FAIR Conference ends as new Mormon scholarly journal begins

Published: Saturday, Aug. 4 2012 9:15 p.m. MDT

Dr. Daniel Peterson speaks about the role of Mormon apologetics during the 2012 FAIR Conference in Sandy.

R. Scott Lloyd, Deseret News

SANDY — Daniel C. Peterson, former editor of "Mormon Studies" for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, took advantage of the spotlight afforded to him as the concluding speaker during Friday's final session of the 2012 Conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) to announce the formation of a new resource for those interested in scholarly perspectives on the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (www.mormoninterpreter.com) is intended as a "nonprofit, independent, peer-reviewed educational journal" focused on LDS scriptures, Peterson said.

"We will exist primarily online," said Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and a regular Deseret News columnist. "Our goal will be to increase understanding of scripture."

Peterson, who has a reputation as a bold and aggressive defender of Mormonism, acknowledged that Mormon apologetics — defined earlier in his presentation as "defending the position of the LDS Church through the use of evidence and reason" — will be part of Interpreter's mission and ministry.

"We won't be solely apologetic," Peterson said, "but we won't be afraid of apologetics, either."

Peterson was affiliated with BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship until recently when a series of changes led to his dismissal as editor of the Institute's Mormon Studies Review.

Peterson has been critical of the changes, which he says includes a significantly reduced emphasis on apologetic research. That is problematic, he says, because the Institute has been specifically charged with "describing and defending the Restoration."

Maxwell Institute officials disagree, indicating that widespread assumptions that "the change of editorship we have recently announced for the Mormon Studies Review signals some kind of fundamental rejection of apologetics is incorrect."

Incorrect or not, Peterson believes that "apologetics is an important part of religious studies." He hopes that in addition to doing ground-breaking scholarly research in areas related to LDS scriptures, Interpreter will continue in the apologetic tradition of Peter and Paul from the New Testament and Alma from the Book of Mormon in "giving reasonable, rational arguments in support of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Peterson's announcement was the last item on a FAIR Conference agenda that covered a wide range of LDS-oriented topics in front of the largest number of conference attendees ever ("We were essentially sold out," FAIR president Scott Gordon said, indicating that 409 tickets to the conference were sold, and 80 people listened to conference proceedings online). In addition to Peterson, a FAIR favorite, conferencegoers heard from BYU law professor Jack Welch, who is known for his groundbreaking research into the existence of an ancient Hebrew literary form called "chiasmus" within the Book of Mormon text.

Welch said "it is highly unlikely" that Joseph Smith knew anything about chiasmus when he translated the Book of Mormon, which contributes to the book's truth claims.

"Beyond that," Welch continued, "it also proves that the book is orderly and not chaotic, that it appears to have been carefully written, that it is more profound than some had assumed and it also enhances our appreciation for the book's beauty.

"I know this book to be true," Welch testified. "I also know it to be beautiful."

Other Friday speakers included Brant Gardener, a doctoral student in Mesoamerican ethno-history, who spoke about the different ways directions were determined in Book of Mormon times; John Gee, a professor of Egyptology who discussed the Book of Abraham papyri; and writer and editor Don Bradley, who explained what is known about temple worship in the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon transcript that were lost by Joseph Smith. Among presenters on Thursday was John L. Sorenson, professor emeritus of anthropology at BYU and a long-time proponent of the theory of a limited, Central American setting for Book of Mormon events.

In a forthcoming book, "Mormon's Codex," Sorenson has identified 420 "correspondences" between Meso-American civilizations, as understood by scholars, and the Book of Mormon. He listed many of those similarities for the conference audience.

Royal Skousen, professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University, spoke of his Critical Text Project, an effort to restore by scholarly means the original text of the Book of Mormon. Skousen cited a number of discrepancies between the printer's manuscript of the book and the text as it stands today, suggesting that in those instances, the original is more doctrinally and internally consistent.

Darius Gray, past president of the Genesis Group, an arm of the LDS Church organized in 1971 to meet the needs of black members, recounted the involvement of Mormons of African descent, stemming from the early days of the Church, with pioneers such as Elijah Abel, Green Flake and Elizabeth Jane Manning James. Gray suggested that the black "Mormon Moment" has been going on for the past 182 years.

Ugo Perego, a Mormon geneticist educated at Brigham Young University and the University of Pavia in Italy, spoke of DNA research pertaining to Native American populations as he rebutted past claims by critics that the Book of Mormon can be dismissed on genetic grounds.

Email: jwalker@desnews.com; rscott@desnews.com

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