A few of you may have noticed that the Joseph Smith Papers team has publicly responded to my unfortunate complaints about bias and flawed scholarship in their volume on the Book of Abraham, Volume 4 of The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations (hereafter JSPRT4). I say “unfortunate” not just because it must be annoying and frustrating to have a fellow member of the Church complain about such a beautiful and carefully crafted work, but even more unfortunate because there may be a legitimate basis for the complaints. This is one case where I would gladly be wrong, and would have welcomed a correction that clearly rebutted my objections and showed exactly where I went wrong in questioning the scholarship and finding bias in the work. The response is truly welcome, but in my opinion, does not resolve the fundamental and detailed issues I have raised both at The Interpreter (“A Precious Resource with Some Gaps“) and also at Meridian Magazine.
The response is given in Matthew J. Grow and Matthew C. Godfrey, “The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham: A Response to Recent Reviews,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 97-104. Matthew J. Grow is managing director of the Church History Department of
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a general editor of
the Joseph Smith Papers. He served as director of publications at the
Church History Department from 2010 to 2019. He has a PhD in American history from the University of Notre Dame. Matthew C. Godfrey is a general editor and the managing historian of the
Joseph Smith Papers. He holds a PhD in American and public history from
Washington State University. It’s an honor to have a response from both of these fine men. I was puzzled, though, why the response was not from the co-editors of the volume. Nevertheless, I appreciate the thoughtful comments they made and the time they took to both read my articles.
They do assure us that good methodology was followed and state that my complaint about the neglect of Nibley is an inappropriate call for “historiagraphy,” the detailed history of who said what, when that is not the purpose of the JSP Project. I appreciate both of these points, but find that they do not adequately address the key issues raised. I explain this in my rejoinder that was also published the same day as their reply. See Jeff Lindsay, “A Welcome Response, but Flaws Remain,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 105-112.
John Gee’s rejoinder to Brothers Grow and Godfrey is given in John Gee, “Taking Stock,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 113-118. He also feels that the many specific issues he raised have not yet been resolved, but also expresses gratitude for the response.
One thing still puzzles me in the carefully written reply of Grow and Godfrey. In their conclusion, they state:
Scholarly communities thrive when their members engage in vigorous
debates of ideas rather than attacks on the character of colleagues. We
reject the notion that calling into question the faith of fellow
Latter-day Saints has any place in public discourse — scholarly or
I fully agree with this, and I think most people would. So why state this? Why did they feel a need to say this in their response to what John Gee and I have written? My article expressly points out that faithful Latter-day Saints can hold a wide variety of views on the origins of the Book of Abraham, including the personal views of the editors of JSPRT4 that seem to be favored in the handling of many details. I have explicitly pointed out that I am not attacking the editors’ faith nor calling them apostates. My issue is not with their faith nor their right to have differing views. It is flawed scholarship that I am objecting to. The same applies to John Gee’s critiques: I see no evidence that he is questioning faithfulness, only scholarship.
In the first comment posted for Grow and Godfrey’s reply, I made this query:
I believed my original article made it clear that members of the
Church can, in good faith, take a variety of views on the origins of the
Book of Abraham, and that I was not calling anyone’s faith into
question. As I read your reply once again, that statement comes across
as an undeserved rebuke. Could you explain where I went wrong? I also
don’t think John Gee wrote anything that could be interpreted as denying
the faithfulness of the co-editors.
My objective was to point out problems with bias and flawed
scholarship, not to question anyone’s faith. Please let me know where I
So far, over a week later, there has been no response. I hope that they were simply thinking of what other Latter-day Saints might say who are unhappy to see the unfortunate bias in JSPRT4, but it would have then been helpful to be a little more clear. As written, the statement seems to imply that at least one of us complainers is unfairly questioning somebody’s faith. Or am I just being overly sensitive? Would not be the first time!
From my perspective, to engender vigorous debate and dialog, scholars should not respond to challenges about their scholarship by suggesting that a critic is unfairly questioning their faith. That’s not a properly played card in this case. The objections John Gee and I have raised are, as far as I can tell, directed to the scholarship (is it accurate? is it biased? is it misleading?) and not the faithfulness of any of the JSP team. That some positions I disagree with are used by critics to undermine faith does not mean that the position or theory is “apostate,” no more than modern science is inherently apostate, though it can be used (misused, rather) to undermine faith. The various positions I find in JSPRT4 that I disagree with are expressly stated to be within the realm of what faithful members can believe.
There are good members who see the Book of Abraham as Joseph’s inspired fiction, a vehicle to convey some inspiring big ideas. I disagree with that position, but one can believe it and still sincerely accept the divinity of the Restoration, Christ as our Savior, etc. Our faith does not depend on exactly what the Book of Abraham is or how it came to be, but I do think we need to treat the Book of Abraham with care and sensitivity given how its many puzzles are often exploited to undermine faith, which is part of why I hope the JSP Team will recognize that there are valid reasons for being concerned about the subtle put pervasive bias shown in their volume. But if I have been questioning the faith of others in my criticisms, please let me know where I acted improperly so I can make a retraction, issue an apology, or do whatever is needed to fix the problem. Hopefully, though, I’m just over-reacting. In any case, viva dialog and discussion!