I'm not actually a member or participant in FAIR, but I thought the lineup of speakers for their annual conference was good enough that I didn't want to miss it. I wasn't disappointed. I'd like to share my impressions of the conference with you. These are my perceptions of what was said rather than objective transcripts. You'll have to wait for FAIR to publish those transcripts
if you want to follow exactly what was said.
We started the morning with Steven Olsen who helpfully explained that the Church Archives are something of a mixture between a private collection and a public library. Most of the material in the archives is available to all comers with exceptions for material that is sacred (such as the temple ceremonies), private (such as medical information on living persons), or confidential (such as material donated with the agreement that it not be made generally available).
Interestingly, there is no ideological test to get into the archives. If you can get into the Church Office Building, you can visit the archives. Of course, if you've made threats against people at the church and the church security guys recognize you, you won't get in. But beyond that obvious stuff, all comers are welcome. It wasn't so in the past. Steven showed us the sign that is now humorous that was once hung outside the archives saying something like, "Library: No Admittance." I'm glad we've entered a more open time.
Olsen claims that the First Presidency Vault doesn't actually contain the fabled items such as the Sword of Laban or the Liahona. My question is whether or not he's actually rummaged around inside. :) I didn't think so.
After each talk, we had a chance to stretch our legs for a couple of minutes. I noticed Kevin Barney running around, the only guy there in shorts. Just another reason I really like Kevin, even though I don't know him personally. He seems very comfortable in his own skin.
We heard next from Terryl Givens. My impression from the few times that I've heard Givens speak is that I think I prefer to read him rather than hear him. That said, Givens gave a great presentation. He joked about how quickly Latter-day Saints are to snatch up ancient items as proof of the authenticity of the restored church. Thus, Jesus's visit to Mary and Martha becomes the forerunner to the home teaching program and every hole in Mexico is an ancient baptismal font. That got a good chuckle from a crowd that is probably very susceptible to that tendency.
Givens topic was to trace the evidence for teachings about the preexistence through the Western world. He conceded that the Eastern world is also rich with this theological thread but that he didn't have time to examine it. Apparently, there have consistently been people popping up throughout the centuries that have championed the doctrine of the pre-mortal existence of the soul.
Givens told the memorable story about Edward Beecher (brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe) who was part of a famous preacher family. Edward knew that proclaiming a preexistence of the soul would be career suicide, but after a time he could resist no longer and published a 400 page manuscript that exposed his belief in the pre-mortal existence of our spirits. As you might have noticed, his beliefs never caught on in the wider Christian community.
When asked why the doctrine of preexistence didn't seem to gain any traction throughout the ages, Givens pointed out that the doctrine often appeared alongside heresies that the church wanted to stomp out. So, for example, the Gnostics believed in the preexistence, and so the baby got thrown out with the bathwater, in a sense, and preexistence was jettisoned along with the Gnostic heresies. Preexistence also showed up alongside reincarnation which the early church also emphatically denied.
Givens is publishing a book on this subject and it should be a worthy read when it comes out.
The third and final speaker of the morning was John Gee, who really displayed a fun sense of humor about the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith Papyri. Obviously, studying this is a passion of his, but he readily admits that most church members don't worry about it much. He pointed out that there are only a couple of verses in Abraham that ever get referenced in General Conference or in Sunday School materials.
Gee pointed out that maybe 0.05% of the people in the church believe that the Book of Abraham was translated from the papyrus fragments currently in possession of the church, and yet this is belief that anti-Mormons ascribe to us to discredit the book. Gee has been trying to figure out where the Book of Abraham might have come from. He points out some contemporary descriptions of the various scrolls in Joseph's possession and showed some really fun math to figure out how long the various scrolls might have been based on the size and tightness of the wrapping that we can see.
The upshot of Gee's presentation is that we can't use the current information to verify or refute the Book of Abraham. People have criticized Joseph's interpretation of symbols in the facsimiles, but Gee pointed out that the meaning of symbols, even important ones like deities, changed throughout the different dynasties. Since the majority of the Joseph Smith Papyri burned in the Great Chicago Fire, we'll never know exactly what was on them and how close Joseph's translation comes to what other scholars of today would produce.