Interview Daniel Peterson

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Daniel Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, a member of BYU's Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), and a contributor to both the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) and the Scholarly & Historical Information Exchange for Latter-day Saints (SHIELDS). He is the author of numerous articles and books on Mormon history and doctrine. Here he discusses church history and the challenges raised against the Book of Mormon; his views on intellectuals, dissent and excommunication; and controversy between Jews and Mormons over the baptism of the dead. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 27, 2006.

How far do [your Mormon roots] go back? ...

On my paternal side we go only back to my father, and I baptized my father when I was 19, so not very far back on that line. On my maternal side, though, one of our ancestors is Joseph Knight Sr., and it was his wagon that Joseph Smith borrowed to go get the plates from the Hill Cumorah. So we go way back, to before there was a church. So on that side I'm very old Mormon stock. ...

And tell us what Joseph [Smith] claimed to have seen and whether you believe it; in other words, your own take on that story. ...

... Foundational to the church and to my own testimony of Mormonism is the story of the First Vision of Joseph Smith. It's a story that comes out of a very concrete, historical family situation. You have Joseph Smith, who's only 14. I think that really needs to be kept in mind; he's very young. Joseph is in a community that's riven with religious disputes. There are competing revivals or tent meetings, camp meetings, going [on] around the community. ... Everyone is talking about it. It invades his own family, with what impact we can only guess on a young boy whose own family is divided religiously. So he is existentially gripped in a certain way [by] which church is right. It's not just a matter of intellectual interest for him; he's really worried about this. He goes into a grove of trees near his home, and he begins to pray. He's learned from looking in the New Testament that you can ask of God, and God will answer.

I'm certain that Joseph didn't expect the answer he got. He was hoping for a little nudge in the direction of one Protestant group or another. But he's praying in the grove, and he notices a light coming from the sky above him and descending toward the trees. He describes how intense the light was and how afraid he was that when it touched the trees they would burst into flame. He was actually scared. This is not a reassuring moment, I think. In every angel story you have in the Bible practically, it seems the angel's first line is: "Don't be afraid. You're OK." Well, that must have been the kind of reassurance he needed. He was terrified.

“People will say ... there are topics you won't touch. No, I'll touch them, but the position I'll probably take will be orthodox. But that's not because of fear. That's because -- crazy as it may seem -- I believe these things.”

In that pillar of light appear, according to his account, two persons: the Father and the Son, as he introduces them. The Father introduces the Son, and the Son, Jesus, the resurrected Jesus Christ, then speaks to Joseph Smith, and in effect calls him to be a prophet, though I don't think he necessarily recognized that that is what it was at the time. He was looking for a couple of things. In that revivalistic environment, he was looking for the forgiveness of his own sins. ... He was also worried, though, which way he should go religiously: his mother leaning toward the Presbyterians, staying aloof from any of the churches, probably denounced as something of an infidel by some of the revivalists; he's worried about his father's own salvation. He's worried about all these things. And he gets an answer that far transcends what he had wanted, what he had sought. ...

Could you tell ... the other foundational story, which is the Angel Moroni appearing to him -- and the plates? ...

... Years have passed. He hasn't been living the way he ought to have been. He says, I haven't been guilty of serious sins, but after all, I have had a visitation from God; I ought to have been behaving a little more seriously than I was. But remember, he's still a teenager. ... And he tells the story of seeing this light appearing in his room, and an angel appears in his room and identifies himself as Moroni and says that he's going to reveal to Joseph a record -- that becomes the Book of Mormon -- that's hidden in a hill not far from his home. That vision is repeated three times in the course of the night, with slight variations. ...

The next day ... he has a similar vision again, where Moroni appears to him again, tells him to tell his father. He goes back and tells him. One of the striking things about the story is that his father believes him. The family was inclined to be religiously believing. They also, I think, had long experience with Joseph and knew him to be a truthful boy. ...

Joseph then goes to that spot on the hill -- it's not far from where the Smith family farm was -- and he locates the place there on the hill, and the plates are under a rock, which he'd seen very clearly in the vision. He gets a lever and tries to raise the rock. He sees the plates, and his first thought, to his shame -- and I think it's to his credit that he tells the story honestly -- his first thought seeing the plates was, "We're going to be rich." His family had been subsistence farmers for years. They'd always been on the edge of survival, and when he sees this, he immediately thinks -- as any of us would -- "What a treasure."

Well, that is obviously not the response that was desired, and he's rebuked for that. He doesn't get to get the plates then. He has to come back every year, at the same time of the year, for several years, until he gets the plates in the 1820s and begins the translation process. But during that period, apparently, he receives a series of tutorials from the angel. We know he was visited by a number of angelic beings possibly during that time. In some cases we don't know the details, but it's clear that he's being groomed for this role. He had to mature; he had to grow up in order to do it. ...

How were these plates translated? ... [S]et the scene for us, how you imagine what happened from the various accounts you've read.

The plates of the Book of Mormon were translated in a sense by Joseph Smith and in a sense not by Joseph Smith. Joseph didn't have the capacity to translate any modern or ancient language, certainly, at that time. A little bit later on he'll learn some Hebrew and some German -- not much, but a little bit. But the translation occurred by supernatural means, far beyond his capacity to do it.

There were a couple of means that were prepared for this. One was that he used an instrument that was found with the plates that was called the Urim and Thummim. This is kind of a divinatory device that goes back into Old Testament times. Actually, most of the translation was done using something called a seer stone. The seer stone is obviously something like the Urim and Thummim. It seems to be a stone that was found in the vicinity, and I can't say exactly how it would have worked. It may have been a kind of a concentrating device or a device to facilitate concentration. He would put the stone for most of the concentration period in the bottom of a hat, presumably to exclude surrounding light. Then he would put his face into the hat. It's kind of a strange image for us today, but it sort of makes sense if you think of a computer screen, I suppose: You don't want to be looking at [anything] against a bright background; it hurts your eyes. ... He would read off what he saw in the stone, apparently in passages of about 25 to 35 words. ...

Could you talk about polygamy, not just as another bold idea within Mormonism, but as a religious principle? Can you explian how it's tied to exaltation? What are some of the other little-known or misunderstood beliefs that are central to this religion?

One of the things that people pointed to in the 19th century that clearly distanced Latter-day Saints from everybody else was plural marriage, or polygamy, as it's commonly called. One of the functions of that was to distance us from other people. In a sense, once you had entered into plural marriage, you just couldn't go back very easily; it was just very difficult to get out of that. It created a sense of almost ethnicity, a peoplehood. ... That doctrine, I think, or that practice was never as fundamental as certain others, such as the idea of exaltation, but it's related to them. It's very clearly related to them.

One of the other doctrines [of] Mormonism that separates them from other religious faiths is the idea the family ties survive. They not only survive; they are necessary; they are essential. We're not saved as atomistic individuals; we're saved as family groups. And Mormonism in the 19th century was unabashedly patriarchal. It was a restoration of Old Testament forms as well as New Testament. ... One of the things that was there was polygamy, and they took it very seriously. It was a religious principle that people entered into as a matter of religious commitment. It was a covenant they made. It was not just some quirky passing fad. It was something they were willing to go to prison for, and many of them did, as leaders of the church.

And when the principle, the practice was finally given up, there was great agony across the church and great pain. A lot of families had been living under this for many decades, and there were people who had sacrificed for this immensely. They'd had to move to Mexico; they'd had to move to Canada. They'd had to go to outlying settlements who knows where. They'd had to hide from marshals for years to live what they regarded "the principle," as they called it then, and to suddenly have it seemingly surrendered was a wrenching experience for them, and it's one that I think we're overly embarrassed by. I read the accounts of some of the early plural wives as well as some of the early husbands, plural-marriage patriarchs, and it's clear to me that they saw this as something they were religiously committed to. This was not some sort of lascivious harem or something like that. ...

I have been uncomfortable, I have to say, sometimes, as we've tended to distance ourselves from that. These were heroic people, even if you don't agree with them. They sacrificed to a great degree to [do] something they really believed in. They believed that they had been told to do this by a prophet, and they were going to do it. What you saw in a lot of the caricatures from the 19th century [were] these Mormons living in this kind of lecherous luxury out in the Great Basin. That is simply, utterly foreign to the practice as we know it. It was rigorous; it was patriarchal; it was demanding. It took a lot to support numerous wives and large families, and it was difficult to do. ...

The mission experience: Tell me about the opening of your mission experience -- starting with the moment when your parents' distress over saying goodbye suddenly prompted questions you'd never thought of before.

When I received my mission call I was delighted, because, of all things, I had decided that I wanted to go to Switzerland. I'd fallen in love with the Alps, and thought, oh, that would be the place to go. And when the call arrived, and it actually was to Switzerland, ... which was pretty astonishing, I was very pleased about that. My father had served in the Army in World War II as an Army intelligence person; he knew some German, so it was a lot of fun. ... He'd grown up as a Lutheran, so we had had long religious discussions, but he was not a member of the church. Finally, I guess the issue of my going on a mission sort of forced the issue for him, and he decided to be baptized the very week that I became a missionary, and I was able to baptize my father. It was a real high point of my life, something I had not anticipated happening. I had just given up on him.

But then we drove up to Salt Lake City, and I was to go into what was then the old mission home here in Salt Lake. Everything was going fine. I was really excited to go to Switzerland, to be a missionary, all these wonderful things I had thought about for years. And then my father -- I remember standing in our little camper that we'd driven up from California -- my father said, "Well, let's have a prayer." And he offered it. He'd only been a member of the church at that point for less than a week, whatever it was, and he began to pray, and then he broke down and sobbed. I remember for the first time asking myself: "What on earth am I doing? I'm abandoning my parents for two years." I'd thought, well, I'll be a little homesick, but they won't mind. But he was obviously just broken up about it. I had never seen my father cry in my life. He was a really strong, quiet guy, ... and to see him sobbing and having to gain control of himself for just a little moment, I thought, I must be nuts. What kind of a church would ask this kind of thing of somebody, to split up a family like this?

Now, it turned out, of course, to be a fabulous experience, and my parents were delighted; they were so proud, and we had this great experience. I wrote to them regularly. They had this vicarious experience through me. They came over and picked me up at the end of the mission, so it was a great experience, and ultimately I don't regret any of it even slightly -- and for them, too. But there is that pain. The church does ask for sacrifices. We don't have to cross the Plains anymore with a handcart; we don't have to do those sorts of things, but it does ask things of us that sometimes are tough. ...

[Tell me about the highs and the lows of the missionary experience.]

I remember when I was serving in Switzerland, we tracted out a Pakistani banker. Now, the Swiss were not always very receptive, which is putting it mildly, to our going door to door. The Swiss home was the Swiss castle, so you just didn't get in. On this particular occasion, this Pakistani banker came to the door and said: "Mormons. Oh, wonderful. I've always wanted to talk to Mormons. Please come in." Well, this just didn't happen to us. We were as thrilled as could be. He explained that he was a Muslim, and I remember thinking to myself in what was I guess 20-year-old arrogance at the time, "Ah, what a lucky man this is, because I'm the only missionary in Switzerland who knows anything about Islam" -- which was a joke. I didn't know anything about Islam. I've since gone on to get a Ph.D. in the subject; I know a little more about it now than I did then.

But I thought that I was pretty much a hotshot at the time, so my mind was immediately going around the avenue of, what would be the best avenue of approach to this guy? So I thought: Post-biblical prophets -- that'll do it. Common ground. Muhammad and Joseph Smith. I said, "We have great news; there's a modern prophet." And he said, "After Muhammad?" And I said, "Yes!" And he said: "Oh. Well, I'm sorry. I can't have you in my apartment talking about something like that. That's blasphemy."

He was very polite about it, very civil. But we had just barely sat down. I mean, we had been sitting in that apartment for 30 seconds, I think, and he ushered us right out and apologized, but we were gone. And I remember thinking, boy, was that a failure of inspiration. That was the worst possible opening line. I could have chosen anything else, except possibly a defense of Israel or something like that, if I had launched into something like that. ...

I remember tracting out a fellow fairly late one night. We were about to go home, and his wife came to the door, and she was nice enough. We were having a conversation. It was pretty clear that they probably weren't interested; that was fine. And suddenly her husband showed up with a pistol and held it about 4 inches from my nose, and he said, "Do you see that, boys?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "We don't want you here." And I remember his wife said in German, "Mein Mann ist nicht so begeistert": "My husband isn't all that enthused." I thought, that's putting it mildly. I mean, what a strange comment to make. Of course he's not; he's holding a gun to my face. ...

You're a member of FARMS. Just briefly describe your membership and what its mission is.

FARMS, or the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, was started about 25 years ago. It began actually as very much an unofficial thing, created by scholars, many of them graduate students at the time, who were really interested in doing Mormon studies in a different kind of way. We wanted to use the training we were getting in ancient languages, ancient history, Middle Eastern studies and so on to examine the Book of Mormon on the assumption that it really is an ancient text with roots in the Middle East or in Mesoamerica. ... Most of the people involved were BYU [Brigham Young University] faculty, but doing it on their own, on their own time, no support from the university or anyone else, until eventually it began to grow. People began to donate money to it, and it got large enough that the university took interest. So the university invited us to affiliate with the university. ...

How would you characterize its point of view as opposed to the liberal dissenters, and how is it perceived?

FARMS is perceived in interesting ways. There are those who see us as absolute literalists, just rigid literalists. They're wrong on that; we're not. ... I would say that it's true of everybody who's affiliated with FARMS in a significant way that all of us view the Book of Mormon as authentically historical; that is, that it is a record of real ancient peoples who came to the Americas at a time before Christ. We believe that Lehi was a real historical person, Moroni was a real historical person, and that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by divine inspiration. We're committed to those sorts of things.

We do not believe necessarily that the Book of Mormon is inerrant. We don't believe that it's without any errors at all. ... We have a high view of the Book of Mormon, but we aren't inerrantists; we don't believe that it's infallible. We also believe -- and this is probably more important -- that a lot of ideas that have circulated in the church are just ideas. They may or may not have gone back to authoritative sources. They have to be examined. ... Unless there's a divine "thus sayeth the Lord" attached to them, we don't necessarily feel bound by them.

[Let's talk about some of the challenges that have been made to the historic accuracy of the Book of Mormon, beginning with the archaeological challenges.]

Some people looking at the Book of Mormon, even those disposed to be friendly to Joseph Smith's claims and the claims of the church, say there simply isn't enough evidence. ... Why, if there were vast civilizations there -- Nephites, Jaredites -- do we not have evidence of those civilizations? My answer to that would probably be that we do have evidence of those civilizations; we aren't in a position to recognize [that] evidence. We don't have inscriptional evidence of the names of the cities in most cases. I wouldn't know what a Nephite pot shard looked like. I don't know how we would identify these things short of inscriptional evidence that we don't have. And that's independent of the Book of Mormon.

We just don't have much inscriptional evidence from the Pre-Classic[al] Period of Mesoamerica. I would argue, though, that some of the chronology, as we're beginning to understand it, of Mesoamerica matches in outline broadly the chronology of the Book of Mormon, and that's very striking. ... But I would agree that you don't have anything remotely near slam-dunk proof for the Book of Mormon in the New World. In the Old World we do have a little bit better, but we also know the Old World a little bit better, so we're more likely to find evidence in the Old World for the brief period that the Book of Mormon covers that area.

[What about the challenges of anachronism in the text itself?]

One area of the Book of Mormon that does bother some is what they see as anachronistic doctrine; that the Book of Mormon has Christian doctrine prior to the coming of Christ; that it has seemingly New Testament doctrines appearing centuries before Jesus arrives, and it seems to be representing a form of Christianity existing in the New World where there doesn't seem to be much evidence of that archaeologically. Christianity is invisible in the New World prior to the coming of Columbus, and so those things seem like clear anachronisms to people looking at it in that way.

Of course, you have to look at the Book of Mormon in the sense that it doesn't claim to be a typical history of all Hebrews of, say, 600 B.C. This is a very schismatic, sectarian community that pulls out, that would have been a little unique. It withdraws from Jerusalem; it doesn't fit there. It goes to the New World, carrying its own doctrines and documents with it. So I'm not so worried about that claim as some people are ... that people in the pre-Christian New World were using Christian terminology seems anachronistic.

There are certain things that exist in the Book of Mormon that some people argue [are] anachronistic. Steel is an example of that, though the issue dissolves a little bit when you look at, well, what did the word "steel" mean? When words like that appear in King James's English, what do they mean? They don't necessarily mean what we mean by "steel" today. But we do have a problem with metals in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon seems to describe fairly widespread metal use. Well, I don't know if it's widespread; it's common throughout the Book of Mormon history and text, and yet we don't have any good evidence of any kind of metal industry, even small-scale cottage industry, in Mesoamerica at the time.

On the other hand, we have words for metals; you can use a technique called glottochronology where you use the technique of the development of languages. You can reason back to the evidence of words in these protolanguages in the time of the Book of Mormon suggesting somebody was doing something with metals at that period, or they wouldn't have words for them. They knew metals. But we don't have the hard archaeological evidence; we have the soft linguistic evidence. ...

Horses in the Book of Mormon would be another. You have relatively few mentions of horses, but there are some, and we don't know exactly how they were used; they don't seem to be all that common. Were they horses as we understood them, [or] does the term describe some other animal? Languages don't always and cultures don't always classify things the way we would expect. We have what we call common-sense ways of doing it. They're not common sense; they're just ours. But again, we don't have a strong case there. We're just problem solving there.

Talk about the challenges that are coming up now with DNA, what that means.

The Book of Mormon claims to be the history of a group, actually several groups that came from the Old World and emigrated to the New, and presumably they have descendants still today. The largest group, the one that still survived, was known in the Book of Mormon as the Lamanites, and various leaders in the Mormon Church have talked about people being Lamanites in Central and South America, for example. So presumably, these are the descendants of the Lamanites, the Book of Mormon peoples.

Now, with DNA analysis coming along, no people actually focused on the Book of Mormon, but the scholars trying to look at the problem of the peopling of the New World have taken samples of several thousand American Indians from various tribes, various regions, to analyze their DNA, and the DNA comes up Asian. That is, it seems to be related to roughly Mongolian peoples from northwest Asia, and this does not seem to match the traditional ideas of the Book of Mormon, which ought to be giving us Hebrew, Semitic DNA. Some people have pointed to this, and they said this is the smoking gun; this shows the Book of Mormon to be nonhistorical. My view of it is that it doesn't really refute the Book of Mormon; it refutes -- and to my mind it's good news -- it refutes a certain understanding of the Book of Mormon, which is that the Book of Mormon is the history of all the Indians, all of them, from the North in Alaska to the South in Chile and Argentina.

In my view the Book of Mormon never claimed to be that. ... You can find in print, going back at least to the mid-1920s, theories of the Book of Mormon that put it in a very small area, a small group surrounded presumably by other groups. In that case the problem changes dramatically. What you've got then is the question, would the DNA of a small group of people coming into the Americas 2,600 years ago or farther back still be detectable in a population today that has presumably been intermarrying for many generations, for 2,600 years or more? ... There are a lot of prominent Latter-day Saint genetics people, and they say no. The odds of finding that genetic signature of Lehi, or more importantly his wife, Sariah, of whom we know nothing, the possibility of finding that is very, very low. ...

The last one is -- and this has come up for a number of people who really were sort of shattered for a while -- is the problem of the Book of Abraham. Could you talk about that and your own understanding of it? ...

The Book of Abraham is a lesser-known text in the Mormon canon of Scripture. It's part of what's called the Pearl of Great Price, and it purports to be a document written by the hand of Abraham that was recovered by Joseph Smith, translated [from] a group of papyri that he recovered while living in Kirtland, Ohio. The papyri were lost for a long time, ... and eventually the papyri came back to the church, and people were saying, now this is a real chance to test Joseph Smith's claims as a translator, as a prophet: Do the papyri match up with what Joseph Smith gave us? And the answer is no; ... they don't, if you translate them in a conventional Egyptological way, give you the text of the Book of Abraham.

Now, there are several possible responses to that. The one that I personally find the most persuasive is we only have a small part of the collection. We have possibly about 11 or 12 percent of the papyri that belonged to that collection, ... so it's very possible that there was a text that would be translatable, even by a conventional Egyptologist, into the Book of Abraham, but we don't have it now. But even that seems to me not altogether necessary. We know that Joseph didn't translate in the way that a scholar would translate. He didn't know Egyptian, ... so he was getting it by revelation. That even opens up the possibility to me that even if Joseph thought he was getting it from the papyri, he may not have been. How would he have been able to know? I'm not saying he wasn't. My own preferred solution to this is to say that he was, and the papyrus is missing. ...

What they ought to be focusing on is the book itself, which I think is a remarkable thing. It has ties to the ancient world all over the place in very interesting ways, which I think Joseph wouldn't have come up with. ... I would defend it by saying, look, we've got this translation; let's look at the content of the book itself. Does it hold up? My argument would be yes, it does, and that that's where people ought to be focusing. The papyri were a deceptively clear indicator; in fact, they may not indicate anything. ...

Clearly some elders do feel intellectuals to be dangerous and a problem, and I'd love [for] you to respond to that famous quote ... [that] there are three dangers in the church: feminists, gays and so-called intellectuals.

Well, as someone who aspires at least to what some call a so-called intellectuality, that sort of worries me sometimes. Frankly, I see the danger, though. There is a danger that intellectuals will set themselves up as the doctrinal authorities in the church and try and supplant the leaders in the church. I think that's an occupational hazard in a way, that we see ourselves often as: We know more, we're brighter, and so let me run things. I know what I'm doing; you don't.

But the church isn't run by intellectuals. It's run by a mix of people, some of whom are in fact intellectuals; others are not. I tend to think that's probably healthy. My feeling is that a group of intellectuals might absolutely destroy the church if they were in charge of it. I like a line from William F. Buckley, who was once asked, given the choice, would he rather be governed by the faculty of Harvard or by the first 2,000 names of the Boston telephone directory, and he chose the telephone directory, because he felt it would be a more balanced view. ...

I think the church has struggled over the years with a sense that intellectuals can be a threat. Now, I know there are intellectuals who kind of laugh that off and say that that's just anti-intellectual. It can be. On the other hand intellectuals can be a threat. Our model of the apostasy of the early Christian church puts a lot of blame on intellectuals, some of whom I think intended to do well. The early Christian apologists meant to defend the church and make it respectable to fashionable Roman-Hellenistic society, but by doing it they transformed Christianity. They didn't mean to necessarily, but they did. ...

[Give me an example of one of those challenges that could be dangerous from well-intentioned intellectuals.]

I regard challenges to the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon as misguided. I think they're mistaken. I really do believe it's kind of an either/or, that either the Book of Mormon is historical, or if it's not, all the founding narratives of the church become ... problematized, to use the intellectual word for it. If there were no Nephites, who was Moroni? Where did the plates come from? ... Is God using deception? Is Joseph Smith using deception? Then what happens to all the claims of the church? It seems to me very hard to maintain a consistent middle ground there, and so I'm troubled by those sorts of arguments.

On the other hand I know people who are active, faithful members of the church who don't believe in the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. ... I'm not in a hurry to throw them out. I would like to convince them otherwise, but as long as they're doing their home teaching and doing the things they should be doing and raising their children well, I see no reason to take action against them, unless they begin to teach and advocate that in church meetings. ...

Reuben Clark's famous quote: "If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed." Talk to me about that quote.

Yeah, there's a statement that's been repeated several times by a number of church leaders somewhat to the effect that we have the truth, and we can't be harmed by investigation; if we don't have the truth, then what we're teaching ought to be harmed. I would tend to agree with that. I personally relish the rough-and-tumble in discussion of these types of subjects, this type of topic, and I think that we can maintain our position in some cases [where] we can demonstrate it to be true. In other cases we can at least mount a good enough defense that it's plausible, that a rational person can still believe it.

Now, the question of fellowship within the church for people who oppose the church is a little bit different in the sense that excommunicating a person doesn't silence that person -- in fact, in some cases it's done just the opposite; it's given them a platform, at least temporarily, to speak more loudly; they get press coverage. ... But it does silence them in the sense that they aren't allowed to preach it in church meetings or in Sunday school classes.

Anybody who's an intellectual feels a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of censorship -- more than a little uncomfortable with it. On the other hand, I would argue that it's not really censorship as such in the sense that nobody is taking away the right to publish or to speak, and I would absolutely oppose that. The church has no right to do that, ever. It does probably have the right to ensure that certain views are not advocated on its property. It can say, well, you can teach that if you like, but you can't teach that on our university campus; you can't teach that on our pulpit. That's our territory, and you can't do that. ...

[What are some positions that would justify excommunication?]

There aren't many, really. Flat out saying Joseph Smith was a liar, I think, yeah, there's no reason for you to be a Latter-day Saint. ... It gets a little fuzzier after that. Advocating a nonhistorical Book of Mormon, for example, advocating it in the church, I'd probably say you can't do that. If you believe it privately, that's your business. ...

If they're not talking about it, if they're not advocating it, then I would say leave them alone. Work with them, if nothing else, but leave them alone. So I don't see a really clear line there. Obviously there's no room in the church for, say, a vibrant Mormon atheist movement or something like that. ...

To be a practicing homosexual -- is that excommunicable?

... To be a practicing homosexual is something that will bring you into contact with the church court. To be a homosexual as such, to be of that inclination, there's nothing excommunicable about that and there are lots of them in the church. It must be a terribly difficult road to walk.

But the standard for a homosexual is the same as the standard for a heterosexual. No sexual relations except within marriage. And if you violate that, that is one of the most serious things the church will look at. In that sense, there's no discrimination; there's a single standard that if a heterosexual male violates his marriage covenants, he's likely to be disciplined, whether it's with a man or a woman. ...

As an intellectual yourself, though, ... did the excommunications [of the September Six in 1993, when six Mormon academics were excommunicated or disfellowshipped,] give you some anguish? You know the people involved; probably some of them, ... many of them, were faithful Mormons who continue to go to church and ... feel anguish themselves. They feel cut off from their identity, from their home. ...

... In the case of people who really do love the church, love Mormonism, it hurts. It hurts to see any action taken against them. ...

In any given church court like this, you have a lot of people involved, and some of them actually typically are assigned to actually advocate the position of the person who's "on trial." So we don't do this precipitously, usually. My general feeling is, unless I have good evidence to believe otherwise, that probably the church court decision was right.

Now, what complicates it often is that a person will come out saying, well, this is what happened; this is what I was excommunicated for. The church won't say anything; they just won't say a word, and the local leaders [have], in some cases I've seen, been vilified. My guess is that if they're anything like me or the other people I've known, they're just ordinary Latter-day Saints who didn't choose to be in that position; they were put there. They weren't trying to be hatchet men or anything; they were trying to do a good job. ... Would I say they were infallible in their decisions? Certainly not. There have been errors made in the history of the church; there certainly have been: ... [there was] what was portrayed as a kind of mass excommunication of intellectuals a number of years ago, [the] September Six, ... and the claim was that there was a chilling effect; all across the members of the church were terrified. I remember kind of joking that I was watching my hand for signs of tremors, and I couldn't see anything.

I felt and feel perfectly secure. I have never consciously chosen to avoid a topic because I thought that it would get me in trouble. ...

You are a loyal, orthodox Mormon by inclination.

I am. And people will say that you're self-censoring yourself; there are topics you won't touch. No, I'll touch them, but the position I'll probably take will be orthodox. But that's not because of fear. That's because -- crazy as it may seem -- I believe these things. I'm a believer, so I'm taking a position that I actually hold, and it's a position that I think the leaders of the church would be comfortable with. ...

[Many Mormon parents, educators and even children have told me that kids are discovering difficult parts of church history on the Internet, rather than from church leaders, and they feel they are being ambushed. Would you talk about the challenges presented by the Internet and, as Michael Quinn put it, why wouldn't you want a sympathetic educator providing context for these inevitable bumps in the road?]

People come in to me sometimes and they bring up Mountain Meadows Massacre and say, "I had never heard about this, until last week." And they're horrified. They think that Brigham Young ordered it. That the Church is lead by mass murderers. Or something like that.

I think we make a mistake by not telling them about Mountain Meadows earlier on, and also making the case for, look, the evidence for Brigham Young's involvement is at best thin. I think actually there's none at all, basically. But we can inoculate them beforehand, make sure they've already had a controlled dose of the disease, in effect. So that they're not shocked when another issue comes along. ...

Another issue that comes up is Joseph Smith and plural marriage. ... If you deal with the problem up front and say, "Look, here is this issue; this is what we have to say about it," people then are confronted with it later on and they say, "Oh, okay, I've heard that before." But if they think the church is hiding something from them, well then they think, "Well, what else am I not being told? This is maybe just the tip of the iceberg; there's a lot more out there." And then confidence in the teaching authority of the church is decreased, and I think that's a mistake. I think we can handle these issues. But I understand the impulse. ...

The Mormons took a hairpin turn at the end of the 19th century. They went from being seen as licentious, anarchic, you name it, into being perceived as superpatriotic, capitalist, Republican. Is there any truth to these stereotypes? Can you explain what enabled them to make this astonishing hairpin turn?

... When you think about the dramatic change that we took at the end of the 19th century -- we surrender plural marriage; we effectively surrender any kind of theocratic dreams, church control of the economy; many of these things disappear, or if they don't disappear they're severely mitigated, modulated -- the question is, have we lost those things altogether, or are they still there? My contention is that they're still there.

When a person who is a successful corporate executive is called to go off and preside over a mission in Ghana, there's still a lot of that there; it's still like the old days when Brigham would stand up in the tabernacle and call people -- you leave on Wednesday for your mission in northern Arizona; it expires when you die, goodbye; that sort of thing -- well, we still get a little bit of that, that people are called out of the blue to serve missions they weren't anticipating, to maybe serve as General Authorities. They maybe had successful careers; suddenly their careers are over. And you just don't look back. It is over; it is done.

There's still that Zion-building ideal. When we go and work for the welfare cannery, the welfare farm, there's still that sort of thing there. Fast offerings and that sort of thing are still there. But I worry that we may become too assimilated to the surrounding model. I glory in the distinctives of 19th-century Mormonism. I don't want to return to all of them. Certainly it's not my prerogative to call any of them. I'm not calling for the restoration of plural marriage. But I do think that we need to remember that we were in tension with the surrounding society and that there always ought to be some. We ought to be bothered if everybody always thinks we're just peachy-keen. ...

What is it specifically [about baptism of the dead] that Jews, ... Holocaust survivors, are offended by? ...

Many Jews in general are troubled by the notion of proselytizing. I remember speaking with a rabbi in Jerusalem, very nice guy, who said to me simply that to convert a Jew is the equivalent of killing a Jew, especially because Judaism has been so threatened, obviously particularly in the 20th century. I understand the sensitivities on that score. In terms of Holocaust victims in particular, there's the sense that they died -- whether they were religious or not -- they died for being Jewish. So to take people who are in effect martyred for their Jewishness and then be baptized as Christians posthumously really offends a lot of Jewish sensibilities. That I understand.

I think the church has tried to be sensitive on this, but we are caught on this doctrine. And the doctrine is this: Ultimately anyone who is saved must be saved through Christ, and that means at some point explicitly acknowledging Christ and accepting baptism. And that goes for everybody who has ever lived. So in a sense we're not theologically free to say to anyone, including Jews, that we just won't do this, and in our viewpoint, in fact, at the end of time, people would say thank you for this.

But in the meantime, I understand the offensiveness of it, and it's a very, very troubling thing, and we go out of our way, particularly the church in the 20th and 21st centuries, to be religiously sensitive, and we're genuine about it. There's genuine friendship between the church and Jews and Catholics, and in a certain level Muslims. We've been cultivating those ties, so we don't want to be seen as people who trample on other people's religious sensibilities, especially since it's been done to us quite a bit.

I gather that there was a promise to desist, but then it continued.

Yeah. The problem as I understand it -- and I haven't followed it really carefully -- but there was a promise made not to single out Holocaust victims. But it's hard to enforce that with potentially millions of people turning in names of people to have ordinances done for them. And there isn't necessarily a mark in anyone's record saying "Holocaust victim." ...

Now, if they're just turning in lists of Holocaust victims they've taken off the walls at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, then obviously someone might catch that. But if you're just finding the name in some other way, it's hard to tell, and we don't have the bureaucracy in Salt Lake to necessarily monitor that. My impression was that the promise was made in good faith; the violations were probably made in good faith, by people who probably didn't even know what the church policy was. But nevertheless it's embarrassing. ...