What the heck is apologetics and who is apologizing?
Apologetics is a weird word because it means the opposite of apologizing. Rather than an expression of remorse, apologetics actually means a defense of a position. Blame it on the Greeks. Apologetics have a largely negative reputation within disaffected and critical Mormon circles; seen by many as mental gymnastics that begin with a conclusion, rather than allowing the evidence lead where it may. That is sometimes the case. At its worst, apologetics are seen by critics as dishonest attempts to justify past scandals and perpetuate a false narrative.
So why would I recommend reading apologetics?
People who tend to be concrete thinkers and analytical types are often unsatisfied by the more nuanced, gray-area approaches of philosophy, theology, and secular-academic writing. They want a direct response to critical claims made against the foundational events of Mormonism. For example, when a critic points out the frequent usage of King James Bible passages in the supposedly ancient Book of Mormon, they don’t want to hear a lecture on the nebulous nature of Holy Writ. Instead, they want to know why these anachronistic passages are in the Book of Mormon when its ancient Nephite authors certainly wouldn’t have had access to the King James Bible. They want a rational, evidence-based response, which is what apologists attempt to provide.
Much of what the Church produces can be classified as a form of apologetic writing. It’s only natural that any institution would defend itself. However, it is important to understand what the official stances of the church are on challenging topics. For this reason, the best starting point is the Gospel Topics Essays. These essays offer approved responses to commonly challenging topics such as polygamy, race and the priesthood, multiple accounts of the First Vision, and the translations of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham. These essays were drafted under the consultation of commissioned experts on each topic, and approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The essays can also be found on the Gospel Library app under the “Church History” section.
A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, edited by Laura Harris Hales, takes a similar approach to the Gospel Topics Essays, but goes deeper and covers a broader range of topics. All of the contributors to A Reason for Faith are well-respected scholars, and many of them are not typically considered to be apologists.
Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt, by Michael Ash, offers a more traditional apologetic approach by responding directly to a wide variety of criticisms of the foundational claims of Mormonism as well as defending the practice of apologetic scholarship. In response to the widely read and critical Letter to a CES Director (or CES Letter, as it is popularly called), Michael also published Bamboozled by the CES Letter, which offers a point-by-point rebuttal.
FairMormon is a non-profit organization that was created to answer criticisms against the claims of Mormonism on a wide variety of topics posted on their website. In addition, FairMormon has published the testimonies of dozens of highly respected LDS scholars and academics in a variety of fields. FairMormon also hosts an annual conference as well as a podcast, and has published several books, such as Michael Ash’s Shaken Faith Syndrome.
Similar to FairMormon, The Interpreter Foundation is a non-profit organization whose aims is to promote scholarship in defense of Mormonism. The Intepreter Foundation’s main production is Interpteter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, edited by Daniel C. Peterson. Interpreter publishes new content weekly on its website, and makes an anthologized print journal available annually.
Book of Mormon Central was formed by Jack Welch, a notable LDS scholar who was famed for discovering an ancient Hebrew form of writing, called chiasmus, in the Book of Mormon. Book of Mormon Central seeks to be a one-stop-shop for all apologetic and faith-affirming material related to the Book of Mormon. They produce a regular video series titled KnowWhy, which are short videos aimed at a general audience covering topics related to the Book of Mormon, many of which are responding indirectly to common criticisms. Book of Mormon Central also recently published a book titled Knowing Why: 137 Evidences That the Book of Mormon Is True that anthologized much of their video content in print form. Additionally, Book of Mormon central hosts regular events and a podcast.
Brant Gardner is an anthropologist who specializes in Mesoamerica. The majority of his work focuses on placing the Book of Mormon historically and culturally into a Mesoamerican setting. His award-winning title, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History, is considered to be a high-mark in apologetic scholarship on Book of Mormon geography. His book regarding Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, has been lauded by apologists and non-apologists alike for its frank discussion of Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones in translating the Book of Mormon and Smith’s influence on the text.
Brian C. Hales is a researcher who has specialized in Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. His three-volume set, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, is considered by many to be the most comprehensive and document-rich study to date on the topic. Despite disagreements with his work among a number of critics, Brian’s conclusions regarding Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage have become the basis for which the LDS Church discusses the topic now; namely, the notion that not all of Joseph Smith’s sealings were practiced as marriages in every sense of the word; that a good portion (particularly his polyandrous relationships) were meant as “eternity-only” sealings. Brian and his wife Laura published a fourth volume that encapsulated and refined his larger body of work into a shorter, more reader-friendly book titled, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding. Brian has also maintained a website titled josephsmithspolygamy.com where he provides for free much of the content from his books.
John Gee is an accomplished Egyptologist who has dedicated the bulk of his LDS-related writings to the Book of Abraham. His book, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, has become a classic apologetic work. His most recent book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, follows up his earlier work and expands his writing to a general audience. While there is disagreement among LDS scholars over a few of John’s conclusions, he is considered by many to be the standard-bearer in discussions regarding the topic. John readily admits that the Book of Abraham was not translated from the existing papyri that the Church possesses, postulating that there were additional papyri (the “long scroll” discussed by contemporary witnesses) that the Book of Abraham may have been translated from, which scrolls were reportedly destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.