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Book Review: Latter-Day Dissent

A few months ago, I received an advance copy of a new book by Philip Lindholm called Latter-day Dissent: At the Crossroads of Intellectual Inquiry and Ecclesiastical Authority.  The book is supposed to be released on Friday by Greg Kofford Books.  Lindholm interviews 5 of the “September Six”, as well as 3 others.

The September Six refer to a group of 6 intellectuals that were disciplined by the church in 1993.

  1. Lynne Whitesides*
  2. Paul Toscano
  3. Maxine Hanks
  4. Lavina Anderson
  5. Michael Quinn
  6. Avraham Gileadi**

*Five of the six were excommunicated with Lynne Whitesides being the exception–she was disfellowshipped.

**Of the six disciplined, only Avraham Gileadi was rebaptized. Lindholm notes in the Introduction,

A conservative biblical scholar, Gileadi consistently refused to speak to the press following his excommunication, and he remains the only member of the September Six to be rebaptized and admitted back into the fold.  In keeping with this precedent, Gileadi did not respond to my interview request for this volume.

Lindholm also interviews 3 others who have been disciplined by the church since 1991:

  • Margaret Toscano,
  • her sister Janice Merrill Allred, and
  • Thomas Murphy.

For balance, Lindholm interviews Donald Jessee, former employee of the LDS Church’s Public Affairs Department.

I really liked the book.  My only mild criticism was the fact that it is apparent these interviews occurred several years ago, but the book is just coming out now.  For example, the author asked every guest if they believed Gordon B. Hinckley was a prophet, rather than Thomas S. Monson. ÂI asked the publisher why some of the material seemed dated, and he said it took quite some time to get permission from all of the people.  The last interview took place in 2004.

The most interesting topic to me (outside of the excommunications themselves) was learning about the Strengthening the Church Committee (SCMC).  I had never heard of it before.  In describing it, Lynne Whitesides said on page 6,

There is a Strengthening Church Members Committee that we didn’t know about at the time, a Gestapo-like group which press-clipped everything anyone said who might be considered an enemy of the Church, meaning one who disagreed with Church policy.

Footnote 4 on page 181 further clarifies this.

According to Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, the Strengthening Church Members Committee is a “clipping service” that “pores over newspapers and other publications and identifies members accused of crimes, preaching false doctrine, criticizing leadership or other problems.  That information is forwarded on to the person’s bishop or stake president, who is charged with helping them overcome problems and stay active in the Church.”  Quoted in “News: Six Intellectuals Disciplined for Apostasy,” Sunstone 92 (November 1993): 69.  The First Presidency further clarified the nature and history of the Strengthening Church Members Committee when it stated, “This committee serves as a resource to priesthood leaders throughout the world who may desire assistance on a wide variety of topics.  It is a General Authority committee, currently comprised of Elder James E. Faust and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.  They work through established priesthood channels, and neither impose nor direct Church disciplinary action.”  Quoted in “News: Church Defends Keeping Files on Members,” Sunstone 88 (August 1992): 63.  Many of those called in for investigatory interviews or discipline have claimed that this committee is responsible for compiling incriminating evidence against targeted members.

Here is what Donald Jessee, former employee of LDS Church’s Public Affairs Department said when asked about the committee.  From page 217-220,

Donald:  It ‘s a committee that seeks information that, in time, if the proper action is taken, does just that–it can strengthen Church members through proper discipline.

Philip:  How so?  Many excommunicants have claimed that it collected files on them in preparation for potential disciplinary courts.

Donald:  They do it by caring about members of the Church.  Discipline is designed to help members who have gone astray.  The Church from its beginning has gathered anti-Mormon literature and derogatory or false information about the Church.  If the source of this information comes from Church members of record, then action is taken.  The Church must be aware of its critics and enemies.  Again, Church leaders must keep the Church morally clean and ethically straight.

Philip:  Should academics avoid publishing research if it could be understood as contradicting the Church’s position on a given topic?

Donald:  Members can publish whatever they want.  There’s no censorship.  It depends on the context and the person’s motives in doing what has been done.  If a BYU professor, whose salary is paid with Church funds and who has signed an honor code of conduct to keep university rules, then publicly goes out and violates them, then that person is subject to discipline, but he or she is free to speak about any issue he or she wants to….

Philip:  What about those topics not yet given much attention by Church leaders?  Do members have free reign on those topics?  Thomas Murphy was nearly excommunicated for doing genetic research that the Mormon Church had yet to conduct.  How much freedom is one afforded on such controversial but relatively unaddressed topics?  Mother in Heaven is another example of a controversial topic upon which people have published and been punished for doing so.

Donald:  Well, in the case of Murphy, he says that because of DNA he has proven that the Book of Mormon is not true.  How does he know?  There were other groups of people here in America before Lehi arrived here….How could DNA prove or disprove the truthfulness of a book brought here under the hand of God?…

I do not know anything regarding those who have been disciplined for publishing on the doctrine of a Mother in Heaven.  Chances are they presented their ideas in a way that ran counter to true religion and to the Church and its teachings.  Speculation on such matters can lead members astray and destroy faith in God the Father.  Praying to a Mother in Heaven is not a true doctrine, no matter how it is defined or presented.  It undermines faith in the true process of offering prayers, which is to pray to Heavenly Father in the name of Christ.

Members can believe anything they want.  Church members may believe they have a Mother in Heaven, but to go out teaching that we ought to pray to her, or that we give details about her when both the prophets and the scriptures are silent–this violates the teachings of the Church…

If Church members go to their friends and start talking about practicing plural marriage, they are not in harmony with the Church.  Yes, there are some things where common sense says, “Don’t discuss it in private or in public.”  Otherwise, hey, I’ve got the freedom to think anything I want, but I need to be careful that I’m not trying to represent the Church with my point of view or convince others that a certain doctrine or practice represents true religion or is what the issue or is what the Church teaches.  As an individual, I can speculate all I want on any issue or topic as long as I keep to myself those matters that are not in harmony with truth and the Church and its teachings.

If I am a prominent or well thought of member of the Church, and I present a paper in the name of religious freedom that one might consider worshiping idols, I can expect Church discipline.  That doctrine is contrary to true religion and the teachings of God.  To bring up controversial topics in meetings such as sacrament meeting, Sunday School, priesthood meeting, Relief Society, etc., could raise questions and jeopardize one’s standing in the Church…

Philip:  Yet Janice Allred was excommunicated in 1995 for her insistence on publishing a clearly speculative paper entitled, “Toward a Theology of God the Mother.”4 Why was she disciplined for asserting her opinion?

Donald:  I believe I have already established the fact that I can’t comment on Church discipline, as that is confidential and would violate privacy issues.  As a member of the church, I don’t know.  I wasn’t involved there and don’t know the facts.  Such a doctrine has not been revealed through a living prophet, and it is not appropriate to be a member of the Church and teach to others in any setting doctrines or practices that run counter to true religion and the Church and its teachings, such as practicing plural marriage or other theories that are not mainstream teachings of the living prophets.

I really thought Whitesides “Gestapo-like” comment was a wild exaggeration, but after hearing what Jessee had to say, I’m not so sure.  According to Wikipedia,

The committee was formed during the administration of church President Ezra Taft Benson,[1] soon after Benson became president in 1985.[2]

The existence of the committee became known in 1991, when a 1990 church memo from general authority Glenn L. Pace referencing the committee was published by an anti-Mormon ministry.[3] The committee was one of the subjects discussed in the 1992 Sunstone Symposium in talks by Lavina Fielding Anderson and Eugene England (then a BYU professor) on August 6, 1992. Soon thereafter, the Salt Lake Tribune published news stories on the subject (Tribune, August 8, 1992 and August 15, 1992). England came to regret his impulsive comments and apologized to all parties individually.[4]

In response to this public discourse, the LDS Church spokesman Don LeFevre acknowledged the existence of the committee.[5] LeFevre said that the committee “receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that ‘conceivably could do harm to the church'”, then the committee will “pass the information along to the person’s ecclesiastical leader.” According to LeFevre, however, “the committee neither makes judgments nor imposes penalties.” Discipline is “entirely up to the discretion of the local leaders.”[6]

After reading all this, I wonder how much the apostles monitor blogs.  I find it a little ironic that President Benson started it.  He was quite a conspiracy theoriest, as I mentioned in my post about his anti-Communist rhetoric.  I keep hearing in different settings that the church is much more open now, but I’m not so sure.  For example, at a recent conference at BYU, professor Ronald Esplin said this is one of the best environments to study church history since the “Camelot” era of the 1970s.

However, discipline for intellectuals still seems to occur.   The Wikipedia article mentions that in 2004, the committee put together a dossier on Grant Palmer, author of Insider’s View of Mormon Origins.  (Palmer was disfellowshipped.)  In the introduction, Lindholm notes on page xii, that excommunications of academics has continued beyond the notorious 1993 September Six (formatting changed)

  • In 1994, Professor David Wright of Brandeis University and editor Brent Metcalf were excommunicated for their scripture studies in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon:  Explorations in Critical Methodology
  • In 1995, author Janice Allred was excommunicated for her writings about Mother in Heaven.
  • In 2000, Professor Margaret Toscano was excommunicated for her theological reflections, and
  • in 2002, Professor Thomas Murphy was nearly excommunicated for his anthropological work on Mormonism.
  • In addition, many other unnamed intellectuals were called into disciplinary interviews that did not result in excommunication.

I know Simon Southerton resigned under pressure from the church following his publication of information on DNA and the Book of Mormon.  Last week, I learned that John Dehlin, founder of Mormon Stories, Mormon Matters, and StayLDS was summoned to a meeting with his Stake President.  He said the meeting went well, and solicited comments to his website.  From my point of view, it bears a lot of parallels with Lynne Whitesides experience in 1993.  John has recently been interviewed on ABC and other news organizations.  Lynne was called in to talk to her bishop following an interview with Chris Vanocur on Channel 4, KTVX.  Here’s what Lynne said on page 4,

In May when my bishop called me to come in to talk, I thought, “Wow…this is great.  Maybe the system does work.  Maybe this church really is a place where I can get comfortable.”  I was very excited.  I left early from my feminism class up at the University of Utah to meet with him.  When I walked in, he was with his two counselors, all in suits, and I’m thinking, “Wow, they really want me back at church.  This is great!”  I sat down, and Virgil Merrill, the bishop, said, “Elder Loren C. Dunn has asked us to meet with you to see if we need to take any ecclesiastical action against you.”

I started to laugh and couldn’t stop.  “Give me a minute,” I said, “I thought you called me in here because you cared about me.  Let me just have a quick moment to adjust.”  Their faces…you could see that what I has said shocked them, but then we had a lovely talk.  It was not confrontational at all; it was amazing.  At the end, Virgil said he was going to tell Dunn that I was fine.  So, when I received the summons letter I was shocked.

Philip:  Your bishop gave you no warning at all that you were going to be tried by a church court?

Lynne:  No, nothing.  When I found out, I called Lavinia [Fielding Anderson] immediately….We also wrote a letter to the bishop saying that if he went through with the church court, then we were going to let the media know.  Virgil wrote back saying that he wanted to hold it.  He didn’t realize what he was getting into.  He didn’t realize how much press coverage it was going to get.  We heard through the grapevine, he was getting pressure from [Boyd K.] Packer2 and other leaders to excommunicate me.

Philip:  Can you elaborate on “the grapevine”?

Lynne:  One of the bishopric counselors involved in my court was related to a  reporter I knew.  Both were at a barbecue once, and the counselor told the reporter, not thinking it would ever get back to me, that they were getting pressure from Church leaders to “do something” about Lynne Whitesides.  Well, it did get back to me, and I knew this going into the trial.

Well, I’ve already quoted quite a bit from the book.  Let me end with a quick summary of things the church apparently doesn’t like us discussing:

  • Lynne Whitesides was disfellowshipped for “why I thought it was all right to pray to a female diety.”
  • Paul Toscano was excommunicated for defending his wife Margaret.  Basically Margaret was the real target.  To save her, Paul blasted church leaders and was excommunicated for insubordination.  (I’ll discuss Margaret in a bit.)
  • Maxine Hanks was excommunicated for her book Women and Authority.
  • Lavina Fielding Anderson was excommunicated for documenting ecclesiastical abuse in the Church.
  • Michael Quinn was excommunicated for writing a chapter in Hanks book, Women and Authority, and for a Sunstone presentation in 1992 called “150 Years of Truth and Consequences in Mormon History.”
  • Janice Merrill Allred was excommunicated in 1995 for discussing God the Mother.
  • Margaret Merrill Toscano was excommunicated in 1995 for discussing God the Mother.  (Note Janice and Margaret are sisters.)
  • Thomas Murphy was “nearly excommunicated in December 2002, proceedings halted indefinitely on February 23, 2003.”  Murphy wrote about DNA and the Book of Mormon.  Wikipedia says, “on February 23, 2003, Latimer informed Murphy that all disciplinary action was placed on permanent hold.[3]

This book is very timely for me.  I have wanted to get more involved in church history.  I also want to maintain good standing in the church.  Lindholm quotes Armaund Mauss in the introduction.  Mauss is a retired Mormon sociologist from Washington State University.  From page xxii

Even the most careful and diplomatic comments will not be much appreciated by many Church leaders, perhaps by most Church leaders, whether general or local.  We have to understand that much going in.  Do not expect to appear on the short list for bishop or Relief Society president if you have been regularly commenting on local or general Church matters.  If prominent Church positions are important to you, keep quiet.  If you’re going to speak up, whether in oral or written media, first cultivate thick skin, then abandon your aspirations for important Church callings; you shouldn’t have them anyway.  Finally, don’t whine when you’re passed over or looked upon with some suspicion.37

Footnote 45 quotes Mauss as saying,

I have come to feel increasingly marginal to the Mormon community during my adult life, at least in a social and intellectual sense, despite my continuing and conscientious participation in church activity (including leadership) and despite my own deep personal faith in the religion itself.

Lindholm goes on to say on page xxiii that

Mormonism is not alone in its desire to censor.  Most Christian traditions–Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant alike–have a long history of disciplining vocal dissent,42 which is a practice supported by a rather strong biblical basis.43.  The LDS Church, however, is different in that its leaders actively discipline select members in order to sustain the appearance of doctrinal purity for the sake of the Church’s integrity and public image.44

What do you make of this church discipline?  Do you have any advice for me?

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51 comments on “Book Review: Latter-Day Dissent

  1. […] Utah State University, and will be publishing a book on the Lost 116 pages.  Maxine was one of the September Six, excommunicated in 1993 for being outspoken on feminism.  After that, she became part of the ministry in the Gnostic […]

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