FARMS through the Years,
Part 2: A Conversation with Stephen D. Ricks and Noel B. Reynolds
The following article continues a three-part series on the history of FARMS, each installment featuring comments from two people who figure prominently in the history and ongoing work of FARMS. This segment presents comments from separate interviews conducted by Don Brugger, managing editor of Insights, with Stephen D. Ricks and Noel B. Reynolds, who were administrative officers during the organization's middle years. Ricks, currently a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at BYU and a member of the FARMS Board of Trustees, succeeded John W. Welch to serve as the second president of FARMS, from 1988 through 1991. He then served as chair of FARMS board from 1991 until May 1997. Reynolds, a BYU professor of political science currently serving as associate academic vice president for undergraduate studies at BYU and as a member of the FARMS board, was president of FARMS from 1992 to 1998. The responses have been editorially combined because they cover the same general period and address the same or related topics.
How did you become involved with FARMS?
Reynolds: Jack Welch and John Sorenson started inviting my participation in FARMS in 1980. John Sorenson tried a couple of times to organize a working board, and I was given responsibility for research coordination. My role at FARMS shifted to administration liaison with BYU in 1981 when I was appointed associate academic vice president at BYU under Jae Ballif in the Holland administration.
What were the challenges facing FARMS when you became president?
Ricks: In 1988 the biggest challenge facing the Foundation was organizing a permanent, professional staff. Our first permanent staff member was Mel Thorne, who was hired as director of publications, followed shortly thereafter by Brent Hall, who was hired as office manager. As contributions to the Foundation increased, we were also able to hire editors and researchers. This process has continued since that time.
Reynolds: FARMS was still not well known or understood when I became president in 1991. Scholars were just beginning to glimpse the possibilities of helping each other to support research, organize peer review, develop financial support, and so on. Developing a professional relationship with BYU was a key issue.
Has your FARMS-related work been extracurricular, or has it dovetailed with your work as a professor at BYU?
Ricks: In general it has dovetailed. In the early 1980s I did a study on fasting in the tradition of ancient Israel and used that as the basis for work on fasting in the Book of Mormon, which produced some very interesting results. I also did a study on the treaty-covenant pattern (an ancient Near Eastern phenomenon) in King Benjamin's address in Mosiah 16 and published the results in BYU Studies. Since the early 1990s, I have been able to publish my FARMS-related work without any difficulties, since there has been a significant academic overlap between the work of FARMS and my academic work. I believe that the same has been true of other scholars of ancient Near Eastern studies.
What were FARMS's main achievements in the late 1980s and 1990s?
Ricks: During the 1980s FARMS succeeded in getting itself on its feet, becoming recognized as a foundation that was seriously devoted to the scholarly study of the Book of Mormon. Through very substantial endowments in the early 1990s, FARMS has been able to widen its scope beyond study of the Book of Mormon so that it is now in a position to service academic research in other uniquely Latter-day Saint scriptures (e.g., the Book of Abraham) and in religious studies involving a variety of ancient languages and literatures, such as Hebrew (the Dead Sea Scrolls), Syriac (early Christian literature), and Arabic (the Islamic Translation Series and Christian Arabic literature), as well as Greek and Latin (e.g., the Herculaneum project). All of this makes FARMS and BYU real movers and shakers in the study and publication of ancient religious texts.
Reynolds: FARMS was still a small enough operation when I went to Jerusalem in 1992 that it was decided to have me carry on as president from there using fax and email! But it really started to grow in the early 1990s when we started hiring professionals and staff to help them. We quickly expanded from a yearly operating budget of about $100,000 in 1989/90 to about $2 million by 1994/95. We became more serious about fundraising and were fortunate to receive a very large donation. That single contribution proved to be an essential element of FARMS's success through the late 1990s as fundraising came to a halt during the period of merger negotiations with the university.
What of FARMS's work on the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Reynolds: While I was in Jerusalem in 1992 and 1993, FARMS became involved in Dead Sea Scrolls work, which attracted a different kind of attention and respect from within and without the LDS community. It also proved a major turning point for FARMS, as it was a project devoted to non-LDS scripture. And because of that, it opened new doors to FARMS and the LDS Church around the world.
What led to the creation of CPART [the FARMS Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts]?
Reynolds: The Dead Sea Scrolls project required a great deal of time and effort from a lot of people. But the FARMS board never backed away from it, always sensing that this was an important opportunity not to be missed, even if we could not see then where it was leading. The project was financed almost entirely by special donations. By 1996 I could see that it would be wise to separate the DSS and related projects from FARMS, and so we set up a special department within FARMSCPARTto manage these non-LDS projects. BYU was thinking about merging with FARMS, and I wanted these projects to be on the front end of anything like that, as they were more properly BYU projects than FARMS projects. They did not fit the FARMS mission as well as Book of Mormon research, and they involved lots of BYU personnel. These projects also promised to bring distinction to the university, a kind of distinction which could lead to even greater things for BYU but which would not directly help FARMS in its mission.
What prompted the BYU administration to consider making FARMS part of BYU, and what impact did the resulting merger have on you and FARMS?
Reynolds: Our need to be better known led us to promote publicity that raised concerns in the church and the university and led to the new BYU president's interest in merging FARMS with the university. This late 1996 proposal from President Bateman moved the two-year conversation with the previous administration to a higher level. On September 10, 1997, President Hinckley proposed in the monthly meeting of the BYU board of trustees that FARMS be invited into the university with partial funding for it and for CPART being provided. Seven months later, President Bateman appointed me to my present position as associate academic vice president, which led the FARMS board to seek a new president and to make the presidency a paid position. This change brought to FARMS a level of professional administration that had been lacking in an organization which was growing and expanding to such an extent.
Why has FARMS focused so much energy on sponsoring public conferences?
Ricks: In the beginning FARMS conferences were held on an annual basis to share research and stimulate further work on any of a host of topics relating to the Book of Mormon. These events are vital because they often lead to publication, an important part of FARMS's mission. During my tenure as president of FARMS, we had symposia on warfare in the Book of Mormon, on the allegory of the olive in Jacob 5, and on temples in antiquity, all of which resulted in publications. More recently, however, books published by FARMS have also spawned conferences, such as November's conference on the writings of Paul (books by James Faulconer and John Welch) and this month's conferences on temples (inspired by a book that Donald Parry and I edited, The Temple in Time and Eternity).
How would you describe the current state of Book of Mormon studies?
Reynolds: These studies have intensified greatly since the early 1970s. Far more people are involved, and the levels of academic quality are higher. Anti-Mormons have become more cautious about making uninformed assertions about the Book of Mormon and are shifting to other fields of endeavor. And the value of our work is increasingly recognized by Bible and religious studies scholars around the world. We are nearing the point when it might be acceptable for non-LDS academic presses to publish academic books on Book of Mormon topics that would be written from a faithful perspective in the language of standard scholarship. A much larger range of qualified LDS scholars are choosing to bring their disciplinary expertise to bear on this book.
Of what value is scholarly research on the Book of Mormon?
Ricks: To answer this I would like to quote from Austin Farrer, who in writing about C. S. Lewis said: "Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish." This is precisely what FARMS has been able to do: through presentation of evidence create a climate in which belief may flourish. I am filled with a sense of wonder when I consider the number of very bright, very well trained, and very committed Latter-day Saint young people who came to BYU in the 1980s and 1990s with the determination to defend and explain their faith in restored scripturethe Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Pricefor the benefit of others. As a result of their efforts, Book of Mormon studies has been placed on an extremely firm foundation. To that extent I believe that the Foundation has been eminently successful in fulfilling its mission, although I believe that there is yet much work to be done.
Reynolds: I became involved in Book of Mormon research as a teacher of Honors Book of Mormon classes from my earliest years on the BYU faculty. Preparing to teach inspired me with insights and perceived connections that I thought might be of interest to others. And so I began to elevate my inquiries to a more formal academic level, and then to publish the results. The value to me was always that of understanding more fully why the Book of Mormon said the things it said and how it came to say them. This has always been the primary and sufficient reason for such research.
Because such research often produces insights that refute or outweigh criticisms, it has always been the case that faithful research would be appropriated for apologetic purposes. But this is a secondary purpose, and it rarely motivates the research in the first place. Research can help us understand and appreciate this great work better and help us to understand the people who wrote it. That it can be used to help teach and persuade people about the truthfulness of the restored gospel is a wonderful extra benefit.