WASHINGTON, D.C. "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against any form of tyranny over the mind of man." Inscription at Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington
In this world capital, where national shrines pay homage to God-given liberties, an international academic conference May 6-7 commemorated this bicentennial year of the birth on Dec. 23, 1805, of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who, with his followers, suffered oppression for his religious ideas and faith.
"The Worlds of Joseph Smith," co-sponsored by the Library of Congress and BYU, was held in the Coolidge Auditorium of the library's 108-year-old Thomas Jefferson Building located directly behind the United States Capitol. The 17 presenters and respondents at the conference were about evenly balanced between Church members and others.
The proceedings were carried to viewers worldwide via the Internet. Video and audio archives of the conference are accessible via the Church Internet site, www.lds.org. The transcripts and proceedings of the conference will be published in the Spring of 2006 and will be available at www.bystudies.byu.edu.
Robert L. Millet, who is Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at BYU, conceived the idea for the conference two years ago after hearing from an academic colleague about a similar event at the Library of Congress honoring the American religious leader Jonathan Edwards.
James Billington, librarian of the Library of Congress, said the conference continues the library's effort to "examine significant religious movements and the lives of important religious personalities, particularly when they impact so directly and reflect in so many ways important things of our own broader history of America." He said the library has strong holdings on the Church and Mormonism, some of which were exhibited in a display outside the auditorium, including the 1829 copyright application of the Book of Mormon and the accompanying proof sheet of its title page, "which experts tell us is the actual first printed document in Mormon History."
In introductory comments, Brother Millet said, "We've tried to bring together Latter-day Saints who are academically prepared specialists in certain fields of LDS study as well as some of the most respected academicians and churchmen of other faiths who have an interest in Joseph Smith or Mormonism from a historical or religious perspective." He added, "My guess is that such a meeting would have been difficult for Joseph Smith or Brigham Young to have fathomed in their time."
Sessions 1, 2, 4 and 5 each included a presenter, three respondents and questions from the audience. Session 3 was comprised of an address by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve (the report on his address is on page 3). Here are summaries from each of the daytime sessions with headings reflecting the respective themes:
Session 1: "Joseph Smith in His Own Time"
Richard L. Bushman, professor emeritus of American History at Columbia University, author of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, and a Church member, sought through his paper to understand Joseph Smith by broadening his historical context, noting, "To a large extent, Joseph Smith assumes the character of the history selected for him." He suggested that Joseph himself perhaps did not understand fully until later the meaning of his own spiritual experiences, including the First Vision.
The first respondent was Robert V. Remini, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, a non-LDS biographer of Joseph Smith. "There's something about Joseph Smith that people either revered or wanted to attack. He says, at one point, 'No man knows my history.' And that's true. But historians have got to keep looking into the world he knew and who he was to help explain the extraordinary success of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Richard T. Hughes, distinguished professor of religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and not a Church member, said Joseph Smith "emerges as the dialectical prophet, the man with one foot in American culture and the other foot in Biblical culture, and the man who fused the two in a profound act of creative genius."
Church member Grant Underwood, BYU professor of history, said, "The more the cultural as well as the verbal language of Joseph Smith is understood in all its depth and complexity, the more nuanced and compelling will be the comparative histories that are attached to the prophet."
During the question-answer session, moderator Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the Family and Church History Department, noted that when Joseph Smith visited Washington in 1839, he arrived to a polite but not a particularly cordial reception. "What does the holding of this conference 200 years after his birth say about the impact of his life?"
Professor Bushman replied: "I would say what he did . . . is that he produced us. We (meaning Latter-day Saints) are the ones who made this possible."
Session 2: "Joseph Smith and the Recovery of Past Worlds"
Terryl L. Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, a Church member and author of By the Hand of Mormon, an analysis of the implications of Joseph Smith's claim that the Book of Mormon is an ancient work, was the presenter in the second session.
Joseph Smith's "major project," he said, was "an array of remarkable, tantalizing texts with consistent themes, motifs and patterns that emerge in a whole series of entire worlds recovered from the past."
Margaret Barker, an independent biblical scholar from the English Midlands specializing in the Old Testament, gave evidence to the effect that the revelations to Joseph Smith were consistent with the situation in Jerusalem about 600 B.C., the purported time period when the Book of Mormon narrative begins.
John E. Clark, BYU professor of anthropology and a prominent Mesoamerican archaeologist, considered in his response how the particulars of the Book of Mormon bequeathed by Joseph Smith fare in the light of archaeology. He displayed a table listing "supposed classic blunders of the Book of Mormon as compiled by its fiercest 19th century critics." While the book did not "play well in Joseph Smith's lifetime as ancient American history," he said, many Book of Mormon claims have been confirmed since 1900.
John W. Welch, BYU professor of law and founder of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, said, "In my academic experience, (the texts Joseph Smith presented as translations) lend themselves to examination in many scholarly ways better than most people realize."
Session 4: "Joseph Smith Challenges the Theological World"
David L. Paulson, holder of a Richard L. Evans Professorship for Religious Understanding at BYU, identified seven challenges to the Christian world posed by Joseph Smith, none of which is more fundamental than his claim to direct revelation from God.
Respondent Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., spoke from an Evangelical Christian perspective, saying, "I do think it's a good thing for those of us who represent traditional Christian thought to engage in the theological exercise of bracketing, of setting aside our specific concerns about Joseph Smith's personal credibility in order to explore the more basic questions that David poses for us here today."
Randall H. Balmer, professor of American Religion at Columbia University and editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine, criticized the paper on the issue of circular reasoning. He then concluded: "I'm in no position to offer advice to Latter-day Saints, but I find much more compelling the docents in Salt Lake City. The last time I took the official LDS tour of Temple Square, the docent frequently punctuated her narrative with personal testimony." He said though the performance came off as formulaic, he found that presentation of the Mormon faith more compelling than what he had heard at the conference.
Finally, Robert L. Millet, conference organizer quoted above, spoke to the speculation in some quarters that the Church is changing its teachings to become more acceptable to other faith traditions. He admitted that the Church is somewhat different than when he was a boy, but only in the sense of being more in harmony with the teachings of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. "These recent developments may represent more of a retrenchment and a refinement than a reversion."
Session 5: "Joseph Smith and the Making of a Global Religion"
Douglas J. Davies, professor in the study of religion at the University of Durham in England, where he pioneered a program in Mormon studies, was the presenter in Session 5 of the conference.
"I have no doubt Mormonism will grow as a globally present religion, but I do have doubts over its capacity to become a world religion," he said. One possible negative aspect, he said, is the possibility of diversity in the Church in relation to centralized control, leading to problems of dissent and differences of opinion.
Respondent Gerald R. McDermott, professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., took issue with the 21-year-old thesis of sociologist Rodney Stark that Mormonism would soon become the first new world religion since the rise of Islam. "Mormonism is indeed a new religious tradition with significant differences from mainstream Christianity," he said, "but it's not the first major faith to have arisen since Islam, and it has not grown faster than any other new American religion, which Stark had claimed."
Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University and Purdue University at Indianapolis, concluded in her response: "What appears to this Mormon watcher at present is that (Mormonism's) categorical home is something between a world religion and a great religion that is not a world religion. It is something like Judaism, that is fully realized as a religious tradition but one not able to be fully incultured in some parts of the world."
The final respondent, Roger R. Keller, professor of Church History and doctrine at BYU, said that an understanding of authority was what he found absent from Professor Davies' paper and from Professor McDermott's comments. "And it is this absence that colors what both of them have said. . . . It is the concept of authority that affects the way Latter-day Saints understand the first principles of the gospel, the organization of the Church and what it will mean for Mormonism to be a world religion."
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