The Case of the Mormon Historian
What happened when Michael Quinn challenged the history of the church he loved.
The same month that his essay about post-Manifesto polygamy was published, in April 1985, Quinn and his wife separated. They divorced soon after. It was a long time coming: Quinn had known he was gay since he was 12 years old. As a Mormon, he also knew that “same-sex attraction” was considered unfortunate at best—something to be struggled with, and, if possible, overcome. When he came to understand this aspect of himself, and learned a name for it, he did what was already typical of him at that age: He went to the library. He looked in the card catalog under “pervert,” which was the word his grandmother had used after he told her that another kid at church had been groping him. The entry for “perversion” said “See homosexuality,” and he read all the available books in that category—not a lot in a small public library in 1956, though fairly heady stuff for a 12-year-old: Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, some Freud, some Havelock Ellis. Quinn read fiction, too, including James Baldwin’s new book, Giovanni’s Room. Even in the novels, he noticed, the gay characters came to terrible ends. He decided he would suppress that part of himself and be a good Mormon.
Or a great one, if possible: Since childhood, Quinn had been told by his grandmother that someday he would be an apostle of the church. This is not entirely uncommon in Mormon culture, but Quinn took it sincerely to heart. His father was never Mormon: The son of Mexican immigrants, he changed his name—though never legally—from Daniel Peña to Donald Quinn, apparently wanting to escape his heritage as well as his poverty. (He took the surname from actor Anthony Quinn, whom he knew growing up in the Los Angeles barrio.) Quinn’s mother, on the other hand, was a sixth-generation Mormon: She had an ancestor who converted when the Mormons were still in Nauvoo, Ill., and who is mentioned in Joseph Smith’s journals. Quinn’s parents were divorced when he was 4, and he was raised largely by his mother’s parents, who frequently fought. When they did, Quinn, an only child, would go to his room, put on a classical record, and turn the volume up.
From an early age, he felt within himself the presence of God, “this burning of the spirit,” as he says. He developed a fervent testimony not only that God exists but that God spoke to Joseph Smith face to face and that the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are, like the Old and New Testaments, divinely inspired. Ironically, this testimony only ever deserted him on his Mormon mission. While serving it in England, he was tasked with cleaning up the results of the “Baseball Baptism Program,” in which missionaries used sports to attract young converts. Once the kids were interested, the missionaries were supposed to contact their parents, with the aim of converting whole families. But some simply baptized the boys—a few without explaining what the baptisms were for. By the time Quinn arrived, the program had been disavowed, and many of these baptisms needed to be undone. Quinn went over local church rolls and found addresses of kids who didn’t come to Sunday services. He visited these homes with his missionary companion and asked the boys if they still wanted to be Mormons. Some did not know that they were.
Daryl Peveto/Luceo Images for Slate. © 2012
There was no process for voluntary withdrawal from the Mormon Church in the 1960s, so each of these kids had to be excommunicated—technically, for apostasy. Quinn was so depressed by the experience that for a few weeks he lost his belief in God completely. It was not the last time he helped to excommunicate people, though. At Yale, while serving as one of two counselors to the local bishop, he found unanswered letters in the ward’s files from people who wished to leave the church. He, the bishop, and the other counselor held the necessary courts, excommunicating those who wanted out. (These soon-to-be former Mormons were not required to attend.) More painfully, as a high councilor in a Utah stake several years later, Quinn was part of courts prompted by personal sin—such as engaging in homosexual acts. Quinn argued against excommunication, he told me, but he did not have the final say.
I asked Quinn this past summer if he thought the provocations he penned as a historian might have been fueled on some level by his own inner conflict with Mormon teachings—if perhaps, unconsciously, he wanted to force a showdown with church authorities. He had, after all, believed for many years that he would someday be a leader of the church, knowing that if this were true he would have to forever suppress an essential part of himself. Maybe, I suggested, he was trying to bring his full self out into the open. We were sitting in the front room of a house owned by a gay couple he knows in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Salt Lake City. He was housesitting. “I’ve had more than one therapist I’ve talked to about this issue say, ‘Don’t you see that you were purposely setting yourself up for this fall?’ ” he told me. But that was not how he experienced it. “I prayed every article I wrote into print,” he said, continually asking God what he should do. “I always felt that I had God’s sanction and encouragement, so I went ahead following that path.” Even early on, a fellow Mormon historian started telling Quinn he must have a “death wish” regarding his membership in the church.
In the early ’90s, when he was living in New Orleans, Quinn, nearing his 50th birthday, tried his hand at fiction, going back to the literature he once studied as an undergraduate. He wrote a short story about two male missionaries in Louisiana who become attracted to each other and are stalked by a religious psychopath. He revised the story occasionally over the next decade, submitting it unsuccessfully to the Paris Review and the Atlantic. He never wrote another work of fiction.
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During Quinn’s New Orleans years, the First Presidency put out a statement discouraging Mormons from participating in academic conferences and other independent forums devoted to the discussion of their faith. The main target of the statement, issued in August 1991, was the Sunstone Symposium, an annual gathering started by Sunstone magazine 12 years before. It had since become the premier event for the “so-called scholars and intellectuals” of Mormonism to gather and exchange ideas. “We appreciate the search for knowledge and the discussion of gospel subjects,” the First Presidency said. “However, we believe that Latter-day Saints who are committed to the mission of their Church and the well-being of their fellow members will strive to be sensitive to those matters that are more appropriate for private conferring and correction than for public debate.” “There are times,” they added, “when public discussion of sacred or personal matters is inappropriate.”
Screenshot via YouTube.
The “Statement on Symposia” was another tear in the already fraying relationship between church leaders and scholars. In 1989, Dallin H. Oaks, the onetime law professor and BYU president who was now an apostle, had given a talk called “Alternate Voices” at the church’s semiannual General Conference. Using the familiar Christian metaphor of a lost sheep who listens “for the one voice that can guide it” back home, Oaks said Mormons should beware of “alternate voices ... whose avowed or secret object is to deceive and devour the flock.” Among the voices Oaks warned about were the ones “heard in magazines, journals, and newspapers and at lectures, symposia, and conferences.” At the same General Conference, another apostle said that a true “stalwart” of the church “would not lend his or her good name to periodicals, programs, or forums that feature offenders who do sow ‘discord among brethren.’ ”
When the Sunstone Symposium next convened, in the summer of ’92, Lavina Fielding Anderson presented a paper on this growing conflict between leaders and intellectuals. In her paper, she mentioned an “internal espionage system that creates and maintains secret files on members of the church.” A BYU literature professor named Eugene England rose to speak as soon as Anderson finished. England said he knew about this espionage system—it was called the Strengthening Church Members Committee, and it compiled documents and highlighted statements considered critical of the church. It was run by William O. Nelson, he said, once an assistant to Ezra Taft Benson who now reported to Boyd K. Packer. Supposedly Nelson, like Benson, was a supporter of the John Birch Society, a radically right-wing, conspiracy-mongering, anti-Communist group. “I accuse that committee,” England declared, “of undermining our Church.”