Great and Specious Arguments:
Jerald and Sandra Tanner on FARMS

reviewed by John A. Tvedtnes

[NOTE: This review was first written in June 1996, though not published at that time.  It was revisited in 2001 to adjust the wording to reflect situations as they stood at that earlier date.]*

     In the spring of 1996, I learned that the May issue of the Salt Lake City Messenger would be an attack on FARMS.  Like others who work for or associate with FARMS, I was interested in seeing what Jerald and Sandra Tanner would have to say.  Little did I know that their very lengthy article, despite its title (“Mormon FARMS Battling the Antimormonoids”), would devote the better part of 13 of its 19 pages to issues having nothing to do with FARMS.  The only pages that really dealt with FARMS are 1-5.  Page 6 introduces the reader to Matt Roper’s reference to Lawrence Foster’s assessment of the Tanners in a book review Roper wrote for FARMS, which led to lengthy digressions from the purported subject of the article, beginning on page 7 and lasting to the very end (page 19), with only brief references to FARMS interspersed with other matters on those pages.  Well, I suppose that’s a journalistic issue rather than one of substance, but since this is a review of a published item, I thought I should mention it.

     Though I cannot know for sure what was in the Tanners’ minds when they devoted so many pages of an article purportedly about FARMS to non-FARMS issues, it looked suspiciously like an attempt to use Matt Roper’s reference to the Tanners to develop another anti-Mormon diatribe, beginning with Foster’s negative writings about Mormonism and moving on to a lengthy discussion of Joseph Smith’s bad temper contrasted with Jesus’ peaceful nature (pp. 17-18).  Along the way, they suggested that Foster might have been right about Joseph Smith being mentally ill (pp. 11-15).  But more about that later.

The Status of FARMS

     The Tanners wrote that FARMS “claims to be independent of the Mormon Church yet vigorously defends its teachings” (p. 1).  They further noted that “while the foundation claims that it is not in any way controlled by the Mormon Church, it acknowledges that it has offices at the church’s Brigham Young University,” referring to five offices in Amanda Knight Hall, and “has worked closely with the church’s Deseret Book Company” (p. 4).1  I don't know why working with the book company implied being “controlled by the Mormon Church,” but I can state that the Tanners’ information about use of BYU facilities was out-of-date.  I was one of the people housed in Amanda Knight Hall when FARMS hired me in October of 1995.  We moved to our own off-campus facilities in January of 1996.  The Tanners were also not up to speed on the “protocol between BYU and FARMS” (p. 4).  It was decided during 1996 that FARMS would have to build on its own property, not on BYU property, which was always a secondary consideration anyway.

     The Tanners further implied that “Mormon Church leaders,” not wanting “to directly deal with the issues and publishing a rebuttal under the church's own name they seem to have dropped the ball into the hands of FARMS.  This was a very clever move indeed” (p. 5).  Clever, indeed, were it true, which it was not.  Until 1998, FARMS was truly totally independent of the Church and of BYU, though sympathetic to the goals of both and morally supportive of both.  To imply that the church “could have easily stopped the ‘anti-anti-Mormon’ work of FARMS” and that the “plan to build a seven million dollar building on the campus certainly points to a close alliance with FARMS” (p. 5) was just plain wrong.

     The Tanners claimed that FARMS is not only out to destroy their work, but that it is “willing to spend a great deal of money to accomplish their goals.”  They refer to the announcement that FARMS wants to construct a building to house the foundation, for which the latest estimated cost was “SEVEN MILLION DOLLARS!” (p. 4).2  They flatter themselves to think that FARMS planned to spend millions of dollars to ruin their mom-and-pop business.  It would be like using a hydrogen bomb to kill a fly.  The Tanners were also wrong in stating that “it appears that FARMS has vast resources that will be used to criticize our work and the work of other critics of the church” and to complain that “we, of course, do not have millions of dollars to fight off such an attack” (p. 5).  At the time they wrote this (1996), the FARMS Research Department consisted of six people, two of whom were devoted full-time to Dead Sea Scrolls projects, with two others (a secretary and the director of research) involved in administrative functions.  That left two, Matt Roper and me, who devoted only part of our time to anti-Mormon literature.  I can assure the Tanners and other critics that FARMS was not and is not pouring vast amounts of money into “an attack” on the critics (p. 5).  Indeed, those who review books for the FARMS Review are not paid for their work.  By 1996, when the Tanners made their claims, all of my reviews had been written before FARMS hired me, and the policy of FARMS was that staff members must write any articles published under their own names on their own time.  I was and am being paid to manage projects and provide research assistance to scholars working on those projects, not to write reviews of the Tanners’ material.  (These words, for example, were written on a Saturday, at home, on my own personal computer.)

Conspiracy of Silence or Plethora of Reviews?

     The 1996 article made me think that, when it comes to consideration of their writings, those who disagree with the Tanners just can't seem to win.  Mormons are alternately accused of having quietly tried to avoid dealing with the issues, maintaining “a conspiracy of silence for thirty-seven years” (pp. 1-2) or they are going against the advice of their own leaders when they deal with issues in the Tanners’ publications (p. 2).  If we ignore the Tanners, we are conspirators in silence; if we address the issues, we become damnable heretics.  I suspect that only acquiescence to their views would be acceptable.

     The “conspiracy of silence” was insult enough, but what about the fact that “between 1991 and 1996 there were ten critical reviews directed against our work in FARMS publications” (p. 3)?  From feast to famine, rags to riches, obscurity to limelight, and still no satisfaction.  Again, we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.

FARMS Reviews

     In reading the FARMS vs. Antimormonoids article, I got the impression that the Tanners believed that the FARMS Review of Books (formerly the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon), the journal that has discussed their publications, was a deliberate attempt to attack their work.  Did it come about because “some Mormons could not go along with the silent treatment that the church was using against us and other critics”?  Were the reviewers “disturbed about the failure of the Mormon leaders to openly discuss the issues”?  The Tanners don’t make that direct tie, but these quotes are in the brief paragraph that immediately follows the heading “FARMS TO THE RESCUE” (p. 2).  Are we looking at a link here or just more innuendo?

     “FARMS entered into the fray,” said the Tanners, “with the appearance of our work on the ‘black hole’” (p. 2).  “We are the primary target of FARMS,” they declared (p. 3).  Did I miss something here?  The Review was launched in 1989, the year before the Tanners published their “black hole” book.  Indeed, two issues of the Review came out before the Tanner book was reviewed.  In the very first issue, the editor, Daniel C. Peterson, wrote, “This Review is founded on the deeply held belief that the Book of Mormon has immense value to both the Church and the world.  The challenges of the years ahead will not be merely, or even largely challenges of opposition” (RBBM 1:vii).  “We undertake this enterprise with some concern that our intentions be properly understood . . .  Criticism in the commonly used sense of the term—and the reviewing of books written by fallible mortal authors will always entail a certain amount of such criticism—is something that our culture is wary of, and with some justification . . .  We do not intend in this review simply to stand back and attack all those who are attempting to contribute to our knowledge of the Book of Mormon.  Rather, we intend to criticize in the pure sense of the word, which goes back to the Greek krino, `to separate, choose, decide' . . .  That is what this project is designed to do.  There is value for anyone in peer review@ (RBBM 1:viii).

     The Tanners’ book was not the first to get a negative review.  I was asked to review Nibley’s Since Cumorah for the second issue of the Review.  Though I gave it generally high grades, I noted a few errors that should have been corrected.  For that same issue, I voluntarily submitted a very negative review of Brenton Yorgason’s Little Known Evidences of the Book of Mormon.  Though the author was clearly trying to defend the Book of Mormon that I also highly value, I found his evidences essentially worthless and said so.  To date, Yorgason has yet to accuse me of making him a “target.”  And, like the Tanners’ works, his booklet continues to be reprinted and sold to what I would consider (in both cases) “an unsuspecting public.”

     After reading the Tanners’ assertion that FARMS had made them a “primary target,” I checked the first ten issues of the Review (i.e., all the issues published before June1996).  I noted that 110 of the reviews were of books favorable to the LDS Church and its beliefs, 6 were noncommittal, and 58 were negative.  Of the negative reviews, eight were of four of the Tanners’ books.3  That hardly seems unreasonable, and they certainly didn’t get as much press as Metcalfe and associates.  And yet they concluded that Daniel Peterson is out “to destroy our work” (p. 3) and that “FARMS wishes to destroy the work of Utah Lighthouse Ministry and that of other ministries working with the Mormon people” (p. 4).

Mind Reading Again

     It is ironic that the Tanners objected to Lawrence Foster’s assessment of their “bitterness and sense of outrage” and their “confusion and thin skin.”  They complained that “he believes that we are driven by a very deep sense of anger.  He seems to see animosity in almost everything we do.  In our opinion, however, Foster is projecting his own anger upon us” (p. 6).  “Foster clearly desires to pressure us” (p. 16).  They objected to Foster’s mind reading, then did some mind reading of their own, being able to discern what he “believes” or “sees” or “desires.”

     In previous reviews of the Tanners’ work, I had expressed my dismay at their attempts to read the minds of other people.  They continued to do so in the 1996 article, stating that “FARMS is very concerned about our work [and] even more worried” about the work of Signature Books.  “FARMS is obviously deeply concerned that there may be a significant erosion of faith among Mormon scholars” (p. 3).  “FARMS is intent on undermining the expanding influence of Signature Books” (p. 4).  Their suggestion that Daniel Peterson and FARMS were out to destroy their work is another example of this mind reading, as is their assertion that some Latter-day Saints were “disturbed about the failure of the Mormon leaders to openly discuss the issues” (p. 2).  Moreover, Brent Metcalfe’s book “caused great consternation among Mormon Church leaders and defenders of the faith” (p. 3).  Taking up an earlier theme, they declare that “William Hamblin was so angry with Metcalfe” that he included an acrostic poking fun of Metcalfe in his review (p. 3).  The acrostic was a joke, as anyone acquainted with the situation knows.  If the Tanners were better acquainted with Dan Peterson and Bill Hamblin, they would appreciate this.  In fact, I, too, sent in a joke (not an acrostic) to Dan in a footnote to my review of one of the Tanners’ articles, knowing he would laugh and then remove it before publication.

     The Tanners again turn to mind reading when they declare that “the scholars involved with FARMS . . . strongly believe that no other organization on earth can complete with their knowledge of the Book of Mormon.  They are convinced that as far as human wisdom is concerned they are the ultimate experts on the subject.  Consequently, they are offended if anyone ignores or is ignorant of the research emanating from FARMS” (p. 5).  Now there's a mouthful!  Were I a mind reader, I might have read a lot into that.  What's wrong with the statement is that FARMS, as an organization, had and has no special “knowledge” or expertise on the Book of Mormon or anything else.  The foundation relies heavily on researchers in various fields of endeavor, some of them professors at BYU, others students, others writers or professors at other institutions.  FARMS merely provides a forum for the research of these individuals.  But the real knowledge, the real expertise, lies in the individuals, for whose contributions I am personally grateful.

     At the outset of their article, the Tanners declared that “many of those who write for FARMS view us and others who question Mormon doctrine with contempt” (p. 1).  Since, unlike the Tanners, I can't read the minds of others who “write for FARMS,” I can only speak for myself when I say that I have no contempt for the Tanners.  From my minimal personal contact with them, I perceive them as cordial, normal people trying to make a living.  But I can state unequivocally that I do have contempt for slipshod historiography—including unwarranted innuendo—whether on the part of Latter-day Saints or their critics.  The Tanners’ writings are replete with these unsavory features common to anti-Mormon publications.  I suppose I can’t blame them much for their lack of historical grasp, however.  When, in 1996, Lou Midgley and Matt Roper asked Sandra why she and her husband don’t follow the historical methods followed by the non-LDS scholarly world in writing historical accounts, she replied that “Jerald doesn't think in those terms."4  I suspect that she didn’t mean that the way it sounds, though it accurately describes the problems inherent in their writings.

Typical Tanner Tactics

     I note that the Tanners continued to use the special tactics of anti-Mormon writers in this latest three-pronged attack (on FARMS, Lawrence Foster, and Joseph Smith).  For example, it was not just any newspaper that they quote, but “the Mormon Church’s newspaper” (p. 15), not just any university, but “the church’s Brigham Young University” (p. 4) not just any book company, but “the church's Deseret Book Company” (pp. 4, 5).

     The Tanners suggested that Roper's “use of Foster as a witness against us is very unfair” (p. 6) and added that “if the FARMS-BYU scholars are going to use Lawrence Foster as an authority against us, they should also inform their readers that Professor Foster believes that Joseph Smith was an adulterer and suggests that he may have been mentally ill” (p. 16).  But this fairness only goes one direction.  Using their own reasoning, I could say that if they quote Roper on why the Tanners’ book “merits review” (p. 5), they should also tell us why Roper thought the book was full of errors.

     The Tanners noted that David P. Wright was “excommunicated from the Church.  Wright holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies and was on the faculty of Brigham Young University . . . he was fired from Brigham Young University” (p. 3).  None of this is false, but the order in which the Tanners present the information implies that Wright was at BYU when he was excommunicated, which is not the case.  Perhaps this was merely a case of poor writing, rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead but, given the Tanners’ track record, one can’t help but wonder.

     Another Tanner tactic was illustrated on p. 15, where they spoke about the tarring and feathering of Joseph Smith in 1832.  The primary source for the story is the History of the Church, from which the Tanners could have quoted.  Instead, they quote Fawn Brodie’s secondhand account, evidently for the sole purpose of including her statement that “It is said that Eli Johnson demanded that the prophet be castrated, for he suspected Joseph of being too intimate with his sister.”  The use of unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo is something the Tanners specialize in, and supports part of Foster’s assessment of them.

Joseph's Mental Illness

     By far the largest section in the 1996 article was the one the Tanners entitled “Joseph Smith Mentally Ill?”  It began on page 11 and ended at the top of page 16.  Mind you, it was Foster, not the Tanners, who made the suggestion, and they are clear about that.  “Lawrence Foster’s hypothesis that Joseph Smith may have been mentally ill would be a very hard pill for the FARMS-BYU scholars to swallow . . .  Most people prefer to believe that they are too intelligent to be misled by someone who is mentally ill” (p. 12).  As far as I can tell, this brief reference was the only tie to FARMS in this section, despite the fact that the article is supposedly about FARMS.  So it appears that the Tanners, in their strike at FARMS, latched on to Matt Roper’s mention of Lawrence Foster in a review of the Tanners’ work in a FARMS publication, then cited Foster’s opinion that Joseph Smith was mentally ill, which led to five pages dealing with this subject and peripheral issues.  One might wish that, if they wanted to provide evidence for Joseph Smith’s madness, they would simply do so in a forthright manner, rather than using an article supposedly on FARMS as an excuse to print such conjecture.

     What is most interesting, however, is that the Tanners are careful not to buy into the “Joseph Smith was mentally ill” theory.  They used qualifiers that enable them to distance themselves from the idea while still throwing it out for effect:

  • “We have always been some what cautious about promoting the idea that Joseph Smith had mental problems” (p. 12), 

  • “Joseph Smith may have suffered from an hallucination” (p. 13), 

  • if Joseph Smith suffered from seizures and hallucinations” (p. 14), 

  • “this strange incident could be viewed as evidence supporting Foster’s hypothesis of manic depression.  While one can only speculate on whether Joseph Smith inherited mental problems” (p. 14), 

  • if he was prone to manic depression” (p. 15).

     Such disclaimers cannot detract from the fact that, in bringing up the possibility that Joseph Smith had mental problems, they Tanners were using one of their most common ploys—innuendo.  This ploy was strengthened by one of their own disclaimers.  At one point, they declared “we do not feel competent to say that Joseph Smith was afflicted with manic depression” (p. 12), then go on to give evidence that this may nevertheless have been the problem, citing medical dictionaries regarding the symptoms for such maladies as epilepsy (p. 13) and “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” (p. 15).  It was like the way TV news discusses a crime.  The “alleged” assailant has been arrested, but is not guilty until proven so in a court of law.  Nevertheless, we can tell you that a high-level police source, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told us that the victim was, indeed, murdered, and that the murder weapon was found in the “alleged” suspect's car and his fingerprints were found at the scene.  So much for disclaimers and a fair hearing!

     Actually, the Tanners would have difficulty accepting the idea that Joseph Smith was mentally ill.  It conflicts with their own idea of a brilliant man who was able to pull together the Book of Mormon from bits and pieces of the Bible (including the Apocrypha) and other sources.  But, in the world of anti-Mormon writing, it never hurts to throw out all the negative possibilities you can, just in case one of them strikes a chord in some reader’s questioning mind.

Not unexpectedly, when it comes to Foster’s suggestion that Jesus, too, “may have suffered from manic-depressive tendencies,” the Tanners declared their belief that the evidence “is very flimsy indeed.”  As evidence, they contrasted Joseph Smith’s temper with Jesus’ belief that one should love one’s neighbor and note that there is no evidence that he hurt anyone when he drove the moneychanger from the temple (p. 17).  We might add that there is no evidence to the contrary, either.  Nor should we forget that it was Jesus, not Joseph Smith, who declared, “Think not that I am come to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).  I don't mean to suggest that Jesus was a violent man, only to show that the Tanners, like most critics of Joseph Smith, use a double standard when they compare Bible figures with the Mormon prophet.  To such critics, it was wrong of Joseph Smith to defend himself when attacked, but perfectly all right for the prophet Elijah to call fire down from heaven on a hundred men sent to arrest him (2 Kings 1:9-12) and for his successor Elisha to curse a group of young men who mocked his baldness, resulting in their massacre by two she-bears (2 Kings 2:23-24).

     While disclaiming ownership of the theory that Joseph Smith was mentally ill, the Tanners suggested that mental illness or epilepsy might well explain the variant versions of his first vision and why his recollection of some events differed from that of his mother.  They didn't take into account that Lucy Mack Smith was an old lady when she wrote of the events, many years after Joseph had written of them.  The fact that she was an adult at the time and he a child may also have played a role in their recollection.  As for the first vision, isn’t it time that the Tanners and others acknowledge that this is a red herring?  There are no real contradictions in the stories and they are clearly more consistent than the different versions of Paul’s first vision and the events that immediately followed (Acts 9:1-30; 22:5-21; 26:12-20; Galatians 1:11-24; 2 Corinthians 11:32-33) or the different accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb of Christ (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20).  Again, we see some real double standards here, standards that, whatever else he may have gotten wrong about the Tanners or about Joseph Smith, Foster’s assessment of the Tanners’ methodology is correct.  Indeed, I found it fitting that, in this article, the Tanners refuted Foster’s negative statements about them, while giving tacit approval to his negative views about Joseph Smith.  I noted, by the way, that they offered to allow Foster to give a rebuttal “in the next issue of the Messenger.”  They didn’t issue the same invitation to FARMS or any of the scholars whose articles and reviews it had published.


     In conclusion, I want to add a personal yet public note to Jerald and Sandra Tanner:  When you mention this review in your next publication, please don’t  say that “John Tvedtnes was angry” or “agitated” or “upset” about your article on FARMS.  The only negative emotion that I experienced while reading the article was dismay that you just don’t seem to understand what’s really going on here.  I did, however, have some positive emotions as well, for I found much of the article rather amusing, for it seemed to me born of desperation.  If this assessment is wrong, then I suggest that Jerald change his approach, for that’s the way it came out in the reading.


1.  In 1997, FARMS began to independently publish books.  At this writing (2001), only books in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley series are planned as joint ventures with Deseret Book.

2.  The Tanners note that Richard I. Winwood, who “use[d] Foster’s work against us” has been named “Chairman of the [FARMS] Building Committee” (p. 6).  Are they implying that FARMS thinks a building can be used as a weapon against them?

3.  The Tanners say that “between 1991 and 1996 there were ten critical reviews directed against our work in FARMS publications” (p. 3).  I counted only eight in the Review, so they must have something else in mind.

4.  I hope the reader will forgive my deliberately facetious tone when I say, “I knew that!”

*  FARMS was incorporated in the state of California in 1979 and did not become part of BYU until 1998, two years after the Tanners' article.