The Complicated Life of a Mormon Intellectual

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Nov. 1 2012 4:15 AM

The Case of the Mormon Historian

What happened when Michael Quinn challenged the history of the church he loved.

(Continued from Page 4)
Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith.

Wikimedia Commons.

Local TV reporters were filming the session, and the AP reporter Vern Anderson was sitting at the far side of the room about halfway back. He left quietly and went to call the LDS Church Office Building to ask about this committee. A church spokesman told him that it did exist, and the First Presidency issued a formal statement about it the following week. They cited a 19th-century revelation to Joseph Smith, in which he spoke of “the saints gathering up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon them,” and said that “perhaps a committee can be appointed to find out these things, and to take statements and affidavits; and also to gather up the libelous publications that are afloat.” The First Presidency did not mention that when Smith received this revelation he was in prison in Missouri, where a “Mormon extermination order” had been decreed by the governor not long before. As the historian Ross Peterson said at the time, “Comparing Sunstone and Dialogue folks to people who were shooting Mormons in 1839 Missouri is unfair.” Peterson, after speaking about Mormon temple rites in the press, had been shown his own file during a conversation with local church leaders. It went back to his college years.

The Strengthening Church Members Committee almost certainly passed along notes about Quinn to his new stake president, Paul Hanks, in early 1993. When Hanks showed up on Quinn’s doorstep in Salt Lake City that February, he brought a letter citing two of Quinn’s articles and a statement Quinn made to a reporter in 1991 as evidence that he was an apostate. One of the articles came from an anthology called Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, edited by Maxine Hanks, a distant relative of Paul—and his uncle Marion—and, soon, one of the September Six herself. The essay, “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843,” cites writings by Joseph Smith and other early church documents to argue that women already possess much of the spiritual authority granted to men, and that today’s LDS leaders simply fail to recognize this. Vern Anderson, the AP reporter, wrote an 800-word story about the essay in January, just before Hanks showed up at Quinn’s apartment.

Quinn read Hanks’ letter that night and wrote a detailed response. He recounted what his former stake president, Hugh West, had done when he received what Quinn saw as similar orders from above. He put down in words his sincere testimony in the Mormon gospel and in Ezra Taft Benson’s status as a true prophet of God. Then he made copies of his letter and Hanks’ letter and dropped them off at the offices of Vern Anderson and Peggy Fletcher Stack, a former Sunstone editor who had become a religion reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. Anderson wrote another piece that was again picked up by multiple papers, including the Los Angeles Times, which ran it under the headline “Mormons Investigating Him, Critic Says.”

Quinn went to California—he had another fellowship at the Huntington Library—staying this time with his mother. She was upset that he was not attending church, and so he drove 45 minutes to a “singles ward,” a Mormon congregation specifically for unmarried adults, near UCLA. He’d been told it was an unusually accepting congregation. During Sunday school, a man approached him and said, “The bishop would like to talk to you.” Quinn dreaded what was coming. When he went into his office, the bishop, a man named Tom Andersen, said “he’d read this article in the L.A. Times,” Quinn told me. The bishop’s next comment was, “What’s wrong with those people up in Salt Lake?” He was “thrilled” to have Quinn in his ward. He’d read the essay about women and the priesthood, and he asked Quinn to speak on the subject at an upcoming “fireside,” an informal evening meeting often held at Mormon meetinghouses. Quinn attended that ward in Westwood every week while he was in California.

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And he continued to correspond with Paul Hanks, who had written to express his displeasure at seeing his words quoted in the newspaper. Quinn wrote back more harshly this time, listing all the things Hanks had done that troubled him. Hanks became conciliatory, reading “On Being a Mormon Historian,” and writing to say he’d gotten from it “deeper insight into your devotion and your dedication to history and the Church.” He asked again to meet when Quinn came back to Utah. Quinn refused. Hanks became less diplomatic. By “declining to talk with any priesthood leaders,” he wrote, “you are cutting yourself off from the blessings of the Temple and the blessings of the priesthood.” He insinuated that the church’s problems with Quinn were not all theological. “There are other matters that I need to talk with you about that are not related to your historical writings. These are very sensitive and highly confidential and this is why I have not mentioned them before in writing.” Hanks alluded to these matters in subsequent letters, but never explicitly said that he had Quinn’s sexuality in mind.

Quinn was convinced, in any case, that his fate in any disciplinary council was predetermined, that Boyd K. Packer wanted him out of the church and Hanks was going to make it happen. Hanks worked for the Church Educational System, where Packer had long been an administrator, and Quinn heard that Loren C. Dunn, a friend of Packer’s and fellow general authority, had spoken to Hanks personally. Whether Quinn’s fate had truly been sealed is hard to say. In September, Hanks wrote Quinn another letter, saying that he had listened, twice, to a recording of Quinn’s paper about the Baseball Baptism Program, delivered at the Sunstone Symposium that summer. He also mentioned reading Quinn’s long Dialogue article about the politics of Ezra Taft Benson. He referred to the “pathos that I felt in your private letters to me—a plea to not be discarded from something that you love.” “I want to help resolve that pathos,” he added, “and a sadness that seems to pervade your private writing to me.”

By then, Quinn had more or less moved on. He rejected the idea that his writings and his comments to reporters about Mormon history warranted disciplinary action, and he had come to a kind of peace about what he was sure awaited him. Hanks had already held one church court in Quinn’s absence, in July, at which Quinn was disfellowshipped. On the Sunday it was held, Quinn went to a movie theater in downtown Salt Lake and bought a ticket for the first screening he could find, to take his mind off the disciplinary council. The movie was a live-action adaptation of the Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. The noisy nonsense on-screen felt to Quinn like a rough equivalent of what the church was doing to him. Later that evening, having dinner alone, he felt a new sense of relief about what had happened so far and what he believed was about to happen.

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Brigham Young, mid-19th century.
Brigham Young, mid-19th century.

Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Quinn’s final disciplinary council was held on Sept. 26, 1993, in the Salt Lake Stake Center, the headquarters for the oldest stake in Utah, founded by Brigham Young in 1847. The other five people who were by then being referred to as “the September Six” had already faced their courts. Maxine Hanks’ was held in the same stake center one week before, though she did not attend it. Lavina Fielding Anderson decided not to appear at her court, either, which took place at another Salt Lake meetinghouse a few days afterward. Paul Toscano, a combative lawyer, showed up for his, at the Cottonwood Stake Center in the southern part of Salt Lake City. It took several hours—a vigil was held outside for the first few, with candles and hymns and hot chocolate. Down in Provo, Avraham Gileadi met more quietly with his local leaders. Gileadi was not part of the Sunstone and Dialogue circles that the others moved in; he had been writing and teaching popular workshops about biblical and Book of Mormon prophecies, which appear to have been deemed “false doctrine” by LDS leaders. Gileadi, Toscano, Anderson, and Hanks were all excommunicated.

Lynne Kanavel Whitesides was not. She was also the only one whose disciplinary council was overseen by her bishop, rather than her stake president. The Mormon church holds two different kinds of disciplinary councils: a more elaborate process that is often reserved for those who hold the Melchizedek priesthood—generally speaking, all devout adult men—and a simpler process mostly used for those who don’t—meaning women and men who have not advanced far in the church. While the simpler approach is handled by a bishop and his two counselors, the more elaborate version is run by a stake president, and it involves not only his two counselors but the stake’s high council, a group of 12 men. Half of these men speak for the accused, and half for the church. (They draw numbers to pick sides.) After a prayer, the stake president explains to them the details of the case. The accused is called in, another prayer is offered, and the court proceeds. In both forms of LDS courts, the accused is typically allowed to bring in character witnesses.