Once more, on my ouster from the Maxwell Institute

Once more, on my ouster from the Maxwell Institute May 29, 2017

 

The logo of FARMS and now of BOMC
The old FARMS and Maxwell Institute logo

 

I notice that, very nearly five years after that legendary event, yet another fact-free discussion is underway on a virulently anti-Mormon message board in which uninformed anonymous commenters debate how to view John Dehlin’s successful effort to get the Brethren to end my amoral reign of terror at FARMS and the Maxwell Institute.  Speculation is piled upon speculation, resting upon incorrect assumptions.

 

This grew tiresome a very long time ago.  As I’ve pointed out many times before, neither John Dehlin nor the Brethren nor Greg Smith’s mythical “hit piece” had any significant connection with the 2012 purge that ended my quarter-century involvement with the organization.  (See “Looking Back, Almost Five Years On.”)  And, although I won’t cite specifics, my relationship with the leaders of the Church remains very good.

 

But the true story has to be told from time to time, if for no other reason than that false stories continue to be told — and told with great, and often hostile, but wholly unwarranted confidence.  I apologize for wearying potential readers with yet another rehash of this topic, but I refuse to allow such false stories to become the Accepted Narrative.

 

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;

‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

Shakespeare, Othello, III.iii.155-161

 

I’m reminded, in this context, of a letter written by Oliver Cowdery to Phineas Young on 23 March 1846.  At this point, after many years outside the Church, Oliver was considering returning to the fold.  But he was concerned that his character and reputation had been so damaged by false allegations against him that his testimony as one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon would no longer be taken seriously.  He was insistent, accordingly, that those false allegations be laid to rest:

 

“But from your last [letter], I am fully satisfied, that no unjust imputation will be suffered to remain upon my character. And that I may not be misunderstood, let me here say that I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might stand exonerated from those charges which imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery, &c. Those which all my former associates knew to be false. I do not, I have never asked, to be excused, or exempted from an acknowledgement, of my actual fault or wrong—for of these there are many; which it always was my pleasure to confess. I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John, with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater, and looked down through time, and witnessed the effects these two must produce,—you would feel what you have never felt, were wicked men conspiring to lessen the effects of your testimony on man, after you should have gone to your long sought rest. But, enough, enough, on this.”

 

I’m certainly not a figure of the status of one of the official Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  I have, however, been accused of many very bad things (including, amazingly, forgery) by certain more or less unhinged critics.  I don’t take those charges very seriously.  They say more about the very odd folks leveling them than they ever will about me, and I trust people of decency and good sense to recognize that.  But the circumstances of my ouster from the Maxwell Institute or FARMS have lent a degree of (unwarranted) credibility to wild speculations, in certain quarters, about my rejection by the Brethren and so forth, that I simply won’t permit to stand uncontradicted.

 

Accordingly, I think I’ll repost an entry that I first published here on this blog back on 16 October 2013:

 

 

Several people have either called my attention to a partial transcript of remarks made by John Dehlin on Doug Fabrizio’s KUER radio program following October LDS conference—Mr. Dehlin was “reviewing” conference speeches—or sent me copies of those remarks.  I feel that I probably ought to respond publicly, since the remarks concern me and were made publicly.  Here is what John Dehlin said:

“I actually believe that apologetics still has a very important place within Mormonism. If you look at the people who currently staff the Maxwell Institute today, if you look at Claudia and Richard Bushman, or Fiona and Terryl Givens, these are wonderful, insightful, thoughtful defenders of the faith. And I believe we need more of them, and that’s why we created a podcast called ‘A Thoughtful Faith’, to explore people who were thoughtful but also faithful. What we don’t need are apologists who are going to do exactly what President Uchtdorf urged us not to do, which is to judge and attack those who have sincere and earnest questions.

“The publication that Jonathan mentioned was a hundred plus page article that was being written about me, pulling quotes and comments from my facebook page and elsewhere to try and malign my character. I didn’t try and censor it. All I did is I made one General Authority aware of the publication. And he took it upon himself to go to the president of BYU, and to others, and to ask the question: is this the type of thing that the Church should be sponsoring? And I’m very pleased to say that these church leaders, and I understand that there was an apostle involved in the decision, they made the decision not only that that type of apologetics wasn’t welcome in the Church, but that the types of people who were sponsoring it probably needed to find new employment. And I think that’s a wonderful decision and I support it.”

I’ll let the first paragraph go essentially without comment.  I like the Bushmans and the Givenses, consider them friends, and I like and respect their work.  Still, I reject John Dehlin’s characterization of me—I’m plainly among his targets—as “judging” and “attacking those who have sincere and earnest questions,” though I’m impressed by the ease with which he wraps himself in the mantle of superior discipleship by implying his own closer alignment with a member of the First Presidency.  Deftly done.

But I’ll move on to the second transcribed paragraph, because it reiterates a myth about me that needs to be publicly contradicted.

It begins with mention of Dr. Gregory L. Smith’s “Dubious ‘Mormon’ Stories: A Twenty-First Century Construction of Exit Narratives,” which has now been posted (along with an accompanying paper entitled “The Return of the Unread Review”) on the website of The Interpreter Foundation.

I’m struck by Mr. Dehlin’s apparent conviction that a concatenation of public quotations from him would tend to “malign [his] character.”  But I’ll let that pass, too.

Mr. Dehlin believes that it was the Greg Smith paper that resulted in my dismissal as editor of the FARMS Review.  On 25 March 2012, long before that paper had even been edited, Mr. Dehlin copied an email to me that he had sent to Elder Marlin K. Jensen, then of the First Quorum of the Seventy, alerting him to rumors of a “hit piece” targeting him, Mr. Dehlin, and asking Elder Jensen to “please not allow this to happen.”  (The email was also copied to Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, and Hans Mattsson.)  Mr. Dehlin further indicated that he might yet contact Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Council of the Twelve.

His email did not arrive at an opportune time.  My brother, my only sibling, had died suddenly and unexpectedly two days earlier in California, and I was off in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a lecture at Harvard University.  I was not in a particularly good mood, and I perceived Mr. Dehlin’s note as an attempt to intimidate me and silence Dr. Smith.  (I still do.)

Several weeks later, I was asked, during a meeting with the director of the Maxwell Institute, to withdraw the critique of Mr. Dehlin’s writing and broadcasts from the forthcoming issue of the FARMS Review.  He said that the president of BYU had been contacted by an unidentified General Authority regarding the matter, and that the president of BYU had, in turn, contacted him, which was why he was talking to me.  I immediately complied with his request, noting that we had another article that could easily be inserted in its stead.

I knew, however, that neither the Institute director nor President Samuelson nor any General Authority nor John Dehlin had seen the essay in question, let alone read it, so I asked whether more information regarding the matter might be forthcoming.  Was John Dehlin absolutely off limits in perpetuity?  Only temporarily?  Had the General Authority actually asked that the article not be published?  Had President Samuelson actually asked that it not be published?  Did anybody want to read it?  Would they be content if it were published elsewhere?  Or simply later?  No answers to these questions were available.

Toward the very end of May 2012, I had a lengthy meeting (roughly four hours long, perhaps a bit more) in his office with the director of the Maxwell Institute.  He indicated that he would like the Institute to focus on “Mormon studies.”  (He had himself received a Ph.D. in “religious studies” from the University of California at Santa Barbara.)  I replied that, if he meant by that altogether to replace expressly committed-LDS, faithful scriptural and apologetic scholarship, I could not in good conscience support such a change.  Such unabashedly Mormon writing had been the mainstay and raison d’être of FARMS, and of its successor organization the Maxwell Institute, since its founding in the late 1970s.  Replacing it with a more or less secular “religious studies” approach would, I told him, be a clear betrayal of the intentions of those who had established and built the organization and of the donors who had generously supported it.

We went back and forth on this matter, but, candidly, I had a difficult time understanding exactly what he proposed to do.  Finally, though, I concluded that he simply meant to add “Mormon studies” onto the already existing activities of the Institute.  I remarked that I could support this, that I saw distinct value in relatively neutral “Mormon studies,” that I favored a variety of methods and approaches, and that I would happily expand my fundraising to try to support this additional kind of publication.  I had always thought that a priority of the Institute ought to be generating materials for publication in non-LDS venues.

I left the following week for Israel, where I led a private tour of the Holy Land for a prosperous family whom I hoped to interest in supporting the Maxwell Institute.  I thought everything was in good shape back in Provo.  Toward the very end of that tour, however, on 14 June 2012, I received an email from the Institute’s director dismissing me as editor of the Review and suspending its publication (though inviting me to continue as a member of an “advisory board” that would perhaps play some vague and minor role in connection with an eventual repurposed revival of it).

I took his email—which expressly contrasted his “vision,” “direction,” “new course,” and “agenda” with the original FARMS approach that I represented—to mean that I had been wrong in imagining that he intended his new “religious studies” emphasis to coexist with the traditional priorities of FARMS and the Maxwell Institute.  If that had been his intent, I would have been on board for it, and there would have been no need to dismiss me—let alone to do so by email while I was, as he well knew, on an extended trip overseas.  (I wouldn’t return to the United States for at least another month.)  Rather, it seemed plain to me, he intended his “new course” to replace the old one altogether.

I declined his invitation to serve on an “advisory board” for his new journal.  Further, given what his email unmistakably signaled with respect to the Maxwell institute’s “new course,” I also resigned as the Institute’s “director of advancement.”  As I had discussed with him during our lengthy end-of-May meeting, I regarded the substantial if not total abandonment of our “old course” as a betrayal of our donors.  I did not feel that I could raise funds for the “new course,” both because I thought that few would find secular-trending “Mormon studies” particularly exciting on its own and because, given alternative causes such as neonatal resuscitation, clean-water and measles-prevention projects in Africa, wheelchair distribution, literacy campaigns, the Perpetual Education Fund, and the like, I myself could muster very little conviction that a substantially redesigned Maxwell Institute represented the best place for them to put their donations.  I would not, I believed, be a convincing, enthusiastic, or effective advocate.  And, if they asked me, I would have to be truthful with them about it.

Now, John Dehlin and others have claimed that “the Church” ordered my dismissal.  But I see very little room in the actual narrative for them to have done so, and, on the principle of Ockham’s Razor, I see no reason to invoke high ecclesiastical intervention as an explanation for what happened.

The director’s desire to turn the Maxwell Institute in a more neutral, “objective” direction—i.e., toward “Mormon studies”—was entirely consistent with his own academic background in the relatively secular non-confessional world of “religious studies.”  I have specific reasons, too, for believing that his dismissal of me as editor had nothing directly to do with the paper regarding John Dehlin.  Among those reasons is the fact that that issue had already effectively been settled.

And it seems highly unlikely to me, anyway, that the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve micromanage editorial assignments for small journals at BYU.  Moreover, I’ve received unsought-for but direct assurances from absolutely unimpeachable sources—than whom no better, no more relevant sources can possibly exist—that the Twelve as such played no part in this matter.  (I don’t feel that I can say more than that publicly.  But I continue, so far as I can tell, to have quite good relations with the leaders of the Church.)

But what of my dismissal as chief fundraiser for the Maxwell Institute?  There was none.  I resigned.  Entirely of my own volition.  Hence, no involvement of the Brethren is required to make sense of what happened on that point.

My offices within the Maxwell Institute at the time of last June’s Purge were three:  (1) I was the editor of the FARMS Review, (2) I was the Institute’s Director of Advancement, and (3) I was the editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI).  I was dismissed from the first after twenty-three years of service, but there seems no reason to assume high ecclesiastical involvement in that, none has ever been mentioned to me by anybody actually connected with the matter, and I have strong reason to believe that there was none.  I resigned from the second role or office in June 2012.  But what of the third?

In my resignation letter, I wrote that I intended to remain as editor-in-chief of METI, and I was assured that I would do so.  I had, after all, conceived and founded the project, and, having established it first outside of what would become the Maxwell Institute, I was the person who had, freely and on his own initiative, brought it into the organization.  Unfortunately, though, in the wake of the politics of June 2012, it became clear that the situation regarding METI was unworkable.  My position as editor-in-chief was untenable.  The leadership of the Maxwell Institute disliked and distrusted me and had no real intention of working with me.  I thought, for a while, of forcing the issue, but then, upon reflection, concluded that I would find it unpalatable if not impossible to work with them.  I expected that I would win, but I also judged that it would be a Pyrrhic victory.  Accordingly, in mid-August 2013, I resigned as editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, thus severing my last tenuous tie with the Maxwell Institute.

Again, there is no room here for ecclesiastical involvement, and no need to invoke such intervention to explain what occurred.  I resigned.  It was my decision.

So John Dehlin’s claim, regarding the leaders of the Church, that “they made the decision not only that that type of apologetics wasn’t welcome in the Church, but that the types of people who were sponsoring it probably needed to find new employment,” seems to rest on essentially nothing.  The Brethren don’t appear to have been involved to any significant extent, if they were involved at all, in the politics of June 2012.  And the “new course” seems to have little or nothing to do with Dr. Smith’s critique of Mr. Dehlin’s activities.   Moreover, although Mr. Dehlin seems to be delighted at what he imagines to have been my loss of a job—“I think that’s a wonderful decision and I support it”—I haven’t, in fact, been fired.  I still work at Brigham Young University, and my salary hasn’t taken a hit.  (Sorry to disappoint Mr. Dehlin and those who believe that the University and the Church would be benefited by becoming more like John Dehlin and less like the reprehensible Daniel Peterson.)

It turns out, though, that John Dehlin isn’t the only person eager to take credit for the Purge that ultimately led to my complete separation from the Maxwell Institute after a quarter of a century of intense involvement.  Rod Meldrum, CEO of the “Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism Foundation,” who comes from quite a different direction than does Mr. Dehlin, insists that I was “fired” because I had allowed materials critical of his “heartland” model of Book of Mormon geography to be published in the FARMS Review.

But, as I’ve noted above, I wasn’t “fired.”  And I certainly wasn’t “fired” for daring to question the works of Rod Meldrum.  For one thing, the director of the Maxwell Institute apparently wasn’t even aware that we had published anything regarding Mr. Meldrum’s work until long after the Purge.  Moreover there is at least one person still working at the Maxwell Institute who was far more centrally involved in responding to Mr. Meldrum than I was or have been.  I’ve never found Mr. Meldrum’s ideas even remotely interesting and have never written anything regarding them.  But I did permit the publication of these two pieces, written by others, in the FARMS Review:

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=22&num=1&id=793

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=22&num=2&id=806

Mr. Meldrum is also apparently convinced that the Church came down on us because we advocated a Mesoamerican geography for the Book of Mormon.  But to the extent that it’s associated with any particular geographic model, the Maxwell Institute is still linked with Mesoamerica, as is plainly demonstrated by the fact that it’s just published John Sorenson’s major Mesoamerican statement, Mormon’s Codex.  The book was conceived and written under the aegis of FARMS and its successor organization, the Maxwell Institute, and, though it’s not obvious to me that the redesigned Maxwell Institute, now embarked on its “new course,” would have initiated such a project, the fact remains that it published the book.

So Mr. Meldrum’s attempt to exploit my separation from the Maxwell Institute in order to validate his own position fares no better than does Mr. Dehlin’s.

I’m tired of these matters, but I won’t willingly permit my history to be falsified, and I won’t stand by and watch as others claim that I’ve been condemned by my Church and rejected by its leaders.

 

 


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