Latter-day DissentBy: Mormon Heretic
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 was 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.
- Lynne Whitesides*
- Paul Toscano
- Maxine Hanks
- Lavina Anderson
- Michael Quinn
- 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. I 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.
I really thought Whitesides “Gestapo-like” comment was a wild exaggeration, but Donald Jessee, former employee of the church PR department confirmed that files are kept on certain members and discipline up to excommunication does occur. According to Wikipedia,
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. 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.
In response to this public discourse, the LDS Church spokesman Don LeFevre acknowledged the existence of the committee. 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.”
After reading all this, I wonder how much the apostles monitor blogs. 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. A few weeks ago, 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. I really wonder how things will turn out for John, as it appears that something odd is happening in a few stakes up near Cache Valley.
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.“
If you’re interested in more information, I have a longer version of this post. What do you think of the state of intellectualism in the church?