Interview D. Michael Quinn

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D. Michael Quinn is a historian of Mormonism and former Brigham Young University professor who was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1993, after publishing research into controversial subjects in church history. In this interview, Quinn describes his excommunication and the difficulties faced by gay Mormons. He also explains how his personal experiences of revelation have preserved his belief in Mormon doctrine, despite his conflicts with the church. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 6, 2006.

How did the church move into the 20th century and become a success story?

After the surrender of polygamy in the 1890s, the LDS Church began a rigorous process of conforming to the expectations of American society. There are some tremendous reversals in that, where individuals came back into power in a way that changed the directions of the LDS Church.

One of them was Lorenzo Snow. He had been imprisoned as a polygamist in the 1880s. He became president of the LDS Church in 1898 and immediately began to emphasize a tithing, requiring 10 percent of one's income to the LDS Church. ...

Diplomats began coming through Salt Lake because it was a hub for the railroad, and he began this process of diplomatic outreach, not only to people from other countries, but also within the United States. By the tithing emphasis that he made, he brought the LDS Church out of its near-destruction financially by encouraging this sacrifice on the part of LDS Church membership. As an individual he inspired a kind of confidence, because he was such a kindly looking, old patriarch-looking Abraham kind of figure. It brought a greater kind of confidence on the part of the leadership of the secular world.

Another reversal occurred with Reed Smoot. Reed Smoot had come close to being ejected from the Senate in this process of investigating him from 1903 to 1907. He survived that, but just didn't merely survive. He was an astute businessman. He was a very, very clever politician, and over a period of time in the Senate he became the most influential member of the U.S. Senate. He became the kingmaker for the U.S. presidency in a sense, because he was the one who decided at the Republican National Convention who was going to be the candidate, and during this time of Republican supremacy in the 1920s, the candidate was the president.

When the men were elected whom Smoot had helped choose, they offered him a position in the Cabinet. He would say, "No, I'm more powerful and needed in the Senate, but here are some men I recommend for the Cabinet." So he became kingmaker for the presidency [and] he became kingmaker for the Cabinet under three different presidents of the United States in the 1920s. ...

“I was fulfilling my mission as I felt that God had led me to, and yet it had put me on a collision course with the leadership of the church I regarded as his prophets.”

Then, joined with Reed Smoot was another reversal story, and that is Heber J. Grant. Heber J. Grant had been a young polygamist who had been hiding from arrest during most of his early years as an apostle, but he was an astute businessman and ... was able to bring about, through his connections with non-Mormon businessmen in New York City, Boston and Chicago, a connection so powerful -- and it was primarily a personal interaction with them, a building of trust, handshakes that made deals. When the depression of 1893 hit the nation, he, through these contacts, saved the LDS Church from financial ruin.

Then in the 1920s, ... Reed Smoot is joined in the business activities with Heber J. Grant, who has maintained these business contacts, has built them, and to the degree that he has the United States seeing the Mormon Church and its business power as a good thing, no longer as a bad thing, and he helps to move the LDS Church into sugar industry, into communications, into hotels, into insurance, into this diversified sector of influence, first regionally and then nationally, so that it not only has built up friends in the financial centers of the United States; it has built up actual influence, so that the LDS Church becomes perceived as American. As American as all the big-business emphasis of the 1920s perceived the community of businessmen, the LDS Church was very much a part of that, and Heber J. Grant is central to that. He does financially and in the business realm what Reed Smoot does in the political realm in making Americans see the Mormons as not only American, but as influential and as people we want as friends. ...

How did the church grow so fast and what kind of pressure came along with that?

Well, this was a terrible thing. I was a missionary, and my experience is true of all LDS missionaries. You're separated from your family, very often for the first time in your life. You're in an unusual environment. ... And then to be put under the situation that if you're really going to please your mission president, who's your kind of substitute father, you've got to come up with high numbers of baptisms. ... Missionaries just threw ethics to the wind, and they did whatever was necessary to do to please their mission presidents. ...

When was this and what was the scope of the problem?

This period of tremendous growth, coupled with missionary abuses because of the pressures put on them, was happening during the period basically from about 1953 to 1960, and it was happening throughout the world. ...

One of my missionary friends in England came to me one time when I was talking negatively about baseball baptisms, and he said, "Well, you know, I'm a baseball baptism. But," he said, "in Louisiana we called it beach baptisms." ...

The missionaries would come to them in these backcountry areas and say: "We'll take you to the ocean. You've never seen the ocean before. The LDS Church will pay for us to take you to the ocean so you can have a beach trip. Tell all your friends above the age of 8 to come on this trip." They'd hire these buses, and they would drive the hours necessary to get from the hills of Mississippi or Alabama or Louisiana down to the beaches. Then when they were down into the beaches, these missionaries would dunk these kids into the surf, and the kids thought they were just playing. Then the missionaries would be writing down names and keeping records, and as the kids were going back during the several-hour trip, then the missionaries were talking about religion, and they found out that they were members of the church. ...

The mission presidents were in competition with each mission to get the highest numbers of mission baptisms. Then every missionary within a mission was put under this kind of pressure, and it resulted in these worldwide abuses. ...

You were asked to excommunicate youngsters who had been brought into the church. Describe that process and its ultimate effect on you.

... The president of the church, David O. McKay, sent over someone who was known as a troubleshooter in the LDS Church, an apostle named Mark E. Peterson, and he was given a responsibility over all of the missionary work in the British Isles, as well as the western part of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. He began to investigate what had happened. ...

As a missionary I went around and had lists of nonparticipating members given to me by the branch presidents or the bishops. We would go out and knock on doors and contact these people. I found kids who in some cases had joined just because they liked the missionaries, and they knew they were joining a church, but they weren't that interested in the church. ... I found others of these teenage boys, some of them only 12 and 13 years of age, who had been baptized five years or more before, and they didn't even know that they were members of a church. They thought they'd been initiated into a baseball club.

I found some of them who, I asked them what their ages were, and they had been baptized when they were 6 or 7 years of age, which is illegal under Mormon regulations of baptism. It has to be the age of 8. The missionaries had forged their birthdates. ... It was a very depressing kind of experience. ...

The second stage of this process was to excommunicate or to fellowship, to bring into activity those who were interested in doing so, and for those who were not, for them to be excommunicated.

It turned out that I was assigned to be a branch president. ... I was 20 years old, and I was a branch president ... over a branch that had collapsed. There were 125 members of the branch; there were three or four active members of the LDS Church. I was facing the prospect of excommunicating more than 100 people from the LDS Church, and I'd only baptized four.

I got through enough courts to excommunicate about 14 people, which was three or four times the number I'd baptized, and this demoralized me. I ended up in a spiritual crisis. ... I lost my faith. ...

I was in a situation that was impossible for me, because I had been this ardent believer ever since childhood, had had many metaphysical experiences, healing experiences. I still remembered them, but they didn't matter to me, because I had this abject doubt. I just didn't believe in anything at that point, and I knew that I could not stay as a missionary. I did not confide in anybody, because I was afraid to. But after my mission companion went to sleep at night, I would go off into a room or a hallway or a bathroom where I could be alone, and I would pray out loud: "Oh, God, if there is a God, help me to know it again." ...

I gave myself a few weeks, and that if I didn't resolve it and regain my testimony in a few weeks, then I was going to tell the mission president I had to go home, which in Mormon culture is a huge humiliation, to leave your mission early. And what could I say to people? ...

Well, in the process of about a month period, I finally regained those spiritual feelings, that burning within that [St.] Bernard [of] Clairvaux, as a medieval mystic, had described, and faith returned. I no longer had to pray, "Oh, God, if there is a God." I knew again, within the center of my being, that God lived. ...

What was the pressure on the Mormons in the mission who didn't have that certainty? How did you counsel them until you had your own crisis of faith?

Part of the instruction that Mormons get from an early age is to be able to say, "I know the church is true, I know that God lives, I know that Jesus is the Christ." ... It's perceived as a lack of faith if you use the words "I believe," if you don't say the words "I know." ...

I was a baptizing missionary and spoke well, and eventually I was advanced to leadership positions in the mission. Missionaries would come to me for counsel about various things, about teaching and whatever. But these were like a confessional, because missionaries would come to me, and many of them, with tears in their eyes, and these young men in their 20s -- 19 to 20, 21 years of age -- tears streaming down their faces, saying, "I don't have a testimony, and I don't know what's wrong." They would say: "Tell me, how do you know? How can you say that you know?" It wasn't a challenge; it was begging to know what they could do to gain the kind of testimony that I had. And they would say to me [that] they had prayed and they had fasted, and some of them were fasting two and three times a week, two or three days without any food or water, trying to gain this inward testimony. ... They were just brokenhearted, because they had done everything that they had been taught to do, and they did not have faith, and it was just killing them. ...

Because of my own crisis of faith, I knew what it was like to pray and to feel like there was nothing there. I would just say to them: "I don't know the answer for you. All I can tell you is that I think faith is a gift, and I've had it most of my life, although I've had a period of doubt. But my testimony is that God is real, and that he loves you, and I hope that you will learn that. It breaks my heart that you've made this effort and you don't feel that confidence." So I wasn't able to help them, except not to condemn them. ...

For Mormons who don't have that faith, it's very difficult for them to admit that they don't, because the initial answer that they're going to get is: "Well, you're not trying hard enough. You're not praying hard enough. You're not reading the Scriptures. You must be having evil thoughts. What are you doing in your life that doesn't allow the spirit to enter your heart?" It's a huge guilt trip for somebody who has difficulty or impossibility of being able to say, with honesty, "I know." ...

Psychologically [the mission seems to be] a searing rite of passage. Why?

... When you become an LDS missionary, you have a companion who is assigned to you 24 hours a day. You never leave the sight of that companion except to go to the bathroom. You are with that person 24 hours a day, and you are told to tell that missionary companion that you love him, or if you're a female companion with a lady missionary that you love her. Missionary life is even described as being like a marriage. I was told as a missionary, "You will never be as close with your wife as you will be your missionary companion," which was irony, because I was a gay male. But all missionaries are told this, because they said very frankly, the missionary leaders would say, you will never be with your wife 24 hours a day. If you're a woman, you will never be with your husband 24 hours a day, day in, day out, for two years of your life, but you are with these missionary companions.

Then you not only have this bonding experience that is so intense; your life is utterly controlled by the missionary experience. You don't do anything unless it is approved for you as a missionary. If it isn't approved to listen to radio, you do not listen to radio. If it isn't approved to watch television, you do not watch television. If it isn't approved to read a newspaper, you will not read a newspaper. You follow the rules for this two-year period. There is nothing in the contemporary experience of 20-year-olds in America and Canada to compare with this. The only thing that would be close to it would be going into a seminary, a young man who takes the position of having a calling to become a priest. That's the only thing that would be similar to it.

Yet in the Mormon experience, it's this two-year, temporary experience. After two years it's over, and these young men and women are expected to go back to a normal life, and it's difficult because they have experienced something utterly alien to the contemporary civilian life that they go back to. ... You feel, this isn't real. What's real was the missionary experience. It isn't real for me to be in college again; it isn't real for me to be working; it isn't real for me to be trying to date. What's real is serving God 24 hours a day, sharing the message of the Gospel. And it is this searing, overwhelming experience that usually lasts for two years that every missionary will look back on and very often say, "There were a lot of hard times as a missionary, but this was the best two years of my life." ...

What were some moments where you experienced God and how did that become a foundation of your faith?

Well, from childhood, whenever I would think about God or pray, I would feel this burning feeling and sensation within me. No one had told me about it; it was just something I felt and I experienced. I remember my shock when I was a teenager and read a description of this in Mormon Scripture, and I was stunned that other people were experiencing it. ... But for me, I can't point to an earliest point in my life where I knew God. I have always known him as a friend, as a companion. In my prayers I talked with him as if he were my father.

But I can remember one incident, when I was 9; it was one of my more metaphysical experiences. I was with my family taking a tour of subterranean caves, and they at one point had a demonstration of what blackness was like. So they turned out the klieg lights that they had illuminating this subterranean cave.

Well, I had gotten behind the group, because I was curious and looking at stalactites, and that all was very interesting to me. ... So I could hear the voice of the tour guide droning on about what this meant, in pitch black and all of that. So I was walking toward the voice, the direction of this droning voice of the tour guide.

All of a sudden I heard another voice that said, "Stop." I hesitated for a moment, and then I started taking another step. And this voice came to me so powerfully and said, "Stop, my son." And I felt, this is the voice of God, but I don't know why. So I stopped and I waited, and that was it. There was another couple of minutes where the voice of the tour guide was droning on, and then he said, "Now turn on the lights." The lights went back on, and I was at the edge of a precipice. I had thought I'd been walking toward the voice of the tour guide, and because of the echoing I had been walking at an angle, some angle, and another step and I would have gone right off this precipice. ... I was just inches from the edge.

And I firmly believe, my testimony is that was the voice of God, to me. ... I've had many healing experiences which people could say, "Oh, well, you recovered, or you were preserved from death, but it was just the circumstances." I acknowledge that that's a legitimate way of perceiving it, even though I see it as God's intervention in healing me or in preserving me from dying in various accidents that I was in. But this experience in the caves was for me a pivotal one, because at the time, I testified as a 9-year-old boy in my board testimony meeting [that] I heard the voice of God, and I still feel that.

You were excommunicated. What happened, why did it happen, and how did you feel?

For a believing Mormon, one who sees Mormonism as the true church and believes in the priesthood and the revelations that have been published, Mormonism is their whole life. All their hope, all of their anticipation is connected with that. Now, to be deprived of membership in the LDS Church is to lose all of that. And for a Mormon who is an ardent believer, that is a kind of death. ... When I began facing that potential, I was on the faculty of Brigham Young University, and what threw me into the jeopardy of losing my membership in the church were my publications on LDS history.

I was fulfilling what I believed was God's mission for me: to understand the leadership of the church and the history of the church as well as I could, and to present it as honestly I could with the perspective that my training gave me so that members of the church wouldn't be disturbed when they learned about these problem areas, because anti-Mormons were using history as a club to beat the faith out of people. I felt this wouldn't be possible if they already knew about these problems. ...

I felt earnestly that this was what God had prepared me to do, to present these problem areas in a context that allowed for faith and still acknowledged what the anti-Mormons or the critics would bring up, but to say: "Yeah? So what? These are human beings." God works with fallible human beings, whether they're your parents or your prophets. This is a way of understanding it and maintaining faith.

Well, the problem was that -- well, actually, it was a double problem. I was getting reports back from people who had read and heard the things that I'd say that that, in fact, was how they were understanding it. They were saying: "Oh, thank you. This makes it understandable for me." ...

On the other hand, I was hearing officially from apostles, whom I regarded as God's chosen prophets and apostles on earth, that this kind of approach to history was not faith-promoting; that it was contrary to what God wanted. ...

What specifically were you writing about that was particularly problematic?

The things that I was learning that were not pleasing to the leaders of the church that I had been publishing about were policy changes in the LDS Church; the existence of certain councils, such as a theocratic Council of Fifty that I published about that the LDS Church leaders didn't know about themselves, and if they did know about, they didn't want rank and file to know that there was a theocracy that was a part of Mormonism; polygamy, and the practice of polygamy after the Manifesto, that had been secretly practiced or practiced by Joseph Smith before it was publicly announced in 1852 as a doctrine of the LDS Church.

These kinds of things, policy changes and doctrinal changes, were things that I had written about and had tried to put into a context of seeing this as a process of change and a process of revelation, but nonetheless to acknowledge that there were these problem areas, but they didn't need to be problem areas. They could be understood as a part of the human experience or as a part of God's changing patterns of dealing with the LDS Church, or as a part of the LDS Church responding to differing circumstances. But it became clear that criticisms from apostles of the LDS Church -- Mark E. Peterson, Boyd K. Packer, [Ezra Taft] Benson -- were being directed directly at the kinds of things I was publishing, and in some cases, by title, at some of these publications of mine.

It became clear to me, when I published a long article, almost 100 pages, about plural marriage after the Manifesto, that this was coming to a breaking point between me and the church, because my local LDS Church president, the stake president, was visited by a General Authority and told that I was to be called in and punished, and that at a minimum I was to lose my temple recommend, which was the basis for church employment, and I was a professor at BYU.

Then the leader of this meeting said, "And if this doesn't keep him from doing this kind of thing, you should take further action as appropriate." And he started to get up and walk out. He thought that was the end of it. And the stake president said, "Now, wait a minute." He said: "Michael Quinn gave me a copy of this article on plural marriage after the Manifesto. I and my counselors have read it, and we don't find anything in it that is contrary to faith. It talks about some difficult experiences the church went through, but we don't see this as a reason to punish him. ... And he hasn't done this secretly, and we don't see -- we've read it." And they asked, "Have you read it?" And he said, "No, I wouldn't read anti-Mormon trash." And they said, "Well, how can you judge that what he's written is destructive of the faith if you haven't read it?" And it went around and around, and finally after two and a half hours, the stake president said, "Well, I'll call Michael Quinn in, and I will explain to him what you have said to us, and then we'll go from there."

And this representative said: "Oh, no. You can't tell him that I told you what I've told you. You can't tell him that this came from church headquarters. This has to be your objection that he is to be informed of, that you have objected to, and that you're going to punish him for." And the stake president said: "I'm not going to lie to him, so you decide: Am I going to tell him the truth and call him in, or am I not going to say anything to him? Because I am not going to lie to him." This stunned this General Authority who had been sent from church headquarters, and he said, "Well, then you do [what] you feel you need to do."

So the stake president called me in and explained this whole process, including the fact that he had been told to lie to me and to say that this was his personal objection to what I'd published. The stake president said: "I feel obligated to do something. I have to do something." And he said: "I'm taking your temple recommend. You will not be able to go back to the temple without it. But," he said, "I'm afraid that they're going to use this as a grounds for firing you from BYU if you do not have temple recommend. So," he says, "if anyone at BYU asks if you have a valid temple recommend, you tell them yes, and don't volunteer that it's in my desk drawer. And when it expires, I'll renew it, but I'll keep it in my desk drawer."

And I knew at that moment that I was dead meat, that as long as that stake president was there to protect me I would be protected, but as soon as he was relieved of his position -- and these are temporary positions; it's a lay ministry -- and another stake president who was more compliant was in the position, or if I happened to move ... out of his stake, then I was dead meat. ...

I was fulfilling my mission as I felt that God had led me to, and yet it had put me on a collision course with the leadership of the church I regarded as his prophets. ... So I prayed a lot to God: "Help me to know. If I'm wrong, I'll confess that I'm wrong. If you want me to stop my research as a Mormon historian, I will." ...

And I received the confirmation that I had received since childhood of God's presence, of this burning within, of this sense of peace which, as Jesus says, passes all understanding. I felt that I was doing nothing wrong in what I published and that they were wrong in condemning me for it. I couldn't sort this out. It didn't make any sense to me, but I felt there was no way I was going to retreat, no matter what it required, and eventually it ended up in my excommunication.

Do you remember the day you got the letter?

Well, it was a long process. ... I do remember. It was in February. I was deadly ill with a flu, and I was a week away from going to California for a fellowship at the Huntington Library that would last for several months. On this Sunday morning, there was a knock at my door, and I had a fever of about 102. I dragged myself up, went to the door, and there was the stake president. I had never seen him before. ... I had been trying to stay under the radar, because I knew that they were after me, and I did not want to deal with that confrontation.

But he said, "We have reports that you have published and spoken in ways of an apostate, and we need to talk with you." He started to walk in the door, and I closed the door, and I just said: "I am sick as a dog. I cannot let you in. You cannot come in. And I'm leaving for California in just a few days. As soon as I get well enough to drive, I'm going down. I won't be back for months." So I said, "We're going to have to have this conversation some other time." I said goodbye, and I went back to bed, fell asleep.

Barely into REM sleep, and there was another knock at the door, and then the doorbell began ringing. It woke me up, and I walked to the door again, and there was the stake president. ... He said, "Can I come in?" He started walking in, like missionaries do, you know, best foot forward. And I said: "No, I'm still sick as a dog. It's only been an hour, and you cannot come in." And he said: "Well, I have a letter for you. You must read this letter, and I want you to respond to this letter."

So I said, "Fine, I'll read it when I feel well enough." I closed the door, and I put the letter down, and a few hours later, when I woke up from my feverish state and was well enough to read the letter, I read it. It said that I had been guilty of apostasy, and it outlined three evidences of my apostasy, and two of them were publications that I had written, and one of them was my statement to The New York Times that compared the 20th-century leadership to the 19th-century leadership, and I said in the 19th-century leadership that the LDS leaders acknowledged the existence of a loyal opposition. They didn't like to have dissenters, but they acknowledged that one could be loyal and also disagree with the leadership. But, I said, in the 20th century, they don't acknowledge the existence of a loyal opposition, and they often take church measures against them. That was the third example of my apostasy, which shows that the leadership today has no sense of irony. But that was the time when I saw it in black and white, where I was accused of apostasy.

How did you respond when you read the letter? Had you been expecting it, or were you still incredulous?

No, I was expecting it, and I was mad as hell. ... It was like the old line from the movie [Network]: I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" I had never, prior to that, gone to the media. I had been quoted a lot, including [in] Newsweek and Time magazine, The New York Times, but it was always when the media came to me. ...

Well, this time I went to the media, and I produced for the local newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, a photocopy of this letter from the stake president so that they would see, and they ran articles: "Mormon historian being pursued." And this ended up as an AP [Associated Press] story. It was published in the Los Angeles Times before I got down to Los Angeles for this fellowship that I had at the Huntington Library. ...

I had hoped that the prospect of this being a black eye in public relations would make them back off, and they would tell the stake president, who I was sure was under orders because of my previous experience, that they would say, "Oh, well, on second thought, leave him alone; let him do his thing." But that's not what happened, and eventually I was excommunicated.

[How did you feel?]

I was angry when I got the letter, but it's like family. You get angry at families, but you don't abandon the family, and you don't want the family to abandon you. And so the fact that I felt anger didn't affect my sense that this is a true church. ...

And I'm angry at what they're doing. These are prophets, seers and revelators, but I believe they're wrong. And I believe it's my right as a believing Latter-day Saint to say they're wrong, but also to say: "I acknowledge that they're God's prophets, seers and revelators. I just think you've made a mistake." So that's how I approached it, and when push came to shove and shove came to being excommunicated, it was like death; it really was. ...

[Would you like to be invited back into the church?]

I would have to say with a big if, and that is, if you stop using political power as a club against gays and lesbians. I cannot be silent about policies that I disagree with. That is the one great freedom that my excommunication has given me, because even though people thought I spoke up any time I chose, I really remained silent about deep disagreements with church policies during the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] campaign of the LDS Church. I was on the faculty at BYU. I never spoke against it; I never wrote against it, even though I felt utterly that it was wrong.

I'm not going to go back into that closet of being a silent dissenter. So no, I could not accept an invitation to join the LDS Church again, because so many of its current policies are contrary to what I believe is the will of God.

As a gay man, what are the special difficulties that you see for gays in the Mormon Church?

... In a society that doesn't accept homosexuality, ... everyone feels like they're alone and lonely, and they have to hide. But in Mormon culture it's worse because of the theology of the family. ... You have the opportunity of being together as a family forever if you are righteous enough, so Mormons live this frenetic life of doing and behaving in any way that the Scriptures or the leaders of the church tell them to, because they want this family unit to continue forever.

Well, when you're gay you realize you don't fit that picture. And when you come out to your parents as gay, their fear is indescribable, because it's not just that they've lost their image of you in terms of this heterosexual perception they have of you. Their fear is beyond the fear of other parents, because their fear is that they have the opportunity of having you with them for eternity, and now they've lost it because you are a disgusting homosexual, and nothing disgusting can be in the presence of God.

You think there's a special pain in Mormon families as they confront this.

... I'll have to say that I'm an exception to this in some ways, because the intensity of my relationship with God since childhood never caused me to doubt the eternal life with him.

Even though I knew that my family found "fairies" disgusting, as they told me, and friends would say that, and I heard this over the pulpit, I never doubted my relationship with God. I knew that God accepted me as queer. I just knew that. I knew that he loved me. I never feared his rejection. But the thing I couldn't live with was the rejection of family and friends here on earth. ...

Do you see an irony here in that the jewel in the crown of Mormonism is the family, yet on the issue of homosexuality, they break up families?

... LDS families are in this double bind, because they're told when they have gay children, follow that which is true. Avoid even the appearance of evil, and homosexuality is evil. So there has been almost a kind of expectation that if your child will not conform, then you should abandon them. ... And yet many families find this extremely difficult to do -- not only the physical abandonment, but to give up the faith that this child, this homosexual child, and maybe his partner or her partner for life, may want to be with that family eternally. It creates this huge faith disjunction. ...

You have to develop a private faith, which I have, that God accepts all loving relationships. But this separates you from the orthodoxy of the Mormon Church, and many gays and lesbians cannot make that step. They accept themselves as inferior eternally, because they've never been taught otherwise, and they don't have the individual testimony that I do. Maybe I'm wrong, but this is my faith. So for the mass of Mormon families this is an unresolvable tragedy.

What were your confrontations with Boyd Packer about your different views on history and faith-producing history?

When I was admitted to the faculty of Brigham Young University, I had the same kind of interview that all prospective faculty members have, and that is that a General Authority of the LDS Church meets with the prospective faculty member. ... The person who interviewed me was apostle Boyd K. Packer. We were together about 45 minutes, and almost all of that was a lecture. He began by asking me what position I was going to be hired in or was being considered for, and I said it was as a professor in the history department. The very next words out of his mouth were -- and I'm not exaggerating; these were seared into my memory -- Elder Packer said, "I have a hard time with historians, because historians idolize the truth." I almost sunk into my chair. I mean, that statement just bowled me over.

Then he went on to say, quoting him as accurately as I can ...: "The truth is not uplifting. The truth destroys. And historians should tell only that part of the truth that is uplifting, and if it's religious history, that's faith-promoting." And he said, "Historians don't like doing that, and that's why I have a hard time with historians." And the conversation just went from there. He occasionally would give me the opportunity to respond to what he was saying, and I would talk about putting things in context, and that one could deal with a controversy or a sensitive area, or even a negative experience in the past, but put it into context. I said that it's a question of do you talk about this in a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or do you just have a footnote reference to it? And I said, "That's a decision that each individual historian will make, but," I said, "I cannot agree with the idea that I should conceal this evidence." And he just shook his head, and he said, "You're wrong," ... and he went back to what he had started with to begin with. ...

With due credit to Elder Packer, even though it was clear in that interview that I had with him that we were at polar opposites on this issue of dealing with uncomfortable evidence in the past, I got the job in the department of history at Brigham Young University and I eventually was advanced to full professor, even though there were criticisms from him, privately and publicly, about the kind of history that I was doing. So you have to give him that credit, that he did not intervene to prevent my being hired; he did not intervene to prevent my being given tenure or being advanced to full professor.

What was that famous quote of his about the three dangers of the church? What was the importance of that statement?

At one point Boyd Packer, as one of the senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] at that point, gave instruction, in 1993 I believe, to a group of church leaders at the annual world conference of the LDS Church, and he instructed them that there were three dangers that the church faced. The three were the feminists, the gay and lesbians, and of course the ever-present problem of intellectuals and scholars, and that's how he phrased it. I lost on all three counts. ...

Is there a tighter leash now?

... One of the downsides of the massive growth of the LDS Church since the 1960s has been an inward concern about maintaining control, because the massive growth has caused the leadership to worry that the growth will mean a lessening of control, a lessening of what they see as the purity of the LDS Church. They are concerned and worried that the LDS Church could be subject to the same problems as early Christianity. ... The result of that has been on the Correlation program, which took away all of the independence of the lesson manuals, of the church magazines, so that everything has been controlled, dictated, approved in advance by the committees at the headquarters of the church.

Another has been taking away all of the independence that existed in missionary life. Although there was a certain kind of uniform expectation of what missionaries would experience, this evaporated as mission presidents were instructed that every mission should be operated under the same rules, and every missionary was to have the same kind of experience, no matter where they were throughout the world. ...

BYU had been, for students during my experience there, a very freewheeling kind of experience. I had a great experience as an independent student, as an undergraduate at BYU. But after my experience there in the 1970s, increasingly to the present, there has been an effort to control the entire experience of students at BYU so that there is very little that a student can go there for if they don't expect to fit a mold. ...

So conformity has become almost a watchword among the leaders as well as the rank and file in a way that never was true of Mormon experience prior to the 1960s. This has had an effect on independent thinking; it's had an effect in independent expressions of academics. And it has resulted in a kind of watchdog mentality, which even has a committee that is specifically assigned to look for any evidences of departures from orthodoxy or criticism by members of the church, especially if they're academics. This is a strengthening-of-the-members committee, which keeps files on anyone who publishes, writes letters to the editor in newspapers anywhere in the English-speaking world in particular.

This kind of inward paranoia has led to the disciplining of those who have been perceived as departing from the expectations of headquarters, and I'm one of the examples of that, for publishing historical issues that were regarded as contrary to what the leadership wanted the rank and file to know.