Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Future for Brigham Young University's Neal A. Maxwell Institute!

Elder John A. Widtsoe, a modern John the Beloved, dreamed dreams about Brigham Young University. And by dreams he meant tasks: BYU must become a center for the study of just government, for the study of happy family life, for the promotion of the Lord's law of health, and for an evidentiary study of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. (Mormonism produced the book, after all, and is founded upon its testimony.) So runs the short list--the vital things--but "Following the revealed word of God, it could and must win prominence and assume leadership in many distinctive fields which lie embedded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Such aspirations bespeak love, and his love for the university blossomed during the briefest stay as a visiting professor. Dr. Widtsoe, who had established himself at Utah State University, suddenly found himself without a job (and the firing was unjust) too late in the year to seek another place. In the midst of the crisis, an old teacher counseled Brother Widtsoe "to stay sweet." Then Brigham Young University came to the rescue. . .

BYU weaves a spell about those who find safe haven there.

And note the unique tie between BYU and the Gospel. BYU "could and must win prominence and assume leadership." In what? "In many distinctive fields," he says. But do not all universities seek the same? No. In the case of BYU there is a strict limitation and focus: "in many distinctive fields which lie embedded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Much else may be studied for profit and learning; leadership and prominence are reserved for those specific areas of study that channel saving Gospel principles to a thirsting world: "it must emphasize, for all the world to see, that peace and prosperity, for which the world hungers, may be produced only from adherence to gospel principles."

Let's roll up our sleeves, he says:

"[And] set up academic units to study, assemble, investigate, teach and publish the gospel message as it pertains to the following fields which are especially prominent in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ:

(1) wise and successful government, both national and international;

(2) happy family life built around our understanding of the eternity of family relations;

(3) health producing nutrition, embodying the principles of the inspired Word of Wisdom;

(4) American archaeology to substantiate the claims of the Book of Mormon.

The four enumerated are of especial importance. It must also pass on a well-rounded cultural education. Based on latter-day revelations these four items have the right to be heard and taught in terms of man's accumulated knowledge and the Lord's revelations. The world is pleading for such guidance in these and other matters within the possession of the Church.

Such deliberate organization and effort would enable the B.Y.U. to give service of tremendous value to mankind. Gradually, fearless, intelligent, well-organized teaching of these subjects will not only win general academic acclaim but also the respect and praise from people everywhere of any faith, land or station. The consequent blessing to our own people would be incalculable.

As the conserver and preserver of existing knowledge the B.Y.U. must bravely recognize its great responsibility and accept its magnificent opportunity. Unless it does so it will remain one of the tread-mill workers in the educational fraternity--a little better than the others because of the practice of gospel principles on its campus.

The B.Y.U. must look up to the skies; it must have the courage to challenge, if needs be, the whole world."

As I have pondered over the years this charge of Elder Widtsoe, my heart has soared. I was a student once--and I cannot get the place and the goals out of my heart. I don't teach there now; but one bright semester, years ago, I got to teach two classes--and I still dream of BYU.

I don't know much about world government, but I deeply wish to drink from the teaching BYU will afford us as we move closer to millennial peace. I do know something about efforts to establish centers of study for the Book of Mormon--after all, Elder Widtsoe recruited Hugh Nibley to BYU, and how we all loved to hear him teach from an open copy of that cornerstone Scripture.

There once was an institute promoting Book of Mormon archaeology at BYU: it fell into ruins. Marvelous work in Mesoamerican archaeology and linguistics and on the Popol Vuh has come out of the Y, and I rejoice in much light shed on the Holy Word of God, though the little institute itself become a silent tell.

Great dreams continue to be dreamed, and from such dreams there came so-called FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, whose mission was to publish on all things Egyptian and Hebrew and Mayan and Arabic and Greek, as such might pertain to the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price. A journal was bravely launched; the title was simple and to the point: The Journal of the Book of Mormon.

And, in time, the institute become an official part of Brigham Young University. The Prophet himself issued the invitation. Then, to my shock (not feeling it worthy), there came to grace the program the sacred name of another apostle, Elder Neal A. Maxwell. Though shocked, I saw there remained but one honorable outcome: The institute would simply have to prove worthy of the name. The Prophet said "I think we will not see [Elder Maxwell's] like again"--but somehow, however long and hard the road, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship would have to live up to its name. And it would have to live up to the name of exemplary Brigham Young.

Has it? No. (What organization could?)

And has the Maxwell Institute that now houses FARMS lived up to Elder Widtsoe's dreams? No. On the other hand, I was startled to find a Neal A. Maxwell Presidential Endowed Chair at the University of Utah's Department of Political Science. Somehow its honorees rise to the assigned task. . .

Yet much good has been done! And I'm convinced the dream will unfold in a wonderful way.


By rolling up sleeves--and by counting the cost.

The Maxwell Institute alone publishes three journals and one newsletter. Now count, if you will, the many overlapping institutes, programs, journals, centers, departments, colloquia, and symposia BYU now sponsors, all of which, in divers ways, do the work that ought to belong to a unified institute of Book of Mormon studies. The number will blow your mind! Think of the cost. Imagine the bewildered students.

Second, consider how many gifted BYU professors, as peer reviewers, writers, editors, contribute to outside journals, symposia, Web sites, and organizations all of which publish on the Book of Mormon. Look at one such: FAIR. FAIR's symposia and publications, often praiseworthy, first rivaled, then overshadowed FARMS itself. Yet it's mostly just the same stuff--and the same staff. I wonder just how it is that the Church's flagship university allows wee organizations, bursting with zeal, to eclipse a well-known institute set up by and named after living prophets--and effectively to do the eclipsing within the prophets' own lifetimes?

Specific BYU institutes set up for specific gospel-related tasks ought, by all rights, to eclipse all rivals, however worthy, whether within or without the university walls. The world may be our campus--but let us at least have a campus. Let there be at least a friendly competition. And let's win one for the Cougars!

We learn and grow from vigorous competition--survival of the fittest--and we will yet join forces. Judah will not envy Ephraim, and the Kennedy Center will not do the work of the Maxwell Institute, nor will the Religious Studies Center and its Religious Educator sap strength from the Journal of the Book of Mormon.


Elder Maxwell was "touched by the combination of world-class scholarship and world-class testimony" on BYU's three campuses. Yet, as he reminds us--and here we see both the experienced administrator and the true Christian--"There will always be a need for civility and trust throughout the large BYU faculty, harnessed as we are together." (As if, once yoked in Christ, we could ever become unharnessed!)

With that gentle but laser-like foresight apostles enjoy, he then quotes President John Taylor, who also "being dead yet speaketh":

Many of us are tried and tempted, and we get harsh and hard feelings against one another. And it reminds me of your teams when going down hill with a heavy load. When the load begins to crowd on to the horses, you will frequently see one snap at his mate, and the other will prick up his ears and snap back again. And why? A little while before, perhaps, and they were playing with each other. Because the load crowds on them. Well, when the load begins to crowd, do not snap at your brethren, but let them feel that you are their friends, and pull together (Journal of Discourses 21:214-15; Elder Neal A. Maxwell, "Out of the Best Faculty," BYU Annual University Conference, August 26, 1993).

Go team!

BYU weaves a spell about those who find safe haven there.

We start with competition--we all need a starting point to do great work. Then with "deliberate organization and effort," we come together in a glorious cause: "Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true" (Doctrine and Covenants 20:11). Elder Widtsoe dreamt; we must wake. Now is the time. Friendship will flourish. God's work will be done.

"So ran my thoughts during the valued interlude at the Brigham Young University, and so run my thoughts and prayers today, after these many years. The B.Y.U. must become earth's greatest university."


The chapter from which I quote (introducing slight editing) is entitled "An Interlude at B.Y.U." It appears In a Sunlit Land. The Autobiography of John A. Widtsoe, 88-97 (1952, Salt Lake City).

I honor anyone who publishes good tidings from the Book of Mormon, no matter how or where. And I honor BYU's Maxwell Institute (and at its heart, the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies), its friends and employees, and marvel at how far it has come in fulfilling prophecy. I know it will always have a bright future. (See

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