FARMS through the Years, Part 1:
A Conversation with John Welch and John Sorenson
FARMS’s 20th anniversary this month gives reason to reflect on the Foundation’s past progress and future promise. The following article begins a three-part series, each installment featuring comments from two people who figure prominently in the history and ongoing work of FARMS. John W. (Jack) Welch and John L. Sorenson were involved with FARMS since its inception, Stephen D. Ricks and Noel B. Reynolds were administrative officers during the organization’s middle years, and Daniel C. Peterson and Daniel Oswald are current administrative officers at FARMS. This first segment presents responses from separate interviews conducted by Don Brugger, managing editor of Insights, with FARMS founder John Welch, who is Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at BYU, editor of BYU Studies, and a member of the FARMS Board of Directors from 1979 to the present; and BYU emeritus professor of anthropology John Sorenson, who served on the FARMS board from 1981 to 1991 and continues his work for FARMS as a senior resident fellow and editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. The responses have been editorially combined because they cover the same time period and address the same or related topics.
How did FARMS begin? Welch: Very modestly. In the 1970s I practiced law in Los Angeles, working in the tax area. Speaking often at firesides, I saw a great need for an organization that could coordinate and distribute research on the Book of Mormon. One day, after doing the legal work to form two nonprofit corporations, I put together a set of articles of incorporation for a third. The name for this organization, FARMS, was selected while I was riding home that day in a car pool. My two car pool friends, Lew Cramer and Clark Waddoups, agreed to serve with me as the initial board of directors.
How did you first become involved in the work of FARMS, and what attracted you to the organization? Sorenson: In 1980, when John Welch came to BYU for interviews before accepting an offer from the law school, he visited me (I was then chair of the anthropology department) to explain about FARMS. I had not previously met him, but I was very impressed with both the concept and with him. I had been involved for years in similar activity. I was one of the earliest activists in the Society for Early Historic Archaeology (from 1950) but had parted ways with that effort and subsequently discussed possible organizational formats to further Book of Mormon research. I had concluded that no viable prospect for an organization existed. What Jack and FARMS promised was a large, ambitious, inclusive vision plus, particularly, the prospect of successful fundraising due to Jack’s standing as a tax attorney. I immediately wrote out a to-whom-it- may-concern letter giving my unequivocal sup-port to FARMS and recommending that others do so too.
How would you describe the status of Book of Mormon studies when FARMS came to Provo in 1980? Sorenson: The field of Book of Mormon studies was tiny and fragmented into little enclaves, each focusing on different areas of endeavor. Moreover, there was no effective communication among the various camps or individual scholars.
Welch: Looking back, it is hard to realize how far the discipline of Book of Mormon studies has come in the last 20 years. In 1980 the library of significant Book of Mormon scholarship was very small. Today that body is large, and it is still growing at a rapid pace. One of the main differences between then and now is that we have come to appreciate the profound depths and subtle complexities of this amazing book, and we allow ourselves to be surprised and instructed by this book in many ways. I think we have learned in recent years to read the Book of Mormon more carefully and to place greater value on its every detail, word by word.
How was the move to Provo congenial to the aims of FARMS? Sorenson: It promised intellectual energy by moving to the center of the church, plus the prospect of tapping into practical resources such as secretarial support and work space.
Welch: And it allowed us to work together on a daily basis. As Stephen Ricks has often said, “There was something providential in the group of young scholars who found themselves together in Provo in the early 1980s.”
What were the first big publishing projects undertaken once FARMS was established in Provo? Sorenson: The first thing we needed was a product that would meet important needs of potential readers. We concluded that that ought to consist of a library of reprints chosen for reliability of content. Jack and I particularly made the choices until we had some scores of articles we thought we could recommend without serious qualms. The selecting of reprints, instead of merely asking people to write something prospectively, meant that we were actually forming the nucleus of an inclusive yet selective scholarly community. The second priority was to put out a newsletter to begin to wave a banner.
Welch: In short order, we also published a first cut of a Book of Mormon bibliography (arranged on a computer alphabetically and chronologically). Soon we produced a slide show, “The Lands of the Book of Mormon.” Several preliminary reports appeared, and in 1984 we put out our first catalog. John Sorenson’s book An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, our first major publication, was a landmark in 1985.
In those early years, how was FARMS received? Welch: Different people reacted very differently. The core group of interdisciplinary scholars at BYU who got behind FARMS in 1981 received the idea of FARMS with a burst of creative enthusiasm. Early readers found our initial newsletters a bit informal, but because the articles were innovative, reliable, and informative, people kept coming back. Donors were a little scarce at first, but checks, large and small, came in at just the right times, usually from family and friends, but sometimes from people we didn’t even know. Not everyone, of course, was enthusiastic about our fledgling efforts, but most people were happy to give it a chance.
What were some of the big issues facing FARMS during your years as a member of the board of directors? Sorenson: Survival! How to get enough work done to claim valuable results with so few hands to help. Another concern was how to incorporate diverse researchers and supporters. The work tended to be concentrated among the few who would actually perform the work, but that gave an impression of cliquishness; others viewed the effort with suspicion too apologetic in orientation, not apologetic enough, too “intellectual,” not approved by the Brethren, and so on.
Welch: I have served on the board for all 20 years. Dynamic issues have been discussed and decided in every board meeting. If by “big issues” you mean controversial matters, I can’t remember any decision that wasn’t unanimous.
It would appear that, despite such challenges, FARMS was successful in its early years. Welch: I believe so. Many keys combine to explain the rapid success of FARMS. A few come readily to mind.
First, volunteerism: FARMS was nurtured by a rare cadre of dedicated volunteers, scholars, and office workers. Some of the earliest included Kirk Magleby, Bob Smith, Gordon Thomasson, Stephen Ricks, Don Norton, and Paul Hoskisson, each serving crucial roles. Our initial board of advisors in-cluded Hugh Nibley, Truman Madsen, Charles Tate, Robert Thomas, and Merrill Bateman. We will always be grateful for their contributions.
Second, providing needed services: FARMS did not create an artificial need; it served to fill already existing needs. The Book of Mormon was under academic attack in those days, especially in the media. FARMS offered needed answers.
Third, originality: FARMS blazed new trails; it gladly left room for others to do their things, while FARMS moved over to do what no one else was doing.
Fourth, credibility: FARMS documented everything carefully and thoroughly, and proceeded cautiously and articulately.
Fifth, in addition, the time was right for FARMS in the early 1980s, when President Benson was emphasizing the Book of Mormon so heavily. At that time many scholars at BYU were uniquely prepared and willing to make serious contributions to Book of Mormon research, and the BYU administration strongly supported the work of FARMS.
What do you consider to be the most notable achievements of FARMS in the past 20 years? Sorenson: In the first decade, probably the beginning of book publishing (which often involved a research conference preceding publication). Also, the development (chiefly under Brent Hall) of an organization capable of practical fulfillment in publishing and distributing products reliably and building a core of faithful members. Another notable stride forward was the establishment of standards and mechanisms for publishing quality products (especially involving Mel Thorne). A major development in late 1980s was the rise of the notion (among the FARMS membership and beyond) that critical evaluation of published work is desirable. This led to FARMS’s issuance of the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon in 1988 (now the FARMS Review of Books); without Dan Peterson’s adroit management and pen, this effort would probably not have succeeded.
The 1990s saw the publication of some basic media to inform a broader LDS audience about the findings of scriptural scholarship (this was attempted from the beginning but was not very successful). Acceptance and respect for FARMS’s scholarly efforts increased in non-LDS scholarly circles, especially as a result of the Dead Sea Scrolls project. Another stride forward was the establishment of an apparatus for evaluating and support-ing research through grants under the direction of M. Gerald Bradford.
How did FARMS ensure the quality of its publications? How is this done today? Welch: I was lucky to have served on the law review while I was at Duke law school. There I learned to source check every footnote and to require solid support for every claim. Moreover, publishing a law review is a highly collaborative effort. At FARMS we followed the same procedures: every footnote checked, every article reviewed by many people. We still follow the same procedures today.
How reliable is FARMS research? How have the quality procedures worked out? Welch: The results have been very gratifying. Sure, mistakes happen now and then, but I think we have achieved an extremely high reliability rating. Very few publishers these days can afford to check their products as closely as FARMS does. But we believe that the effort is worth it. The Book of Mormon deserves nothing but the best we can give.
Did you sense initially what FARMS could become? Welch: While we had a strong sense of purpose for this organization from its inception-namely, to do the best possible faithful research and make it available as widely and as inexpensively as possible-we had no idea where this little operation would in fact eventually end up.
Were there times when it looked as though it wouldn’t succeed? Welch: Sure. I remember one day when the bank balance of this little organization had three digits in it, and two of them were to the right of the decimal point. I wasn’t sure how we would pay our only half-time employee. I also remember some awkward times with campus politics. FARMS was a start-up upstart. But things always had a way of working out.
Why is FARMS a nonprofit corporation? Welch: Mainly to allow tax deductions for contributions, to provide stable rules for leadership, and to avoid any personal profiteering. FARMS has always been a nonprofit organization. When money is not an issue, people are much more willing to devote time and talents to the work. From the very start, the articles of incorporation have provided that, upon liquidation, all of the money and assets of FARMS would be donated to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In what ways is the work of FARMS distinctive? Sorenson: It is largely cooperative. There is room under the FARMS umbrella for diverse, individually-decided- upon research and writing efforts, without much heavy-handed direction from a governing board or administrators as to who will write or what will be the foci. But equally important is that the cooperative dimension coexists with quality control of the product.
Welch: I think the work of FARMS is readily rec-ognizable on library shelves. Its publications are frequent, thorough, textually oriented, highly collaborative, extensively grounded in ancient languages and cultures, copiously documented, meticulously edited, and insightfully Latter-day Saint. I hasten to add that other LDS scholars do equally fine and useful work, but FARMS has a niche that has become recognized as its specialty.
Has the work of FARMS scholars has been sufficiently understood and appreciated through the years? Sorenson: I wish more people in the church knew about the work of all researchers on the Book of Mormon and related topics whether they consider themselves “FARMS scholars” or not. I also wish more people understood the value of critical scholarship in improving the position of the scriptures in the minds of members and nonmembers alike. Great progress has been made, but there is a long way to go. I have always had special concern that FARMS publications have not been widely available to speakers of languages other than English. I would like to see that remedied.
Describe a typical FARMS researcher. Welch: Nothing is very typical around FARMS. We have professionals and amateurs, retired emeritus professors and freshmen research assistants. The group includes men and women, full-time scholars and part-time adjuncts. Many have multiple advanced degrees. We have people who specialize in Greek and Hebrew, and others who specialize in Syriac and Arabic. They belong to many professional scholarly organizations. People from almost every department on campus have worked with FARMS. So I guess the only thing typical about them is that they all love and have a testimony of the Book of Mormon and desire to use their scholarly training in ancient studies to enrich our understanding of the text and to build the kingdom.
In the early days, was the purpose of FARMS mis-understood? Welch: Yes, it was then and it still is misunder-stood sometimes today. From the beginning, people thought we were trying to “prove” the Book of Mormon to be true. We often quote B. H. Roberts to the effect that no evidence, however skillfully presented, can ever take the place of the Holy Ghost in bearing witness to the souls of men and women that the Book of Mormon is true. By using scholarly tools to find circumstantial corroborations for the Book of Mormon, FARMS strives only to gather up truth wherever it may be found in the world of scholar-ship and bring it home for the upbuilding of Zion.
Then “proof” is not of primary concern? Welch: No, it’s not, and for many reasons. For one thing, it is futile to try to get people to agree on what constitutes “proof” in any event. For example, what qualifies as “proof” of the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem? Our methodology is aimed more at understanding and appreciation. We assume that the Book of Mormon is an ancient book and then look for insights by seeing it in terms of ancient language, culture, and history. In this regard, it more than rewards the sensitive reader. On top of all that, the book is literarily eloquent and beautifully artistic, when gauged by ancient standards. So these secondary characteristics confirm our original assumption, but more than that they enhance our understanding of the text.
What role can such secondary evidence play in nur-turing belief? Sorenson: It can clear away obstacles in the minds of those prejudiced by unfriendly scholars or bigots so that the honest will give belief a chance. In addition, it opens up differing dimensions along which readers may consider the scripture in new ways.
Welch: I wrote a 50-page article a couple years ago on this subject, so in 50 words or less I’ll just say here that incidental details can sometimes be of first-rate importance. For most people, the big picture is usually enough, but God is also to be found in the details. Circumstantial bits and pieces combine to get people to the point where they are willing to admit that the Book of Mormon cannot be explained as the work of human hands alone.
Has your faith been markedly strengthened through your research? Welch: Yes. Faith involves trust, confidence, love, and obedience, as well as a hope for things not seen. My research has enhanced my trust in the Book of Mormon and my devotion to its teachings. Through careful research, I have seen God operating through the Book of Mormon on many occasions. All this has clearly enriched and deepened my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sorenson: It has been a privilege to be stimulated by seeing how many new discoveries have been made beyond the few I would know about were I working alone. My faith in the Book of Mormon has not been “markedly strengthened” so much as “enriched.”
What has motivated your decades of research bearing on correlating Book of Mormon places and events with a geographical setting in Mesoamerica? Sorenson: My own curiosity. The geography constitutes an ultimate crossword puzzle. Another stimulus is my desire to consider the Nephite record in the brightest, richest light possible; thus I welcome all new light that promises to give me new perspectives on our central sacred book. I also desire to be among those claiming the blessing of Moroni: “whoso shall bring it to light, him will the Lord bless” [Mormon 8:14].
What have been the major milestones in the organi-zational history of FARMS? Welch: I look back on five salient milestones. First, hiring our first employee. When we hired Janet Twigg in 1981 as our bookkeeper, we took on new responsibilities and had to deal with the fact that some people at FARMS would be paid while the rest of us would need to give our time freely.
Second, in 1984 we linked up with Deseret Book. In this valuable relationship, we produced the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley series, John Sorenson’s Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, and several other significant volumes. These books put FARMS on the map for good.
Third, when Stephen Ricks became the second president of FARMS in 1988, we proved that leadership of the organization could be passed around. Noel Reynolds and I needed to spend most of three years working on the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and Stephen and others had to pick up a lot of the slack. Their success galvanized many scholars as committed FARMS participants.
Fourth, major financial donations from Alan and Karen Ashton, Richard Winwood, and others in the early 1990s allowed FARMS to buy its buildings, produce Dead Sea Scrolls databases, publish its own books, hire editors, give grants, and expand in many ways. With this transition, the schol-ars on the FARMS board suddenly took on a vast array of responsibilities for a very large and active organization.
Fifth, most recently, another big change at FARMS has come with our formal affiliation with Brigham Young University.
Of course, many other important things have happened along the way: key hires, major confer-ences, television broadcasts, academic recognition, research expeditions, and so on. Almost every inch of the way seems worth mentioning.
Why was FARMS invited to become a part of BYU? Welch: In 1980, when I came to BYU, I asked Academic Vice President Robert K. Thomas if I should terminate FARMS or bring it with me. He said, “By all means, bring it.” Ever since, FARMS and BYU have been closely intertwined. Soon BYU gave us some unused space in the basement of the law school and then some offices in the old Amanda Knight Hall. As FARMS grew, it became obvious that sooner or later BYU and FARMS would need to define their mutual relationship. After prolonged discussions back and forth that involved many people, no one at FARMS or at BYU knew what should be done. I remember saying to President Bateman in a private conversation, “As far as I am concerned, we can go either way, on campus or off. What we need is an answer that will stick. If President Hinckley will tell us what he sees as best, we will do it.” Two months later, President Hinckley invited FARMS to become a part of BYU. He gave no explanations but saw a bright future for this work under the university umbrella.
Now that FARMS is part of BYU, what opportunities or challenges does this open up? Welch: Time will tell. So far, everything looks good. There’s so much to do. The challenge will be to marshal resources and guide this work systematically.
Will the affiliation with BYU change the kind and quality of FARMS research? Welch: I don’t think so. BYU wants FARMS to succeed, and as the old pioneer adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After 20 years, we both know what works. The patterns and methods are in place. We now need to carry on. Mormonism is still a young religion by world standards. We have much work yet to do.
What will be the future research emphasis at FARMS? Welch: We will always keep the Book of Mormon at the core of our work. In addition, fu-ture research will branch out into Old Testament, New Testament, and the Book of Abraham, particularly as the scriptures all are interwoven into one great whole.
Does FARMS try to cultivate rising scholars? Welch: Yes. We give Nibley Fellowships to about a dozen young scholars each year. We also employ many BYU students as research assistants. Over the years, a large intellectual community of faithful LDS students has passed under the tutelage of FARMS. They may be the greatest legacy of our first 20 years.
How did you personally become interested in scrip-ture research? Welch: I started into scripture research as an un-dergraduate. When I was a freshman at BYU, Hugh Nibley was my Honors Book of Mormon teacher, and as a missionary in Germany in 1967 I discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. I published my first article on that subject in BYU Studies while I was still an undergraduate at BYU. My teachers at BYU gave me tools and taught me to see many exciting ways to use them. And the rest is history, as they say. I’ve been at it ever since.
How are you able to be so productive? Welch: Just by keeping at it. And keeping my eyes open. The Lord wants to show us all more than our eyes have ever seen. Productivity is seeing through things and then seeing things through. Only the support of good friends, bright col-leagues, and skillful assistants such as those at FARMS makes any of this possible.
Do you see a bright future for FARMS and its on-going focus on Book of Mormon research? Sorenson: I am hopeful, but a bright future is not inevitable. The possibility exists that the wrong cooks may mess up the kitchen by trying to impose a predetermined rigid policy instead of letting scholars find their own pragmatic way to the light.
Welch: I am convinced that we have only scratched the sur-face. We are still a young church, and Book of Mormon scholar-ship is an even younger discipline. So the opportunities are great. But truth comes forth only according to our heed and diligence, as Alma 12:9 says, so we must give strict heed and be more diligent or we can’t expect to receive further light and knowledge. In Christ, the future is perfectly bright. Assuming that the work of FARMS or of others is useful to Him, I have full faith that it will flourish for many years to come.