Behind the “Mormon Scholars Testify” Project

“What serious and intelligent persons over many generations, and in preference to many available alternatives, have held to be significant,” the great Islamicist Marshall G. S. Hodgson remarked a few decades ago, “rarely turns out, on close investigation, to be trivial.”  Speaking specifically of Islam, the eminent Victorian Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle put what was essentially the same point in another way:  “Are we to suppose that it was a miserable piece of legerdemain, this which so many creatures of the Almighty have lived and died by?  I, for my part, cannot form any such supposition.  I will believe most things sooner than that.”

Islam has, of course, long since met Hodgson’s test, and it should, in my opinion, grow clearer with each passing year that Mormonism, too, is a legitimate and serious religious option.

Yet this fact, to me incontrovertible, is evidently not clear to many people.

In his important book Faith and Reason, for instance, faced with the great number of religions claiming to embody divine truth and with our desire to choose between them, the noted British philosopher Richard Swinburne argues that “what a man thinks worth giving his life to serve deserves at least a passing inspection from us, if he assures us that it is of deep significance to us.”

So far, so good.  This agrees nicely with Hodgson and Carlyle, as well as with common sense.

But Swinburne’s qualification of that proposition is somewhat surprising:   “The Mormon . . . who knocks so unwelcome at our door,” he continues, “is entitled to a small initial amount of serious attention.  But I suggest that for most of us there is not nearly so much point in investigating the credal claims of religions which have not spread throughout the globe and into which we do not bump, as in investigating the other religions.  The failure of the former to spread among those who do come into contact with them is some evidence that they are not worth more serious attention.”

Much, I suppose, could and should be said about Professor Swinburne’s assumption that Mormonism has had no success among those who have encountered it.  The very prominent non-Mormon sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, for example, has argued that the historical growth of Mormonism is uncannily like that of early Christianity in its first centuries:

Put another way, if Professor Stark is correct, Richard Swinburne would very likely have had precisely the same opinion about the global insignificance of Christianity at AD 200 that he had in the late twentieth century about the insignificance of Mormonism — and would have been just as wrong.  In his elite Oxbridge environs, knowing Mormons only as the missionaries “who knock so unwelcome at our door,” Professor Swinburne’s dismissal seems almost as disconnected from reality as the New York writer (variously said to have been Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, etc., and probably altogether apocryphal in any case) who supposedly expressed utter bewilderment that Ronald Reagan had won the American presidency because “nobody I know voted for him.”

Anyway, it’s partly to counter perceptions like those of Professor Swinburne that I launched a little project called “Mormon Scholars Testify” back in mid-December of 2009:

It’s also a personal missionary enterprise — missionary opportunities are somewhat limited for people who, like me, live in Utah Valley and teach at Brigham Young University — inspired by a 15 December 2007 commencement address delivered by Elder M. Russell Ballard, of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at BYU’s Hawaii campus.

The project doesn’t particularly seek academic arguments for belief.  Rather, it is interested in how the studies, research, and/or intellectual and cultural life of those who contribute to it have interacted with (and perhaps even reinforced) their lives as believing members of the Church.  (Contributors aren’t obliged, though, to address even that.  I’m a very laissez-faire editor and proprietor.)

Several times, during my mission in German-speaking Switzerland eons ago, I encountered the elite dismissal of Mormonism as an inconsequential Sekte (which, in German, has something of the connotation of cult rather than merely of sect), and of Mormons as ignorant, unsophisticated, provincial rubes whose faith is too silly, too irrational, to sustain an educated, thoughtful person, too shallow to nourish a cultured and deeply-feeling soul.

Not long ago, I saw the claim on-line that Mormonism “officially” requires its adherents to reject science.

Some years back, Thomas Cahill was attempting to explain the ancient Manichaean faith in his best-selling book How the Irish Saved Civilization.  Reaching for a modern parallel, he gratuitously insulted both Mormons and Mormonism by saying something to the effect that Manichaeism, like Mormonism today, had no depth in it that would satisfy a serious mind.

The “Mormon Scholars Testify” project doesn’t ask that Mr. Cahill’s complacent dismissal be directly rebutted, but I do see it as potentially, at least in part, a kind of refutation. “Take another look,” the project says.  “Serious minds do find Mormonism satisfying.”

Thus far, the effort has been criticized from various angles.

It has, for example, been attacked by a few critics as “elitist,” as representing my supposed arrogant belief that “scholars” are somehow worth more than non-scholars.  People who level such accusations plainly don’t know me:  My family ran, and still runs, a construction business.  My uncles were truck drivers, farmers, construction workers, insurance agents.  My aunts were housewives.  There wasn’t an academic among them.  My father managed to get in two years of college; my mother attended no college at all.  Very few of my cousins attended college.  I don’t come from an “elite” academic background, and I don’t have an elitist’s disdain for non-scholars (not even a trace).

My niche happens to be in academia, though, and scholars happen to be pretty well-placed to provide counterexamples against dismissals such as Cahill’s and Swinburne’s.  (I have no really rigid definition of the term scholar, by the way. I’m simply looking for thoughtful people who are engaged with the world of ideas, academics, teaching, and learning.)

Others have claimed that I’m making the fallacious argument that, because some intelligent and well-educated people accept the claims of Mormonism, Mormonism is true.  Triumphantly, they point out that there are also intelligent and well-educated Catholics, Buddhists, Evangelicals, and atheists.  But I make no such argument, and, accordingly, their counterargument is irrelevant.  I agree with Marshall Hodgson that — while there are certainly small and short-lived movements (e.g., Jonestown, the Hale-Bopp Comet folks, and etc.) that have little depth of intellectual soil to them — philosophical positions that have captured the allegiance of intelligent, rational, educated, mentally healthy people over lengthy periods of time and in various cultures (e.g. Catholicism, Buddhism, Evangelicalism, and, yes, atheism and Marxism and many other such movements) cannot simply be dismissed with a wave of the hand.  They needn’t be accepted, but they should be seriously considered.  And that is what I’m claiming for Mormonism via the “Mormon Scholars Testify” project.

Still others have criticized the effort because, thus far at least, it’s relatively heavily dependent upon male white Americans at Brigham Young University.  Unfortunately, the criticism isn’t entirely without merit.   I’m trying to include a wide variety of voices, from a wide variety of disciplines and a wide variety of places.  But I teach at BYU, and it’s plainly easiest for me to recruit (and to pester) the people that I know, whom I meet in the hallways every day.  It’s relatively difficult for me to recruit people I’m unaware of.  And all I can do is invite.  I have no power to compel.  I’m entirely dependent upon the willingness of others to contribute to my project.

A few have criticized the project because it has so few entries.  But this is a rather idle and silly complaint.  As I write, the Mormon Scholars Testify website features entries from 337 people.  Is that really so unimpressive?  (The site has only been up for a bit more than two years.)  Many of the entries are multiple pages long.  But let’s assume that the average is two pages each.  (Probably a substantial underestimate.)  On that assumption, the website currently offers almost seven hundred pages of testimonies.  In print, that would be at least a couple of very substantial volumes.

This isn’t a corporate project.  It’s an individual undertaking.  It was my idea, I launched it, and I keep it going.  I recruit and edit every entry.  I have no assistants in that task, and it’s far and away not my full-time job.  I then pass each entry on to Tanya Spackman, who is based on the American east coast and who serves voluntarily as the project’s webmaster.  (My computer expertise is limited largely to turning the machine on, moving a cursor, clicking, and cursing the occasional glitch.)  There is no staff, no team of co-workers.  And there are, contrary to some rather bizarre insinuations that I’ve come across out in the fever swamps, no financial incentives for contributors, and no BYU penalties levied against any BYU faculty who might, for whatever reason, decline to contribute.

I’m very pleased with the way “Mormon Scholars Testify” has developed to this point, and anticipate that it will continue to grow.

Take a look.

And, if you’re a believing Mormon scholar, please do consider submitting a testimony, a brief bio, and a digital photo to

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