FARMS through the Years, Part 3: A Conversation with Daniel Peterson and Daniel Oswald
The following article concludes 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 the Foundation. This segment presents comments from separate interviews conducted by Don Brugger, managing editor of Insights, with Daniel C. Peterson and Daniel Oswald, both members of the FARMS Board of Trustees. Peterson, an associate professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, is chairman of the FARMS board, editor of the journal FARMS Review of Books, and director of the FARMS Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART). Oswald, formerly a business leader, strategy consultant, and attorney, has been executive director and chief executive officer of FARMS since 1998. The responses have been editorially combined because they cover the same general time period and address the same or related topics.
When did you first become involved with FARMS?
Peterson: In the late 1970s and early 80s, Stephen Ricks and I and, a little bit later, Bill Hamblin and I began to talk about the need for an organization like FARMS. We didn't realize that Jack Welch was already launching the Foundation. My actual involvement with FARMS began on a very low level while I was a doctoral student in California, and then accelerated rapidly when I became a member of the BYU faculty in the fall of 1985.
Oswald: In the early 1980s, while attending the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, I worked as a graduate assistant to John Welch. My duties included helping with source checking and related work on the early volumes of the Collected Work of Hugh Nibley series.
In what ways is your job as executive director and CEO of FARMS different from your previous experience in directing commercial enterprises?
Oswald: A fundamental difference I perceive is that in my previous job with an income-producing organization, I focused mostly on increasing the financial wealth of the company's clients, employees, and shareholders. Now with FARMS, I feel that my efforts are mostly focused on increasing the mental and spiritual wealth of our membership and of the world at large.
From the outset, what about FARMS appealed to you?
Oswald: The vision behind FARMS to be a catalyst and a clearinghouse for, as well as a producer of, excellent scholarship on the Book of Mormon and other ancient scriptures from a faithful perspective appealed to me. I also enjoyed learning more about ancient scriptures and the world from which they came.
Has the FARMS Review of Books changed much in aim and content since its inception in 1988?
Peterson: Not really. A few years ago we changed its title from Review of Books on the Book of Mormon. But that was merely to bring it into line with what was already the realitynamely that, although the Review focuses on the Book of Mormon and tries, within that focus, to be fairly comprehensive, its range extends beyond the Book of Mormon to other related matters. From the start, though, the Review has sought to do more than just provide recommendations for reading and purchase. In a few cases its essays have actually (in my perhaps biased opinion) been more lastingly significant than the books that inspired them.
For many years FARMS has played a de facto role in responding to issues raised by critics of the LDS Church. Do you see this effort as figuring strongly in the ongoing mission of FARMS?
Peterson: Absolutely. That role has been thrust upon us, whether we wish it or not. It so happens, though, that a few of usmyself emphatically includedare temperamentally inclined to play such a role. Among us, we have answers to many, if not all, of the issues that critics typically raise. Having them, it seems to me, we have a moral obligation to share them with people in and out of the Church who might find such issues troubling.
Oswald: When President Hinckley invited FARMS into the university, he stated that FARMS had provided strong defense and support of the Church on a professional basis. Our hope is that we can continue to build on this strength, and inasmuch as we have capabilities to respond to critics, we will continue to offer these capabilities to the Church.
What is CPART, and why was it created as a subsidiary of FARMS?
Peterson: CPART, the FARMS Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, is the department of FARMS that works primarily with non-Mormon texts and directs its work primarily to a non-Mormon audience. It began as the Foundation's efforts to create a searchable database of the Dead Sea Scrolls kicked into high gear. We recognized that this was a very, very big project and that it was quite fundamentally different from the rest of what FARMS does. So it seemed appropriate to create a semi-independent institutional base for it. When I became the first full-time director of CPART in 1998, I brought the Islamic Translation Series with me. That project had been created in isolation from both FARMS and CPART and had suffered somewhat because it had no real home. Melding it into CPART has been a great help to it. And now other fascinating projects are coming our way at a rapid pacefrom Europe, the Middle East, and Mesoamerica.
In a recent BYU devotional address, you suggested that CPART may be helping to fulfill prophecy through its work of recovering and preserving ancient records from "out of the dust." Would you mind elaborating on that intriguing idea?
Peterson: CPART is expanding, exploding really, into areas that we didn't even dream of a few years ago. The real problem is managing its growth. We've already worked in Islamic texts, ancient Greek papyri, Maya murals, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. We're now moving into Armenian, Syriac, and Christian Arabic manuscripts, and projects are on the horizon to deal with such things as texts from pre-Columbian America and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It has been a part of Latter-day Saint faith almost since our beginning to expect a flood of ancient documents to come forth in this last dispensation. And, with the finds at Qumran and Nag Hammadi and elsewhere, we see that being fulfilled. What I, at least, had never anticipatednot even just a few years agowas that very many of those texts might be coming right through Provo, Utah. We are deeply involved here in the process of recovering, preserving, and disseminating them. It's absolutely astonishing.
Will coming years see more non-Latter-day Saints involved in FARMS-sponsored research?
Peterson: Certainly we'll see many non-Latter-day Saints involved in CPART projects. That's already the case, and will continue to be. We have translators and editors working with us from around the world, and we make more such contacts every month. I hope that FARMS itself will also enjoy increased involvement from scholars and others beyond the Church. We recently published a lengthy essay by evangelical scholars Paul Owen and Carl Mosser in the FARMS Review of Books. Our Research Press has published important non-Mormon scholarly work as well. The Book of Mormon has long been one of the few books that people have felt no need to read before expressing their opinion of it (usually negative and dismissive). However, as the Church continues its remarkable growth (and as FARMS continues to produce serious scholarship), academics and others will, I think, feel more and more inclined, even obligated, to pay attention.
Oswald: As CPART and its Middle Eastern Text Initiative have grown, certain projects have required, and will continue to require and attract, the involvement of scholars who are renowned worldwide for a particular expertise but who are not Latter-day Saints. A case in point is the Dead Sea Scrolls CD-ROM project, in which numerous scholars from various universities and religious backgrounds became involved and made important contributions.
What are some of the interesting new developments in the work of FARMS?
Peterson: CPART, of course, has teams at work in both Europe and Lebanon at this very moment. We're expecting an avalanche of new data about ancient texts to emerge from those efforts. And we're in the process of designing what could be an absolutely immense project related to Mesoamerica. I'm particularly excited, too, about FARMS's new complex of undertakings related to the Book of Abraham. And I look forward to seeing something come of our work on answering criticisms of the Book of Mormon.
Oswald: Three interesting developments are research on the Book of Abraham that will parallel some of the work we have done on the Book of Mormon and should result in about a dozen publications over the next few years; our work of preserving ancient texts, including ancient Syriac and Arabic religious documents and, hopefully in the future, Maya texts; and being of greater service to students and teachers of the scriptures by making our research results available more widely, promptly, and economically through use of the Internet and other technologies.
What role will fund-raising and outreach play in the future growth of FARMS?
Now to fund-raising: FARMS is an income-consuming entity with an operating budget that is only partially covered by revenue derived from FARMS membership fees and product sales and financial support from BYU. Therefore, in order for FARMS to continue as we know it today or to grow, financial support through research grants and private donations becomes critical. One of our goals is to build a sizable endowment for FARMS that would alleviate the need for annual fund-raising to cover the yearly funding gap.
Do you expect that the typical reader of FARMS materials will change much in the next decade?
Peterson: I hope there will be many more of them. And I hope that we can reach more of the Saints and more of our friends and investigators beyond the United States and even beyond the English-speaking world. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in that regard. We expect, too, to launch efforts to simplify some of our materials to reach a broader audience who would find them useful. We don't intend to back off from our intention to do completely rigorous academic work. Still, we're also conscious of a wider Church membership who might be intimidated or bored by full scholarly apparatus but would nonetheless like to know the "bottom line" of current faithful research. We want to reach them too.
Oswald: While our survey results indicate that a large segment of our current readership is highly educated, there are other audiences that FARMS hasn't yet reached very well, people who have expressed a great desire to have our materials also accessible in a more popular format. Such audiences include young people, speakers of English as a second language, and those whose opportunities for learning have been limited. In the future, we need to address the needs of these audiences better.
What do you see as key to the success of FARMS in the next decade?
Peterson: We need to continue to do what has served us so well in the pastto draw upon the scholarly, financial, and word-of-mouth support of enthusiastic volunteers and to keep putting out interesting, solid research in an accessible and inexpensive form. We also need, it seems to me, to broaden the areas of our work. There are important things to be done regarding temples, the Pearl of Great Price, and early Christian history, as well as in connection with the Book of Mormon. We've scarcely scratched the surface. But going further and deeper will require yet more resources, those of a material nature and in the form of personnel.
Oswald: Key to FARMS's continued success are people with vision and faithpeople whose vision, purpose, and efforts are focused on using their best skills, talents, and gifts to lead others to the holy scriptures and to God; people who are humble and who rely on God to accomplish their work; and people who see themselves working to bring to pass the FARMS mission within the greater mission of BYU and the Church. Such people include those doing research; those who are preserving ancient religious texts; those who write, edit, and publish; those who disseminate research results through outreach efforts; those who assist with fund-raising; and others of the FARMS, BYU, and Church communities who support them in their efforts.
Will the recently formalized affiliation of BYU and FARMS facilitate success in those areas?
Peterson: I certainly hope so. I know that was the intent of the affiliation, and a serious obligation rests upon the leadership of both FARMS and the university to ensure that that intent is realized.
Oswald: The BYU-FARMS union has brought FARMS within a support structure and system of many like-minded individuals who share the vision and faith of those already involved with FARMS.
How does the mission of FARMS mesh with the purposes of BYU and the Church?
Oswald: Maybe this question can best be answered by quoting President Hinckley in more detail. He said: "[FARMS] represents the efforts of sincere and dedicated scholars. It has grown to provide strong support and defense of the Church on a professional basis. This has had important salutary effects both in addressing the Church's critics and in bolstering members who might be wavering. Today FARMS has risen to a high stature and has won credibility and recognition for its work both inside and outside the LDS community. . . . I see a bright future for this effort now through the University" (quoted in Insights, October 1997, 1). We are committed to making President Hinckley's vision a reality. In addition, we work to enhance educational quality and to reach out to people who, without FARMS and CPART, have no reason to be involved with BYU or the Church.