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Retiring BYU Professor Closes Teaching Chapter and Opens New Doors with "Witnesses" Film

Professor Daniel Peterson (Asian and Near Eastern Languages) is wrapping up his time at BYU, but his work continues as "Witnesses" hits theaters.

With COVID restrictions lifting, our community is once again enjoying activities like dining in at restaurants, enjoying live music, and going to the movies. And if you’ve been to the theater recently, you’ve likely seen trailers and advertisements for the new movie Witnesses, which tells the story of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon.

The movie’s executive producers were none other than Professor Daniel Peterson (Asian and Near Eastern Languages) and his wife, Deborah, who both played large roles in launching and supporting the creation of Witnesses.

While Peterson may have never expected to be involved with filmmaking, the opportunity came when his “neighbor and fellow ward member Russell Richins, an experienced maker of films who also serves as Director of Arts Production for BYU’s College of Fine Arts and Communications,” introduced Peterson and his wife to two other filmmakers. They began to explore collaboration projects combining Peterson’s passion for church history and their passion for filmmaking.

Peterson is founder and president of a nonprofit organization called the Interpreter Foundation, which “creates materials, mostly in print, commending and defending the scriptures and doctrines of the Restoration.” Although the foundation focuses on the written word, Peterson expanded his vision to include film.

“With my new friends, and as something of an experiment, we created a 25-minute film under the auspices of Interpreter about the late composer and Tabernacle organist Robert Cundick. I was pleased with how it turned out,” said Peterson. “I had long been deeply interested in the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, so we soon began to talk about doing something related to them, and it just grew. So now, beyond the theatrical film, we’re creating a related two-part documentary or docudrama and an accompanying website, along with a small flotilla of short features for distribution online.”

In addition to their responsibilities as producers, Peterson and his wife were involved as advisors on the “creation and subsequent evolution of the screenplays for the movies, as well as on the selection of the principal actors and on various iterations of the emerging films themselves.” Peterson has also conducted many interviews that will be featured in the future documentary. He remarked, “My involvement in this effort has been an unexpected joy for me.”

After a long tenure teaching Islamic Studies and Arabic here at BYU, Peterson is retiring from teaching this summer. “Although I'm not Muslim, I’ve always seen myself in my teaching and public speaking as an emissary for the faith and civilization of Islam and as an advocate for better and more sympathetic understanding between the Muslim world and the West,” said Peterson. “Perhaps my most satisfying experience in that regard was conceiving, launching, and, for many years, leading BYU’s Islamic Translation Series, which eventually developed into the even broader Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. The bilingual volumes produced by that effort will, I’m confident, remain important long after I’m forgotten.”