Three Institute researchers were among the speakers at the fifth annual FAIR conference, held August 7-8 at Utah Valley State College, in Orem, Utah. Founded in 1997, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to providing sound information and research that support the doctrine, beliefs, and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly on matters that are challenged by unbelievers.
"The purpose of FAIR is not to debate, argue, or contend with critics of our faith," noted Scott Gordon, the organization's president. "Our goal is to help members and investigators of the church deal with the issues that the critics raise."
The Institute was well represented in the discussions of such issues at the conference. Matthew Roper, a resident scholar with the Institute, addressed the question of whether Latter-day Saint attitudes have recently taken a drastic shift regarding the origin of American Indians. Some critics have charged that church leaders and writers long thought Lehi and his descendants to be the sole ancestors of the Indians and that such attitudes changed only in the face of recent archaeological and DNA studies.
Roper shared statements from church leaders and other knowledgeable Latter-day Saints throughout church history that support the idea that other peoples were already in the Americas when Lehi's group arrived there. A First Presidency-approved statement from the 1950s, for instance, said that Book of Mormon peoples were "among" the ancestors of modern American Indians.
The Book of Mormon itself contains internal evidence for the existence of cultures contemporaneous with the Nephites and Lamanites. Jacob's account of contention among his people, for example, may suggest that the Nephites had already joined with other groups or that Sherem was not a member of Lehi's family, Roper said. Further, such phrases in the Book of Mormon as "the people of Nephi" and "the people who were now called Lamanites" suggest that Lehi's family mingled with other populations already present in the area. Lehi himself declared that "the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord" (2 Nephi 1:5).
Taking up a related issue, senior resident scholar John Tvedtnes responded to charges of racism in the Book of Mormon. He pointed out that Nephi made a clear distinction between the "curse" of the Lamanites (being cut off from the presence of the Lord by Nephi's departure) and the "mark" of a "skin of blackness," the latter being intended to keep the Nephites from mingling with the Lamanites and partaking of their wickedness (see 2 Nephi 5:1-7, 19-24; Alma 3:14-16). Further, Jacob chastised his people for hating the Lamanites because of their skin color and warned that the Nephites could also be cursed because of unrighteousness (see Jacob 3).
The Nephites' frequent attempts to convert the Lamanites shows that the Book of Mormon does not promote notions of racial inferiority. Tvedtnes also noted that, as an anthropologist, he does not use the term race, having concluded several years ago that it is an artificial construction.
Tvedtnes discussed Joseph Smith's emendation of 2 Nephi 30:6. In this verse, the Nephites are promised that they will receive a knowledge of the Savior. They are also promised that "the scales of darkness shall fall from their eyes; and not many generations shall pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and delightsome people." Although this passage read "white and delightsome" in the original manuscript, Joseph Smith changed the word white to pure, probably to avoid the misinterpretation that skin color would literally change. In the Bible and other ancient texts, the term white is sometimes used in the sense of "pure" rather than of color.
Daniel C. Peterson, codirector of research for the Institute, noted that theism in general and Mormonism in particular have become popular targets in recent months. "There are people out there who see religion as the cause of violence, and this gives rise to a book like Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven," he said. But while some see Krakauer's book as an attack on the church, it actually attacks the very concept of religious faith itself, questioning whether rational individuals are justified in believing in a moral authority greater than themselves. Peterson went on to explain that given Krakauer's hostility toward religion in general, religious people cannot fairly use the book to criticize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (just as evangelical critics cannot fairly use DNA evidence to discount the Book of Mormon when the same DNA evidence shows that migrations to America took place more than 10,000 years ago, long before many evangelicals believe the earth was created).
Peterson noted that while millions of people were murdered in the 20th century at the hands of atheists, it would be simplistic to blame these atrocities on atheism. By the same token, evil acts committed by "religious" people must be viewed in their complexity, with proper recognition of the value of religious belief. Faith in God offers meaning and purpose to people around the world, especially to those who suffer from poverty or illness. Any fair-minded discussion of religion ought to acknowledge this, he said.
Other speakers and topics at the conference included the following: Roger R. Keller, professor of church history and doctrine, BYU, on "The Grace of Apologetics"; Armand L. Mauss, emeritus professor of sociology, Washington State University, on "The Church, the Race Issue, and Misplaced Apologetics"; D. Jeffrey Meldrum, associate professor of anatomy and anthropology, Idaho State University, on "The Children of Lehi: DNA and the Book of Mormon"; and Michael D. Rhodes, associate research professor of ancient scripture, BYU, on "The Book of Abraham: Dealing with the Critics."
The papers by Roper and Tvedtnes will appear in the forthcoming issue of the FARMS Review (vol. 15, no. 2). ! --reported by Larry Morris and Mike Parker