A Night to Remember (and It Didn’t Even Involve an Iceberg, Just Snow and Cold)


Louis Willoughby as Elder Isoldi Keene.
Note the “mesmeric power” of Elder Keene’s eyes.
Mesmerism (utilizing bulging eyeballs) was apparently an important Mormon proselytizing technique in the days before the Anderson Plan and other uniform teaching programs were introduced.


My wife surprised me completely tonight.  Not that it was very difficult.  I was an easy mark.  The thought that there was something going on never so much as occurred to me.


Some time ago, we began planning a party for all of those who’ve volunteered to make Interpreter such a success.  (Some are based outside of Utah, so it was never a realistic option for them to come.)  Then we thought we would invite those who’ve donated financially to the effort.  Eventually, my wife suggested that we invite some of our neighbors, because (she said) they’ve been curious about what we’re up to.


Trouble is, tomorrow is my birthday.  And it’s a big one.  (I never imagined myself this old.  Growing up in California in the sixties, the slogan was “Don’t trust anybody over thirty.”  So now what am I supposed to do?)  But I haven’t been thinking about it.  It simply keeps slipping my mind — which may be evidence that I really am old.


So I joined in with a gusto to plan this Interpreter party.


It was only when just about everybody who came wished me a Happy Birthday that I began to smell a rat.  And then, when the steel drums began to play “Happy Birthday,” I knew that I’d been had.  After that, by pre-arrangement, Bill Hamblin stood up to “roast” me.  I can’t believe I was so dense and unperceptive.  Seriously, the thought hadn’t so much as crossed my mind.


Anyway, a description of the Interpreter party, which was attended by roughly a hundred people:


We had catered food from Cafe Rio, along with additional food that my wife had prepared.  And chocolate cake and carrot cake from Magleby’s.  And Dr. Darren Bastian and his Drum Labs performing on steel drums.  (If anybody wants to hire them for a party, contact me at daniel_peterson@byu.edu.  They were really fun.)  And, after the food and the speeches, a short 1905 film by Thomas Edison, entitled A Trip to Salt Lake City, showing the tribulations of a polygamist trying to handle all of his wives and children on a Pullman train car, followed by the 1922 British silent film classic Trapped by the Mormons (72 minutes):  I read the narration, Nicky Pitman read the role of the ingénue with her authentic English accent, Joseph Grenny voiced the role of the evil Mormon missionary Isoldi Keene, and Bill Hamblin read all of the other parts (both male and female).  A good time, I hope, was had by all.


But they had to pay for it by listening to a pair of aging gas bags.  I spoke, and then my former friend Bill Hamblin stood up again to outline some of our hopes and plans for the future of Interpreter.


And now, in response to the clamorous demands of precisely nobody thus far, is the text of my remarks (which, unusually for me, I wrote out and read) from the dinner tonight:


Debbie and I decided to put this little dinner on as an expression of our gratitude to people who’ve been very supportive of me—of us—and of something we care very much about, over the past seven months.  Many of them are here, and we’re grateful that you’ve been able to attend.  I want it clearly understood that no Interpreter Foundation funds are being spent for this.  This is our heart-felt personal “thank you.”


2012 was, candidly—and for several reasons, two of which would have been enough individually—the worst year of my life.  Anyway, I’m not at all unhappy that it’s come to an end.


But I want to mention two things that have helped me, personally, to get through this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.


First is the kind support of family, colleagues, and friends (many of them friends of many years).  For instance, in the aftermath of the coup at the Maxwell Institute, I received phone calls, visits, and literally hundreds of letters and emails expressing support.  Maybe this is a bit corny, but I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet, which I know I’m misapplying:


When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Second is The Interpreter Foundation.  With the Maxwell Institute having dramatically changed its course and mission, many of us who had been involved with it for decades but who now found ourselves exiled from it worried that the important work it had been established to do would remain undone.


So, in late July, only a few days after Debbie and I had returned from overseas, a small group of us met for lunch at the Olive Garden in Provo, and decided to launch a new online publication, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, and to establish The Interpreter Foundation.


I told that little group, by the way, that I didn’t need to be even the nominal leader of the new journal.  I’d been editing the FARMS Review for twenty-three years, and I would be content merely to participate.  I was very moved, however (though, being Scandinavian, I hope it didn’t show), when they immediately insisted that I had to be the chairman of the new enterprise.  They wanted to make a public statement, to demonstrate that my friends still stood by me.


But this really isn’t about me, personally.


I said that we decided to launch our new journal late in July.  Within nine days, on 3 August, Interpreter was designed and online with its initial article.  This was stunning.  And it hasn’t missed a beat since.


That’s twenty-five (25) articles or reviews in the twenty-four (24) Fridays since Interpreter was launched.  With no office, no paid staff, no budget, and essentially no money, Interpreter hasn’t missed a single Friday.  (And, in fact, one week, Interpreter published two articles on the same day.)  That’s two volumes.  (You see them at your tables.)  And we’re already four items into Volume Three.


To say that I’m deeply grateful to those who’ve made this possible would be a massive understatement.  To me, it’s virtually miraculous.


And, beyond the journal, there are nine video-recorded “scripture roundtable” discussions up on Interpreter’s website (www.mormoninterpreter.com) so far, involving participants from California through Utah and New Mexico and Michigan to Ireland.  The site also features a blog, a podcast, and a section for news.  Interpreter has already sponsored an academic conference on the temple, and even has a YouTube channel.


I marvel at it.  And I’m grateful to those who’ve made it possible. 


To David Bokovoy, who courageously stepped up to offer an article of his as the first publication of our fledgling journal. 


To Mark Wright and Brant Gardner (off in Albuquerque), who provided the second, and to all those who’ve offered us material since then.


To Bryce Haymond, our indispensable technical guru, who’s created a twenty-first century online publication that’s agile and adept at using the most modern platforms, including social media, to reach young people where they are and in a way that the stodgy print media, so dear to dinosaurs like me, no longer really do.


To Alison Coutts, formerly director of publications for the Maxwell Institute, a fellow exile, who has overseen our typesetting and who provides the final once-over before our materials are posted to the public.  Alison hoped to be here tonight, but her mother recently passed away in England.


To Jeff Bradshaw, back in Florida, who heads our articles committee.  To Kevin Christensen, in Pennsylvania, who now leads our review committee.  To all those who serve on our editorial board and as volunteers.


And, now, to some generous donors who’ve stepped forward to help us move to the next level. 


Donations large and small began flowing in from, literally, the very moment I announced the new journal at the conclusion of the annual FAIR conference up in Sandy.  We weren’t even really ready, yet, to receive them.  (But this enterprise needs funding to flourish as we hope it will, and we’ll frankly be seeking more money in the future.)


This dinner tonight is a token of thanks to all of them, and to our supportive friends. 


In the early years of FARMS, or the Maxwell Institute as it came to be called, there was a spirit of enthusiastic camaraderie.  We were friends, engaged in a great, exciting, and very worthwhile cause.  And we were having fun.  I’ve missed that, for quite a while now.  With this dinner, Debbie and I hope to bring that spirit to Interpreter.  It’s an honor to have with us today my friends Jack Welch, the founder of FARMS, and John Sorenson, one of its early guiding lights—both of whom have to be reckoned among the very greatest scholars of the Book of Mormon that the Church has ever produced.  And Royal Skousen, whose years of work on the textual history of the Book of Mormon represent one of FARMS’s most significant and lasting contributions to Mormon scholarship.  It’s great, too, to have my friends George Mitton and Lou Midgley, who helped to edit the FARMS Review for many years and who were dismissed along with me.


In the spring of 2004, I was present when Elder Neal A. Maxwell addressed the closing luncheon of the President’s Leadership Council at Brigham Young University.  It was to be his final visit to the University.  He spoke, to a surprising extent, about what was then known as FARMS but would eventually, with the approval of the leaders of the University and the Church, be renamed after him — something he would not have permitted during his lifetime.


“In a way,” he said, “LDS scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the Kingdom. I personally think this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this University. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.


“Our scholars’ work must be respectable, and it must be effective over the long haul. In the revelations it is clear that the Lord is concerned about the ‘rising generations.’ So whatever is done today in the Church is done in goodly measure for those who will follow. The rising generation needs to be, in the words of Peter and Paul, ‘grounded,’ ‘rooted,’ ‘established,’ and ‘settled.’ BYU and its scholars have a role to play in this effort. Of course testimonies are a gift of the Spirit, but the youth of the Church are blessed by what happens here.


“I’ve thought several times in recent years: Who would have ventured to say 30 years ago that BYU would become a focal point for work on the Dead Sea Scrolls? And who would have guessed 30 years ago that we would have a key role with regard to certain Islamic translations? Who would have foreseen the extensive work we do on ancient texts?


“I do not think anybody would have guessed that all that is happening would happen so quickly and so demonstrably. The Lord’s hand is in it. I do not presume to know in all its dimensions or implications, but it is not accidental.”


I don’t believe that it was accidental, either.  


Elder Maxwell and I discussed the work of FARMS in defending the Church on several occasions; I know how he felt about such defense.  He called upon us to allow the critics “no more uncontested slam dunks.” And he often cited this passage, from Austin Farrer’s praise of C. S. Lewis:


“Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”


Fortunately, many of the people who created FARMS and the Maxwell Institute—but who have, effectively, found themselves dismissed, exiled, and marginalized from the organization they built—have now regrouped to launch The Interpreter Foundation.  Our work isn’t solely apologetic, and certainly not purely defensive.  But we won’t shy away from defending the Kingdom and advocating the cause of the Restoration.  We’re not going to pretend to be neutral bystanders.


I’ve asked my long-time friend and colleague Bill Hamblin, a professor of history at BYU and Interpreter’s executive editor, to outline briefly what we hope for the future of The Interpreter Foundation.


One of the unforeseen, informal high points afterwards:  Mark Wright had brought his atlatl.  He demonstrated it for us, and gave several of us the opportunity to try our own skill at casting projectiles into the snow with a Pre-Columbian device.  It’s a pretty impressive weapon, actually.



"Ending Tax Exemptions Means Ending Churches"
"How to Save the Mormon Sabbath"
On judging people
"Treasures in earthen vessels"
  • Tracy Hall Jr

    Congratulations from Klagenfurt, Austria. Keep your powder dry!

    • danpeterson

      Thank you!

      And I will.

      I certainly love Austria. Enjoy your service there!

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I wish we could have had natty hats on my mission like the one “Elder Keene” is wearing.

    • danpeterson

      In the film, his hat seems to be really effective with the ladies.

      And it’s not altogether surprising, in view of the truly stupid and ugly ones that they’re wearing.

  • http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com Gerald Smith

    Congrats on your birthday and on the continued success of the Interpreter. We all feel how difficult 2012 was for you, and yet you and the Interpreter are as the Phoenix rising from the ashes. From tragedy, hope is born anew. And perhaps the new product will be better than the old one ever was…