A Conversation about the BYU Religious Studies Center


The Religious Studies Center was established at Brigham Young University in 1975 to facilitate religious studies not only by the university but also by the general membership of the Church. To learn more about this center, the Ensign spoke recently with Robert J. Matthews, general director of the center.

Q: How does the Religious Studies Center act as a resource for the members of the Church?

A: As part of Brigham Young University, the center is here to serve the entire Church. One way we help is by doing research for individuals who may not have the time, money, or other resources to do this kind of work. Anyone with a serious research proposal on a non-doctrinal topic can write us. Some of these proposals might lead to full-fledged research projects.

However, there has to be some order to the process. A member of the Church might write to the Religious Studies Center with a problem or an idea he wants to learn more about. But before going to work, we must first decide whether we can help. It’s conceivable we could receive a thousand proposals a year, and only be able to act on four or five.

Q: How are these requests judged?

A: In a sense, the Religious Studies Center acts as a clearing house. We examine each request in its own light. We have to decide whether a particular project would be an appropriate one to spend time on, and whether we have the resources necessary for us to lend the assistance requested. Often, someone else has already done work on a subject, so we can refer the member to them.

The center has an executive committee that makes those judgments. The committee acts under the direction of William E. Evenson, who is also associate academic vice-president.

Q: How would an individual member approach the center with a request?

A: The requests we handle could be in the form of a question or a suggestion for research. We might be asked to evaluate work someone has already done. In either case, inquiries should be sent to: Donald Q. Cannon, Associate General Director of the Religious Studies Center, 156 Joseph Smith Building, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602. Requests will be evaluated individually, and priorities assigned on the basis of what we have time to do.

Q: Is the research done by the Religious Studies Center always religiously oriented?

A: We anticipate that everything we do will somehow enlarge our knowledge of religion and strengthen our commitment to the gospel as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. We look upon the Religious Studies Center as a teacher support system. Unless we can see something in a proposed project that would be of benefit to LDS teachers and benefit the progress of the Church, we would probably not give that project top priority.

The areas we normally deal with include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, LDS Church history, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and Ancient Studies. We also have another category called Special Projects.

Q: Exactly how does the center function?

A: Each of the areas named has a director who is relieved of a third of his regular teaching load to allow him time to do two things: first, do research himself, and second, sponsor research among other faculty members in many disciplines. Too, we sometimes use the services of people away from BYU who have expertise in various areas. When necessary, we call on them for help.

President Jeffrey R. Holland has given us a charge that we should do serious research on a wide range of significant religious topics. He insists that our research be accurate and that it receive a review from other scholars so that what an individual is saying or doing is judged to be of worth.

Q: What kind of projects is the center currently involved in?

A: Every year we have one or two symposia that deal with major religious subjects. We recently held a very successful Book of Mormon symposium in which we examined First Nephi. Next year we’ll do Second Nephi. This Book of Mormon symposium will be an annual event we’ll continue for several years until we’ve gone through the Book of Mormon. Monte S. Nyman, an associate dean of Religious Education, is the director of that area and has done some very good work. Paul R. Cheesman, now retired, was Brother Nyman’s predecessor and did considerable research on the external evidences of the Book of Mormon and also produced some valuable motion pictures on the subject.

H. Donl Peterson is director of the Pearl of Great Price area. He is currently doing some very original research on the background of the papyri of the Book of Abraham—its long route from the tomb in Egypt to the hands of Joseph Smith.

Each of the center’s directors has a project of his own he’s working on. Larry C. Porter, director of LDS Church history, and others have been doing work on early LDS history in the New York period. With the British sesquicentennial coming up in July 1987, his office has aided others in researching Wales and other areas in Great Britain.

Richard L. Anderson, directing the Bible area, has sponsored a symposium on the New Testament. He’s also doing research on Church history and biblical subjects.

Larry E. Dahl, recently appointed to direct the center’s Doctrine and Covenants area, is doing research on that topic and also sponsoring research by others relating to the Doctrine and Covenants. He plans to do a special study on the Lectures on Faith.

Q: What is included in special projects?

A: This encompasses any work that might be requested by a General Authority or a research project that doesn’t fit one of the other categories. John W. Welch is the director.

One area that we are interested in is early Christianity. There is not enough known about the formation and the history of the Church from the time of Christ until the fourth century. We’re very interested in tapping the services of people who can search out and document what happened to the Church in those first four centuries.

Another exciting project we hope to see published sometime in the future is a multivolume “encyclopedia of Mormonism,” dealing with LDS doctrine, history, and culture.

We have so much going on it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s underway, but many of these projects will be published eventually. That’s the end goal. We produce two or three major publications each year. The most recent one off the press resulted from a symposium titled, “Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints.”

These publications can be obtained in any major bookstore where LDS books are sold.

In September, we published our first quarterly newsletter. Donald Q. Cannon, who is an associate dean of Religious Education and associate director of the center, along with S. Kent Brown, who is the center’s assistant director in charge of publications, are the chief editors and compilers of the newsletter.

Q: Who receives these newsletters?

A: All faculty members at BYU and the institutes of religion receive copies. One copy is sent to every seminary teacher and every active LDS chaplain in the military. The newsletter is sent throughout the Church Educational System—to Ricks College, BYU—Hawaii, the LDS Business College, and to anyone else who expresses an interest.

Q: Does the center limit its research to LDS subjects, or is it interested in all religions?

A: Of course, we focus on the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, but we are interested in all aspects of religion. C. Wilfred Griggs, director of Ancient Studies for the center, has done considerable work excavating a cemetery in Egypt. He’s doing some research in that country, dating back to around the fourth century, A.D., which we expect will give us new insights into early Christianity. He is also planning to go to Great Britain and study early Roman settlements there. He’s probing the theory that the Roman Legions introduced Christianity in the British Isles in the second or third centuries after the time of Christ.

In 1983, the Religious Studies Center sponsored a seminar on Islam under the direction of Spencer J. Palmer. We think this is the first time the university had reached out formally to have a symposium on this world religion. We brought in people—including Muslims—from other countries, and we also used Latter-day Saints who have special knowledge and expertise in Islam. The result of the two-day seminar was a book titled Mormons and Muslims.

In October 1986, Spencer Palmer, under the auspices of BYU’s David Kennedy International Center, sponsored a symposium on the religions of sub-tropical Africa. The Religious Studies Center was a cosponsor.

Q: How large is the center’s faculty?

A: When the Religious Studies Center was begun twelve years ago by Jeffrey Holland (then dean of Religious Instruction), it was a relatively small operation. It has been enlarged twice, including a significant increase this past year. All activities, of course, are under the overall direction of President Jeffrey R. Holland, vice-president Jay R. Ballif, and associate vice-president William E. Evenson.

Today, we have nine faculty members, who work up to half time at the center, and three full-time secretaries. We also employ a number of part-time research assistants.

As the director, I’m charged to see that the time, money, and human resources of the university are used in a way that the research done will be productive and helpful to the University and the membership of the Church.

[photo] Robert J. Matthews (center), director of BYU’s Religious Studies Center, with Donald Q. Cannon (left), associate general director, and S. Kent Brown (right), assistant general director. (Photography by Marty Mayo.)