Bill Russell: Pillars of my Faith

John Dehlin of Mormon Stories has a recording of a 1993 Sunstone Symposium.  Bill Russell gave a very interesting presentation.  I transcribed the entire talk, and wanted to share it with everyone.  Bill certainly has an interesting perspective on things.  He is a past president of the Mormon History Association.  The topic was titled Pillars of my Faith.  I don’t know who the first person was that gave his introduction, but after the first paragraph, everything was said by Bill.

Introduction, “William D. Russell is a professor of American History and Government at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa.  He received his B.A. in Religion from Graceland College.  He has his J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law, and he says he has about 70 hours of graduate study in history in St. Paul in the University of Iowa.  He has published a book, Treasures in Earthen Vessels, an Introduction to the New Testament and he tells me that he was given the True Believer Comeback of the Year Award by the John Whitmer Historical Association in 1985 for affirming the Book of Mormon as legitimate scripture shortly after advocating that the RLDS Church quit publishing the Doctrine and Covenants.  He is also a runner and has run 25 marathons including the LA and the Boston Marathon.”

Bill Russell, “I’ve been a regular attender of the Mormon History Association since 1971 and in those early meetings I met Dick Paul and Leonard Arrington, Mel Smith and a number of others here tonight. In 1984, some of my Mormon History friends suggested I ought to come to Sunstone, and so I wandered out here in 1984 and I think I met Catherine for the first time that year, and I can’t stay away ever since.  Often I’m the only RLDS person here, so I just wanted to assure you that being the case you might think that I am some sort of official spokesman for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I assure you, you can be confident that I don’t speak for any of the general officers of the Church, be they high or low, standing, sitting, or prone. [audience chuckles]

So I am really honored to be asked to explain the Pillars of my Faith before you.  I was born and raised in the RLDS wing of the Mormon movement.  My Father was a full-time paid minister in the RLDS Church.  Our lives revolved around the RLDS church.  To a great extent, mine still does.  And while I still affirm myself as RLDS, and have some commitment to that tradition, a more important commitment for me is the affirmation that I think of myself as Christian.  To be Christian is far more important for me than to be Latter-day Saint.  But another important part of my faith system is my commitment to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Thus I have labeled myself on a number of occasions as a First Amendment Christian.  Some of you may have received letters from me signed that way.

But when filling out questionnaires which ask for my religious preference, I sometimes check ‘other’ and then write in First Amendment Christian because I have not yet seen my religion listed on a questionnaire, but then again I have not yet convinced five other persons to become charter members. [audience chuckles]  But there will be a meeting right after for investigators. [audience chuckles]

So let’s look at the three pillars of my religious self-identification:  #1 First Amendment  freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly is fundamental for me because I believe that religious truth comes not from pronouncements from holy writ or ecclesiastical officials, but from human experience and from free discussion among free women and men.  Indeed, holy writ and pronouncements of ecclesiastical officials are often stumbling blocks for persons who are honestly searching for truth.

#2: I’m a Christian because I choose to believe that God exists and that the life of the man from Nazareth gives us the best clue as to how God would have us live.  I don’t need my Jesus to be perfect or Divine, and I’m certain that the Gospel writers had an imperfect understanding of what he was about.  But the New Testament is simply a place where the religious quest begins for me, it doesn’t end there.

#3: I remain a Latter-day Saint, albeit a Reorganized one, because the RLDS is a community in which I have found love, and it is a community which offers me and others a good sense of belonging.  It also does a reasonable job of encouraging people to be socially responsible human beings. I also feel that because of my roots in the RLDS community, I can be of more service to people in my faith community than would be the case if I became a Methodist, for example.

There are my affirmations as a First Amendment Christian.  Let me explain what I mean, mainly through some biographical reflections.  During my childhood and college years, I was convinced that the church I became a member of by accident of birth happened to be the one true church on the face of the earth.  What luck! [audience chuckles]

I had a fascination with numbers.  Arithmetic was my strongest subject and it led me to calculate with the sense of awe, and I was about 6 when I did this, the statistical improbability of a person being fortunate enough to be born to the true church of Jesus Christ headquartered in Independence, Missouri.  I marveled at this.  In the RLDS Church we have weeklong family camps in the summer which provide some spiritual highs which were often called Mountaintop Experiences at the daily Prayer and Testimony meetings.  There is often a heightened, a gradual heightening of spiritual awareness and receptivity through religious experience that in past eras of American religion was called enthusiasm.

It was common for there to be at least one Prayer and Testimony meeting, usually late in the week in which one or more people would get up and utter a prophesy:  Thus saith the Lord unto my servant Roy Muir… a buddy of mine that called really early, and Brother Muir would be told the good Lord’s current opinion of him.  Usually, the Lord was pleased with Brother Muir.  What an embarrassment it would have been if the Lord had been irked at Brother Muir and said so right in front of all of those people!  [audience chuckles]

The giver of the message from the Lord would usually be a high ranking church official, like a Stake President or Bishop, or a Seventy, or Patriarch.  Often the recipient of a prophecy would be a young man who had a potential to be a star in the church. Women weren’t often spoken to.  Men did the important stuff and they held the priesthood only in those days.  At the age of 19 I was called to the office of Priest in such a prophecy in a big camp meeting, a big church camp.  That first priesthood call isn’t automatic in my church, I got my call directly from On High in front of about 400 people.  But I have gained more self-awareness and religious insight as I reflect upon a prophecy given about 10 years earlier in a camp when I was about 9.

My father was the full-time paid pastor at the time at the 3 congregations in St. Joseph, Missouri.  He was having a difference of opinion with his Stake President, whom he considered a lazy bag of wind.  During a prayer service when the spirit was getting high, and prophecies were starting to flow, one high priest who was closely associated with the lazy bag of wind, got up and began to prophesy to my father: Thus saith the Lord unto my servant Melvin Russell…

As the Lord began to articulate his thoughts concerning Melvin Russell, Melvin Russell began to recognize that this high priest was telling him that God wanted him to knuckle under to the position that he was differing on with this lazy bag of wind stake president.  Well his prophecy might well have been labeled “Follow the Brother.”  My dad began to get hot under the collar, so hot that he got up and walked out of the large tent while the message of God was still in progress.  [audience chuckles]

Thus saith the Lord unto my servant Melvin Russell, Melvin ([shouts]) MELVIN!!! [audience chuckles]

Without saying so explicitly, my dad taught me specifically that claims to revelation should be critically examined.  If they don’t make sense to you, don’t believe them!  Trust the intelligence and judgment that God gave you, even over authoritative pronouncements allegedly issuing from on high.  More than once, when someone would prophesy at a reunion, dad would quietly tell family members, ‘I wouldn’t pay any attention to that.’  [audience chuckles]

My dad often criticized the revelations added to our Doctrine and Covenants, considering them not revelations at all.  In that tradition I have twice counseled our current president, W. Wallace Smith to cease having revelations.  [audience chuckles]  But do you think he would listen to me?!  On more than one occasion, dad chewed out the apostle who was his immediate supervisor in the church organization, the boss in other words.  He recognized that all church officials are sinners too.  They are very fallible, whatever their position in the church.  And that is fundamental for me, and why First Amendment freedom of inquiry and belief is so important, so my first pillar is that all religious pronouncements must be subject to critical scrutiny by the individual even if that pronouncement is in holy writ, or by ecclesiastical official, or by a spouse who thinks he is superior because he has a penis and/or priesthood office.  I say that because happily in my church, the former is no longer a requirement for the latter.  [audience applauds]

I say listen to the brethren, and then do what you think is right.  Don’t be intimidated by ecclesiastical actions, be it silencing from priesthood office, which is the main sanction that the RLDS church uses, or excommunication, the main threat in your tradition. I believe my own dignity as a human being is more important than my status in a mere church organization, and I want to look at myself in the mirror and not vomit.

When I graduated from Graceland in 1960, (that ages me), I was offered a position on the editorial staff at Herald House, the RLDS publishing house.  I loved the job, and I began attending a nearby Methodist seminary on a part-time basis.  Seminary was the most intellectually challenging time of my life. I gained a great appreciation for the Bible, but I also recognized more than ever, its fallibility.  Perhaps the biggest eye-opener was my study of the four gospels. On the one hand, I found them very inspirational as I read about the life of the Galilean who they nailed to a tree.

But on the other hand, Lindsay Farragot, the best teacher I ever had, helped me to see that the four gospels were partisan propaganda.  Each evangelist has his own agenda when he wrote.  Matthew and Luke were written at least in part to correct what they saw were Mark’s errors.  The fourth gospel has very little in common with the other three, until we get to the Holy Week.  The author of Luke-Acts has a clear political agenda.  So I appreciated both the humanity and inspirational qualities of the four gospels.  I also fell in love with the Epistles of Paul.  The RLDS Church has traditionally emphasized the law too much.  Paul’s radical rejection of the Mosaic Law was liberating for me, as was his focus on salvation by grace, rather than by works, and of course, Paul was engaged in a mighty struggle with the General Authorities, in case you haven’t read Galatians.

He didn’t cower before the greater ecclesiastical authority of the original apostles who had by far the best possible credentials: they had been with Jesus from the baptism until the crucifixion.  Yet Paul didn’t knuckle under to those superlative apostles as he sarcastically referred to them.  Paul fought them and he won, and if he hadn’t won, we would not be here today.

So travelling down this path, I began to see that Joseph Smith was in real trouble, at least for me, not that he was worried.  [audience chuckles]  Joseph committed Mormonism to positions at odds with biblical and historical scholarship.  Joseph regarded the scriptures as true, insofar as correctly translated.  I discovered the problem usually wasn’t with the translation, or the transmission process, the problem usually was right there in the originals, and I also came to view the Book of Mormon as fiction, but felt it deserved it’s place in the canon of scriptures (that’s why I got that True Believers award), because it’s the founding document of Mormonism, and because it also has inspired many people to do good.  But my recent experience writing a book on the 1989 mass murder in Kirtland, Ohio by an RLDS splinter prophet has made me aware that the Book of Mormon has also inspired men to do evil.

Jeff Lundgren studied the scriptures diligently, and considered the Book of Mormon the most important of the standard works, the fullness.  He learned the love of guns from his father, and he was fascinated by the violence of the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament.  He quoted over and over again the various passages from the Book of Mormon which warned, ‘Repent or be destroyed.’  He gathered devout Latter-day Saints who wanted to build Zion and see the return of Christ.  He wanted to have faith like the Brother of Jared, faith so strong they would be able to see and feel Christ.  If they could produce a community of saints who had repented of their sins, Christ would return and Zion would be established.

But the five members of the Avery family were hopelessly unrepentant, so they had to be destroyed.  Jeff loved the story of Nephi beheading Laban, and stealing Laban’s treasures.  That story contains two of the most horrible passages in the standard works, indeed, two of the most dreadful lines ever written:  ‘Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.’  ‘It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.’

The first sentence is a great justification for holy war.  The second sentence would serve quite well as a justification for the inquisition.  Neither passage can be condemned strongly enough. Incredibly we quote these sentences with approval, in my church anyway, and I suspect in yours.  By doing so, we place terrible ideas in the minds of our members.  We abdicate our responsibility to provide moral leadership in our churches if we fail to condemn ideas like that.  I don’t care where they are found.  Don’t ask me to flush my brain down the toilet, or ignore my moral values just because I’m reading the scriptures.  And I’m confident of this: the jury that I observed in Painesville, Ohio would have sentenced Nephi to death for murder and robbery just as surely as they sentenced Jeff Lundgren to the electric chair.  I see no real difference in the two cases.  I’ve come to the very strong opinion that the Church has an affirmative duty to warn its members of the existence of extremely dangerous ideas in the pages of the standard works such as murder in the name of God, sexism, racism, and so forth.  Perhaps Deseret Books and Herald House should place warning labels on the standard works.  [audience chuckles]  Some passages contained herein can be harmful to your health.  Maybe we should register Bibles rather than guns.

Now I’ve often heard it said, if you’re going to destroy someone’s faith, you need to replace that faith with a faith that is a better one.  Possibly that happened to me.  First with the historical and biblical studies that I’ve mentioned, and secondly my Christian Ethics professor, John Swamly, helped me apply the New Testament and the prophet s of the Old Testament to the social problems of our day:  issues of war and peace, civil rights, poverty, the environment, and many others were addressed in his classes.  I had rarely seen that in the church.

There were laboratories readily available to apply these principles.  I soon found myself heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the Kansas City area.  I deeply believed that I was doing what the gospel demanded of me if I were truly a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I helped push the RLDS Church in the area of Civil Rights. Right wing fanatics picketed me personally at both our Herald House offices and in the 1966 RLDS World Conference. The First Presidency would sometimes tell the managing editor, or me directly that I’d gone too far in that last editorial.  Rather than accept their directives, I would write the First Presidency long letters, carefully explaining their errors.  Incredibly they didn’t fire me.

It was very traumatic, to radically reinterpret the Latter-day Saint traditions that I had been taught as a child and had been happy to so luckily to receive.  I was losing something that had been very precious.  Sometimes I felt like Joseph Smith was a fraud. It was a very painful thought, but my love for the New Testament, and the commitment to social action that I had learned at that Methodist seminary may have kept me from doing what many disaffected Latter-day Saints do: dismiss all organized religion as nonsense.

As my Latter-day Saint faith declined, my appreciation for Christianity grew.  So the second pillar of my faith, is that in Jesus of Nazareth, I find my best clue to the kind of person God would have me be.  During the 1970s and early 80s my commitment to the RLDS tradition probably continued to decline a bit.  The church leadership did begin to shed its sectarianism, which I appreciated, but I didn’t feel they had a message that I could relate to either.  I sometimes wondered if they had a message at all.  But I don’t look to church leaders in Independence or Salt Lake City for my faith anyway.  New bursts of truth are not likely to come from the bureaucrats at the top of a bureaucracy, even if we do call them prophet.

But in the last 7 years, my appreciation for the RLDS community has been restored to a reasonable extent.  It has been restored in the crucible of life’s crises.  In the midst of recent traumas of my own life, the community of faith has brought new life to me when I was in great need of it.  The new life I experienced helped me to value above all the new worth of the women and men of my life. The first of these issues was my divorce.  Now I know you don’t experience this phenomenon out here in Utah, but we RLDS have a divorce rate that’s probably comparable to the national average.  You know it’s the most painful experience of my life. I have been blessed with a happy life, but then the roof gradually came tumbling down, and it didn’t seem to be there was anything we could do about it.

The thing that brought me out of it was the love and support of persons largely from the RLDS community who attempted to live their lives in harmony with the teachings of the humble carpenter they nailed to the tree.   These faithful souls were mostly RLDS, but some were LDS.  I will never forget the words of support and love at the time of my divorce at the 1986 MHA [meetings] from Lavina Fielding Anderson and Jack and Linda Newell.  I was barely to the point where this nightmare was barely behind me when a nasty local political battle erupted.

I was on the school board, and we had to get used to being regularly called a liar and a cheat, getting booed and hissed when trying to explain board policy was a new experience for me.  I even had an attorney on the other side stick her tongue out at me when I was speaking at a board meeting. I think she liked me. [audience chuckles]

In the midst of this nightmare, once again, people of the community of faith came forth and provided the love that helped me through it.  This time it was mainly people from the Lamoni RLDS congregation.  I had not been a member of that congregation for the previous 15 years, and felt they probably considered me a heretic, and probably rightly so.  I had joined with other Graceland liberals and had established a congregation in exile 7 miles south of town across the state line in Missouri.  We hid down there and did what we wanted to do ignoring what the church wants its congregations to do. But it surprised me that I got so much support from the Lamoni RLDS.

These two experiences helped prepare me to be more sensitive to the pain in other’s lives. For example, lately I’ve taken a close look at two cases of battered women.  The first was Alice Lundren who I talked about earlier today whose husband, the prophet murderer, was a male chauvinist pig of the highest order.  When Jeff began dating Alice in her first semester in college, he told he to drop out of college.  I know from more than 1000 pages of letters from Alice Lundgren that she is a very intelligent woman, but she dropped out of college at the end of her first semester as ordered by Jeff.

Jeff began to control her life entirely, the finances, her access to others and so forth.  He made every decision from naming the kids to what she would fix for supper.  That control increased over the years, especially in those periods when Jeff got more religious, so did the mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Jeff would have a great spiritual experience, and then rape his wife.  He would teach a scripture class, and then force Alice to consume his feces.  Alice has made a great recovery in prison.  She says she is freer now serving 150 years in a hell-hole prison in Ohio than she was during 20 years that she was married to the prophet murderer, and I certainly believe her.

More recently, I became involved in the case of a Lamoni woman with five children who has been beaten by her ex-husband on many occasions.  Some of the most pious and respected RLDS men in the community believed her ex-husbands typical excuses and character assassinations. As a result the victim was victimized further and dismissed by some crazy woman, a liar, a bitch or a slut.  The local police turned a deaf ear to her, as did the prosecuting attorney: no charges have been filed in some severe cases here.  When she could not get a court order to prevent her ex-husband from getting visitation to her children every other weekend, 100 of us began lining the streets in front of the Lamoni Police Station where the transfer of children takes place.  By this we seek to ensure her safety, to be witnesses to any violent acts if they occur, to let her know that she has significant community support, and bear witness of our outrage of such acts.

So if God exists, and I think She does, She calls us, She calls a community of faith to work to ease the pain of our sisters and brothers and so this is my third pillar: that is the divine principle I see in the life of the humble carpenter.  I believe we need to spend less time in church, and more time working to heal the broken.  Thank you.

[audience applauds]



3 comments on “Bill Russell: Pillars of my Faith

  1. It seems that Bill has retreated completely from any LDS/RLDS doctrines. He seemingly has repudiated Joseph Smith as a prophet and definitely feels that the Book of Mormon is fiction and not divinely inspired. Thus I can see how he has acquired some of his viewpoints on some of the scenarios in the book of Mormon.

    is affinity for the RLDS seems to be a cultural one mostly, with little of the faith remaining.

    Although he confirms that he is a follower of Christ, he seemingly has disconnected Christ from the Old Testament, not acknowledging that the same Christ that he worships is the Jehovah that the Old Testament Israelites sometimes worshiped.

    He seems to be all over the place with his ideas about God. “So if God exists, and I think She does”


  2. Is there anyway you could link to that recording? I would love to hear it.

  3. I thought I had, but I just added the link above. Here it is as well: http://mormonstories.org/bonus-2-mormon-mavericks-william-d-russell-and-richard-d-poll/

    You can download it as one of the Episodes of Mormon Stories on iTunes for free.

    Glenn, I certainly wouldn’t view Russell as a “typical” RLDS member at all, though I will say that the RLDS church allows quite a bit of leeway in beliefs, especially when compared to the LDS. One of my favorite posts is called an Interview with the Community of Christ. I think you’ll find it interesting, and it represents a lot of diversity within the RLDS church.

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