Today was my first time attending the FairMormon Conference. The 2017 event is being held Aug. 3 and 4 at the Utah Valley Convention Center at 220 West Center Street in Provo. I was surprised at how large the crowd of attendees was, and was delighted both with the content and also the chance to meet some of the thinkers and writers I’ve been following for years, including Daniel Peterson, Brant Gardner, Matthew Bowen, Neal Rappleye, Steven Smoot, Scott Gordon, Michael Ash, Mike Parker, etc.
The day began with a strong presentation by Neal Rappleye, who plays a key role at Book of Mormon Central. Neal spoke about the need for a mature approach to the historicity Book of Mormon based on understanding the historical context and applying a careful reading of the text. Many readers tend instead to project modern understanding and expectations onto the text which can make it difficult to see the actual evidence before them while jumping to “obvious” conclusions that be disconnected from reality. He compared the Jerusalem of the Amarna Letters to the the Jerusalem of Nephi and showed some fascinating evidences of historicity embedded in Nephi’s text based on information that would not have been available to Joseph Smith. His discussion included data showing that metal workers in Nephi’s day could also be trained in writing, evidence that military leaders like Laban could have archives of records in their homes, and evidence showing that elite immigrants from the Northern Kingdom (like Lehi, for example) were playing important roles in Jerusalem of that day. His discussion also included a review of an inscription that may have referred to Mulek son of Zedekiah, the growing evidence of New World barley as an important crop in ancient North America (countering the common claim that barley in the Book of Mormon is an anachronism), and the multiple ways in which the brief mention of cement in the Book of Mormon complies with archaeological information about the rise of cement in the northern section of Mesoamerica and the deforestation that was associated with it. It was a well-organized, content-rich presentation.
The second speaker was Elizabeth Kuehn with the Joseph Smith Papers project, who discussed many details of the Kirtland Bank disaster and its impact on the early Mormons. This was a case where it was critically important to understand the natural fallibility of mortal prophets. Her presentation, “Finances and Faith in the Kirtland Crisis of 1837,” was based on an excellent mastery of primary historical documents and an understanding of the broader economic issues that Kirtland and the entire US faced at the time.
Keith Erekson of the LDS Historical Library spoke on “Witnessing the Book of Mormon: The Testimonies of Three, Eight, and Millions.” He talked about the proper historical approach to evaluating claims made about the witnesses, illustrating the shoddy methods of, say, Fawn Brodie, who treats a newspaper’s reports of statements David Whitmer allgedly made to an unnamed “informant” whose recollection was admittedly unclear as if it were a direct report of Whitmer to the editor, which it was not. Questionable work abounds in which sources aren’t given or are obscured, in which evidence is based on hearsay or third-party reports, or in which readers are forced to make false “either/or” conclusions (e.g., the issue of seeing something in a divine vision versus seeing it with one’s physical eyes, as if these must necessarily be mutually exclusive when they are not). He reminded us of the powerful and clear statements, over 200 of them, directly from the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, which create a consistent and compelling account for the existence of the plates and the reality of the work of the Restoration.
Michael Ash gave a presentation heavy in theory and academics on interpreting history and understanding a sacred record.
Matthew Bowen gave a highly informative and rich presentation on the many interesting word-plays involving names in the Book of Mormon but also in the Book of Moses. This deserves a separate post later. How work is some of the most impressive dealing with the Book of Mormon. So many intriguing finds showing the literary sophistication of the ancient writers of our sacred texts.
Scott Petersen gave an exciting overview of statemenets from early Christian voices that lend plausibility to many of the unique aspects of LDS theology. I purchased his book, Do Mormons Have a Leg to Stand On? Look forward to reading this.
Scott Gordon, head of FairMormon, gave the concluding presentation, “Mormon Temples and Freemasonry,” which included useful information about Free Masonry and the LDS Temple, and the substantial differences between them. The elements from Free Masonry apparently adopted for a few aspects of the Endowment ceremony do nothing to undermine the ancient and revealed nature of the LDS Temple. He examined a number of specific arguments made against the Temple based on alleged borrowing from Free Masonry.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the conference was the quality of the Q&A after each presentation. There was adequate time for questions and the questions were often meaningful and intelligent, leading to additional good discussion from the well-prepared speakers.
I learned a lot and came away more excited than ever at the fruits of scholarship and investigation on LDS topics. I also came away with the need to buy another bag or suitcase to haul all the new books I bought. Kudos to FairMormon and all those who support it and this conference. A+!