Church History Conference

Abraham_Facsimile_2There is a Church History Conference at BYU March 7-8 entitled “Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World” (see details below). I find two things interesting about this conference:

1. The structure of the conference itself. The Church History Department and the BYU Department of Religion are co-sponsoring the conference, and while most of the lineup consists of BYU Religion professors there is also a significant lineup of non-BYU scholars, including Richard Bushman, Matt Bowman, and Kevin Barney. This strikes me as something different than I might have expected.

2. The content of the conference. To date much of the discussion about Joseph Smith and the ancient world has been a polemic between those who see Joseph’s knowledge and use of ancient themes, symbols, practices, and the like to be clear evidence of divine intervention, and those who see Joseph as a crafty religious plagiarist, creatively selecting a la carte from the various ancient studies resources he came across in early 19th century America. Again, the content of the conference appears to be taking a different tack.

If nothing else, this conference strikes me as another sign that Elder Snow (who will speak at the conference) is following in the footsteps of his most recent predecessor as head of Church History. Once again, while Bro. Arrington may have lost some key battles, it looks like he won the war.



Conference Program:

Symposium Committee

Lincoln H. Blumell (Co-Chair), Department of Ancient Scripture

Matthew J. Grey (Co-Chair), Department of Ancient Scripture

Steven C. Harper, LDS Church History Department

Andrew H. Hedges, LDS Church History Department

Linda Godfrey (Secretary), Department of Church History and Doctrine

Thursday, March 7 – Brigham Young University (Provo)

9:00-10:00 (HBLL Auditorium): Key Note Address

Lincoln H. Blumell (Ancient Scripture, BYU), Welcome (10min)

Richard L. Bushman (History, Columbia University), “The Academic Study of Antiquity in Antebellum America” (45min)

10:15-11:45 (HBLL Auditorium): Scholars, Scripts, and Folklore of Antiquity

Andrew H. Hedges (LDS Church History Department), Moderator

Richard E. Bennett (Church History, BYU), “‘To The Most Learned Men of this Generation’: Martin Harris and His Visits East, 1828” (25min)

Michael Hubbard MacKay (LDS Church History Department), “‘Git Them Translated’: Joseph Smith, Ancient Characters, and Translating the Plates” (25min)

            Steven C. Harper (LDS Church History Department), “Joseph Smith’s Relationships to Hermeticism and Masonry” (25min)

Richard L. Bushman (History, Columbia University), Respondent (15min)

12:00-1:15 (Wilkinson Center Sky Room): Lunch for Presenters and Respondent

1:30-3:30 (HBLL Auditorium): Joseph Smith and Ancient Texts

Matthew J. Grey (Ancient Scripture, BYU), Moderator

Jared Ludlow (Ancient Scripture, BYU), “Joseph Smith’s Reading of Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha” (25min)

Lincoln H. Blumell (Ancient Scripture, BYU), “What has Palmyra to do with Jerusalem? Joseph Smith and the Writings of Flavius Josephus” (25min)

            Thomas A. Wayment (Ancient Scripture, BYU), “Joseph Smith and Early Christian Apocrypha” (25min)

Kristian S. Heal (Maxwell Institute, BYU), “Joseph Smith and the Early Church Fathers” (25min)

Benjamin E. Park (History, University of Cambridge), Respondent  (15min)

3:45-4:45 (HBLL Auditorium): Joseph Smith’s Interest in the Ancient Americas

Andrew H. Hedges (LDS Church History Department), Moderator

Mark Alan Wright (Ancient Scripture, BYU), “Joseph Smith and Native             American Artifacts” (25min)

Matthew Roper (Maxwell Institute, BYU), “Joseph Smith and the Ruins: Central             American Archaeology and Early Views about the Book of Mormon” (25min)

Andrew H. Hedges (LDS Church History Department), Respondent (10min)

5:00-6:30 (President’s Room): Dinner for Plenary and Key Note Guests

7:00-8:30 (JSB Auditorium): Plenary Session

Elder Steven E. Snow (Church Historian and Recorder), Conducting

Opening Song, “Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise”

Special Musical Number, “If You Could Hie to Kolob”

David F. Holland (History, UNLV), “Joseph Smith and Antiquity: Points of Contact between the Prophet and the Ancient Sources” (50min)

13 comments for “Church History Conference

  1. James, the one thought most on my mind is how much I wish I could attend. It looks like a fantastic conference. Hopefully there are plans for a volume of essays.

  2. I share your jealousy! One thing that globalization should – and hopefully one day will – mean is that I can sit in bed in Qatar and at least enjoy the presentations, even if I still have to miss out on all the other goods of a worthwhile conference.

    I know that there are plans or at least hopes for a book, but I don’t think there is yet a specific deal on the matter.

  3. I agree with Cameron. We tried to livestream the Brazilian Mormon Studies Conference a week ago with so-so results technically (we’re learning). I’m sure BYU has the resources to do a good job without much difficulty.

  4. James,

    This does look like an interesting conference, though I do not consider its content or its location to be remarkable. And I believe that Leonard Arrington’s views on scholarship and Church history had little or nothing to do with the decision of BYU to sponsor this event.

    As has been well documented, Brother Arrington was cashiered when the powers that be decided it was better to suppress certain inconvenient truths buried within the Church archives then to let them be published by the third member of Brother Packer’s axis of evil: scholars and intellectuals. And those members who nevertheless continued to pursue independent doctrinal and historical inquiries were pressured and intimidated. Witness the September Six.

    The recent change in the Church’s attitude towards the teaching of its history and the evolution of its doctrines is not because someone in Salt Lake had a celestial epiphany one day and said: “Gee, we ought not to discourage those who are seeking after the truth.” Rather, its policy of teaching homiletic and incomplete history—which, as Richard Bushman and Terry Givens noted last year, is replete with errors and disinformation—was laid bare by the Internet and the “Mormon Moment.”

    As Elder Snow’s predecessor observed early in 2012, members were leaving the Church “in droves” because they discovering that what they had been taught in Seminary and Institute was inaccurate and incomplete. There is no question in my mind that there would have been no change in Church’s longstanding injunction to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” if the Internet had not defeated its efforts to control the historical and doctrinal narrative.

    Faced with this development, the Church had two choices: (1) stick with the current policy, or (2) accept the fact that the genie is irretrievably out of the bottle and join the conversation in hopes of influencing its content and direction. The first option would have resulted in the Church Educational System becoming irrelevant. So, at the end of the day, this was truly a no brainer.

    The Church’s efforts to control the telling of its history and the exposition of the doctrines contained in the scriptures is not unprecedented. Many other religions have pursued similarly futile policies, ultimately drawing more attention to the things they were trying to conceal than if they had been open and upfront to begin with. And, if nothing else, beginning with administration of Joseph F. Smith, the Church has exhibited an adroit ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

    Wherever Brother Arrington may be today, I have no doubt that he is pleased with the decision of BYU to host this conference and allow outside scholars to participate. But I don’t think he is taking much credit for it, though he was, in my opinion, a courageous individual with unassailable integrity.

  5. Eric: If you build in enough background assumptions behind my comments, then I suppose I can imagine you and I having a substantive disagreement about much of what you say. In common parlance Arrington is not merely “a courageous individual with unassailable integrity” but a prominent figure head that spent his life arguing for and has come to represent the possibilities of a significantly different tack in our approach to our history (in much the same way that today Bushman is a figurehead for the possibility of serious Mormon Studies – which is undoubtedly one of the reasons he was invited as the keynote speaker). What does appear to be a substantive difference between us (though again, one would need to know the actual assumptions I make in order to see it) is that I am less of a material reductionist than you when it comes to the changes we have and are undergoing.

  6. “As Elder Snow’s predecessor observed early in 2012, members were leaving the Church “in droves” because they discovering that what they had been taught in Seminary and Institute was inaccurate and incomplete.”

    No, no, no, no. Elder Jensen never said that. Someone in the audience said members were leaving “in droves”, to which he replied: “I’m speaking of the fifteen men that are above me in the hierarchy of the Church. They really do know. And they really care. And they realize that, maybe, since Kirtland we’ve never had a period of—I’ll call it apostasy—like we’re having right now, largely over these issues.”

    The Washington Post then went on to clarify: “Jensen insists critics overstate the LDS exodus over the church’s history. ‘To say we are experiencing some Titanic-like wave of apostasy is inaccurate,’ he said.”

    (See documentation here:

    There are few things that frustrate me more than when people misquote or misrepresent Elder Jensen on this issue.

  7. Stephen, when brother Jensen was asked if the Church is aware of the problems created by people discovering disconcerting truths about our history and doctrine on the Internet and was asked, in the same breath—“What about people who are already leaving in droves?”—he responded by saying: “We are aware.” This response can rightly be construed as his acknowledgment of the magnitude of the problem as described by his interlocutor. Clearly, he didn’t dispute this characterization. He didn’t say, “Well, I wouldn’t say they’re leaving in droves ….” Indeed, his own description of the problem—equating it to the apostasy during the Kirtland era—would seem to suggest that he realizes the numbers are large and serious.

    Yes, Brother Jensen did backtrack afterwards and sought to downplay the magnitude of the problem, but his words come across as public relations damage control, spoken by someone who regrets his original candor. (By the way, your statement that “The Washington Post then went on to clarify” is inaccurate. The Post didn’t “clarify” anything; it simply quoted Jensen’s qualification of his earlier remarks.) The urgency of the problem is, perhaps, best captured by Jensen’s additional remarks during the Q&A exchange in Logan: “It’s a different generation. There’s no sense kidding ourselves, we just need to be very upfront with them and tell them what we know and give answers to what we have and call on their faith like we all do for things we don’t understand.”

    We can quibble about what Brother Jensen said, intended to say, or was trying to say, but the real question is: Has the Church created a problem for itself by teaching history that is replete with errors and disinformation? Mormon scholar Terryl Givens seems to think it has and I agree with him.

    He describes this as a “real crisis” and an “epidemic.” He said that there is a “discrepancy between a church history that has been selectively rendered through the Church Education System?and Sunday school manuals, and a less-flattering version universally accessible on the Internet … The problem is not so much the discovery of particular details that are deal breakers for the faithful; the problem is a loss of faith and trust in an institution that was less that forthcoming to begin with … And the problem is not information, the problem is betrayal. Nobody really leaves the church because there isn’t information to answer a question. And that’s one thing the church hasn’t gotten yet. People leave the church because by the time the question arises, its too late.”

    The Church now finds itself with a credibility problem that I believe will take years to overcome.

  8. James, I believe we will simply have to agree to disagree about the significance of Arrington’s contribution to the apparent recent change in the Church’s approach to teaching its doctrine and history. Arrington’s “significantly different tack in our approach to our history” was nothing more than performing historically accurate research, weighing the merits of each source, and writing history that is complete and truthful, to the best of the author’s ability. This “revolutionary methodology” is what every budding historian is taught in the academy. Anything less, is unacceptable.

    In Arrington’s day, the Church decided that it was uncomfortable with that approach, so it shut him down. Through experience, the Church has learned that its approach has failed, that the truth will eventually come out, and that the credibility of those who tried to suppress the truth will be damaged. So, it has decided to change, to become a part of the conversation instead of trying to silence it. Perhaps I have oversimplified events to some degree, but, for me, this is the most credible explanation of how we have arrived at the present day.

    Please don’t misconstrue my remarks—I have tremendous respect for the leaders of our Church. They are righteous men who have taught me a great deal about living a moral life and the importance of rendering service to others. But the one thing that the Church finds excruciatingly difficult is acknowledging past serious errors. John Turner, the author of “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet” recently penned an excellent piece on this phenomenon in the New York Times:

    If the Church could muster the courage to candidly say, “Hey, we made some big mistakes in the teaching of our history and doctrine, but we are taking steps to fix that,” I think it would be surprised by the positive reaction it would receive from members and non-members alike.

  9. Eric –

    “This response can rightly be construed as his acknowledgment of the magnitude of the problem as described by his interlocutor.”

    Except that it can’t, because he went on to say that the “in droves” idea is exaggerated. A problem? Yes. A big problem? Yes. One that needs to be corrected? Yes. But is it some gargantuan, uncorrectable problem that is putting the Church on the brink of annihilation (as many like to imagine)? Nope.

    The fact is you’re putting words into Elder Jensen’s mouth, reading his mind, and making some pretty big assumptions. Only Elder Jensen can tell us what Elder Jensen was thinking, and he went on to tell us he thinks it is “exaggerated” to say people are leaving “in droves”.

    “The Post didn’t “clarify” anything; it simply quoted Jensen’s qualification of his earlier remarks.”

    Sorry for using the wrong verb. Should have said “reported”. Does that make you happier?

    “backtrack afterwards and sought to downplay the magnitude of the problem”

    So now he’s backtracking, is he? Trying to downplay stuff, is he? Again, you’re reading a lot into his statements than are really there, and engaging in some pretty questionable mind-reading. How about we let Elder Jensen clarify his own words for himself, and not impose our assumptions on his words.

    “We can quibble about what Brother Jensen said”

    Or we can accurately quote in context what he said. Your choice.

    “Has the Church created a problem for itself by teaching history that is replete with errors and disinformation?”

    I believe in many ways it has. There needs to be better history done, especially from “correlated” channels. I’m hopeful for the future, with things like the Joseph Smith Papers Project and some of the stuff that’s recently come out of BYU.

    But the fact remains that people consistently misquote or misrepresent what Elder Jensen said, and what he was trying to convey, usually for polemical purposes. Sorry, but I think you’ve done so right here.

  10. Eric, thank you again for your comments. Despite your laborious efforts, I continue to find it difficult to see the disagreement that you’re hopeful we can agree to disagree about. Perhaps, despite my clarification, you continue to interpret my use of Arrington as a single, anomalous, prodigious node that rearranged the entire picture. I’m not sure what to do other than shrug my shoulders. Sorry if I disappoint you.

  11. James, don’t be silly–you haven’t disappointed me. I think I just misunderstood what you were trying to say. That often happens in forums like these. The fault lies with me.

    Thanks for bringing this conference to our attention. I think everyone agrees this is an extremely positive development.

    About Americans, Winston Churchill once said: “They always seem to do the right thing–after they have tried everything else.” At times, I feel this is an apt description of our church, its leaders and its members. Eventually, we get to where we are supposed to be.

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