It’s an honor to be introducing my friend and colleague Royal Skousen tonight.
And I really mean that. I’m not just being polite, or ceremonial.
It’s an honor because, as interesting and valuable as the previous two lectures in this series have been, this one strikes me as the most significant of the three. The central task of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project has always been, to the extent possible, to restore the original English text of the Book of Mormon by scholarly means.
It’s an honor because I regard this Project as one of the most impressive scholarly efforts in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—one that isn’t likely ever to be displaced from that position.
Professor Skousen has been the editor—the leader—of the Project since its inception in 1988. Which is to say that he has devoted a quarter of a century to the effort.
In terms of sheer sustained dedication, the Project is in a class by itself.
In 2001, thirteen years into his work, he began to publish the results of his research in multiple massive volumes brought out by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or FARMS.
In 2009, Yale University Press published his edition of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text—a wonderful contribution that I would love to see in the home of every English-reading Latter-day Saint.
And the work continues.
I hope that I’m not violating a confidence in passing on a comment that Professor Skousen made to me not long ago: Everything he’s studied, every interest he’s had, all of his training and background, he says, equipped him to carry out this project.
And his background and areas of expertise are impressive. He received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Illinois in 1972. He’s taught there; at the University of California at San Diego; at the University of Texas at Austin; and, as a Fulbright lecturer, at the University of Tampere in Finland. In 2001, he was a fellow of the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands. He’s pursued his interests in linguistic theory and quantum computing with very fruitful results, including the volumes Analogical Modeling of Language (1989), Analogy and Structure (1992), and Analogical Modeling: An Exemplar-Based Approach to Language (2002). Perhaps most important of all, he married Sirkku, who has been his indispensable support, assistant, and advisor throughout the history of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project.
There are numerous other assets that he’s brought to the Project—attributes that, in my judgment, have been essential to its remarkable success.
I believe that they can most usefully be summed up as constituting a remarkable—even fierce—intellectual integrity.
His work is meticulous. Precise. He’s the consummate scholarly craftsman. He won’t fudge, won’t distort to satisfy anybody or to advance an agenda. He won’t tolerate sloppiness, and, obviously, will not rush to quick publication. He gives intense and painstaking care to even the physical appearance, external and internal, of the Project’s publications—and he’s had vital support in this from the inimitable and irreplaceable Jonathan Saltzman.
Reflecting this fierce intellectual integrity has been his adamantine insistence on the independence of the Project. Although he’s a deeply believing Latter-day Saint, he has maintained, successfully and from its very start, that the Project must be run according to the most rigorous academic principles—without distorting allegiance to any particular party, sect, or ideology; that it be independent even of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Only thus can it have the credibility that it must have, if it’s ultimately to be worthy of “the keystone of our religion.”
In this respect, I confess that Professor Skousen reminds me just a bit of Juanita Brooks, a faithful believer whose life-long research into the Mountain Meadows Massacre irritated and alienated many of her fellow members of the Church, including some of her leaders, but whose value not only to historical scholarship but to the Kingdom has now, I think, long since been generally recognized. “Nothing but the truth,” she famously said, “is good enough for the church to which I belong.”
An anecdote: Dr. Skousen has been a legendarily tough negotiator on behalf of the Project, even with leaders of the University and the Church. At one point, during the entirely separate talks that brought FARMS into the University, I announced to then-President Merrill J. Bateman that we’d decided to appoint Royal Skousen as our representative in those negotiations from that point on. For a moment, he seemed speechless with shock. Then, when he realized that I was joking, he laughed loudly. He too had, plainly, come to respect Professor Skousen’s tenacity and principle.
The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project has already made an enormous contribution, and the gift keeps on giving.
Without it, we would still be at the mercy of critics shouting about the number of changes made to the Book of Mormon text after its first printing—they’ve considerably underestimated that number, by the way—and claiming both that our failure to acknowledge those changes demonstrates a cover-up and that the sheer fact of the changes proves Joseph Smith a false prophet. We now know far more than they ever bothered to learn about the nature of those changes, and we know that the changes are anything but faith-destroying:
Professor Skousen has been able to demonstrate the impressively “systematic” nature of the Original Text, as he terms it, which subsequent emendations and “corrections” have tended to obscure.
Without Dr. Skousen’s work, we would not have his powerful argument for the nature of the translation, which he believes to have been read off, word for word, to Joseph’s scribes.
We wouldn’t be aware of the presence of seemingly archaic language in the original text—not Joseph Smith’s early nineteenth century American dialect and, shockingly, not even the language of the King James Version, but terms and expressions from a generation or two earlier. If Professor Skousen’s perceptions are accurate, this will be surprising to believers but, I think, utterly confounding to skeptics who insist that the Book of Mormon can be exhaustively explained on the basis of Joseph’s own natural “information horizon.”
Without Dr. Skousen’s labors, we would be unaware of some of the most persuasive Hebraisms in the text—the if/and conditional sentences in Helaman and Moroni, which seem to me exceedingly difficult to explain on a naturalistic model of the book’s origins.
We wouldn’t know of the 256 places where changes could justifiably be made to the text that, while leaving the doctrines intact, would affect meaning and translation.
We wouldn’t have the powerful evidence that his work has supplied, demonstrating that Joseph really was encountering the text for the first time, just as the Church has always taught, and that the Original Manuscript really was orally dictated.
Above and beyond its intrinsic scholarly merits—the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project is a work of pure, disinterested scholarship of the highest order—Royal Skousen’s twenty-five years of intensive labor have, in the Book of Mormon’s own language, made weak things become strong unto us.
This is my favorite kind of apologetics: It not only takes a weapon away from our critics but transforms it into a weapon to be wielded effectively in defense of the Kingdom.
I repeat: It’s a great personal honor to me to have this opportunity to introduce Professor Royal Skousen.