Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Calderwood's Concerns Should Be The Church's Collective Concerns


"When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser." -Elder Dallin H. Oaks

I fully agree with the above statement by Elder Oaks. Likewise, our Church is the loser when church leaders retaliate and force out church members who voice concerns in public. Despite my holy hope for holy leadership, it would be an egregious error to assume that even good, but fallible LDS leaders, cannot get things "wrong." Too often, despite the great inclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church excludes people and sends the sad message: "You do not belong here." I believe the Church should be strong enough to allow healthy public dissent. Make no mistake, there is an unjust wrong being done to my friends Marisa Pond Calderwood and Carson Calderwood.

With permission, here are their own words:
This Thursday, May 21st, we will be tried for apostasy in the Mormon church. We have been accused of apostasy because we have publicly discussed difficult, yet true issues about the church's history and changes in doctrine, which have caused us to not believe this is God's one true church. Although we are in a spiritual and emotional place that allows us to deal with excommunication, many people are not because of fear of rejection by family, friends and community. We are choosing to go to the disciplinary council instead of quietly resigning so that we can be a voice for them and point out the problems in excommunicating people for open public discourse and disbelief.

We've seen the cognitive dissonance in ourselves and others when facts that used to be considered anti-Mormon lies are now admitted by the church to be true. It was so painful for us that we want to have these conversations to help mitigate some of the heart ache for those who are suffering like we did. Also, other members look down on those having doubts as less faithful. We want to be vocal so that those who make these judgments can see that the issues are real and legitimate without easy answers. Furthermore, it's better to love and include rather than shame and ostracize. Although individuals are having these traumatic faith crises, the real problem is that the church is going through a truth crisis.

We believe that “the truth will set [us] free” and that “the truth has nothing to fear.” This search for truth isn't fully allowed or practiced in today's church. We understand the desire to keep many of the difficult issues out of the public sphere, but the church simply cannot expect that it's going to work any longer to maintain a whitewashed narrative and keep doubters quiet in the age of information and social media. Mormons believe that before we came to earth, we rejected Satan's plan and instead chose agency. In the church today, we have to allow members to know the complete history, to talk about it openly, and ultimately to decide for themselves what they believe is true.

Although our stake president understands and admires our motives, he feels that this is not how the Brethren want it to be done. From the little they have spoken on the issue, they appear to want members to work on these issues in private and not discuss them in public with others. He believes if God wanted it differently, He would change it from the top down. We disagree because almost all of the major policies and programs in the church started at the grassroots level. Some general authorities have even called for members to create initiatives like ours instead of waiting for the Brethren to tell them what to do (Elder Clayton Christensen, 2009 Boston LDS Education Conference). 
During talks with our Stake President, who is a genuinely loving and caring man, he told us that he has not received any counsel from anyone above him on what to do with us. We've heard through mutual friends that he feels isolated and alone. He said this has been one of the most difficult things he's done as a Stake President. The general authorities are leaving Stake Presidents out to dry by not giving more correct guidelines on how to deal with members talking about difficult church subjects and doubts in public. They are also throwing truth-seeking members under the bus by not helping them deal with these issues in a different way. Finally, and most devastatingly, they are exacerbating emotional trauma by not speaking out more against the shaming of doubt and villainizing of doubters, or changing policies to actively include and accept everyone along their faith journey. Hopefully the church will see that good people who are doing the difficult work of dealing with this truth crisis and helping to alleviate the pain are worthy of praise instead of excommunication. Hopefully the general authorities will be more clear on these issues and how to deal with them in a healthy, public way that encourages love and understanding.

***Update to include the result from last night (and Carson's blog update here):

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Truth: ALL Families Deserve To Be Strengthened

The thirteenth Article of Faith states "we believe in doing good to all [mankind]." I've wondered lately how many Mormons really believe that. I can speak only for my own beliefs, but I believe in doing good to all--men, women, children, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation. I believe Mormons should likewise believe in doing good to families--all families.

As a matter of fact, four years ago on this blog I posted "ALL Families Are Valuable" to spread the hope that the "value of the traditional family" would be replaced with "the value of all families." Yet four years later we continue to idolize the "traditional" family while causing great pain and unnecessary harm to many other families and individuals. The Church that prides itself on families still has not collectively recognized the value of all families. And it makes me sick. Latter-day Saints continue to teach fear-based philosophies of men/women mingled with scripture as "truth", but here's the real truth: ALL families deserve to be strengthened.


The truth is that families come in all shapes and sizes. Some families consist of a mom and a dad, two dads, two moms, single parents, and some families have no children at all. I believe in strengthening them all, especially because I believe it's true that "we are all likely working towards the same goals--namely an environment where those we care for, including ourselves, can grow and learn in love, happiness and safety." I believe the truth is that the Lord is most pleased when we all work to love and uplift each other and help each other to stay dedicated to our familial commitments, whatever those may look like.

As Jana Riess wrote yesterday, "every time my church does something that appears to diminish the humanity of LGBT persons, our reputation as a religion takes a hit. And when we act with greater love and less condemnation, people respond in kind." However, as she went on to say, "when we point to some families as 'counterfeit' and claim there is only one right way to love – and, gee, it happens to be ours! — we’re preaching fear, not truth. And when we ally ourselves with a group that stands accused of denying basic rights to gay people when we have recently helped to pass legislation that gives them those rights, we are sending a very mixed message."

It also sends mixed messages anytime the ridiculous and (mostly negative) phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin" is perpetuated. PLEASE let us stop using this worthless phrase. 


I think Jesus made it pretty clear we're to love, period. To condemn sin in others was a sin "in and of itself." In fact, "the only time we should openly condemn sin is when we find it within ourselves." In other words, we're to focus on loving others, not worrying about their personal life. If we make it our business to judge others business, we're simply not able to love them well at all. And then where is the greater sin?

In my open letter to Elder Christofferson, I wrote: "Today, in this new Civil Rights era for the LGBT community, I'm afraid that my conscience and the position of officials currently leading the church might also be at odds. So I'm in a bit of a precarious position. I wait patiently, though not passively, and encourage progress in areas that I can, while trying to be anxiously engaged in good causes and follow my conscience without causing harm to the church." The harder question for me, however, is what should I do when it's my church that's causing harm to others?

It's amazing how much harm we can cause in the name of "defending the family". To "defend" means to "resist an attack, to protect from harm or danger." It doesn't mean to go on offense. Let me be clear, I'll defend my traditional marriage if ever someone tried to strip me of that right, but so far so good--no attacks. I do see marriage equality under attack, so I'm gonna defend that too, cause marriage for all is better than marriage for some, and same-sex marriage doesn't undermine my traditional marriage in the least. My marriage is respected and I respect everyone else's freedom to marry whoever they choose.  It's the golden rule. Does our church still believe in that?

The wise Roni Jo Draper once said: "I'm pretty sure the purpose of the gospel is to improve myself and love others. Not to love myself and improve others." Whenever we use religion as a means to control others, we're doing it wrong. "The purpose of religion," said the Dalai Lama, "is to control yourself, not to criticize others." Scripture provides plenty of examples of people using religion to harm others. Scripture also has plenty of examples of using religion to be a blessing to others. We should learn from the past to be more wise than those who used religion as a weapon. We ought to do more to actively be a blessing to others. I agree with Vicky Beeching: "No one should have to choose between their religious faith and their gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation. We are all God's children, created to love and be loved."

The conversation lately about the Family Proclamation has to do with the fact that its origins had to do with political/legal reasons rather than doctrinal/revelatory reasons. But there is still much of good there that can be expanded and repurposed with an enlarged vision. One example: "We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society."

All families deserve to be strengthened. ALL families. Not just the modern Mormon monogamous ideal. Attacking gay marriage/marriage equality does nothing to strengthen families. Only the opposite, ironically. An expansion to the definition of marriage does not hurt/harm/weaken ones existing "traditional" marriage. We do that to ourselves by the way we act in our own marriages.  If we really want to prevent further disintegration of families, if we truly wish to strengthen families, the FMH community have come up with some very practical ways: "Strengthening the Family: a response from the fMh community".

Do you want to know my plan for strengthening families? Teach love and respect and inclusiveness of all, regardless of whether ones family has a mother and a father, two fathers, two mothers, only one parent, and regardless of whether they are able to raise children or not. Teach the Gospel and Faith in Jesus Christ, not the traditional Mormon culture that so many mistake for the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ would not be throwing stones at people's families. He'd be putting his arms around all good and sincere human beings, regardless of culture, gender, or orientation, and telling us to "go and do thou likewise".

In 1947 the First Presidency was completely wrong about racism and ethnocentrism in the 1900's--projecting those views onto God, while brother Lowry Nelson--a liberal--was right. History has vindicated brother Nelson. If they could be that wrong then, they could very well be wrong now in filing amicus briefs against marriage equality. I personally think God is much bigger and more loving and more inclusive than most Latter-day Saints currently give Him credit for.

If I'm wrong, I would far rather err on the side of charity and inclusiveness than to be a stumbling block in the path of my neighbor--including my LGBT neighbor. I want to be a blessing to all of God's children, including my LGBT neighbors. As the hymn says, doing good [to ALL] is a "pleasure", a "joy beyond measure, a blessing of duty and love."

I believe our true duty is to help strengthen ALL families without diminishing any particular family in the least. But even more importantly, I think the only family I need to really worry about is not my neighbor's, but the one living within the walls of my own home. 



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Decalogue for Dissenters

The first Sunstone piece I may have ever read was likely Armand Mauss's "Alternate Voices: The Calling and its Implications," though I first encountered it at Times and Season's reposted as "Alternate Voices". I remember being particularly impressed by the final section, "Decalogue for Dissenters", and apparently Elder Dallin H. Oaks (who himself was a founding member of the editorial board of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought) saw value in it too, for he sent a short letter (three lines) to compliment Brother Mauss on his piece and express approval of it’s interpretation of his conference address. Those of us today who at times feel called to dissent, whether in person or even on Facebook or through blogging, will likewise find value in Armand Mauss's words:

Image result for dissenters

Decalogue for Dissenters
My remarks in this final section are directed mainly to those who would undertake to join the ranks of “alternate voices” as speakers, not just as listeners. These include, I hasten to add, not only academics or other professional intellectuals but anyone who would aspire to be efficacious in offering alternative ideas or counsel to the saints and their leaders at any level, whether in the pages of Dialogue and SUNSTONE, in ward council, priesthood quorums, Relief Society, or Sunday School. 
I would like to share ten principles that I have learned, sometimes painfully in the breach, during the past twenty-five years from my own efforts to offer an effective “alternate voice” at various forums and occasions. As a rhetorical devise, I will use the imperative tone appropriate for a decalogue; I apologize in advance if the tone also seems imperious in places. Also, since my efforts have taken place in the context of an ultimate commitment to the LDS faith, some of the following principles will be less applicable to those who don’t share that commitment. 
1. Seek constantly to build a strong personal relationship with the Lord as the main source and basis for your own confidence in the alternate voice you are offering. We often have to do without the Church’s approval, but we need the assurance of the Lord’s. 
2. Do your homework before you speak up. We must be sure that our knowledge of the scriptures, of history, and of other relevant data on a given matter will bear up well under scrutiny and under efforts at rebuttal. Otherwise, our offerings will be exposed as unreliable, we will lose credibility as intellectual leaders or teachers, and we will be suspected even by our sympathizers as mere malcontents. No one expects infallibility, but we must know whereof we speak, especially if we espouse an unpopular or untraditional idea. 
3. Relinquish any and all aspirations (or even expectations) for leadership callings in the Church. Actually, that is wonderfully liberating. In any case, stake and ward leaders, to say nothing of general authorities, rarely call people to powerful positions who are suspected of too much “independent thinking.” To be sure, the ranks of “alternate voices” have provided occasional examples of bishops, stake presidents, and Relief Society leaders, showing that there may be some happy exceptions to this generalization, but don’t count on that. If you have a career in C.E.S. or in any other Church bureaucracy, don’t expect approval or promotion to accompany your identification as an “alternate voice.” 
4. Endure graciously the overt disapproval of “significant others,” including family members, but never respond in kind. Lifelong friends and old missionary companions may sever (or reduce) friendship ties when they learn that you are one of "those.” They simply cannot understand what your “problem” is. If such reactions prove especially crucial in your case (e.g., if your marriage is threatened), you will have some tough choices to make. 
5. Pay your “dues” as a member of the Church. Pay your tithing, make clear your willingness to serve wherever called, and do your best to get your children on missions. Try as hard as anyone to “keep the commandments.” You still probably won’t get much Church recognition, but you will win over a few who once looked on you with suspicion. More important, you will make it difficult for your critics to dismiss you as an apostate, for all will see that “thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44). 
6. Be humble, generous, and good natured in tolerating ideas that you find aversive in other Church members, no matter how “reactionary.” As “alternate voices,” we cannot complain when we are ignored or misunderstood if we respond with contempt toward those whose ideas we deplore. Besides, if we have any hope of educating them, we have to start where they are and treat them with love and tolerance. No one is won over by being put down, especially in public. Whether in our writing or in our exchanges during Sunday School classes, we must try to be gracious as well as candid (difficult though it be on occasion) and always remember to show forth afterward “an increase of love toward him whom thou has reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy” (D&C 121:43). 
7. Show some empathy and appreciation for Church leaders, male and female, from the general level down to the local ward and branch. Anyone who has ever held a responsible leadership position knows how heavy the burdens of office can be, especially in callings like bishop, Relief Society president, and stake president (to say nothing of apostle), in which the decisions made can affect countless numbers of people for good or ill. We may privately deplore the poor judgment, the unrighteous dominion, the insensitivity, and even the outright ignorance of some leaders. Yet, after all, they are, like us, simple mortals doing their best according to their lights. Some of them sacrifice a great deal for no apparent benefit, and all are entitled to our support, and occasionally our praise, whenever these can reasonably be given. When they do something outrageously wrong, they need our sympathy even more. “There but for the grace of God . . . ” etc. 
8. Do not say or do anything to undermine the influence or legitimacy of Church leaders at any level. They have their callings and prerogatives, and we should not step forth to “steady the ark” by publicly offering our alternative leadership. Please don’t misunderstand: I am not advocating silent submission in the face of official stupidity. There is much that we can do without playing the role of usurper. When we write for publication, let us by all means criticize policies, practices, or interpretations of doctrine; but let us not personalize our criticisms with ad hominem attacks. They are not only discourteous and condescending, but quite unnecessary. (They can also get you “ex-ed.”) 
We should feel free, though, to seek private interviews and/or correspondence with Church leaders, including our own bishops, in which we can offer, in a spirit of love and humility, our constructive criticisms and suggestions. If these are ignored, then at least we have exercised our callings as “alternate voices,” and we have done so without sowing seeds of contention. We are not responsible for how a given leader carries out his or her stewardship. Yet we are not powerless, which leads to the next principle. 
9. Take advantage of legitimate opportunities to express your “alternate voices” and to exercise your free agency in “alternate” ways within the LDS church and culture. We must never lapse into a posture in which we just sit and gripe. If we find the correlated lesson manuals to be thin fare, it is up to us as teachers to enrich them with relevant supplementary material (including some “alternate voices”). If we are not teachers, then at least we are obligated as class members to speak up knowledgeably and enrich the class, not simply boycott it. 
If we find a general intellectual famine at Church, then we are free to start study groups of our own to supplement the Church fare for those who feel the need. Some of our more conservative leaders may not like such unsponsored study groups, but they have no right to forbid them, and they seldom try (but don’t forget principles 2, 3, and 4). In short, even if we are not bishops or general authorities, and even if we are ignored by those who are, there is much constructive that we can do with our “alternate voices”: “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as they do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (D&C 58:28). 
10. Endure to the end. The calling of “alternate voice” is too important for us to allow ourselves either to be intimidated by the exercise of unrighteous dominion or to be silenced by our own fatigue. “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9; D&C 64:33). I have seen many a rich harvest in people’s lives from seeds planted by “alternate voices,” and I hope to live to see many more. 
Though I have often failed to comply with all ten of these principles, I have learned from my failures as well as from my successes that the likelihood of influence and efficacy for “alternate voices” depends heavily upon compliance with those principles. They also add up to a personal philosophy that has yielded me a great deal of inner peace in my years of coping with the predicament so common among “alternate voices”: commitment to the religion but a feeling of marginality in the Church. That is my testimony.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Liahona Latter-day Saint

I never knew Dr. Poll (pronounced Paul--the name was English) in person, but through his writing and recorded work, he has influenced me enough that I can affirm what Thomas G. Alexander said "In Memoriam:" Poll was a "dedicated and inspiring teacher," and his legacy deeply and personally influences me today. I consider him, even now, as one of my most significant Mormon "maverick" mentors, and my primary example of what it means to be both committed to history and to faith, especially as a Liahona Latter-day Saint. His calm, reasoned, and compassionate voice resonated with me when I listened to this talk in audio format years ago, and it continues to inspire me today. In an effort to share it with others and to make the text easier for me to reference in the future, I include it below in its entirety:

RICHARD D. POLL was a professor emeritus of history at BYU. This paper was originally presented at the 1993 "Pillars of My Faith" session of the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City on 13 August. He died 27 April 1994.

My life and my study of history have made me optimistic. Things can be better than they are, and they will be if we rise more resolutely and joyously to the faithful proposition: "I am a child of God." Because I believe that God has an interest in the outcome, I confidently anticipate that this church-my church-will continue to change, repenting and improving in response to continuing revelation.




By Richard D. Poll

For me, faith is what an earlier Paul said it is: "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Heb. 11:1.) It transcends empirical knowledge, and because what humanity learns by reason and experience is both finite and fallible, it may even contradict such "knowledge." Where a faith proposition and a knowledge proposition seem contradictory, l feel no compulsion to choose between them unless it becomes necessary to act upon one or the other. Many issues that strain relations between some good Latter-day Saints who are present tonight and some good Latter-day Saints who are not here do not require resolution. For pragmatic and doctrinal reasons, I believe in sus­pending judgment in such cases.

I am, in short, a Latter-day Saint who believes that the gospel is true, but has an imperfect and evolving under­ standing of what the gospel is. My testimony will, I suppose, be of most interest to "people like me"--people for whom neither dogmatic fundamentalism nor dogmatic humanism pro­vides convincing answers to lifes most basic questions.

The pillars of my faith are two of the Articles of Faith defined by the Prophet-Founder of my church and an interpretive principle provided by a Founding Father of my country.

The first article of faith affirms: "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost."

The ninth article of faith affirms: "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

James Madison cautioned: "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated."1  Because I believe with Madison that everyone, including Paul and other prophets, sees eternity "through a glass darkly" (l Cor. 13:12), prophetic infallibility, scriptural inerrancy and unquestioning obedience are not elements of my faith.

I believe in Heavenly Parents who care about me but who will not, perhaps cannot, compel me to obey. I have hope in Christ, and I have drawn strength from the Comforter of whom he spoke. I see history in terms of human strivings to discover divine realities and follow divine principles. Flashes of prophetic insight have elevated those efforts, and Jesus of Nazareth, in his life, death, and resurrection, uniquely embodied those realities. Joseph Smith, a prophet like Moses, Peter, and Alma, gave inspiration and momentum to the gospel dispensation in which, as I have written earlier, I find answers to "enough important questions to live purposefully without answers to the rest."

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have found ideas, opportunities, and challenges around which I have organized my life. Next to my family, my church is the most important component of that life. I am proud of its contributions to bettering the human condition and grateful for its contributions to my own. If I were in charge of the Church, I would make some changes. Since I am not, I must be patient, but I need not be passive. As a historian, I know that changes have occurred, and the ninth article of faith assures me that they will yet occur. As I reflect tonight upon the building and testing of my faith, I will offer a few suggestions.

Pivotal in the evolution of my personal testimony was my family's move from Salt Lake City to Texas in 1929, when I was ten years old. In consequence, I had no close Mormon friends, except my younger brother and sister, in junior and senior high school and five years at Texas Christian University. I found many non-smoking, non-drinking friends and in the process lost any categorical "we-they" perception of the world that I might have brought with me from Utah. At eighteen I was both superintendent of the Fort Worth Branch Sunday School and president of the TCU Student Christian Association. My two closest male friends were a Bible fundamentalist and a liberal Campbellite, neither of whom was more persuaded by my testimony than I was by theirs. I decided then, and subsequent experience has not changed my mind, that people convert to Mormonism and open them­selves to the witness of the Spirit when they are dissatisfied with some important aspect of their tangible or intangible condition, and they remain converted when they find in the Church a sufficient and enduring response to that need.

I was confident that I would marry a bright young woman who would be already Mormon or ready to join the Church, either for the gospel's sake or for mine. As it turned out, the lovely and intelligent Nebraska Methodist whom I left behind in 1939 for a mission to Germany sent me a "Dear John." The war that caused me to be transferred to the Canadian mission later brought me, as an Army/Air Force instructor in Miami Beach in 1943, together with a lovely and intelligent Mormon from Utah. Seven weeks later we were married in the Salt Lake Temple by the same Joseph Fielding Smith who had united my parents in 1916. I am reluctant to attribute World War II to a providential design to bring Gene and me together, but now at our golden anniversary we do think that finding each other was some kind of miracle.

Texas Christian University had a profound influence on my life and faith. It made me a political liberal, a teacher, historian, football fan, and lover of peace. As a senior I was chosen student body president in an uncontested election because I was the only student council member still on speaking terms with all factions in the controversy that forced my predecessor to resign. Throughout my life I have aspired to be a mediating, moderating, and motivating influence.

At TCU I learned Burke's warning against apathy: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing," and Goethe's warning against zeal without knowledge: "There is nothing so terrible as ignorance in action." I have quoted both in hundreds of history classes. A course in the New Testament introduced me to another epigram that has influenced my deportment in Church classes, both as teacher and student: "The function of religon is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." If I were ever asked to speak in general conference, that would be my text.

The primary activities to which I have devoted the last fifty years have all helped to shape and test my faith:

1. My relations with Gene, our three daughters, their partners, and our seven grandchildren have been central to my life. Had I experienced "consciousness raising" earlier, I would probably have been a better husband and father, but Gene and I worked hard at building a traditional LDS home and family and both the effort and the outcomes have brought us happiness. We have faith in the proposition "Families Are Forever," and we recently watched a grandson sing the lead in Saturday's Warrior without letting theological questions mar our enjoyment of the occasion.

2. My relations with the Church have included attending meetings regularly, going to the temple occasionally, and accepting callings ranging from branch president, bishop's counselor, and high council member, to officer and teacher in every organization for which I am gender-qualified. Currently I teach the high priests along with a sweet-spirited and knowledgeable retiree from the BYU religion faculty. The class members seem to find his scripture-based answers and my scripture-based questions equally engaging. If the hours devoted to teaching preparation, informal gospel conversations, and unofficial Church-related gatherings are added to the hours in scheduled meetings, both my income and my time have been tithed, and I begrudge neither offering.

3. Except for the appointment as administrative vice president that took me to Western Illinois University after twenty-two years at BYU, my professional life has been closely linked to Mormonism. As a teacher and writer, I have observed how encountering history affects religious perspectives. It nudges some people toward disbelief and drives others into denial, but it provides more questions than answers. History is hard on myths and traditions that are contradicted by non-Hofmannesque evidence, but it neither proves nor disproves the central faith propositions of the gospel.

My own life with history, including the history of my own life, leads me to these observations about my church and my personal testimony:

I belong to a church whose past and present leaders, with a few exceptions, have been men and women of ability, integrity, and devotion. I occasionally differ with their collective decisions or think uncharitably about individuals among them, but I believe that they seek to serve God and that, taken as a whole, the fruits of their labors are good. As my brothers and sisters, they are entitled to my sympathy, support, and suggestions.

I sustain fifteen of my church leaders as prophets, although history tells me that leading any organized religion is primarily a priestly rather than a prophetic function. As voices crying in the wilderness, prophets like John the Baptist and Joseph Smith challenged the ecclesiastical status quo. Among recipients of each new dispensation of divine truth, however, there quickly arises concern for preserving and protecting what has been received. Among today's prophet/high priests, there seems to be intense preoccupation with what may happen if unauthorized hands touch the ark of the covenant. There is reluctance to consider any unsolicited suggestion even if "it seems so reasonable and right." I pray that these understandable concerns do not produce insensitivity to changing needs among the Saints and to new possibilities.



I believe that revelation may come through visions, dreams, and visitations, as God wills, but my Madisonian skepticism rejects the notion that the mind of a prophet--any prophet--is a fax machine linked to a divine transmitter. The history and scriptures of the Restoration testify that almost every revelation is confirmatory. It responds to a proposed answer to a pressing question, and the timing and substance of both question and tentative answer are shaped by the character, experiences, and needs of the questioner. I believe this is true even if the petitioner for divine guidance is a prophet. I believe it is my right to help shape the context and content of future prophetic inquiries, even as I have tried to do in the past, and I pray for wisdom and patience in asserting that right.

I see merit in the apostolic commitment to support decisions once collectively made, but a wonderful range of personal contacts has convinced me that those who wear the prophetic mantle do not all think alike and that they certainly do not always subscribe to the dictum, "When the prophet speaks the thinking has been done." For me, their humanness as individuals makes their collective accomplishments more remarkable. I sustain them in their difficult callings with the realization that, taken as a group, they are neither more nor less singleminded, devoted, and inspired than their predecessors.

Let me illustrate this component of my testimony with three personal experiences:

1.When BYU was recruiting students over forty years ago, John A. and Leah D. Widstoe rode to California with Gene and me in our Model A Ford. It was a great opportunity to get to know the man whose book A Rational Theology, helped shape my own beliefs and the woman primarily responsible for expanding the Word of Wisdom into a comprehensive health code. Sensitive to the situation, Gene and I ordered whole wheat toast with our breakfast. When the Widstoes joined us, they ordered white.

2. In consequence of my publicly criticizing Joseph Fielding Smith's book Man, His Origin and Destiny, Gene and I had the remarkable opportunity to meet privately with Church President David 0. McKay and immediately thereafter with President Smith, and to hear them give flatly contradictory answers to the question, "Is the concept of evolution compatible with the gospel?" We remain to this day thankful that the ninth article of faith sheltered us from having to decide which of these venerable prophets was expressing inspired truth.

3. On more than one occasion I heard President Hugh B. Brown speak of the difficult predicament of the counselor in the First Presidency who has "responsibility without authority." Both he and President Henry D. Moyle, his strong-minded predecessor as first counselor to President McKay, were ultimately defeated by it. It is true that the Church has developed a "back-up system" that insures continuity in operations, but it is historically demonstrable that the internal dynamics of the apostolic councils change when the one person who is doctrinally authorized to speak for God to the whole church is unable to lead effectively. I pray, I hope, and I believe that options for accomplishing for the Church what the twenty-fifth Amendment has achieved in the national government are under consideration among our prophet-leaders, and that an appropriate solution will in due course receive divine confirmation.

I belong to a church whose structure, programs, policies, and doctrinal interpretations are in constant flux, as the concept of continuing revelation requires that they be. My testimony has been strengthened by most of the changes that have occurred since I was required to hold my left hand behind my back while passing the sacrament, and I expect to agree with most of the changes that will yet occur. On the premise that recording them here puts them into the context for continuing revelation, I offer two prayerfully considered suggestions:

1. The Sunday meeting schedule should be redesigned to address at least these three shortcomings of the present block plan: The strain on the attention and patience spans of little children and those who teach them; the difficulties inherent in trying to produce two short, safe, significant classes in quick succession; and the insufficiently met need for informal social interaction among ward members.

2. The "woman question," clearly a subject of profound concern among our prophet-leaders today, should be carried beyond the present laudable focus on curbing abuse of women and children to a consideration of the full implications of gender equality in the kingdom of God. Changes requiring only policy modifications might include admitting women to the ritual blessings of babies, enhancing the opportunities and recognition given for teen-age girls, encouraging female children to consider missions, and including active LDS women in decision making--as distinct from decision implementation--at the ward and stake levels.

This is an issue no less fundamental than the plural marriage question that produced a revolutionary revelation a century ago and the racial problem, the revealed solution to which is revolutionizing the Church today. What does the future hold? Surely this is one of the great and important things on which we can anticipate further light and knowledge.

It is exciting and faith promoting to belong to a church in which many, many men and women of ability and commitment face challenges as great as any earlier generation. While our prophet-leaders confront the daunting task of separating traditions and customs from gospel universals, they remodel organizations, policies, programs, even priesthood quorums in ways that suggest both flexibility and inspiration. It seems clear to me that they are asking many of the right questions and receiving many excellent answers. Most of their public and private counsel focuses on Christ's precepts for living.

When things are said and done that suggest the thirty-ninth verse of Doctrine and Covenants 121 ("We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion"), or the fable of the king's new clothes, we may still choose, aware of our own spiritual nakedness, to help create a better royal wardrobe rather than abandon the court and the kingdom. Reinforcing my resolve to carry on is my conviction that among our dedicated and prayerful prophet-leaders there must be a growing awareness that the present bureaucratic approach to us Mormon mavericks is not only counterproductive but morally questionable. As we anxiously discuss what to do about the Brethren, we should derive encouragement, I think, from the clear signs that they are anxiously concerned over what to do about us.

My life and my study of history have made me optimistic. Things can be better than they are, and they will be if we rise more resolutely and joyously to the faithful proposition: "I am a child of God." They can and will be when those who must "prove all things" (1 Thes. 5:21) and those who steadfastly "hold fast that which is good" realize that they are defending two sides of the same divine formula. Because I believe that God has an interest in the outcome, I confidently anticipate that this church--my church--will continue to change, repenting and improving in response to continuing revelation. In this expectation I close with an adaptation of my remarks at last year's symposium:

Encouraged by the apostle Paul's observation, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (Gal. 5:9), I aspire to live out my life as a Liahona Latter-day Saint whose questioning testimony perplexes some and comforts others of his brothers and sisters. I intend to frame my questions, make my suggestions, and bear my witness with charity, humility, and persistence. Thus I hope to help produce a Mormon chorus in which almost all the singers hear the dissonant sounds of the alternate voices as polyphonic enrichment of the message of the gospel music.

NOTE
1. Quoted in Alpheus T. Mason,"Free Government's Balance Wheel," Wilson Quarterly (Spring 1972): 97.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Church's Cardinal Sin of Blasphemy/Idolatry

There's a well-known Book of Mormon story in which a humble prophet named Abinadi engages alone in a hostile exchange with the corrupt, rich, and powerful institution consisting of King Noah and the religious leaders of his time (Noah's priest's.)  They thought that if Abinadi were a true prophet he'd bring the "glad tidings" that "all is well in Zion" so they could continue to congratulate themselves on the church/culture they had managed to establish for themselves.


But the true "glad tidings" happen to be that because of Jesus Christ we can repent! The grace of Christ--even if suffering must be endured to receive it--truly is amazing! Naturally, those who don't think they have anything of which to repent won't find this message to be one of "glad tidings." It's more likely they'd see the outspoken man crying repentance as being "overly critical" and negative. Far better to simply silence the voice and cast him out--his reputation burned--so they can continue on with their merry lives and the status quo.

Fortunately, the Book of Mormon was meant for our day and should be likened unto ourselves. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the true message of repentance is like a breath of fresh air. But when the simple suggestion that even an apostle can be "wrong" is met with a reaction of "blasphemy," our mortal servant leaders have indeed been elevated into the realm of idolatry. And if we're to learn anything from Abinadi (who didn't escape from his predicament alive), let it be this: Grace is our only hope for escape from this and many of our other problems too.

*blas·phe·my
noun
the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.
"he was detained on charges of blasphemy"


When the top brass of an institution become too sacred to question, the corporate culture stinks. Yet, to many lay members of the church, the fifteen mortal men running the institutional church have apparently become a sacred cow--"above criticism."

*sa·cred cow
noun
an idea, custom, or institution held, especially unreasonably, to be above criticism (with reference to the Hindus' respect for the cow as a sacred animal)


At the beginning of his excellent post, "Living with Fallibility", James Faulconer (a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University and BYU philosophy professor) wrote about how "Mormons have a joke that is so old it has become a cliché: Catholic doctrine is that the pope is infallible, but they don't believe it; Mormon doctrine is that the prophet is fallible, but they don't believe it." The joke works because there's truth to it.

*fal·li·ble
adjective
capable of making mistakes or being erroneous.
"experts can be fallible"

(synonyms: error-prone, errant, liable to err, open to error;
imperfect, flawed, weak)

*in·fal·li·ble
adjective
incapable of making mistakes or being wrong.
"doctors are not infallible"
"an infallible sense of timing"
never failing; always effective

(synonyms: unerring, unfailing, faultless, flawless, impeccable, perfect, precise, accurate, meticulous, scrupulous)

We cannot have it both ways. We can't reluctantly acknowledge fallibility yet act as though we should expect infallibility. We can't acknowledge God uses the "weak" things of the earth to do His work (so that we'll put our faith in Him), but continue to act as though we can place our faith in "strong" mortal leaders. These words actually mean something. Unless we invent our own definitions, these ideas are not harmonious. Faulconer goes on to observe that the way Latter-day Saints have traditionally taught about their prophet-leaders has led many to believe in false assumptions that in turn have led to tragic consequences. Sadly, I see those tragic consequences every day. I cannot in good conscience bring myself to look away and ignore them.
Faulconer expresses my own feelings when he shares hope that the new church essays may signify an important change in strategy and gives "hope that they will help Latter-day Saints rethink what it means to recognize authority and to have a living prophet." The blunt problem is, the majority of people don't read the essays, and many of those that do don't allow what they read to change the status quo of their thinking or simply fail to grasp the implications. Notable internet exceptions, notwithstanding (thank you Julie Smith). Faulconer writes:
We have often been guilty of a kind of idolatry of our leaders, implicitly imputing the characteristics of God to them because we thought that is what it meant to be called by God. To my knowledge few of our leaders asked for our idolatry, but we fell into it anyway. Perhaps our new strategy will help us repent.
I can truthfully say that recent interactions with fellow Mormons (online and in person) have convinced me that most Mormons haven't even recognized the need to repent. Many apparently see nothing wrong with this idolatry, nor with the status quo. I sincerely appreciate Jim's thoughtful analysis and feel the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be better off by taking it seriously. But I also feel a sense of chagrin because his voice and others like him will largely go unnoticed. It doesn't appear that we're collectively anxious to rethink and repent.

Tradition resists change. From the lay member who thinks "all is well" to those hard at work at Church headquarters, to the apostle who declares essentially the same thing in general conference ("all is well"/"the Church has never been stronger!") it is clear that not everyone is on the same page with "the new strategy of making our story public even when we find it difficult to explain [to] help prevent the kinds of pain we see some people suffering now", as Faulconer writes.

I submit that if we're okay with Latter-day Saints believing in prophetic infallibility, we should continue to teach that our leaders cannot lead us astray and continue to print Ensign messages and sing primary songs about following the prophet as though that's a sure and safe infallible standard. Until Mormons are collectively ready to face the hard reality and own the actual historical record, we have an uphill battle to help Latter-day Saints rethink and repent.

It would be to our advantage to truly and thoroughly embrace the good news and the bad news of prophetic fallibility, sooner rather than later. Only then can we recognize what Faulconer so eloquently stated:
My hope is that the conversations the recently published materials create will help us learn that being called by God isn't an either/or. It isn't that either the person is called by God and never makes a mistake in their calling or he isn't called by God at all. I hope we will begin to see the falsity of that dichotomy, that we will develop a more mature understanding of our relationship to those who lead us, one in which we neither idolize the prophets nor assume that their humanity means we ought to no longer follow them.
In light of this more "mature understanding", how should we "follow them?" Knowing what we now know about their past track record, how should we "trust" them in the present?  What should it mean to "trust" them in light of our "mature understanding?" We can start by recognizing that priesthood keys do not equate to any degree of holiness or infallibilty. We can still trust our prophet-leaders to be called of God and to receive inspiration in their calling. We can trust them to put our best interests at the forefront, and to even be prophets of God at the rare times when God actually does speak through them as opposed to the times when they simply give us good counsel. But we're not trusting them to be perfect. We're not trusting them to never make mistakes or to not be "wrong." Therefore, we should probably stop acting like they can't. We ought to repent of that notion--that idol of infallible leadership.

It takes hard work to follow prophets because you have to seek personal revelation/inspiration to discern when a prophet is acting as a prophet. Contrary to popular belief, the President of the Church is the president 24/7, but he becomes prophetic only when he becomes prophetic. "Prophet" is not an office--it's a gift. We've become accustomed to constantly referring to Church presidents as "prophets", and perhaps the semantics have unintentionally contributed to the idolatry. Conflating all-important obedience to principles with unquestioning obedience to persons will also likely lead to idolatryamong many more tragic consequences.

Adam Miller has done an admirable job trying to help us rethink what it means to recognize authority and to have a living prophet and to repent of our idolatry. But how many members of the Church have even heard of Adam Miller? It's nice that the Maxwell Institute has published his work, but the way the Ensign recycled an old CES message and added "Follow the Prophets" as a title to it for the First Presidency January 2015 edition convinces me we still have a ways to go. (It's hard not to sound condescending here, but many unthinking people will continue to see nothing wrong with this, because hey, isn't the Ensign also infallible?!)

Adam Miller:
It's a false dilemma to claim that either God works through flawless people or God doesn't work at all. The gospel isn't a celebration of God's power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God's willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren't. To demand that church leaders, past or present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel's most basic claim: that God's grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.
If the gospel is about God's perfect love (and it is), particularly embodied in Jesus Christ, why in the world do we insist on making this into the church of the prophets? Wasn't Abinadi's point to get the priests to look past the prophets themselves and to land their sights squarely on Christ and His atonement? It has always been so easy for God’s people to misread the scriptures and focus on the lesser law/lesser things. Prophets (like Abinadi who in turn quotes Isaiah to make the point even more explicit) give their lives to get us to remember the central focus of the scriptures is the atonement of Christ--not the authority of the religious leaders!

How we have allowed ourselves to go down this "authority" path so long as though it were so literally essential is beyond me. It completely misses the boat to make the main message about the boat, or the crew of the boat. Rather, the main message should be God's perfect lovebecause God is love, and love fulfills all the laws and the prophets. Since only God is perfect, we can trust the prophet to do his best to seek God's will, but not to never be wrong. Maybe we should have an Ensign message about that.

If I were in charge (thank goodness I'm not!) I'd put a stop to the practice of standing in reverence while leaders enter the room. Even things intended to be respectful can unintentionally be taken too far. But since I'm not in charge (fortunately) I suppose I should just be glad that at least we're not bowing down on the ground before them. Hugh Nibley once wrote: "It is quite inconceivable that the gospel should ever be under condemnation, though the Church has been from time to time. They are not the same thing. The one is a teaching; the other, an organization to foster that teaching."
I have serious reservations about the way the church organization presently fosters gospel teachings. Gospel teachings of following Christ are too frequently substituted for messages of following prophets. I'm not a betting man, but I'd be willing to wager we're still under condemnation. Too many Saints have trouble even making a distinction between the church and the gospel. And too many ecclesiastical leaders have trouble making a distinction between an actual "apostate" and a concerned disciple who prioritizes placing their faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ over their faith in a church organization.

We've allowed ourselves to turn the 24/7 office of "President of the Church" into a synonym for "prophet", even though Joseph Smith taught that "a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such." One could be forgiven for wondering whether the Latter-day Saints have indeed placed an additional mediator between us and God. At times it seems as though it's not enough to follow the Savior--the Mediator between us and the Father. Apparently it's becoming expected that we now make "the prophet" into a mediator between us and the Mediator. We must repent of this idolatry--this cardinal sin of blasphemy.

On the one hand we have these wonderfully nuanced essays that should cause us to re-evaluate our paradigms of what to expect--and what not to expect--from prophets, helping us to "see that prophets don't usually get definitive answers to their questions, and even when the answer is definitive, they don't often, if ever, get definitive directions for how to put into practice what they have been told." On the other hand there are some who clearly want to double down on the old paradigm. How long shall we halt between the two? We can't acknowledge in our historical essays that even our prophet-leaders can be seriously wrong and then continue to spread the message in the Ensign that you don't need to think for yourself, but just do what you're told and you'll be "safe."

This life wasn't meant to be safe--it comes with great risk. Life wasn't meant to be easy, as though God were a GPS system telling us how to avoid the pitfalls and the detours. He doesn't even do that with prophets. He gives them the keys and then trusts them to get the church to safety in one piece without taking over the steering wheel. Every once in awhile the prophets take longer-than-necessary detours or swerve so hard some are made to feel like throwing up. But we're in it for the experience. And we learn most from the hard experiences. If we're wise we'll learn from our mistakes in order to make the trip better in the future. We won't deny nor condemn others for their mistakes, rather we're to "give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest" to us those mistakes and imperfections, so "that [we] may learn to be more wise than [others] have been"(Mormon 9:31.)
While it's not my place to grab the steering wheel (not even God coerces the driver), I still have a responsibility to love and help the driver as best I can. I believe our prophet-leaders are entitled to our sympathy, our support, and our suggestions. We're not lemmings just along for the ride. We're free agents. It would be easier to just sit back and trust the authorities. But we've seen what happens when we go down that path. (And that path starts looking a lot more like Satan's plan than God's plan.)

The easy path is to let someone else do all the thinking for you. It's harder to follow prophets when you have to seek revelation/inspiration for yourself to discern when a prophet is acting as a prophet, discerning if the counsel is inspired and/or applies to your circumstances. If all we do is tell people to sit down and shut up in the proverbial boat, we're no longer expecting people to exercise freedom of the mind and think for themselves, seeking their own spiritual confirmation. Or is the expectation to be told what to do, just obey, and get in line and don't rock the boat? If so, Hugh B. Brown is probably rolling in his grave.

Obviously there's an extreme line somewhere that I wouldn't want to cross in becoming that annoying back-seat driver. I want to always remain loving and respectful, but I feel I have a duty to alert the driver of dangers I may see out my window, especially if the drivers attention is so focused on the road ahead that he doesn't see what the passengers in the back seat may see. Of course it would be extreme if all someone did was ride along in order to criticize your driving. But there's another extreme of actually having an insight that might help the driver out but failing to speak up because of fear it's not your place. And it would be an extreme driver indeed that was too stubborn to listen to suggestions. I believe in trying to navigate the healthy middle ground between the extremes.

Likewise, I sustain the President of the Church. If you don't like the transportation analogies, perhaps you like a musical analogy. The president is like the head violinist in the orchestra. We all have our notes to play but he's in an important seat. I don't pretend he can't flub a note, and I have no desire to constantly criticize, especially when I'm struggling to focus on my own music. I desire for all to feel welcome in the orchestra and to make unique contributions, even in our imperfections. Orchestra's are better when their leadership isn't above receiving feedback from the rest of us. Healthy organizations designate appropriate time and space for feedback (not just conducting occasional surveys) so people can be heard. One place the church might start with is adding a suggestions box somewhere at each stake center, and perhaps at church headquarters too. My first suggestion would be to stop pretending the institutional church can never be "wrong" and thus above sincere apologies.

In my post "On Being Seasick While Staying in the Boat", I write that I don't personally stay onboard this ship because of the crew, and I get very seasick when the voyage is made to feel more about our loyalty to men than our loyalty to Christ:
Joseph Smith once said the people were depending too much on the prophet and "hence were darkened in their minds". Notwithstanding, before long emphasis/focus began to be placed on following the mortal church leaders even more than on following the perfect Savior. Maybe there's a healthy and mindful balance, but I'm pretty sure we're out of balance when it's assumed that by following certain mortals in certain church callings we're automatically following Christ. Autopilot substitution of the former for the latter creates an idol, and some Latter-day Saints turn our prophets into idols without even realizing it. Is it any wonder some of us are getting nauseous? The scriptures warn about trusting in "the arm of the flesh," yet how many equate "trusting LDS priesthood authority" with "trusting God?" 
I can trust that God is perfect, but my trust in prophets is different. I can trust the prophet to have inspiration when acting as a prophet, and I can trust that prophets are doing the best they can in their unique stewardship and have our best interests at heart. But I'm not trusting them to be infallible. The pseudo-doctrine that prophets "can't lead us astray" exists in tension with their expressed fallibility and leads some to mistakenly believe that prophets are perfect in the administration of the things of God. I get seasick when we oversell expectations for prophets, even to the point that some Mormons forget that it's not the (false) fourteen fundamentals of following the prophet that constitute the fundamental principles of our religion, but rather the atonement of Christ.

This isn't to say that I don't respect the crew. They have a unique job and it's not an easy one. I love and sustain them. But I'm not on board because of the crew. Moreover, if the fundamental principle of our religion is the atonement of Jesus Christ, then it's definitely not fundamental that I agree with or even like everything coming from the crew, regardless of how many times I'm told they won't lead the boat "astray". It puzzles me how often that word is used, and yet I'm not convinced we're all on the same page as to what "astray" is even supposed to mean. Some assume this is a "promise" that the ship will never be guided wrong, and some assume it was the Lord who made such a "promise" in the first place. It's clear that we need to work through some tensions that inevitably come from living with fallibility.
If I'm not on board this particular ship because of the crew, can we please stop hearing so many messages about the crew? Can we please hear more messages about Jesus Christ? Other boats do this quite well. If we're humble, perhaps we could learn a thing or two from them. If we even paid more attention to our own history we could learn a thing or two:
"Our inspired prophets sometimes make mistakes
Never blindly follow, caution we must take
It is up to us to know how to discern
In our search for truth we still have much to learn!
"

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lowry Nelson's Reflections on the State of Academic Freedom at BYU and the Personality of Heber J. Grant

Last month I began reading the memoirs of brother Lowry Nelson. Immediately, the historian in me desired to transcribe and share Chapter 16 ("Again the Church and I"), which included one of the most remarkable exchanges in 20th century Mormon history: the 1947 correspondence between Dr. Nelson and the First Presidency of the LDS Church regarding the racist Priesthood/temple ban, which so deeply concerned him.

Yet that chapter wasn't the only chapter in which Dr. Nelson wrote about the intersection of his career and his church. Chapter nine, "The Church and I", gives us a glimpse into the atmosphere at Brigham Young University in the early 20th century, as well as the surprisingly idiosyncratic personality of Church President Heber J. Grant. Moreover, Nelson further details the experience that that got him in "hot water," later published as an article in Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought entitled "The Ordeal of Lowry Nelson and the Mis-spoken Word." Nelson laments how the atmosphere at BYU began to degenerate enough that he left the university before spending the bulk of his career at the University of Minnesota and finally retiring back to Provo:



In the Direction of His Dreams
Memoirs of Lowry Nelson

Chapter 9 (pages 248—260)

The Church and I

During the 1920s and the early 1930s, the academic atmosphere at BYU was remarkably free of restraints. About 1933, however, the Church authorities became somewhat uneasy about what was happening. Partly, this unease was the result of an extraordinary summer session in which four faculty members from the University of Chicago gave courses primarily for teachers in the LDS seminaries at the high school level. There were courses in the Old Testament, New Testament, the history of the Christian Church, and one in social ethics. The men were well-known authorities in their fields. The seminary men were extraordinarily enthusiastic about these courses, which opened new windows on their limited theological education and showed the vast landscape of the world of biblical scholarship. This turned out to be something of an affront to the Church authorities. The Church had always claimed to have the “truth,” so why go outside for instruction?

My old friend Dr. Widtsoe, now an Apostle of the Church, had returned from presiding over the British and European Mission and was made Commissioner of Church Education. It should be noted that almost any teacher in science—physical, biological, or social—is frequently asked by Mormon students how his ideas or instruction conflict with or conform to Church doctrine. Often the questions are not raised in the class, but letters are sent to the President of the Church complaining about the professor.

Dr. Widtsoe conceived the idea of holding personal conferences with individual faculty members, with another Apostle and President Harris present. An appointment was arranged for each and every faculty member. Questions about the individual’s faith—whether he prayed, paid tithing, attended meetings, held office in organizations, and so on—were the mainstay of the interviews. I was not asked these questions formally as most others were. Both Dr. Widtsoe and President Harris, as I have pointed out several times in this memoir, were friends, and they always seemed to have complete confidence in me. I mention this because it is important to what happened shortly after this “inquisition”—as the faculty termed it. I didn’t know Apostle Callis, the third man present at my interview. But I was practically waved out of the room a minute or so after I had entered.

Not long after my interview, I found myself in real “hot water.” It was during the summer of 1934, while I was commuting by car to the State Capitol organizing the Welfare Division. On my return in the afternoon, I always went to my office to see what I had to attend to. On one particular day, I was asked to call President Harris, whose office now was in the Maeser Building on the hill. (I was occupying his former office in the Education Building on the lower campus.) Harris told me that Oscar Russell, an old friend of his, had brought in a French professor of economics from the University of Algiers. This Frenchman was making a study of the relation of religion and economics and would like to interview me and get copies of my studies. I was introduced to him, and he, Russell, and I returned to my office. I obtained the bulletins and presented them to the Frenchman. Since he also wanted to interview a student, I introduced him to one who happened to be in my office, Howard Forsyth. While the interview was taking place I returned to my car, anxious to get home because I had a regional social workers meeting that night in Provo. Oscar came over to the car window as I was about to start the motor and told me that the Frenchman would also like to interview an apostate Mormon. He asked if there was anyone I could suggest. I laughed, and said, “I have a meeting tonight which Dean Brimhall will also attend.”
“Would you consider him an apostate?” Russell asked.
“Not exactly, but, you know, he is not active in the church.”
“Well,” asked Russell, “what would his attitude be about immortality?”

Of course, that was a ridiculous question, and I simply said it would be necessary to ask him. “What is your own attitude about immortality? he asked.
“I suppose I would have to say that it is something I do not know. It is something one can consider as an hypothesis which cannot be tested by any method we know, whether it is true or not. Up to now, nobody has taken me up and shown me the pearly gates.”

I was still anxious to leave, but asked him what his own attitude was. “I can explain it this way. My field is the study of speech. I have an explanation as to why people lose their voices. It involves the behavior of certain muscles of the throat. I have never seen these muscles behave, but I know they do act in the way I have been able to describe. In that sense I feel I can say that I know immortality is a fact.”

I told him I thought he had made a great leap in logic and wished I could discuss it further with him, but had to leave. I did say that I thought his was only an hypothesis about the muscles. Some day it might be tested and found false. He was not impressed.

I soon forgot the whole thing. He was a Ph.D. and held an important post in his field at Ohio State University. I felt free to talk frankly with him, as I always could with my colleagues at the university. A short time after this event, however, I met a friend on the street in Salt Lake City. After an exchange of pleasantries, he said: “I understand you are a very dangerous man at BYU. Oscar Russell says he wouldn’t send his children there because it would undermine their faith.”  That Oscar was spreading this rather widely soon came to me from other sources. I was distressed. It seemed to me quite beneath the kind of behavior one would have a right to expect from a person of his training and position. After all, our conversation had not even been fifteen minutes long. I was also worried that his spreading rumors about BYU would cause harm to the institution.

So, out of anxiety, I did the wrong thing: I wrote him a letter. In it I reproduced our conversation somewhat as I have just done. I also mentioned the fact that I felt agnostic about the problem, in the true meaning of the word—not knowing. I submitted to President Harris the draft of what I wanted to send to Oscar and asked, “Should I send this?” He wrote in the margin of the draft, “Certainly, FSH.” [Franklin S. Harris]

Russell was something of a linguist, by the way, and was acting as interpreter for the French economist. I surely thought he would understand the word “agnostic.”

In a short time, Oscar struck with everything he could muster. He made copies of my letter, wrote a four-page single-spaced letter of his own, and sent copies of both to the members of the Board of Trustees of BYU and to President Harris and Professor Guy C. Wilson—a veteran Church educator now serving on the BYU faculty whom Russell had known for many years.

Both Harris and Wilson opened their mail while I was still in class.  Wilson came into my office with his copy later on. I was floored. Russell had used the occasion to tell of his own faith and knowledge about immortality. I don’t recall what all else he had said, except that I was by my own confession no better than Robert C. Ingersoll (probably the most famous self-styled agnostic in American history). We all got copies of the letters on Wednesday. It was the custom then for the Council of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency to hold a weekly meeting in the Temple on Thursday. After this meeting, following the receipt of the letters, one of the Apostles, Richard R. Lyman, called President Harris from his home and told him what had happened. President Grant had read the letters in the meeting and was very angry. “You better get Lowry and come up in the morning [Friday] and call on President Grant.”

We went, of course, and it proved to be a memorable day. We called on Dr. Lyman in his Church office, and he said President Grant was so angry that none of them felt they should try to say anything in my defense.  Then he told us of some of this own talks with his colleagues. He mentioned a fellow Apostle, Orson F. Whitney, who wrote a regular column in the Church newspaper called “Saturday Night Thoughts.” In one of these columns, according to Lyman, Whitney had mentioned the miracle of an ax floating on the water. “Now Brother Orson,” Dr. Lyman had said, “you know an ax won’t float on water.”  He also told of challenging Dr. Widtsoe on another occasion when he had written something that Lyman thought less than logical. He had said, “Now John, you couldn’t tell that group of men [pointing to a group photograph of engineers on the wall of his office] what you have just told me.”

The Council meeting must have been an interesting performance by President Grant, although no more detail was offered by Dr. Lyman other than to emphasize that the President was very angry. One can only imagine Apostles Widtsoe and Callis, who had just gone over the staff to discover any heresies, sitting there with red faces and trying to sink through the floor. As an angry President, Grant was not to be interrupted by anyone when he was on the trail of a “professor,” especially one who was showing something less than complete knowledge that the “gospel was true.”

President Grant was an uncomplicated man. Far from being intellectually interested in problems, he already knew he had the answers: that he was right, that Mormonism had everything he or anyone else needed to be saved in the world to come. He had one sermon. It dealt with his own efforts to improve his ability—to play ball, to learn to sing, and various other accomplishments. His theme was persistence and practice. He had, in short, a monumental ego. His basic secular interest was business, and he tended to measure the quality of other men by the standard of financial success. He was made an Apostle at the age of twenty-six, and as my colleague Professor John C. Swenson once said: “The trouble with President Grant is that nobody had asked him any questions since he became an Apostle.” He was anti-intellectual, and was greatly annoyed by any letters he received from students at BYU that were critical of their professors. He had already gotten the State to take over several junior colleges of the Church, including Weber, Snow, and Dixie, and had tried to get the Idaho Church to take over Ricks College in Rexburg. In this he and been unsuccessful. Grant wanted nothing more than to get rid of Brigham Young University and the annoying letters about professors.

President Grant received us by appointment at 11am. He greeted us kindly and affably, but explained that he didn’t want to discuss the matter of our visit until 3pm when his counselors, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and David O. McKay, could be present. We moved to depart, but he began talking about other things and, as it turned out, spent the entire hour with us sitting there listening to him. He seemed completely relaxed, whereas I had expected him to be cold and standoffish. He told us two long stories, one concerning his outwitting a man—I believe a son of Brigham Young—who came to a bank where Grant was working and expected to borrow a considerable sum. It was the Church bank. Anyway, he told how he avoided having to make the loan, which he knew the man was not worthy to have. I was not interested in the details and remember none.

The other story was far more interesting. It had to do with a celebrated case in Mormon history in which an Apostle, accused of adultery, was dropped from the Council of the Twelve and dis-fellowshipped. The Council had held an inquiry at which the woman testified. The accused Apostle, A.C. Carrington, denied that he was guilty so vigorously, claiming that he was a victim of the woman’s charges, that the Council voted in his favor. President Grant said he believed the woman, although he had no clear evidence to refute the testimony of Carrington. In some manner, which I now forget, he did get further evidence and again brought the charge against his colleague. This time Carrington confessed to having had sexual relations with the woman, but denied it constituted adultery, because adultery involved “mixing of seed” and he (Carrington) had used a silk handkerchief. All of the President’s stories of his experiences made him the hero. So much for 11 o’clock appointment. We were to be back by 3pm.

After lunch, President Harris and I called on the manager of Deseret News, simply as a good-will visit that might yield favorable attitudes toward BYU. S.O. Bennion had recently been appointed to the position after a long tenure as President of one of the LDS Missions. Somehow he got on the subject of President Grant. He said he was called to the President’s office one day and found the President upset because the Deseret News had not reported a sermon he had given the day before at a funeral. Bennion said he had been visited several times in his mission by President Grant, and had always found him to be a fatherly, genial guest. “I had never seen this man before,” he said of Grant’s behavior this time. “He was not the President Grant I knew. It was someone else.” Bennion told us he then called his editor, Mark Peterson, and asked him to look up the item—which he knew had appeared—and bring it to the President’s office. When the President saw it, he was embarrassed and apologized. Said Bennion, “I think his daughters put him up to these things.”

The appearance before the First Presidency was rather brief. I was so embarrassed that President Harris nervously went to such lengths to defend me that I was unable to say anything. I think it was just as well, because there was not much I could say. President Grant said, “Of course, we have the evidence here.” (He pointed to a drawer in his desk.) He went on to say that it would be turned over to the Commissioner of Education for him to make an investigation. About the only word of consolation I got from the meeting came from J. Reuben Clark, Jr., when he said, “You used a very unfortunate word in your letter.” He was referring of course to “agnostic.” I couldn’t say at the time that I thought I was writing to an understanding man of some knowledge; at least I certainly hadn’t written to President Grant.

The following Wednesday the speaker at the weekly assembly in College Hall was David O. McKay, whom I had known for a number of years and greatly admired. I knew all the McKay family. The youngest brother, Morgan, had been a member of our fraternity. Word was passed to me that President McKay would like to see me after the assembly. I went with him, President T.N. Taylor of the Utah Stake, and President Harris to his automobile at the curb. President McKay said, “All I wanted to tell you was that there will be no investigation.” At that I confess I shed a tear.

There was still some aftermath. Apostle Stephen L Richards, who was related to the Knight family through the marriage of their children, came to Provo on a visit and let President Harris know that he would like to have a talk with me. Accordingly, I showed up at the Knight home (now the Berg Mortuary). A fire was lit in a bedroom fireplace upstairs, and Brother Richards and I went there for a talk. As we talked about the letters in which I had said I didn’t know that immortality was a fact, he suddenly said something I shall always admire him for: “I am sure you know as much as I do about it.” I was rather sure that was true, but had heard all my life the burning testimonies of men in authority in the Church that they “knew” that there was an existence after death. He went on to suggest that I write President Grant a letter expressing my loyalty to the Church and so on. I did this, but I am sure President Grant never trusted me. He had all the “evidence” he needed in the tirade of Oscar Russell. I never heard from him.

A footnote on Oscar Russell. He had been trying for years to obtain an appointment in Utah but to no avail. In his letter, he was obviously attempting to prove his own virtue, and by that to ingratiate himself into the favor of President Grant. I confess that the thought entered my mind that I might duplicate the correspondence and circularize the board of Ohio State University, but I had no intention of doing so. I still wonder what they would have thought. Oscar did finally get a job in Utah as superintendent of the deaf and blind school in Ogden. I received one more letter from him after the election of a new president at the University of Utah. I had been a candidate along with Adam S. Bennion, and the Board was tied seven to seven; after many votes, they had chosen a compromise candidate. Oscar wrote to congratulate me on being a candidate along with “such a distinguished man as Adam S. Bennion.” I did not acknowledge the letter; I was through writing to Oscar.

Pressures on the faculty were increasing and President Harris was no longer able to maintain the spirit of free inquiry that had been so much a mark of his administration up to this time. At least one other faculty member, Hugh M. Woodward in philosophy, had been called on the carpet over his teaching of comparative religions. He had even published a book, The Common Message of the World’s Great Religions. In his interview with the First Presidency, Hugh told me that he remarked to them that, since they were members of the Board, they had a right to eliminate the book if they so desired. “No,” said President Grant, “go ahead and teach about these other religions, but when you get through with them show that they are not worth that.” He snapped his finger. Some faculty members found other jobs; Murray Hayes, a geologist, went to Washington and Walter Cottam, a botanist, to the University of Utah. Woodward (philosophy) found employment with the WPA educational program, and Coach Ott Romney became Athletic Director at West Virginia University. Grant Ivins (animal husbandry) became price administrator for Utah during World War II.

I was unhappy and disappointed by these developments. In later years, I could see more clearly that during the 1920s and the early 1930s we had been living in a fool’s paradise as far as academic freedom was concerned. The admonition to the faculty by President Harris to “teach the truth” was both sincere and courageous. Of course, he would spell truth with a small “t”’ and his Board, consisting mainly of Apostles of the Church, would agree with the statement but would spell the word with a capital “T.” Up to 1934, the university had been regarded with what one might call “benign neglect.” Any attempt to get increased appropriations from the Church, despite the rapid growth in enrollment, was brushed off with the remark of President Grant that “BYU is now receiving more money than did the entire Church educational system in the days of Horace H. Cummings.” (This would be about the first decade of the century.)

Suddenly, however, there was now a new concern that something was going wrong. Every letter from a complaining student regarding some faculty member received extraordinary attention. Students reared in the provincial Mormon communities, knowing only Mormon beliefs, and with little knowledge of the developments in secular knowledge, inevitably encountered conflicts in such courses as geology, biology, anthropology, and sociology. If the Bible, as they had always been taught to believe, was “the word of God,” how could there be an alternative theory of the origin and age of the world as well as the origin of man and other life on earth? The theory of evolution was a formidable problem for some students, not to mention that of the instructor who might try to reconcile it with Genesis.

It is quite clear in retrospect that BYU cannot enjoy academic freedom according to standards established at most state universities and the great private institutions like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the rest. The BYU situation compares with that of Harvard in the seventeenth century, when its first President was made to resign because he failed to have one of his children baptized by immersion. It is not quite that bad at BYU, but the guidelines are quite rigid and conformity with them is enforced; the nonconformist is easily purged because the faculty does not have tenure.

I was greatly relieved when the offer came from Washington to join the New Deal as adviser for four western states.