Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith
The September Six
Lavina Fielding Anderson
[p.3]During the month of September 1993 six Mormon scholars in Utah, representing both liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum, were served with notices by ecclesiastical leaders to appear before church courts, called disciplinary councils, to answer charges of apostasy or conduct unbecoming members of the church. By the end of September five of these men and women were excommunicated (expelled) from the LDS church and one woman was disfellowshipped (forbidden to participate in church activities). The church denied that it had conducted a purge.
I am one of these September Six. The issue over which my disciplinary council was held could have been the evaluation of historical facts, as was the case of D. Michael Quinn (excommunicated), or feminism, as it was in the cases of Maxine Hanks (excommunicated) and Lynne Whitesides (disfellowshipped), though probably not theology, as in the cases of Paul Toscano (excommunicated) and Avraham Gileadi (excommunicated). Instead, the cause of action in my proceeding was my discussion of ecclesiastical abuse—church leaders exercising “unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39) over members. If I may appropriate a phrase from another context, the shortest definition of ecclesiastical abuse is what Paul Edwards, a scholar of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, terms “the Sumo Wrestling School of Administration,” which he defines as “throwing your weight around while trying to cover your rear.”1
[p.4]Abuse occurs when any church officer, acting in his calling and using the weight of his office, coerces compliance, imposes his personal opinions as church doctrine or policy, or resorts to such power plays as threats and intimidation to insure that his personal views prevail in a conflict of opinions. The suggestion is always made that the member’s faith is weak, testimony inadequate, and commitment to the church lacking.
Seven factors characterize the most abusive encounters:
(1) A difference of opinion is not treated simply as that, but as a sign of moral inadequacy. If the difference stems from a member’s scholarship or involves application of professional tools to an aspect of Mormon studies, the officer may lack the technical expertise to discuss the point at issue and frequently shifts the discussion to the dangers of promulgating any perspective but the traditional one. He often insists that there is something wrong with alternative views.
(2) A request for help is seen as an invitation to judge a member’s worthiness.
(3) No matter what the content of the initial issue, any issue can escalate into a power struggle in which the ecclesiastical officer demands compliance because of his office and accuses the member of not sustaining his leaders and/or of apostasy. These charges, in turn, lead to threats to confiscate temple recommends, to release the member from local responsibilities, and to conduct disciplinary councils which could result in temporary disfellowshipment or excommunication.
(4) If the member protests such actions and refuses to yield to intimidation, then the very act of protest is seen as further evidence [p.5] of rebellion. The officer unilaterally terminates discussion by citing his authority. The member, rather than having a problem, has become the problem.
(5) If another ecclesiastical leader such as a stake president or an area president becomes aware of the situation, the original leader controls the flow of information to him. The opportunities to present biased information, reframe the issue as one of disobedience, and portray the member as a trouble-maker are legion. The first leader seldom suggests a group discussion or meeting that involves a mediator or referee; rather, he is usually able to use the weight of the second officer’s authority to reinforce his own in the effort to force capitulation.
(6) The member naturally feels unjustly treated. Feelings of helplessness, betrayal, anger, and depression frequently follow. Expressions of “increased love” (D&C 121:43) seldom if ever follow “rebukes,” only additional warnings about conformity that increase the sense of powerlessness in the face of unfair treatment.
(7) If the member withdraws in pain from church activity to protect himself, herself, and/or the family from this assault upon their spiritual well-being, the withdrawal is seen as evidence of the member’s deficiency, not as a cry for help or as a symptom of an abusive system.
In the spring 1993 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought I documented over a hundred cases of ecclesiastical abuse directed primarily at scholars and historians. Since then, over a hundred ordinary members of the church have come forward with their own experiences of injustice, usually suffered in silence, bewilderment, and anguish. Such abuse is not a social or political problem for me. It is a spiritual one—a matter of conscience. I consider myself to be a believing and orthodox Mormon. Hence, I speak now from the center of my religious tradition, using the language of my religion. Two scriptures have run repeatedly through my mind: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). That is what happened to so many of the people I have talked to—decent, ordinary members of the church have been despised and esteemed not. And the second one, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done [p.6]it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). Ecclesiastical abuse spoke directly to my conscience and I answered it.
I have pondered the unmistakable reality of this abusive intolerance carefully and prayerfully for over two years, ever since a joint council of the LDS First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the highest-ranking administrative bodies in the LDS church hierarchy, issued a statement against unofficial symposia. I certainly knew it was risky to voice dissent, since our church has a long history of shooting the messenger that brings unpleasant news. I never received any spiritual guarantees that I would be safe or that the church would welcome the news and change quickly, but I did receive over and over again the assurance that it was the right thing to do. That assurance has been the single most important factor in the strength I have felt at every step of this process. I was impressed that in the scores of letters I have received expressing love and support, the person who spoke most directly and most insightfully to the issue of conscience was not a Mormon at all, but a Catholic friend, who said: “I have in my life done a few costly things for the sake of my conscience, and I am proudest of them. May it be so for you” (Freda M. De Pillis to Lavina Fielding Anderson, 20 Sept. 1993).
As I gathered with a few friends on 23 September 1993, while the disciplinary council met without me a few blocks away, we ate popcorn and guacamole dip, exchanged the latest rumors and news, and watched A Man for All Seasons. Fred Buchanan, whose own essay is included in this compilation, had been working in his yard and felt compelled to join us. He drove over to the house and walked in, his face pale and stricken with sadness. As he tried to express his sympathy for me, I said, “How many times in our lives do we get to take a stand on a question of conscience? So much of what we do is choosing degrees of political correctness or balancing ethical standards against social constraints, or being ‘reasonable’ or ‘realistic.’ I feel lucky. This is a privilege that doesn’t come to everyone.” I did not realize, until I said those words, how deeply I meant and felt this. I also did not realize until I received the notice of excommunication the next morning that, no matter how well prepared I was or how carefully chosen my commitment, the blow would be so heavy.
I believe that the main issue is a struggle for the soul of Mormonism. Against a religion that has increasingly become a multiplication [p.7]of forms and observances, catechisms and orthodoxies, the exuberant expansiveness of Mormon theology presents itself with vitality and vigor. Both the gospel of Jesus and Mormon doctrine teach love as the basis of human relations, liberation from all limitations, and an absolutely irreducible respect for human dignity and freedom. Ecclesiastical intimidation, silencing, and punishment violate these principles in every way. And it is the principles that will ultimately triumph—cracking, crumbling, and sweeping aside shameful practices that have their basis in fear, not love.
Historian Karl C. Sandberg points out that the terminology change from “church court” to “disciplinary council” may have had unexpected significance:
“Courts” depend on a body of law and interpretation of the law, since very few cases are exact replicas of previous ones. The law is cumbersome, but it is written down and says that like cases must be treated in the manner of like precedents. It is the ultimate protection for the individual.
To “discipline,” on the other hand, is “to train by instruction and practice, especially to teach self-control to; to teach to obey rules or accept authority…; to punish in order to gain control or to enforce obedience; to impose order on” (American Heritage Dictionary). … Every organization needs to exercise discipline (maintain order) to accomplish its purposes. The question to be raised here and to be reviewed periodically is this: does the shift away from “court” to “discipline” connote a shift away from the law, which protects the individual, to control and enforced obedience, which protect the institution? It seems to me to be an open and fruitful question (‘Mormonism and the Puritan Connection: The Trials of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson and Several Persistent Questions Bearing on Church Governance,” 12-15, forthcoming in Sunstone).
In 2 Timothy 1:7, the apostle Paul encouraged the young bishop Timothy with these words: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Recently, fifteen good men, sincerely desiring to do the will of God, sat in judgement on my membership in the LDS church. If any of them had read this scripture, I wonder how they would have interpreted it. I know how it speaks to me.
When the histories of this turbulent period are written, I think [p.8]historians will conclude that the Mormon church was wracked and rent by a spirit of fear, acting out a nightmare that took the form of scapegoating six of its own. Ecclesiastical officers have exercised, not godly power, but unrighteous dominion. Kindly and loving as individuals, they have collectively acted in punitive and unloving anger. Instead of manifesting sound judgement, they have stereotyped, demonized, and spurned. By their actions, they have demeaned the community they have been called to represent and the values of free agency their institution proclaims.
I have made many mistakes of my own and have contributed to the mistakes of others, but I know in my bones that it is no mistake now to call for a return to the gospel of Jesus, to call for greater love, forgiveness, and reconciliation in our community. Healing can occur in and be extended from whole individuals only, not from those who are codependent on an abusive institution. Ecclesiastical abuse must be addressed and solved. Certainly some organizational and structural changes will do much toward providing a sorely missing system of checks and balances. But the real protection of members lies in their own sense of empowerment, in an individual sense of duty to God rather than to the institution, and in the primacy of individual conscience.
Lavina Fielding Anderson, proprietor of Editing, Inc., is a former Associate Editor of The Ensign and editor of the Journal of Mormon History.
[p.3]1. See D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View [p.4](Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989) and his study on Mormon hierarchy forthcoming from Signature Books. Lynne Whitesides is president of the Mormon Women’s Forum. See Paul and Margaret Toscano, Strangers in Paradox (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987); Avraham Gileadi, The Last Days: Types and Shadows from the Bible and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991); Paul M. Edwards, “A Comment on the Writing of Ethics,” in Distinguished Author Lectures, 1988-1989, Roger Yarrington, ed., (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1989), l:13.