The Legacy of FARMS

The Legacy of FARMS June 26, 2012

Bill Hamblin is right.  The old-FARMS is dead.  Gerald Bradford didn’t kill it.  John Dehlin certainly didn’t kill it.   The ouster of Daniel Peterson is not when FARMS died.  It died a long time ago, while Peterson was still there.  It was absorbed into the Maxwell Institute, which we now know was the beginning of its end, at least in the form in which it appeared in the 1990’s.  For various reasons, the FARMS of the 2000’s failed to capture the imagination, attract significant apologetic work, and ultimately find a relevant voice in the new landscape of Mormon Studies. It remains to be seen whether it will find that relevant voice going forward.  Through an unfortunate series of mismanagement, much of which is not public information, and much of which has nothing to do with its current director, FARMS gradually fell apart.  It is done.  There is little hope in reviving the corpse.  Instead, I’d like to reflect a bit on its legacy.

First, FARMS leaves behind an enormous wealth of published material.  They broke new ground on research into LDS scripture and had a dramatic effect on the way that the Book of Mormon is understood.  They successfully championed the limited geography model, chiasmus, Nephi and his Asherah, and numerous other critical ideas that will have a long, defining impact on Book of Mormon studies.  Personally, I remain grateful for these exciting works, even the more problematic ones, for treading new ground and giving us something to think about.

Second, they leave behind the FARMS-Signature wars of the 1990’s.  This decade was an incredibly polarizing one for LDS scholars and the result of this work was to draw stark boundaries.  FARMS enforced its view of where the boundaries were by labeling those with competing views as Cultural Mormons and Apostates.  I’ve argued before that the legacy of this was a chilling effect upon a generation of young LDS academics and non-LDS academics who avoided publishing on Mormonism for fear of getting caught up in this manufactured war.  I think that those who were already in graduate school in the 1990’s fled Mormonism, fled Mormon Studies, or charted very safe paths to avoid controversy.  This was an unfortunate effect of the vigorous defenses of the faith and in my view ended up chilling good-willed scholars.

Third, they leave behind a legacy of young LDS scholars who were undergraduates in the 1990’s.  These folks were initially inspired by the exciting scholarship FARMS was pursuing, and energized by the rhetorical volleys.  These young scholars headed off to graduate school optimistic about what they would learn.  They studied linguistics, biblical studies, American religious history, and Mesoamerican studies.  They left graduate school disillusioned of that optimism and critical of their FARMS mentors.  The significant apologists today are largely part-timers, not BYU professors with professional training in relevant fields.  Perhaps the worst legacy FARMS leaves behind is a younger generation of scholars who is largely unwilling to take their place.  That young generation of scholars who went off to graduate school is decidedly cool about taking up either the research agendas FARMS had laid out or the siege mentality that once motivated them to study in the first place.  While these scholars owe a debt of gratitude for the inspiration FARMS gave them, they often resent the expectations it set for them, as well as the expectations of their LDS friends and family that their careers follow that same trajectory of FARMS as the only faithful one.

Rather than seeing FARMS as something that could, or even should, last forever, we are starting to see that FARMS represented an important period that has largely come to an end.  It introduced wide LDS audiences to academic approaches to scripture and showed that they could pay off.  At the same time, these academic conversations have evolved, and new approaches are need for the new questions (and old questions) that have emerged.  I am deeply grateful to Peterson, Welch, Hamblin, and others for what they produced.  I am also incredibly eager to see what the next generation of Mormon scholars will produce.  So far, I am not the least disappointed and don’t miss the old FARMS at all.  We’ve seen a proliferation and revitalization of a number of venues for important intellectual work on Mormonism over the past decade.  What will emerge from the ashes of the old FARMS is yet unseen.  Let us all hope that it will be something worth paying attention to.

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