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 (https://bycommonconsent.com/…/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.

The Interpreter Stumbles over the JSPP

Since it’s inception (at Olive Garden ;>) in 2012 the Interpreter has published an article or book review every Friday. That’s over 300 pieces of “scholarship”! Among the publications are a number of high quality pieces. The vast majority of things they publish though, are mediocre at best; and far too many of their publications are just downright embarrassing for Latter-day Saints. We ran a couple of posts two years ago, for instance, on Duane Boyce’s 122 page “review” of the work of Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, and Grant Hardy. To repeat what I said on one of those posts: Givens, et. al are not above critique, but what Boyce offers is not thoughtful critique. His aim is to say what is necessary to steer others away from them—to erode confidence in them as sources of faithful scholarship; all the while denying this is what he’s doing. This is, as a matter of fact, a repeated M.O. at the Interpreter; they poison the well that other faithful scholars have dug. It’s now two years since Boyce’s earlier piece, and he is still publishing these reviews.

Their latest attempt to poison the well is to discredit the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Gee’s review of the latest volume points out hundreds of “errors.” Gee concludes, “Producing it incorrectly is arguably worse than not producing it at all.” While notably different from Boyce’s tactics, Gee is still bombastic, condemning, and aghast in his rhetoric. The problem, though, is that Gee is wrong. The vast majority of the “errors” are interpretational choices that align with the style guide detailed in the front of every volume. Gee neither understands the style guide nor leaves room for alternate readings of documents that he has no training to read. Indeed, while he is a trained Egyptologist, and the volume does deal with the Book of Abraham among other related things, he has no training in 19th century documentary history. I suspect that all of this plays a role as to why even BYU Studies refused to publish Gee’s review. Now the Interpreter has removed all original comments on the review and has added a number of significant edits to the review. See if you can guess which of these two sentences is a new addition:

“It is regrettable that although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counts several faithful Egyptologists among its membership, the editors deliberately chose not to involve them in any serious way. It is true that two of that number were given a month to peer review the volume and some of their suggestions were accepted, but no photographs were included in what was reviewed, nor did the Egyptologists see the appendix on the Egyptian characters.”

To my knowledge this is the first time the Interpreter has made substantive edits to a published paper. I suspect that there are authorities in either SLC or BYU that have pressured them to do this.

Articles at the Interpreter are supposedly peer reviewed, meaning that other scholars vet the quality of the work. This is usually done by removing the names of the authors so that scholars will judge the work on its merits. The names of reviewers are also usually withheld. The Interpreter, however, does not remove the names of the authors. This facilitates a system where people that are a part of the in-group have an easier time publishing their work. You can tell a lot about a journal by who they ask to do the peer review. For the Interpreter this is mostly a small group of the same folks, many of which do not have the proper training to vet quality scholarship. Imagine spending decades of your life to master a discipline, and then after submitting your work to a journal, a person who’s been interested in it as hobby (or perhaps is still a young undergraduate) peer reviews it. This would never happen at a respectable journal, but this kind of thing does happen at the Interpreter (and this is one reason why those with proper training for the most part do not submit their work there).None of this is surprising given that the founder of the Interpreter has barely published any peer-reviewed work in his field over his 40+ year career (I can’t find more than six articles and one book). This would not meet the standards at any institution that BYU sees as a peer; and it is an embarrassment for many at BYU.

As I’ve said in a previous post, the truth of the matter is that the Interpreter is to scholarship what McDonalds is to fine dining. Both create fast and tasty items for consumption, and if consumed in moderation both have a few decent things to offer. But anyone expecting quality scholarship from the Interpreter is more likely to see a Mc Filet Mignon in a drive thru near them.

Not even at BYU, where professors must publish research to be promoted (and gain BYU’s version of tenure), does publishing with the Interpreter count toward their research requirements. And even the College of Religious Education’s new Continuing Faculty Status guidelines rule out places like the Interpreter as an academic publishing outlet. The Interpreter might be run by faithful men (where are the women?) who on occasion publish decent scholarship, but “scholarship” such as Boyce’s (and Gee’s) serve as a reminder why the Interpreter is not considered scholarship by the larger community of scholars. Bad scholarship is not, indeed cannot be, faithful scholarship.

Early Anglo-American and British Descriptions of Native American Skin Color: Updating a Recent Paper

The Book of Mormon Studies Association is soon going to host its third annual conference, again in Logan, Utah at Utah State University from October 11–12, 2019. Having attended each of the two previous conferences I can simply state that the conference is growing and there have been many papers presented at the various sessions that have been thought-provoking, sparking ideas or at least responses to ideas I might not have considered if I had not attended.

One of those came the first year the conference was held, 2017, as a bright PhD student in the History department at the University of Utah, Jeremy Talmage, presented a paper entitled, “Black, White, and Red All Over: Race and the Book of Mormon.” In his presentation Talmage seemed to be arguing that readers of the Book of Mormon had for the previous 187 years had been misreading the text all along. While the Book of Mormon might describe the Lamanites as having a “skin of blackness” (2 Ne. 5:21) no one in early American history had called Native Americans “black” that he could find. He had searched all over in newspapers and books and had found nothing. So, early on in the book’s history readers of the Book of Mormon had imposed images of Native Americans onto the text’s description of the Lamanites and readers had been simply following that mistake ever since. The book never called them “red,” which is something you might expect in the early national period because that was the most common term used to describe Native Americans.

During the Q&A after the session the room seemed a little confused Talmage’s paper. He had argued based on one of the connections between Lamanites and Native Americans that the majority of readers since the book was published had mistakenly read the Lamanites as Native Americans, but what about all of the other connections? He claimed that the prevalent reading was mistaken but didn’t offer an alternative. I raised my hand and asked about other descriptions in the Book of Mormon that seem to be pretty clear connections to rhetoric used often in the early national period to describe Native Americans, like the constant reference to their “idleness” or being “idle” (cf. 1 Ne. 12:23; 2 Ne. 5:24; Alma 24:18), living “in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents” (Alma 22:28) and the counting of time as based on the number of “moons” (Omni 1:21). I asked that if you take the descriptions of the Lamanites holistically and include more than just the blackness or darkness (the more common phrase in the Book of Mormon) of their skin color doesn’t the book seem to intentionally be describing them in ways reminiscent of early nineteenth century Native Americans?

Although I failed to also include at the time the fact that Joseph Smith, Jr. believed that the Book of Mormon Lamanites were Native Americans, and that in Doctrine and Covenants 30:6 Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, Jr. are said to go on a mission to the nineteenth-century Lamanites (the Native Americans; see also Doctrine and Covenants 3:20; 49:24), Talmage agreed with me. The other descriptions of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon do make it pretty clear that the Lamanites were the predecessors to the Native Americans. I was dumbstruck and did not know how to follow up because it seemed so contradictory to his entire thesis, then the session ended and we all headed on our way.

Since then I have seen a few people reference Talmage’s paper as if his conclusions are set in stone, particularly that, as Thomas Wayment put it in the BYU Religious Education Review (Winter 2018): 7, Talmage showed “that early Americans, including Joseph Smith, consistently described American Indians as red-skinned, not black-skinned (as in the Book of Mormon).” Like most historical topics, the actual picture of early American descriptions of the color of Native American skin is much more complicated than what Talmage presented in his paper. After about the fourth or fifth time I saw another person share Talmage’s claim I decided to look a little closer at early American literature to see what I could find.

Unfortunately, as tends to happen in Mormon studies fairly often, rather than double and triple checking Talmage’s work others were simply accepting it and moving forward as if it was an established conclusion. This is one of the reasons why the Book of Mormon Studies Association’s annual conference has not really included the public (although it has not only been lay Mormons who have cited Talmage’s paper), because the papers share preliminary work and not necessarily well-established and publishable essays. Many of them are simply not yet at the stage where the scholars have engaged critically with other scholars in their field on what they have written, which is why they present at conferences like these.

I will update Talmage’s claim that no one in early America, as far as he could tell, ever described Native Americans as black or having a skin of blackness with only three sources that I found in my research in a relatively short amount of time. The first source comes from the travels to America in 1795, 1796, and 1797 of Irish explorer Isaac Weld. His travel accounts were published soon after his travels and sold so well that by 1799 there was a second edition already in print. In the ensuing decades Weld’s travels were reprinted in William Fordyce Mavor’s twenty-eight volume series A general collection of voyages and travels, including the most interesting records of navigators and travellers, from the discovery of America by Columbus, in 1492, to the travels of Lord Valentia, originally published between 1796–1801 in London and 1796–1803 in New York. In Weld’s description of the Native Americans he comments in Volume XXIV on some of the similarities and differences between their “complexion” and European complexions. He notes that Native Americans “commonly” have “a copper color” complexion, but he goes on to complicate this generalization. According to Weld the complexion of Native American skin is copper,

“but…varies in the most surprising manner; some of them having no darker skins than the French or Spaniards, while others are nearly black. The contemplation of this fact, has induced many French missionaries, and other persons, who have resided for a considerable time among the Indians, to suppose, that their colour does not naturally differ from that of the nations of Europe, but that the darkness prevalent among them is to be solely attributed to their use of unguents, and to their constant exposure to the ardent rays of the sun, and the smoke of wood fires. It is indeed a well known fact, that their complexion at their birth is much lighter than in their advanced years; and it is equally true, that they endeavour, by every means in their power, to render their skins dark, imagining it will contribute greatly to the improvement of their personal appearance;”

Mavor goes on to comment on Weld’s description by providing the example of, “The Missisaguis, residing in the vicinage of the lake Ontario, are represented as the darkest of any Indians seen by our traveller, in the course of his researches; yet, even among these, are several individuals, whose complexions are comparatively light, which seems to corroborate Mr. Weld’s assertion, that the variety of hues is more particularly confined to certain families than to the tribes. The least variety is among the females, few of whom are darker than what we term a dirty copper-colour” (Mavor, A general collection of voyages and travels, 144–145; this is also quoted in Christopher Kelly, A New and Complete System of Universal Geography [London: Thomas Kelly, 1819], 554.). In the second decade of the nineteenth century this popular traveler, Isaac Weld, wrote a nuanced description of Native Americans. Although his writings did not greatly influence popular rhetoric about the color of Native American skin, the fact that he was engaging with European views prior to his own writing, and soon after Mavor’s engagement with Weld’s description, highlights the fact that not all Europeans accepted the idea that all Native Americans were simply “red.” Some were actually viewed as having a similar tone as Europeans, and others were considered to be black.

Hugh Williamson, a resident of New York writing for The Philosophical Magazine and Journal in 1816, wrote an article entitled, “Observations on the Hypothesis of some modern Writers, that America has been peopled by a distinct Race of Men and Animals; with some Proofs arising from the Natural History and Appearances of the new Continent in favour of the Mosaic Account of the Deluge.” While it seems pretty certain that Williamson would have disagreed with some of Weld’s and Mavor’s descriptions of the Native Americans, he too complicates Talmage’s claim that early Americans simply described Native Americans as “red.”

After noting that the extreme differences in skin color found throughout Europe are not exactly found in America, Williamson bases his understanding on the effect geography can have on skin tone, stating that

“Although no part of America is fitted to the production of a black skin, nor would many parts of this continent be expected to produce a skin perfectly fair, among the original inhabitants; we are not to believe, as some writers have alleged, that the American Indians are all of one colour. Their skin is tinged with a variety of shades between white and black; but there are Indians, as we are told, above the latitude of 45 degrees north, who are nearly white; and there are Indians in Guiana and Brazil, at a distance from the coast, whose skins are very dark.”

Hugh Williamson, “Observations on the Hypothesis of some modern Writers, that America has been peopled by a distinct Race of Men and Animals; with some Proofs arising from the Natural History and Appearances of the new Continent in favour of the Mosaic Account of the Deluge,” in Alexander Tilloch, ed., The Philosophical Magazine and Journal: Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal and Fine Arts, Geology, Agriculture, Manufactures and CommerceVol. XLVIII for July, August, September, October, November, and December, 1816 (London: Printed by Richard and Arthur Taylor, 1816), 205–207.

For Williamson the biological reality of the color of Native American skin is on a spectrum between white and black. Native American tones might not get as light or as dark as what Williamson says you might see in Europe, it is problematic to simply state that they are all of one color. There is much more of a variety than some of his contemporaries then, and clearly many today, seemed to believe.

The third and final source describes a Native American who likely had Vitiligo, a condition where an individual loses the pigment in their skin. According to the author, Mr. Benedict, the Native American was happy about his turn to white, although, as Benedict describes, there were still certain parts of his body that had remained black:

“The following is an extract of a letter from Mr. Benedict, of Lebanon, to the Rev. President Stiles of Yale College, giving an account of a remarkable change in the complexion of an Indian.“This Indian is about forty years of age; he calls himself by the name of Samuel Adams, and was born at Frammington in the State of Connecticut; he is tall and well made, his hair is long and coarse, and of the pure Indian black, but grows out of a skin as white as a lily. He tells me that he began to whiten about two years before I saw him, which was in July 1786; the white first appeared upon his breast, and gradually spread from thence. I carefully examined him, and found him to be entirely white, excepting the prominent parts of his face, viz., his forehead, cheek bones, nose, and about his chin, which were of the pure Indian colour, and I think darker than common for that nation; the colors in his face did not form a shade by running into each other, but were both of them entire to the very line of contact, and exhibited a very grotesque appearance. His arms were white, but his hands were pyed, and his fingers the natural Indian color; it was the same with his feet as with his hands, they were interspersed with the natural tawny; his toes were black, but his legs and thighs are wholly white: what is worthy of observation is, that the white is perfectly natural, and very fair for an Englishman. I compared him with fourteen or fifteen other persons who were at my house, of both sexes, and he was visibly the fairest: he told me, that he enjoyed an uninterrupted state of health both before and since he began to whiten. He appears pleased with his transmutation; but, alas! he is still Indian enough to disregard his promise, and to intoxicate himself with spirits. By information of others, who have seen him since these observations were made the remaining black still continues to disappear.””

“American News,” in The Literary Magazine and British Review (January, 1789): 72–73.

For all of the authors quoted above Native American skin tones were viewed in the early national period as more complex than Talmage’s paper suggested. For one author some Native Americans are as fair as some Frenchmen or Spaniards, and some others are black. This blackness of skin can be attributed to their habits, their standards of beauty (another connection to the Book of Mormon, although the Book of Mormon assumes the opposite; cf. 2 Ne. 5:21), or to their exposure to the sun.

For the second author most Native Americans fall somewhere on a spectrum of lighter or darker reddish-brown skin, but, as the author says, “Their skin is tinged with a variety of shades between white and black.” And, finally, the third author viewed the change in one Native American’s skin color from black to white as something of an oddity, mentioning often that his health continued to be okay throughout the change, and unaware that some people can lose skin pigmentation.

Each of these sources offer a counter-narrative to the one presented by Jeremy Talmage at the Book of Mormon Studies Association conference in 2017. It is unfortunate that several authors since Talmage presented his paper have treated it as if held set conclusions, and hope that scholars within Mormon studies would be more careful moving forward to not simply accept the claims of a conference presentation but constructively engage with them and seek to complicate them more thoroughly by more rigorous recourse to the historical record.

Edit: I was completely unaware until this morning that Jeremy Talmage’s paper, “Black, White, and Red All Over: Skin Color in the Book of Mormon,” was going to be published today in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 28 (2019): 46-68.