With scrutiny of Mormonism by a curious public seemingly increasing in recent months, a group formed nine years ago to counter antagonistic criticism of the Latter-day Saint faith is continuing its work, having grown into an international organization.
The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, presented its ninth annual conference at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy, Utah, Aug. 2-3. The two-day event featured nearly a score of presenters on matters pertaining to Church history, doctrine and ancient scripture.
Known by the acronym FAIR, the foundation is not affiliated with the Church, though it takes as its mission to present documented responses to charges leveled at the doctrines, practices and leaders of the Church. Apart from the conference, this is done chiefly by means of an Internet Web site, www.fairlds.org.
Here are highlights from a few of the conference presentations. Full texts of some of the presentations from this and previous conferences are accessible on the Web site.
Richard E. Turley Jr.
While critics sometimes place broad-brush blame upon Mormonism for the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, the causes are more complex — and more characteristic of the human condition — than merely being attributable to one's religious faith.
Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the Family and Church History Department, reflected in his FAIR Conference presentation on the setting and causes of the tragedy in which Mormon settlers in southern Utah killed some 120 California-bound emigrants, including women and children. With Ronald W. Walker and Glen M. Leonard, Brother Turley is author of a book on the massacre to be published next year by Oxford University Press.
"What we have discovered," he said, "is that the … massacre is a classic case of mass killing as described by experts who have studied group violence in modern world history."
To illustrate that, he drew from two books by Ervin Staub, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a leading expert on mass killing. Brother Turley cited quotations from the books describing conditions and cultural characteristics that contribute to genocide and mass killing. He gave corresponding examples from the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
For example, Staub wrote that cultural characteristics and structure of a society, combined with great hardships of life are the starting point for mass killing.
"The pioneers in southern Utah faced a hardscrabble existence in the 1850s," Brother Turley said, citing the failed iron mission, poverty, social upheaval and significant turnover in leadership. "News of the approaching U.S. Army in 1857 only exacerbated tensions and concerns for survival," he said.
Citing Staub again, he said that a past history of victimization contributes to a sense of vulnerability resulting in a feeling of defensiveness that can lead a group to strike out violently. He pointed out that many of Utah's settlers in 1857 had experienced the trials and deprivations of Missouri and Illinois in the 20 years prior to 1857, and they had not healed. "Rather, in the isolation of the Great Basin, they nursed their anger and suspicion of outsiders."
A society's rigidity or adaptability is another important cultural characteristic, he said, citing Staub and adding, "Utah society, particularly southern Utah society, was quite rigid in the 1850s, much more rigid than Utah of our day." Quoting Staub, he said, "Real pluralism prevents the development of broad support for harming the victims."
Brother Turley noted: "Unifying people in doing good, of course, is a laudable goal. But if some of those same people instead unify in doing wrong, the result can be disastrous."
He said such monolithic societies sometimes share another potentially dangerous condition that Staub describes, that of leaders who hold too much power and wield it improperly. He cited Doctrine and Covenants 121:39 regarding the tendency to unrighteous dominion as being nearly universal.
"Isaac Haight, the principal leader in Cedar City (scene of the events leading up to the massacre) had a tremendous amount of power concentrated in him," Brother Turley said. "His distance and isolation from decision makers in Salt Lake City made his own decisions temporarily beyond appeal."
Steven L. Olsen
Responding to what he characterized as a widespread public misperception, Steven L. Olsen answered the question "Are the Church archives closed?" with a "resounding 'No"' in his FAIR Conference presentation.
Brother Olsen, associate managing director for the Family and Church History Department, said, "At a point in the distant past, this rumor was true." But times have changed, he said, and he considered four variations of the question to examine the nuances of public perception:
- Is the public allowed in the Church Archives?
The reading room of the department, in the east wing of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., he said. He added that the various historical databases of the department are accessible anytime on the Internet at www.lds.org and www.josephsmith.net. A disparity between on-line and on-site visitors suggests the potential of serving a much greater audience in the future through the Internet, he said.
- Are the collections of the Church history department accessible?
Brother Olsen said virtually all collecting institutions restrict access to their collections to some degree, depending upon the type of institution. The Church Archives is similar to a private or corporate archives in its level of restrictiveness, he said, adding that, even so, a remarkable number of records are available to the public.
By policy, he said, collections are accessible unless they have sacred, private or confidential contents.
- Is the experience of visitors to the Church Archives productive and enjoyable?
"It has been our perception that those who are the most critical of the Church Archives have never been there," Brother Olsen said. By contrast, he added that the finding aids, user interfaces "and even the secure environment of the reading rooms communicate a sense of permanence, protection, professionalism and importance" for those who have had rewarding experiences regarding the archives' holdings.
- Are the holdings of the Church Archives relevant?
This is the least of the four concerns, Brother Olsen said. "However, as the Church continues to spread throughout the world, the Church history department faces an ever more daunting challenge to represent in its collections the Church's growing size, complexity and significance.
Jeffrey N. Walker
Placed on trial for his life by hostile officials in Missouri in 1838-39, Joseph Smith came through the experience "a stronger, a wiser and a better man, because he had learned to do everything he could cheerfully, and then he let himself stand still and watch the arm of the Lord be revealed."
This was the assessment of Jeffrey N. Walker, series manager and co-editor for the legal and business volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers now being compiled under the auspices of the Family and Church History Department.
In his FAIR Conference presentation, Brother Walker addressed the topic "Joseph Smith's Escape from Liberty Jail" by immediately changing the wording to "Release from Liberty Jail."
Joseph and his colleagues never escaped when being transported on a change of venue from Liberty to Columbia, Mo., but were actually released with the complete permission of the legal authorities who were transporting them, Brother Walker said.
This occurred after a series of events in which the Prophet and other Church leaders were tried before a grand jury on legally dubious grounds stemming from hostilities between mobs and Church members, most of whom by 1839 had been driven from the state.
Brother Walker said a "smoking gun" had been found leading to the conclusion that the prisoners were allowed to depart before reaching Columbia for the change of venue. It is in the form of a promissory note given by Joseph Smith to one of the guards and then later presented to Joseph in Nauvoo for collection. Evidenced by a written record left by his son, Joseph Smith III, the note was given for the purchase of one of two horses on which the Prophet and his companions made their departure into Illinois.
But the Prophet's own journal entry indicates only that the man paid him a visit in Nauvoo, without giving the details. Why? Brother Walker surmised that it was because of Joseph's loyalty, one of his seminal virtues. The man had aided him in getting out of difficulty, and he was keeping the matter confidential.
The doctrine of the pre-mortal existence is by no means a concept limited to Mormonism, one of the foremost thinkers in the Church attested in his FAIR Conference presentation.
Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, is at work on a book with the title: When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. That title was the theme of his conference presentation.
"What I have come to appreciate is this cardinal insight: If the Restoration is not yet complete, then other traditions have much to teach us," he said, "not by way of confirming, corroborating or verifying the truths we already have, but by way of actually adding to the revealed doctrine that we call precious and true. The Restoration is neither complete nor full."
It takes humility and generosity of spirit to be taught, he observed. "Our contemporary condescension in this regard was clearly foreign to a prophet (Joseph Smith) who showed the world he could translate gold plates written in reformed Egyptian and then hired a Jewish schoolmaster to teach him Hebrew."
As a believing Latter-day Saint what does one bring to the study of the pre-mortal existence? "Not much," Brother Givens said. "Only a very skeletal understanding of the principle as taught by Joseph."
While that carries the knowledge that one is a child of God, an eternal being, "what other value and power might a belief such as this embody?" he asked. "What might its persistence over thousands of years and across cultures and traditions and religions reveal about myriad other questions, longings, yearnings, riddles and dilemmas that this belief responds to? I sometimes believe that Mormonism has the answer but doesn't know the question."
Brother Givens said he has been astonished by the sheer bulk of names who have espoused, contemplated or taught the doctrine, "from the early rabbis and church fathers to Robert Frost and a recent Nobel Prize laureate. In the 19th century the idea was promulgated by some of the most influential theologians and preachers of the day. The idea produced book-length treatments and book-length refutations. It occupied debaters at the Concord School of Philosophy and filled the pages of religious journals in antebellum America. It characterized whole schools of philosophy from the Cambridge Platonists to the American transcendentalists. It appears in lesser-known American and Russian philosophical treatments as well. It is associated with a number of European mystics and European philosophers from Hume to Locke to Kant. Hardly a romantic poet did not wax eloquent in its defense, Wordsworth only the best-known to Latter-day Saints, among many."
Such a wide scope "awoke in me the suspicion that this is a doctrine whose stakes and appeal and potential for philosophical and cultural work we have not even begun to appreciate," he said.