On Becoming Scholar-Teachers

Kent P. Jackson and Thomas A. Wayment


Wayment: You are on record saying that one of the things a teacher in Religious Education can’t do is hurt the testimonies of students. How can we ask the hard-enough questions that help but stop short of hurting?

Jackson: I do believe it is unacceptable for anyone at BYU, or really anyone in the Church, to damage the testimony of a student or anyone else. But that doesn’t mean we as BYU teachers do not discuss with them hard topics when they arise. We do have to discuss those, and what better place is there for those difficult issues to be dealt with than within the faith-filled location of the BYU classroom? But we have to know what we’re talking about. We have an obligation to be honest with our students, and they need to see that we have faith in the Church and testimonies of the gospel and that the hard questions, even the ones that we can’t answer, are not impediments to our own belief. They need to know that we are able to navigate hard things and still remain faithful.

Wayment: Do you think that one of the defining features of a scholar is someone who has navigated the hard questions and can help others do the same?

Jackson: Certainly. I think we need to be “scholar-teachers,” because we take the time to know the sources and know the issues and are in a good position to deal with those ourselves and also share what we have learned with others.

Wayment: Religious Education has had an interesting past. What can we learn from it?

Jackson: I think we’re doing well, but we can always do better. The Lord needs each generation to do better than the one before. Anyone who publishes her or his thoughts or stands in front of a class of Latter-day Saints has a heavy responsibility to represent faithfully the gospel as taught in the scriptures and by Church leaders. But I think we always need to be aware that we as Religious Education professors don’t have authority. We are not the Church. We are not priesthood leaders. We are fellow students in understanding the principles of the gospel. So one warning that I would leave behind is that we be very cautious to make sure that our students know that we aren’t the final answer to anything. We learn from scriptures and prophets the same way our students do. The advantage we have over them is that we have been around long enough to learn the skills of gathering evidence, assessing it, and putting it in a broader context. That is something that we can do that blesses our students. And although the Church has imperfect people in it and we encounter questions for which we don’t have all the answers, I believe that the Church and its revealed teachings are unassailable. Our beliefs and practices stand on very solid ground, and our scriptures and history are evidence that God was in the Restoration and that his steady hand has guided the Church since then.

Wayment: In the Church today, when the Joseph Smith Translation is brought up, your name as a scholar is often mentioned. So you exit this place where you are a scholar of renown and a teacher as well. Tell us about how you have managed that. You’re an expert in the field. How do you bring that to a classroom setting?

Jackson: We never teach everything we know, and many of us do academic work in areas that don’t exactly contribute to what we do in the Religious Education classroom. Yet we also do research in areas that add directly into what we do in class. My study of the scriptures, the teachings of Joseph Smith, and even the history of the world provide the backdrop for what I teach. I hope that the testimony I’ve gained through my study has been evident to my students. But beyond that, the skills that one has to gain to be a good scholar definitely contribute to being a good teacher. In order to put one’s ideas in print, one has to know all the details and all the evidence and be able to present them in a credible, accurate, and convincing way. Learning those skills through scholarship enables us to teach our classes with those same tools. So in class we know what we’re talking about, we don’t say more than we know, and if we don’t know the answer, we’re not afraid to tell that to our students. All of those are skills learned by doing original research, writing the findings of our research, and bringing our writing to publication.

Wayment: Do you see a future trajectory that the text of the Joseph Smith Translation will take?

Jackson: Yes, both in terms of its use in the Church and in research that remains to be done. All good scholarship builds upon the work of others, and so I hope that people in the future will do better work than I’ve done in the past. Is Joseph Smith’s Bible translation important? The Prophet himself certainly thought so. To me it is significant that within weeks of finishing the publication of the Book of Mormon, he then took on the Bible, and he spent the next three years working on it. Altogether we have 446 manuscript pages, and who knows how many hours of work those pages represent? So whatever Joseph Smith had in mind when he was working on the Bible, we know that he understood it to be part of his prophetic calling.When he completed it, there’s a sense of rejoicing in his correspondence that shows that he knew he had accomplished something very important.

Wayment: In retrospect, Kent, how would you characterize your career and contributions? What driving force has shaped your interests and scholarship?

Jackson: When I was an undergraduate, my points of emphasis were ancient history and American history in the first half of the nineteenth century—the era of Joseph Smith. My graduate work was in the ancient Near East and the Bible. All of those areas have contributed to my teaching and my academic work. I’ve had a particular interest in the intersection of the Bible and the Restoration, and I’m not finished yet. I have more that I want to learn about Joseph Smith and the Bible and the relationship between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and God’s work throughout the history of humankind. I believe that the Restoration is a really big thing. It is grand and glorious. I believe that through the eternities, we will look back on the days of Joseph Smith and the work he did as being of incredible significance. And I think there is much more that we can do as scholars to further the work that the Lord started with Joseph Smith. Elder Neal A. Maxwell described the Restoration as “a wonderful flood of light.” In fact, it was an explosion. And very much like the Big Bang, it was an explosion of light that is still expanding and still filling our universe. And like the Big Bang, the time it will take to comprehend it and put it in context is much longer than the event itself lasted. I see a great future for Latter-day Saint scholarship that continues to enlighten the Restoration in support of the Church, its history, and its teachings.