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.

A box of old photos belonging to Michael Quinn at his home.
A box of old photos belonging to Michael Quinn at his home.

Daryl Peveto/Luceo Images for Slate. © 2012

One Sunday in February of 1993, Michael Quinn was home sick with a fever when his doorbell rang. Wearing a bathrobe, he answered after several rings and found three men in suits and ties on his doorstep. The Mormon church is organized into congregations called wards; a group of these is called a stake. The men at his door were the local stake president and his two counselors, the men responsible for overseeing all the congregations in the area. The stake president, a man named Paul Hanks, tried to step into the apartment as he said hello, Quinn recalls. It struck him as an old missionary’s trick.

Quinn had been avoiding this confrontation for nearly five years. In 1988 he resigned his position at Brigham Young University, the private college owned and operated by the Mormon church, having decided that his interest in the “problem areas” of the religion’s past jeopardized not only his position on the history faculty but his membership in the church itself. He took a fellowship at the Huntington Library, near his hometown of Pasadena, Calif., and began indexing his enormous collection of notes on old Mormon documents, in preparation for his next book. After 18 months, he moved to New Orleans, where it was less expensive to live. There, he tried other kinds of writing, thinking maybe he’d put Mormon history behind him.

In California, Quinn had picked up his mail at a P.O. Box 15 miles from where he was staying, and in New Orleans he had it delivered to a receiving center a little ways from his apartment. The modern Mormon church has become a fairly top-down organization, but most responsibility for attending to its members still resides in local lay leaders. Quinn’s religious status would—officially, at least—be decided by his own stake president, not by the higher-ups in Salt Lake City. If those top leaders did not know where he lived, then they could not assign him to a particular stake, and his church membership could not be threatened. That, in any case, was his thinking. Quinn had spent three years in the military in the late ’60s, working in counterintelligence. “I know how to avoid people I didn’t want to be in contact with,” he says. Though he maintained a solemn belief in the Mormon gospel and in the sacrament partaken of by the faithful at Sunday services, he stopped attending church altogether.

But by the fall of ’92 he had to return to Salt Lake City to finish research on the book, and he had grown tired of hiding from church authorities. He moved back to Utah and began receiving mail at his actual address. The book he was finishing, which would be published in 1994, was called The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. When the men from the stake presidency came to his door in February, Quinn was living three blocks from the Salt Lake Temple and the worldwide headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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A view of the Salt Lake Temple outside Olympic Medals Plaza in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A view of the Salt Lake Temple outside Olympic Medals Plaza in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

“In what dissidents have described as a purge, church leaders took severe disciplinary action in September against six Mormon scholars and feminists,” the New York Times reported on Oct. 2, 1993. It was the paper’s second article in two weeks about a series of church courts held across 13 days in September and reported in media outlets across the country. Quinn and four others—Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maxine Hanks (a distant relative of Paul Hanks, the stake president who showed up at Quinn’s apartment), Paul Toscano, and Avraham Gileadi—were excommunicated by stake presidents in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah; a sixth, Lynn Whitesides, was “disfellowshipped,” meaning that she remained a member of the church but could not fully participate in its rites and activities. Before the first court, Whitesides and Anderson alerted friends and the press, and word spread quickly. A candlelight vigil was held outside the Salt Lake City meetinghouse where it took place. Hymns were sung. TV and newspaper reporters came. Whitesides says that “Connie Chung’s people” asked her to take a hidden camera into her court. She declined.

Dubbed the “September Six,” the group were mostly left-leaning writers and scholars who had published articles or given talks about the role of women in Mormonism and the way the church’s leaders handle dissent. There have always been dissidents in the Mormon ranks—the religion itself is one particularly dramatic dissent from the rest of Christian tradition—but a new community of Mormon intellectuals had coalesced in the 1960s and ’70s. Independent publications—most notably Dialogue (founded in 1966) and Sunstone (1974)—provided forums for scholarship and reflection about Mormon history and theology. This made some church leaders uneasy. “There are three areas where members of the church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away,” declared Boyd K. Packer, one of the church’s Twelve Apostles, in May 1993. These “dangers,” Packer said, were the “relatively new” feminist and “gay-lesbian” movements, and “the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.”

One of the central questions in the aftermath of September’s events was just how involved Packer himself had been in them. At the pinnacle of the Mormon hierarchy is the First Presidency—the church’s prophet and his two counselors—and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Those 15 men oversee the multiple Quorums of the Seventy, who in turn direct the stake presidents and bishops who minister to congregations on a part-time, voluntary basis. The prophet at the time was Ezra Taft Benson, who, at age 94, was mostly incapacitated. The most senior apostle, Howard W. Hunter, also suffered from serious health problems. (Benson died in ’94, Hunter in ’95.) Packer, the second-most senior among the 12, was the “substitute president” of the Quorum of the Twelve whenever Hunter was sidelined for medical reasons. And he was the most strident of the group when it came to denouncing internal critics of Mormon leaders and teachings. He insisted that the September councils were local affairs, but church employees who reported to him had, it turned out, been keeping tabs on the six who were disciplined, and rumors swirled that Packer himself personally insisted that the courts take place.

Packer’s involvement mattered because the Twelve Apostles are considered by devout Mormons to be “prophets, seers, and revelators.” If they directed the councils, then the excommunications were, essentially, a message from the church’s highest spiritual authorities about what Mormons were allowed to do and—publicly, at least—to say. Many religions have strictures that establish who is in and who is out, but the Mormon church draws a brighter line than most. The church keeps fairly careful records of its membership, for one thing, records that play a part in the worldwide effort to bring salvation to all of God’s children. There are important aspects of Mormon life, such as temple ceremonies, that are open only to the truly faithful. What’s more, all Mormons are supposed to have a calling in the church, which makes for a wonderfully participatory religion but also discourages casual membership. Excommunication has played a significant role throughout the church’s history. Until 23 years ago, one could not formally leave the church without being excommunicated. (In 1985, an Arizona man filed an $18 million lawsuit against the LDS church for not allowing him to do so. The suit was settled out of court and a process for voluntary withdrawal was established in 1989.)

That bright line is one of the reasons Mormons still sometimes seem separate from the mainstream of American life even after a century of assimilation. Many people do reside in the borderlands between Mormon and not. My own name remains on the rolls of the church, and I plan to leave it there, though I stopped believing in the Mormon gospel 15 years ago. Ultimately, the events of September 1993 may have helped broaden those borderlands, encouraging other members of the faith to openly question Mormon orthodoxy without entirely leaving the religion behind. It did not happen overnight, but many LDS leaders seemed to regret the furor and the hurt that surrounded those excommunications. Some, perhaps, simply regretted the bad press. But gradually, pressure on Mormon scholars eased, and today many write and publish without any obvious concern for what their stake presidents might think. In hindsight, the “purge” of September 1993 looks like the last big push for a kind of control that LDS leaders will probably never have again. But it also betrayed tensions within the church that may never entirely go away.