The Mormon Church and Dissent

In the mid-20th century, the church began to forcefully discipline its intellectuals who challenged the orthodox view of Mormon history.

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

... Every institution has to define itself somehow. ... As much as I admire it, this is not the Rotary Club. This is not an overly large scout troop, boy or girl. We are a church, and we have beliefs that define us, and that has to be for anything that would be a religion in the sense you and I talk about it.

We don't discipline people in this church for very much. In a church of over 12 million people, I keep hearing about the September Six [six academics excommunicated or disfellowshipped in 1986]. ... All I'm saying is I think this church has a history of being very, very generous. There are some lines -- I'd probably say "lines," plural. The chief among these is the issue of advocating against the church. Personal beliefs within the give-and-take of life and associations and whatever you choose -- there are lots of people who carve out their life in the church all the way out to the edge and beyond. I guess that's always the way it's been, and that's always the way it will be. But I think where the church will act is when there is an act so decisive or so glaring, and ... so much cast in the spirit of advocacy, that the institution itself cannot retain its identity and still allow that.

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

Among the areas that people have pointed out to me as dangerous ground include the background of the prophet Joseph Smith: his human activities, his less-than-prophetic activities. This could involve activities in his past where he ran counter to the law, where he was involved in what they call treasure digging or using seer stones to look for treasure in his youth; activities that might seem to be an attempt to deceive individuals, that might be considered scams. ...

The church has been less than completely comfortable with people exposing aspects of the practice of plural marriage that runs counter to public church pronouncement. In 1890 the church issues a Manifesto that says we will refrain from the practice of plural marriage. When a researcher [Michael Quinn] documents a 14-year pattern of the church actually sustaining plural marriage after they've said they've stopped, the church feels very uncomfortable with that. ...

Were the excommunications of the September Six a big moment? ...

No. ... Rather than a headline, it was more of a quiet conversation where the word of mouth was passed around. Some of the people that were involved were astonishing to the public. There was a professor of history at Brigham Young University who ultimately fell victim to the academic-freedom crusade. Here was a professor that was loved by his students, that was regarded ... as perhaps the brightest graduate student ever to go through Yale University in history. ...

The church is serious with its faculty at Brigham Young University: You can be a force for great good, or you can be a force for those things that we do not consider a great good. Where do you choose to put your professional career? ...

Terryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

The question of dissent in this church comes up a lot. What do you think of the complaints that the church is not a hospitable place to explore ideas, to look at shadow sides of Mormon history?

... In principle, or theory at least, the church does not or has not excommunicated for beliefs. ... Action can be taken only when disbelief or heresy becomes public criticism of the church, and that scenario is where I tend to sympathize with the position of the church, where I think every institution has the right to safeguard its members from those who would deliberately set out to undermine the foundations of faith. There's nothing wrong, and should be nothing wrong, with calling into question, with wanting to interrogate or investigate or ask questions. But when people aggressively assume a posture of trying to undermine or contradict church teachings or fundamentals, that's when action might be warranted.

It is significant and important to point out that the church never makes public the transcripts of church disciplinary proceedings. They never make press statements. So in every case where an intellectual has been excommunicated from the church, the public is exposed to only one half of the story, and I don't think it's ever possible to come to fair and just conclusions when we only have half the story. And that's the way it will always be, because the church refuses to divulge those confidential proceedings. ...

D. Michael Quinn
D. Michael Quinn is a Mormon historian who was excommunicated in 1993.

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 in 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. ...

Margaret Toscano
Margaret Toscano is a classics professor at the University of Utah who was excommunicated in 2000 for writing about the role of women in Mormonism.

[I appeared before the church's disciplinary court] because I cared about the community, and I wanted to talk to them about this. Again, I'm this hopeless idealist -- I'm hoping that maybe if I go there and talk to them, I didn't think it would make a difference in them not excommunicating me, but I wanted them to see that the issues are more complicated, that you shouldn't just label a person as evil because they have questions.

... It occurred to me as I'm sitting there that if this had been in the Middle Ages, if these men had not only the ecclesiastical power but if they had the power of the state, where they could give a physical punishment to me, I realized in this moment that they would have burned me at the stake. And they would have done it smiling, thinking that they were saving my soul. This is why at the end they can shake my hand and say, "Oh, you're such a lovely person," at the same moment that they're saying, "We've condemned you," that you now are cut off from the church and the kingdom of God and everything else.

... I did not expect that I would have grief over the excommunication, because I had been in a state of limbo. My name was on the records of the church, but I was not really in the church. ... This will be kind of a mercy killing, right? So I was not expecting that I would have so much grief, but I cried for three days. I couldn't stop crying. ... Sometimes when I hear a Mormon hymn, I feel the grief. It's very primal. It really is.

Jon Butler
Jon Butler is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University and a professor of American history.

Dissenters, in fact, feel extraordinarily loyal to Mormonism. They feel extraordinarily loyal to the ideals of Mormonism. They feel extraordinarily loyal to the Book of Mormon. They feel extraordinarily loyal to their experience growing up within the Mormon faith, within the Mormon tradition. Dissenters are usually, rather than being individuals who want to perfect the church, they want to change it. They wanted to realize its own heritage; they wanted to realize its own possibilities.

Most dissenters in modern Mormonism, in fact, will usually make the argument that they're not out to destroy the movement; they're out to help it realize its potential, which they see as being suffocated by a kind of contemporary effort to downplay difficulties inside the church, to downplay social and moral issues, to downplay themes that have run through Mormon history, including the history of dissent. Some of them will point out that the Mormon faith, the Mormon Church, has never been a church without dissent, has always had dissent, has always had controversy, and that Smith thrived on that controversy. Smith thrived on his own exchange with elders inside the Mormon Church to create a better church. That's what helped create Mormonism in the 1830s, in the 1840s, and that's what helped sustain Mormonism in the 1850s, '60s and '70s, after Mormons moved to Utah.

The modern dissenters see themselves standing in the line of the entire movement, particularly in the 19th century. And it's somewhat ironic that the church doesn't accept that. It's somewhat ironic that the church finds dissent paralyzing, that the church finds dissent so difficult that it feels it has to excommunicate them.

Talk about the history of the disciplining of dissenters from the early days until now. The excommunications and discipline -- how unusual is that?

Virtually from Smith's early time, from the publication of the Book of Mormon until his assassination, Smith constantly engaged in disciplining believers and thrusting some believers out and not accepting others, in excommunicating them. In that regard Smith isn't unusual. It's something that happens in the history of early Christianity; it's something that happens in the history of early Lutheranism; it's something that happens in the history of early Methodism. It's something that happens in the early history of almost all religious groups; that is, groups have to figure out how they're going to define authority and what boundaries they set on authority as they emerge into a kind of full institutional bloom. Oftentimes the church has become much less tolerant after they have moved through a period of toleration than they were in their own early history. They oftentimes frankly misunderstand their own early history. They oftentimes take those early disciplinings as ironclad rules, when, in fact, they were events that helped shape the movement, not in a difficult way but in a very helpful way.

How is Mormonism's relationship to intellectuals unique?

Mormonism's relationship to intellectuals has become difficult because of the interest in Mormon history. The interest in Mormon history has uncovered and revealed complexities, peculiarities, oddities, difficulties inside the history of early Mormonism that has become difficult for contemporary church leaders to accept. Contemporary church leaders find it difficult to accept the idea that Joseph Smith really was a money digger, for example, in his early youth. They find it difficult to accept the varieties of opinion and viewpoints inside Mormonism in the early 1830s and the 1840s, when the church was relatively unformed. They find it difficult to accept variant readings of what we could call orthodox Mormon history, a kind of clean Mormon history that looks nice and pretty in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Difficulty with that, of course, is that the past is always messy; the past is always difficult; and the history of Mormonism is no less messy and no less difficult than the history of most religious organizations, whether it be Christianity in general, Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism. If we look at each one of those histories, those histories are always complex; they're always difficult. What Mormons seem to find some trouble with is accepting those difficulties and then moving beyond them, accepting them as part of a very complicated, twisted, peculiar kind of intellectual world that isn't always [ours] to sort out, and most importantly that wasn't easy for Joseph Smith to sort out, wasn't always easy for Brigham Young to sort out this world. Yet they lived in it; they moved in it; they moved through it; they overcame it.

That's what modern church authorities need to do. They need to come to grips with the modern understanding of the history of Mormonism as something that doesn't intrude upon the practice of Mormonism.

Daniel Peterson
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.

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. ...

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

What is it like being an intellectual in the church?

I've never found anything as intellectually stimulating as Mormonism, and I've been a lawyer, and I have a couple of graduate degrees.

I've never had any trouble pushing up against the questions. I think the problem comes when you push against church management and you do so publicly; that's where the questions and problems come. When you're not taking no for an answer [it] is perceived as dangerous to the community, and that's where you see it get difficult. It has never gone there for me. It has probably come close a couple of times. I've had people in the rank and file be upset with me. I've had a bishop or two be worried about me teaching a Sunday school class. But I don't really go to them for answers. This is my problem. I think where they have answers they give them to you, and where they don't have answers they don't. ...

This is my take of what's happened to intellectuals in the 20th century. I think it's a question of internationalism. It used to be, in the 19th century, you could teach anything you wanted in a Mormon Sunday school class, and it didn't faze anybody. Mormons were about how you lived your religion, not about what you thought about your religion. Smith's own flights of imagination about religion doctrine were such that a lot of Mormons were doing that.

What happens in the 20th century is the need to correlate these doctrines to come up with something that can go on the road easily. So there begins to be a concern about orthodoxy. But that concern for orthodoxy is really about fundamental areas, not the areas where intellectuals tend to do their thinking. I can hear my friends arguing with me about this, but I think that's pretty true.

I think what the Mormon Church leadership needs -- the leadership expects its life members to not rock the boat because they don't want to think about the United States. They have too many fires burning everywhere else, to mix my metaphors. And so when fifth-generation, sixth-generation Mormons run around asking how many angels can stand on the head of pin, or why is that bad guy over there doing something over there and why aren't you doing something about it, then they just want them to fix the problems themselves. That's why everyone has revelations -- just go away and fix it, and meanwhile I've got to go figure out how to build a chapel today for the next foreseeable future; I have to figure out how to get out of some country or into some country. They don't want to think about the American church.

Marlin Jensen
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

In intellectual areas, what is the line crossed in which excommunication is the answer?

First I'd like to observe that, in distinction to what happens in most religions, we have had some studies come out of the Brigham Young University which indicate that the more educated a Latter-day Saint becomes, the deeper he believes, which is an interesting ratio. So we're not afraid of intellectuals or of learning or of knowledge that we have Scriptures that say we can be saved no faster than we gain knowledge and that the glory of God is intelligence. So the intellectual has a wonderful place within the church.

Where an intellectual, I think, can get into difficulty is when that intellectual person takes a position and begins either to attack the general leader or the local leaders of the church or begins to attack the basic doctrine of the church and does that publicly. ... That's, at least in my humble view of it, probably the definition of apostasy. At that point a person in that situation would be counseled and lovingly invited to become at least quiet -- (laughs) -- if not orthodox, and if they refuse and persist in their public opposition to leaders or to the doctrine of the church, at that point I think the church has no option but to take some disciplinary action toward them with the hope that they will humble themselves and change their hearts and become more contrite members of the church, which often happens, but not always.

What are some of those doctrines a person might be excommunicated for opposing?

If you advocated, for instance, that gay people should be allowed to marry, and you were openly vocal about that, and in the process malign the leadership in the church for not adopting that position, that's something that would be severe enough, I think, to warrant disciplinary action.

Another example?

Another example would be to take on the Book of Mormon, for instance, and its divine origins. To begin to criticize it on the basis of its geography or its historicity or the doctrines it contains or the way it came to be and the translation of it by Joseph Smith -- those are all core issue that would be so central to the church that they would require disciplinary action.

So many people in the church are writing their histories and biographies, but there's still the idea that intellectuals are perhaps a threat to the church. Please comment on that.

If there is a perception that you can't be learned in this church and still be a mainstream member, I think that would be a most unfortunate perspective. And yet I'm sure it exists; I know it does. The Book of Mormon has a wonderful passage in which it says that "To be learned is good if we hearken unto the counsels of God." ...

We don't have to believe anything that isn't true in this religion, but there is something that holds sway over just the intellect, and that is the counsel of God. When that comes through men, who may be very fallible, that's probably very difficult for people to accept. They may trust more in their intellectual conclusions and powers than they do in that mantle.

I think that's [how] really intellectual people in the church get into trouble when they do, but if they can retain just a modicum of humility usually they come out just fine because we have tremendous intellectual achievement in the church. I mean, professors at Harvard and MIT and you name it, we have them, in business and so on. Very accomplished people who also are extremely humble and accepting of the mantle of the prophet and his 14 associates. …