Chapter 4
Home Up


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 Joseph 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 might."8

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 level?

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 known.

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 influence.
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 possible.
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 1978):

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."