The most recent issue of the FARMS Review has arrived, and it finally contains my article, “‘Secret Combinations': A Legal Analysis”. I actually wrote this article two years ago, so it has been a while in coming. It is fun to finally see it in print. The article is essentially apologetic. I am trying to respond to the claim that the phrase â€œsecret combinationâ€? was exclusively associated with Masonry in Joseph Smithâ€™s time and that as author of the Book of Mormon Joseph was producing, among other things, an anti-Masonic pamphlet. The real question, of course, is why I would bother with such a project in the first place.
The short answer is that I wrote the piece because I could. At the time I was reading Michael Quinnâ€™s Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, and in the footnotes (one must always remember that Quinnâ€™s most interest material is in the footnotes) I came across Quinnâ€™s discussion of the arguments raging around the anti-Masonic thesis of Book of Mormon origins. He mentioned that some scholars had tried to use legal materials to understand the contemporary meaning of â€œsecret combinations,â€? but the approach to judicial cases struck me as wrong. I did a bit more research and found that I was right. People had been basically misreading or misunderstanding 19th century case law. I did some digging around on computerized versions of 19th century cases and this article resulted. It was a fun little project.
Of course, there is some value to apologetics beyond the fun of playing around with Westlaw. As Daniel Peterson once explained to me, the value of apologetics is to show that one neednâ€™t crucify oneâ€™s mind in order to be a Mormon. At best, such work can show that one can reasonably hold key Mormon beliefs. Contrary to what a lot of apologetics critics claim, I think that this is the main goal of most intellectual defenders of Mormonism. They aren’t trying to prove the faith. They are simply try to show that belief is not a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy.
Finally, I think that there is a selfish/political reason for publishing apologetic articles. They act as an important signal. Think of Hugh Nibley, who wrote some harshly critical things about Mormonism in his time. According to Neal Maxwell, the reason that Nibley could get away with doing this was because no one doubted his core commitment to the Church or to the Gospel. Of course Nibleyâ€™s apologetics (and apologetics in general) is not without its problems and excesses. This is to be expected of virtually any endeavor. Still, apologetics can be a useful way of signaling to the broader community the ultimate religious orientation of oneâ€™s intellectual meandering.
And, of course, writing articles on Mormonism is fun, which is just as well. Neither the FARMS Review nor Dialogue are likely to be of any use when it comes to getting an academic job or tenure.