The Maxwell Institute both gathers and nurtures disciple-scholars.
As a research community, the Institute supports scholars whose work inspires and fortifies Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engages the world of religious ideas.
“A Research Community of Disciple-Scholars,”
by J. Spencer Fluhman, executive director*
Elder Neal A. Maxwell, our institutional namesake, provided what surely amounts to our institutional credo in an essay he published in 1995. “For a disciple of Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “academic scholarship is a form of worship.”1 Accordingly, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship dedicates itself to gathering and nurturing the kinds of scholars who seek that meeting place between the study of religion and the disciplined practice of it. Put another way, together we seek that space—in turns challenging and transcendent—where study and faith work together to ascertain truth. As with all other units at Brigham Young University, we are inspired and provoked by the revelations that frame Elder Maxwell’s memorable phrasing, perhaps chief among them the excerpt from Joseph Smith’s 1832 “Olive Leaf” revelation that so marvelously blurred the rational and the revelatory: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”2
Our part in that aspirational university mission is to be the unit on campus dedicated solely to research on religious topics. For the most part, we do not teach. We do not house a large number of permanent faculty. Instead, we provide what comes so rarely to scholars in regular academic departments: time and a research community. That is, the Maxwell Institute functions as a hub, a gathering place, where scholars dedicate themselves wholly to research and writing about religion, surrounded by others engaged in related fields.
We think of the Institute like a prism. A steady stream of scholars from BYU and around the region and nation come through the Institute, bringing with them energy, expertise, inspiration, and insight. The “magic” comes with gathering them together. Out of this community springs an array of remarkable effects, which we are excitedly still discovering. Publications, relationships, influence—these and more stream from the kinds of collaborations and events we convene.
We have several permanent scholars and a larger number of visiting scholars who come for a season. Together they form a dynamic and brilliant mix of minds dedicated to the study of religion in the context of Latter-day Saint faith and practice. We call these researchers “disciple-scholars,” a designation lifted from Elder Maxwell’s essay quoted above and the title of the collection where it appeared, presumably chosen by its editor, Elder Henry B. Eyring. That hyphenated phrasing conveys something of the opportunity that falls to each scholar at the Institute. Were one a disciple only, one could reasonably ignore the life of the mind and the various academic fields related to religion. On the other hand, were one a scholar only, one could conceivably treat secular academic life as preeminent and approach religious practice and belief as mere objects of study. Given our hyphenated commitments at the Institute, however, neither part of the pairing can be ignored. Both demand careful attention here.
It falls to each scholar to determine how best to communicate to the various audiences interested in these matters. We are convinced, however, that real influence and good can come when we consider both LDS and scholarly audiences and communicate meaningfully with each. Both audiences demand different skills and sensitivities, after all. Academic audiences expect specialized training and technical language. They require wide knowledge and competence with current theories and broad questions. Conversely, LDS audiences share with disciple-scholars convictions about certain texts or voices having unique authority and spiritual illumination. Both care deeply about the moral and spiritual dimensions of this or that theory or argument. LDS audiences want to know how scholarly conversations relate to their faith. Writing for both audiences at once demands rare skill indeed, so we ask our scholars to be conscientious about when and how to write for each.
We believe our influence with Latter-day Saint readers consists chiefly in the reasons we provide for faith. We work in the conviction that religious life is deepened and broadened when rigorously considered. Through our comparative work with other religious traditions, LDS readers are better able to discern what we share with neighbors outside the faith and what stands out as the Restoration’s unique contributions. Conversely, we influence scholarly audiences through scholarship that meets the highest academic standards. Many thousands of university students encounter LDS ideas, texts, and history in courses across the nation and globe each year. We pursue meaningful engagement with the fields and scholars behind those courses to help shape the perceptions of those eventual millions worldwide. Accuracy, balance, and understanding in those settings are only possible if we have seats at academic tables.
Consider a personal example—two of my own works. I am currently writing a book on the life of Elder James E. Talmage. Though the topic is of obvious interest to Latter-day Saints, I intend it for a scholarly audience and as a result opted to pursue publication with an academic press (the work is under contract with Oxford University Press). Accordingly, the manuscript must meet the standards of scholarship at a secular press, including non-LDS academic peer review, specialized scholarly language and tone, and a familiarity with academic concerns that may or may not be meaningful to LDS readers, including comparisons with non-LDS contemporaries, connections with non-LDS ideas, and so forth. For a much different audience, I recently published an article in the Church’s Ensign magazine entitled “The Triumph and Glory of the Lamb: Doctrine and Covenants 76.”3 In it I write as a scholar and not a Church leader, but my language and main concerns are LDS-specific and not intended primarily for professional colleagues outside the Church. There are different conventions and rules for each audience. Disciple-scholars, if they are to wield influence for good in either the Church or their professional circles, must know how to navigate those differences well. If not, they risk connecting with one but not the other. Disciple-scholars strive to become “bilingual,” in other words, as President Spencer W. Kimball described in his classic 1975 devotional address at BYU: “As scholars you must speak with authority and excellence to your professional colleagues in the language of scholarship, and you must also be literate in the language of spiritual things.”4
The Institute’s main focus is cultivating a community of disciple-scholars, but fruits of that cultivation also include books, periodicals, video, and audio material. The Institute publishes some of what our disciple-scholars produce, but we expect that they will place much of their work in other venues. We are busy making strategic partnerships with presses—both academic ones and those oriented toward LDS audiences—that can publish what our scholars produce. We use our Maxwell Institute publishing imprint for a significant book series called “Living Faith” and for three periodicals: the Mormon Studies Review, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. Our Living Faith series invites LDS scholars to face the Saints as fellow members of the body of Christ: “Living Faith books are for readers who cherish the life of the mind and the things of the Spirit. Each title is a unique example of faith in search of understanding, the voice of a scholar who has cultivated a believing heart while engaged in the disciplines of the Academy.”5
In addition, we host lectures, colloquia, and conferences related to disciple-scholarship on religion. Most of these events can be viewed via videocast shortly thereafter. Indeed, our Maxwell Institute Podcast, our blog, a YouTube channel, and a variety of social media outlets (including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) make our scholars and events available to a wide audience. We also publish a monthly e-newsletter. Please follow us on your preferred outlet!
The Institute’s future is bright. We are working hard to be worthy of the name it bears. Each day when I enter the Institute, I pass Elder Maxwell’s apostolic portrait, a generous gift of the Maxwell family that hangs in our lobby. It never fails to inspire and motivate me. His blend of brilliant engagement with the world of words and ideas and his profound discipleship form the model for our aspirations. In the end, we are convinced that inspired scholarly endeavor is integral to the work of the Restoration. The challenge and opportunity of our time rests in refusing either to abandon the life of faith for modernity’s charms or, conversely, to turn one’s back on the secular world of scholarship and thereby fail to help shape it. To be simultaneously scholar and disciple marks the more challenging but more rewarding and consequential path. We gladly claim it as our own in the service of Brigham Young University and the Latter-day Saints.
*Adapted from Fluhman’s essay of the same name in the Institute’s 2016–17 Annual Report.
1. Neal A. Maxwell, “The Disciple-Scholar,” in On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, ed. Henry B. Eyring (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995), 7.
2. Doctrine and Covenants 88:118.
3. J. Spencer Fluhman, “The Triumph and Glory of the Lamb: Doctrine and Covenants 76,” Ensign, October 2017, 64–71.
4. Spencer W. Kimball, “The Second Century of Brigham Young University,” in Classic Speeches: 22 Selections from Brigham Young University Devotional and Fireside Speeches (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1994), 1:136–37.
5. This language appears in the front matter of each Living Faith title. Learn more about the Living Faith series at mi.byu.edu/livingfaith.
6. The essay is also featured in J. Spencer Fluhman, Kathleen Flake, and Jed Woodworth, eds., “To Be Learned Is Good”: Essays in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2017), 295–306.