Excommunication is Counter-Productive

Does excommunication do more harm than good?  I think the answer is unmistakably yes. It is just simply a bad idea to turn loyal members into enemies.  There is the old adage that “they can leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone.”  I think when the church excommunicates someone, the church create their own enemies, and causes more bad will, not goodwill.  It is simply counter-productive.  Case in point:  the most vehement anti-Mormons are former Mormons.  The church could do more to control anti-Mormonism if they simply didn’t create so many enemies via excommunication.

William Shepard and Michael Marquardt have just come out with a new book, Lost Apostles:  Forgotten Members of Mormonism’s Original Quorum of Twelve.  The book is dedicated to 6 of the original 12 apostles that never returned to the church: John Boynton, Luke Johnson, Lyman Johnson, Thomas Marsh, William McLellin, and William Smith.  I’d like to talk about some of the circumstances regarding not only these men, but the excommunications of the Three Witnesses, and the most of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon.  What were the issues these men quarreled over?

The years 1837-38 are known as the most challenging times in LDS History.  I’ve previously discussed the Kirtland Bank Crisis, but let me offer a brief summary here.  The saints in Kirtland had just completed the beautiful temple there.  Kirtland was one of the largest communities in Ohio, and the town needed a bank, so they petitioned the state of Ohio to create a bank.  While some LDS members claimed that there were anti-Mormons in the Ohio legislature (and there were), several legislators were also worried about under-capitalized banks.  These two factors led the legislature to turn down the charter for a bank.

Discouraged, the saints in Kirtland set up an “anti-bank” (curiously, this sounds to me like anti-Nephi-Lehies.)  The Kirtland Safety Society Anti-bank was set up to fill the banking needs of the city.  In the 19th century, currency wasn’t regulated as it is today, and many banks as well as anti-banks issues bank notes that were treated as currency.  You can think of them as IOU’s that can be distributed as currency.

The failure of the Kirtland Anti-bank was part of a national banking crisis, failing with about 1/3 of all banks in the United States.  The bank was grossly undercapitalized, bringing the economy of Kirtland to a screeching halt.  From pages 139-40

In the spring of 1837, the Safety Society closed its doors and stopped redeeming bank notes with specie.  Wilford Woodruff [not an apostle yet] recorded that on April 9 in the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith blamed the bank’s failure on “characters that professed to be his friends & friends to humanity” but had “turned tr[a]itors & opposed the Currency.”  A convert who had been enthralled with Lyman Johnson’s preaching in New York, Ira Ames wrote that Lyman and Boynton had purchases a farm in Kirtland, making a down payment and borrowing the balance, then subdivided the land to sell at inflated prices.  Ames bought eighteen acres at $100 per acre.  After paying the apostles$1,500, he signed a mortgage.  In the crisis following the bank failure, Boynton and Johnson were unable to meet their payments on the farm and the land reverted back to the original owner.  Ames lost his land, along with his $1,500 and his improvements.  He bitterly lamented:  “Boyington and Johnson tried to get my horses from me for $300.”

Historian Ronald K. Esplin explained that “it was in this atmosphere that some of the saints—especially certain leaders—began to differ publicly with the Prophet over fundamental issues of leadership.”  They wondered “whether Jospeh Smith should confine his leadership matters to matters narrowly religious or whether it was appropriate for him to also advise the Saints in economic and other ‘temporal’ affairs.”  Boynton and Johnson were roundly criticized for being “merchant apostles,”  Esplin wrote, and they, in turn, blamed Joseph Smith for their predicament.  Luke Johnson was “more quietly critical” but felt disheartened and “moved to the fringes of Kirtland Mormon society.”  Warren Parrish, an officer in the Kirtland Safety Society and Joseph Smith’s former respected secretary, emerged in the spotlight as a leading critical voice and opponent of Joseph throughout most of 1837.

It was in this atmosphere that historian Dean Jessee wrote that 300 people “left the church, representing about 15 percent of the Kirtland population.”  Among those leaving/excommunicated included Book of Mormon Witness Martin Harris, apostles Luke Johnson, John Boynton, as well as Warren Parrish.  These loyal members turned dissidents took the church to court and were awarded the printing press as compensation for their financial losses.  However, “loyalists” burned the printing offices down in retaliation, and in the process, damaged the adjacent temple.  Hepzibah Richards said “The Temple and other buildings [were] badly scorched.”

Warren Parrish’s letter to the Painesville Republican newspaper (and signed by Luke Johnson, John Boynton, Sylvester Smith, and Leonard Rich) claimed Joseph and Sidney weren’t honest and “lie by revelation, swindle by revelation, cheat and defraud by revelation, run away by revelation; and if they do not mend their ways, I fear they will at last damned by revelation.”  In Shepard’s Sunstone presentation in Kirtland earlier this year, he said that the only apostles to remain consistently loyal to Joseph were Brigham Young and Heber C Kimball.  Things were so bad that Joseph left in the dead of night, headed for Missouri.

Joseph had previously appointed Book of Mormon witnesses David Whitmer, John Whitmer,  and Oliver Cowdery to lead the church in Missouri.  Previous to Joseph excape from Kirtland, he has sent President of the Twelve Thomas Marsh , and next in line David Patten to investigate possible problems in Missouri.  Patten and Marsh were alarmed to learn that Missouri leaders had sold land and personally profited from someo f these land sales, despite the fact that similar transactions had occurred in Kirtland.  Marsh and Patten led a purge against Missouri leaders and charged these three men, as well as WW Phelps with (from page 117) “selling their lands in Jackson County, misuse of funds, and violating the Word of Wisdom.” Marsh then removed them from church leadership “Despite being outside of their jurisdiction, Marsh and Patten determined to do the very thing in Missouri that dissidents had done in Kirtland and topple the leaders.”

Of course Cowdery also was upset with Joseph’s “dirty, nasty, filthy” affair with Fanny Alger.  I find it hard to blame Cowdery, because even if one believes the polygamy revelations date to 1831, it wasn’t acknowledged to anyone in the church until at least 1840.  But even after excommunicating the Missouri leaders, they didn’t leave them alone. Sidney Rigdon issued the famous “Salt Sermon” in which he said dissenters (this group includes Cowdery and the Whitmers) were (from page 176)

“good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men….He said it is the duty of this people to trample them into the earth and if the country cannot be freed any other way I will assist to trample them down or to erect gallows on the square of Far West and hang them as they did the gamblers at Vickburgh [in 1835] and it would be an act at which the angels would smile with approbation.  Joseph Smith in a short speech sanctioned what had been said by Rigdon, though said he[,] I don’t want the brethren to act unlawfully…”

David Whitmer, Lyman Johnson, Oliver Cowdery, and WW Phelps received a letter from 83 Danites threatening them.  The four men left for Clay County to seek legal advice.  While they were gone, their lands were confiscated and their families were forced from their homes.  When they returned, they found “their wives and children on the road, clothing and bedding in their arms.”  Phelps asked for forgiveness and was accepted back, but the other three left the area, staying with on again and off again apostle William McLellin.

Marsh was soon called on a mission to England that he never served.  Instead, the Mormon War broke out in Missouri, and apostle David Patten was killed in a battle.  (The Haun’s Mill Massacre came at this time as well.)  Marsh was growing concerned with the violence.  Non-Mormon mobs visited Caldwell and Clay Counties, forcing saints out.  Rigdon denounced Mormons espousing pacifism (such as Marsh).  In retaliation for the previous raids, Mormons attacked Gallatin and Millport, invading homes, evicting women and children, and burning a number of structures to the ground.  Marsh felt it was time to leave Missouri, and later testified of Mormon atrocities.  From page 188,

Joseph Smith preached that “Mormons who refused to take up arms….should be shot or otherwise put to death.”

If they thought their affidavits might have a conciliatory effect, they were wrong.  They inflamed the non-Mormons, whose suspicions were confirmed that Mormons were on a medieval style crusade.  Marsh wrote to Far West to his sister and brother-in-law, Anna and Lewis Abbott that “I left the Mormons & Joseph Smith Jr. for conscience sake and that alone, for I have come to the conclusion that he is a very wicked man; notwithstanding all my efforts to persuade myself to the Contra[ry].”

William McLellin was later rumored to have participated in some of the raids to recover property from previous Mormon raids.  It’s been a fascinating book to read so far, and I think illustrates the folly that excommunication helps the church.  The reality of these situations is very complicated, and I find the men I’ve covered here so far as having legitimate concerns.  I won’t say that these men were blameless, because there is plenty of blame to share in both sides of any disagreement.  But I think there concerns were valid.  I also think that the excommunications proved to INCREASE hostility to the church and caused many more problems than they solved.  These excommunications in particular did more harm to the church than any short-term good that short-sighted leaders sought.

I fear that current LDS leadership is repeating the errors of the past in trying to discipline Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, and Rock Waterman (although John has posted on Facebook that his stake president has asked to meet with him to “de-deescalate the situation.)  Certainly the “milk strippings” story about Thomas Marsh is a gross oversimplification of his problems with the LDS Church, and I think charges of apostasy of these 3 people are also oversimplifications of the real issues.  What are your thoughts?


8 comments on “Excommunication is Counter-Productive

  1. Is ex-communication counter-productive? Who cares. Its necessary and commanded. This is the Church of Jesus Christ, it will survive long after the JDs and KKs are dead and gone.


  2. There is one large false assumption in your post. Yes, generally speaking, those who are excommunicated leave bitter to the church and many turn against it. But excommunication isn’t about the church. It’s about the member (or ex-member). It is only slightly connected to the other members of the church; as it is the ‘final’ step used in a disciplinary process that will (hopefully) protect other members from learning/teaching false doctrine.

    The excommunication process and the actual act of excommunication is meant as a tool to help the member leave behind the false doctrine or their ungodly behaviors behaviors. For example, their are certain sins that, when committed, are difficult to repent from. Through excommunication, your covenants are considered null/void. As such, you are no longer held as accountable for following them as you would if you were still a member.

    The excommunication process is just that, a process. For most members, all one has to do is change their current course of action and the proceedings end. No excommunication. This is not always easy or possible though.

    As your post suggests, many do not see church disciplinary actions in this way. That’s sad. the whole point of the church is to bring people closer to God. and yes, even the disciplinary hearings, including the final act of excommunication, is a tool to bring people closer to God. It protects them from committing greater sin and provides a way for those who have gone astray to correction there direction.

  3. The causes of excommunication in the cases above were not based on doctrine–not a single one of these apostles or witnesses EVER refuted the Book of Mormon or any of its doctrines, and neither is Kate Kelly or Rock Waterman. As such excommunication is inappropriate. I think Sidney Rigdon’s Salt Sermon was not inspired by God at all, and he should have been excommunicated for calling for the deaths of the Whitmers and Oliver Cowdery. Murder in the name of God is ecclesiastical abuse, and Oliver and the Whitmers were right to take issue with Rigdon’s speech. Rigdon not only made the issue worse, but caused the illegal confiscation and eviction of women and children. I dare anyone to say that God inspired Rigdon to declare “hang[ing Oliver and the Whitmers] as they did the gamblers at Vickburgh [in 1835] and it would be an act at which the angels would smile with approbation.” It was an awful speech in the name of God, and the angels were frowning over Rigdon’s incendiery remarks.

    The result of these disagreements wasn’t apostasy at all. Apostasy is a catch all term for “not following your leaders directions.” I don’t fault Oliver or the Whitmers at all. It was more of an economic disagreement than a theological one. And the intense persectuion that followed could have been avoided if cooler heads had prevailed.

    As for Kirtland, the bank fiasco was the result of people without expertise to run a bank, and Joseph’s misplaced optimism. The charges of wickedness among everyone were improper. It was simply good men without the knowledge to handle such complex financial transactions that turned on each other–it wasn’t apostasy.

    That’s my problem with the charge of apostasy. As BiV said in her post, it isn’t the proper term. I do believe that excommunication is a valid tool that should be used far more sparingly than it is today or even in 1837. It harmed Oliver, the Whitmers, Boynton, McLellin, etc. To call them cancers is an unjust simplification that does not look at the facts of the issue at all, and for anyone to call these fine founders of the church “cancers” is an unrighteous judgment. A sliver, while painful, does not require cutting off entire limbs, or killing the individual. It is an over-reaction to a treatable medical condition, more akin to using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. It does more harm than good.

  4. Arguing that the Church misuses the word “apostasy” is a semantic argument that is as beside the point as arguing that 18-year-olds can’t be called “elders” because they’re relatively young. Etymological dictionaries include “rebellion” and “revolt” among the original senses of the Greek “apostasia”, and the LDS Church has never made any secret of the fact that it considers public opposition to Church leaders to be included under the umbrella of apostasy.

    I, for one, am glad that Church leaders protect the Church through disciplinary actions, when necessary.

  5. DKL has an interesting response at Mormon Mentality that discusses the argument against labeling Kate Kelly an apostate. Jana Riess at Religious News Services says there is room for all in the church and

    we believe that excommunication is not the best way to address conflict over doctrine, policy, or tradition. We ask our leaders to consider other ways of maintaining boundaries, strengthening Church members, and encouraging them to grow spiritually within Mormonism’s large and embracing community without the fear and despair the threat of excommunication sows not only in those threatened but in their families, friends, and those who share similar concerns about LDS Church doctrine or history—even those who do so silently.

    See more at: http://janariess.religionnews.com/2014/06/16/mormon-bloggers-podcasters-emphasize-room-lds-church/#sthash.NXniPDGj.dpuf

  6. Meridian Magazine has a nice article on this topic (http://www.ldsmag.com/article/1/14497). It also links to the following from the church;

    “Church discipline may be …used to address apostasy — the repeated, clear and open public opposition to the Church, its leaders and its doctrine. If someone seeks to teach as doctrine something that is contrary to the Church’s beliefs, attempts to persuade other Church members to their point of view or publicly insists the Church change its doctrine to align with their personal views, they would be counseled by a local Church leader and asked to cease that practice. If they fail to do so, Church discipline may follow.”

  7. […] time, there have been tens, if not hundreds, of blog posts (are you aware all of those links were just from one blog, but the ones in these parentheticals are not?), podcasts (that’s a podcast […]

  8. Just discovered your blog and enjoy reading the posts. I’d like to point out that Luke Johnson did return to the church, and spent many years as a bishop in Toole. He has many descendents in the church, including my wife. I think it’s important to remember that the Johnson brothers, and many other early leaders, were often in their 20’s and had been in the church for only a couple of years when called to be apostles. We should be gentle in our evaluation of their actions and outcomes. Also, I’ve participated in several disciplinary counsels, and all were very positive.

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