For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to build something big. But right from the start this impulse took less practical forms. Rather than framing houses or designing cars, I set my heart on making books. And more than just wanting to write books, my attention fixed on building a kind of collaborative machine that would itself make many, many books. I wanted shelves full of books. I wanted books by the yard. I wanted a project that would work on a scale of decades rather than days and that could, as a result, matter for a hundred years. The Mormon Theology Seminar is one product of this impulse. And this seminar in particular, A Dream, a Rock, and a Pillar of Fire: Reading 1 Nephi 1, marks a tipping point in the pursuit of that goal.
Any success on this scale requires more than work. It requires talented partners and a measure of good luck. In 2006, during my second year as a philosophy professor at Collin College, I got a note from Joseph Spencer. Spencer, whom I had never met, was a former student of James Faulconer, a friend and philosophy professor at Brigham Young University. Spencer wanted to start an email list called LDSHERM. The idea was to create a space where big, brawling, technical discussions of phenomenology and hermeneutics could crosspollinate with Mormon ideas. The list was a potent incubator for new ideas. Unfolding over a couple of years, those early discussions generated a lot of heat and light. More, they welded us together as friends. Apart from the handful of people on that list, who else would spend months with any one of us talking about Jacques Lacan and the sealing power, Martin Heidegger and the nature of revelation, or Alain Badiou on St. Paul?
But these private discussions only whetted our appetite. Soon, we wanted to try something bigger, something formal and public. This led to a beta version of the Mormon Theology Seminar in 2007. We piloted a sevenmonth online seminar focused on Abraham that offered close, collaborative, theological readings of the Abraham narratives in Genesis, the Book of Abraham, Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death. Seven people participated, but the project, though beautiful, turned out to be too ambitious by half.
For a second try, we narrowed the scope of the seminar to just a single chapter of scripture, dropped the philosophy readings, and contracted the scale of time. Robert Couch, James Faulconer, Julie Smith, Joseph Spencer, Jenny Webb, and I then spent three months online reading Alma 32 together, working through the text word by word, line by line, verse by verse. This version of the seminar was a substantial success. It culminated in a public conference at BYU in 2008, and its participants formed the core group that to this day serve as the seminar’s executive board.
We wanted then to find a publisher for this collection of conference papers. Knowing that the project was too narrow for a typical academic press and too scholarly for a trade press, we tried Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. But the timing was wrong. Empowered by the revolution in printondemand books, we plunged ahead and founded an independent academic press of our own. With this press, we wanted to stake out ground for the kind of work we were doing at the intersection of theory and scripture, and we wanted to offer solid evidence that, in practice, our approach was not only possible but potent. Thus, Salt Press was born. Coowned by Robert Couch, Joseph Spencer, Jenny Webb, and myself, Salt Press opened for business in 2009.
In December 2011, Salt Press published the proceedings of that first Mormon Theology Seminar as An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32. It simultaneously published those of our second seminar, Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: 2 Nephi 26–27. One month later, in January 2012, Salt also published the first edition of Spencer’s book, An Other Testament: On Typology. Four more online seminars with a variety of new participants were held over the next few years, addressing Doctrine and Covenants 42, Revelation 21–22, 2 Nephi 2, and Genesis 2–3. Proceedings from most of these seminars, together with a number of other solicited titles and submitted monographs, were to be forthcoming.
However, in March 2013, the Maxwell Institute approached Salt Press with an offer. Sold on the work that Salt Press had managed to do on its own, the Institute’s pitch was straightforward: we have resources and you have content. Let Maxwell take over the resourceintensive work of actually publishing and distributing the kind of content you’ve championed, and you can return your full attention to the work of creating and soliciting that same kind of content. In response, we happily handed over our current and planned publications.
More, the Institute agreed to partner with the Mormon Theology Seminar to sponsor future seminars that would adapt our online model for a live, twoweek format. These live seminars would be directed by Spencer and myself and would look to build longterm relationships with a variety of nonMormon host institutions like Union Theological Seminary in New York, New York, and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. As part of this effort, Brian Hauglid and the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies, housed in the Maxwell Institute, stepped in to fund and help organize future seminars.
In June 2014, hosted by Faulconer at BYU’s London Centre, the first live, twoweek version of the seminar convened. In addition to Spencer and myself, five other scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds participated: George Handley (humanities), Benjamin Peters (media studies), Julie Smith (New Testament studies), Michaël Ulrich (mathematics), and Miranda Wilcox (English). Initially a little nervous that the twenty assigned verses from 1 Nephi 1 might not offer enough material to occupy our collective attention for two weeks, we were instead scrambling by the third day to even skim through the handful of verses assigned for that five hours of discussion. Questions, angles, and hypotheses seemed to grow exponentially as observations, intertextual connections, insights, and theological ramifications fed off of each other. The seminar’s collaboratively written “summary report” attempts to capture some of the central themes that recurred throughout these discussions, but each of the individually written papers, while clearly sharing this common background, eventually goes its own way in pursuit of its own themes.
Julie Smith’s paper, “Huldah’s Long Shadow,” helps provide crucial historical background for 1 Nephi 1 by examining the role played by King Josiah’s sweeping religious reforms in setting the stage for Lehi’s Jerusalem some twentyfive years later. In particular, Smith compares and contrasts Huldah, a prophetess central to those reforms, and Lehi. My own paper, “Burnt Offerings: Favor, Afflictions, and the Mysteries of God,” contrasts the accounts given of Lehi’s two inaugural visions as reported by Nephi. The first vision is raw and elemental, focused on rock and fire. The second vision, in contrast, unfolds as a throne theophany that pivots around the reception and reading of a revealed text. Taking these visions as touchstones, I ask what they may teach about the nature of revelation, suffering, and salvation.
In “Dreams, Visions, and Foolish Imaginations: Alternative History as Sacred History in the Book of Mormon,” George Handley reads 1 Nephi 1 with an eye to the “counterhistory” that, rather than being directly presented by Nephi’s written record, is instead only implied by the lingering traces of what Nephi chose not to include in his abridgment. Reflecting, then, on the role played by what goes unnoticed and unsaid in 1 Nephi 1, Handley asks about the role such counterhistories may play in our own experiences of revelation and redemption.
With his paper, “Potent Messianism: Textual, Historical, and Theological Notes on 1 Nephi 1:18–20,” Joseph Spencer investigates the different reactions reported by Nephi in response to Lehi’s distinct prophetic messages. When Lehi prophesies that Jerusalem will be destroyed, the people laugh. But when he prophesies that a Messiah will come, the people try to kill him. Drawing on a close reading of the verses involved and additional information about the historical background against which Lehi’s message would have been received, Spencer suggests some general conclusions that might be drawn about the dangers of proclaiming the Messiah’s advent.
Miranda Wilcox offers a textual history of the phrasetender mercies in 1 Nephi 1:20 in “Tender Mercies in English Scriptural Idiom and in Nephi’s Record.” Noting that the phrase has recently come to resonate in a very specific way for contemporary Latterday Saints, Wilcox traces this English rendition back to its biblical roots in the Psalms and then through various stages of transformation as different translation projects develop its use in the English language.
Michaël Ulrich’s paper, “Joining the Heavenly Chorus,” focuses on the throne theophany described in Lehi’s second vision in 1 Nephi 1. Paying particular attention to the role of the “heavenly chorus” in this theophany, Ulrich develops a comparative analysis of this vision with Lehi’s more famous vision of the tree of life in 1 Nephi 8 and argues that the former vision may be, in some respects, a key to understanding the latter.
“The Missing Medium: Rereading Revelation as Interruption in 1 Nephi 1,” written by Benjamin Peters, rounds out this volume’s collection of essays. Peters notes a number of key moments in 1 Nephi 1 when, rather than proceeding to directly and emphatically reveal what one would expect, the narrative is instead interrupted and redirected. Peters then develops a model of revelation that takes these interruptions and misdirections into account as an essential feature of revelation rather than simply treating it as a failure of that revelatory process.
In addition to this collection of seminar papers, past and future volumes in the proceedings of the Mormon Theology Seminar will now be published with the Maxwell Institute. Our shared hope is that this partnership will be productive for many years as scholarly interest in Mormon texts and Mormon ideas continues to grow. For my part, my hope is that the Mormon Theology Seminar will itself leave for future generations whole shelves full of such books.