It wasn't fair.
In the mid-1990s, Juliann Reynolds, Scott Gordon and other Mormons were under constant danger of losing their Internet provider privileges if they attempted to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
They navigated the rough-and-tumble world of America Online message boards, places where people could post comments on various topics such as religion. AOL used volunteers to monitor comments. These volunteers could give out warnings for what they considered poor behavior. Three warnings and a person could be banned.
Mormons who defended their religion, however, were subject to warnings and electronic excommunication.
One of the boards even required people to electronically "sign" a creedal affirmation before they could post — effectively banishing Mormons. "We're paying dues to AOL, and yet they are hosting a large message board system that some religions are not allowed on," Reynolds said.
Meanwhile, on the segregated Mormon message board, critics were allowed to post without warnings. Reynolds, Gordon and about 30 regular LDS posters defended against attacks, answered questions and built a community under siege.
Some opponents would post excerpts from the LDS temple ceremony. Others would stalk Mormons to other online places and attack them there. Many of the attacks were nothing more than cut-and-paste quotes from anti-Mormon Web sites outside the AOL world.
"It was just ugly. Very hateful," Reynolds said. "It was very discriminatory. They were pretty much allowed to run all over us and there wasn't much we could do about it."
After answering hundreds of posts about polygamy, the defenders started using humor to throw critics off balance. They posted over-the-top, silly replies claiming that Mormon men indeed had many wives — but that the women all lived in the Bahamas. They told how the women's extravagant lifestyle was funded by creating a traveling exhibit for evangelicals that featured biblical artifacts such as Adam's fig leaf.
It was silly, but it broke the tension. Most of the critics didn't know how to respond to the spoofs. "Mormons are very funny people," Reynolds said. "(We'd post) anything we could think of just to throw them off."
Even in the silliness, the group began to see a need for a place online where Mormons could go to scrutinize anti-Mormon attacks. They wanted a place where common criticisms could be counteracted by common sense.
A place where the rules were fair.
They organized themselves as the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, or FAIR.
Reynolds purchased a Web URL and the software needed to run it. FAIR posted answers to frequently asked questions. Soon the Web site, now at www.fairlds.org, added its own message board.
It was still a strident place, but the FAIR crowd could set its own rules on behavior.
Unlike FARMS, BYU's Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, FAIR was a clearinghouse for information. It took research, classified it and applied it to specific questions. FAIR tried to make scholarship easier to read for laypeople.
FAIR had decided to hold its first conference on Mormon apologetics, a term that has nothing to do with apologizing for but rather defending religion. The agenda was full, but attendance was sparse. There were more presenters than listeners.
As each year passed, the crowds at the conference grew. The crowds on the Web site grew as well. This presented a dilemma.
FAIR was born out of the confrontational world of message-board combat, where critics lobbed their bombs and defenders launched their rockets. As more people came to FAIR for information, many weren't interested in a contentious exchange. Although successful, the message board confused those who just wanted answers and information they could trust.
FAIR had outgrown its roots.
In 2006, FAIR's leadership made the difficult decision to divest the message board from the Web site and the organization. The board still operates separately at www.MormonApologetics.org.
"That was difficult for me, because that was my beginnings, and we had created a really successful, thriving message board," Reynolds said.
Today, FAIR embraces a less confrontational mission. Its goal is to provide reliable information from a faithful perspective.
FAIR has an "Ask the Apologists" service for people to send in questions to volunteer researchers, who number about 100. Answers are also posted on its wiki, www.fairmormon.org, where updates can be made on an ongoing basis.
The FAIR blog, www.fairblog.org, keeps an eye on current issues and allows comments. The site recently began posting information, links and sources related to current gospel doctrine Sunday School classes.
The main site continues to have a host of articles, e-books, audio files and even an online bookstore.
Articles from past conferences are also on the site. This year's Mormon Apologetics Conference, the 11th of its kind, will be today and Friday at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy, Utah. FAIR even held a conference last March in Germany.
Gordon, who became president in 2001, Reynolds and other FAIR leaders such as vice president Allen Wyatt and FAIR chairman John Lynch are excited about the future.
"So many have come in," Reynolds said. "And they bring such a variety of skills. It's been amazing to me that when we needed something, generally, somebody will show up that has that particular skill."
One challenge is the shift from defending against primarily religious-based criticisms to secular attacks. Strident secular criticism requires different responses than religious-based criticism. Information on FAIR is beginning to address this changing source of concern.
The small group of Mormons under siege on the Internet has come a long way. The defenders moved out of their isolated community and embraced a larger Internet world. They welcomed other volunteers to expand FAIR's expertise. They matured in their message and in their goals.
"I'm really pleased with how we made that change," Reynolds said, "and we don't engage in any direct confrontations. We're just trying to take information that we see out there that we think is incorrect … and respond to it."
It's still about making things fair.
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