"PUSHED OUT OF MY SPIRITUAL AND CULTURAL HOME":
A DOCUMENTARY CASE STUDY
David P. Wright
Wednesday, April 28, 1993
Sunday, June 6,1993
Sunday, July 4,1993
Sunday, July 11,1993
"IN PLAIN TERMS" (Sidebar)
Wednesday, July 21, 1993
Sunday, September 19, 1993
Saturday, October 23, 1993
Thursday, October 28, 1993
Wednesday, February 2, 1994
Wednesday, February 9, 1994
Wednesday, February 23, 1994
Letter to Bishop Reeder, February 17, 1994
Selected News Clips
David’s Letter to Bishop Reeder, February 20, 1994
Dianne’s Letter to Bishop Reeder, February 17, 1994
Friday, February 25, 1994
Bishop Reeder’s Letter, February 20, 1994
Saturday, February 26, 1994
Thursday, March 3, 1994
Wednesday, March 30, 1994
Wednesday, March 31, 1994
David’s Letter to President Wheeler, March 31, 1994
Thursday, April 6, 1994
STATEMENT FOR DISCIPLINARY COUNCIL
Sunday, April 10, 1994
President Wheeler’s Letter, April 6, 1994
EXILE TO RECONSTRUCTION MAY 6,1994
David P. Wright was born in 1953 in St. Louis, Missouri, the first child in a family of three children. He grew up mainly in Salt Lake City in a very traditional and committed Mormon family. After serving a mission in Oregon and graduating from the University of Utah magna cum laude in Middle East Studies with an emphasis in modern Hebrew and linguistics, he received his master’s (1980), then his doctorate (1984) in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, passing his candidacy exams in biblical ritual, Hittite language and literature, and Akkadian religious literature with "high distinction." Jacob Milgrom supervised his dissertation, "The Disposal of Impurity in the Priestly Writings of the Bible with Reference to Similar Phenomena in Hittite and Mesopotamian Cultures." He married Dianne Teerlink in 1976 in the Salt Lake Temple.
Dianne was born in 1951 in Salt Lake City, the second of eight children, did undergraduate work at the University of Utah, received a B.A. in child development and family relations (1973) from Brigham Young University, spent a semester in Israel on the BYU Semester Abroad Program in 1975, and studied Hebrew briefly at the University of Utah. She received a certificate in elementary education from BYU in 1989.
David was hired as an assistant professor of Hebrew and Near Eastern Languages in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University in September 1984. There he taught courses on Hebrew, the Hebrew Bible, and ancient Near Eastern culture and languages. The last of their four children was born in Provo. In 1986-87 when David submitted his application for continuing status, his personal and private questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon became an issue. On June 13, 1988, Jae R. Ballif, then academic vice president, wrote: "It is our opinion that your views on certain matters differ so significantly from those generally accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of our governing Board of Trustees that we cannot continue your employment" past the 1988-89 academic year. These differences "would make it impossible for you to teach large portions of the subject matter of your discipline without either compromising your own beliefs or the position of the university." The first problem was David’s belief "that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth-century document." Ballif commented: "There may be those who can reject the manifold accounts of the plates, Moroni, the translation process, and the other historical events in the Prophet Joseph’s narration ... and still believe that it is God’s word. But surely for most readers ... such a position is untenable. It is hard to think why God would choose to have the Prophet present such an elaborate story—one that is clearly deceptive in any but the most untraditional interpretation—when so many other options were available." The second problem was David’s "view of the nature of prophecy" in which he viewed prophets as speaking mainly to their own time, but where later prophetic leaders could reapply old prophecy to their time. Ballif wrote: "Even though your view of contemporary prophets’ ‘recasting’
of older prophecy feels good to you, it differs from what our present-day prophets say about their own callings."
Ballif acknowledged: "We in no way wish to assume the position as final judges of theological matters. ... We do not wish to argue with the sincerity of your own reconciliations. ... No doubt there are nuances of interpretation that depend on context and on the personality and idiom of the individual prophet. ... Your reconciliations may support your own faith. ... In each of these areas, there is room for honest difference and careful discussion. But when all are added together, it appears to us that there is a wide gulf between your own belief system and one that would be congruent with teaching biblical writings at Brigham Young University."
He concluded: "David, through our discussions we have gained increased respect for you. You have in your time here established yourself as an exceptional young scholar and teacher. Your professional research and publication record are very strong. Your performance as a teacher is very good. Furthermore, your administrative work, personality, morals and conduct with colleagues and students are what we hope for in all young faculty. The issues outlined above relating to our unique mission make clear the only reason we have concluded that it would be best for you and for us for you to pursue your work elsewhere."
After being dismissed, David studied Near Eastern ritual practices (1989-90) on a Fulbright research fellowship at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem while he held a simultaneous appointment as senior fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, then taught courses on the Hebrew Bible and Judaism as a visiting assistant professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont (1990-91). From 1991 to the present, he has been assistant professor of Bible and Near Eastern languages, literature, and history at Brandeis University. The family first lived in Maynard, Massachusetts, but thirteen months later, during the summer of 1992, moved to Chelmsford, Massachusetts, where they attended Littleton First Ward, James B. Reeder, bishop, in the Nashua New Hampshire Stake, presided over by Ned B. Wheeler.
David’s language competence includes reading proficiency in Hebrew (biblical, Mishnaic, medieval, and modern), Hittite, Akkadian, Aramaic (all dialects), Ugaritic, Arabic (Qur’anic and Judeo-), Phoenician and other Canaanite dialects, Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch, with introductory experience in Sumerian, Coptic, and Sanskrit. He has presented thirty papers at professional meetings and is the author or co-author of forty-eight books, articles, reviews, and translations, including eleven entries in the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992). His six Mormon works include two articles in Kent Jackson’s and Robert L. Millet’s Studies in Scripture on the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Randall Books, 1985), a review of a book on structure and language in the Book of Mormon published in the 1989 issue of the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, "Historical Criticism: A Necessary Element in the Search for Religious Truth," Sunstone 16, no. 3 (September 1992; appeared ca. March 1993): 28-38; a response to William Hamblin’s article, "The Final Step," in the July 1993 issue, and "‘In Plain Terms That We May Understand,’ Joseph Smith’s Transformation of [the Epistle to the] Hebrews in Alma 12-13," in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, edited by Brent Metcalfe, pp. 165-229 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993). (See "In Plain Terms," p. 318.) Both "Historical Criticism" and "In Plain Terms" would become foci of ecclesiastical discontent and lead to Wright’s excommunication.
In the spring of 1993, he learned that he was under investigation by his ecclesiastic officers for his scholarship and beliefs regarding the Book of Mormon. After a year-long series of meetings, David was excommunicated for "apostasy" on April 5, 1994. At this time, David’s and Dianne’s children were Rebekah (16), Sarah (14), Benjamin (12), and Aharon (8).
Following are selected entries from my journal from the spring of 1993, when the Church began investigating my scholarship until my excommunication in the spring of 1994. The entries have not been edited except on rare occasion to smooth out syntax, to clarify matters here and there, or to protect some people not officially involved from embarrassment.1 I have added some explanatory comments in brackets. I have also deleted some paragraphs that are irrelevant. The entries were written on the dates under which they appear and therefore reflect ongoing perceptions. Many of the entries were written in the heat of the moment and often in an attempt to release frustration. Readers should judge them in that human expressive context. I share these entries to give an idea of the psychological and human dimensions of Church disciplinary actions as well as to inform the public about the details of my case.
Written at 8:00 this morning.
Last night I met with the bishop of my ward, James B. Reeder. About two weeks ago, the executive secretary called to set up an appointment. He did not know and therefore couldn’t tell me what the meeting was about. So I stewed for two weeks. It could have been about the article I recently published in Sunstone2, it could have been about Sarah and Rebekah [my daughters] storming out of their Young Women’s meeting when a high councilor (or some male stake leader) denigrated gays and said they should not be allowed in the military, it could have been about our not attending church so much recently, or it could have been about Ben’s ordination and Aharon’s baptism which are to occur in July.
Well, it was about the Sunstone article. Bishop Reeder said a General Authority had called my stake president, Ned B. Wheeler, who asked the bishop to speak with me. In addition to the call, Salt Lake (notice how anonymity is protected by metonymy) sent the stake president a copy of my article. He made a copy for the bishop which the bishop let me see. It had underlining in it. The underlining must have been made by people in Salt Lake because there were things underlined, such as Brent Metcalfe’s forthcoming book and some specific arguments, that seem to be buzz-words or buzz-ideas that would not be of interest to or matters of knowledge of my stake president. The underlining was photocopied on the bishop’s copy; hence he did not do the underlining. He wasn’t sure if the stake president or Salt Lake made the underlining. The underlining was mostly within the text. Occasionally there were double lines placed vertically in the margins along several lines. Several times there were small X’s by a line in the margin. Once or twice there were annotations like "weak argument." There may have been some other brief words written, but these weren’t too clear in the photocopy. It does not seem that there were any extensive notes written in the margins or elsewhere. I looked at it for about two minutes.
Bishop Reeder said that he did not know what the General Authority had said to President Wheeler. He said that President Wheeler had given him the task of talking to me without much information other than there was concern about my views. The bishop at the beginning of the discussion said his concern was more about the spiritual welfare of Brother Wright.
His main concerns were (1) my view that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon and (2) that my article did not allow for spiritual evidence of the book’s antiquity. He was concerned about the implications of my views. If Joseph wrote the Book of Mormon, then this means he was a liar and it throws into question his claims about receiving the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, the sealing powers, etc. I tried to counter saying that a revised view of revelation did not require the judgment that Joseph was a boldfaced liar. (I referred to Blake Ostler’s discussion on revelation in his Book of Mormon article in Dialogue.) This meant that Joseph Smith, though he claimed certain things, did not always have a clear understanding of the nature of what he was doing. He said this was a weak attempt at justifying matters. I countered later in the discussion saying that FARMS had already written off many of Joseph Smith’s statements about Book of Mormon geography—that the Church sanctioned this in its acceptance of the limited geography thesis. (Elder Loren Dunn had once told me, about 1986 or 1987, that the General Authorities [he referred to them as "we"] were happy with John Sorenson’s argument for the limited geography thesis.)
The bishop spoke about the harm my views might have for members of the church. I countered by noting the harm church actions like these have with regard to scholars and thinkers. I told him there were many scholars in the Church who thought similarly—my case was not unique. I mentioned the Washington, D.C., Sunstone Symposium "Pillars of My Faith" lecture (by Dorice Williams Elliott) that stressed that actions against scholars destroy faith.
His main point was that we must "hold on to the iron rod," to the "stake of truth which has been driven in the ground" by the restoration. There is a presupposed truth which cannot be modified and by which all else is to be judged, he said. In essence he said that, measured against this truth, my views could be judged apostate. He said he did not want to threaten me with a disciplinary council. This would be the SP’s [stake president’s] call since I am an endowed elder. But he said that the SP was not contemplating this and he wasn’t sure that the SP wanted to talk to me. My impression was that SP will probably call me in for a talk.
The bishop’s counsel was to pray and fast. He asked me if I had ever done this with regard to the Book of Mormon. I told him that I had a traditional testimony early on and that this was one of the reasons I went into biblical scholarship.
Our discussion ended in not much more than recognizing that we have incommensurate views. I told him about my article forthcoming in the Metcalfe book. He wants to get the book and read it. I told him he should read not only my piece but the whole volume.
Yesterday in the Salt Lake Tribune an article about the Metcalfe book appeared. I thought that what it quoted from me was positive, in the context. I imagine, however, that it will disturb General Authorities.
I asked Bishop Reeder today about having Aharon baptized and Benjamin ordained to the priesthood. Apart from scheduling issues, I asked him if I could perform the ordinances. He said that as far as he was concerned I could. But he said that President Wheeler wanted to see me. He said he had put it off until after stake conference which is next Sunday. Apparently this is still in response to the Sunstone article; Bishop Reeder didn’t know (and I assume President Wheeler doesn’t know) that the Metcalfe book was out.
I’m really caught in an ethical dilemma. I believe that the Church (the General Authorities) has pushed scholars around too much. They have exercised dominion uncharitably and unwisely. This abusive management must be protested. I would protest it by not participating in the inquisitional process. But in order to perform the ordinances which I feel that I must do to continue a relationship with the Church and to avoid hard feelings in the extended family, I have to participate in the process to show President Wheeler that I am supportive of the Church. (Bishop Reeder said I should call President Wheeler to set up the interview; "this would be viewed favorably," he said.)
Why do I want to perform the ordinances? Ritual says something to the participants about society’s structure and power and control. If someone else performs the ordinances, be it the bishop, a good friend, or even my father, it is saying something to the children about my relationship to them and about their relationship to the Church. The ordinances performed by another will teach them either that scholarship is an evil or, more probably, they will dislike the Church which discredits their father for honest intellectual activity. (The children already hotly dislike BYU for firing me and thus disturbing their stable lives and friendships in Orem.)
Of course, if I delay having the boys receive the ordinances or do not have them receive them at all, the boys will have no connection with the Church. Ben, for example, will, because he would be ritually unengaged, become socially unengaged. He would be embarrassed to participate with ordained teenagers. His activity in the Church would essentially cease. So maybe it is better to have him ordained by someone else and to take a chance on his hating the Church or me rather than sign our resignation papers so to speak by holding him (and Aharon) back. If we don’t have him ordained, we can never expect him to go to Church again.
All this implies that I see some value in the Church. Do I? Or am I just responding to my parents’ pressure? I suspect if we didn’t have parent pressure we would not be participating in Mormonism. On the other hand, I would be involved, I think, in research on Mormonism to some extent. My gut feeling is that if the Church allowed thinking and allowed that to be reflected officially I would be quite involved in the organization. I would participate because it has defined much of my life. And if I found value in it in this way, I would encourage my children to find value in it.
After some thinking, I have decided not to go to President Wheeler of my own accord. My historical thinking is not something that needs to be "cleared up," from my perspective, to participate in the Church. It may be, too, that since President Wheeler has not been contacted about the Metcalfe book article, if we discussed matters and settled them, say in the next week or two, a call from a General Authority about that new article might undo any gains made. I will let the month pass. (I want to let some time pass to see what the Church will do with certain scholars at BYU, to see if they will be fired.3 This may give an indication about the Church’s toleration for people like me. I want to see, too, if any other authors in the Metcalfe volume get called in.) If, during the month, President Wheeler wants to meet with me, I will do so (though I will have to ask him if he has received word from Salt Lake City on the new article and, if not, I will have to supply him with a copy and with the Tribune article). If he has not contacted me, I will ask Bishop Reeder at the end of the month if I can perform the ordinances. If he says that President Wheeler’s approval is necessary, I will ask him to speak with President Wheeler. If the answer is no, I will probably arrange to have someone else perform the ordinances. If the Church should be so bold as to extinguish me from its records, then I will probably not encourage the children to receive the ordinances. If they really wanted to, however, they could go through with them.
This is a very stressful situation, much more stressful than getting canned at BYU, it seems.
I went to church today to try to arrange for the baptism of Aharon and the ordination of Ben. Bishop Reeder asked if President Wheeler had gotten hold of me. I said no. He said he did not have a chance to get a copy of the Metcalfe book yet. He asked if he could borrow my copy. I said yes, but the conversation shifted such that we forgot to make arrangements for getting him a copy of the book.
Anyway, Aharon’s baptism is to happen on July 17 and Ben’s ordination on July 18th. Bishop Reeder said he is going to assume that I will perform the ordinances though he is going to check with President Wheeler to make sure this is okay.
Dianne, I and the boys went to church today. The boys had their interviews after church was over. All seemed to go well, but after their meeting Bishop Reeder asked me to meet with him for a minute. (One may ask after reading the following why I was not interviewed first.) This turned into an interrogation which will likely impel me to take a long sabbatical from the Church. This feels like the straw that has broken any faith and hope I have had for the Church evolving in the near future. Some might say that what has happened here is due to the nearsightedness of a particular bishop and stake president. This cannot salve the offense that I have suffered. Moreover, it shows the injustice of the ecclesiastical judgment system that exists in the Church. It indicates that reforms are needed with clearer guidelines.
Here’s what happened in the interview. Bishop Reeder said that he met with President Wheeler yesterday in his PPI [Personal Priesthood Interview] and asked President Wheeler if I could perform the ordinances for my children. President Wheeler said it was basically up to the bishop to decide, but Bishop Reeder was to ask me some questions before making the decision. I perceived the questions to be inquisitional, questions that were asked with categorical starkness and that required immediate unreserved yes or no answers. They were, to the best of my recollection at this writing (an hour or so after the meeting with Bishop Reeder), the following: Do you believe in God the Eternal Father, in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost? Do you believe that Jesus lived, that he died, and was resurrected? Do you believe that Jesus is our Savior and that we can gain salvation only through his atonement and through his gospel? Do you believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet? Do you sustain Joseph Smith as a prophet? Do you believe that Joseph Smith was visited by John the Baptist and received the Aaronic Priesthood from him? Do you believe that Peter, James, and John laid their hands on Joseph Smith and gave him the Melchizedek Priesthood? Do you believe that Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple and gave him the sealing keys?" There were a few other related questions which I cannot remember exactly. The questions about the priesthood were asked two times during the interview. Often the phrase "Do you believe ...?" was replaced by "Do you have a conviction that ...?" Bishop Reeder made clear that by this he meant that my belief was not just a supposition or hope but actually based on a revelation of the Holy Ghost.
In response during the course of these questions I tried to express my "hope" (rather than "conviction") about the existence of God. I said I viewed Joseph Smith as a prophet, that he was inspired of God. I said that the Church was good and beneficial, and that I wanted to be part of it and I wanted my children to be part of it. I said it was part of our family identity. I said I did not deny any of the issues raised in his questions. But I did say that my study has brought me to view the process of revelation differently than traditional Mormonism has understood it. I said his questions presupposed a propositional view of revelation [the view that God communicates clearly and unambiguously and that prophets properly understand and convey to their audience what is so revealed], a view which I found unsupported by my study. His questions were therefore "loaded" and I could not answer simply yes or no with integrity. I said that my different view of revelation allows me to see Joseph as inspired and having [spiritual] power though not in the same way traditional Mormonism understands these matters.
His rejoinder to this was that one had to accept Joseph Smith’s explanation of things at face value. His visions have to have the ontological quality that Joseph Smith imputed to them—if [Joseph Smith said that] Peter, James, and John appeared, etc., that is exactly what happened. At this point he added comments about the Book of Mormon: if Joseph Smith said it was a translation from ancient records, then that is the belief required. Any other interpretation and belief requires Joseph Smith to be considered a fraud, he said. I responded that my view did not require this ethical conclusion about Joseph Smith, even though I would not take all of Joseph’s expressions as the way that things "actually" occurred.
I took the offensive slightly and asked him if all those who would perform ordinances for their family members needed to be asked the questions he was asking me and needed to have "conviction" about these matters? He said that others should have this conviction but that he did not always need to ask them these questions since he is able to judge from ward activities whether they have the proper level of conviction and faith to perform the ordinances. Thus mine, it turns out, was a special case. I told him that perhaps the majority of Church members could not answer honestly in the affirmative to all of his questions. I told him there were many who have questions about one or several of these matters but go on performing ordinances in the Church. I said that his questions made it appear that the Church was for perfect beings and not for those who are seeking to improve and to learn and to grow. Who could really measure up to his requirements?
His technical objection to my doing the ordinance work was that it would be hypocritical. How could I as an only qualified believer perform ordinances which require absolute conviction that what one is doing derives from the source that Joseph Smith ascribed to it and achieves the goals that he ascribed to it? I argued that there was much more to the ordinances than their doctrinal aspect; they have a social aspect which brings families and the Mormon community together and this was the basis for my seeing myself as able to participate. Again I stressed that the Church was for the perfection of the saints, not for perfected saints. I had the hope that the Church would benefit me and be of benefit to my children. This response did not succeed.
I saw that there was no possibility of this discussion advancing to my benefit. I asked to make sure that he felt that one had to be completely orthodox in the way that he described to perform the ordinances. He said yes. I then sought to discontinue the discussion. I said that we should postpone the ordinances of my boys. I left with a handshake and angrily hastened to my car with the boys and Dianne trailing behind.
Earlier in the discussion he said that he thought it would take several meetings to hash things out. I do not want to subject myself to such an inquisition again. If he or President Wheeler calls, I will probably not agree to meet with them. I have never been more emotionally distraught in all my questioning sessions with a church or BYU leader. It wasn’t that Bishop Reeder’s personality was harsh or that he was pursuing some special agenda. It was simply that he was holding to the traditional orthodox line and defending it. Any bishop in the Church might have asked and said the same sort of things. Nonetheless, this interrogation was spiritually abusive. It showed that I really don’t have a home in Mormonism no matter how much I desire it. Only orthodoxy is tolerated. Any serious, honest, and scholarly questioning and attempt to make positive sense of Joseph Smith’s experience that did not coincide with orthodoxy was anathema and disqualified one from fully participating in the ordinance work and life in the church. I told Bishop Reeder with some agitation in the inquisition that I felt I was being kicked out of the Church. I was made to feel inferior for my honest attempts to balance faith and scholarship. I felt that the "family church" was ready to rip my family away from me.
Since the meeting with Bishop Reeder a week ago Sunday, July 11, we decided to go ahead with the ordinance work for Aharon and Ben and have a friend perform the ordinances. We thought we would do this so that the children could not be stigmatized by the Church and to leave open the door for future participation. We thought that if Ben and Aharon did not go through with the work, they would essentially be closing the door on Mormonism (and that we would be, too). We left it up to the boys to decide ultimately. They chose to go through with it. Dianne was willing to make arrangements with Bishop Reeder and our friend. I was so disturbed by the interview with Bishop Reeder that I did not want to deal with him or otherwise make arrangements. Aharon was baptized and confirmed Saturday evening (July 17) and Ben received the Aaronic Priesthood and was ordained a deacon the day after (July 18).
The ordinance situations were most frustrating. I felt snubbed in the whole affair. I was not invited to participate in the ordinance circle (perhaps I was expecting too much even to wish for this). Particularly offensive was how Ben’s ordination was handled. It was done in the deacons’ quorum meeting. Bishop Reeder conducted and called participants to the circle. [I was not included among them.] After the ordinance Ben shook the three participants’ hands. Bishop Reeder then said that it was customary for the ordainee to hug and kiss his mom. In the whole affair I was not recognized.
I will probably take a long vacation from church. We have given the children freedom in choosing to go to church. I may write more on Mormonism; I have several ideas still left to develop on paper. But these will be purely historical. I will not be making theological recommendations in such work.
By the way, I have not heard anything about ecclesiastical reaction to my article in the Metcalfe volume. I thought that I would have been called in by now. Metcalfe says that FARMS is producing a book-length response to the volume which criticizes it as a secularist production from secularist presuppositions. He thinks that Church leaders may have "commissioned" this book and that they are responding this way rather than by ecclesiastical inquisition. I doubt they would leave reaction to the book at that, especially since they just gave the boot to David Knowlton and Cecilia Farr at BYU.
This morning Bishop Reeder called and set up an appointment with me to see the stake president today at 4:00 P.M. I reacted with some adrenaline in my voice, saying that I was shy to speak about my ideas with President Wheeler because there had been something of a witch hunt lately in the Church. I said that six people had been brought up or were about to be brought up on charges in church disciplinary councils. (These include at this writing: Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, Avraham Gileadi, Paul Toscano, Michael Quinn, Maxine Hanks, and Lavina Fielding Anderson.) I indicated that I was afraid that this was part of this action.
I stewed all day until the appointment thinking the worst. When I went to the meeting I found that this was merely the follow-up visit with President Wheeler that Bishop Reeder had said would occur. The particular impetus was his reading of my Metcalfe volume article. He received a copy from Bishop Reeder who had ordered the book as he told me he would. There was nothing in the meeting that gave any indication that General Authorities had asked him to have this particular meeting (though the whole attention to my case was raised by a General Authority back in April).
The meeting began by a prayer which he offered. The basic theme of the talk together was that he and Bishop Reeder love me and my family and want the best for us and want us to get to the celestial kingdom. His basic counsel was to avoid those things that would get in the way of achieving this goal.
His style was different than Bishop Reeder’s. Bishop Reeder asked many questions while President Wheeler talked a lot, laying out various points, and sort of ending with rhetorical questions like: "Right?" "Don’t you think?" and the like. He never really expected me to answer these questions. Therefore it was much less invasive than my talks with Bishop Reeder.
The points covered include the following:
- Obedience: He asked a question along the lines of "What does God want us to pursue?" I answered "truth." He said that truth includes obedience. I did not concede to his collocation of these two abstracts. I told him that Joseph Smith and Jesus were radical pursuers of truth and that sometimes obedience needed to be sacrificed.
- The fallibility of the General Authorities: I told him that I did not consider the General Authorities infallible and that I needed to follow what appeared to be true to me according to my study and spiritual experience. We discussed how that anyone’s perspective of truth is something internally generated and that no one can impose truth on another one from outside. He agreed to this general notion. I told him that in view of my study of LDS Church history and scripture that I could not accept a historical (and even religious) notion just because General Authorities claim it.
- The fallibility of scholarship: He made the point over and over in our discussion that scholarship is the "arm of flesh" and cannot be trusted. He is in the science/engineering field and he noted how he has seen various theses proved wrong upon the obtaining of greater understanding. I agreed that scholarship was not infallible. But I also told him that just because there is fallibility in several or many cases does not mean a priori that any given scholarly endeavor is significantly fallacious. We cannot use this as an excuse not to investigate and undertake scholarly studies of the scripture. With this I tried to again make the point that we can’t therefore surrender ourselves to the General Authorities since they are also fallible.
- Iniquity: Throughout the discussion he talked about how these sorts of views grow out of disobedience. He says disobedience fogs the path and does not allow us to obtain perfect spiritual information. If we put aside our iniquities and our questioning, then the Spirit will tell us and convince us of the gospel way. I told him that this line of argument was ad hominem. It presumed that an individual is sinful. It presumes that historical conclusions only follow modification in behavior. The reverse is actually the case with me. I made the historical conclusions first. Then I stopped paying tithing, etc.
- Knowing by the Spirit: He said many times that the Spirit can teach us matters. I said that knowing by the Spirit is just as confusing as knowing by rational scholarship. I noted that General Authorities have different views by the Spirit about certain matters. I told him of my own and others’ experience of knowing things "wrongly" by the Spirit. Knowing by the Spirit was not a viable alternate to knowing by rational scholarship.
- The pushiness of the Church; His counsel near the end of our discussion was specifically for me to take my family to a special sacrament meeting that would be held next Sunday in Billerica [a neighboring town]. There a video about the sacrament with talks by Mark Petersen and David Haight would be shown. He said this is a very spiritual tape. After participating in the meeting, I was then to call Bishop Reeder or President Wheeler and discuss my impressions about the meeting. I told him that I could not promise to do this. I said I found the pushiness of the Church (and I mentioned the pushiness of relatives in this regard too) disheartening. I told him I was taking a vacation from Church to help get a better perspective. He did not push attendance at the meeting after this.
- Coming down on scholars in the Church: I mentioned to him my apprehension about the meeting with him. I told him about the recent disciplinary councils being held. I said that this was not conducive to the faith of a scholar. I told him this atmosphere was not helping me sort out my feelings about the Church, I wanted to make him aware that our case was just one of many important events in the Church [pertaining to scholarship and the Church] and that this period in church history was significant. I gave him the Sunstone with my response to Hamblin. I told him he might like to look at Toscano’s article in that issue. (I told him that Toscano was being brought up on charges today in his stake.)
- Pride and rebellion: He was very nice in the whole discussion. It was thus hard to know just what he actually might be thinking about my statements. He did mention at the end that I should avoid pride and any rebelliousness. I made no response, but this is the traditional sort of exhortation made by leaders to get recalcitrant followers to fall in line. Are pride and rebellion objectively sinful?
I do not know where all this discussion will lead. Since I told him that I would probably not attend the sacrament meeting next week, no mechanism was put in place to make one of us contact the other. I think that he would rather not undertake disciplinary action (this was not mentioned at all in our discussion). But I am not sure that he can simply let the matter lie.
With regard to the Church, a lot has happened in the last month. Six feminists/scholars have been disciplined, five of them being excommunicated. [The sixth, Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, was disfellowshipped.] General Conference has been held where the speakers held the line and reinforced the Church’s anti-intellectual stance and traditional views about gender and priesthood. Steve Benson, Ezra Taft Benson’s grandson and Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, quit the Church with his wife. Elder Oaks has publicly acknowledged that he lied when he said that he did not know if Elder Packer had met with Paul Toscano’s stake president. Oaks, however, is still trying to defend his statement as a slip of the tongue. Steve Benson was the one who made it public that Oaks was lying since, in an interview, Oaks had told him something different.
I give this summary (to which much more can be added) because I was called by Bishop Reeder’s secretary last night. He said Bishop Reeder wanted to see me. I said that I preferred not to meet with the bishop. The secretary said, "Fine," and we terminated our conversation. It is clear from what those who have been disciplined have said and just as clear from what the Church itself has said in the past few weeks that the Church is out to discipline those who have spoken or written publicly about matters that aren’t in line with traditional church doctrine unless they recant or begin the "process of repentance." Because the cards are so stacked, despite what any Church leader might say, local or general, I refuse to meet with them.
Bishop Reeder just called (ca. 7:10 P.M.) asking if I would meet with him. I told him that I had reservations about it because of what was going on in the Church. I asked him if he had heard what had been going on. He said he only knew what I had told him before [in July and before]. This meant he did not know about the "September Massacre" and attending matters. I told him that in September disciplinary councils were held for six members of the Church (scholars and feminists) and that five were excommunicated.
I went on to describe the general situation that led to these disciplinary councils. I said that the Strengthening Church Members Committee poured over publications and speeches looking for statements by members of the Church that did not correlate with doctrine. General Authorities then contacted a member’s local leaders with this information and asked the local leaders to counsel with the member either to get him to recant or retract his statement or to hold a disciplinary council. I said that what was happening to me in my meetings with him and the stake president were part of this movement.
Bishop Reeder said that what had I described was correct. This made clear to me that the goal of their meetings has been not simply to get to know me but to in rather quick order (it has only been since April) to get me to be orthodox or to hold a disciplinary council.
He said that my publications of concern to him were clearly apostate.
I had referred to disciplinary councils as being punitive. He tried to counter by saying that they are not really punitive, but acts of concern for the members. He said they are one way of getting recalcitrant members to think seriously about their situation.
He asked if my position had changed. With this was a question whether I had changed my mind about my conclusions in my studies. I told him that it hadn’t. In fact, I told him that the recent moves by the Church in disciplining members had really disappointed what faith and hopes I had. I told him that for all the concern that the Church had about scholars’ writing disturbing faith, it did not seem to consider what effect their actions would have on the faith of the scholars.
He then said that the actions of those who challenged the faith of the general membership of the Church was more serious. Because of the noise of the children in the house I didn’t hear a sentence or two but he had begun reference to Nephi’s slaying of Laban, how it was necessary for action to be taken against the challenger of faith.
He told me that he did not consider my writings scholarship. Anything that contradicted the doctrines of the Church is not scholarship.
We ended our conversation without setting up a meeting. He, in fact, did not try to set one up. He said that he would tell the stake president the results of our conversation.
The bishop’s secretary called. He said that Bishop Reeder wanted to meet with me. I told him that I preferred not to. He said that Bishop Reeder said I might say that and that he (the secretary) was to put on a little pressure. He said that Bishop Reeder did not want to call because we would get into a discussion and he would rather have the discussion face to face. I told him that I still preferred not to meet with him. He pressed no further and we said good-bye.
It has been three months since the last contact from Bishop Reeder. I thought that there had been some official move from SL to keep local leaders from ex-ing scholars and other independent thinkers since the September ‘93 fiasco. I don’t know now if this is the case. About a week ago we had our first home teacher assigned to us [since we had moved into the ward, a year and a half ago]. The home teacher wrote a letter saying that he and his wife would be our home teachers. He included a ward newsletter which had a message from Bishop Reeder saying that the General Authorities at the last general conference gave clear indications that President Benson was leading the church. He wrote: "Even though his body is frail and weak due to his advanced age, all of the brethren still look to him as the leader for counsel and guidance. President Hinckley made it very clear during the recent General Conference that even though President Benson is aged, he is still the President, Prophet, Seer and Revelator holding the keys of the gospel." It was interesting that I was on the phone to Steve Benson just moments before getting this letter [arranging a panel discussion for the Washington, D.C., Sunstone Symposium]. He told me about the trouble he had when he told people of his grandfather’s condition and that President Benson was not competent. In addition to getting a home teacher, my son Ben said the other day that some girl at his school, who was new and whom he did not know was a Mormon, told him that people were talking about our family at church. It seems from this that there seems to be some stirrings to get our family active. I would think that Bishop Reeder’s attempt to contact me is to be interpreted in this context. Thus I am not certain how determined he and the stake president are to excommunicate me.
Over the weekend, one of the counselors in the bishopric called and asked if Ben could be called to be a counselor in the deacons’ quorum presidency. They also wanted him to be a home teaching companion to someone. I said that the matter was up to Ben. He asked me how my wife felt. I told him I could not speak for her. So he asked to talk to Dianne. He didn’t talk to Ben since they wanted to make an in-person call in about a week. Dianne has become upset because of this. She thought and hoped that the Church had decided to leave us alone. She is bothered that it is interfering in our family and trying to get to us perhaps through our children. Ben doesn’t want to be the counselor or a home teacher companion.
Last night I reread portions of Jackson Newell’s article in the recent Sunstone, the paragraph about how LDS scholars outside of BYU should not be passive about the Church’s anti-intellectualism and let their leaders know about their ideas and their objections, etc. This caught my attention and sort of ordered my mind with regard to a presentation I’m to give at the Sunstone Symposium in Washington, D.C., in March. I have had trouble imagining what I might say because I am not really in the Church and sort of see myself as mostly out. On the other hand, I am interested in the scholarly study of Mormonism and I enjoy associating with Mormon thinkers. I think I am going to offer an existentialist critique of the situation with a call for scholars to continue to do their work despite the objections of the hierarchy.
Anyway, with this fresh in my mind as I went to bed last night. I had a dream that instead of refusing to meet with Bishop Reeder I went out of my way to see him and let him know my ideas and about the situation going on in the Church. We were in a church classroom and he kept running away from me, trying to get out of the room. He put his hands on his ears. He did not want to hear what I had to say. When I woke up, I felt pretty good about what I, in my imagination, had done.
Much has happened over the past ten days. On Sunday the 13th Bishop Reeder had two representatives deliver notification of a disciplinary council to be held against me on the 20th.4
When I received the letter I began to call friends. [I discussed the matter with friends and relatives to get their input about what I should do.]
I decided after several days of consideration that I would not attend the council. I sent Bishop Reeder the following letter on the 17th as a response:
February 17, 1994
Dear Bishop Reeder:
I received with sadness and frustration your letter notifying me that a disciplinary council will be held against me for apostasy. It grieved me that I was about to be pushed out of my spiritual and cultural home for my honest and sincere scholarly thought and expression which were motivated by my care for the Church. I am not sure that I will attend the disciplinary council because I have great reservations about its propriety and moral legitimacy. In this letter I want to explain my understanding of the factors and events that led to the present charge and then outline my reservations about the proceedings.
The chain of events began with our meeting on April 27, 1993. In this meeting you said that a General Authority had contacted the stake president and had asked him to inquire after me because of my article "Historical Criticism: A Necessary Element in the Search for Religious Truth" published in Sunstone (16/3 [September 1992 appeared February 1993] pp. 28-38). The stake president delegated to you the responsibility of contacting me. In the meeting you showed me a copy of my Sunstone article, which you said Church headquarters had sent the stake president. Your judgment at that time was that my ideas were apostate. Your main interest was encouraging me to become orthodox in my thinking so that a disciplinary council wouldn’t be necessary.
We met again in a formal way July 11. This meeting was to determine if I was orthodox enough to perform the baptism of my eight-year old son and the priesthood ordination of my twelve-year old son. You asked me a list of questions, mainly about the priesthood claims of Joseph Smith. I expressed my views positively but felt it necessary to put my answers in the context of my theological thinking that had grown out of my studies. You denied the legitimacy of my theological reconstructions. You said that I could not perform the ordinances if I did not have a conviction of the traditional understanding of the matters about which you questioned me. You said it would be hypocrisy to perform the ordinances without that conviction. Our family went ahead that month with the ordinance work because we felt it was important. [A friend performed the ordinances.] I was not asked, or allowed apparently, to participate in the ordinance work either as an official witness or as a silent participant in the confirmation and ordination circles. My family and I ceased going to Church at this time because we felt hurt and marginalized by events to this point.
Our next contact was September 19 when you called and asked me to meet with the stake president that day. I was reticent to do so because at that time in September six other scholars and thinkers in the Church were being brought up in disciplinary councils. I met with the stake president. He indicated that there was no particular impetus from the Church hierarchy for this meeting with him. It seems that your acquisition of the book New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (edited by Brent Metcalfe; Salt Lake City: Signature, 1993 [appeared May]) which contained my article "‘In Plain Terms that We May Understand’: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13" (pp. 165-229), which I had told you about in earlier meetings and which the stake president said you had purchased, was what precipitated this particular meeting. The stake president basically urged me to undertake a spiritual discipline so that I would become orthodox in my thinking.
As the decisions came down about the six scholars and thinkers at the end of September (one disfellowshipment and five excommunications), I decided out of principle that I did not want to be a party in the investigation of my scholarship, which had the goal in part of condemning it and implicitly condemning me for it. I did not want to be involved in a situation of negotiations with the Church in which it thought it could put pressure on individuals for their scholarly pursuits.
In October your secretary called to arrange a meeting with you. I told him that I preferred not to meet. You called a few days later, on October 28, to arrange a meeting. I said that I preferred not to meet. Though we did not set up an appointment, we spent several minutes discussing matters on the phone. You confirmed that the discussions with me since April had come by General Authority instigation and that the goal of our meetings and discussions was to lead me to change my historical and related views or suffer disciplinary action. You reiterated that you viewed my publications as apostate. You said that my publications were not scholarship because they did not support the Church’s traditional teachings.
No further contacts were made until February 2,1994, when your secretary called to set up a meeting between me and you. I declined for the same reason as before. He said that you did not call me personally because you did not want to get into a conversation over the phone about the issues, but that you preferred to meet face to face. About February 6, a counselor in the bishopric called to ask if I had objections to my son being called to the deacons’ quorum presidency. I said it was up to my son. He said that he would get back in contact with my son in about a week. On February 13 your representatives delivered the notice of the disciplinary council set for February 20 at 4:00 P.M.
The content of the discussions just described and the nature of our interaction over the past year lead me to the conclusion that the charge of apostasy is based mainly on my publications. I also suppose that my unwillingness to meet with you and to a lesser extent my not attending Church for the past six or so months are also considerations.
The foregoing chronology has alluded to some of my reservations for meeting with you as part of a Church investigation of my scholarship and ideas. I want to add to these and make clearer my view why I think such investigations are improper, morally questionable, and even destructive to the Church.
First of all, scholarship is not some sort of sin, a "failing of the flesh," which an individual recognizes to be an error and which that individual considers to be a blemish to his or her personal integrity. Scholarship, rather, is a constructive activity and is one of the purest expressions of a person’s character. Scholarship involves a failing of the flesh, paradoxically, only when one is not forthright with his or her conclusions, when one holds back evidence, when one dissembles about his or her views in the face of social—or ecclesiastical—pressure. To express one’s views, especially when they fly in the face of tradition, in other words, is hardly a sin but rather a virtue. Because Church disciplinary proceedings treat scholarship as if it were sinful, and even employ along the way the polemical myth that sin is what is responsible for a scholar’s unorthodox views, the proceedings are an attack on the individual’s integrity.
Another objection I have is that these proceedings are a matter of killing the messenger for the message. In my articles I discussed evidence that suggests that some traditional understandings of Mormon history and scripture are in need of revision. The sorts of difficulties I discussed are real. Many scholars have recognized them. And many members of the Church have accepted nontraditional solutions to them similar to mine. The questions and evidence cannot be pushed out of view or made innocuous by disciplinary actions. It is necessary for these issues to be talked about openly, and the discussion should go forth without threat of punishment. Punishment especially should be avoided when scholars, such as I, have tried to be constructive. I have had no desire whatsoever to injure our—my!—religious tradition and community. My only desire has been to be honest with regard to the evidence as I have seen it and suggest how this may be viewed positively within our tradition. I would urge you to reread my articles with an eye open to my positive assertions and solutions. You may not accept them, but a positive and constructive attitude is there.
Another reservation I have about these proceedings has to do with the connectedness of my Mormon studies with my professional activity and thought. I am an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at a highly respected university which is committed to freedom of scholarship. There I teach courses on the Hebrew Bible, on ancient Near Eastern history, and on the languages and thought of the peoples of the ancient Near East, and I conduct research in these areas. The views expressed about the Bible in my articles that you have read are the things that inform all of my professional research and are things that I teach my students every day. My views about Joseph Smith’s scriptures have grown out of this and prior professional activity and preparation. The Church’s investigation of my scholarship is an indictment of and attack on my profession and scholarship at large. It is an attack which will contribute to the characterization of the Church as anti-intellectual.
The Church learned several years ago to leave certain controversial professions alone, such as the biological and earth sciences, and let them go their way. That is why one can learn about evolution at Brigham Young University from teachers who accept the concept as valid. (I hope this is still the case.) Along this line, you yourself said in our first meeting about my publications that you preferred to see scholars go about their work and let that work succeed or fail by peer review and the ongoing process of discovery. I wish that the Church would adopt this perspective in regard to the study of ancient history and religious literature. If it has objections to a particular conclusion, it need not discipline its proponents but simply say that the conclusion is not Church doctrine.
I also question the propriety of the investigation of scholars because the process contradicts some basic Church principles and values. We value free agency. But these proceedings, since they are implicitly coercive, strike at the heart of this principle. The Church, too, values truth. We say that we accept truth from wherever it comes and claim in our scripture that the "glory of God is intelligence," a motto hanging at the gates of Brigham Young University.5 But investigating and disciplining scholarly activity effectively denies this profession. Mormonism also respects the Constitution of this land and even views it as inspired. But disciplinary proceedings against scholars implicitly mock the freedoms enumerated in that document. While the Constitution does not require that religious institutions hold to its principles, great dissonance arises when a member is allowed freedom of expression and conscience outside of the Church but is denied it inside the Church or with regard to Church issues. There is no little irony in the Church’s sacrifice of these traditional values to go after scholars when their conclusions are not traditional.
My final point is a reiteration of something I have said to you before in our conversations. Action against scholars and against other constructive thinkers threatens the faith and commitment of members of the Church just as much as any of the things that scholars and thinkers may say or publish. Indeed, because these actions are conducted by the Church leadership officially, greater consternation may arise. I have heard reports from and about friends and relatives, very orthodox in their perceptions, that they are disturbed at the Church’s actions against thinkers over the past year. The actions have the ostensible goal of bringing scholars and thinkers into obedience to Church leaders. But the result is more questioning of the validity of the leaders’ authority among the membership.
I conclude by stressing that my membership in the Church is valuable to me. I stress also that my scholarly work on Mormon matters has grown out of concern for the Church and has been guided by commitments I made to contribute constructively to the Church and its life. I have also been guided by the Church’s desire to seek after knowledge and understanding. I hope that commitment to this search will not be used to push me out of my community or to place me in its margins. I had hoped, over the past several years as I have kept track of the Church’s attitude towards scholarship and experienced the effects of that attitude personally, that the Church would become more tolerant. The reverse has been the case. It is a dark time, but I still hope for a day when tolerance will increase and unity in our tradition will be gauged, not by uniformity, but by a willingness to work together for a common good in a context of individual diversity.
David P. Wright
P.S. I have included some publications that will help you set the investigation of my scholarship in the larger context of actions against scholarship in the Church. I hope you can read this material before you make any decisions in my case. Please pass it on .to the stake president.
CC: President Ned B. Wheeler
The publications I sent with this letter included: Lavina’s 1993 Dialogue chronology on the Church vs. scholars; Jackson Newell’s recent Sunstone (December 1993; the pink covered issue) article; the Olive Branch advertisement; the White Roses advertisement and accompanying Deseret News article; the news sections from Sunstone for the November and December 1993 issues; the June article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Knowlton and Fart firings from BYU; and Omar Kader’s 1993 Dialogue article on academic freedom.
The reasons listed in the letter are not the only reasons for not meeting with the disciplinary council. The Church has been unfair by its inconsistent treatment of my situation. In Orem, after I was fired and when the bishop there knew my ideas, he allowed me to baptize Benjamin—no problem. But here I was not allowed. When we first moved into the ward here in Chelmsford (summer 1992), I met with Bishop Reeder and told him about my ideas. But this was not a matter of ecclesiastical concern. Only when I published in early 1993 was I called in and were the series of events leading to the present inaugurated. It appears that the publication of my ideas, not my ideas per se, is what the Church finds difficult and prosecutable. This flies in the face of Bishop Reeder’s and President Wheeler’s statements that they are meeting with me not because of my publications but because they are "concerned for Brother Wright." It appears that they would not have met with me unless a General Authority had called them.
On February 20, just before the council meeting at 4:00 PM, I had Stephen Thompson and Gary Keeley deliver a second copy of the foregoing letter plus the following letters by me and Dianne:
David’s Letter to Bishop Reeder, February 20, 1994
February 20, 1994
Dear Bishop Reeder:
After serious consideration and prayer, I have decided not to attend the disciplinary council today. I cannot negotiate what cannot be negotiated, my God-given right and ability to think and discover. It is a sad day when those committed to discovery and truth are forced to stand away from the Church. It is a sad day when the search for truth must be pursued outside the Church.
David P. Wright
Dianne’s Letter to Bishop Reeder, February 17, 1994
February 17, 1994
Dear Bishop Reeder:
I would like to speak in behalf of my husband, David. As I think about this situation, I realize that none of you know either David or myself. A few of you may have spoken to us three or four times, but none of you know us as people. None of you understand biblical scholarship, which is the basis of the events that have brought David to this court. I cannot imagine how in a few short hours you can even begin to understand either David or his arguments. Without this understanding, it is impossible to make a righteous judgment.
Given this reservation, I will attempt to help you understand David.
David is an honest, conscientious scholar. His honesty is more important to him than his own personal comfort. David cannot say that there is evidence to support something just to make people like him or even to protect his membership in this church. David’s beliefs are based on a careful, detailed study of the scriptures. To be orthodox, David would have to say that the evidence that he sees in the scriptures is not there. In other words, (from his viewpoint) he would need to lie.
David’s honesty has cost him dearly. He was fired from BYU because he had the courage and honesty to tell a vice president of BYU his beliefs. David’s beliefs are founded on thousands of hours of detailed research. These conclusions did not come easily for David. The Church is a great part of his identity. To be a scholar of integrity one must hold to truth above all else.
This church was founded on the search for truth by Joseph Smith. Joseph used every means available to him to find truth. Indeed, one of the great joys we have on this earth is our quest to find truth.
David has spent much time and devotion in his quest for truth. His journey will continue for the rest of his life. He will use every resource available to him to find it.
To many of you, his search is evil because it does not come to orthodox conclusions. However, can this church really claim to be the only true church and cast out an individual for his sincere search for truth? Is scholarship a problem in the Church? I believe with all my heart that scholarship does not need to be a problem. Scholarship will enrich our understanding as well as give us challenges. However, the Church will be made much stronger by facing these challenges honestly.
The real problem in the Church today is the growing intolerance toward people who don’t fit into the orthodox ideal. Intolerance breeds hate. Hate will destroy the Church. We need to love and respect each other more. We need to realize that there is more than one way to be a good Latter-day Saint. Some of us find God by listening to and obeying others. Some of us find God by asking questions and then searching for the answers to these questions. Still others are compelled to help the needy. God created all the diverse people of this great world, and he loves all of us. Each of us can serve God in our own way. We do not need to be Mormon clones in order to have unity. Diversity will make us a stronger healthier people. We do not need to all think alike in order to be Jesus’ disciples.
The Savior told us how to know if we are his disciples: "By this shall all men [and women] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." (John 13:35)
We all need to be more tolerant and loving of people who believe or understand the gospel in a little different way. You may not understand David or his scholarship, but you can help Mormonism become the great religion I have always believed it to be by allowing us the freedom to think about God and search for him in our own way.
Dianne T. Wright
Jill and Gary Keeley, friends from Maryland, and Stephen and Merrie Thompson (Stephen is a Mormon Egyptologist from Brown University) with their children joined us on the afternoon of the 20th as the council was being held. We talked about Church matters and ate dinner. They provided comfort and relief. Gary and Jill were particularly kind, having come up the day before and staying until Monday the 21st. Jill helped with publicity of the matter by putting Dianne’s and my letters on the internet. I myself went out and bought a fax machine on the 18th so as to receive information and send it out quickly. I thought it was important not to remain silent. As my letters indicate, I believe this whole matter was unjust and immoral. This could not remain confidential. I did not go to the press, but word got around. The Salt Lake press called me and their work was sent out on the AP wires which found its way into the hands of the local paper (the Lowell Sun). The Sun had articles on the 20th, 21st, and 22nd about it. The last article was their feature article and it hit the front page, complete with a color picture of me in my study. I hated giving them a picture, but I thought it would help with the publicity. The stake president was quoted in this article as saying that I was in error and was "misled." The paper said: "He [President Wheeler] compared Wright’s historical findings to early scientists’ theories that the surface of the moon was too soft to walk on."
A counselor in the bishopric, Joel Higgins (a pseudonym), called Monday afternoon (the 21st) asking to call our son Ben to the deacons’ quorum presidency. Dianne picked up the phone. When I understood from Dianne’s words what was happening, I hit the ceiling. In a strong whisper, I told her to tell him he really has gall. I went downstairs and swore to myself over and over again in a loud whisper. He also used the call as an opportunity to tell us that the court had not made any decision and that he would like to meet with me as a friend. After Dianne had spoken with him about five to ten minutes, I picked up the phone and began to talk. I decided that he could come over and bring with him our friend who did the ordinance work for my children last July. [This phone call was the first contact that the bishopric had made with me since their disciplinary council and was how I found out about the results.]
Higgins and our friend came over last night, the 22nd. On the phone Higgins said he did not want to interrogate me. But he did interrogate me. He also told me that their not making a decision meant that they had turned it over to the stake president. I tried to explain some of the background of my perspectives. We met in my office at home and I pulled book after book down to show them things to illustrate my understandings. I talked about what critical scholarship was, my understanding of the Book of Mormon as scripture, and my view of revelation. Higgins said that if he had come to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon wasn’t ancient, he would find the rest of the religion worthless and give it up. He thought our letters were good but that Dianne’s was really effective. He wanted me to meet with Bishop Reeder. He said that the bishop would probably concede and let me have some freedom, but I would have to concede too. Higgins said that if he were Bishop Reeder he would probably let me go ahead with Mormon scholarship as long as I made a clear statement that what I said was not Church doctrine and that I believed Joseph Smith was a prophet.
I agreed to meet with Bishop Reeder this coming Sunday at 10:00 A.M. [the date and time changed; see below], not so much because I thought that he would concede as much as Higgins indicated, but I did not want to appear unwilling to find out what the Church leaders really felt at this particular time. I really doubt Bishop Reeder will concede anything like Higgins indicated. I have already spoken to Bishop Reeder several times. He considers my work apostate. I cannot see how he would allow me to continue public expression of this, even with disclaimers and testimony. The stake president’s statements in the Lowell Sun indicate the same. The Sun reported the following from the stake president:
Ned B. Wheeler said it is possible that Wright could be placed on probation or excommunicated for his failure to attend the hearing [the bishop’s council].
"The whole purpose of a disciplinary council is to help a person see the error of their ways. We want to help heal people. But if they don’t want to discuss it, that certainly says something, doesn’t it?" said Wheeler.
Wheeler said Wright could return to the fold if he can prove to the council that he remains faithful to church doctrine. As to Wright’s published theories, Wheeler said he believes Wright has been "misled."
How tolerant will Church leaders be of people who go public with views that are considered to be in error and devil inspired (this is my interpretation of the stake president’s comment that I am "misled")? I doubt that I will be given much freedom and I think that they will impose a spiritual discipline to get me to change my ideas.
It is likely that I will reject the restrictions they will place on me and the accompanying requirements to make me change my views. Even if they were to grant a concession as great as Mr. Higgins’s hypothetical concession, I doubt I would want to be an active member of the Church with a sword hanging over my head, only to be released [= excommunicated] by a new local Church leader who may not be sympathetic or by renewed General Authority action. Moreover, even if they did concede as much as Mr. Higgins indicated, why should I be required to give a disclaimer and bear my testimony when BYU professors are not required to do so in their classes or when FARMS scholars are not required to do so? This inconsistency would be an injustice. Moreover, life is too short to suffer such pain for a church which I do not believe is the "only true church." [I am ecumenical in my thinking.] I suspect that I will write Bishop Reeder after our meeting that I cannot with integrity and happiness agree to his requirements and restrictions. I will ask to remain a member in name with the realization that this may not be possible.
This is absolute hell. It is enough to make one decide there is no God. The leaders of the Church are so caught up in the myth that this is a procedure of love. Mr. Higgins with serious face said something like: "You don’t understand these procedures. These are acts of love. There’s no hate involved. The leaders only have love. There’s been a lot of changes. They used to call these ‘church courts.’ We don’t call them that anymore. They’re called ‘disciplinary councils.’ That’s a big change. Everybody I have seen go through these praises the church leaders at the end. They thank us for our concern and help. I’ve never had spiritual experiences greater than those I’ve had in these councils."
Today I received the following letter from Bishop Reeder:
February 20, 1994
Dear Brother Wright,
As you know a Disciplinary Council was held in your behalf on Sunday February 20, 1994 at 4:00 P.M. in the Littleton First Ward.
We were disappointed in your decision to not attend. We did receive your letter along with that of your wife. We appreciate you both taking the time and effort to share your thoughts and feelings in this matter. Your letters were read in the council.
I know that this has been difficult for you. I assure you that you were not put on trial through any court procedure. The disciplinary council as defined by the Lord is a council of love where all who attend participate in council and instruction with the purpose of being edified and inspired to Come unto Christ, to be perfected in Him.
The decision of the council was to adjourn and refer the matter to the stake president. We also thought it would be helpful to arrange less formal meetings with you to further discuss this matter.
I will be calling you for an appointment. I want you to know of my respect, love, and concern for you and your family. I encourage you to work with President Wheeler and me to resolve this matter.
James B. Reeder
This letter implies that I have not "come unto Christ" and that I am not "perfected." While I will agree with this [that I’m not perfected], the point to make here is the other implication that my scholarship is illegitimate. The letter also says that I should work with the stake president. From the Lowell Sun, President Wheeler thinks that my research is out to lunch and (implicitly) diabolical. I doubt I can work with him when he has a view like this.
I have been thinking more about the meeting with Joel Higgins that took place Tuesday night. He told me he was not interrogating me, but he kept asking me what I really believed in my "heart of hearts." He thought that I didn’t really believe the results of my scholarship—that, for example, I wrote that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon but that I really believed that he translated it. He was quite anti-intellectual in his attitude. At one point, he said that he had all the knowledge about the Book of Mormon that he needed. He didn’t need scholarly study.
I tried thinking about how I would write about Mormon scripture if I wrote from the attitude of disclaimer that he suggested that I do. I saw that I couldn’t pursue my arguments as deeply as I have or would like. My arguments are not just informative, but they seek to convince. How can I seek to convince but stand off saying that these things shouldn’t be convincing because they aren’t Church doctrine? Moreover, I can’t bear my testimony. Why? If I did, I would have to do so with qualification; this would be unacceptable to the leaders. Second, who would publish this kind of work? Scholarship is not a place of testifying to the supernatural. What if I wrote in the Harvard Theological Review or the like? If I wanted to save my membership and was willing to accept these restrictions (all else remaining the same), I would probably end up not publishing on Mormonism any more. My work would be insipid.
Bishop Reeder said in his letter that I was not on trial. This is probably true. The trial had already occurred in the mind of the bishop, stake president, and General Authority. The disciplinary council was the sentencing! There would not be any disciplinary council if I were not considered guilty in the first place. What occurs is a negotiation, where the individual is expected to confess that what he or she has done is in error and show humility and a desire to change. In the meeting, the bishop tries to convince the individual to repent.
Further thoughts on the present problem with the Church:
It seems that the basic issue is whether I will give up reason as a primary avenue of knowledge and at the same time submit to the instruction that the authorities of the Church give to acquire this knowledge. We have incommensurate views on this point. I think spiritual knowledge is not sufficient for doing real history and leads in erroneous directions when so used. The leaders think the same, but about reason and empirical evidence. Having been on their side of the fence, it seems that reason and empirical study have much more strength, not just from a methodological point of view, but also in terms of rightness of conclusions. There is little to support the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, but there is much to support its nineteenth-century context. It is therefore not a debate between equally valid points of view; the traditional Mormon view about the Book of Mormon is extremely weak. I can’t give up what seems so clear to me just for membership in the Church. I can’t give up my principles underlying the search for knowledge just for membership in the Church.
I think I will tell Bishop Reeder, in person or in letter, that I think my methods and even some of the conclusions that contradict Church tradition are valid. I will tell him and the stake president to proceed as they feel they must in view of this. I will tell him that I do not want to meet further about the matter but to be left alone. I don’t know if I will say that I find this a sort of spiritual harassment. From their point of view, their meetings and attempts to get me to change come out of love. Will I say that because I feel this is unjust, the penalty is only of man and not of God?
The stake president and bishop may complain in the future that I have not been willing to meet with them and that is a main reason why I will be excommunicated. This indirectly displays the coerciveness of their activities. The only acceptable direction for them is towards orthodoxy. The meetings are calculated to get me to change my unorthodox views. To retain my membership, I have to attend these meetings and ultimately change my views.
Last night Dianne and I met with Bishop Reeder and his first counselor Joel Higgins in my study at home. The discussion started with some small talk about ward activities. After about five minutes, Bishop Reeder said it would be good to begin by asking if we had any responses or questions arising from our discussion with Joel Higgins and our ward friend the other night. He thanked us for our letters and said that Dianne’s letter was very good and had led them to decide to get to know us better. I said that we did not really have a response but that I had a question which would more or less cut to the chase. I asked what I needed to do to remain a member of the Church.
Much of our two hour and fifteen minute meeting dealt with this question in various ways, but Bishop Reeder’s answer in essence was this: One needs to accept the rock of revelation. What the prophets say is not just tradition, but it is truth from God. Thus one has to believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates, that there were gold plates, that Joseph was visited by Moroni, Elijah, John the Baptist, and other heavenly visitors. He said that one needed to accept the view about these matters that President Benson has or that Joseph Smith had. To not accept their view is to not sustain them. He argued further that when we are baptized we make covenants to accept these doctrines and not challenge them.
Off and on, we discussed the fact that there are many members of the Church with similar historical interpretations. He said that maybe the really crucial matter was my publishing of controversial ideas. It will affect missionary work adversely, he said. An investigator might read my work and decide that the Church isn’t true and not join. Bishop Reeder seemed to fear too that my being a Mormon and saying these things might be a bad example for potential converts and keep them from joining. Bishop Reeder and his counselor also said that my work did not have a character that would attract people to the Church.
I brought up the matter of how connected my professional work was to the types of things I was saying about Joseph Smith’s scriptures. I said that my professional work might also be considered as negative and unexemplary of a member of the Church. I told them that my scholarship explicitly or implicitly denies authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses. My work indicates that I believe the creation story, the flood story, and the Tower of Babel story to be myths. (The counselor exclaimed at this point: "The flood’s a myth??") I said that I write and teach that there is no clear historical evidence for the existence of Abraham. I talked about the imminent perspective of prophecy. In mentioning New Testament expectations that Jesus would return in the first generation of Christians, I said that this meant there was apparently no expectation of a general apostasy in the way that traditional Mormonism understands it.
Partly as a response to what I was saying about the conclusions that I work with in my profession, Bishop Reeder and his counselor said that some professions are not good professions. They struggled to find a good example. Bishop Reeder mentioned the hypothetical case where an Mormon attorney would be working for R. J. Reynolds-Nabisco, supporting tobacco interests. The counselor compared it to a Mormon advertising executive working on malt liquor ads. They were not happy with their examples, but they said in so many words that my profession might be equally questionable.
One thing I wanted to do is to let them know about the evidence for my views in a broader way. Steve Thompson on Sunday said that I should use the meetings with Bishop Reeder to teach him something new. I thought about this over the past few days and decided to discuss evidence that the Book of Abraham was not ancient nor a translation from Egyptian. I had not really gone into this in detail in my works that he read. I found the opening for bringing up the matter of the Book of Abraham soon after Bishop Reeder made the observation that my conclusion in my paper in the Metcalfe volume bothered him and seem to come out of wrong presuppositions. He said that he reads the evidence and makes just the opposite conclusion: that all this similar language comes from God and this accounts for its antiquity and use in the different texts. I brought up the Book of Abraham in part to show that I had good reason for the presuppositions that guided the study. (I did not try to argue that he is not reading the Alma 12-13 evidence carefully enough; that was another matter which could only be made clear by hours and hours of study together.)
I brought up the problems with Facsimile #1. I pulled out my standard LDS edition and showed Bishop Reeder and his counselor where the facsimile was apparently broken when Joseph Smith had received it and where Joseph Smith had filled it in. I said that the head of the black figure should be that of a jackal, that of Anubis, and that he did not originally hold a sword but some funerary implement or vessel. I opened a book on my shelf showing a lion couch scene with Anubis to give an indication of what the figure should look like. The counselor asked how I knew the papyrus was broken. I brought out Baer’s article in Dialogue 1968 which had a photo of the original. I also discussed Facsimile #3, noting that it is really a picture of Osiris, the god of the dead, with Isis in back, and with the dead individual being presented by Ma’at and Anubis (here one is to restore the jackal head on the black figure, as indicated by the remains of his dog ear pointing out of the top of his head). I showed them that Facsimile #1 was originally part of the Breathing Permit of Hor funerary text and read them passages of Baer’s rendition. I showed them the comparison of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and Baer’s translation for similar signs and told them how the alphabet and grammar showed a complete misunderstanding of Egyptian. I spoke about the Hebraic influences in the Book of Abraham creation story. I wanted to show them that their Sunday School lessons weren’t telling the whole story and that there is strong evidence for thinking that Joseph Smith did not translate an Egyptian text nor an ancient text. I mentioned the matter of pseudonymous writing and talked about how the Bible is full of this.
The counselor responded that this means Joseph Smith was a liar. (This is what he responded the other night with regard to what I said about the Book of Mormon.) I told him that this judgment was premature. I tried to fit the production of the Book of Abraham into Joseph Smith’s magical worldview, a la Quinn. I brought up treasure hunting and slippery treasures and other such matters. I said that Joseph Smith perceived himself as doing things which in fact he did not do. I also brought up the matter of lack of historical rigor in the Bible. If one is going to call Joseph Smith a liar, then one should call most of the biblical writers liars. (This, of course, can’t be used to legitimate Joseph Smith’s writings as scripture, or vice versa. The point is that pseudonymous and unhistorical writings are a common feature in religious literary production and theological models need to be developed to allow an appreciation of these types of works.)
We also discussed the matter of spiritual evidence. I said that for me, what the Spirit teaches had to be checked by reason. I said my view of revelation was that humans only imperfectly perceived what God was saying; the product of revelation had much humanity intertwined with it. Bishop Reeder said that is how he thinks about it, too. Of course, he added that there are special witnesses to whom God speaks face to face in plainness. Obviously he didn’t get my point fully. At any rate, I questioned the validity of spiritual experience as a decisive answer to historical questions (discussed in my Sunstone article, "Historical Criticism," footnote 8).
Bishop Reeder asked how other scholars in the Church dealt with the historical matters and handled their scholarship. I said that some speak openly (and are not punished for it) while others keep quiet. Bishop Reeder asked me if Hugh Nibley could provide an example for me of scholarship and faith. I told him that Nibley’s work was extensively flawed. I said I could not do the type of scholarship that Nibley does.
The counselor said I should take a slightly different tack in my work. Instead of talking about the negative conclusion that Joseph Smith didn’t write the work, why not talk about the positive conclusion that it is ancient? He said I could write about ancient American archaeological evidences for the Book of Mormon or better, write about chiasmus. I told him that chiasmus couldn’t be used as an evidence of antiquity.
I talked about how I wanted to make a contribution to post-critical thought regarding Mormon scripture. I said I was not trying to rewrite Church doctrine but just open up the discussion in the case that certain conclusions become inevitable. I said I thought the Church needed to allow this discussion to occur for the Church’s own ultimate benefit.
I argued that the Church should hold off expelling scholars. All the Church needed to do was to say that scholars’ work is not doctrine. If it was worried about specific conclusions, the Church could make available information about other works which supported the traditional line and refuted the scholars. I told him as an aside here that FARMS was coming out with a 550-page response to Metcalfe’s book.
In the discussion Bishop Reeder said that a General Authority was involved only last April. All the subsequent meetings were by his and the stake president’s instigation. Bishop Reeder said that he bought the Metcalfe volume through the MIT bookstore, special order. He said that he had a copy of the issue of Sunstone with Hamblin’s response to me, but had not read it. He said that the publication that was of most concern to him was the Metcalfe volume piece. The first Sunstone piece didn’t cause him so much concern.
Towards the end of the meeting, I told him about my frustrations with the Church’s attitude toward scholarship since just before my termination at BYU. I told him that becoming instantly active in the Church now is not something I can do without the Church’s becoming more tolerant of scholars. I also told him that I felt disciplinary councils and meetings like those we were having were coercive and drove me away from the Church more than they made me want to be part of it. I told him that the pressure of well-meaning relatives was also pushing me away from the Church.
I told Bishop Reeder that I talk too much but I needed to let him know more broadly what my views were. I noted that some had counseled me to hold back and not say too much in order to retain my membership. Bishop Reeder thanked me for being open. He said something like: "After all, isn’t that what being a scholar is all about?" Church leaders praise honesty in ecclesiastical investigations, but not in scholarship!
By the end of our meeting, Bishop Reeder and his counselor seemed less eager to push me or make demands of me. Dianne took this as positive; I did too to some degree, but upon quick second thought I took it as a sign that they saw that I was incorrigible and that were more or less delivering me to my fate. The reason why there could be a positive interpretation is because the meeting really went well. I enjoyed it! There was no anger, hate, or heated words. All was calm. I told them at the end that I felt good about the meeting.
At one point in the meeting, toward the end, I said to them that in such meetings the significance of what is said doesn’t always sink in until later. I thought to myself that I often find myself warming up to friendly personalities in these types of meetings. When this happens I don’t want to confront them or return anger or recalcitrance for the calmness they show. I thought to myself, however, that what they were saying was eventually going to really get to me after their friendly personalities were gone and when I looked objectively at the substance and implications of their words. That disappointment, yes, and even anger I feel now. I might be willing to meet with the stake president for one more meeting of this type. But that will be the last. In any case, I will not attend a disciplinary council. I do not expect them to leave me alone. Bishop Reeder reminded me in the meeting that what I was doing was apostasy: writing in contradiction of Church doctrine.
Last night I had a two-hour meeting with the stake president and bishop (7:30-9:30). Bishop Reeder had called last Wednesday or Thursday asking when I could meet with President Wheeler. I gave him some possible times, including Tuesday night. Bishop Reeder called yesterday (Tuesday) morning about 10:00 AM. asking if we could meet that evening. I agreed.
The stake president, bishop, and I met in Bishop Reeder’s office at the Littleton Ward church. The stake president called for a kneeling prayer and asked Bishop Reeder to pray.
After the prayer the stake president asked Bishop Reeder to review for him and for me the basic history of events over the past year. Bishop Reeder did this fairly. He was always deferential to me, saying that I could add whatever I wanted or that I might have different perspectives. Actually I agreed with what he said for the most part. It was factual, and it was brief. One thing he stressed was that the disciplinary council he called was not for whipping and punishing me, as he put it, but for counseling me. I did not protest his explanation here since there were other matters to discuss.
I had remained silent more or less to this point, except for pleasantries expressed before the meeting. When Bishop Reeder finished, the stake president asked me, "How do you feel about the things that have happened, about our discussions?" My thoughts and emotions began to well up inside. I decided to tell the stake president exactly how I felt. I had to let him and Bishop Reeder know how all this was affecting me and others and how I perceived it. I spoke sternly and firmly. I told them that I thought the whole procedure during the past year was spiritually abusive. I told them that I used the term "abuse" with intention and after deep consideration. I emphasized the abuse aspect. I said that I was disillusioned when I was called in April last year for my Sunstone article. I told them that the proceedings over the year had dissipated the faith that I had, because they effectively indicated to me that the faith I had was worthless. I told them that the proceedings had been abusive to my family and that they have even considered asking to have their names removed from the rolls of the Church if I am excommunicated. I told them that some of my friends had been affected and have indicated they might leave the Church if I am excommunicated. I told the leaders, even at the beginning of the meeting, that this is the last time I would meet with them. (I also repeated this intention a second time in the meeting). I did not want to be subjected to interrogation any further. I said that I was frustrated at having my ideas judged as coming from sin (something that the stake president implied in our September meeting). I told them that disciplinary councils were coercive, even though I understood that they saw them as coming out of love and a desire to help individuals. I said they reflected the philosophy of Satan in the preexistence whose plan was to make all people do and believe the same thing so that they might get to heaven. I told them also
to make a quick decision regarding me. (I stressed this two other times in the meeting.)
I was not very diplomatic in letting this all out at once and at the beginning of the meeting. But then again, the meetings and the attack on scholarship, freedom, and my faith were in my view immoral and improper. I had to let my feelings known.
The stake president took offense at what I said, especially about disciplinary councils. He asked me if I doubted the inspiration of disciplinary councils and that they were instituted by the Church by revelation and that they function by revelation. I had to say yes, I did doubt their inspiration. But I put this in a context. I told him how my view of revelation indicated to me that there was much humanness in the Church but that one of the things that the Church does as it grows is to ameliorate the defects that come from its human contextualization. I said that giving the blacks the priesthood in 1978 was an example of this. I said there was no reason that the blacks should have not had the priesthood before then. The stake president then offered his judgment that I did not believe that the leaders at the time received revelation for the change. This was one of the times in this meeting that the stake president put words that I did not agree with into my mouth. Later on in the meeting I protested his doing this. He said that in meetings such as we were having he liked to put out statements like this, as feelers, to see how people would react. When he said this, I felt like a prisoner being interrogated who is tricked and trapped into giving certain answers. I can only think in retrospect this was highly abusive and confirms my opinion about the illegitimacy of the proceedings.
At any rate, I tried to explain my view of revelation. I said that I believed that any revelation had to be interpreted by the human recipient and that this interpretation brought into it human perceptions, some of which were "erroneous." It was here that Bishop Reeder jumped in. The bishop said that he agreed with me about revelation, but he added the point that there was some revelation which was perfect and clear, without error, such as that which the president of the Church receives or that Joseph Smith received, especially concerning basic matters like the Book of Mormon.
It was at this point that the discussion turned to matters of the Book of Mormon and my publishing about it. The stake president said that my conclusions were threatening to members and investigators of the Church. He said that it meant that Joseph Smith lied, or that Moroni lied to Joseph Smith. He said that revelation had to be clear and certain. God would not let us go off in "forbidden paths" without clear revelation. If he did, he wouldn’t be God. His basic argument, an argument that many in the Church make, was that the Church can’t be true and there can’t be any God without clear revelation. Of course, later in the meeting, when we were talking about the nature of the evidence I had been dealing within my study of Bible and Mormon scripture, he said that God had sent us here to live by faith and therefore he did not make matters so clear to us.
As I explained my view of revelation, the stake president told me that I didn’t believe in revelation. I again had to tell him that he was putting words in my mouth. I told him that many Church members have a hard time seeing nuances and often tend to force those who do not share their views into a preconceived black and white perspective of reality. What doesn’t agree with their view is just part of the "other"; they do not see differentiation among those who hold alternative views.
One of the points the stake president tried to make was that answers to questions such as I had could only come through a "pure vessel." One had to be striving to do his or her duty to God to receive true answers. Otherwise, the person would be left to his or her own devices. I told him that he misunderstood matters if he thought that my conclusions came as a result of becoming less active in the Church. I told him that my conclusions came at the height of my activity in the Church in my years in Berkeley and when I was at BYU. He then said that even when a person is striving to do his or her duty there may be deep personal, almost unquantifiable things, that prevent a person from receiving answers from God. It was almost as if he were saying here that just entertaining the possibility of views different from Church doctrine was enough to prevent the Spirit from testifying to truth in a person’s soul. Again he stressed that one had to be a pure vessel for revelation. I then noted that if that were the case, no human could receive revelation, because "all have sinned," including the local leaders and General Authorities. He said in those cases those people receive revelation with respect to their stewardships because God has put them in their positions. He said, if I remember correctly, that the General Authorities were pure vessels. To me this seemed a mass of contradiction, a way of forcing intellectual and spiritual phenomena into a world view whereby the maverick thinker like me can be condemned as defective and out of touch with reality, truth, and the Spirit. God will only tell truth to those who know it already and who don’t question it. I was disturbed by the simplemindedness of the argument as well as its inherent polemic.
In the meeting, I mentioned my views as they pertained to the Bible and asked if this was problematic. I told them that, for example, I believed that the creation, flood, and tower stories were myths. I told them there was very little good historical evidence for things in the Bible until about the time of David. I mentioned specifically that there was little historical evidence for and about the figure Abraham. I mentioned my view that the book of Isaiah is of composite authorship. (In another context, in passing, the stake president said that some people don’t believe that Moses parted the sea. I inserted the quick observation that I didn’t believe Moses did.) They did not answer my question directly about the problems my views about the Bible caused, but the bishop said that the Doctrine and Covenants spoke about Abraham as a historical figure and this proved his existence. I did not get into a refutation of the D&C evidence, but I noted that the Book of Abraham says certain things about Abraham but that there is good evidence that suggests this is not historical.
I had brought up the Book of Abraham earlier in the discussion and the problem with the interpretation of the facsimiles as an example of rather concrete data which showed that Joseph Smith thought he was doing one thing when he was actually doing another. To this Bishop Reeder responded that this was simply a matter of perspective. One might look at the data from a different perspective and find out that Joseph Smith’s perceptions were right. What this perspective was specifically he did not say. It was in connection with this matter of perspective, I think, that the stake president brought up the example of a friend at his work who said that the miracle of Jesus’ turning the water to wine at Cana was perhaps only symbolic because it was physically impossible to change water to wine. The president responded to his friend or at least thought to himself that we cannot use our human perspective to explain miracles. He said that, for example, time was something that did not exist for God. If you take time out of the Cana miracle, it could be easy for water to turn to wine. I pressed the stake president to explain what he meant. He said that if given an indefinite amount of time, permutations could take place in the water to turn to wine. I said that the marriage feast was something that happened in a specific length of time, it was not indefinite, and so I didn’t understand his point. He escaped from the issue at this point saying that he was just trying to give an example of differences of perspective and how they influence understandings.
This led me to raise one of my complaints at certain traditionally based explanations of some of the data I was dealing with in my studies. I said that people often capriciously invent supernatural explanations to explain matters, no matter how far out those explanations are. I mentioned that with regard to my Alma 12-13 study: people had been suggesting that God revealed the ideas present in Hebrews to Alma or to earlier prophets upon whom he might depend, or that documents must have existed upon which Alma relied for his ideas (I was pulling these explanations from the FARMS responses and from Bishop Reeder’s and some of my relatives’ responses to my article in the Metcalfe volume). I said that these explanations lacked the rigor necessary to make sense of the data. These explanations may be more or less consonant with traditional views but they lack evidential basis. I said that it might be impossible to argue certain of these traditionally based explanations with some rigor, but that it hasn’t been done yet and off-the-cuff speculations are not convincing.
One of the points running throughout our discussion was the fallibility of scholarship and the senses. I agreed with the stake president that scholarship and empirical study was imperfect. But I used this as an opportunity to argue that revelation was imperfect as well. I mentioned David Whitmer’s contradictory statements about what he knew by the Spirit and I mentioned some other more personal examples. I said that for me revelation had to be checked by reason. Their response was to say that what the prophet said in his prophetic office was essentially infallible (they did not use this term but it summarizes the implications of what they said) and that reason should be used to check revelation, but only to make sure it agreed with what the prophet (and the scriptures) had said. If a revelation does not agree, then by reason one could reject it.
The stake president asked me about scholars in the Church: why there were so many scholars who didn’t seem to have problems with the issues I was raising. I told him I couldn’t make blanket generalizations about scholars in the Church. If he wanted to talk about one particular scholar and one particular work he had written I would do that. I did say, however, that to be a scholar did not make one competent in all things that other scholars deal with. A physicist by training is not competent to deal with biblical studies. An Islamicist is not competent to deal with biblical studies. I said this does not mean they might not develop some competence and might be able to make a contribution, but I stressed that their training in physics or Islam does not make them ready experts in Bible or other fields. I told him that an academic "field" of Book of Mormon studies does not exist. I said that I was not fully competent in this area but that I could make contributions. Going in a different direction, I also said that BYU could not have a viable scripture studies program because it does not allow for freedom of expression necessary to advancement of the field. Furthermore, I spoke of James Barr’s book on fundamentalism where he notes that fundamentalist Christian scholars often go into fields peripheral to the Bible and then end up teaching Bible. I noted how one BYU professor told me that he refused to take Bible courses in his graduate career so that he would not be labeled a Bible scholar.
One of the points I made against the proceedings of the past year was that I did not believe they would lead me back to a traditional position. I see data and problems that need to be solved. I can’t ignore these matters. I spoke of my movement being Hegelian, from thesis (believing in a traditional way), to antithesis (recognizing problems), and then to synthesis (reconstructing avenues of faith in view of critical conclusions).
In the discussion, the stake president told me of his spiritual experience at eighteen years of age convincing him the Book of Mormon was true (i.e., ancient). I told him of my similar experience when I was on my mission. But I added that I had similar experiences with respect to my critical views. I told him that my understandings were spiritually exciting and "tasted good" using Joseph Smith’s phrase about spiritual truth. I told him I did not mention these experiences to say that he should therefore believe what I had written. And I said that I do not believe my conclusions on the basis of these experiences. Rather, I noted that these feelings indicate that one can have positive spiritual experiences about critical study. (To me they are the ecstatic thrill that comes from discovery.) They responded by saying that one has to be wary of such spiritual feelings when they don’t agree with the Church leaders’ views.
I told them that my scholarly interest grew out of trying to make sense of the scriptures and related matters from a traditional point of view. I found that the Church’s traditional paradigm did not make as much sense as compared to more naturalistic paradigms. It was the explanatory power of the other paradigm that led me to it. I emphasized that I cannot be expected to put my questions on the back burner and move to a paradigm which has less explanatory power.
In our discussion I tried to make clear that other local leaders were not so precipitous in their judgment of nontraditional scholars. I mentioned the Gospel Doctrine class in Michigan which allowed critical discussions of scripture. I mentioned that I understood that one scholar’s local leaders had defended him when a General Authority called his stake president about his article in the Metcalfe volume. I mentioned that there were many in the Church with the same view as mine about the Book of Mormon. President Wheeler said they wouldn’t have those views if I hadn’t published my own views. He said that people want to believe experts, especially if the experts are members of the Church. I told him that many of these were scholars and people who think for themselves. He said that still these scholars probably have looked to my work for guidance. He said even scholars have their mentors. In another context, when I said that some of my friends’ faith had been hurt because of the disciplinary councils against scholars, he suggested that what really hurt their faith were my published ideas.
One of his points was that it is easy for scholars to go after prestige and not attend to more important things. He said that he has had colleagues and knows of scholars who were so interested in prestige that they ceased to pay proper attention to their families and that their families eventually broke up. I protested sternly saying that I was not interested in prestige. I was particularly offended by the implication that I did not care for my family. He said he did not mean it in this particular way, only that scholars sometimes neglect the more important things, like becoming and remaining a pure vessel for revelation and the Spirit.
I asked him to give me a specific example of someone who had responded negatively and expressing spiritual hurt to my Sunstone and Metcalfe volume articles. He could not give me an example. He did say that some people had responded to the recent newspaper articles about my case which talked about my views about Joseph Smith’s scripture. I asked if this had destroyed people’s faith. He did not give me an example.
I stressed in several places in our discussion that I can only act on the basis of what I believe is true in my heart. I cannot become unfaithful to myself and accept someone else’s view of truth. Personal integrity requires me to be true to my own perceptions.
I told the stake president and bishop at one point that I could not become active in the Church in a moment. I told them the Church’s (local and general) attitude toward scholarship would have to change and let scholars be members in full fellowship. This did not mean, however, that the Church need to accept their conclusions as doctrine.
Another point I made was that truth needs to be spoken. We will not progress as a Church without solutions to these problems.
Toward the end of the meeting, the stake president and bishop moved to articulate their (or as they would say, the Church’s or God’s) understanding of why I shouldn’t think about the Book of Mormon and Mormon issues the way I have or at least why I shouldn’t publish my views. They argued that people cannot join the Church if they do not believe the Book of Mormon was translated from the gold plates. Bishop Reeder said that converts (but not necessarily children of record) are asked in their baptismal interviews if they believe that the Book of Mormon is true. I asked him if they are asked specifically about the gold plates and translation. He said yes. He then qualified this and said this is what he remembers from when he was in the Seventies missionary program. President Wheeler agreed with what Bishop Reeder said.
I asked them if this question was also asked in the temple recommend interview. Bishop Reeder said yes. I exclaimed, "It is?" He then said that it was asked implicitly. He said members are asked if they believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Then they are asked if they sustain the prophet. This means, he said, accepting what the prophet says about things like the Book of Mormon.
I asked the question, "Does sustaining the prophet mean always agreeing with him?" He and President Wheeler said that occasionally a person might have some questions about this point or another, but sustaining meant not to contradict the prophet publicly. I asked them if they could show me from the General Handbook of Instructions or some other document questions to be asked specifically about the Book of Mormon’s origin. They did not or could not.
They went on arguing that it was inconsistent for me to think that I could retain my membership in the Church for believing things that would prevent a convert from being baptized. At this point, I was becoming disillusioned at how doctrinally concerned they were. The Church for them, I thought, was not really a place for people to experiment with faith, not primarily for strengthening families, and not a place for the psychological welfare of individuals. It was a set of doctrines and a system of obedience. All of a sudden, the Church became to me objectively foreign and undesirable.
They continued their argument. As a member of the Church, President Wheeler said, I was a representative of the Church. Therefore I could not say anything that was in contradiction to the prophet and president of the Church. Though he did not use the term apostasy, the implication was that when someone publicly said something that contradicted the prophet, that person was in apostasy. He kept going over the point of needing to agree with the prophet. I asked if this meant, for example, that if President Kimball said that Moses wrote a particular passage in the Pentateuch when referring to the passage, one can’t contradict this. He said if he said it in his prophetic office the answer would be yes. I said that President Kimball in fact said this on one occasion in a conference address when he was president and asked if this was when the prophet was speaking in his prophetic office. He said yes. I asked a few more questions along this line (e.g., Paul as the author of Hebrews). Bishop Reeder came in here and refocused on the more prominent issue of the Book of Mormon
As he did I became "convinced"—and I say this with resigned existentially humored frustration—that he was right in saying such a person could not be a member of the Church. At 9:30, while he was repeating his point, I stood up and told them that I had to go. I shook their hands. As I shook President Wheeler’s hand, I said: "I hope to receive a letter from you soon." I was stressing by this the need for him to act quickly so that I could get on with my spiritual and intellectual life, a life that now I think I can pursue only outside the Church. I put on my coat. I stood at the door of the office and said: "I love you. I appreciate you. Good-bye." My love and appreciation were expressed to tone down the sternness with which I expressed some of my views, especially at the beginning of our conversation. It also expressed my belief that I recognized they were acting on principles they believed, even though I did not agree with those principles.
I drove home frustrated with only a slight sense of freedom and release. I slept fitfully and had to watch television at 1:30 AM. to get my mind off the issues so I could fall asleep. I hoped to have felt more relieved by now, but I do not. I am mainly frustrated by my forcefulness in the meeting and by my cutting short the already long two-hour discussion. I am worried about how people in the Church will read my reaction. I think they will find justification in it for my excommunication that will certainly follow. I only hope that there will be a few who will be able to look past the politics and realize how unwise and inhumane the persecution of scholars in the Church is. I felt imprisoned. I could only retain my sanity by protest and escape.
I wrote the following letter to President Wheeler today:
March 31, 1994
Dear President Wheeler:
I write this letter because I feel the need to reiterate or bring up some matters that you should have in mind as you consider terminating my membership.
First I want to apologize for leaving somewhat abruptly Tuesday night, when I stood up in our conversation, shook your hand, wished you well, and then departed. After two hours of meeting with you and Bishop Reeder, however, it became clear that I could not satisfy your requirements for membership in the Church, namely, to cease speaking and publishing ideas (and perhaps also to recant my already published ideas) that did not wholly agree with what the president of the Church has spoken in his prophetic office (which would include, as I gathered from our conversation, views expressed in First Presidency missives, the prophet’s general conference talks, and other such official communications). You convinced me—at least made me existentially resigned to the fact—that I did not belong in the Church. My interest in the search for truth conflicted with your demands for obedience. I had to follow my inner convictions and the authority of my heart; I could not surrender them to the demands of external authority when it seemed unreasonable.
I realize the importance of loyalty in an organization like the Church. But I do not believe loyalty requires a member to give up her or his pursuit and perception of the truth and to be silent, especially about problems that require solution for the benefit of the community. Loyalty requires each individual to use his or her talents to build the community. Free expression, even if what is said is not exactly on the mark, is necessary for friendships and relationships to develop that will give strength to the group. Requiring conformity to authority and silence when views differ breeds various reactions including self-doubt, fear, resentment and suspicion. These can only weaken the community. Repression, in my view, creates a weight which can only doom a society or organization to collapse.
Since BYU let me go in 1988-89,1 have decided to speak out about my historical conclusions for the benefit of our community. I thought (and still think) that Mormonism would become stronger by discussing these issues. I tried to avoid unbridled speculation and to deal with what I considered to be concrete and significant facts. I offered what in my view were carefully considered conclusions. In other words, the problems I addressed with regard to the Book of Mormon and other scriptural works were (and are) real and required (and still require) rigorous logical answers. My excommunication will give only brief illusory satisfaction that the problems have been addressed. Other scholars in and out of the Church will bring them up and treat them, and the problems will remain in the public eye. It seems that the Church would do better having its members trying to make sense of these difficulties, even experimenting with some radical perspectives, rather than adopting a de facto obscurantist position and pushing those who would like to offer a constructive solution out of its midst.
Related to this is your argument in our Tuesday meeting that, if a common member or investigator read my work and saw my conclusions, he or she might think that, since I am a member, my view is right and cease to believe in Mormonism. I am one who believes that logic, reason, and spiritual experience and convictions motivate people in their beliefs, not mere authority. I doubt that people will really adopt a view about the Book of Mormon like mine if they have convictions or evidence otherwise. On the other hand, if my arguments are reasonable, they will continue to be effective even after I am excommunicated. This is to say, it is a specious reason to excommunicate me because it is feared that people will adopt my conclusions because I am a member of the Church.
I should note that while you fear that people will lose their faith because of my conclusions, I have heard by letter or conversation from several individuals who said their faith was buoyed by my work. They saw that a scholar in the Church could deal with these issues critically and find a solution that allowed him or her to have faith that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that Mormonism was inspired. These individuals had run into the same sort of evidence as I and were struggling to find a paradigm of faith that allowed them to make sense of the evidence in a logical and rigorous way. As Mormon scholars are expelled from the Church for their honest faith-conserving attempts to make sense of the evidence, these perplexed members and those who will certainly come across the difficulties in the future will only be able to conclude that Mormonism is uninspired and cannot be their home.
Apart from those who recognize the force of evidence of the type I have raised, the excommunication of scholars affects and will affect the faith of their family members, their friends, and other members of the Church who are interested in matters of scholarship in a more general way. People’s senses of freedom and fair play are offended by discipline of those seeking after truth. I have read or heard about complaints from some of the most orthodox Latter-day Saints after the disfellowshipment of one and excommunication of five scholars and feminists last September. These orthodox members raised questions about the legitimacy of the Church leaders’ actions. Again, these are not scholars or exercised thinkers; these are common ordinary Latter-day Saints who have no particular interest or connection to liberal thought and publications in Mormonism. You need to realize that the further excommunication of scholars will create further distrust of the leadership among the membership of the Church.
Another point to be made is that I do not believe you are as familiar with the intellectual life of members in the Church as may be required to make an informed decision about my case. I feel I am being judged in a theoretical vacuum. There are many LDS scholars who are writing things which, if one were to make a close investigation, would not square with the (or a) Church president’s own official expressions to a greater or lesser degree. These scholars, at BYU and elsewhere, are generally not persecuted, certainly not excommunicated, for their views. There are bishops and stake presidents in the Church who even defend people with views such as mine rather than disciplining them. I feel that if I had moved into another stake I would not have been treated this way. Thus, for me, there is gross injustice in your actions. I hope that you will become familiar with the intellectual and religious diversity in the Church. You can read Sun-stone magazine and the journal Dialogue to get a sense of this diversity.
In connection with this, I also believe that you (including the bishop and the high council) do not have the competence in historical and textual analysis to appreciate the conclusions that I have made. I feel that I am being judged by a jury not composed of my peers. Certainly you have the ability to line up my conclusions against what the prophets have said and decide objectively if my conclusions are consonant or dissonant. But peer judges would also recognize that the evidence that I interpret is significant and would realize that it cannot be simply ignored with a demand for obedience. Their judgment, I think, would be mitigated by their realization that some freedom for working through the evidence must be given. Daniel C. Peterson, who is an Islamicist at BYU, who supervises some of the work of FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) which argues for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, and who himself believes in the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, said in a Salt Lake Tribune article (Saturday, February 19, 1994) about my case: "I don’t want to see this middle position dominate [that Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon but that the book is still scriptural, my, D. P. Wright’s, position], but I am not eager to throw its advocates out of the church." Professor Peterson is someone I would consider a peer and what he says here is significant.
I recognize that you will use this letter to convict me. But know that my expressions here come out of the moral depths of my heart. The meetings and disciplinary actions bringing my scholarship into ecclesiastical question and your implicit requirement that I give up my conclusions to remain a member of the Church have injured me deeply. To retain integrity I must oppose this inquiry. To use a phrase that was used to entitle a collection of essays by Václav Havel about resistance to totalitarianism, I must "live in the truth,"—the truth as I see it, not as someone outside of me sees it.6
I appreciate your and the bishop’s concern. I believe that you are acting with integrity out of your understanding of truth. I know that you do not have personal animosity towards me but are pursuing your stewardships in the way you see proper. I respect you for this.
I hope the Church will learn from its mistakes and move forward toward forming a more inclusive society. I hope for the day where the Church will allow the individual pursuit of knowledge and not consider this a sin, something worthy of disciplinary action.
Sincerely and cordially,
David P. Wright
cc: Bishop James B. Reeder
As matters turned out, this letter became irrelevant even as it was written. I wrote and mailed it on Wednesday, March 31,1994. That night at 9:40 P.M. [before my letter could have reached the stake president], two messengers from President Wheeler delivered a letter dated March 30, informing me that the disciplinary council "on your behalf to consider action for apostasy" would convene at 7:30 P.M. on Tuesday, April 5, at the stake center. The concluding paragraph read: "You are requested to be there. If other arrangements need to be made or if you have any questions, please let me know."
I have been excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I feel relieved on the one hand, knowing that the ecclesiastical rulers cannot do anything more to me. I feel frustrated and saddened on the other hand, knowing that this is another sign of the Church’s dysfunction and its inability to correctly assess reality. It is in a state of denial about the historical evidence and it is attacking those that. gather it rather than dealing with it properly.
Dianne, Stephen Thompson, Jill Bradberry Keeley, and I arrived at the Nashua New Hampshire Stake center about 7:15/7:20 P.M. We went in the door to the stake offices. Several high councilors had been gathering in the high council room. I stuck my head in and saw President Wheeler at the head of the table. I waved. He waved back with a big smile. I told one of high councilors that I wanted to ask President Wheeler briefly about the agenda. He got President Wheeler. I told him that for my part, I had a statement to read along with some letters from supporters and that Stephen Thompson and Dianne had witness statements to present. He said this would be fine.
Bishop Reeder was in the foyer. About all I said to him was: "This has been one of the most beautiful days of the year so far, hasn’t it?" It was really the best day of the year, warm and sunny.
Dianne, Stephen, Jill, Bishop Reeder, and I stood in the foyer as the high council met and prepared for the trial. I heard the clinking of metal passing around the room from outside the door. Apparently they were choosing lots which decided which half of the group was going to act in my favor and which half was going to act in the interests of the Church. To anticipate matters, by the end of the meeting there were very few statements made in my favor.
At perhaps 7:40 or so, Bishop Reeder and I were invited into the room. We walked to the head of the room and took our position in chairs against the wall away from the table at whose head the stake presidency stood and around which the high council was standing. The high council group was composed wholly of high councilors. Two of them had not been set apart yet. Rules allow for high priests to function in a high council court if regular high council members cannot be present. From a comment later on in the trial, it appeared that the high councilors did not know anything about the case before the meeting.
From our standing position, we assumed the position of prayer. A prayer was offered(I think by a counselor of President Wheeler). The prayer included a request that things be done right and that we communicate and do so without anger.
After the prayer, President Wheeler advised me of the charge. He told me simply that I had been charged with apostasy. No further elaboration was given to me or the high council. He asked me if I agreed with this. I said that I do not believe I am guilty of apostasy. He asked: "Would you like to explain?" I said: "I have a statement prepared with some witnesses. Do I present that now?" He said yes.
I opened my bag and pulled out my file of materials pertaining to my case. I took the copy of my statement and read it slowly, with clear articulation and emphasis of what needed to be emphasized.
April 5, 1994
David P. Wright
I had some difficulty in deciding whether to attend this meeting. I didn’t attend the bishop’s disciplinary council for reasons of principle which I outlined to him in a letter on February 17, 1994. I thought that for similar reasons I would not attend this meeting. But realizing that this is the venue for a final decision and considering the support I have received from members of the Church and colleagues outside the Church, and considering, too, my responsibility as a member of the Church and as a scholar and teacher to stand up for the right to pursue truth, I have come to speak a few words of explanation and defense.
My defense will consist of giving you perspective on my faith and my scholarship. Twenty years ago I returned from my mission in Oregon where I had decided to pursue a career in ancient Near Eastern linguistics and history. As a result of some reading I had done there, I wanted to become a "Hugh Nibley"—a defender of the antiquity of the Book of Mormon and other of Joseph Smith’s scriptural works. I reentered the University of Utah for undergraduate work to begin to realize this goal. During this work, however, I began to encounter evidential inconsistencies that disturbed me in this quest. Certain bits of data made it look as though the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and other of Joseph Smith’s ancient scriptures were not ancient. I also found evidence that made me sense that some of our larger official views of antiquity were deficient. This presented such a crisis to me that I reacted with a measure of anti-intellectual verve against scholarship and at one point was almost ready to quit my studies to escape the evidence—to put it on a high shelf or on the back burner, to cease asking questions. But my interest in finding solutions to these evidential challenges combined with the spiritual longings of my soul overcame my fear and I decided to persevere.
One of things that challenged me at this time was not only the conclusions about matters of antiquity by scholars outside the Church, but conclusions by many scholars in the Church, both those in academic as well as leadership positions. I found that many of their arguments defending traditional positions of the Church regarding antiquity were flawed: i.e., they were generally not rigorous and were sometimes illogical and ignored or misinterpreted significant evidence. I sensed that some of this scholarship was written more for public relations purposes than for the advancement of knowledge. It seemed to be trying to buy time with intellectual side-tracking so that a better defense could perhaps be found and made. As I decided to persevere in my studies I was persuaded, intellectually and spiritually, that I needed to be honest with the evidence. Whatever I did, I needed to give the evidence an honest hearing and discussion and when necessary let my analysis of it go in directions that might not be entirely traditional. This did not mean that, at this time, I had concluded that the Book of Mormon and other ancient scriptures of Joseph Smith were not ancient. Far from it! Indeed, with this recommitment to careful study I also renewed my commitment to defend the antiquity of Joseph Smith’s scriptures by this study.
With my renewed energies I entered the graduate program in Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. I eventually came to choose the Hebrew Bible as my focus because of my religious interests. My present views about the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s other ancient scriptures came very slowly over the course of my graduate career and despite my desire to see the evidence go the other way. I did not want to admit that these texts were not what Joseph Smith and modern prophets claimed they were. I struggled by doing research and writing papers to myself defending the antiquity of Joseph Smith’s scriptures. I read new publications by Hugh Nibley and other defenders of the traditional view; and I reread, sometimes several times, the work they had already published. The more I read and studied, however, the more the severe weaknesses of traditional defenses became apparent and the stronger the arguments for seeing these texts as the nineteenth century compositions of Joseph Smith grew. My investigation was not simply an intellectual matter. I spent many hours in prayer pleading for guidance to find other evidence and for new perspectives about troubling evidence. This prayer buoyed my belief in the scriptural worth of the books, but it never provided refutation of the evidence nor did it weaken its logical effect.
The evidence became so clear to me that a new crisis of faith ensued. My option was to throw away my belief altogether, or to develop for myself a new model for understanding the divinity of Mormonism and the scriptural value of the Book of Mormon and other scripture. Fortunately, several of the teachers that I had in graduate school and many of the biblical scholars whose works I had read provided personal examples indicating that the critical (meaning the careful historical) study of scripture and the acceptance of nontraditional historical conclusions resulting from this study need not lead one to deny the religious value of scriptural texts. For example, many of my professors were Jewish, and religiously devout, but accepted the critical conclusion that Moses did not write the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of the Bible). This is a view, by the way, which is well supported by evidence and is a conclusion I accept, teach, and work with every day in my professional activity. For a Jewish scholar to make this conclusion is the equivalent of a Mormon scholar making the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is not ancient but written by Joseph Smith. Despite these historical conclusions about the Pentateuch or Torah, these Jewish scholars viewed it as the foundation of their religious tradition and devoted much of their work to explicating it and interpreting it in what they considered to be its real historical context. They and a large number of Jews generally viewed their work—their historical critical work—as fulfilling the religious obligation of studying, interpreting, and teaching Torah.
I found that these Jewish, as well as similarly oriented Christian, scholars provided a model that I could employ to escape the requirement of rejecting Mormon tradition. I developed a view of Joseph Smith’s scriptural works that allowed me to read them critically and be true to what the evidence indicated but to appreciate them as scripture. I came to see revelation as a more ambiguous matter, involving a significant amount of interpretation on the part of the human recipient of the revelation. I concluded that prophets "translate" revelation into their own words in terms of their cultural situation. Thus a revelation, or rather a product of revelation—a statement, text, etc.—has a certain amount of humanness. This can account for error and even misperception on the part of a prophet. This interpretive aspect of revelation for me applied not only to matters of spiritual impression but to visionary and auditory phenomena as well.
When I graduated from Berkeley with my doctorate in Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies in 1984, I began my academic career of researching and teaching in biblical and Near Eastern studies. I began at BYU from 1984 to 1989 teaching courses on Hebrew, the Hebrew Bible, and ancient Near Eastern culture and languages; I spent 1989-90 on a Fulbright research fellowship at Hebrew University at Jerusalem studying Near Eastern ritual practices; I was visiting professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont 1990-91 teaching courses on Hebrew Bible and Judaism; and since 1991 I have been at Brandeis University teaching courses on Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern languages, literature, and history. These positions have required and allowed me to pursue research and publish a host of respected works on the Bible and the ancient Near East. I have professional articles in the Harper’s Bible Dictionary, the Theologisches Worterbuch zum Alten Testament (the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament), the voluminous Anchor Bible Dictionary, the Journal of the American Oriental Society, the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vetus Testamentum (a journal for Old Testament study), the Journal of Biblical Literature (forthcoming), and several articles in various books on the Bible and ancient Near East. These articles deal with subjects such as the practice of the laying on of hands in the Bible, the ethical and moral basis of the purity laws of the Old Testament, the concept of holiness in ancient Israel, and the elucidation of various difficult passages in the Bible and Near Eastern texts. I have also published a book which deals with the ancient Israelite concepts of purity and impurity.
This opportunity for teaching and research in Bible and the ancient Near East has allowed me to continue my study of the question of the antiquity of Joseph Smith’s ancient scriptures. This work has continued to confirm my sense that these works are not ancient. The view of antiquity presented in these scriptures does not accord well with what is known from scholarship otherwise. Other substantial evidence has, on the positive side, tied these works with a nineteenth-century context.
The point of this autobiographical survey is to impress upon you the fact that my views are well grounded in careful study. But more than that. My study and resulting views grow out of a desire to cultivate faith not disbelief. Let me repeat: my views grow out of a desire to assert and cultivate faith not out of a desire to generate disbelief and attack the Church. As I have written I have always sought to support faith. Yes, I have been frank in my discussion of matters and have brought up controversial matters. But I have sought to put what I have said in the context of my faith and hope and never to attack the Church. For example, in my article in the volume New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, I write at the end:
Some may think that acceptance of the conclusion that Joseph Smith is author of the Book of Mormon requires rejecting the work as religiously relevant and significant. I append this afterword to make it clear that such a rejection does not follow from this critical judgment. One can adopt an attitude, tempered by the acceptance of critical conclusions that allows the text to speak a spiritual message. [The Book of Mormon] becomes a "true record," to adapt William James’s phrase applied to Jewish and Christian scripture critically read, "of the inner experience of [a] great-souled [person] wrestling with the crises of [his] fate." The Book of Mormon is the apprentice’s workshop of [Joseph] Smith’s prophetic career. In it we see him becoming a prophet. By careful and critical reading of its chapters against the environment in which it was produced, we can understand him much more completely and thus appreciate the foundations of the tradition he inaugurated. We can also use this study of Joseph Smith to reflect on our own situations and work out solutions to out questions and problems.
In the article in Sunstone ("Historical Criticism: A Necessary Element in the Search for Religious Truth") I proposed various ways that I dealt with certain critical conclusions in a religiously positive and supporting way. For example, I explicitly supported the prophets’ right to interpret prophecy for our time. Realizing that prophecies were often meant for the people who lived at the time when they were spoken, and realizing that they needed to be reinterpreted and reapplied in ensuing generations, I asked: "Who was to ‘re-vision’ these prophecies of old for the present community, particularly our community? I argued that it was to be those who had the same relationship to the community now as those who first spoke the messages had to their communities, i.e., the community’s current prophetic leaders" (p. 33).
Thus you can see that in my writings about Mormon scripture I have been positive, trying to describe the way that I have made sense of the evidence and asserting faith and hope. Indeed, despite the crises that I described earlier, my journey of faith has been exhilarating and stimulating, spiritually as well as intellectually. It’s unfortunate that this concern over my faith and thinking has occurred. Faith, of whatever character, needs community. Fortunately there are other Mormons like me who have responded recently and given me support. My faith has been uplifted by this. But at the same time I have suffered a loss of community through the recent ecclesiastical suspicion and investigation of my honest work. Moreover, I have not been encouraged by the investigation and discipline of other scholars and thinkers in the Church, particularly last year. I hope that you will allow me and scholars like me to remain in the community so that our faith may continue to grow.
In all my work I have sought to find an avenue for faith. The evidence that I have encountered cannot be dismissed by a call for obedience. Nor can it be dismissed by prayer. Certainly it cannot be dismissed by a requirement of remaining silent until answers come. Answers will not be had unless the evidence is carefully laid out and various solutions have been offered. This is why I have published my views and why I continue to support publication of such views.
In sum, if I am guilty of anything, it is of trying to find a way to believe and appreciate my religious tradition, of trying to see Joseph as a prophet and to understand his work as spiritually valuable to me, my family, and my Mormon community.
After I read my statement I read a number of letters all of which (except one) had been written to President Wheeler. I had been sent copies by the writers. (See Appendix: "Letters of Support: Excerpts.") I began with a letter from Leonard Arrington who, though not writing to President Wheeler, had recently sent me a letter giving a brief but positive estimation of my scholarly work. I then read letters from Jackson Newell Kelly Berman (a graduate student in Bible and Ancient Near East at Brandeis University, one of my students and not a member of the Church), Sheldon Greaves, one of my former students at BYU and a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Berkeley), Timothy LaVallee (another of my former students and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan), and William Benecke, another former student of mine at BYU).
I had in my file letters from others which were just as good and important for President Wheeler and the council to hear (by Jill Keeley, Gary Keeley, Mark Thomas Brent Metcalfe, Edwin Firmage, Jr., and Lavina Fielding Anderson [and two others whom I cannot name publicly]). I saw that the attention of the council was starting to wane after five letters, so I ended with Bill Benecke’s.
After I was finished with the letters, Stephen Thompson was invited in. He had sent a letter to President Wheeler but read it as his witness statement and added commentary. He introduced himself and explained his relationship to me. He then entered into a critique of FARMS and its poor scholarship. "The evidence they adduce for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, when viewed in context provides no support for such a contention. Their methodology is primarily apologetic. Some of their researchers believe that truth is to be derived from a divine source, through revelation by the Spirit, and that the task of scholarship is to support and bolster such revealed truth. Any information which goes counter to such revealed truth is simply ignored, when it cannot be explained away. When they publish their work, they pass over such contradictory evidence in silence, giving their largely uninformed, unsophisticated audience a skewed vision of the case for some of Mormonism’s traditional claims. In my opinion, this is dishonest. If one chooses to believe traditional Mormon claims, then so be it. But to falsify evidence in an attempt to bolster such claims cannot be legitimately justified." He then discussed the issues of whether scripture may be true without being historical, answering in the affirmative. At the end he said, "I would like to add my testimony to David’s, and state that when the evidence for and against the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, or the Books of Abraham and Moses is carefully and objectively considered, the case against the antiquity of these works is overwhelming. This in no way means that the Church is false." When he finished, he asked if there were questions. No one asked a question.
My wife Dianne was then brought in. She read with emotion the following statement:
I have known my husband for eighteen years. During that time I have never known him to lie or to be unkind to anyone. If anything I would fault him with, it would be in being too honest.
However I have known him to spend long hours studying, weighing evidence and trying to help members of the church understand the Old Testament, the other scriptures and history of the church. I have found David to be a model husband and father. He is a great teacher and citizen. My children and I know he is one of God’s best.
I cannot see how being truthful in scholarship can possibly be a sin.
How do I teach our children that God and this church are correct when they see their father excluded from God’s kingdom because he told others what he believed? Is this going to make them feel like telling others about what they believe? How can we trust the church and feel comfortable in it when it is willing to expel someone we love, a sincere seeker of truth, because the Church is worried about its missionary work?
What about our children and their children and our friends? Your decision affects all of them.
How does a person repent of telling the truth? How does a person repent of telling the deepest part of his soul, of telling of his struggle to find a way to believe? How does a person repent of trying to find God? Is it a sin to seek answers to prayers through study? Is it a sin to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic and to read the scriptures in the original languages and to learn how the ancient people lived through archaeology, linguistics, and history?
You see, my children and I know my husband. He knows many languages. We have heard him explain the culture of ancient Israel. We have heard him try to find a way to make a bridge between the Church and scholarship. We have heard him explain to people the various views, but we have never heard him push his views on others.
There are many avenues to find truth and if we really want to find truth we should not leave any stone unturned.
A true church is not just one that has some true answers, but it is one that is constantly seeking more truth.
Dianne was excused after her statement and the questioning of me began. President Wheeler went first, followed by his counselors and then the high councilors. I cannot remember all of the questions but the following gives the essence. President Wheeler was concerned that I trusted scholarship above the prophet. I told him that the scholarly evidence was not easy to dismiss. Because of it, I did not think that prophets were infallible and thus individual members should have the right to pursue their talents and offer their constructive observations for the benefit of the Church. What I had striven to do was try to find a way to believe and assert faith rather than reject the Church altogether.
This led to the stake president’s question of why God would deceive us. I brought up D&C 19 as an example of where God admitted to deceiving people ("eternal punishment"). In his questioning along this line, he asked about the flood story. In my meeting a week ago with him, I had told him that I did not believe that the flood story and some other Bible stories were historical. He said that if this wasn’t historical, didn’t I think that God would have told Joseph Smith this? Why did God let Joseph Smith go on believing that the flood was historical? This question revealed to me just how conservative and uninformed President Wheeler was about the study of the Bible. I knew that when he asked this question, I could not succeed.
I was asked sternly by a high councilor later in the questioning if I would "sustain" (or, as he explained, "obey") President Wheeler if he came out of his deliberations and asked me not to publish anymore. Would I do that? I said I would not give up my right to do research and speak about it. I told him that the sorts of conclusions that I write about in my articles on Mormon scriptures are reflected in my professional work. One of the reasons why I could not give up the right to publish was that President Wheeler’s question about the flood implied that even my professional work, in which I question the historicity of the flood was theoretically in question.
President Wheeler asked me if I thought God could withhold information from us. I asked him what he meant. He said that God held back the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, that he didn’t give us everything. He said also that God told prophets certain things but required them not to tell the Saints all that they knew. He asked if I thought that God and the prophet as his representative could ask us as members not to reveal the knowledge that we knew or discovered. I said that the information about the Book of Mormon is there in the Book of Mormon; God gave us the Book of Mormon with all the problematic information in it. Don’t we have the opportunity and responsibility of making sense of this information?
President Wheeler spoke about the duty of members of the Church to represent Christ (and hence the prophet). Thus, a member could not publicly express ideas different from what the Church believes.
Various people asked questions about specific matters:
(1) Did I believe the gold plates were real? I said that I did not have a definite answer. I explained that some of the witnesses’ statements and their larger religious experiences suggest that the plates may have been experienced spiritually rather than objectively. I compared the papyrus of John in D&C 7 which was spiritually perceived.
(2) Did I believe that the personages that Joseph said appeared to him really did appear to him? I said that I believed Joseph was sincere in his descriptions. I said that I wasn’t certain myself; I did not deny nor affirm this right now.
(3) Do you keep your temple covenants? I hesitated wondering if wearing garments is a temple "covenant" or just a rule and expectation outside the specific covenants one makes. Viewing it as the latter, I answered yes. But upon further thought after the meeting, I am guilty if not paying tithing is viewed as part of the covenants or if being willing to give one’s life for the Church is a necessary attitude.
(4) Do you keep your baptismal covenants? I asked what the questioner meant specifically. He said it means to remember Jesus. I answered "yes" to this.
(5) I was asked how I thought about Jesus. I asked what was meant specifically. The questioner asked if I saw his atonement as a means of salvation. I answered, "In my way of understanding it, yes." I did not want to get into questions about the historicity and theology of Jesus. While at BYU I had come to see the atonement of Jesus as something much more symbolic than literal.
(6) One asked if critical study might lead a person to conclude that Jesus wasn’t the literal son of God. I said that historical scholarship can’t easily solve matters that are purely in the divine sphere.
(7) How do you feel about prophets? I said I consider them wise and instructive individuals but not infallible. The individual members in their capacities can also offer light through their particular studies.
(8) Do you believe that Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., were prophets? I answered yes.
(9) Why do you want to be a member of the Church? I answered that I had "hope" [about some of its teachings] but also my identity was formed by my Mormon upbringing; and my family, going back several generations, is Mormon. I see Mormonism as something more than just a system of doctrines. It is a society of people which is beneficial.
(10) To show my feelings toward Joseph Smith, I mentioned that I had reacted adversely to a letter I had recently received from a conservative Christian saying that he was happy I saw Joseph as a fraud and charlatan. I told the council this was not my conclusion and that I reject it. Later in the discussion this was brought up against me: "Ah, you see, the critics of the Church are learning about your scholarship and are going to use it against the Church."
(11) How would I feel if I become orthodox in my conclusions and I learn that a youth had read my older scholarship and had lost faith because of it? I answered I would be distressed. But I added that several are helped in their faith by my work and at the same time many are hurt in their faith by the simplistic answers or the nonanswers that leaders of the Church give to difficult questions. I brought up a talk I heard at a Sunstone symposium ca. 1985 where the individual had given up his belief in God because the Church leaders couldn’t answer his questions.
In my answers I could not give the expected Mormon line and certainly could not express the religious conviction that is part of Mormon testimony experience and rhetoric. I admit it. I do not have a traditional understanding of Mormonism and my faith is not strong. I am a groping doubter who has sought to have some hope and make some positive sense of these matters.
At the end of the question session, four high councilors summed up the affair for President Wheeler. Two were to speak in my favor and two in favor of the Church. Actually only one spoke in my favor, and the one who did speak in my favor did so weakly. From this, I knew before I went out for their private deliberations that I would be excommunicated.
The private deliberations lasted almost an hour, from 10:10 to about 11:15 P.M. When President Wheeler retired to his office to get a revelation telling him what to do, the high councilors were socializing and laughing in the high council room. My party sat in the foyer talking about various matters unrelated to the case. Bishop Reeder was waiting in foyer with us. (He came out of the council room about halfway through the deliberations.) I did say to Stephen Thompson, however, that the Church which manifested itself in the council—the views and requirements—is not the Church that I had striven to be part of and to which I had tried to commit my loyalties. I said the atmosphere was so fundamentalistic, obscurantist, and misological, that I welcomed a decision of excommunication. I told him I had a new term for this type of fundamentalism: "prophetic fundamentalism," where the prophets are seen as infallible in their official statements and where these cannot be questioned or contradicted, even when they seem clearly wrong. This fundamentalism sees all previous prophets as standing in perfect harmony with the current prophet.
As we waited in the foyer, Bishop Reeder said that "the call was pretty much the stake president’s."
At about 11:15 P.M., I was called back in. All were standing as Bishop Reeder and I walked to the front of the room by the head of the table. When we were in our positions, standing in front of our chairs, President Wheeler and the rest following sat down. President Wheeler leaned over to me and said in a soft voice something like: "It is our decision that you should be excommunicated." After this he instructed me not to wear the garments any longer and not to pay tithing. He invited me to come to church. He said that the decision was clearly made known to him, meaning that he had a revelation that I should be excommunicated. He said it was a matter of pride on my part. I needed to learn to subordinate scholarship to what the prophet said. The prophet’s words (in his prophetic office) are not contravenable or liable to revision on the basis of scholarship. He asked me to "start from the beginning and rethink everything" so that I would get a proper spiritual testimony of the church. He said that he and Bishop Reeder want to keep track of my progress. He said that he really loved me and that their decision came out of love. We had a closing prayer, offered by one of those present, the other counselor, I think. When we stood up, President Wheeler and I shook hands and he hugged me. I shook hands with the counselors and then with a number of, but not all, the high councilors. (The room was arranged such that it was not easy to reach high councilors on the far side of the table and I did not want to linger to shake all their hands. There was no ritual or requirement to shake all their hands.)
I received the following letter from President Ned B. Wheeler yesterday. The postmark was April 9,1994:
Dear Brother Wright,
This letter confirms the decision of the disciplinary council on your behalf 5 April 1994. The decision of the council was that you be excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You may not wear the temple garments nor pay tithes and offerings. You are strongly encouraged to attend meetings; however, you may not give a talk, offer a public prayer, partake of the sacrament, or vote in the sustaining of Church officers.
You have the right to appeal this decision to the First Presidency if you feel injustice. An appeal should be in writing and should specify errors or unfairness claimed in the procedure or decision. This appeal should be presented within 30 days of the above date to the presiding officer of the disciplinary council, the stake president.
The following are areas of concern that have been revealed through inspiration as a result of this disciplinary council procedure. Careful attention through fasting, prayer, and scripture study will reveal the truth of these things to you and help you to regain full fellowship for which we deeply desire.
The Lord loves you and your family very much and wants you to be a forever family. The Lord wants you and your family to go to church and learn to walk by faith. He wants you to realize the full impact of the statement "by their fruits ye shall know them." Our actions either affect others for good or ill. If we look around us, observe attitudes and actions of our family and associates, we will see the effects of our actions for good or ill upon their lives. This must be weighed against the standards set by the Lord in keeping all the covenants that we have made with him. We cannot shift responsibility to others for situations that we have created. We must face our problems squarely and determine if our "fruits" are producing the results that Heavenly Father has asked of us. The righteous life will always promote obedience to all that the Lord has asked us to do regardless of outside pressures. A true test of our standing before the Lord can be understood by the scripture found in (D&C 29:7) —for mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts; —the righteous fear them not, for they love the truth and are not shaken. (BofM:2 Nephi 9:40)
The Lord would like you to gain an understanding of what it means to accept membership in his church. We represent the Savior and our prophets and recognize that they alone have the right and authority through inspiration to direct the affairs on this earth. When our prophets speak in their office and calling, they will be directed by inspiration and when they speak as such all debate should stop. The prophet is the only person on the earth authorized to interpret the doctrine of the Church.
The Prophet Brigham Young taught that we can be deceived by our five senses no matter how real or convincing they may be but that when the Spirit bears witness to us, we will never be deceived. The Lord has given us a test to determine if we are receiving the Spirit. All direction by the Spirit of the Lord will always be in total harmony with all the scriptures and with all the prophets. If the inspiration does not meet this criterion, we can be assured that our inspiration is not from the Lord but from the adversary.
Great understanding and perspective comes from scripture where we learn that all truth comes through the Spirit and that access to the Spirit only comes through obedience. This would suggest and is true that a person who is in tune with the Spirit through obedience has knowledge far beyond that of the best educated person in the world. This also suggests and is true that if interpretation of gospel principles and scripture is left to those educated persons who do not follow the principles of the gospel, the truth will never be known even though much rhetoric will be pleasing to the carnal mind. All efforts without the Spirit present are fruitless and will lead to false and destructive conclusions.
Understand these sobering words found in Mosiah 3:19: "For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father."
A clear understanding is that our prophets and seers have the authority and privilege to see into the future, know the present conditions of the world and people, to interpret the past and give every one of us direction from the Lord. Many times this direction will be in opposition to what the world would have us believe. We must exercise our faith in our Savior and accept this guidance even though it may go contrary to our worldly knowledge. In the end, we will come to know that the prophets will always be right. Many theories have come and gone at the hands of the best scholars and scientist[s] only to be superseded, disproved, and rejected. A true prophet’s words will always come to pass. This is why we must compare our earthly learning to the standard of the gospel and not the other way around. If we are not careful, we can be as the scripture indicates, ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth, and even walking in darkness at noon day.
The spirit of inspiration will not give conflicting guidance. When the Spirit confirms that the Book of Mormon is true, that same spirit will not confirm that writing in opposition to what the Prophet Joseph has spoken is right. Only the spirit of Satan will do this. Satan is most anxious to take any false doctrine and make it logical and acceptable to the human mind.
It is contrary to the laws of heaven that our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ would give guidance and instruction to the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning the Bible, the history of mankind, his mission, and mislead or deceive him. This would be the case if certain events or prophets mentioned in the Bible were actually fictitious.
It is contrary to the laws of Heaven that the Angel Moroni would come and appear to the Prophet Joseph Smith and explain to him that through the Urim and Thummim he would be instrumental in translating the Book of Mormon and then believe that the Book of Mormon was a nineteenth-century document.
The testimony of the three witnesses and the eight witnesses are true which includes the testimony of the gold plates.
As members of the Church, we covenant to represent the Lord in all things and in all places. This also means that we represent his prophets. To do this means that we do not run ahead of them in any way to impose our own will or usurp their authority.
Knowledge of things as they really are comes through the Spirit and does not depend upon our earthly knowledge to be understood. These things confound the wise and are considered foolishness to many wise and those who are learned.
Satan will take hold of every situation that will bring doubt, generate unbelief, and destroy testimonies of the gospel. Scripture tells us that if we were to offend even one of Heavenly Father’s children it would be better that a millstone were place[d] about our neck and we were drowned in the depths of the sea. Satan will feed and encourage anyone who pursues this line of thinking. Satan is the master of deceit, the father of lies, the master counterfeiter. We can only be protected by [sic] his insidious work through fasting, prayer, scripture study and keeping every covenant that we have made with our Heavenly Father. To fall short of any of these things would be to open our armor and let Satan into our lives. Satan rewards us no good thing.
The universal sin of pride as described by our prophet, President Benson, in the May 1989 Ensign is part of everyone’s life and must be rooted out if we are to be pure in heart and able to see with pure eyes.
May you understand these words in the Spirit for which they are intended. Our only purpose is to speak the words given to us by our Heavenly Father’s spirit so that you can understand what the Lord wants you to learn concerning these truths. I testify that the gospel is true, that we have a true and living prophet, that Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God, that our Savior lives and atoned for our sins and that our Heavenly Father hears and answers our prayers. You and your family are precious in the sight of our Heavenly Father. I know that whatever the Lord requires of us is right and for our best good. The Lord wants you back into his kingdom in full fellowship. The items listed above have been indicated through inspiration for your benefit. I pray that you may understand their meaning and significance in your life. May you know of our love for you and of our greatest desire to see you return in full fellowship.
Your Friend and Brother,
For the first few days after I was excommunicated I was emotionally numb. I thought that I might feel release from a long tiring struggle. But I did not feel release. I thought I might feel anger towards the leaders and Church who prosecuted me. But I did not feel anger. I thought that I might feel sadness at losing something of great importance to me. But I did not feel sadness. It was as if I had attended just another difficult but open-ended ecclesiastical interview checking up on my ideas. After all, over the year prior to the disciplinary council I had been quizzed six times in person and one time over the phone about my scholarship and views. This was getting to be a regular feature of my life. Perhaps what added to my lack of emotional reaction was that my grandmother had died the morning of my disciplinary council. I felt bad about this. I felt bad, too, that my father and mother had been dealt a double dose of unhappiness in one day.
I spoke to people about my excommunication over these days of emotionlessness. Many said, "You must feel awful. You must feel devastated." I agreed with them in order not to appear emotionally abnormal; but the reality had not sunk in and I didn’t feel this way really. Michael Quinn told me that I would go through the various stages of the grieving process. This helped a bit because it allowed me to see my reaction, or lack thereof as partly a manifestation of denial. I didn’t want to believe that the Church had in any real way cut me off from the tradition that I appreciated and sought to understand. As I examined this denial, I found that my lack of emotional response was largely due to my incredulity about what had happened. I was astounded that the religious tradition that I had esteemed to be good and beneficial in large part, and whose society I had enjoyed, had reacted so unreasonably. In some respects my perspective on the experience was "out of the body." "This is not happening to me," I wanted to think. "This is not what people in my religious tradition do. It’s irrational. It’s medieval. It’s a dream."
But though I did not experience anger, sadness, and feelings of release immediately, the feelings nonetheless came. For example, the Friday after the excommunication (which was on a Tuesday) I had just awakened and was getting a glass of water at the kitchen sink. Out of the dim light of dawn that was easing through the window over the faucet came a heart-piercing flash: "The Church has just divorced you from your wife and from your children!" For a long time before the disciplinary council, I had come to the conclusion that what they might do to me is only of human consequence. God, if deity exists, was tolerant and compassionate and encouraged the search for understanding. And if, further, there was a life after this and family unions were possible, they could not be destroyed by the search for truth. The startling thought this morning was, consequently, not a realization of some spiritual or eternal reality. It was rather a sense that the Church had been able to drive a wedge between me and my family in this life. It was the same sort of thought I had when Bishop Reeder said I could not baptize and ordain my two sons last July. At that time I thought that forbidding me to perform the ordinances for my sons would implicitly require them to choose between the Church or me. The impression of that day hit me hard because it meant that my family had to choose between me and the Church. What if they might choose the Church and, God forbid, leave me emotionally if not physically? I should have been angry that the Church had such invasive power, but instead I was afraid. I had no logical reason to be because Dianne and my children have long supported me in my searches and studies. But emotions are irrational monsters that assume an independent life. For a day or two, I walked around with this horror in my mind until discussion with the family finally strangled it.
Anger sprang up when I received President Wheeler’s letter on Saturday, April 9. The four-page call to repentance objectified the irrationality of the orthodox view that had been confronting me over the last year. I emptied my spleen upon it. This is probably why I do not have anything written in my journal about it. I could have only written acerbic and impolitic reactions. The letter held out impossible demands, such as giving up the critical study of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It required, too, a fundamentalist view of prophecy and prophets which cannot be sustained even by casual study of our leaders’ expressions. It basically told me that to belong to the Church, I need to unknow what I know and become anti-intellectual.
Other emotions, great and small, interwove themselves with these experiences over the two weeks or so after the excommunication. Fortunately I had an important public lecture coming up on April 20 to prepare for. This kept some of the emotional surge at bay and got me thinking about something else. But it was fortunate in another respect. My lecture ("New Temple, New Nation: The Restoration Programs of the Book of Ezekiel and the Priestly Writings of the Torah") was part of a symposium entitled "Spirituality and Community: Religious and Communal Motifs in Transformation from the Bible to the Present" presented by my department, the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, to the Brandeis University community and public. The majority of my colleagues who gave talks with me on the program presented parts of their research about things religious and Jewish and also reflected in some measure their own religious commitments and experiences. Since the theme had to do with transformation of religious paradigms, their papers gave me some insight into how I might get on with my life positively and formulate a religious expression which accorded with my spiritual and intellectual needs and perceptions of truth.
Of particular relevance was the presentation by Arthur Green, former president of the (Jewish) Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and a new member of our department. He spoke about the creation of "intentional communities." He spent half his time speaking about such communities among the eighteenth-century Hasidim in eastern Europe. The other half he spent talking about modern examples, including the Havurah movement in which he was involved in the Boston area back at the end of the sixties when he was a student at Brandeis. For several years I had been somewhat interested in the phenomenon and ideological constitution of Reconstructionism. It places a high value on understanding and appreciating Jewish tradition but at the same time places a high value on modern scientific knowledge and methodologies and on what the modern community values as ethically right and proper. To put it in Reconstructionism’s own words (from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Catalogue 1993-96), "Reconstructionists seek a Judaism richly and deeply connected to the past. Yet we also seek a Judaism that reflects the understandings and satisfies the spiritual yearnings of the contemporary Jew. Each generation of Jews has the right—indeed the responsibility—to study the tradition anew and to carefully reformulate ancient beliefs and practices in the light of its own understanding of Jewish teachings and ideals. Thus, for the continued vitality of the Jewish people, we have to work toward the renewal, the reconstruction, of Judaism today."
As I contemplated this symposium over the next few days and as I recalled some of what I knew about Reconstructionist Judaism, I thought that this perhaps provided a context for my response to exile from the Church. No, I was not going to convert to Reconstructionism. And no, I wasn’t going to start a new Mormon "church." I thought, however, that the general perspectives of Reconstructionism could help me formulate my own response to Mormonism in the wake of excommunication.
Over the past two weeks or so since the symposium, using hints from Reconstructionism, I have begun a reappreciation of Mormonism. This has not involved believing the doctrines and historical claims that I have come to question over the course of my years of study. Quite the opposite. Since the excommunication, I have come to own up to a rather fully humanistic view of religion and the doctrines and practices that accompany it. Before the excommunication I was a theistically hopeful questioner. The excommunication has denied me a context for hope. I see myself now as theologically agnostic, or at least explaining "God" on the basis of philosophical and sociological rather than corporeal and personal perspectives. My reappreciation has involved viewing religion as the expression of the human spirit searching for the transcendent, whatever that may be, and viewing that search in a positive way. I have used Reconstructionist perspectives to look favorably on my tradition and to think well of the people who proffered and believed (and still proffer and believe) traditional views. This has become a means for me to reconnect with my tradition, to continue the search for understanding, and admit to my cultural identity without having to suffer the psychological grief that comes from trying to fit into a traditional mold and context or the self-hatred that comes from trying to run away from one’s roots.
As it turns out, right now because of these developing perspectives I have come to feel the release that I thought might come right after the excommunication. It’s too early to tell; but in view of this, I guess I should be grateful to the General Authorities, the bishop, and President Wheeler for letting me go. I still hope that the traditional Church can change to allow searchers to feel at home in it. But this is no longer my fight. I now feel like an observer to that version of Mormonism, hoping that members of the Church can work out a means of dealing with the issues of modernity it faces, but not being able to make a direct contribution myself.
The problem for me at this stage is how to maintain dialogue and some community with Mormons. The traditional church does not offer a chance for community, especially since I have been excommunicated: "excommunicated" from it and "decommunicated" by restrictions of participation in it should I attend its meetings. Recently I have tapped into the internet and have found some Mormons who can tolerate people like me. This hunt-and-peck community is not face to face, but it allows for frequent discussion. I will continue to participate in Sunstone symposia when possible. These "general conferences" for friends and believers have always been intellectually and spiritually animating. Publications like Sunstone and Dialogue will provide an indirect connection to others, too.
What will be difficult will be finding religious community as a family. My wife and children feel that they have been effectively excommunicated with me. They have views about history and doctrine similar to mine. They do not feel they can participate in traditional Mormonism when they have to be quiet and conform to what they do not believe, and when they feel that the least slip up might land them in Bishop Reeder’s office and beyond. We are still recovering as a group from the excommunication and we have not sorted out how we will respond. We will no doubt hold philosophical, ethical, and religious discussions at home, as we have done occasionally in the past. We hope to get to know more Mormons like us in this neck of the woods and associate with them. Perhaps we’ll occasionally attend the Unitarian-Universalist church in town, as we did a few times during the last six months of persecution.
When driving home from the disciplinary council with Dianne and our friend Jill Keeley, I said in passing in some context or another, "I’m not a Mormon any more." Jill got after me, saying: "You are still a Mormon!" When I spoke with Elbert Peck in the aftermath, he said, "The line between member and nonmember is getting thinner and thinner because of these excommunications." He offered a hand of fellowship to me as so many others have and encouraged me to continue to participate in Sunstone. The past month of agonizing and subsequent reconstructing has led me to recognize that, though technically I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and am now an outsider to that particular tradition, I am inescapably a Mormon. I am not on the outside looking in. I just have another way of being inside.
Notes for Chapter 23
1We have standardized capitalization and punctuation for consistency within this volume, added names to titles to clarify who is acting, and spelled out some abbreviations. —Editors.
2David P. Wright, "Historical Criticism: A Necessary Element in the Search for Religious Truth," Sunstone 16, no. 3 (September 1992; appeared ca. March 1993): 28-38 contrasts the traditionalist mode of scriptural study (the reader interprets questions about composition, dating, accuracy of events, and chronological placement of ideas and practices in terms of his or her traditional orthodoxies) with the historical critical mode (the reader looks at historical aspects of scripture through the context of the text itself rather than external claims). An open-ended form of inquiry that involves continual review of the conclusions of oneself and others, it treats all human discourse in the same way, sees scripture as a vehicle for human understanding, and can enrich the religious tradition. A reader with this orientation quickly observes the continuity and evolution of religion ideas and practices. Wright points out the ethical obligation all religious people have to examine scriptural history criticism; for example, understanding that Christianity evolved from Judaism is a powerful corrective to the anti-semitic idea that the Jews had an inferior religion (hence, were an inferior people) which was being withheld until the Christian era.
3BYU administrators had just informed Cecilia Konchar Farr, English Department, and David C. Knowlton, Anthropology Department, that they would not receive continuing status as a result of unsatisfactory ratings on their third-year review. Official claims that the reasons were academic were both flimsy and unconvincing, given the simpler explanation that both had been "embarrassed" the university by their public stances: Farr’s position that she was anti-abortion and prochoice and Knowlton’s exposition of reasons for violence directed against Mormon missionaries and buildings in Latin America. —Editors
4This letter followed the General Handbook of Instructions without deviation:
The bishopric is considering formal disciplinary action against you, including the possibility of disfellowshipment or referral to the stake president for further action, because you are reported to have been guilty of apostasy.
You are invited to attend this disciplinary council to give your response and, if you wish, to provide witnesses or other evidence in your behalf.
5The gateway statement is "Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve." The motto "The glory of God is intelligence" (D&C 93:36) appears as part of the BYU seal on university publications and letterhead. —Editors
6Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, edited by Jan Vladislav (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1987); esp., "The Power of the Powerless" (pp. 36-122).