Being fair to FAIR

August 2, 2004 | 25 comments
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I confess to being involved in apologetics. I enjoy it.

I like reading challenging material and researching it. As Kaimi pointed out, I have written for FAIR once publically, and many times privately, when people write in with a question. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have some association with FARMS as well.) I don’t like to argue, and I don’t often spend time on ZLMB or the FAIR message board. I’m more interested in trying to help out those members struggling with their testimonies.

Such is FAIR‘s purpose. Though by its mostly amateur nature FAIR material is sometimes uneven, they have treated many issues that neither the Church nor FARMS will touch with a 10-foot pole such as Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriages. ( I grant that given their respective missions, I wouldn’t expect either the Church OR FARMS to publish something on the topic…)

The FAIR conference (plug plug) is an opportunity to hear some highly trained people talk about difficult subjects in an honest manner. To preempt certain comments about the worth of such groups, let me suggest that FAIR is occupying middle ground. Attendees can mingle with Dan Peterson, Richard Lloyd Anderson, John Tvedtnes, and Davis Bitton, but also with Thomas Murphy, Dr. Shades, and Brent Metcalfe. Brent is unable to attend this year, but, at my request, sent his opinion about FAIR and its conference.

“Mormon historiography and exegesis are invigorating and retain integrity because of contributions from serious students who span the ideological spectrum. FAIR’s annual conference provides a venue for students with an apologetic bent to share their thoughtful perspectives on LDS scripture and history. Scholars of Mormonism would be remiss if they ignored this voice from within the LDS community.”

I have heard second- and third-hand statements from some who have now left the Church that “if FAIR had been around, things might have been different for me.” As someone who has taught Institute and is temporarily teaching at BYU, I see the importance of teaching students how to think critically about difficult issues while maintaining belief, and providing an environment in which asking questions is not tantamount to apostasy. FAIR, in my opinion, successfully walks that line. Come to the conference, and form your own opinion.

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25 Responses to Being fair to FAIR

  1. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 12:31 am

    Ben Spackman wrote: “they have treated many issues that neither the Church nor FARMS will touch with a 10-foot pole such as Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriages.”

    Apparently, you missed the 71 pages devoted to Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness in FARMS Review of Books, Volume 10, Number 2.

  2. Mike Parker on August 3, 2004 at 12:53 am

    I’ve attended 3 of the last 5 FAIR Apologetics Conferences, and they get better every year. I’m looking forward to this one — Richard Lloyd Anderson himself is worth the price of admission.

    Those who feel that it’s impossible to simultaneously be a believing Mormon and a thinking Mormon should definitely attend.

  3. Ben S. on August 3, 2004 at 1:18 am

    That was a review, not an active article. (Splitting hairs, perhaps.) Todd Compton (and some others) felt it was a particularly inaccurate review. You can read Compton’s defense of himself as a moderate here.

  4. Aaron Brown on August 3, 2004 at 2:31 am

    I have perused the FAIR site occasionally, and exploring it more thoroughly is one of many tasks on my ever-expanding list of “Things To Do.” I have enjoyed the articles I’ve read (with only one glaring exception).

    My initial reaction upon discovering FAIR was “Why in the world hasn’t somebody done this before?” I think it’s great that this resource exists, and I hope that more members will discover it.

    Ben — Why wouldn’t FARMS touch Smith’s polyandrous marriages with a 10-foot pole? I understand that FARMS treatment of non-Book of Mormon topics is largely limited to book reviews, but I don’t sense that’s what you’re getting at. Please explain.

    Aaron B

  5. Ben S. on August 3, 2004 at 3:05 am

    From my understanding, FARMS primary purpose is to publish and circulate academic research on the LDS scriptures. These come out in various publications- the monthly advertisement/bulletin Insights, the less frequent Journal of Book of Mormon Studies , the Occasional Papers Series, and various books, such as the new and excellent Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem. The FARMS Review used to be FARMS . It slowly got expanded to including reviews of antagonistic books that, naturally, attacked the Book of Mormon, then to antagonistic books in general. Now it is just a general review of LDS themed books, whether positive or negative, antagonistic or friendly. It’s responsive, not active.

    My point is that I don’t see FARMS publishing a special “Polygamy in Jospeh Smith’s Day” Issue in JBMS, exploring Biblical and restoration polygamy. It’s just not in their program.

    My second point is that FARMS is not a monolith, and the book reviews are frequently written by people who have no involvement with FARMS other than to send in a book review. I suspect that some at FARMS itself may have largely agreed with Compton’s book. I haven’t read more than the Dialogue article that became his introduction and than his response to the review, so I don’t have a personal opinion on the book. I suspect that on such secondary historical issues, issues that are not central to the gospel, FARMS staff who agree with Compton’s position are happy to keep their opinion to themself. I may be completely wrong.

    For example, as a potential author, I would much rather spend my FARMS space arguing for the historicity of the BoM and what Amalickiah’s name means than arguing for a limited flood. It’s late, and I fear I’m not expressing myself well, but that’s what I’m trying to get at. FARMS is for primarily for propagating scriptural research. As a secondary thing, they defend the core of the gospel, not explore the periphery…

  6. Ben Spackman on August 3, 2004 at 3:45 am

    Lost some formatting there. The FARMS Review used to be the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon.

  7. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 3, 2004 at 9:03 am

    Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad I was involved in helping found FAIR, even if my part was very, very small and I’ve now been replaced on the board.

  8. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 11:05 am

    Ben S. wrote: “That was a review, not an active article. (Splitting hairs, perhaps.)”

    Splitting hairs is fine, but you said FARMS wouldn’t touch the subject with a 10-foot pole. Their highest profile publication is the Review and they discussed it there. So you were wrong, right? And I’m not familiar with the terminology of an “active article”, but FARMS’ book reviews often cover as much new ground as the typical article that is not a book review.

    “Todd Compton (and some others) felt it was a particularly inaccurate review.”

    First of all, there were 2 reviews, not one. Secondly, it’s far from unprecedented for an author to think his book has been reviewed unfairly.

    “You can read Compton’s defense of himself as a moderate here.”

    Is FAIR-Conference-endorser Brent Metcalfe a moderate, also?

  9. Nate Oman on August 3, 2004 at 11:28 am

    Chris: It is simply not fair to compare Metcalfe and Compton. As near as I can tell, Metcalfe is a happily excommunicated skeptic who thinks that belief in God is roughly equivalent to belief in Santa Clause. Crompton is a member in good standing who has publically stated that he believes in God, continuing revelation, etc. Compton is surely more “liberal” than some — perhaps most importantly me ;-> — but from what I gather his religious worldview is quite different than Brent’s.

  10. Kaimi on August 3, 2004 at 11:29 am

    Chris Grant,

    Come on. The wacky FARMS review of Compton — key question: “how many of his wives did Joseph Smith actally have sex with?” — has been criticized by many more people than Compton himself.

    Moving beyond the “eww” factor, the reviewers unfairly focused on the (fully expected and normal) lack of documentation of actual sex-having. Compton can’t prove conjugal relations, but who can, about anyone? Sexual intercourse just isn’t documented in society — porn stars aside — and many polite people don’t even talk about it. Yet Compton is apparently expected to have incriminating photos in hand before suggesting that Joseph Smith (gasp!) had sex with his wives. Give me a break.

  11. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 11:39 am

    Nate Oman wrote: “It is simply not fair to compare Metcalfe and Compton.”

    That’s why I phrased it in the form of a question. Having someone who uses “apologist” as if it were a dirty word promote your apologetics conference just struck me as a bit odd.

    Kaimi wrote: “Come on. . . . Give me a break.”

    Touche. ;-) FYI, the FAIR Conference speaker whom Mike Parker said (above) is, by himself, worth the price of admission was one of the “wacky FARMS review[ers] of Compton['s book]“.

  12. Nate Oman on August 3, 2004 at 11:48 am

    Kaimi: Given the rather complicated and fluid definition of marriage among 19th century Mormons, there is nothing prima facie implausible about claiming that Joseph didn’t have sex with some of his wives. I agree, however, that one is unlikely to have good documentation of such events without children as evidence.

  13. Ben S. on August 3, 2004 at 11:55 am

    I’ve read comments from people who simply dismiss any and all apologetic writings out of hand. I cited Metcalfe (whose views are far from my own) to demonstrate that those who disagree with FAIR’s conclusions still think them worth listening to.

    “Moderate” is Compton’s term for himself. He was criticized by non-LDS reviewers being too apologetic and by LDS reviewers for being too antimormon.

    In my tired state, I perhaps picked a bad example of something that doesn’t fall under the FARMS umbrella. Chris has me in the crushing grip of reason, and I concede intellectual defeat. Mea culpa:)

    However, in my defense, I would point out that the FAIR article I cited is specifically written to discuss polyandry. The two FARMS reviews discuss it as well, but after a quick reread, their primary focus is polygamy in general, not polyandry. I also see a difference between a review (reactive) and a research article (proactive). Regardless of whether the FARMS Review is their highest-profile publication, they still don’t publish anything other than reviews on the subject, while FAIR has a collection of articles and as well as past conference presentations.

  14. Nate Oman on August 3, 2004 at 11:57 am

    Ben: I am glad to see that you are using T&S in planning your Book of Mormon class at the Y.

  15. Geoff B on August 3, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    I think FAIR and FARMS do a great job in helping intellectually oriented Saints keep their faith. I do believe that a fair number of inactive or former Mormons would have stayed with the Church if they had had access to the information at FAIR and FARMS (as well as Jeff Lindsay and Meridian). I have used information from all of these organizations frequently in talking to people struggling with their faith, and it makes a difference.

  16. clark on August 3, 2004 at 2:11 pm

    I agree with Nate that in a culture of spiritual adoption and Compton’s own thesis of dynastic marriages, the issue of conjugal relations gets tricky. I tend to see Compton as a moderate though. As I recall he actually tried to get the book published by FARMS. Perhaps had he added a bit more apologetic discussion it could have been. Afterall even BYU Studies published stuff on Joseph’s polyandrous marriage to Zina Huntington.

    However I recognize that there is often a lot of politics at FARMS that complicates things. Especially now that it is part of BYU and thus has more “image” to worry about. That’s one good reason why we ought to have groups like FAIR. And their quality is improving a great deal I’ve noticed.

  17. Russell Arben Fox on August 3, 2004 at 2:36 pm

    A perhaps better example than the Compton/Smith/polyandry issue of the sort of off-the-cuff apologetics which FAIR supports–discussions unconnected to any research agenda, responding more-or-less informally to a haphazard question in a way that isn’t really possible through FARMS–would be the wonderful essay which FAIR ran by Armand Mauss on the “misplaced apologetics” in the debate over race in the church. If I recall correctly, it spawned an enormous thread on the FAIR discussion boards, between those who were grateful to see a faithful Mormon site lay out a common sense approach to all the red herrings about blacks and the priesthood which have littered our discourse, and those who were certain FAIR had, in posting the essay, contradicted the official position of the church regarding the priesthood ban. Following it gave me a good and sobering insight into how rough the world of Mormon polemics must be sometimes, and I mean from one’s own side.

  18. Kaimi on August 3, 2004 at 2:41 pm

    Nate writes:

    “There is nothing prima facie implausible about claiming that Joseph didn’t have sex with some of his wives.”

    Agreed. Perhaps I should have been clearer in my comment. My read of the Compton reviews is that the reviewers assert or imply that there is no evidence that Joseph Smith had sex with any but one of his polyandrous wives (those wives who were first, and simultanously, married to other men). They suggest that Compton is irresponsible to suggest that Joseph Smith had sex with any but one of the polyandrous wives.

    I agree that it is entirely plausible to think that Joseph did not have sex with some of the polyandrous wives. But it seems to strain credibility to suggest that the only reasonable possibility is that Joseph Smith only had sex with one of the eleven polyandrous wives, and that the other ten were celibate marriages. Compton’s conclusion, that Joseph Smith probably had sexual relations with more than one of the polyandrous wives, seems much more reasonable to me. And the reviewers’ argument that Compton is somehow out of line to suggest sexual relations with any of the other wives absent documentation does not seem sustainable to me.

    Compton himself has made what seems to be a reasonable argument in this area in response to the reviews:

    For Anderson and Faulring to make a convincing case for Sylvia certainly being a complete exception, I would think they would need a woman to say that the general rule was for no sexual relations, and then explain how and why the Sylvia Sessions Lyon exception occurred. Furthermore, it would help their case if they found polyandrous wives who explicitly, unambiguously stated that their marriages were for eternity only, not for time. They may eventually find such documents, but I know of none at this time. Therefore, with four cases providing significant data, two providing evidence of time marriages, and one providing strong evidence of a child, I think the most probable scenario includes sexual relations in the polyandrous marriages, except in the cases of older women.

    (See http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Oracle/7207/revhmk5.html ).

  19. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 4:29 pm

    Russell: Yes, the Mauss article would probably have trouble getting published by FARMS, and as far as I’m concerned that’s not a bad thing. Mauss says nothing about the phrase “the long-promised day has come” in OD-2, interpreting it, I suppose, as essentially insignificant. In the very same address in which Elder McConkie made the famous “forget everything” statement, he asserted that there was a “divine timetable” at work. Elder McConkie made other statements in that address implying that the ban hadn’t been wrong all along. Mauss claims that “it is not clear how wide an application Elder McConkie intended” for his “forget everything” statement, but it should be clear that he at least didn’t mean it to apply to things he was reaffirming in that very same address!

    I am reminded of the following statement about apologetics by Austin Farrer: “There are frontiersmen and frontiersmen, of course. There is what one might call the Munich school, who will always sell the pass in the belief that their position can be more happily defended from foothills to the rear.”

    Kaimi: When did you first realize that there was not one but two FARMS reviews of Compton’s book: Before or after you decided that it/they was/were wacky?

  20. Grasshopper on August 3, 2004 at 4:53 pm

    Having read Compton’s book and the FARMS reviews of it, I must say that I was disappointed in the reviews. I felt like they focused on trivial matters (like whether Joseph married a girl at 14 or 15, or whether he had sex with more than one polyandrous wife) and the tone of the reviews was more negative than I would have expected. I thought the book was a wonderful contribution and I loved reading the stories of these women.

    I suspect the primary reason for the negative tone in the FARMS reviews was that Compton doesn’t seem to go to great lengths in his book to hide his generally negative view of polygamy, and the FARMS folks naturally felt a need to defend Joseph’s restoration of the practice.

  21. Kaimi on August 3, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    Chris,

    I misplaced an “s”; the sentence should read “My read of the Compton review is that the reviewers assert or imply that there is no evidence that Joseph Smith had sex with any but one of his polyandrous wives (those wives who were first, and simultanously, married to other men).”

    I was speaking of the Anderson / Faulring review, which focuses extensively on the number of polyandrous wives with whom Joseph Smith actually had sex.

    The Bachman review may have its own problems, and it has been critiqued by, inter alia, Compton (in the same essay where he criticizes the Anderson / Faulring review), but does not exhibit any of the Anderson / Faulring review’s interest in Joseph’s sex life.

  22. Chris Grant on August 3, 2004 at 6:47 pm

    Kaimi: I’m sorry that my question appears to have been unclear. Let me state it more directly: When did you read these two FARMS reviews?

  23. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 3, 2004 at 9:54 pm

    I agree with Nate that in a culture of spiritual adoption and Compton’s own thesis of dynastic marriages

    The article could have used a bit of discussion including the later practice of being sealed to others as one’s parents, a natural outgrowth, and one that was fitting to give some heart to those who had been rejected by friends and family in a family oriented church.

  24. Clark Goble on August 3, 2004 at 11:32 pm

    I agree that one problem with Compton was in not delving into these “bigger” theoretical issues. However the dynastic marriage idea he brings up is quite powerful and helpful. The problem is that Compton primarily is just doing brief biographies of Joseph’s likely wives. That’s not really a problem, of course. It’s just that history is so much more helpful and interesting when it is contextualized and given a bigger meaning. And there Compton has some powerful ideas, but just doesn’t focus on them or the larger issue enough.

    But that’s always been the big problem in LDS history. Nate had a post a few months back on that topic. Even books claiming to do this (think Quinn and magic) don’t really do it at all or do a horrible job of it. If there is one place I’d like to see LDS history improve it is in this regard. Right now it is still largely caught in the general narrative format.

  25. Juliann on August 10, 2004 at 5:08 am

    As an FYI, FAIR requested an article from Compton some time ago and hope to have him speak on JS’s marriages/sealings at a conference if his schedule allows.

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