Sep 23, 2015

How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

September 8, 2015
William Hamblin

I maintain that numerous policies adopted by a wide range of BYU administrators over the past thirty years have had the effect—intended or unintended—of destroying ancient Book of Mormon studies as a fledgling discipline. Here’s how.

College and Department Politics. Although many people might find it incredible, every single BYU administrator on every level of the administration has explicitly discouraged me from doing ancient Book of Mormon studies in my annual performance (“stewardship”) reviews. They have all explicitly told me to focus my research and publications on non-Book of Mormon topics, such as the crusades. In part this was good advice on their part; they were telling me if you want to be successful at BYU, don’t publish on the Book of Mormon or publish with FARMS or later Interpreter. More broadly, you must publish outside the “BYU Bubble”—that is, BYU or LDS sponsored publications. Only people hired to teach Mormon history should publish on Mormonism. Only publications in non-LDS-related venues are viewed as legitimate scholarship. Since non-LDS publications generally do not accept ancient Book of Mormon studies as a legitimate discipline, this essentially means that no publication on ancient Book of Mormon studies can be acceptable as authentic scholarship at BYU.

This policy is also reflected in two other phenomena moving beyond mere verbal discouragement. Over the past twenty-five years I submitted several research proposals to my college on Book of Mormon related topics; none was ever accepted. This is in clear contrast to many of my non-Book of Mormon research proposals, many of which were accepted. Merit pay raises, based largely on academic performance did not include ancient Book of Mormon publications as authentic scholarship. The policy was crystal clear. When I published non-Book of Mormon related books or articles, I received merit pay raises. When I published Book of Mormon-related books or articles, I received no merit pay raise. My promotion to full-professor a few years ago was rejected by my college dean precisely because my Book of Mormon publications were not viewed by him as legitimate scholarship. I was informed explicitly by the dean that I needed more non-LDS-related publications to be promoted—despite the fact that I had two books and numerous non-LDS articles in my vita. (The dean’s decision was overturned by the university.)

So, my experience throughout my 25 years at BYU was that ancient Book of Mormon studies were not considered an authentic discipline. Publications in that field were not legitimate scholarly work. Such research was not supported by the college. Publications in ancient Book of Mormon studies did not contribute to either merit pay raises, nor promotion. Such policies not only obviously discourage young scholars from publishing in ancient Book of Mormon studies, and even overtly punish those who do so against BYU policy and the universal advice of administrators. 

Religious Education. One would expect that the College of Religious education would be the natural home for intensive ancient Book of Mormon studies. It is not. First, as I’ll note below, the curriculum on the Book of Mormon at BYU is both superficial and extremely limited. Second, many people teaching the Book of Mormon have no professional interest or training in ancient Book of Mormon studies—or ancient scriptural studies of any sort. Finally, Religious Education focuses on teaching what I call the “Three Ds”—doctrine, devotion, and daily application. Those three approaches to the Book of Mormon are certainly important and legitimate. But they do not provide the students much opportunity for intensive text-based academic study of the Book of Mormon. The whole academic culture of Religious Education is directed towards teaching the basic principles of the Gospel, which is fine, and indeed most important. The problem is that they also actively prevent any classes being taught at an advanced level, and essentially discourage the serious academic study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. As far as I can tell, this restriction represents an intentional policy by the BYU Religious Education administration. They don’t want the Book of Mormon studied contextually as an ancient historical document. They want it studied only as a theological and ethical document. 

BYU Curriculum and the Book of Mormon. Currently, there are only two courses that BYU students can take on the Book of Mormon: REL A 121: The Book of Mormon (first half), and REL A 122 : The Book of Mormon (second half). Both are introductory courses, and are only two hours long, making a total of only four hours. Even if a student wants to do more in depth study of the Book of Mormon, it is impossible to do so anywhere at BYU or in the church. BYU classes on the Book of Mormon are perpetually stuck at the introductory level. Furthermore, the new Book of Mormon class offered by BYU—Rel A 275 “Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon”—is now a single two hour class approaching the Book of Mormon thematically. In other words, it’s a glorified Sunday School class. It’s getting more superficial. 

What BYU actually needs is a robust curriculum in the Book of Mormon. Most simply, BYU could offer in depth courses on each of the major books of the Book of Mormon, combining some of the smaller books into one. Note that Religious Education offers a class on Isaiah, but no class on the book of Alma or Helaman or Nephi? Why? Beyond in depth classes on major books of the Book of Mormon, BYU should offer classes on Book of Mormon geography, history, archaeology, linguistics, literature, theology, culture, language (ancient Near East and Maya), textual criticism, religion, law, warfare, apocalyptic, reception history, the Bible in the Book of Mormon, etc. BYU could, if the administration wanted, have a program in Book of Mormon studies, and offer two dozen different advanced courses on the Book of Mormon, certainly enough for a major. But it doesn’t. This cannot be an oversight or random chance. This is obviously a conscious policy that implements curriculum decision which minimizes the opportunities of students to study the Book of Mormon as a serious academic discipline at BYU. Which, for all practical purposes, means students can’t do ancient Book of Mormon studies at all, anywhere.

Graduate Studies and the Book of Mormon. The only way that young LDS scholars can study the Book of Mormon in graduate school is to study it as a nineteenth century text in a secular religious studies program, or US history program. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this. But what this means is that one cannot do graduate work anywhere in the world in ancient Book of Mormon Studies. Unremarkably, young scholars are not doing ancient Book of Mormon studies. Furthermore, no one teaching has at BYU has a PhD in ancient Book of Mormon Studies. BYU has completely failed in its mission to prepare young LDS scholars for ancient Book of Mormon studies. 

BYU Curriculum and the Book of Mormon. I’ve written extensively on the debacle of BYU’s destruction of FARMS. FARMS originated outside of BYU precisely because of the policies of BYU that I’ve outlined above, which prevented ancient Book of Mormon scholarship from thriving at BYU. Then, not satisfied with undermining ancient Book of Mormon studies on their own campus, BYU administrators decided they should undermine it outside of campus as well. Their goal in forcing FARMS to join was not because they wanted to support ancient Book of Mormon studies. Quite the contrary. BYU wanted to gain control of land that FARMS owned, and be able to manipulate potential donations to FARMS. BYU administrators made a number of promises to the FARMS board at the time of the hostile takeover—almost none of them have been fulfilled. Furthermore, in the past three years, BYU administrators have completely transformed the direction of the Maxwell Institute from ancient scriptural studies to modern Mormon Studies in its broadest sense. As I’ve detailed in blogs over the past few years, BYU has taken what was once the most productive center of research and publications on ancient Book of Mormon studies—which came into existence precisely because of the failure of BYU in this regard—and transformed it into Sunstone South. 

Conclusion. I don’t know what the goals or motives of the BYU administrators have been over the past thirty years in relationship to the Book of Mormon. I suspect they haven’t actually considered the implications of their policy decisions at all. Their focus is on other important aspects of running a university. However, the law of unintended (and perhaps even some intended) consequences has resulted in a series of administrative policy decisions over the past thirty years all of which have combined to result in undermining serious ancient Book of Mormon studies at BYU. Indeed, if their actual goal was to intentionally minimize the discipline of ancient Book of Mormons studies, they could have achieved that goal no better than by making precisely the decisions they have made.

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