(by Trent Toone deseretnews.com 12-22-16)
What's the common connection among a chiropractic specialist in Orem, an 18-year-old high school senior in Gilbert, Arizona, and a dental student at the University of Oklahoma?
The answer is they each share a deep love of the Book of Mormon and are part of a growing audience that has embraced the daily content of a website called BookofMormonCentral.org.
"They've basically made studying the ocean-sized amount of evidence of the Book of Mormon fun by creating an attractive hub with tons of sources and context that stimulates the reader's curiosity," said Harrison Salisbury, a chiropractor from Orem.
Launched last January, Book of Mormon Central takes complex scholarly research about the Book of Mormon and, with a media-savvy staff, transforms the content into something engaging and easy to digest, such as a short video or essay. The independent, nonprofit organization is based in Springville, and its mission is to "increase understanding and faithful engagement" for any reader of the Book of Mormon, according to the website.
Taylor Halverson, a member of BMC's executive committee, said the development of BMC is "a dream come true."
"BMC brings together the best resources on the Book of Mormon and makes them accessible, useful, engaging and applicable to a wide audience," Halverson said.
Members of BMC's leadership team recently discussed the website's origins, its mission, challenges and first-year successes with the Deseret News. Three subscribers also talked about why they like the website and how its content has strengthened their faith and testimony of the Book of Mormon.
Kirk Magleby, who serves as BMC's executive director, said the origins of the website can be traced back to the 1970s, when the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies was established. FARMS was absorbed by Brigham Young University in the late 1990s and eventually became part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Magleby said.
In more recent years, the world of religious studies has changed to where it is academically frowned upon to research evidence in defense of the LDS faith, which paved the way for BMC, Magleby said.
"Finding evidence to support the Book of Mormon's authenticity is no longer acceptable, it's a taboo topic. That's why it needed a rebirth, and that's why we put BMC together," Magleby said. They felt that "far too many people" weren't getting accurate information, including from various blogs and websites that weren't reputable sources. "It’s not all positive or true, but that’s the source people are using to make their decisions, and a lot are losing testimonies."
Another key person behind BMC is Lynne Hilton Wilson of Palo Alto, California. As a faculty member at the LDS Institute of Religion that meets at Stanford University, Lynne Wilson noticed a trend among Mormon students. Without seriously engaging the Book of Mormon, they were leaving the church by the time they graduated. She wanted to find a way to communicate the power and wonders of the Book of Mormon in a way that appealed to the rising generation, Magleby said.
With generous private donations, resources and a staff that includes researchers, writers, editors, audio and video engineers, illustrators, web designers, graphic artists, social media publishers and people with other expertise, work on BMC began in May 2015 for the Jan. 1 website launch.
While some of BMC's executives are Brigham Young University faculty and BMC benefits from some BYU resources and the university's proximity, BMC is independent and maintains "an arms-length affiliate relationship" with the school, Magleby said.
From plates to posts
Latter-day Saints consider the Book of Mormon a companion to the Bible as it contains the history of God's dealings with a civilization that lived in the ancient Americas. The records were compiled onto gold plates by an ancient prophet named Mormon and hidden for centuries in a hillside in upstate New York. In 1827, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. obtained these plates, translated them through divine inspiration, and published the record as the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a companion to the Bible, and it is considered "another testament of Jesus Christ" (see the Book of Mormon Gospel Topics essay on lds.org).
Perhaps the most popular feature on the BookofMormonCentral.org website is "KnoWhys," a package that includes an essay, illustrations, memes, a podcast and short video focusing on one thought-provoking question taken from the Book of Mormon. A new KnoWhy is published five days a week and promoted through all the major social media networks, Magleby said.
"We start with a good question and provide faithful answers, well researched, well illustrated and well documented," Magleby said. "We will publish KnoWhys for many years. They will number in the thousands when we are done because there are that many cool things to say about the Book of Mormon."
BMC debuted its KnoWhy app at BYU Campus Education Week in August, Magleby said.
In addition to the daily KnoWhy, other developing features include a comprehensive digital archive of textual, visual and audio resources relevant to the Book of Mormon; verse-by-verse wiki-style notes linked to the archive and annotated, interactive text of the Book of Mormon, based on the earliest manuscripts of the book. Content is also being translated into Spanish and Portuguese, Magleby said.
As it approaches its one-year mark, BMC can also measure its growing audience. As of November, BMC has more than 1.5 million video views and webpage views, more than 28,200 Facebook followers, nearly 4,000 mobile app downloads, about 2,100 Soundcloud podcast listeners, more than 1,000 YouTube subscribers, 750 Twitter followers and 650 Instagram followers.
Neal Rappleye, BMC's operations manager, described his experience as "incredible" and "rewarding." The staff often receives positive feedback from individuals, gospel doctrine instructors and even religion professors who find the material worthwhile, he said.
"This kind of feedback makes all the hard work worth it," Rappleye said. "It's how we know we are making a difference, and that is our biggest success — knowing that we are helping people explore the Book of Mormon in new ways."
John W. "Jack" Welch, a former pupil of LDS scholar Hugh Nibley who started with FARMS in 1979, is BMC's chairman and echoed the sentiment.
"This has been extremely gratifying to me. The Book of Mormon can help people everywhere and in many ways to be happy and spiritually healthy," Welch said. "It has been one of the deeply motivating principles of my life to help people to understand the truth and goodness of this volume of scripture. Helping to realize that goal in this wonderful world has been personally very rewarding and humbling for me."
"As scholars, we have learned things that have not been put into our academic paths for our own curiosity, but are meant to be shared openly and generously," Welch continued. "All of us involved with Book of Mormon Central feel this way personally about the project we have voluntarily undertaken."
Obstacles have ranged from raising funds to meeting deadlines and fulfilling expectations, but they are working things out as they go, Welch said.
"Something like this has never been attempted before, but the time is now right and the need exists to make all of this interesting information available worldwide and eventually in multiple languages," Welch said. "This of course is challenging, but we never expected it to be simple. The more worthwhile something is, the more difficult it is to accomplish."
Another challenge is continuing to appeal to the under age 30, college-age crowd, Rappleye said.
"Obviously we want to help everyone get into the Book of Mormon," Rappleye said. "While we did reach a lot of young people this year, we still feel like we need to do a better job at attracting this audience … and we are currently exploring new ideas for next year in hopes of improving our appeal to that demographic."
Suggestions and donations are welcome through the website, Halverson said.
"If anyone has suggestions for more resources for us to consider, contact us," he said. "We are eager to develop the interactive scriptures project, so if readers would like to give financially or otherwise, we would be deeply grateful."
While producing quality content, meeting deadlines and finding the right audience is satisfying, BMC's true success is measured in building faith and testimonies of the gospel through the power of the Book of Mormon.
"Our biggest success has been found in reaching and eager audience of young-minded people," Welch said.
One example is 18-year-old Jaxon Washburn, a senior at Williams Field High School in Gilbert, Arizona. Although a lifelong Latter-day Saint, Washburn experienced a faith crisis at age 12 when one of his parents left the church. Through personal study and spiritual experiences, he gained a testimony a few years later, including a witness of the Book of Mormon, Washburn said.
Already of a fan of the Maxwell Institute, Washburn quickly fell in love with BMC and the daily KnoWhy. He hopes BMC can become a prominent resource for young Latter-day Saints, he said.
"Book of Mormon Central offers readers of all levels a means to discover, learn and gather evidences and details about the Book of Mormon that can help to strengthen one's testimony in its divinely inspired origins," Washburn said. "It is both visually appealing and strong in its level of background information and research."
Salisbury, also a lifelong member of the church, primarily follows BMC through his news feed on Facebook.
"In an age of instant gratification … not everyone is willing to venture into the world of the all too often lengthy, dry and jargon-filled academic essays," Salisbury said. "But they are willing to pause their scrolling of their Facebook news feed, click on an attractive one-minute video and hopefully read the accompanying article. … Book of Mormon scholarship needed to meet people on a platform that most everyone uses."
James Cutler, who is in his junior year at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry, is also a big fan of BMC. Cutler grew up in Bountiful and served an LDS mission to Mexico before marrying his wife in the Salt Lake Temple. BMC has only enhanced his testimony of the sacred scripture, he said.
"BMC makes a vast repository of resources available to everyone, where you can find answers to so many questions that people are always bound to have," Cutler said. "Every week I can find multiple insights coming out of the KnoWhys that enrich my reading of the Book of Mormon."
BMC is a website that both rewards and confronts natural curiosity and skepticism, Cutler said.
"For those genuinely interested in learning about the more technically difficult aspects of the Book of Mormon's historical plausibility, as well as for those who simply wish to enrich their understanding of the text, BMC is the closest thing to a one-stop, go-to source," Cutler said.
Regardless of how one consumes BMC content, they are receiving high-quality, faithful scholarship packaged for wide appeal, Magleby said.
"We are making a difference in many lives," Magleby said. "I can think of few causes more worthy than helping more of God's children to feast upon the words of Christ."