As many are no doubt aware by now, late last week Daniel C. Peterson was dismissed as editor of the Mormon Studies Review (formerly known as Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, FARMS Review of Books, and FARMS Review, in that order), the flagship journal of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU (formerly the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, or “FARMS”).
Dr. Peterson has been the editor of the Review since its inception and first issue in 1989. At that time FARMS was a private foundation that served as a “clearinghouse” for cutting-edge research on the Book of Mormon. It also published works of an apologetic nature, typically reviews of books and other materials that were critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In 1998 FARMS became part of Brigham Young University, gaining some “official” status as part of the Church’s university. Although editorial freedom was promised in this arrangement, over the years there has been increasing tension at the organization between Peterson and others who believed it should defend the Church in print, and university-appointed administrators who did not agree with this approach.
Last week Dr. M. Gerald Bradford, executive director of the Maxwell Institute, fired Peterson as editor of the Review via email while Peterson was out of the country. (As far as I can tell, Peterson retains his position at the Institute as editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative.)
The other editors of the Review have also been let go, although none of them have (as of the time I write this) been personally notified of their dismissal by Bradford or the Institute staff. Bradford has not replied to email messages by the (now former) editors concerning their status.
According to a brief notice on the Institute’s web site, the Review is going to take a new direction under a new editorial team, to be appointed by Bradford himself.
Naturally, critics of the restored gospel have been dancing in the streets over this news. Dan Peterson is arguably the most prominent LDS apologist, and their delight at seeing him professionally dismembered has been boundless. In their glee, they have created a narrative to explain, supposedly, how this change at the Maxwell Institute came about. The narrative goes something like this:
The general authorities of the Church are opposed to apologetics in general, and the apologetic publications at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute in particular. They believe Dan Peterson and his coauthors have been mean-spirited and resorted to ad hominem attacks, and so they decided to put their foot down.
Specifically the rumor has been that this action was taken over a lengthy, critical essay written by Gregory Smith about John Dehlin that was to be published in the Review. Dehlin is the founder and director of Mormon Stories, an online community that is centered on a podcast series of interviews conducted by Dehlin and and a few others.
Dehlin learned about the essay from a supporter within the Institute and, without having read it, Dehlin acted to suppress its publication. He sent an email to a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy — CC:ing a number of people at the Institute — telling the Seventy that the article was not appropriate, and threatening to involve a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
In other words, without having read the essay or even knowing anything of its content, rather than contact Smith or Peterson directly to ask about it, Dehlin immediately contacted a member of the Seventy, and basically threatened to take it higher unless its publication was censored.
(There is a great deal of irony in this: Dehlin himself charges the Church with “suppressing” uncomfortable facts about its history, and yet Dehlin suppresses anything that might criticize his own activities.)
And so the rumor has spread that Dehlin’s General Authority contact ordered Peterson’s dismissal due to disapproval of an essay that neither Dehlin nor the General Authority has read.
The truth is less exciting: The Dehlin essay wasn’t the cause of Peterson’s firing, although the essay was part of the larger apologetic effort that Bradford disliked — as it turns out, the last in a line of reviews to which he objected. There is no evidence that Peterson’s firing was ordered or orchestrated by general authorities of the Church, as Bill Hamblin (professor at BYU and former FARMS board member) has pointed out.
Dehlin and his supporters are trying to spin Peterson’s firing as a great rebuke by the leaders of the Church. In politics this is known as “controlling the narrative.” Professor Lane Crothers at Illinois State University explains:
At some level, the only thing that actually matters in modern politics is controlling the narrative in which events are explained. Frame this narrative to your benefit, and the battle is at least half won. Lose the framing war, and you face long odds.
It’s about shaping what we haven’t even thought about thinking yet.
Very soon these events at the Maxwell Institute will be spoken of in the past tense. The Institute and the Mormon Studies Review will go forward in their new direction. Daniel Peterson and others who agree with his editorial style will possibly (perhaps likely) create a new organization and publication through which they can disseminate their views.
It is vitally important to John Dehlin and his supporters that they “write the history” of these events. Inter-departmental disagreement at BYU? Or word from On High that apologetics is mean and nasty and that Mormon Stories should be beyond criticism (after all, look what happened to Dan Peterson)?
Until the whole story can be told — and I’m sure it will — it would be best not to believe a narrative that is told by self-interested parties, without evidence and in denial of the facts which are known.
(Update: Ralph Hancock has some additional important thoughts on this subject, here.)