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DAN PETERSON, THE MAXWELL INSTITUTE, AND MORMON STUDIES: REVISITING THE CONTROVERSY – PART 2


Since William J. Hamblin has noted the passing of 6 months since the debacle this summer, now seems like a good time to offer up some comments as the implicitly promised part 2 of my earlier post. In that post, I took up the issue of whether or not the study of an internet podcast host and the accompanying community was worthy of an academic journal. I concluded then – and still think so now – the answer is yes, despite the protestations of a few commenters who, without having even seen or read the paper, insist that the paper is nothing like the kind of study I have suggested it is.

In this posting I would like to move on to the second of the two controversies. Dan Peterson’s removal from his editorship in the Mormon Studies Review.  Those who “laud” the new direction of the Maxwell Institute (which, thus far, proves to be no direction at all), have given a variety of reasons why, but I just wanted to take some time and comment on just one. It’s the notion that Dan Peterson, lacking any “professional training” in the field of Mormon Studies simply is not qualified to be the editor of a Mormon Studies journal. As one blogger put it, “Some of those involved with FARMS have no training in religious studies (broadly conceived) or Mormon studies (more specifically). Even Peterson, who fits the first criteria, does not fit the second. While this shouldn’t exclude him from making significant contributions, I find it odd that the editor of a journal called Mormon Studies Review is a trained Islamicist.”

Mormon Studies is Brand New

When put that way, it certainly seems odd, but one almost wonders if this person realizes just how new the concept of Mormon Studies, in broader academia, really is. It is an incredibly new phenomenon. And when a field of study is brand new, that means the people who have to lead that field – in teaching courses, training new scholars, and editing journals – do not themselves have any formal training. At this point, so far as I can discern, there is no program yet that actually offers graduate degrees, or even undergraduate degrees, in “Mormon Studies” proper. There isn’t even so much as a minor anywhere in the country. So it seems, to me, that expecting the people involved in FARMS to have formal training in “Mormon Studies” is quite unreasonable. There are a small handful of people at this point who have participated in graduate programs at Claremont, for instance, but even they do not have a degree in Mormon Studies, and hence none of them would be formally considered experts in “Mormon Studies”, at least not by the standards expected by this blogger.

It should be pointed out that Richard Bushman – whom many would likely view as the “father of Mormon Studies” at this point, and who held the Mormon Studies chair at Claremont – has no formal training in “Mormon Studies.” Neither does Terryl Givens, another of the most brilliant minds of the “Mormon Studies” movement. Yet no one objected to Bushman holding a chair in Mormon Studies, or having a chair named after him (the new Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia). Nor do people protest when someone suggests that Givens would be the ideal candidate for the position at UVa. (Not that he is being considered or appointed to the position – just rumors that go around). Grant Hardy is another one who tends be seen as a leader in Mormon Studies today – and yet this formal training is in ancient Chinese history and literature. But I’ve got a feeling that if he were appointed as the new editor of the Mormon Studies Review no one would think “I find it odd that the editor of a journal called Mormon Studies Review is a trained scholar of ancient China.” Rather, they would find it a pleasing appointment, as they would if it were Bushman, or Givens. So whatever their true objections of Dr. Peterson, the real issue has nothing to do with his lack of professional training in “Mormon Studies.”

FARMS – What did that Stand for Again?

Oh yeah, that’s right: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. Organized in 1979, FARMS was probably the first formal institution dedicated to an academic level of “Mormon Studies.” Dr. Peterson became a part of that organization in 1989 with the launch of the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, later changed to the FARMS Review of Books, then to the FARMS Review, and then briefly to the Mormon Studies Review. Hence, Dr. Peterson has been involved in publishing in Mormon Studies for almost a quarter century. He has followed the literature on Mormon topics, and produced some it. In a generation when Mormon Studies is just starting to come of age, and virtually every “expert” in the field lacks any real training in “Mormon Studies” proper, Dr. Peterson has as good of a resume as anybody.

Conclusion

Whatever else you may think of Dan Peterson’s apologetic style, writing and publishing for popular audiences, etc., it must be realized that his qualifications in terms of “Mormon Studies” are as good as anybody’s. I greatly enjoy the work of Peterson, as I do the work of Bushman, Givens, Hardy, and others. Their approaches are different than that of Peterson’s, and I think there is room for – and a need for – both. The issue has never been that the Maxwell Institute’s direction is not valuable or that that it is inherently wrong. Rather, the issue is that it is decidedly one-sided, and therefore neglects a much needed aspect of Mormon Studies – and if that aspect of Mormon Studies cannot be acceptable at BYU, then where can it be? Furthermore, it co-opts an organization and resources developed for a specific purpose by people who spent more than two decades of their lives building up that organization and gather those resources.

All that aside, however, my purpose has not been to argue that the Maxwell Institute is right or wrong in its new direction or its letting go of Dr. Peterson. Rather, my intent has simply been to respond to one particular part of the rational some people have offered for praising the decision. Whatever good reasons might have existed for removing Peterson from his position, his alleged lack of qualifications is not one of them.

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