Shameless Self-Promotion, or Thoughts on Writing an Apologetic Article

The most recent issue of the FARMS Review has arrived, and it finally contains my article, “‘Secret Combinations’: A Legal Analysis”. I actually wrote this article two years ago, so it has been a while in coming. It is fun to finally see it in print. The article is essentially apologetic. I am trying to respond to the claim that the phrase “secret combinationâ€? was exclusively associated with Masonry in Joseph Smith’s time and that as author of the Book of Mormon Joseph was producing, among other things, an anti-Masonic pamphlet. The real question, of course, is why I would bother with such a project in the first place.

The short answer is that I wrote the piece because I could. At the time I was reading Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, and in the footnotes (one must always remember that Quinn’s most interest material is in the footnotes) I came across Quinn’s discussion of the arguments raging around the anti-Masonic thesis of Book of Mormon origins. He mentioned that some scholars had tried to use legal materials to understand the contemporary meaning of “secret combinations,� but the approach to judicial cases struck me as wrong. I did a bit more research and found that I was right. People had been basically misreading or misunderstanding 19th century case law. I did some digging around on computerized versions of 19th century cases and this article resulted. It was a fun little project.

Of course, there is some value to apologetics beyond the fun of playing around with Westlaw. As Daniel Peterson once explained to me, the value of apologetics is to show that one needn’t crucify one’s mind in order to be a Mormon. At best, such work can show that one can reasonably hold key Mormon beliefs. Contrary to what a lot of apologetics critics claim, I think that this is the main goal of most intellectual defenders of Mormonism. They aren’t trying to prove the faith. They are simply try to show that belief is not a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy.

Finally, I think that there is a selfish/political reason for publishing apologetic articles. They act as an important signal. Think of Hugh Nibley, who wrote some harshly critical things about Mormonism in his time. According to Neal Maxwell, the reason that Nibley could get away with doing this was because no one doubted his core commitment to the Church or to the Gospel. Of course Nibley’s apologetics (and apologetics in general) is not without its problems and excesses. This is to be expected of virtually any endeavor. Still, apologetics can be a useful way of signaling to the broader community the ultimate religious orientation of one’s intellectual meandering.

And, of course, writing articles on Mormonism is fun, which is just as well. Neither the FARMS Review nor Dialogue are likely to be of any use when it comes to getting an academic job or tenure.

23 comments for “Shameless Self-Promotion, or Thoughts on Writing an Apologetic Article

  1. Congrats on your publication, Nate. You’ll have to find a way to work that into a law review footnote some time.

  2. It’s a good article too, Nate. I read it a few days ago but thought I’d let you do the honors of bringing it up.

  3. Nate,

    Congratulations on your rise to power and prominence. Might I suggest that you have FARMS update your online biography. It seems they believe you are still just about to enter law school.

  4. “Neither the FARMS Review nor Dialogue are likely to be of any use when it comes to getting an academic job or tenure.”


  5. Mike,

    Anyone looking for an academic job in Mormon Studies is going to be looking in vain for a long time. There’s no such thing at the moment.

  6. Tenure decisions at reputable places are typically not based on the mere fact that one has published one’s words, but that the published work has undergone significant peer review, so that there is some average assurance of minimal quality.

    In economics the standard is the editor assigns two (or three, depending) other economists with expertise in the subject matter to review the paper. They both must give the paper the thumbs-up or the paper is rejected at the journal.

    Obviously, some journals will take just about anything that dribbles out of one’s mouth, whereas others are extremely selective. Tenure should typically be about getting several publications in very selective places. In other disciplines, such as history, I think the idea is to get a _book_ published at a reputable (peer reviewed) press.

    I’m guessing neither FARMS nor Dialogue have sufficiently rigorous peer review to meet the standards at a top academic place. But I don’t really know.

  7. It is somewhat sad that there isn’t a good LDS history journal that is peer reviewed. (Is the MHA journal peer reviewed?) I think having a journal with that focus but with a higher standard would be nice. Perhaps the University of Illinois would be interested in doing something like that? It would avoid the problems that BYU would have with such a journal. (i.e. controversial stuff — although to be fair BYU Studies did publish Zina Huntington’s journals)

  8. Both JMH and BYU Studies are peer reviewed. Furthermore, I know that BYU Studies, at least, gets non-BYU peer reviewers. I don’t know if Dialogue is or not.

  9. Dialogue is reviewed–my recently-submitted paper had three reviewers, and my dad is sometimes asked to review science-themed stuff. (He always says they’re awful; some of them still get published. But then, he thinks everything’s awful–you should have heard the things he said about my jr. high book reports :) )

  10. Nate: how did you get your paper published? Did you write it up and then submit it uninvited? Or did someone at FARMS solicit it? Or none of the above?

  11. It has been a while since I submitted it. I think that I sent a copy of the paper to Dan Petersen. My understanding is that he passed it around and then told me they were interested in publishing it. It was quite a bit less formal than my experience with BYU Studies, which involved lengthy revision suggestions from reviewers.

  12. All of these journals have peer review (Sunstone, as a magazine, does not), but some are more or less formal than the others. In my experience, BYU Studies has the most rigorous and formal review process of the Mormon Studies journals. (But then, it often seems to be the least interesting; I wonder whether there is a correlation there? )

  13. Of course, having a spiffy review regime in place is a useful way to try to assure quality, but whether it will produce that result depends on the quality of the papers being submitted, and the quality of the reviewers.

    Moreover, Mormon Studies is a field that is still in the process of establishing its academic credibility, and peer review regimes at journals can only contribute so much to that process. There is a more informal process of “peer review” of a journal, whereby a journal comes to be seen as a publication that consistently delivers quality. Journals that have credibility in this way are the journals one must publish in to make a tenure case. (Correct me if I say amiss, Jim)

    I think the main reason publications in Mormon Studies journals don’t do much for a tenure case is not the particulars of review regimes at particular journals. Rather, Mormon Studies (let alone any particular journla) simply doesn’t command the respect or attention of enough scholars yet. Of course, it should, but this “should” has force on both parties: more scholars in general should recognize its importance, but also we who do Mormon Studies need to do more work to command (and earn) respect.

  14. I think Ben’s observation is right: peer-review is important, but the reputation of the journal is more imporant.

  15. Is there any sort of academic journal stock exchange where one could ascertain the reputation of certain journals? Or maybe a “Do I Command Respect or Not?” ranking-type web site.

    I’m only half-joking — I would assume that the a journal’s reputation is one of those things that one acquires through interactions with colleagues and reading in the field, but it’d be nice if us novices could at least get a general sense of things from some central location.

  16. William:

    There is a well defined hierarchy among law reviews that laregly (but not completely) tracks the rankings of the law schools. For example, I think it is generally understood that Chicago is a better review than Stanford, regardless of Stanford’s current place in the rankings. NYU is a good school, but Columbia is a better law review. Harvard Law Review is better than Yale L.J. regardless of school rankings, etc. Of course law reviews are very strange and unlike most academic journals they compete with one another for manuscripts because multiple submissions are allowed.

  17. Law reviews can be “ranked” with a pretty high degree of accuracy if you use the US News chart. There’s a bit of error, especially at the top, but typically not more than 1-2 places off. By looking at the chart, you would conclude that Columbia is above Cornell, that Cornell is above B.U., and that B.U. is above Arizona. Those are all assessments that would be considered true by legal academics.

    At some point between 50 and 100, it becomes a lot more diffuse. Beyond that, even more so.

    In addition, there is the problem of factoring in non-flagship journals at very good schools, versus flagship journals at less highly ranked schools. Where does the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review fit in? (It’s quite highly regarded, and is certainly a top 50 journal in its own right). Or the Columbia Business Law Review? Or the Yale Journal on Legislation? Or Georgetown on Immigration? That becomes a more complicated question, and I don’t think it has a solid answer.

  18. Jim, does your discipline have many (any?) respected venues that are not peer reviewed? In economics, peer review is a necessary condition, though not sufficient.

    So for example, the Journal of the Economics of Rabbit Farming, if it existed, would almost certainly be peer reviewed, but with very low standards and probably extremely high acceptance rates. The American Economic Review has a much higher reputation, but this is precisely related to the difficulty of publishing in the journal. Hence it is about the rigor of the review process. Reputation and Review Rigor are not perfectly correlated, but they are tightly linked. This is pretty much the case across disciplines, right?

    Interdisciplinary journals tend to be easier to get articles into, and so are accorded lower weight. Presumably this is true in disciplines besides economics. Thus Mormon studies journals, which are pretty interdisciplinary, take a hit from this, besides whatever bias there might be against religion or Mormons. This is for good reason, publishing in those journals does not provide a strong signal that you are a high quality academic who deserves tenure. You may be high quality, but the journal accepts both high and low quality work, so it does not provide much good information.

    Actually, the fact that you are spending your pre-tenure time publishing in uncertain venues is itself a sign that maybe you aren’t high quality, because if you were you would be concentrating on difficult to get into journals (opportunity cost and all).

  19. Frank, if there are respected journals that aren’t peer-reviewed in philosophy, I don’t know of them. I would be very surprised. The situation you describe in econ is much like that in philosophy, and I assume the same is true for other disciplines.

    You are right about interdisciplinary journals, which is a problem for those who really are doing interdisciplinary work. Some of my early work, for example, was in the philosophy of psychology, generally considered an interdisciplinary field. Not until I published in The American Psychologist, was anyone interested in what I was doing. The moral is, “If you’re doing interdisciplinary work, try to find ways of publishing in non-interdisciplinary venues.”

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