THE FAMILY CHURCH,
THE FAMILY DISCIPLINARY COUNCIL:
A PERSONAL RESPONSE
July 18, 1994
UPDATE: 22 APRIL 1997
THREE YEARS LATER
LETTERS OF SUPPORT
Dianne T. Wright
July 18, 1994
On April 5, 1994, my husband, David, was excommunicated from the Church. I attended some of the meetings he had with Church leaders. I asked the leaders many questions showing the difficulties I had with the proceedings and how this was affecting our family.
One question I raised was, How can a sincere, honest seeker of truth be considered a sinner? I have known my husband for eighteen years and have known him to have integrity. My husband has studied and prayed about these issues for twenty years. I was told that the Church had to worry about the missionary program. To me the leaders were saying that the programs of the Church are more important than my family and me.
All my life, I thought that the Church was here to support the family and the individual. I loved the Church because it cared so much for every one of Godís children. I thought that God cared about each of his sons and daughters. Yet my family and I were to be sacrificed because there might be someone somewhere who might not join the Church because they might have read what my husband wrote. They never considered the fact that six loyal members of the Church in my familyóand, in addition, many of our friendsómight lose their testimonies because of the Churchís persecution of David. We must not be as desirable as some others. It seems that the Church prefers members that do not study to serious seekers.
During the meetings, the issue of how to deal with the problematic evidence David and others were finding was never discussed. The Church was true because the prophets said that it was true. To the leaders, anyone who questions any of the Church doctrines is an apostate. I thought that the prophets had told us to seek truth from many sources. Now the leaders were going to expel my husband because he discovered some inconsistencies. They could not deal with the evidence or even try to find answers. The only answer was to call my husband an apostate.
I asked about freedom of thought. I was told that we have freedom to know that the teachings of the Church are true and to express those feelings. We can have differences of opinions as long as we do not teach or publish any ideas that disagree with the teachings of the Church. To me it seemed as if they were saying that all of the thinking has been done. If you have differences of opinion, donít share your opinions or the Church will consider you an apostate.
I was told that this was a disciplinary council of love. I certainly did not feel any love during this process. The message that I got from the disciplinary proceedings is that my husband was so bad that God did not want him in his Church and that the children and I were defective for being in the same family with him. Excommunicating to show love is a contradiction in terms. I do not know of any family that expels its children to show love.
During the disciplinary council, I testified in my husbandís defense. In my statement, I asked the brethren how I could teach my children to love a Church that was willing to expel their honest, sincere father because he published some of his beliefs and told Church leaders in more detail what he believed. How could my children ever participate in Church and express any feelings or ideas when they would be worried about being excommunicated if they said the wrong thing or held the wrong opinions?
In the middle of this statement, I struggled to keep my emotions under control, and my husband gently put his hand on my shoulder. This was a most tender moment. I thought that somehow I could reach someone in that room, that at least one man could see that my husband is a valuable person and that we have a wonderful relationship. I hoped at least one person would think that God would be pleased to have us as part of his Church. Surely they would feel, as I did, that a strong marriage like ours should be celebrated. I thought that these men must surely feel my sincerity when I talked about my husband.
But there were no comments about my statement. No one from the council spoke to me after the court was over. I was hurt when I heard the high councilors laughing and joking together after the stake presidency retired to make their decision. I was hurt that after a few hours of discussion and ten minutes of prayer, the stake president could confidently decide to expel from Godís kingdom a person whom he has known only through disciplinary proceedings. My husbandís many years of devotion, study, and prayer were meaningless. I was hurt when no one spoke to us as they left the meeting, except one who casually said, "See ya." In fact, no one else even looked at us. Yet they all claim that this proceeding manifests love and shows the will of a loving God.
The most distressing message that I received from the Church proceedings is that if I want to go to the celestial kingdom, I either need to change my husbandís opinions or find a new husband. In other words, I feel that the Church sanctions the break-up of my family.
The first contact with any of us (including David) after the bishopís court was a phone call from one of the counselors the next day. He asked, not for my husband, but for me. This was odd, because we had been waiting anxiously to hear the results of the hearing. It had been almost twenty-four hours. Why did he ask for me? He wanted to know if my oldest son would accept a calling to the deaconsí quorum presidency.
I was shocked. He did not seem to be aware that something else was going on in our family. He was calling me as if I were a single parent or as if I lived in another household. Only after I mentioned that our family could hardly deal with calling my son to the deaconsí quorum presidency right now did the counselor acknowledge that a court had taken place. When he said he would like to set up a meeting to talk to us, David finally took the phone and found out, more or less, what the decision of the disciplinary council was.
I cannot go to church, I feel that, if I were to go to church, I would become part of those who accused my husband, that I would be sanctioning what they had done to him, to my children, and to myself. I cannot be an active part of an organization that has devalued my family and our desire to seek God. I cannot believe this disciplinary council was inspired. I cannot believe that God would have so little concern for the individual. I cannot feel Godís love in a Church that has expelled my husband for his desire to understand Godís dealings with humanity. The messages that I received from this experience are contrary to everything that I loved about the Church. I feel robbed of my faith.
UPDATE: 22 APRIL 1997
David P. Wright
It has been three years and a few days since excommunication. They have been three years of adjustment to life apart from the Church. While I am still involved in a few Mormon studies projects, I no longer seek a spiritual home in the Church nor do I see myself investing much of my future in its study. Besides being ecclesiastically cut off, I cannot agree with its fundamentalist understanding of history and theology. I have come to a humanistic, rather than theological understanding of the world.
My life has gone well since the excommunication. I have just received tenure and a promotion at Brandeis University, and my career in Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies has developed favorably. I have finished another book, this one on ritual in Ugaritic narrative, which should be published in late 1998.
If anything has replaced my involvement with the Church and its spiritual fulfillment, it has been music. I was a music major (an undisciplined one!) at the University of Utah before my mission to Oregon. The mission taught me discipline and also led me into the study of the Bible and the ancient Near East. My dissociation with the Church has let my (mostly jazz) musical interests resurface. Right now I am improving my chops on woodwinds and doing some composition. Someday I hope to teach music lessons a bit on the side and play some local gigs.
Best of all, our marriage and family life has thrived. Dianne and I have never been closer. My children and I have a loving relationship. I am proud of Dianneís and our childrenís abilities and accomplishments. Dianne and our children have evolved away from the Church, reformulating their worldviews. Dianne has completed her M.A. in special education and finds much fulfillment in teaching. Our two daughters will be in college next year (a sophomore and a freshman), one in art and the other in physical therapy. Our two sons, both interested in the sciences, are not far behind: one will be a sophomore in high school and the other is in sixth grade. As a family, we retain and cultivate the good universal and common-sense values that we learned from Mormonism and Mormon culture, but we pursue life with an eye on what is more or less patently in front of us, desiring to make good on mortality and leaving questions about supernal and eternal being and beings to take care of themselves.
While the excommunication was a terribly unsettling and an emotionally violent ordeal to go through, from where I stand now, I find it to have been a great, liberating blessing. This does not mean I am happy with how the Church proceeded in my case or other such cases. The Church might have provided a spiritual home had it been interested in truth more than orthodoxy. But the Churchís action has sent me down a different road of life, one a bit happier than that I had during the years of investigation and trial.
THREE YEARS LATER
Dianne T. Wright
I feel that religion should help us in our quest to find meaning in this world. Religion is supposed to help us reach our highest potential. It should comfort us through our trials and tribulations, inspire us to help others, and help us find peace. It should help us to be better listeners and friends.
I canít say exactly when Mormonism stopped doing any of these things for our family; but from the time David was let go from BYU, Mormonism became increasingly negative. It was very frustrating for our children to see us go through this. It was particularly hard for us to see our beliefs judged. To the Church, it did not matter that we were good people. Their whole judgment was determined by comparing our beliefs to the Church norm and then punishing us for any deviation. I found this approach very offensive. What I believe on various religious issues is only a small part of who I am. I felt included in the stake presidentís excommunication of David. So did the children. What we did not feel included in was any kind of religious community that Mormonism may have continued to represent.
Some well-meaning people assumed that we would immediately try to "get back" in the Church. This assumption also offended me because the only way for David to go back to the Church would be for him to lie about the things he knows. In addition, this assumption drastically disregarded the stress the excommunication put on our family. We needed a peaceful and positive home. We needed to enjoy each otherís company. David and I needed to support each other, and our children needed our daily attention. We needed to leave a very troubling and negative season of our lives behind. We needed to leave Mormonism behind.
Our choice has been not to associate with the Mormon Church. Itís a choice that feels right and has met our needs. As a family, we talk a lot about freedom of thought and allowing others to express their beliefs. I like the way my children feel free to think their own thoughts and express them. I like the strength of their personal ethics. I am proud of how my children are growing up.
In the past three years, I have completed a masterís degree in special education and have started teaching. This has been a very satisfying experience. I find religious fulfillment in helping people with special needs find ways to live more productive lives. I am now at peace with who I am. I enjoy my freedom of thought, and my world and God are in harmony. I have learned to appreciate all of Godís children.
Our extended families continue to try to convince us to go back to the Mormon fold. My one hope is that the day will come when they will understand us and the decision that we have made.
LETTERS OF SUPPORT: EXCERPTS
31 March 1994
Dear President Wheeler:
David is not out to destroy the Church or to damage testimonies. He, and many like him, began their studies because they loved the Lord and were fascinated by the scriptures. Similarly, I began my own studies in the ancient Near Eastern Studies master s program at Brigham Young University with traditional preconceptions. But the evidence, not my preconceptions, was conclusive. David, like many of us, very much wants to remain a member of our Church, and has fought to retain his membership.
Unfortunately, he and many other people discover in their studies that the traditional understanding of history they have been taught simply is not what actually happened. This may be uncomfortable for us, but it makes no sense to run from it. Members of the Church often want to dismiss immediately the kinds of scholarly ideas which David advances, but we cannot do that. The questions he has raised will not go away if he is excommunicated. They arise because they exist in our history and in our sacred texts.
Whether we excommunicate them [scholars] or allow them to remain, either way the Church of the future will not be the Church of the past. It continues to evolve, as it has since Joseph Smithís time. David Wright is one of many Mormon thinkers who strives to maintain his faith, and his case is being carefully watched by Church members and non-members all over the country. ...
Gary B. Keeley
Dear President Wheeler:
... [David Wrightís] research is for those on the border who struggle with faith. He speaks to those who have lost hope. We need honest researchers like Brother Wright who cultivate and explore every source of insight and inspiration in our search for truth. He, as all Mormons should be, is not afraid of what [people] may learn in the quest for knowledge, because he knows that all truth is a part of the gospel. In my mind, he has made significant contributions to speak and affirm faith to those who doubt. I hope that your judgements of him will be based on the faith-affirming intention in his work and its positive contribution to those who seek truth. His knowledge is a gift that can aid the Church. I am convinced and sincerely believe that any action that you take against him on this matter will be to the detriment of the Church.
In the Sunday morning session of conference, Brother Nelson spoke on tolerance and President Hinckley on persecution. As they were speaking, I was reminded of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. In a last desperate effort to escape from the mob in Carthage Jail, the Prophet went to the window and called the Masonic distress cry in rallying some help. Instead of help, he received a final volley of bullets. To those researchers calling out in the Carthage of the soul, ... will we give them aid or bullets? ... This is the gift of Brother Wright to the Churchóthe ability to inspire conviction without dogmatism and inspire hope in those who are ready to leave all that they love without a word....
Mark D. Thomas
Dear President Wheeler:
Allow me two brief points as you ponder the coming disciplinary council for Professor David Wright:
1. From a podium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson set forth the ideal of the American scholar: "Free should be the scholar, free and brave!"
For Mormon scholars today, the more free and brave one is, the more likely he or she is to feel the iron blows of ecclesiastical discipline.... I hope you will not punish David Wright for the very scholarly care and courage for which we ought to honor him. The test is not whether he is right but whether he is true to the evidence he uncovers and responsible in the words he writes.
I wouldnít trade David Wright for all those religion teachers at BYU who look only for evidence that will fit their own particular assumptions about history, or match their superiorsí theology. ...
2. While touting its commitment to families, the Church is brutally tearing many very good ones apart. David Wright, his wife and children have already paid a very heavy price for the Churchís intolerance of scholarship. We hear general conference sermons about Ďthe importance of the one," then watch our leaders sacrifice individualsí membership, and families, in the name of the many.
I urge you to make a decision about David Wright that is worthy of the ideals spoken, respectively, by Emerson in his time and by LDS leaders in ours.
With kind regards,
L. Jackson Newell
Salt Lake City, UT
Dear Brother Wheeler:
... It seems to me that the best way to deal with facts that do not seem to fit into the preferred theory is to allow the dialogue among scholars to continue to its necessary and logical conclusion. It is through this process that we can best bring to light the information we need to form opinions and to revise our opinions if we are mistaken. If scholars like David Wright are wrong, the process of peer review and dialogue will reveal their errors and highlight the truth. If they are right, we should be grateful to them for helping us learn the errors of our understanding, so that the truth can make us free from those errors. In all things, we should use caution and should realize that the search for understanding is ongoing and that new knowledge may render our old conclusions incorrect and in need of revision.... I think we should trust the truth to cut its own path.
Very truly yours,
Virginia F. Brown (pseudonym)
March 31, 1994
Dear President Wheeler:
I have known David for over a decade, and I know that he is a true Christian and a good Latter-day Saint. I am also aware of his personal views on some facets of Mormon scripture. I was also one of his students at BYU. All this, along with my work as a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley in Ancient Near Eastern Studies gives me a good perspective on this whole sorry affair, and I want to tell you plainly that to drive this brother (and, incidentally, his family) from the Church is a big mistake.
Certainly his views have raised eyebrows as well as hackles. But you should know that his methods of scholarship are not to be dismissed out of hand. ... Whatever oneís spiritual feelings may be about the Book of Mormon, there are some extremely difficult problems in defending its historicity. Many Mormons are bothered by these problems. The fact that David continues to claim the book is scripture in spite of his belief that it is a nineteenth-century document has strengthened and inspired many people throughout the Church. Now you are about to strip him of his hard-fought membership. This is contrary to the spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance that should be a part of Christís true Church. I am not that old, and I can remember a time in our Church when we did not excommunicate or restrict the participation of Church members because of differences in opinion or belief. What did matter was whether or not they lived like Christís people. ...
Menlo Park, CA
March 31, 1994
Dear President Wheeler:
I have known David Wright for almost ten years. ... A very real paradigm shift takes place as one studies in detail the historical development and nature of ancient scripture. To approach a document from a historical point of view with the intent of doing bona fide critical scholarship requires [a] paradigm shift away from a more devotional-oriented study. To punish individuals for experiencing that shift and performing sound research simply because it conflicts with a given tradition seems wrong to me.
Chances are I know David better than any of you. David is a morally responsible person who wants to do the right thing. Davidís writings did not grow out of any agenda to hurt the Church or its membership. It took David over a decade to publish a paper conflicting with the traditional view of Mormon scripture. The sole reason for this was his concern for the effect it would have on students of the scriptures. I have watched him struggle to find affirmative ways of dealing with his findings that would allow avenues of belief for those desiring to believe in the Church and its doctrine while coming to grips with the historical evidence. This is not the approach one would expect from an apostate.
I have never heard David demean or undermine the Church leaders. On the contrary, I have found him to emphasize the significance of their role as spiritual guides and institutional authorities. Nor have I heard him speak negatively or maliciously about the very tradition he critiques. But rather he has always expressed the utmost respect for tradition and its role in formulating our beliefs and our culture. Again, this does not seem like the attitude of an apostate. ...
Knowing David as I do and understanding his high ethics and integrity, I would be disappointed in him had he chosen to deal with the historical evidence differently than he has. If the definition of an apostate is to be honest and open in oneís search for truth and knowledge and to refuse to be silent in the face of institutional censorship, then David is truly an apostate and I support him 100 percent. What a sad day it has become when someone like David is brought before a court. David is one of the few who attempts to walk a thin line between scholarly conclusions and faithful participation in his religious community in hopes that by so doing he will find both the means and the support to expand that thin line into a path wide enough for others like him to travel upon. ...
Dear President Wheeler:
The image that Church trials such as Davidís present to the world and, indeed, to many Church members is of an institution determined at all costs to silence dissent, even when offered in a spirit of good will and fellowship. It is an image of a faceless corporation that uses its enormous administrative and social power to bully individuals into submission. It is an image of corporate officers abusing their authority to pursue private vendettas against their opponents and refusing to take responsibility for their actions. It is an image of misplaced obedience on the part of subordinate officers in following unjust and mean-spirited orders. Such trials discredit the institution they profess to defend and bring shame on its members.
There may perhaps be cases of apostasy in which a member demonstrates through his or her actions that a living connection to the Church no longer exists. In such cases, excommunication is a means for both parties to acknowledge a parting of the ways. I can imagine a disgruntled member attacking the Church, perhaps even making a business out of such attacks, and indicating thereby that excommunication was warranted. But none of these conditions apply in Davidís case. While there are those who interpret his writings as an attack upon the Church, nothing could be further from the truth. In view of his obvious doubts concerning certain matters of belief, it would have been far easier for David simply to have left the Church. The fact that he did not and that he has struggled to maintain a relationship is prima facie evidence for his good will. ...
What the end of Davidís struggle will be no one, David probably included, can say. The one thing that seems certain to me is that he can only reach the end of his appointed road by continuing to travel down the path he is on. To deny the doubt, to pretend that he believes what he does not, to suppose that increased Church activity or other spiritual nostrums will magically make the problems go away would be to delude himself. Such dishonesty would certainly kill any hope of an eventual restoration of faith. Give David room to explore the ramifications of his faith and of his intellect.
Edwin Firmage, Jr.
Salt Lake City, UT
March 24, 1994
To whom it may concern:
... I am a graduate student at Brandeis and have had the pleasure of studying Bible and ancient Near Eastern history with Dr. Wright for the past two years. ...
Although I myself am not Mormon, I grew up with a very close friend who is a practicing Mormon. In my experience with her family and her church, I was exposed to an incredible feeling of community and family warmth. In my understanding of the Mormon tradition, excommunication of an individual drastically affects the individualís family in life and in death. I do not understand how the excommunication of a father, husband, and son can be anything short of destructive to the family unit. ... As an individual whose contact with the Mormon Church was positive precisely because of the strong family bond and values witnessed within the community, the prospect of this forced theological and emotional fission is devastating. The results can only be negative. Either the family will feel ostracized from a respected family member or they will feel ostracized from the Church. Neither of these prospective outcomes support the foundation of Mormon life as I understand it. ...
In mid-April Edwin B. Firmage, Jr., organized a protest of David Wrightís excommunication with an open letter to the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve which ran as an advertisement in the Salt Lake Tribune 3 July 1994. The text read:
Following on the heels of recent Church action against other prominent LDS writers and academics, the excommunication of David P. Wright. ... confirms the suspicion of many that LDS leadership is determined to silence dissent, even when it is offered in a spirit of good will and fellowship. The message that this trial conveys to academics and nonacademics alike is that LDS leaders can tolerate the search for understanding only insofar as its conclusions are innocuous. In thus trivializing intellectual activity, the Church loses credibility as an organization devoted in fact as well as in theology to the search for truth. By insisting on unquestioning conformance to their version of history, Church leaders also deny members the opportunity to think and choose for themselves. Of particular concern to us, however, are the implications of this and similar actions for the integrity and professional credibility of LDS scholarship in the Churchís institutions of higher learning and elsewhere. This action makes it impossible for faculty in departments of anthropology, history, Near Eastern language, religion, sociology, or indeed almost any discipline freely to conduct independent research in areas that have any relation to LDS belief. Brigham Young Universityís recent decision to dismiss two faculty members due to conflicts between ecclesiastical and academic agendas is further evidence that intellectual freedom in the LDS academic community is imperiled.
In 1839, after months of imprisonment for his beliefs, Joseph Smith observed to other leaders of the Church that "it is the nature. ... of almost all men as soon as they get a little authority ... to exercise unrighteous dominion" (Doctrine and Covenants 12 1:39). While it might be possible to exercise political or social power in this way, Joseph cautioned his leadership that Godís powers could not be so manipulated. "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned" (v. 41). We believe that your pursuit of the Churchís outspoken intellectuals is inconsistent with this mandate. We ask that you stop. We ask that you respect their rights and those of all members of the Church to discover truth for themselves, and in that process to think and discuss their ideas without fear.
Non-LDS scholars were invited to sign a one-sentence letter: "As non-members, we join our LDS colleagues in protesting Professor Wrightís excommunication, which must inevitably have a chilling effect on the vitality-of LDS scholarship."