What the Maxwell Institute controversy is really about

The Maxwell Institute (MI) controversy is not–or at least shouldn’t be–a personal feud.  It is, rather, a clash about the fundamental vision for the future of the MI.  Those who try to turn it into  a feud of “good people” verse “bad people”–as the apostates and anti-Mormons are gleefully doing–are doing a disservice to the important issues at stake here.

Let me be very clear.  Gerald Bradford is not a bad person.  I believe he is doing what he thinks is best for the future of both the Institute and for the University.  Of course, I disagree radically with his vision, but that is another matter I will discuss below.  Unfortunately, I find Bradford to be a less than competent administrator–a view shared, by the way, by many other people.  (On the other hand, I, too, would be a poor administrator, though my flaws in that regard would probably be quite different from Bradford’s.)  I feel that Bradford’s failure to contain months or years of ongoing leaks to apostate enemies of the church from within his organization shows disastrous negligence.  And I feel the way Bradford has treated Dan Peterson and the other editors of the Review–dismissing them by email when out of the country, or letting them first learn of their dismissal when the announcement was made public–was absolutely shameful.  I also believe that his decision to censor Greg Smith’s article critiquing John Dehlin–without having read the article–represents a fundamental abdication of his responsibility as Director of the MI.  I have recently told him all these things, in much greater detail, in sometimes intemperate personal emails to him–though I doubt he has bothered to read them.  All this makes him a flawed human being, but then, so am I, and so are we all.  I sincerely believe he is doing what he thinks is best.  And I sincerely believe he is dead wrong.

I also do not really object to Bradford’s vision for the MI.  I think it is perfectly legitimate to digitize Syriac manuscripts or publish dual Arabic-English editions of Muslim philosophical texts.  I actually have some personal professional interest in such things, and have read some of these publications.  I also have no real objection to a Mormon Studies Review that approaches Mormon studies from a purely academic standpoint–though I think we already have such journals (like BYU Studies, the Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, etc.).  I therefore don’t believe there is any real purpose served by creating another one.  And, bizarre as it may sound, I also agree with Bradford that LDS apologetics should not be officially sponsored by the University or the Church.

So, why am I so vehemently opposed to Bradford’s dismissal of Dan and proposed change of direction for the Mormon Studies Review?  Here we come to the crux of the problem.  If the University does not want to sponsor apologetics, why in the world did it force FARMS to become part of the University?

I should explain that when the University first approached FARMS requesting that they join the University it was in the form of a hostile takeover.  I was on the Board of FARMS at the time, and the Board initially voted unanimously to reject the proposal.  Most of the Board members at the time were BYU faculty, and subsequently all sorts of pressure was exerted by the University to force the members of Board to accept the proposal.  When, after months of negotiations the Board of FARMS finally agreed to the proposed takeover, I still voted against the merger and resigned from the Board in protest.  I believed at the time–and it is clear that subsequent events have proved me correct–that such a merger would be bad for both FARMS and the University.  I love BYU, and love teaching here.  But if FARMS became part of the University it would begin to be perceived as part of the Church, and what it said would then be viewed as somehow “official.”  This would of course lead to correlation.  No one in the original FARMS group wanted to speak for the Church.  We wanted to engage in standard academic discourse, writing books, articles and reviews.  If we were right in our interpretations, great.  If we were wrong in our interpretations, that would be our personal problem.  It would have nothing to do with anything “official” for the Church.

The University at the time gave all sorts of assurances that they wanted FARMS to continue doing exactly what it was doing.  And it was perfectly clear to the University what they were getting by absorbing FARMS: we were publishing scholarly books and articles on the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures, and we were publishing responses to anti-Mormon claims–that is, apologetics.  Dan had been publishing the Review for years when the University absorbed FARMS.  It was perfectly obvious what the Review was all about.  So I ask again: If the University did not want to sponsor apologetics, why in the world did it force FARMS to become part of the University?  (I believe I actually know why they did it, and their motives had absolutely nothing to do with FARMS or its scholarship; but that is another story.)

The Board of FARMS was, of course, dissolved, and the University started appointing directors for FARMS/MI.  And their three choices for directors have consistently been people with no scholarly expertise in the field and/or no track record publishing with FARMS.  In other words, they installed bureaucrats who were supposed to manage, rather than scholars to lead an academic institute.  It would be like putting me in charge of the nursing school.

Which brings us to Bradford.  He was brought into FARMS as a manager to run the day-to-day operations of FARMS when it became too big to be administered on a part-time basis by the full-time BYU faculty on the Board.  He was not brought in as a scholar to single handedly determine the future academic direction of the institute.  That was the responsibility of the Board, not of any single individual.  Of course, when the Board was dissolved by the University, it was the full-time employees of FARMS who were left standing, and suddenly it was the employees of FARMS–who had originally been hired to execute the academic vision of the Board–but who were put in charge of determining the academic direction that FARMS should take in the future.

We need to understand that Bradford, even as an employee and administrative executive for the Board, was never in favor of apologetics.  He consistently opposed these activities, and tried to persuade the Board to move in different directions.  Academically, Bradford is a scholar of 19th century American Religion and William James.  He is academically at home with 19th century Mormonism, but is by no means conversant with biblical studies, ancient languages, Mesoamerica, archaeology, etc., which were the bread and butter of FARMS scholarship.  When he was the executive administrator for the Board this didn’t matter, since the Board determined academic policy; but now he is the sole director, with sole discretion to determine the future of the Institute.  Likewise Morgan Davis, was originally hired as an editor in the Mideast Translation Series, not as a director to determine scholarly policy.  He was hired to execute the academic policies of the Board, not to establish those policies.  Davis also never liked apologetics.  Precisely the same is the case with Kristian Heal, who was hired to supervise a Syriac digitization project; he also always disliked apologetics.  So note what has happened.  We have three employees, none of whom were actively researching or publishing FARMS scholars, and all of whom disliked apologetics.  Each of these three were hired to execute the policies of the Board, not to create those policies.  These three have now all become “directors” of the Maxwell Institute (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/about/administration.php), and are now responsible to create the scholarly policy and determine the future direction for the Institute, because the Board was dissolved by the University, and power was transferred to the employees.  It’s really breathtaking how the entire nature of the Institute was turned upside down and twisted in a different direction by this phenomena.  Dan Peterson was the only scholar of the original FARMS Board who was left as a “director” of the Institute; with his dismissal classic-FARMS is gone.  There is not a single voice left in the leadership of the Institute to represent the original goals of classic-FARMS.  This is why Dan’s dismissal and marginalization is seen as such a massive betrayal.  It is the removal of the last vestige of classic-FARMS.  The pretense of the MI as the heir of FARMS can no longer be maintained.  Bradford believes this is a good and necessary thing.  And we need to understand: he always has.  This does not represent a shift of policy for Bradford.  This represents a shift of power from a Board of scholars with a particular vision, to employees who never shared that vision, but who were hired to perform strictly limited and specific tasks.  By allowing BYU to absorb FARMS the Board effectively abdicated its power to guide the future direction of FARMS.  Such mission creep and power shifts were therefore inevitable.

However, by changing the direction of the Review, Bradford is fundamentally betraying the tacit agreement the University originally made when it absorbed FARMS: that the University wanted to sponsor apologetics.  For years hundreds of people donated time, money, scholarship etc. to FARMS because they believed in the classic-FARMS goals of serious, faithful scholarship on LDS scripture and apologetics.  The core of the problem is that if Bradford was not-supportive of classic-FARMS goals he should not have accepted the position as director of the Institute.

So, as I said, I have nothing inherently against Bradford’s vision.  I believe it would have been much better for all concerned if FARMS had remained independent, and could not be seen as a voice of the Church.  My objection to Bradford’s policy is that he systematically destroyed classic-FARMS to achieve his vision.  The result is that he has taken substantial resources and donations of time, money, land and personnel that were originally given in good faith by donors to support classic-FARMS scholarship, and is diverting them to fund his new vision.  This, I believe, is fundamentally immoral, just as it would be wrong to take money donated to the engineering school and give it to the football team.  It is likewise wrong to take all the resources donated by hundreds of people over a quarter of a century and to support classic-FARMS research, and divert it to the pet-project of the new Director.  It is fundamentally wrong.  If the current directors of MI want to pursue their vision they should approach new donors as ask them if they want to donate money to digitize Syriac texts or publish stogy secular-oriented academic reviews.  (Good luck with that.)  So my objection is not that Bradford wants to create a journal to fulfill his vision of what scholarship should be done by the MI.  It is that Bradford is destroying classic-FARMS to do it.  The vast majority of donors have made their donations to FARMS not to support Bradford’s new vision, but to support the original vision of classic-FARMS.  If I were a donor, I would feel fundamentally betrayed by this.  And, indeed, I’ve talked to some donors who do feel precisely that.

50 thoughts on “What the Maxwell Institute controversy is really about

  1. Pingback: FARMS Fires Peterson et al . . . « Messenger and Advocate

  2. As I have followed this situation unfold, it is hard NOT to call it a feud. You say it is not between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people (in terms of morality) however, it appears by the way you are slandering Bradford as an incompetent director of the MI it is still a feud. Rather this feud is between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in terms of talent and/or vision that matches your own. While you are seeking to douse the flames of dissidence and malcontent among the critics of the church, you are in reality fanning those flames among members of the church who share your views (given Bradford has not entered the fray to defend his actions). One sided fights never have a winner. Let’s get back to do research rather than quibbling over one organization when there are, lest we forget, other avenues to promote apologetic discussion.

    • There are important issues involved in what is taking place. They involve money, time, vision and commitments. This is something that needs to be explored and discussed. Bravo Bill for sharing your perspective in a candid and forthright manner. It is erroneous to label anything Bill said as “slander,” and is wrongheaded to suggest that he should refrain from sharing his opinion merely because his opinion addresses an emotion-laden controversy. It is precisely in situations like this, i.e., where rumors swirl and feelings run raw, that candid, even painfully honest, commentary is most needed. As an outsider, but someone who loves the work that FARMS has done over the years–and owns every publication it has produced–I feel that I am owed some explanations and Bill’s commentary is gratefully received.

  3. Thanks for the insight.

    As an outsider, it seems to me that a more apt analogy is donors giving money to the football team and the university changing coaches, where the new coach has a different vision for the team than the old coach.

    So, if you get a chance, could you spell out more clearly why exactly Bradford’s vision is a betrayal to donors?

    • I can’t see your analogy as more apt, Robert C. Perhaps if donors gave money to the rugby team and it was used instead for the basketball team…
      But begging your pardon, and truly not intending contention, the betrayal seems obvious to me, and the quibble over the analogy needless.

      • The analogy might work better if the money was given to the football team, and then the athletic director fired the coaching staff and made it a soccer team instead (that’s still “football” in some parts of the world, right? And it would make it more popular in Europe!).

  4. Thanks Bill,

    As one of the donors who really appreciated the FARMS direction and believes that it is better for other departments of BYU to publish “Ancient Studies” and such, as I also am interested in those, but I tend to look for a different publisher than NAMI for those studies. I donated to NAMI/FARMS for the apologetics and so do feel betrayed by this decision. I’m grateful to hear some of the behind the scenes aspects of this change-over. I will find a new outlet for my donations.


    • I have been a contributor to FARMS also, and find the change in direction disconcerting to say the least. I will follow the same course of action that Mr. Slack has.

    • Ed,

      I want people to know that my article that was censored by Jerry Bradford (The Interminable Roll — Determining the Original Length of the Scroll of Hor) was effectively co-authored by YOU, and when it is published somewhere in the near future, I would like to add your name to mine under the title. I know you have resisted this idea in the past, but the fact is that your contribution to the article was equivalent to that of Andrew Cook’s in the related article published (by Andrew Cook and Christopher Smith) in Dialogue in 2010.

      As you well know, our article has been completed for almost two years now, and has only been kept from publication as a result of this ongoing struggle within the Maxwell Institute. As you also well know, our article contains not a single paragraph that could be construed as “ad hominem attacks”, but is, rather, a historical and scientific examination of the Joseph Smith Papyri, including precision measurements of the physical papyri themselves, conducted by professionals, while Professor Gee and I assisted and logged their measurements.

      I have since learned that this important paper was censored by Dr. Bradford for reasons unrelated to the ostensible one which was ALSO revealed in an intentionally leaked report that originated from within the Maxwell Institute. This supposedly private editorial decision was secretly communicated to anti-Mormon elements at the Mormon Discussions message board, who published it as follows (in part):

      “I have received a very brief note informing me that my case as laid out in this thread has been heard and William Schryver’s work will not be published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. I am sharing this information with permission, and … will not reveal my source …”


      It is quite apparent that Dr. Bradford and his cohorts suffer from no compunction to utilize underhanded methods to undermine their opponents and advance their agenda—which agenda, if publicly known, would no doubt arouse significant opposition from those whose discernment of the adversary’s modus operandi is much more refined than those whose decisions have now resulted in the recently accomplished putsch.

  5. Bill – what if it’s as simple as this: you guys have failed at doing apologetics in a way that LDS church leadership is comfortable with. Clearly Gerald Bradford didn’t act alone. Clearly general authorities were involved. It’s clear to me that church leadership is uncomfortable with your (and Dr. Peterson’s) brand of apologetics. To blame Bradford for this seems like scapegoating. It’s LDS church leadership that appears to be uncomfortable with your style of apologetics. Unfortunately you can’t criticize them….but it’s not fair to lay the blame on Bradford either. Not fair at all. Try looking in the mirror.

    • Well, you may be right. But the fact of the matter is, the LDS church leadership has made absolutely no public statement on the matter. You have no evidence general authorities are involved in Bradford’s decision. You are fantasizing. I have no idea what the church leadership thinks about this, (though I suspect there are many different views). But more importantly, neither do you. I do not, never have, and never will claim to be speaking for the church leadership. I suggest you do the same.

    • John: Were the GAs involved at your behest? You have so consistently berated the church for hiding the ball, maybe you could let us know your involvement in this badly bungled affair and what role GAs played — if any. On the other hand, if you don’t really know, then your comment to Bill is way out of line. If you do know and want to hide what happened, then it seems incumbent on you to apologize for all of the demands for the church to air its dirty laundry.

    • John,

      I had yet to see or hear any evidence suggesting that Church leadership was involved in Jerry Bradford’s recent actions. You must obviously have some information in relation to that question. Please do share, since (as I will readily admit) if Bradford’s actions have the sanction of “The Brethren,” then that certainly changes the complexion of things.


  6. Bill: I couldn’t agree with you more. When FARMS was taken over by BYU the promise was that it wouldn’t dictate decisions but would grant editorial freedom. I don’t hesitate to add that FARMS always had a strong apologetics purpose and that purpose has now been betrayed. A better parable given that Dan et al. were thrown out based on John Dihlen’s appeal to a member of the twelve is the following:

    “It was discovered that there were wolves clothed in sheep’s clothes among the sheep. These wolves dressed as sheep were picking off the sheep and hiding behind their sheep’s clothes. So the shepherd release some wolf-hunting breeds to detect the wolves and drive them from the flock — exposing them as wolves. However, when the wolf-hunters began to attack and expose the wolves to protect the sheep, the shepherd shot the wolf-hunters to protect the wolves.”

    I am very concerned that FARMS is now reduced to a redundant outlet for historical scholarship rather than the often cutting edge pieces that appeared in the past. FARMS has just rendered itself not only irrelevant, but is now co-opted by those who have no vision of why it was originally created — and in doing so has mistreated those who served it so well for so long.

    C. Spencer — Bill has done nothing more than report his perspective — and your charge of slander is baseless. You ask him to do what FARMS has already done: make these vibrant voices that served FARMS so well persons non grata. The way this was handled is deplorable and fellow saints should never be treated this way. If you don’t see it, then there is little that pointing out such reprehensible behavior will do for you.

    Robert C.: There was no reason for change. This isn’t a new coach. Bradford has been part of FARMS since BYU co-opted it. I was encouraged when I saw that FARMS independence and freedom to publish disparate voices continued. Any hope for independence of voice has just gone up in smoke and with it any credibility that FARMS has enjoyed.

    • Dehlin has not recruited a member of the Q12 to support him. This is nothing but a myth created and perpetuated in the bloggernacle for the past several weeks, but one which Dehlin has not attempted to discredit.

  7. Pingback: BYU Professor Reveals Negligence and Inner Workings at BYU’s Maxwell Institute | DISREPORT

  8. “Of course, I disagree radically with his vision, but that is another matter I will discuss below.”

    followed by

    “I also do not really object to Bradford’s vision for the MI.”

    Which is it? Is it possible to disagree radically without really objecting?

  9. Bradford’s firing Dan while he was in Israel via email, shows just how poorly handled this was done. No professionalism involved, at all. That FARMS has always had a purpose that is now gone, is very sad. I personally hope that all its donors will switch their donations to FAIR, instead. Without FARMS funding, then Bradford’s vision will live or die on its own merits. We’ve already seen that FARMS lives and does very well on its merits.

  10. Pingback: Changes at the Maxwell Institute, and “controlling the narrative” | FAIR Blog

  11. There was a video that came out around the 2008 campaign that I thought was really wise, about how to *truly* “win” a discussion on the internet, specifically in regards to discussion of race and racism. Here is a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc (warning: one instance of mild profanity)

    The gist of the message is that you never want to say to somebody, “I think you are racist.” Instead, you want to say, “I think what you said sounds racist.” The really wise part comes in when Jay explains that it may feel like you are letting your opponent off easy–you really want to come right out hit with “you are racist!!” But that is winning the battle to lose the war. That is instant gratification over long-term success.

    I bring this up because one thing I see coming up again and again in the discussion of this whole fiasco is the sense that anti-Mormons are going to be let off easy if we don’t have the likes of Dan Peterson (sorry to use him as more of a symbol than a man) to bash their heads in. But, taking a page from Jay Smooth, what if a sober, scholarly, diplomatic approach is actually at the end of the day more devastating to the opponent? And for EXACTLY the same reasons that Jay brings up in the video–if you indulge in the apparent “hard-hitting” (I keep seeing that phrase in these MI discussions…) “you are anti-Mormon!!!” rhetoric, you totally open yourself up to the kind of derailing Jay warns about. You give your opponent an opportunity to escape his rightful punishment because they can throw up a bunch of distracting “But Dan’s tone is bad!” “But he went ad hominem!” etc.

    My 2c.

    (PS: somebody should really make a copy of Jay’s video called “How To Tell People They Sound Anti-Mormon.”)

  12. If the Neal A. Maxwell Institute is now embarking on a path that will make it essentially a forum for scholarly study and discussion of any number subjects related, no matter how tangentially, to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the restored Church of Jesus Christ, and “Mormonism” as a sociocultural phenomena, but without apologetic content, while far be it from me to suggest that this has no value, the question does arise in my mind as to why, when the contemporary LDS intelligentsia has already produced both Dialogue and Sunstone, forums already dedicated to such study, and which have developed a reputation, over the long haul, for a significant bias towards a naturalistic, secularizing approach to the study of all things LDS, the apologetic mission of FARMS (NMI) should be abandoned.

    Is there no need for an intellectually and philosophically serious, rigorous, and disciplined approach to apologetic interrogation of criticisms of the church, and especially from what is, at present, the most significant intellectual challenge confronting the church – not evangelical Protestant “counter-cult” Christian apologetics – but precisely the Neo-Orthodox or New Order Mormon (NOM) project of church/secular convergence?

    It is a shame, in my view, to see FARMS/NMI move from a serious, scholarly forum of study and education centered both in competent scholarship AND defense of the church and gospel (apologetics), and accessible to the average member, to an ivory tower within which academic specialists within narrow, scholarly niches talk primarily to one another upon subjects related, in one sense or another, to Mormonism that, while certainly of interest in their own right, may be of questionable value in the ongoing confrontation and battle for the hearts and minds of our Father’s children that is the Last Days.

    Is the thorough secularization and acidemicization of the study of Mormonism really a positive development? Might it not, carried this far, have significant drawbacks and diminishing returns for the the LDS intellectual community and for the general membership?

  13. Pingback: The Rise and Fall of FARMS – Temple Study - LDS Temples, Mormon Temples, Study Blog

  14. Pingback: Did John Dehlin Bring Down the Mormon Studies Review: (Hint: the answer has two letters…)

  15. Not like FARMS can’t be redone as a separate entity away from the Church and BYU and start accepting donations again, right? I imagine the longer you wait, the harder it will be in many ways, especially monetarily (accepting donations). Stop the arguing, stop the back-patting and “support”, and make the split. 😉

    • Excellent point. Both sides go to there respective corners. Reorganize a FARMS 2 independent of BYU so it can pursue its interests and what it does so well. Time will tell if Mormon Studies Review will swim or sink on its own.

  16. As a lifelong reader and student, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading FARMS materials. I just started rereading Nibley’s Approaching Zion. Am I naive in supposing that some combination of FAIR and FARMS (the original) has real potential for those of us faithful members who live far from not-so-Happy Valley? Apologetics is part of my life every day as I try to live a Christ-centered life in the restored gospel/church and in my 52nd year as a busy practicing physician. Truth is not just a catechism to the thinking Latter-day Saint. John A. Bennett, MD Albuquerque, New Mexico

      • Couldn’t agree more.

        You know, as a fully active, faithful, home-teaching, true blue member (which I feel are becoming rare on the internet these days), FARMS has really been an anchor to me ever since I was a teenager. When I would read something online, and I didn’t know how to react or my testimony would waver, I would always find some apologetic helping me to at least counteract the doubt.

        Nowadays, I sometimes find myself in a similar position, especially with Mormon Stories (much of it “insider” anti-mormonism) and the media. I hear things, I research things, I am gaining knowledge about the history of the church, which is great – but I still like to go back and read what the FARMS people are saying about stuff. Doubt can be a dangerous thing when you don’t have someone to talk to.

        In the end, FARMS has never replaced my faith and revelation, and it never can, but at least it counteracts doubt for those whose testimonies are budding. I guess you could say that I feel like it helped me develop a spirit of discernment.

        I am disappointed that this happened. We will only need apologetics more and more in future years, because there is so much crap coming out against the church. Maybe that is just our reality.

        I hope that you really will consider opening an independent forum (again), and we will definitely join on and support. Thanks.

  17. Pingback: Guest Post: Why I Find Developments at the Maxwell Institute Concerning | Times & Seasons

  18. Pingback: The Legacy of FARMS

  19. Pingback: “Restore FARMS” Support Organization – Temple Study - LDS Temples, Mormon Temples, Study Blog

  20. Sounds like a past-donor class action law suit is in order. I’m not personally interested, I’ve never donated, and don’t particularly like FARMS — but I totally “get” the author’s complaint.

  21. Dismissing Dan et al for having “the wrong” direction is one thing, dismissing them while most of them are away overseas and dismissing them unceremoniously from one day to the next without leaving explicit explanations why this hastiness is necessary, neither explaining it to them nor to the donors is “another. ” for lack of a more polite word.

  22. I only recently discovered apologetcs but find it to be fascinating as it is comprised of reasoned resposes to otherwise unreasoned attacks of our faith. I have seen the negative affects of those who mislead others with half truths and lies. I am grateful there are those willing to adress critics with logic, evidence, reason and civility. To be truthful, these people remind of the early church leaders for whom apologetics, or defending the faith, was a calling for life.

    I realize it is long after the event, but I found the author’s points clear, logical and sound, I am curious where he and his associates have taken their talents.

  23. Pingback: Did John Dehlin Bring Down the Mormon Studies Review: (Hint: the answer has two letters…) | John Adams Center

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