VIEW FROM THE SIEVE
D. Jeff Burton
D. JEFF BURTON is the author of For Those Who
Wonder: Managing Religious Questions and Doubts (Bountiful, UT: IVE, Inc.,
1994), foreword by Lowell L. Bennion. The original version of this paper was
presented at the Sunstone Symposium, August 1994, Salt Lake City.
I wrote this paper for the Sunstone Symposium in the summer of 1994 after an
extraordinary and troubling year. In September 1993, five Mormon scholars and
feminists were excommunicated; a sixth was disfellowshipped. At April General
Conference President Gordon B. Hinckley, then First Counselor in the First
Presidency, mentioned the need for sifting the chaff from the wheat. In May,
another scholar was sifted out because he published a paper not supportive of
the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon.1 Many others (myself
included) have been called in by local leaders to explain or defend something we
wrote or said, thus reviewing our acceptability. In June, President Howard W.
Hunter, in his loving inaugural speech, invited disaffected and offended members
"to come back." And there are literally millionsó-not just six or
eight excommunicated dissentersówho could "come back." In fact, it
is the largest single group within the Church.
Statistics generated in and out of the Church suggest that as many as 80
percent of those baptized either leave the Church, are asked out, become
nonparticipators, or become unsure of their Mormonism sometime during their
lives.2 I am concerned not only with the high-profile excommunications
but also for all of those who have already been "sifted," and for all
of us now at the sieve. Letís explore a few questions.
Is the "sifting out" of so many people necessary? The answer,
of course, must be no. To me, so much loss means we must not be meeting the
needs of members. During the past fifteen years, I have made it my personal
crusade to help questioning Mormons (a small subset of all who are sifted) to
continue to think of ourselves as "Mormon" and to stay with the
Church, Although we donít always feel acceptable (and some members donít
feel we are acceptable), I believe we have the right to think of ourselves as
Mormon and to urge our friends and neighbors to treat us as brothers and
Sisters. I like the scripture that says, "For the body is not one member,
but many; ... And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; ...
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are
necessary; ... the members should have the same care one for another; ... and
when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be
honoured, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Cor. 12:12-27).
There is, of course, a distinction between oneís Mormonism and oneís
membership in the Church. Certainly, the Church administers the daily affairs of
todayís organizational Mormonism; but Mormonism is also the tradition, the
culture, the ethical base, the history, and the society of a people. It is a way
of life. It is often the center of an emotional life. It is the primary
connection to Christ and God for some. It is sometimes the glue that holds our
families together. Many totally inactive people consider themselves
"good" Mormons. What a shame that so many feel uncomfortable or
unfulfilled attending todayís wards and stakes. What a genuine loss it is when
those who feel incompatible or unacceptable often leave. What a shame it is when
those who are deemed unacceptable or incompatible are asked to leave or
are threatened with possible expulsion. This brings me to the second question:
Has the definition of the "acceptable" Mormon narrowed? Looking
across the last hundred years of Church history, I believe the answer is yes.
Joseph Smith once corrected the high council for calling up a man for erring in
doctrine. Joseph wrote that he did not like the concept of a creed, which a man
must believe or be asked out of the Church. "I want the liberty of
believing as I please, it feels good not be to trammelled. It donít prove that
a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine."3
also reportedly said: "The most prominent difference in sentiment between
the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was that the latter were all circumscribed
by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members of the privilege of believing
anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but
are ready to believe all true principles that exist."4
Similarly, President Joseph F. Smith testified before the Congress of the
United States that Latter-day Saints "are given the largest possible
latitude of their convictions, and if a man rejects a message that I may give to
him but is still moral and believes in the main principles of the gospel and
desires to continue in his membership in the Church, he is permitted to
remain." At the same time, he added,
Members of the Mormon Church are not all united on every principle.
Every man is entitled to his own opinion
and his own views and his own
conceptions of right and wrong
so long as they do not come in conflict with the standard principles of
the Church. If a man assumes to deny God and
to become an infidel we withdraw fellowship from him. But so long as a man
believes in God and has a
little faith in the Church organization,
we nurture and aid
that person to continue faithfully as a member of the Church though he may
not believe all that is revealed.5
These days, there seems to be a great deal of fear of those who "may not
believe all that is revealed," fear of those who raise difficult questions
of conscience, fear of those who uncover and openly express possible new truths,
and fear of those who disagree with Church programs and policies. New strains of
fear seem to have infected the Church from the general level in downtown Salt
Lake City to the farthest local levels of Bountiful, Utah, and Yamagata, Japan.6
Of course the current strains of fear are understandable. The foundations
of the Church are being questioned. Newly published historical interpretations
are seen as challenging faithful history and our place in it. Our general
leaders are being questioned by faithful members in newspapers, magazines, and
journals. Authorities at all levels seem fearful of losing respect and control.
The Church is growing; and with that growth, there appears to be a parallel
growth of problems.7
The traditional antibiotics of tight control and ignoring challenge donít
seem to be working on these new strains of fear, causing even greater fear.
Those of us at the sieve are not immune, either. Weólike all Mormonsóare
fearful of losing the stable connections we need and cherish. We are fearful of
change and its awful disruptive effects. We fear for our jobs, our callings, and
our families. Incredibly, most of us even fear being completely open and honest
with each other about our true feelings and beliefs. (Have you told your spouse,
your mother, or your bishop exactly how you feel about your Mormonism?) Lately,
we find ourselves fearing the loss of the right to question, and even to think.
It is not surprising that fear exists. Itís our response to fear
that seems to be the problem.
John wrote: "Perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.
He that feareth is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18). Love and fear
are two great religious motivators. Each of us is driven, in some measure, by
love and fear. The real answer, then, to the fear of change, to the fear of
difference, to the fear of new truths, to the fear of challenge, to the fear of
dissonant voices, and to the fear of loss, is to turn to the love of God, to
trust in the love of Christ and his words, to love truth, and to love and accept
each and every person who desires to be a part of the body of the Church, This
brings me to the next question, one related to acceptance.
Are we who are at the fringe of todayís acceptability doing our part to be
acceptable? The coin of acceptability has two faces. On one side is the
question, "What is acceptable?" On the other side is the question,
"Are we doing our part to be acceptable?" It is difficult to say how
"acceptability" should be defined. My own definition of an acceptable
Mormon, with borrowings from Joseph F. Smith and Henri Amid, looks like this:
A Mormon is a member of the Church who has faith in and tries to live
Christís teachings as described in the Bible and the Book of Mormon,
"believes in God and has [at least] a little faith in the Church
organization," and who espouses "truth above all, even when it
upsets and overwhelms us."
Thatís pretty broad, I know. To me, the body of Mormonism is indeed made up
of many, many parts, all important. Others of our brothers and sisters obviously
have stricter criteria of acceptability, e.g., Church attendance and activity,
manner of dress, temple work, Word of Wisdom, obedience, and so forth. Whether
we like it or not, we are often judged upon those narrower criteria.
Perhaps that is why the "Circle of Love" march on April Conference
Sunday (1994), while well-intentioned, misfired. First, the march occurred
during the morning session. How could marchers be listening to Church leaders if
they marched during the most important meeting of the year? Second, they didnít
look like "Mormons" on a conference Sunday. Television pictures
unfairly showed a ragtag bunch, few of whom had on "Sunday" dress.
This is a trivial example, but it teaches us an important lesson: We, too, must
do our part to be acceptable. We must be willing to go along with the mainstream
as much as we can.
Much more could be said, but space requires me to leave this topic for each
of our own personal evaluations: Are we doing all we can to be acceptable and
compatible? This again brings me to the next question:
What can be done to broaden the bounds of acceptability? Juanita Brooks,
the great Mormon historian, once wrote of her fatherís concern about her
tendency "to question, to disagree." He was concerned that she might
leave the Church, which he compared to a large herd of cattle:
One day Dad said to me, "My girl, if you follow this tendency to
criticize, Iím afraid you will talk yourself out of the Church. Iíd
hate to see you do that. Iím a cowboy and Iíve learned that if I
ride in the herd, I am lost. ... One who rides counter to it is trampled
and killed. One who only trails behind means little because he leaves
all responsibility to others. It is the cowboy who rides the edge of the
herd, who sings and calls and makes himself heard, who helps direct the
course. So donít lose yourself, and donít ride
away and desert the outfit. Ride the edge of the herd and be alert, and
know your directions and call out loud and clear. Chances are you
wonít make any difference, but on the other hand, you just
I think we need to cautiously and in Christlike ways influence both the
leaders of the herd and individual members of the herd. This generates two
subquestions: What might be done to broaden acceptability criteria at the
general level, and what might be done to enhance acceptance at the local
Like politics, all general Church programs are local in their impact. In the
present correlated Church, almost all local ward and stake policies,
instruction, and activities are now dictated by authorities and committees at
the general level. When problems arise at the local level, we sometimes have
difficulty because our local leaders are obliged to follow general, correlated
Church policies and practices.9 It follows then that we have the rightóand
the responsibilityóto influence general policy and general authority. (Thatís
a lower case "g" and "a".) For example, if I believe that my
child needs more instruction on Christís teachings of honesty and if I
perceive that the correlated program does not provide sufficient emphasis on
this principle for my child, I have every right (and responsibility) to ask
appropriate general leaders to include more instruction on honesty in Church
lesson plans. The same approach works for almost any concern. If you feel that
the Church needs a policy of greater acceptance of diversity in order to foster
tolerance and love at your local level, then by all means, let your feelings be
There is also a "regular channels" mechanism through bishops, stake
presidents, and area presidents to get membersí concerns reported to higher
authorities. (Granted, it is slow, with little feedback, and it is filled with
frustration.) I also know from personal experience over the years that our
general leaders read (and sometimes even respond to) serious letters, written in
private, concerning things that trouble us.
Write those letters, but letís avoid confrontation and embarrassment.
Throughout the Churchófrom top to bottomóare men and women who, when they
feel free to do so, will encourage more diversity, greater love of those who are
different, and even acceptance of dissenting views. President Hunterís
pronouncements, and more recently President Hinckleyís, are suggestive of that
possibility. I have faith that, if we bear our crosses patiently, the pendulum
will swing from fear to love again.
Finally, what about acceptance at the local level? General Church leaders
have stated that the excommunications of intellectuals and scholars and the
investigations of others, were local actions that followed general policies
outlined in such documents as the "Statement Regarding Disciplinary
Councils" which was sent to all local leaders, There has obviously not been
a consistent response at every local level. Given this situation, it appears
that it would be useful for us to influence local members and leaders as they
try to follow imprecise policy, local traditions, and personal attitudes and
bias. We want our local people to avoid unloving actions that create suffering
and that tend to narrow acceptance and breed intolerance.
I worry, for example, about the excommunication of faithful members who
express concerns of conscience or write unconventional scholarly works. First
and foremost, it has an awful impact on those excommunicated, their families,
and their wards. The anguish and suffering some have experienced is unspeakable.
Second, these excommunication stories, now widely known, stimulate other local
leaders to similar misadventures that cause unnecessary pain and suffering.
Third, they set an ill-defined standard for acceptability that may not be wisely
applied in other locales.
Here are a few thoughts for expanding acceptance at the ward level:
| Letís stay involved with the Church. Little can be accomplished by
those outside the Church. Concerned faithful members can change things for the
better at the local level, and eventually, at the general Church level.
Organizing and participating exclusively in unofficial Church-like
organizations and meetings can only bring temporary relief. Furthermore, the
Church will move ahead without us, and without our important contributions and
| Letís let our local leaders and ward members know of our feelings and
concerns. Letís speak out, as appropriate. It is best to be polite, loving,
and Christlike in our comments and suggestions, of course. Letís not hurt or
embarrass anyone. If only one person in each ward stands up for increased
tolerance and acceptance of diversity and for the search for Joseph Smithís
"all true principles," it will have a worldwide impact for good.|
| Letís be patient. Things will likely correct themselves because the
Church is led by well-meaning, inspiration-worthy leaders. It may take years but
eventually right will prevail. (Who knows? We might be wrong, too, in the
details. Time is a good friend and teacher.)|
| Letís work for change through regular and appropriate channels where
| Letís support truth. Letís work and pray to understand the issues and
then share what we know with others, as warranted and appropriate.|
| Letís be honest with ourselves and others in all communications.|
| Letís be careful not to hurt others by our actions. Let Christís
example be our guide.|
1See David P.
Wrightís documentary history, "Pushed Out of My Spiritual and Cultural
Home" and Dianne T. Wrightís "A Family Church, a Family Disciplinary
Council," in this issue.
2Exact numbers are impossible to obtain. One
Set of numbers I find reasonable looks like this: Of every twenty persons
baptized worldwide, six are either excommunicated or ask to have their names
removed. Of the remaining fourteen, seven become nonparticipators. Of the last
seven, only three or four remain lifelong temple recommend holders. One set of
numbers for Japan: There are over 100,000 members of record. About 20,000 are
considered active (attendance at one meeting per month or more). The remainder
are inactive. (Reported to me by Jiro Numano at the Mormon History Association
meeting, May 1994, based on information given him by the Church in Tokyo.)
Another set generated by the Correlation Department in the mid-1980s: Of active
Mormons, 60-75 percent are unruffled true believers, 30-40 percent are
unsure, and about 5 percent are disbelievers. (Private Communication)
3Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook, comps. and
eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the
Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft/BYU
Religious Study Center, 1980), 183-84.
4Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by B. H. Roberts (Salt
Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1902-12; 6 vols., a seventh volume was published
in 1932; reprinted by Deseret Book Company, 1976, and reissued in paperback in
5Proceedings Before the Committee on
Privileges and Elections of the United States Senate in the Matter of the
Protests Against the Right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a Senator from the
State of Utah, to Hold His Seat, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government
Printing Office, 1906), 97-98, emphasis mine. Joseph F. Smithís criteria for
acceptability, "main principles of the gospel," and "standard
principles of the church," seem to be have been narrowed. In a New York
Times interview quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune, President
Hinckley reportedly said, "But when an individual speaks openly and
actively and takes measures to enlist others in opposition to the church and its
programs and doctrines, then we feel there is cause for action." "Itís
All in the Numbers," in "World View" column, compiled by Peggy
Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune, 9 July 1994, B-1; emphasis mine.
6Fear is nothing new, of course. Religious
people generally are controlled by fear. We often hear Mormons say, "I
would be afraid not to pay my tithing." To this could be added fear of the
consequences of not wearing garments, not attending church meetings, not
carrying a temple recommend, not saying a blessing over the food, not having a
testimony, and many more.
7President Hinckley was also quoted as
saying, "If we have a problem today, the problem is growth." Stack,
"Itís All in the Numbers," B-i.
8Juanita Brooks, "Riding Herd," in Notes
and Comments, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1, no. 2
(Summer 1966): 141.
9AS an example, my brother is a priest in the
Aaronic Priesthood. He is as fine a man and father as you will find. He recently
wanted to stand in the circle at the blessing of their new baby. The latest
policy is that non-Melchizedek-priesthood holders cannot stand in the circle.
(It is ironicóand a manifestation of the problems of rigid central policiesóthat
he can baptize his child but cannot participate in its blessing.) We tried
calling the bishop, stake president, and area president to get an exception so
that he could stand in the circle. Those we could teach were sympathetic but
could do nothing because of the "policy."