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?