what the department heads think they say. It is much easier for undergraduate students to take a 2 credit course that, if taken by the right professor, will have a minimal impact on their time and reading schedules, potentially freeing up time to socialize and do other things. One or two of those professors might also provide an abundance of hugs to their students, creeping out some students and exciting others. Stating in a course evaluation that one class was more or less “spiritual” might actually mean that it was more or less like their experience in church attendance where little intellectual effort is required. How can the department heads be sure that the evaluations actually represent the perfect blend of both spiritual and intellectual development, especially when many of the courses taught by less-qualified faculty present content more closely related to a glorified seminary or institute class? LDS youth experience a four-year cycle of information at church that becomes more and more familiar to them as they get older, and it is obvious why the focus is more devotional than intellectual at church. At a university, though, in a department where every student has to take and pay for required courses, students should expect to learn new things they’ve never heard before and be stretched intellectually. If department heads would look closer at the evaluations they might notice a trend in non-Religious Education courses about how students felt more fulfilled learning new things and experiencing the world a little differently for once.

The majority of the faculty in Religious Education voted against the current curriculum taught in Religious Education several years ago but it was implemented anyway. One might hope for a future BYU Religious Education where faculty members are better trained and vetted from relevant doctoral fields. These scholars would ideally work in a better version of Religious Education that focuses on the intellectual development of its students in ways similar to related departments at Notre Dame, Brandeis, Baylor, and the Catholic University of America. It would only take the realization of a few of the administrators at BYU and in the department of Religious Education to make these much needed changes. Unfortunately, echoing Thomas W. Simpson’s recent work on the history of Mormonism and its response to higher education, this “seems destined to elude [them] until the millennium, indefinitely postponed, comes at last.”

Take 2: Blumell, New Testament History, Culture and Society

Review of Lincoln H. Blumell, ed., New Testament History, Culture, and Society (Provo and Salt Lake City: RSC and Deseret Book, 2019).

In a recent blogpost (May 26, 2019), Kevin Barney published a favorable review of Lincoln H. Blumell, ed., New Testament History, Culture, and Society (…/review-of-blumell-nt-history…/), that was contextualized by its application to Kevin’s Gospel Doctrine teaching experiences and needs. I would like to offer a different perspective on the volume that seeks a context within a larger academic narrative and probes the quality of the book. This is not because the editor explicitly sought out such a context, but because of the fact that much of what comes out of Religious Education parades as scholarship and takes advantage of a receptive and believing community that wants support for its theology, practice, and belief. Many readers are not aware of the inner workings of Religious Education at BYU-Provo and its Ancient Scripture department, and many will be surprised to know that the department and indeed the college itself are cannibalizing its own believing scholars. The timing of this volume is particularly important because the editor of the volume is asserting pressure on the department of Ancient Scripture to eschew academic discussions in the classrooms as a type of blind devotion to faith tenets. The department has launched a series of lunch discussions that have as their intent an interest in defining orthodox positions on topics like the authorship of the New Testament, the tripartite authorship of Isaiah, the historical foundation of the biblical narrative and other topics. This editor is poised to leave a lasting imprint on the LDS community by presenting us with mostly underinformed historical discussions that avoid current academic work and withhold information in the hopes of presenting a faith-affirming narrative

Continue reading “Take 2: Blumell, New Testament History, Culture and Society”

The BYU Honor Code Office and the Idea of Reasonableness

Those aware of the similarities and differences between Brigham Young University-Provo (BYU), Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-I), and Brigham Young University-Hawaii (BYU-H) have grown accustomed to knowing that while BYU may have some interesting tendencies in its culture surrounding dress, grooming, standards in the apartments, and prior aversion to caffeinated beverages (they’ve progressed on that, yay), none of their wackiness comes close to what can be seen at BYU-I. There, in Rexburg, Idaho, students are not allowed to wear shorts at all (except and only when engaging in a sport for a class) anytime of the year. Recently, photos of the difference in the clothing cheerleaders are allowed to wear at both universities have been highlighted online and in social media.

BYU’s Honor Code Office has been in the news over the last several years for a handful of problematic practices and relationships between it, the Title IX office, and the private but recently decertified (because of these practices) BYU Police. In the wake of these revelations the BYU Title IX and Honor Code offices has shifted, attempting to rebrand themselves as aware of the systemic and cultural issues that are found on campus and highlighted in recent media coverage, and some have felt that the efforts of a few in the new office are noteworthy and suggest that real change might be coming soon.

It is in this context that I present to you few excerpts from the recently revised BYU Honor Code website. At first reading these seem to be a lot more appropriate in a BYU-I context, and show a surprising lack of self awareness in the way that they present answers to faculty questions about Dress & Grooming. Does this sound like the kind of appropriate change that will actually make a difference on campus at BYU, or does it sound more like the change is leaning toward BYU-I? I’ll you decided the answer to that question. The office clearly wants faculty to include the university’s Dress & Grooming standards on their syllabus (why doesn’t the university have that as a policy?), and they not only treat the adult students at the university like irresponsible ten year old children, the new website reads like an uncomfortable exercise in guilt tripping faculty to get after the students. While, again, that does appear to be a part of BYU’s history, does this sound more like BYU or BYU-I?

1. Question: Is a student’s fashion or overall appearance really my responsibility? Isn’t that the job of the Honor Code Office? Answer: Dress and grooming are often reiterated tenets of the Honor Code. The Board of Trustees regards all members of the BYU community as representatives of the Church and the University, and they have a definite view of how such representatives should look. They ask everyone in the community to take an active role in this matter and faculty members are key figures in this community. In short, yes! It is your responsibility and everyone else’s, too.

2. Question: One of my male students has shoulder-length hair; but when he comes to class, he keeps it tucked up under a cap. I told him I wouldn’t give him credit until he got it cut. He’s protesting that I can’t do that. Can I? Answer: Faculty members certainly can! They are the stewards for everything that happens in their classroom. Of course, faculty members credibility is enhanced if they are up front about their personal support of the university’s Dress and Grooming standards, such as placing a clear statement in their syllabi, and/or making appropriate introductory comments on the first day of class.

3. Question: One of my female students has shaved her head. Do I have a responsibility here? Answer: Yes, faculty have a responsibility in this situation! A girl shaving her head, a guy dying his hair bright blue, or any other extreme fashion is not appropriate for representatives of the Church and the University.

4. Question: One of my male students wears black clothing and eye shadow to class; and his fingernails are at least half an inch long. What can I do about it? Answer: That sort of appearance is not appropriate for a BYU student, particularly a male. It is suggested that a faculty member 1) invite the student in for a confidential interview to explain the issue concerning the student’s appearance and teach a principle; or 2) if the student seems unreceptive, contact the Honor Code Office. Also, faculty may take their own action, such as prohibiting attendance at class, until the necessary adjustments are made. Of course, this would be simplified if there had already been a clear statement in the syllabus, or otherwise, regarding support of the university’s Dress and Grooming Standards.

5. Question: In my eight o’clock class, one of the guys always shows up half-asleep and with a face full of scruffy whiskers. Isn’t that a violation of dress and grooming standards? How can I help him? Answer: A male student is required to shave at least every 24 hours. Although it’s conceivable that he’s within the limit according to the letter of the law, he is certainly marginal relative to the spirit of it. Why not have a confidential visit with him to discuss it, and challenge him to do better. If he has a scruffy attitude to go along with his appearance, give the Honor Code Office a call.

6. Question: One of my female students has a tongue post. You can’t really tell until she tries to talk; then it becomes very obvious. It must be a violation of some kind. What should I do about it? Answer: The only body piercing sanctioned by BYU Dress and Grooming Standards is a maximum of one per earlobe for women. No body piercing is sanctioned for men. A tongue post is not appropriate for either gender. Arrange for a confidential interview. Tell the student how you feel about that choice, and teach a principle. The faculty member may remind the student that class attendance may be prohibited, if necessary, and the Honor Code Office is available to help.

7. Question: I’m a male faculty member, and I do a lot of my teaching in a “pit”-style classroom. The raised seating reveals some sights that are downright embarrassing. It would really help if all of my students were in compliance with Dress and Grooming Standards; but I’m very uncomfortable approaching offending female students. Can the Honor Code Office help? Answer: It is best to cover the topic adequately in the syllabus and introductory comments at the outset; then follow up with general public comments along the way. If there are still have offenders who don’t “get it,” give the Honor Code Office a call. They will take it from there.

8. Question: Some of my students come to my class on the upper campus in P.E. clothing. They say it is “BYU issue”, so it’s legal, but the shorts are well above their knees. Is that appropriate? Answer: No! Although P.E. issue is appropriate for the course or activity for which it was issued, it is not appropriate for general wear in any other academic or public area. Invite the student in for a confidential interview, point this out, and teach a principle. Let the Honor Code Office know if they can help.

9. Question: A guy in one of my classes wears sideburns clear to the bottom of his earlobes. His hair is cut above his ears and collar, but it always looks windblown. His shorts come to the knee, but he has hairy legs. And not only that, on the warmer days, he wears sandals without socks! He and I have talked about his appearance, but he claims he is in full compliance with BYU Dress and Grooming Standards. I disagree. Which one of us is right? Answer: It sounds like he has a good case. Trimmed sideburns to the bottom of the ear lobe are permitted, along with hair which is off the ear and collar. Shorts to the knee and sandals, even without socks, are allowed. No mention is made of a windblown hairstyle or hairy legs in the Honor Code.

10. Question: Although I support the BYU Honor Code, I really don’t want to get involved with the hassle of enforcing Dress and Grooming standards in my classes. How can I help without getting bogged down in the details?Answer:

– Be a personal example.
– Publish a clear statement supporting the Honor Code in your syllabus.
– Be vocally supportive in your classes.
– Call the Honor Code Office, or the Student Honor Association (SHA), if either of them could help.

P. S. Yes, I noticed that I never said anything about BYU-H except to include them in the grouping of BYU campuses (there are more, actually). Do they do anything? I assume that they are at least allowed to wear shorts.