How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

As I noted in earlier posts, Dr. William Hamblin of my alma mater, Brigham Young University, engaged in a rather one-sided “debate” with Baylor professor Dr. Philip Jenkins over the legitimacy of “Ancient Book of Mormon Studies” as an academic discipline. For more than two months, Hamblin continued to flail about, unable to provide a single piece of solid New World evidence that the events depicted in the Book of Mormon ever took place. In the end, Dr. Jenkins graciously ended the discussion, having showed fairly definitively that Hamblin had nothing to offer but postmodernist musings about the nature of reality and history as a discipline.

Instead of acknowledging his utter failure, Hamblin has now posted a follow-up in which he identifies the real villain in delegitimizing the “fledgling discpline” of Ancient Book of Mormon Studies: LDS-owned Brigham Young University.

How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

Hamblin identifies the following key ways in which the powers that be at BYU killed a promising new academic endeavor:

  1. College and Department Politics. Hamblin explains how he was praised and given merit pay raises and promotions when he published in non-LDS fields of study but was reprimanded and denied career progress when he focused on the Book of Mormon. He appears to be mystified that, even at BYU, Ancient Book of Mormon Studies (ABMS) is not considered a legitimate field of study, but he explains rather clearly the university’s thinking: “you must publish outside the ‘BYU Bubble’—that is, BYU or LDS sponsored publications,” if you want your work to be considered legitimate scholarship, and that means you can’t publish anything in Ancient Book of Mormon Studies. But there’s nothing puzzling about this at all: BYU wants to be taken seriously as an academic institution, but that won’t happen if its professors turn inward and spend their time on topics that no one else accepts as legitimate. Surely, Hamblin understands this. What he is describing is not politics but part of any university’s quest to excel and build a reputation, and professors who publish on Nephite horses and smelting ore to create obsidian-edged clubs do not contribute to a positive reputation.
  2. Religious Education. Here he complains that the one department with a legitimate interest in ABMS is not allowed to teach it. No, the Religious Education department teaches what Hamblin calls “the ‘Three Ds’—doctrine, devotion, and daily application” to the exclusion of “serious academic study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text.” I wonder what school he’s been teaching at because it has always been this way at BYU. Religion classes at BYU are taught out of the LDS Institute manuals and have always been intended to be devotional in nature. Sure, a few professors have sneaked in their pet ABMS theories (such as the course I took from Paul Hoskisson many years ago), but Religion classes are part of your General Education classes, not a serious avenue of academic study (see #1 above).
  3. BYU Curriculum and the Book of Mormon. This is really just an extension of #2 in that he’s complaining that BYU offers only two classes in the Book of Mormon. Instead of an in-depth study of “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.,” he laments, “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.” Of course it’s no oversight but a rational and obvious decision to avoid putting time, money, and effort into something that would damage the university’s reputation.
  4. Graduate Studies and the Book of Mormon. Hamblin is unhappy that 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.” Again, the reason isn’t hard to divine: the Book of Mormon is best seen in its historical context, which is 19th-century frontier America, not ancient Mesoamerica (see #1 above).
  5. BYU and the Destruction of FARMS. I think this section gets to the heart of the matter. FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) was near and dear to the heart of Dr. Hamblin and his friends, notably Daniel C, Peterson. For years it operated independently of BYU, raising funds and publishing without oversight. But that changed in 1997, when it was brought in as an official part of the university, which renamed it The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies in 2006. At the time, its absorption into BYU was seen as giving it legitimacy and the stamp of approval of not only the university but of its sponsoring church, but Hamblin describes it as a “hostile takeover” and says the university has broken its promises made to FARMS. In 2012 MI director Gerald Bradford fired Daniel C. Peterson as editor of the FARMS Review of Books and announced that the institute would henceforth avoid apologetics and instead focus on Mormon Studies, a broader, non-devotional, non-apologetic approach to the Mormon religion. I need not get into the details other than to say that Hamblin and his colleagues have not been happy with this turn of events. Again, the reason for the university’s actions isn’t difficult to understand.

The reality is that Ancient Book of Mormon Studies never was a fledgling academic discipline. One need only look at the long list of FARMS publications over the years to see that the institute was never academic in nature. Serious academic work develops a hypothesis based on the evidence and then tests that hypothesis against further evidence. Apologetics comes to the question with the answer already provided, and then works backwards to fit the evidence to that answer. Hamblin can complain until he’s blue in the face, but the hard truth is that BYU understands the difference between scholarship and what FARMS was doing. Even if you ignore the controversies about personal attacks in FARMS publications, it was always going to be apologetic in nature, and BYU made a conscious decision not to do apologetics, whether Hamblin likes it or not.

Apologetics has its place, certainly. I am not saying that what FARMS and its supporters (now publishing the Mormon Interpreter) did is illegitimate or dishonest, but it is by nature partial and often polemical. Universities are supposed to be in the business of promoting knowledge wherever it comes from, and that’s not what apologetics does. As a BYU alumnus (2 BAs and an MA), I’m happy that BYU has walked away from the pursuit of Book of Mormon apologetics. It just seems very strange for apologists to complain that a university is refusing to engage in a pursuit it finds academically illegitimate.


21 Responses to How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

  1. CAB says:

    His dissatisfaction is understandable when one realizes that he does not want BYU to be “just” a place of higher learning, only a university. He wants it to be “the Lord’s University,” anxiously engaged in the business of promoting belief or faith. In other words, a glorified Mormon seminary.

  2. belaja says:

    One word comes to mind over and over: sad.

  3. vikingz2000 says:

    There is the saying, “Everyone brightens a room; some by entering, and some by leaving.”

    Same thing with darkening a room; some by entering, and some by leaving. In both cases, though, light is not the absence of darkness; darkness is the absence of light.

    One can only hope that BYU will strive to brighten its halls of higher learning by NOT allowing those elements, which only serve to darken it. With the resent supposedly open forum allowing students to voice their concerns one of which is not being allowed to speak or debate their opinions about religious matters (and probably some secular ones as well) while attending a university, is very telling. It is, however, a private university, and so it calls all the shots (however I would think it to be mostly the upper echelon LDS church leaders). For this main reason, if I had need to choose a university, I would avoid BYU like the plague.

  4. Jack says:

    Balderdash. Hamblin gave his best effort in trying to get Jenkins to understand just how subjective history, archeaology, and any number of other academic disciplines can be. To write his concerns off as merely “postmodernist” is plain flippant. More importantly, he also tried to make clear the *imperative* that anyone who attempts to do any kind of academic work on the Book of Mormon needs to be an expert on the subject (the BoM) plus whatever other disciplines of choice are brought to bear on the text.

    Jenkins has no expertise on the Book of Mormon–whatever. None. Does he have credentials in anthropology? Or geology? Or geography? What about languages? How deep is his knowledge of ancient languages and cultures and the relevant archeaological evidences? How can he even begin to understand the kinds of BoM evidences that real experts are amassing when he has no experience whatever in ancient BoM studies?

    His is a shameless argument from authority.

    Re: BYU–If that’s the way they really feel about apologetics then they should never have absorbed FARMS. I can’t imagine why they won’t allow both tracks to exist side by side: A Religious Studies track and a Mormon Studies track. Every body wins.

    • vikingz2000 says:

      ‘How can he even begin to understand the kinds of BoM evidences that real experts are amassing”

      Name one so-called evidence, just one that any non-LDS, bona fide academic ‘expert’ would even begin to accept as tenable.

      • runtu says:

        Exactly right. If you want people to take Ancient Book of Mormon Studies seriously, give them a reason to do so. One single piece of evidence would suffice. Hamblin was unable to provide that, so he fell back on the “you can’t comment until you’ve read everything we’ve produced” argument, which is silly.

    • Lemmie says:

      IIRC, Jenkins admitted also having no expertise in the Loch Ness Monster, but he also explained pretty clearly the process by which he concluded that expertise in imaginary things is not required to understand something is imaginary.

      He was also true to his definition of falsifiable, and repeatedly asked Hamblin for a piece of evidence that would bring the BoM out of the fictional category, thus falsifying his premise–but to no avail, as no single piece of evidence was ever offered, in dozens of exchanges.

  5. Hiser says:

    Jenkins was rude, and mean; Hamblin was lame, and not forthcoming at the outset. BYU shouldn’t care one bit what the world thinks of BoM apologetics. And it should support it, ’cause it’s the foundational text. If it’s fraudulent, no one should care about the religion, including all the members. However, the BoM is ultimately unassailable.

    • runtu says:

      What does it mean for a text to be unassailable?

      • Lemmie says:

        If he means unassailable in the context of his faith in it as a religious document, Jenkins was very clear that he has no argument there.

        Hiser, could you clarify the context you meant for fraudulent? I see that word as leaning toward implying historically true; if so, using it in combination with unassailable would be fair game for argument, according to Jenkins.

        Not that I’m starting anything, Jenkins covered it all pretty well this summer!

    • yaanufs says:

      I think your auto-correct made a mistake.

      unassailable is about the last word I’d use to describe the BoM.

  6. Hiser says:

    For me, the BoM boils down to either fraudulent or Godly. JS said it came from God, or he lied about it. For me, the external evidence and the textual evidence argue strongly that it came from God. Of course I know you disagree, but that’s how I see it, and it’s based on matters of substance, just as I suppose you think your conclusions are based on matters of substance. I have simply concluded, because of particular items of evidence, that JS could not have authored it. And all the external evidence makes it very difficult, if not impossible, that anyone else did. But still, I don’t think anyone else proposed as author could have written it. So I guess I used the phrase “ultimately unassailable” to signal the fact that I think they’re Christ’s words, and so that any human attack on them is necessarily doomed to failure. I get it, if you’re an atheist, you don’t believe in this. But I do, and I think that when we move on to another phase of existence we will discover that they were indeed Christ’s words. That’s just how I see it. You’re mileage will definitely differ. Take care, and good luck. Cheers.

    • Lemmie says:

      Jenkins is clearly not an atheist, so your assumption that believers in Christ will agree with you and atheists won’t is unsupportable in this discussion of the Jenkins-Hamblin rout.

      So pick a side-is ‘ultimately unassailable’ based on your faith in Christ’s words, or on external evidence that the BoM is literally Christ’s words to the Neophytes?

      If you argue from faith that the BoM is Godly, the discussion ends, but if you insist that external evidence supports it you will continue to have a fight on your hands.

  7. Jack says:

    There are literally thousands of evidences for the Book of Mormon — which is not the same as proof. But in order to see them you have to give it (the BoM) the benefit of the doubt. Jenkins doesn’t do this. For example, he flatly assumes that Joseph Smith had a map of Arabia — and that’s how he came across the name “Nahom.” And, of course, Hamblin shows how utterly preposterous that idea is. Jenkins comes at this whole thing with his eyes wide-shut. But that’s to be expected. Such has always been the dichotomy between prophets and scholars, prophecy and philosphy, the Lord’s anointed and academia.

    • runtu says:

      The whole Nahom thing was a red herring, as Jenkins noted several times. He asked for specific evidence that would be accepted as valid by academic standards (specifically the Daubert standard). There may be thousands of evidences for the Book of Mormon, but Hamblin provided none over the course of two months. I know, Jenkins can’t have any opinion until he’s read every piece of Mormon apologia ever written, right?

      • Jack says:

        Nope. This is a free country and Jenkins can espouse whatever opinion he wants. But be careful about what standards you apply to judge evidence. They’re moving targets because the sciences — especially the “softer” sciences like archeaology or what-have-you — are always changing.

        I really think part of the problem here is a semantic one. It sounds (to me) that what Jenkins really wants is proof. Well, we can’t give him that. But we *can* give him some evidence, except he won’t accept it as evidence because he’s not even willing to explore it for the sake of argument. It’s all “Bigfoot” to him.

        The Red Sea-Nahom-Bountiful traingle is a stupendous piece of evidence. Or, at least, it would be if the Book of Mormon were given the slightest benefit of the doubt. But, of course, that’s not gonna happen in the world of academia.

      • runtu says:

        Right, it’s just bigotry that keeps scholars from taking the Book of Mormon seriously, even at BYU. LOL

  8. Don Honorato says:

    Camisasctasa! Journals are open to non-apologetic treatments of the Book of Mormon, theological, etc. in nature. Noel Reynolds has a recent piece somewhere. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon is sui generis and forces a choice. It’s either a fraud or some of the best evidence for the existence of God. That’s why scholarly study of it that suggests, hints, tends to point to, etc. that it isn’t fraudulent in origin is problematic and will always be problematic, and by and large rejected by the academy. That’s the way it is, and rather understandable.

  9. Jack says:


    What Don Honorato said. And I would add, that if you don’t think there’s bigotry in the academy then you haven’t studied history.

    • runtu says:

      Hamblin is saying that the anti-Mormon bigotry is coming from BYU. Do you agree with him? I find that assertion quite bizarre, especially since he recently told Philip Jenkins how Ancient Book of Mormon Studies is integrated into a number of fields of study at BYU. Now he’s complaining that ABMS has been effectively banished from the BYU campus because of said bigotry.

  10. says:

    Now that some time has passed, I wonder to what extent Hamblin’s tortured dialogue with Jenkins influenced the roll-up of the FARMS faction at BYU? Did it speed it up to any extent? Did respectable academics look at Hamblin’s terrible arguments and inability to produce any archaeological evidence and say: “this ends now, before we become a laughingstock!”

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