The Signature Books Saga
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
At the end of his career, the late Sterling McMurrin, one of my esteemed former teachers, as well as a celebrated cultural Mormon polymath,2 mentioned his friendship with George D. Smith, the wealthy president, publisher, and now full owner of Signature Books. McMurrin generously described his close friend as "a historian and writer of considerable capabilities, and a publisher of books."3 Since 1981, Signature Books has issued over two hundred titles, with the target being one new title a month, "or about 4,000 pages annually."4 In addition, Smith has published a number of often controversial essays on the Latter-day Saint past under his own name.
A Secular Ideology and Anti-Mormon Agenda
Both George Smith and Signature Books have acquired a rather solid, singular reputation. For example, from the Protestant evangelical camp, journalists Richard and Joan Ostling have noted that "George D. Smith's Signature Books . . . continually publishes quality liberal thinking on controversial LDS topics."5 And from the perspective of what might be called militant, fundamentalist, evangelizing, creedal atheism, Thomas W. Flynn has described Signature Books as "the leading dissenting imprint in the Mormon community."6 Terryl Givens, from within the Latter-day Saint scholarly community, but far from the sometimes highly corrosive Utah intellectual environment, has observed that "Signature Books is the main vehicle for publications that challenge the borders of Mormon orthodoxy."7 Speaking for the Mormon history establishment, and as part of their effort to characterize various venues that publish essays on topics related to the Latter-day Saint past, Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen include the following in their commentary on their own massive bibliographic survey:8 "Another publisher was Signature Books, owned by George D. Smith, an LDS liberal activist who published material largely in his ideological image."9 And, in an item featured on the Web site belonging to Signature Books, Bryan Waterman, whose work has been published by Signature Books and who is clearly sympathetic with its agenda,10 describes it as "a sometimes renegade Mormon publishing company."11
After noting that the Association for Mormon Letters had once "presented Signature Books with a Special Recognition award for providing a much-needed venue for more literary sorts of LDS publishing," Gideon Burton and Neal Kramer indicate that
as an "alternative" press, Signature has dared to publish what the official and quasi-official presses could not. Its more liberal editorial policies have made possible publication of works of high literary quality, but such policies by no means guarantee literary quality, and can, in fact prove very narrowly liberal. . . . The publisher's liberal reputation has estranged not only mainstream LDS audiences but many authors and academics. . . . Signature has thus both filled a gap and created another.12
This criticism annoyed Gary Bergera, then managing director of Signature. "I know," he admits, "that some Signature titles bring a critical eye to bear on certain aspects of LDS history and culture."13 But, he also insists, "such works comprise the very essence of freedom of choice and conscience."14 He then indicates that, "in fact, Signature has probably had a relatively minor impact on mainstream LDS audiences" since it is a "small publisher."15 Bergera, it should be noted, does not deny that Signature's "liberal reputation has," as its critics claim, "estranged not only mainstream LDS audiences but many authors and academics." Instead, he describes Burton and Kramer as having chosen to "clothe a straw man" and characterizes their remarks as "unfortunate" because they neglected to provide what he considers "documentation." Rather, he complains, they "allude to a seven-year-old disagreement with one or two book reviewers at FARMS over a review of one of Signature's titles."16 But has Signature Books indeed managed, as these critics claim, to estrange "many authors and academics"?
Orson Scott Card—described by Signature Books as a member of its original "impressive editorial board"17—has, like many others, become, if not deeply disillusioned, at least skeptical of the Signature agenda. He argues that "Signature is an anti-Mormon publisher that covers itself the way Playboy has traditionally covered its pornography, by publishing a few articles by serious writers in every issue."18 He adds:
By publishing a few books that meet standards of respectable scholarship on LDS topics, Signature gives the false impression that they are a "balanced" publisher, when in fact their unrelenting agenda is to publish books designed to shake the foundations of the Mormon religion. Their prey is the budding Mormon intellectual who takes pride in being smart and educated but does not yet have the critical skills to recognize manipulation and deception when they are masked in the forms of scholarship.19
These observers have not felt the need to elaborate or to explain the meaning of the language they employed, perhaps because they all recognize that their readers will correctly understand what they seek to convey. It is likely that all these observers have correctly assumed that by describing Signature Books as "an anti-Mormon publisher" or a "renegade" publisher, or as being "liberal," or as a "dissenting imprint," or as "challeng[ing] . . . orthodoxy," their meaning would be easily and correctly understood. In addition, these writers do not seem to have believed that, in the Latter-day Saint context, by using labels such as liberal to describe Signature Books or its owner's ideology, they would imply some political rather than strictly religious orientation, or that the word activist would imply an engagement in partisan politics. It is also likely that these authors had in mind, among other things, something like the numerous books published by Signature Books that are either implicitly or explicitly critical of Joseph Smith's prophetic truth claims, including those that attack the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon20 or set out radically revisionist accounts of the crucial historical foundations of the faith of the Saints.21
In addition to Signature Books, George Smith also owns and disburses funds through the Smith Research Associates and the Smith-Pettit Foundation. The Smith-Pettit Foundation and Signature Books are said to "share two common officers: our president and our acquisitions editor."22 These two foundations "sometimes sponsor historical research, among other projects, and when they do, this sometimes materializes into a manuscript," which Signature Books tends to publish.23 George Smith thus advances his own ideology and exerts influence in ways other than by merely contributing financially to various institutions and causes or by being the president and publisher of Signature Books.24
An example of what gets funded and then published with the Smith Research Associates imprimatur can be seen in an item entitled New Mormon Studies CD-ROM.25 In a careful review of this useful searchable database, BYU historian Grant Underwood points out it "includes virtually the entire inventory of works published by Signature Books, as well an almost full run of the two independent journals focused on Mormonism—Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Sunstone."26 It "is a valuable collection as far as it goes."27 However, it is not, as it is advertised, a "comprehensive resource library," since it provides access to only "a fraction" of the relevant textual materials.28 To get a sense of the ideology behind even this database, it should be noted that one consulting it will not find in it the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, BYU Studies, or the FARMS Review. Underwood correctly indicates that, "for the scholar who approaches the collection" of materials "with a bit of care and a sense of the politics involved, there is much that is useful and that is not available elsewhere in machine-readable form."29 He argues that those who consult this database
should also know that in response, and sometime[s] in overreaction, to what Signature Books appears to consider the protective, even paranoid, posture of the LDS Church toward its history, the company [that is, Smith Research Associates and Signature Books] has tended to promote a "tell all, hold nothing sacred" publishing agenda. As a result, it has not always successfully separated the wheat from the chaff. Over the years a number of the included books have been panned in scholarly reviews for being too ideologically driven and lacking in sound scholarly methodology.30
Underwood is correct, of course—one needs to approach all of what Signature Books publishes with "a sense of the politics involved"—that is, with an awareness that what Signature Books publishes is at times "too ideologically driven."
While perhaps even relishing being seen as a renegade publishing house, which is the language posted on their own Web site, those at Signature Books also seem eager to avoid having attention drawn within the Latter-day Saint community to their owner as being "a LDS liberal activist" or to his press as publishing "material largely in his ideological image."31 John Sillito, special collections archivist at Weber State University, thinks that Walker, Whittaker, and Allen "are wrong in their assessment not only of Smith personally and his role in the internal editorial process itself, but also of the nature of Signature Books' list generally, or even only its historical titles."32 He adds the following: "Of course, truth in disclosure would have me admit that I am a member of Signature's editorial advisory committee."33 However, even though Sillito wonders about the accuracy of the "characterization of Signature Books" by Walker, Whittaker, and Allen, he makes a good point when he observes that "every press has its mission and audience, every press has a broader list than one might imagine, and over-personalization is always problematic."34 Sillito, of course, correctly notes that Signature Books issues a very wide variety of titles, most of which are not, from my or Orson Scott Card's perspective, explicitly anti-Mormon. Some of the titles issued by Signature Books seem to be at least harmless, while some are even quite useful. It is obviously not true that every title published under the Signature Books and Smith Research Associates imprints is overtly critical of the faith of the Saints and therefore in that sense anti-Mormon or otherwise critical of the Latter-day Saint faith. (And, of course, not all of the books published by Signature Books turn out to be either badly written or lack scholarly merit.35 Some of the more autobiographical items published by Signature Books have, perhaps inadvertently, exposed what seems to be the soft underbelly of cultural Mormonism.)36 However, this is easily explained, if one keeps in mind Card's apt comparison of the similarities in the publishing strategies of Signature Books and Playboy magazine. In his apologia, Sillito ignores the historical titles published by Signature Books that target Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
Some items published by Signature Books have been nicely edited,37 and some have, of course, also been solid scholarly collections or studies. However, a word of caution is needed: at the end of the day the excellent materials published by Signature Books might be explained by a line from the Disney musical Mary Poppins: "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."38 This pharmakon (medicine) turns out to be an opiate—a secular religion intended to charm the Saints away from a genuine faith in God.
Signature Books does not seem situated on Olympian heights above the struggles going on below; its owner and employees do not seem detached from the religious and ideological storms raging around them. They are, instead, in the thick of the fray. This publishing activity, as some might imagine or assume, has not been a series of random events. Books do not just happen—just as authors are motivated to write, publishers are motivated to publish.
With "A Common Humanist Perspective"
Those speaking for Signature Books, of course, deny that their publishing venture is driven by an ideology or that they have an agenda. They also insist that their wealthy employer and his press are not "activist."39 Apparently no one has pictured either George Smith or his press as manifesting an "activist" political disposition. In at least this sense Signature Books apologists are correct. However, in rebutting such a charge, Signature Books apologists are clearly thrashing a straw man. They also claim that their publishing and marketing activities are merely intended to let some fresh air into what they depict as a stale Latter-day Saint environment.40 They are not, they insist, concerned with the faith as such but only want the Saints to know more about their past, and so forth. Such disclaimers do not, however, explain all those books attacking Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, the unusual Signature Books marketing techniques, or the way in which they package some of their books.41
When engaged in public relations, Signature Books spokespersons neglect to mention their employer's ideology or the thrust of his own publishing endeavors. Instead, they prefer to steer away from discussions of these matters. Occasionally, however, they call attention to their controlling ideology. For example, Ron Priddis, the managing director of Signature Books, has acknowledged what he called "a common humanist perspective in all our books."42 Such assertions seem to concede both that there is a guiding "philosophy" behind Signature Books and also what its substance might be. There is, however, more to the story than merely this revealing label. It involves links between George Smith's publishing career to the American atheist/humanist movement.
"The Prometheus Books of Utah"
In 1969 Paul Kurtz started a publishing house called Prometheus Books, which eventually became the leading English-language publisher of atheist literature. Something similar to the ideology currently advanced by Kurtz was initially canonized in 1933 in a well-known creedal statement entitled "A Humanist Manifesto."43 This manifesto was drafted by Roy Wood Sellars, a philosopher, and then worked over by others, including a number of Unitarian ministers,44 among them Edwin H. Wilson.45 Since Unitarians have an unusually deep hostility to creeds or formal affirmations of faith, they seem to have favored setting forth their beliefs in the form of manifestos. There is, it should be noted, a clear Marxist element in the original manifesto, which can be seen in both its atheist and socialist biases. Subsequent manifestos have tended to downplay the original socialist bias and also to move away from characterizing humanism as a religion. But the original supporters of humanism were not at all shy about describing themselves as religious. They thought of their humanist version of atheism as a "religion" and also as the ground for a "church" capable of competing with Christian denominations. When Wilson, for example, was once described as an atheist who had not "quit the habit of going to church," he responded that churchgoing "was a good habit. It organizes one's life. It's where your friends are."46
But Kurtz and his close associates like to deny that their ideology is a religion, and they do not see themselves as "churched." Be that as it may, Kurtz seems not to have been entirely satisfied with this original Humanist Manifesto, since in 1973 he and Wilson drafted a Humanist Manifesto II.47 When Kurtz launched the atheist magazine Free Inquiry in 1980, his fondness for creedal atheism led him to include in the first issue of his magazine "A Secular Humanist Declaration."48 He and his associates have also established or supported a number of atheist front organizations closely linked to Prometheus Books and Free Inquiry.49 The best known of these was called the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) until the name was changed in 1996 to Council for Secular Humanism.
In 2003, the Humanist Manifesto III was published,50 this time without the long list of specifics set out in 1973, in an effort to get an even more boldly stated atheism more fully in line with trendy new social concerns. Instead of specifics, it is larded with banal slogans and glittering generalities, as humanists welcome future challenges fully committed to freedom and responsibility. Earlier Kurtz and his close associates issued "Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Plan for Peace, Dignity, and Freedom in the Global Human Family,"51 in which Kurtz urged "that humans not look beyond themselves for salvation." Echoing William Ernest Henley's claim in his poem "Invictus" that he is the master of his fate and captain of his soul, Kurtz insisted that "we alone are responsible for our own destiny."52
Twenty years ago, soon after having launched Signature Books in 1980, George Smith became a collaborator and associate of Kurtz. Much of the product of this partnership has not been especially visible within the Latter-day Saint intellectual community, but it is possible to identify some of the fruits of this friendship. For example, as recently as May 2000 Kurtz convened a gathering of atheists to deliberate on their concern about what they described as "The Mormon Challenge."53 In addition to George Smith, speakers included Todd Compton, a Latter-day Saint whom Smith seems to have brought on board to tell tales of the evils of plural marriage, especially of what he considers the suffering it allowed or encouraged men to inflict on hapless pioneer women,54 and Vern Bullough, who was raised as a Latter-day Saint but has had nothing to do with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since his teens in the 1940s and whose understanding of Latter-day Saints and their faith seems to have been arrested at that point.
Thomas Flynn, who has recently replaced the aging Kurtz as the senior editor of Free Inquiry, introduced these speakers.55 To those assembled to hear why the Church of Jesus Christ is a threat to secular humanism, Flynn claimed that George Smith "is a historian of Mormonism. He has been published several times in Free Inquiry and in various liberal Mormon publications."56 Flynn boasted of the ideological links between Paul Kurtz and George Smith and their publishing ventures. He explained that "George Smith is president of Signature Books," which he then correctly described as "the leading dissenting imprint in the Mormon community. Sometimes," he added, "we call it the Prometheus Books of Utah."57
George Smith's first contribution to Mormon literature seems to have been a brief comment on Blacks and the priesthood,58 which was soon followed by the publication of a paper he had read earlier at a Sunstone conference, in which he offered criticisms of the Book of Mormon.59 Around the same time, he recorded and transcribed the funeral services for Fawn Brodie.60 In a letter published in a student newspaper, George Smith claimed that "Dr. [Sterling] McMurrin's faithful disbelief may offer hope to the 'closet doubters' who might agree [with McMurrin] that 'you don't get books from angels and translate them by miracles.'"61 "Faithful disbelief" seems to be an oblique way of describing a persistent lack of faith. Unfortunately, Smith made no direct effort to explain the meaning of this rather odd expression. By "faithful" he seems to have meant something like constant, determined, dogmatic, or persistent. Whatever he meant, Smith was pleased that this student newspaper had published an interview in which McMurrin set forth his now famous dogmatism. Smith soon published his own attack on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon in Free Inquiry,62 along with a slightly modified version of the interview given by McMurrin, which contains that now rather notorious remark about the Book of Mormon.63
On Shaking the Tree of Life
On 22 July 1991, George Smith explained and defended his publishing ventures.64 The Salt Lake Tribune article in which his explanation and defense appeared described him as a "shy man," "a shadowy figure of considerable wealth bent on reshaping Mormonism by digging through its past," and a "Stanford-educated son of a cigar-smoking United Parcel Service executive." The Tribune depicted Smith, whom it identified as "Signature's president and longtime benefactor," as someone "committed to unfettered historical inquiry," who was therefore "the darling of like-minded scholars, but the scourge of Mormon traditionalists whose mandate is to write 'faithful history'—defined by Apostle Boyd K. Packer . . . as history that bolsters belief and avoids awkward or embarrassing detail." In this context, the word benefactor suggests patron or financial backer. Allen Roberts, then a member of the Signature board of directors, is quoted as saying that "there's an impression out there that he's running a one-man show." Roberts explained that this is partly true—"it is on the financial side, but on the editorial side it's not."65
Anderson quoted Smith as saying that he is "willing to shake the tree, and perhaps others don't like to shake the tree because it is sacred."66 What "tree"? In a Latter-day Saint context, this remark would seem to make sense if one had in mind Alma's comparison of the word of God to a seed, which if properly nourished will grow into a tree of life from which eventually a most precious fruit—the fruit of the tree of life, or eternal life—can be harvested (Alma 32:28-43). Understood in this way, the tree is, of course, sacred to the faithful, just as Smith said, but not to those who mock from the sidelines—in George Smith's words, those eager to "shake the tree."67
Mocking Marriage; Leveraging Laxity
In essays he has published in Free Inquiry, George Smith has discoursed about humanist slogans,68 although he has focused most of his attention on polygamy, a topic with which he seems somewhat obsessed.69 He tends to focus on what he clearly believes were the disgusting motives and evil consequences of that practice in the early church. But there is a paradox in this.
In what comes close to being an official Signature Books account of a rather instructive incident that took place early in 1990, Bergera reports that "since 1989" Elbert Peck "had been running an occasional column [in Sunstone], entitled 'A Changed Man,' by former Sunstone staffer Orson Scott Card."70 Peck is said to have
felt that Card, a nationally award-winning science fiction writer, brought a thought-provoking conservative voice to the magazine. Card's fourth column, which appeared in the February 1990 issue, was called "The Hypocrites of Homosexuality." In it, Card declared that "the Church has no room for those who, instead of repenting of homosexuality, wish it to become an acceptable behavior in the society of the Saints. They are wolves in sheep's clothing, preaching meekness while attempting to devour the flock." He continued, "If we accept the argument of the hypocrites of homosexuality that their sin is not a sin, we have destroyed ourselves."71
Bergera indicates that "Signature Books, which distributes the magazine to bookstores and other retailers, informed Sunstone that if it continued to publish, in Signature's view, such irresponsible opinions, it might need to find another distributor."72 This might be seen as an instance of a threat to use economic power to leverage others into following what appears to be the Signature party line on homosexuality. While Signature seems obsessed by what they see as the evils of the plural marriage once practiced by the Saints, they condemn as "irresponsible opinions" objections to homosexual behavior.
Appearing Balanced; Privileging Revisionist History
Card points out that Signature publishes some solid essays for the same reasons that Peck seems to have published a column by Card—that is, as part of an effort to market its product to the faithful. This has resulted in some anomalies. At approximately the same time that Signature had its attorney protest about what he termed libel in three essays critical of books issued by Signature, George Smith had Bergera put together an anthology assessing various ways of writing about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Mormon past generally. The end result was a book consisting of sixteen rather diverse essays.73
Bergera assembled some previously published essays setting out opinions more or less supporting the Signature ideology,74 as well as essays by Martin E. Marty and Edwin S. Gaustad, both prominent American church historians. Bergera had difficulty getting Richard L. Bushman—whose essay entitled "Faithful History" (first published in 1969) provided the title for the anthology—as well as Neal Kramer, David Bohn, and me to agree to participate in the undertaking. I insisted that we must know in advance the parameters of the project and that page proofs be provided prior to publication. No changes were made in Bushman's essay, but other authors were hassled by Signature editors seeking to manipulate the published form of their essays. Since the essays by Marty and Gaustad also did not support the Signature agenda, two revisionist essays not in the original table of contents were added to the anthology.75
The end result, despite the editorial mischief, was a reasonably good collection of essays dealing with important issues. But one would not know this from Smith's introduction.76 Unlike his previous claim that, among other weaknesses, the traditional history written by faithful Saints "avoids awkward or embarrassing detail," George Smith distinguished two meanings that can be attached to the expression "faithful history": the "history written to express and support religious faith," which he mocks, "and history that attempts to be faithful to the past."77 He neglected to mention that neither Bushman, who gave us the expression "faithful history," nor any of the others whom Smith describes as "traditional Mormon historians," believes that one of these is possible in the absence of the other.78 Instead, Smith denigrates what Bushman calls "faithful history" by linking it with "traditional narratives of the supernatural [that] have usually been taught as factual events"79 and by insisting that the brand of history he favors strives to see "Mormonism as part of American religious experience"80—that is, as a mere manifestation of some larger flux of secular forces and consequently not what the faithful have always believed it to be. For Smith, the work of those he labels "professional Mormon historians" has produced what he describes as a "New Mormon History,"81 which clearly includes for him efforts to argue that the Book of Mormon is frontier fiction and not an authentic ancient text, with all that implies for the faith of the Saints.
George Smith asserts that "traditional Mormon historians" "typically reject compromises, such as the view that a mythical Book of Mormon can evince religious authenticity as 'inspired redaction.'"82 Thus he seems willing to allow the possibility that Joseph Smith might have produced frontier fiction that could simultaneously contain some inspiring passages. Unfortunately, from his perspective, the Saints have wrongly believed that this book is an authentic ancient history and also a divine special revelation. Joseph Smith simply could not possibly have made available to us a genuine ancient history.
When the Encyclopedia of Mormonism appeared in 1992, Sterling McMurrin objected that "the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is taken for granted."83 In addition, "The Encyclopedia is saturated with references to the Book of Mormon, reflecting" what McMurrin took as "the recent church movement to give that work greater attention."84 McMurrin then added the following:
In his excellent Sunstone lecture, "The Book of Mormon as Seen in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism," which should be read by anyone interested in the nature of the Encyclopedia, George D. Smith has indicated that the Encyclopedia contains about 200 articles dealing with the Book of Mormon. In his treatment of this subject, Smith writes that "editorial selectivity favoring orthodoxy prevails throughout the encyclopedia."85
The essay to which McMurrin referred was soon published in Sunstone.86 Because the Encyclopedia does not offer revisionist explanations of the Book of Mormon, Smith claims that it "is not the promised comprehensive treatment of Book of Mormon scholarship; it is a statement of LDS orthodoxy."87 Instead, according to Smith, "it consciously omits important scholarship, but does comprehensively present orthodox views of the Book of Mormon."88 What follows in Smith's essay is a kind of litany of secular anti-Mormon objections to the Book of Mormon, many of which repeat the objections Smith had previously published in Free Inquiry and elsewhere.89 He seems to have wanted the Encyclopedia to detail and extol objections to the Book of Mormon.
Some "Strange Bedfellows"
In addition to his writings in Free Inquiry, there are several other indications
of personal and ideological links between Paul Kurtz and George Smith. For example,
Kurtz celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Free Inquiry by describing some
of the great moments in his career as an atheist activist,
Kurtz described George Smith as "a lifelong member of the church" but more accurately as one who "provides a detailed critical examination of Joseph Smith and his claim that the Book of Mormon was divinely inspired."92 He described McMurrin "as one of the leading Mormons in America"93 and as "a Mormon since birth, who questions the treatment of the history of the church by Mormon authorities."94
On 6-8 July 2001 the editors of Free Inquiry sponsored another conference on Mormonism entitled "Mormon Origins in Ingersoll Land."95 They combined a celebration at the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, which is located at "the birthplace of freethought firebrand Robert Green Ingersoll," with the musings of "an expert panel" on "the founding of the Mormon religion and the publication of the Book of Mormon, which took place in nearby Palmyra, New York, in 1830." They also attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant. "No freethought event," they reported, "has offered so immediate an experience of Mormonism in action." In the language one expects to find in the hype of a travel brochure, the atheists who attended this event were encouraged to "rub shoulders with Mormons from all across America" and to be "affable when you turn . . . down" efforts at conversion. They were also instructed to "marvel at Christian missionaries who throng pageant gates struggling to 'deconvert' passing Mormons."
Those who reflected on Mormon origins at this "once-in-a-lifetime experience" included Flynn, who, in addition to being the senior editor of Free Inquiry, is also the director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Flynn's remarks were entitled "A New Religion under History's Microscope," and he was immediately followed by George Smith, who lectured on "The Mormons: Pathology, Prognosis, and Why They Are Going to Eat Our Lunch." Smith's remarks were followed by a lecture entitled "Scrying for the Lord: Magic, Mysticism, and the Origins of the Book of Mormon," by Clay Chandler,96 who was at that time managing the Web site for Dialogue. His brother Neal Chandler—then coeditor (along with his wife) of Dialogue—followed with his own comments on "Recent Scholarship on Mormon Origins."
The final talk at this conference on "Mormon Origins" was given by Robert M. Price, who read a paper entitled "Nephites and Neophytes: The Book of Mormon as a 'New' New Testament." It should come as no surprise that those at Signature Books recruited Price from among the stable of secular humanist speakers assembled by Kurtz to assist them in their most recent attack on the Book of Mormon.97 Price began his career as a born-again fundamentalist, but then he did a radical flip-flop98 and is now a fellow of the Weststar Institute, which sponsors, among other things, the controversial Jesus Seminar mode of explanation of Christian origins. He edits the Journal of Higher Criticism and is a fellow at the Center for Inquiry, which is a Council for Secular Humanism front organization operating in the New Jersey/New York City area. He was also once the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, which must be a rather "liberal" congregation, given his essentially atheist ideology.
Some Strange "Dialogues"
According to Paul Kurtz, the Council for Secular Humanism has "convened two important dialogues—between Mormons and humanists in Salt Lake City, and Baptists and humanists in Richmond, Virginia. They were the first such dialogues ever held."99 Both of these events have included George Smith speaking for the humanists. If one were to grant that both Baptists and secular humanists have their own faith and were also inclined to employ a trendy new terminology, then these events might be seen as interfaith dialogues. However, the dialogue between atheists and Baptists was clearly not between feisty, evangelizing, "born-again" Baptists and competent naturalistic humanists. Instead, it involved a few "humanists" assembled by Kurtz to console some dissident Baptists who had come to deplore the direction their Baptist denomination had recently taken and who were willing to accept the assistance of atheists in voicing their resentments.100
It is, however, unlikely that a few disheartened seminarians, even with the help of some humanists, will be able to challenge the aggressive fundamentalist faction that gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1985 "through virtual civil war"101 against somewhat more moderate fellow Baptists. The diaphanous Harold Bloom, in his typically interesting, oracular, and assertive way, has commiserated over what he thinks is a dismal decline in traditional Baptist religiosity, as those caught up in what he denigrates as a new "Know-Nothing" brand of fundamentalism have captured control of the SBC from an older, somewhat more moderate and less unreasonable faction. Bloom claims that what has taken place is an "analogue of a hostile takeover in the corporate world."102
Could Kurtz, his associates, and a few disaffected seminarians possibly imagine that this "dialogue" could change the direction being taken by the SBC? Such does not seem likely. At best, some disgruntled Baptists vented their spleen and sought some sympathy for their plight. It appears that some eccentrics among those marginalized by the takeover of the SBC by a fundamentalist faction sought at least some consolation from Kurtz and company, if not a full alliance. With the aid of Joe E. Barnhart and Robert S. Alley, two of his close associates, Kurtz drafted a statement entitled "In Defense of Freedom of Conscience: A Cooperative Baptist/Secular Humanist Declaration."103 Kurtz predictably supported the complaints of these former Baptists by appealing to some trendy slogans. Kurtz, Barnhart, Alley, and nineteen others, including George Smith, endorsed this pronouncement.104
The dialogue between humanists and "Mormons" actually involved some marginal or former Latter-day Saints or cultural Mormons including Lavina F. Anderson, Brent Lee Metcalfe, L. Jackson Newell, Cecilia Konchar Farr, Gary James Bergera, Alan Dale Roberts, Fred Buchanan, Martha S. Bradley, F. Ross Peterson, and, of course, George Smith. Kurtz, Bonnie Bullough, Gerald A. Larue, Robert S. Alley, and Vern Bullough set out a version of atheist/humanist ideology, while supporting the grievances of the dissidents. This dialogue was jointly published by Prometheus Books and Signature Books, with George Smith serving as editor.105 Since I have elsewhere dealt at length with this dialogue, I will not comment further, other than to point out again that George Smith was behind that venture, and that McMurrin, the leading Mormon humanist, unlike Newell, did not speak at the conference.106
Discontented Baptist seminarians or disaffected Latter-day Saints are, of course, perfectly free to break away from the Southern Baptist Convention or the Church of Jesus Christ; they are free, if they so desire—that is, if their conscience so dictates—either to move to some more congenial secular "religious community" or to cease being Christians at all. Hence, without wishing to defend the bloodletting that took place nearly twenty years ago in the Southern Baptist Convention, it is difficult to determine who or what is supposed to have challenged or violated the freedom of conscience of the now displaced or marginalized Baptists. Disgruntled Baptist preachers, as well as former Latter-day Saints or cultural Mormons who have for whatever reasons never really believed or have ceased to believe and who may have even adopted an atheist ideology, have full freedom of conscience. No one has taken or can take away their moral agency.
But slogans about a presumably unfettered search for truth, about freedom of conscience and "free agency," are used by dissidents to insist that they be allowed to teach or be given power to control the destiny of religious communities. It is even argued that the "liberty" the framers of the American Constitution sought to guarantee to American citizens and that was incorporated into the First Amendment somehow ought to be grounds for such a right.107 But this is just silly slogan thinking; nothing more can be said about it. No one has or can prevent cultural Mormons or humanist Baptists from being responsible moral agents. All, unless intellectually defective, are responsible moral agents faced with the consequences of their choices. Recognition of this fact does not thereby require that others with whom they chose to disagree must celebrate, encourage, or finance their heresies and apostasy. The harsh realities of recent denominational politics such as found in the Southern Baptist Convention do not conflict with freedom of conscience but are actually a sign of its vigorous exercise.
No one is or can be forced to engage in practices they abhor, at least in lands where regimes prevail that do not strive to force ideological conformity. Even in the most repressive regimes, no one can be forced to believe things they simply do not believe. That we are moral agents does not somehow mean that others must acquiesce to our demands. This is at least part of what is meant by moral agency. However, in matters of conscience there is simply no requirement that the views of those who believe something fundamentally at odds with a community in which they find themselves must be tolerated or encouraged.
And this is well understood. Do atheist propaganda fronts open their publishing venues to vigorous critical assessment of their own secular creeds? Should they? Should they be demonized if they choose not to do so? Do atheists put in charge of their institutions those who abhor atheism? By not doing so, have they violated anyone's freedom of conscience? Is there an indication that those in control of the Council for Secular Humanism are willing to authorize the use of their resources and publishing venues by those who believe in God and who are prepared to defend their beliefs? Or who are prepared to sponsor and finance and celebrate vigorous critiques of atheism? Are they somehow morally defective for not doing so?
If something labeled "freedom of conscience" or the search for truth through what is labeled "free inquiry" demands that everyone, whatever they may or may not believe, must finance or give equal time to unbelievers or others with radically different beliefs, or provide a protest pulpit for dissidents and unbelievers or others with competing or radically different beliefs, then Kurtz and company betray such freedom, as do secular and sectarian anti-Mormons generally. But atheists have not to this point made a plausible case for such a moral requirement, though they work hard to convince others that their ideology ought to officially dominate or otherwise be controlling.
And the Rest of the Story
One might grant that George Smith seems to have personal and ideological ties to Paul Kurtz and his brand of secular humanism and yet not see this as necessarily controlling or coloring the operation of Signature Books and his Smith Research Associates. But this would be a mistake, as well as naÃ¯ve, since a significant number of the books issued by Signature Books are anti-Mormon in the sense that they overtly attack Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. It is that literature that reflects his ideology and agenda. There clearly is an ideology determining what is being published. Signature Books follows closely what seems to be the line advanced by its wealthy owner.
George Smith recently set up Smith-Pettit Foundation. The purpose of this private foundation appears to be a way of both owning and financing Signature Books, perhaps to provide a source of income to help regularize the support for that publishing venture. The Smith-Pettit tax return shows that it had $8,767,866 in total assets at the beginning of 2002 and $9,291,019 at the end of the year.108 The management of this foundation has been turned over to Bergera, who also continues to function as acquisitions editor for Signature Books. The day-to-day operations at Signature Books do not appear to be directed by George Smith; he does not seem involved in the routine operations of the press or the foundations he owns. And it is possible, perhaps even likely, that his employees occasionally do things that annoy him. But there are, in addition to personal (if not financial) links, also ideological connections between George Smith (and Signature Books) and militant, evangelizing atheist propaganda agencies, including Prometheus Books. This seems significant and should be known in the Latter-day Saint community and also by evangelical critics of the Church of Jesus Christ.109 And these ideological links help to explain the books attacking Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon that flow from Signature Books.
Signature Books employees have neglected to mention to their Latter-day Saint clientele the links their employer has to Prometheus Books, or to what is currently known as the Council for Secular Humanism, and to other related atheist front organizations servicing the wider community of militant, evangelizing atheists. It is also noteworthy that those at Signature Books have been neither forthcoming about their somewhat reclusive, very wealthy owner, nor about his and their motivations and ideology. By giving close attention to the ideological nexus between Signature Books and Prometheus Books, it is possible to understand what constitutes the "common humanist perspective" found in the titles issued by Signature Books and also what is meant when prominent Latter-day Saint historians—each known for their moderation—indicate that Signature Books publishes material largely in George Smith's "ideological image."
Those at Signature Books seem to want to be known as a "dissenting imprint" and a "renegade publisher." This proclivity can clearly be seen in the "News Stories about Signature Books and Its Authors" posted on a Web page it maintains.110 This collection of news items, ranging back well over a decade, provides a good indication of what constitutes "the common humanist perspective" in the books published by Signature Books and also how those at Signature Books both understand and promote their publishing endeavors among those on the margins of the Latter-day Saint intellectual community. In those items there is much reveling in reports of conflict with the Brethren and with faithful Latter-day Saints generally, especially with those who publish under the FARMS imprint.
Skirmishes on the "Wasatch Front"
Why the passion on the part of Signature Books to demonize FARMS? Or why do Signature Books spokespersons lionize authors who have public squabbles with the church? The answer to these and related questions requires a little historical background. Prior to 1989 (though there has been a constant parade of anti-Mormon books and pamphlets), other than Hugh Nibley's early apologetic essays and a few other items, there were few, if any, genuinely scholarly or even nonscholarly responses to either sectarian or secular critics. Instead, there was, as there continues to be now, both a large and often lackluster devotional literature and also a thriving and sometimes impressive Latter-day Saint historiography, the quality of which seems to be improving. However, if we can believe one report, little of what has been written since 1950 by Latter-day Saint historians has been focused on defending the faith and the Saints.111 There are several reasons for this lacuna in recent LDS historiography.
First, LDS historians have rightly tended to view the sectarian brand of anti-Mormonism as thoroughly contemptible. They have also tended to see this literature and the movement behind it as entirely unworthy of any of their critical attention despite whatever damage it might be doing to the faith of the Saints and despite or because of the quirky personalities involved. However, historians thrive on little known or archival materials, and there is a wealth of such sectarian anti-Mormon literature. And yet, despite the abundance of textual materials upon which to draw in telling its story, virtually no attention has been given to this literature and consequently to the individuals and agencies that produce and market such material. It would, on this assessment, be a step backward to give attention to sectarian anti-Mormons or the literature they generate. In addition, until 1989 there was no venue in which scholars, even when so disposed, could publish responses to either sectarian or secular anti-Mormonism.
Second, it seems that an entire generation of Latter-day Saint historians has been taught to eschew controversy, and accordingly they tend to avoid polemics even in defense of the faith. Walker, Whittaker, and Allen have argued that "instead of defending or attacking LDS faith claims—one of the major characteristics of nineteenth-century Mormon historiography—the new historians [that is, those who began to publish after 1950] were more interested in examining the Mormon past in the hope of understanding it—and understanding themselves."112 This opinion may be extreme, but something like it seems to still be at work among historians.
Third, since Latter-day Saint historians belong to a kind of club that includes those outside or on the fringes of the circle of faith, responding to the secular variety of anti-Mormonism seems to have posed a special problem for them, since to do so would likely have led to criticism of colleagues or associates with whom they desire to maintain friendships. In addition, to do so would have involved unwanted, uncomfortable confrontations with those who entertain revisionist ideology and who often have been in control or heavily involved in publishing venues such as Dialogue, Sunstone, and Signature Books.113
But events beyond the control of Latter-day Saint historians made their situation somewhat awkward. Mark Hofmann's sensational "discoveries" in the 1980s, which eventually turned out to be forgeries, spawned a literature highly critical of Joseph Smith and the crucial founding theophanies, as well as of the Book of Mormon. When Hofmann was eventually exposed as a forger who was covertly pursuing a secular anti-Mormon agenda, critics on the margins of the Mormon intellectual community merely made some adjustments and continued their attacks as if nothing much had happened. Some venues, of course, were keen to publish such literature. Signature Books was and continues to be preeminent among these publishing houses.114
Shortly after the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon was launched in 1989, Daniel C. Peterson expressed his willingness to facilitate the publication of a literature that would be "at once genuinely scholarly and authentically Latter-day Saint."115 In addition, he also opened the pages of this Review to competent responses to both sectarian and secular anti-Mormon literature. Thus the primary difference between the 1980s and now is that for fifteen years there has been a venue willing to publish competent, scholarly responses to attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ. In both word and deed Peterson indicated that scholars interested in providing genuinely competent responses to the full range of anti-Mormon literature would henceforth have a venue in which to publish. This development has not pleased dissidents or cultural Mormons and former Saints—and least of all those at Signature Books; nor has it thrilled those few sectarian critics of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon who have bothered to acquaint themselves with recent scholarly LDS literature. To this point, anti-Mormons have responded to this unanticipated development primarily by ignoring the relevant literature.
Prior to the advent of the Review, critics may have anticipated pounding away with impunity at the foundations of the faith of the Saints. This may have been true of Signature Books, which got started nearly a decade earlier than this periodical. The publication of the Review changed all of that. By 1991, those at Signature Books could see that the books they published would receive much unwanted attention in its pages. In an effort to thwart the open and honest discussion of books containing, among other things, attacks on the Book of Mormon, George Smith had his attorney threaten FARMS116 over review essays that had appeared that were critical of a collection of essays edited by Dan Vogel.117 Waterman, an apologist for Signature Books, then claimed that "Signature was accused of being . . . 'Korihor Press,' a label originally applied to the publishing firm by a BYU religion professor in a book review."118 What Stephen Robinson actually wrote is that "Korihor's back, and this time he's got a printing press."119 According to Waterman, this "incident sparked rumors of a lawsuit; according to Signature staff their attorney merely asked for an apology."120
Apparently a bit embarrassed by their effort at legal intimidation, the Signature Books staff downplay the ploy. Why was an apology necessary, since what Robinson said, in his pithy way, was simply true? An apology for what? Robinson demonstrated parallels between the assumptions at work in many of the essays included in Vogel's collection and the program advanced anciently by Korihor. Are we now to be forbidden from employing the powerful symbols found in the Book of Mormon (for example, Korihor, the other anti-Christs, or even that expression itself) when we confront the world in which we currently live? This episode ended in a slight clarification of the language used in advertising the issue of the Review in which Robinson's essay appeared, but no apology for what Robinson or other reviewers had written.
In one of his more memorable introductions to this Review, Peterson described this effort to silence criticism of attacks being published by Signature Books on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.121 Subsequently, there have been a number of similar and related skirmishes between secular critics of the Church of Jesus Christ and those who publish under the FARMS imprint.
One instructive instance of what amounts to censorship involved Orson Scott Card, who previously published with Signature Books and had, in better times, even served on its editorial board. He had published an essay in Sunstone in which he defended "the prophet's sole authority to determine whether homosexuality is or is not a sin in the eyes of the Church. Signature's reaction was to threaten to withdraw from distributing Sunstone unless they stopped publishing me."122 "Their agenda was clear. You can attack the church under Signature's aegis, but heaven help you if you dare to defend the Church."123
It is, of course, unnecessary to review all the details of these earlier untoward efforts at intimidation and censorship other than to indicate that there has been an ongoing campaign by the Signature Books staff to marginalize or otherwise discredit those who publish with FARMS.124 And the fact is that we are once again faced with a spate of essays and books, many of which are written by those who were once Latter-day Saints but who have come to reject and attack Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. These books are often published by or linked in some way to Signature Books.125
Signature Books is hostile in several ways to those who are at all critical of the things they publish. This can be seen not only in some of the books they publish,126 but also in the unseemly attack posted on the Signature Books Web site entitled "Why I No Longer Trust the FARMS Review of Books."127 This essay was originally read at a Sunstone conference in Salt Lake City. John Hatch, its author, was partway through undergraduate work in history at the University of Utah when he launched his attack on FARMS.128 He was soon rewarded (1) by having his essay posted on the Signature Books Web site and (2) by then being employed by Signature Books to put together an anthology of essays on the Book of Mormon. But when that project failed, he was shifted to editing the diaries of Anthon H. Lund,129 and (3) he was hired as managing editor of Sunstone and also assigned to coordinate their symposia.130
A "Great Debt"?
Elsewhere I have argued that at least some criticisms of the Church of Jesus Christ seem providential, if one is of a pious disposition.131 Critics may even do the Saints a service.
For example, Fawn Brodie's criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon sent a generation of historians back to the sources and also stimulated a massive and continuing rediscovery of the Book of Mormon by the Saints. This sort of thing is the desirable, though unintended, consequence of various efforts to pull the Church of Jesus Christ from its crucial historical foundations. By attacking the faith, critics may actually help direct our attention back to those foundations and away from the charming fads and fashions floating around in the dominant culture. Also, despite the tragic losses caused by such assaults--and they are real losses--some anti-Mormon literature ends up focusing and strengthening the faith of the Saints and thereby inadvertently assists in building the kingdom.
Our critics may thus help remind the Saints that the genuine work of the Holy Spirit takes us into a world pulsing with divine power--one in which the heavens are not closed, one in which signs and wonders are still present, and one not unlike that found in our scriptures and also in the founding events upon which our faith ultimately rests. Critics thus help force the Saints to take seriously the crucial founding events and texts, which unfortunately we otherwise may trivialize or neglect. Our critics oblige us to face matters that, given our highly secularized world, we tend to downplay, ignore, or turn into conventional sentimentalities.
Sterling McMurrin liked what he saw being published by his friend, George D. Smith. He thought that "through his company, Signature Books, he and others have made great contributions to the understanding of Mormon history and sociology. The Mormon church really owes them a great debt of gratitude for what they have done and are doing, but it's a debt," he guessed, "that will probably never be acknowledged."132 Should we be indebted to George Smith and Signature Books for the publication of attacks on the crucial historical foundations of the faith of the Saints? I cannot, of course, speak for the church or its leaders, but it seems appropriate to acknowledge what McMurrin called a "great debt." Some of the literature published by Signature Books may have some unintended desirable consequences. McMurrin was probably right about George Smith and Signature Books, but in a way that he probably did not have in mind. We can thank at least some of our critics, both sectarian and secular, for helping to maintain the faith.
In addition, we also thereby have an explanation for the shape and contour of the battles that have been raging for at least the last few decades along the Wasatch Front. This expression is, of course, a common designation for the area in Utah on the west flank of the Wasatch Mountains along which there is now virtually a solid array of subdivisions and shopping malls stretching from Brigham City on the north to Santaquin on the south, with Salt Lake City at its center. The term also appears to signal something more ominous--a kind of war zone in which the faith and practice of Latter-day Saints is contested by both secular and sectarian anti-Mormons. Recently, from the sectarian side, the focus has been on Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City, where so-called street preachers, as well as those representing the Utah Gospel Ministries and Alpha and Omega Ministries, have carried on leafleting and protesting, in sometimes rowdy and obscene ways, sometimes on church property and even directly in front of the Salt Lake Temple. The protests have not been limited to preachers but have included one book publisher.
Servicing a Client
One can get an idea of the extent and dimensions of the secular side of this battle going on along the Wasatch Front by consulting the public relations materials posted by Signature Books on its own Web site.133 The news items recorded there give an indication of the motivations and agenda of those at Signature Books. They are also part of a war waged against the faith of the Saints. Those materials seem calculated to signal what potential buyers can expect to find in at least some of those books. Signature Books likes to celebrate the fact that a number of the authors they publish are dissidents, have been in battles with the Brethren, and have been excommunicated or had their memberships canceled. In addition, in an effort to sell the books they publish, Signature Books not only takes advantage of controversy surrounding the authors they publish, but also at times takes steps to generate such scandals. The recent marketing of American Apocrypha, an anthology of essays highly critical of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, illustrates this tactic. This sales campaign involved Priddis and Tom Murphy, one of the authors recently published by Signature Books.
Murphy has explained what led to widespread publicity over possible church discipline for his attack on the Book of Mormon that appears in American Apocrypha. Instead of treating his encounter with his stake president as confidential, he consciously made a decision to "go public" and thereby generate as much adverse publicity for the church as he possibly could. His intention was to use widespread adverse publicity to force his stake president to back down. This is his version of these events:
After I had expressed my intention to go public, Ron Priddis of Signature Books
forwarded my letter to Richard Ostling of the Associated Press who forwarded it
to Patty Henetz [a reporter eager for a juicy story]. Ultimately, I must take
full responsibility for my desire to go public and for agreeing to the interview
[with Henetz]. I did so because I believe that the best way to deal with
The expression ecclesiastical abuse was apparently coined by Lavina Anderson, herself a former Latter-day Saint, to describe efforts by church leaders at any level to counsel, admonish, correct, or discipline dissidents or apostates of whatever variety. Her complaints about the Brethren and about various instances of church disciplinary actions eventually led in 1993 to considerable publicity over the so-called September Six. Five of the six, some of whom were marginal at best in the Latter-day Saint intellectual community, were supported by well-organized public protests staged at stake centers or at Latter-day Saint temples. At least a few of these protests involved "candlelight vigils." The whole point of such antics was to draw the local TV stations and the press, who would be given carefully prepared press releases so that they could easily file their stories.
Steven Clark, a well-known former Latter-day Saint as well as anti-Mormon agitator, was not, as had been rumored, the one who launched the protests supporting Tom Murphy. It was Murphy himself, through his publisher, who "leaked" his story to the press. His actions generated widespread publicity about his problem with his stake president. It is true that, in his own words, he
spoke with Steven Clark and many other people before my interview with my stake president. Steven Clark played a role in organizing the candlelight vigils in Salt Lake City and elsewhere but Kathy Worthington, who[m] I've never met, played an even larger role. My students at Edmonds Community College, though, were the first to suggest a candlelight vigil. When Steven Clark suggested the idea to me later I put him in contact with my students.135
Priddis and his associates at Signature Books, it seems, actually launched their Murphy publicity through a number of press releases intended to help sell their recently released book critical of the Book of Mormon136 by generating or capitalizing on controversy about one of the book's essayists, Murphy. With the help of those at Signature Books, Murphy provided the stuffing for sensational and often distorted news items appearing in the popular press around the world. Priddis and his fellow employees assisted in organizing protests against the Church of Jesus Christ, one of which actually took place in front of the Salt Lake Temple on Main Street Plaza.
Much of the publicity given to what should have been an entirely confidential matter was generated by Signature Books to sell a book critical of the church. But there is more—Priddis paraded on Main Street Plaza in front of the Salt Lake Temple. He was there to protest an essentially confidential matter of church discipline; he was photographed carrying two signs at this protest: one read, "Thomas Murphy Burned at the Stake Center," and the other, "And it came to pass that no Lamanite DNA was found throughout all the Land."137
The use by Signature Books of widespread publicity about what should be confidential matters, and the staged candlelight vigils, began a decade earlier with well-orchestrated and publicized protests over church discipline of the so-called September Six. This is the mythology being paraded by dissidents who hope that they can force the church to cave in by protests and other adverse publicity. In addition, Murphy's students may have spontaneously invented the idea of candlelight protests at Latter-day Saint temples by those hostile to the church. They also may have been coached by Murphy about the September Six and the associated protests, as well as about the alleged "ecclesiastical abuse" by church leaders presumably intended to frustrate free inquiry in the untrammeled search for truth and so forth.
It would be nice to view things from the point of view of Murphy's stake president, Mathew Latimer. In an unusual move—which I applaud for various reasons, one of which is that it clears me of the lie being circulated by Murphy's supporters that I "turned him in"—Latimer has written to Murphy to explain exactly what his concern was in his case:
As you know, your papers are publicly available, and you have openly discussed these matters in several venues. While it may be intriguing to think that a member of the so-called "intellectual community" turned you in, I can assure you my involvement in this matter arose out of much more mundane circumstances. In the end, our discussions were never about suppressing academic freedom or honest inquiry—despite what you and your supporters may believe. It was about encouraging repentance, correcting error, and, hopefully, rekindling faith in Christ. For me, it remains so.138
In English, following a pattern initially set down in Greek, the commonly accepted way of indicating that one is against or in opposition to something, or that one is speaking or writing against something, hence contradicting, disputing, rivaling, and so forth, is by adding the prefix anti- to a word. To see just how common this linguistic habit is in English and how ordinary and useful the words are that are formed in this way, one should consult the Oxford English Dictionary. There one finds listed and explained an enormous number of English words apparently formed after about 1600 by adding the prefix anti- to various words to express opposition or rivalry, to identify a process of the opposite or contrary kind, to recognize a party or an individual as being against or opposed to something, or to point out a product or agent that strives to inhibit, limit, or counteract something.139
While the designations Mormon, Mormonites, and Mormonism were widespread in the early 1830s, the expression anti-Mormon was initially used as a part of the self-identification of those opposed to the faith of the Saints. The first published instance in which the prefix anti- was attached to the word Mormon seems to be the Anti-Mormon Almanac, for 1842, an obscure twenty-two-page pamphlet published in 1841.140 What is a bit surprising is how long it took for those opposed to the faith of the Saints to use the expression anti-Mormon to identify their opposition to the faith of the Saints.
It should be noted that there is nothing unusual about the labels anti-Mormon or anti-Mormonism. Nothing in the prefix anti- implies that those individuals or agencies linked to this compound word advocate or participate in violence or are mean-spirited, unsophisticated, evil, irrational, and so forth. When an individual or agency either self-identifies or is identified by the Saints as anti-Mormon, what is meant is merely that they oppose, dispute, or are against the well-established beliefs of the Saints. Hence it is amusing to see people scrambling to avoid the label, especially when they publish essays and books in which they clearly oppose the crucial core beliefs of the Saints. There is nothing in the prefix anti- that would justify limiting the use of the labels anti-Mormon or anti-Mormonism to the antics of street preachers, while exempting those peacefully leafleting or otherwise protesting the faith of the Saints or those who operate sectarian outreaches or ministries in opposition to the faith of the Saints. And, likewise, nothing in the prefix would exempt secular opposition to the faith of the Saints, such as is occasionally published by Signature Books, from inclusion under those labels.
No matter how mild or blatant their attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ, some critics are inclined to express surprise and alarm, even to be deeply offended, when they and their essays are identified as anti-Mormon. For example, in the paperback edition of his One Nation under Gods, Richard Abanes, even with his sense of decency and decorum and despite his obvious indifferent preparation for expressing a genuinely informed opinion on the Mormon past, continues to insist that "the history of Mormonism is rife with nefarious deeds, corruption, vice, and intolerance. So far the fruits of Mormonism have included lust, greed, theft, fraud, violence, murder, religious fanaticism, bribery, and racism."141 Are these anti-Mormon sentiments? When we recall that the prefix anti- simply means "against" or "opposite" in opinion, practice, or sentiment, then the label anti-Mormon seems appropriate. The conclusions reached and sentiments expressed by both Abanes and the author of the Anti-Mormon Almanac are clearly in opposition to the faith of the Saints. One need not intend physical violence against the Saints or their property to be staunchly anti-Mormon.
It should not be difficult for secular, as well as evangelical, critics of Latter-day Saints and their faith to figure out why the Saints consider their writings—and in some instances their tapes, videos, and other public and private activities (including costly nuisance litigation)—stridently anti-Mormon.142 On the facing page of the postscript added to the paperback edition of his book, with his ebullience showing, Abanes expressed amazement that some "faithful members of the LDS church" have characterized him as "an 'anti-Mormon.'"143 However, if his book is not anti-Mormon, then the label simply has no meaning whatsoever—there are not now and never have been anti-Mormons or anti-Mormonism, notwithstanding all the books and essays opposed to the faith of the Saints, and also the more flagrant persecution, protests, picketing, publishing of religious pornography, leafleting, legal action, mobs, and expulsions.
Evangelical critics who publish essays and books attacking the foundations of the faith of the Saints sometimes also pass out leaflets or protest when Latter-day Saint temples are dedicated. Recently, as previously noted, Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City has been the focus for some of these protests—even on church property and directly in front of the Salt Lake Temple—by preachers who, among other things, sometimes file lawsuits against the Saints and the church. These people also regularly insist that they are not anti-Mormon.144
Secular anti-Mormons are far more subtle than the sectarian variety. George Smith and his associates and employees may resent having their activities and some of the titles they publish viewed by the faithful as anti-Mormon. For personal, if not merely business purposes, they may not appreciate being themselves so labeled. But here is an irony. Priddis demonstrated on Main Street Plaza, presumably to sell one of the books just published by the press for which he works.
Is it then any wonder that Jan Shipps observes, "because Signature Books includes on its list many works that call parts of the canonized version of the LDS story into question, some Latter-day Saints regard it as an anti-Mormon press"?145 It is, of course, also true that she thinks that "this is a mistake," since Signature Books, in her words, manifests a "willingness to publish alternative interpretations of the Mormon experience" that she thinks have "provided a richer picture of the LDS past than would otherwise be available."146
But the mistake seems to be hers. She is right about the disposition of those at Signature Books, but wrong in the conclusion she draws. One can, along with others in the Latter-day Saint scholarly community, desire better written, more accurate, more imaginative, more richly detailed accounts of the Latter-day Saint past. And one can applaud the significant steps that have been taken in this direction. And, of course, Signature Books, whatever its ideology, has played a modest but not crucial role in this. It is not every item on its list but the constant pounding away at the crucial founding events—that is, the attacks on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon—that has led to its being described as a dissenting, renegade press and being made a pariah. For the ideology it espouses, it has justifiably garnered the label anti-Mormon.
A Necessary Personal Disclaimer
By identifying the personal and ideological links between Signature Books and Prometheus Books—that is, between George Smith and Paul Kurtz and his humanist operations—the "common humanist perspective" found in many of the books published by Signature Books has been identified. This, of course, has not constituted a refutation of the ideology of the owner of Signature Book or the contents of the books published by the press he owns. My intent has not been to offer a refutation. Instead, I have told a story. My historical account is, as any sound history ought to be, grounded in textual evidences. These evidences are easily available but unfortunately little known. My account differs from both fiction and gossip by being supported by textual sources, which thereby constitute the evidence for its veracity. And what I have written is not an evasion of some intellectual issue; it is not ad hominem since the motivations behind deeds, ideological or otherwise, are at the heart of intellectual history.