housands of Mormons are grieving the excommunication of Kate Kelly this week. Kelly is a human rights attorney who founded a group called “Ordain Women” to advocate for women’s ordination to the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In May, her local ecclesiastical leader, known as a stake president in LDS parlance, told her that she should take down the group’s website or she would be summoned to a disciplinary council, a court-like proceeding where she would be tried for apostasy. That council was convened on June 22, and the decision to excommunicate Kelly was announced on June 23.
Excommunication is harsh punishment in Mormonism. Blogger Ronan Head noted that “excommunication in a Mormon setting is the nuclear bomb of Christian excommunications in that it cancels the saving power of the sacraments.” Kelly’s baptism and temple marriage are no longer considered valid by the Mormon church; she may attend church meetings but may not participate; when she dies, she cannot receive the exaltation reserved (according to Mormon theology) for Mormons who have been baptized and married by proper authority. She has argued that her Mormon identity cannot be so easily ripped away. Her father, himself a former bishop who has participated in disciplinary councils, said, “The people who took this action … have control over a building. They do not have control over her relationship with the Savior. There are no doors that they can control for that.” Kelly plans to appeal the decision, but it is unclear whether the appeal will be considered by her stake president (who was involved in initiating proceedings against her) or be referred to the first presidency of the church. It is unusual for disciplinary actions to be reversed by appeal.
Kelly’s punishment is also a setback for Mormon feminists who have been hoping for expanded opportunities to serve in their congregations. In the LDS Church, there is no professional clergy; all laymen are ordained to priesthood. At the age of 12, boys are admitted to priesthood and begin learning to perform ordinances like the administration of communion, while grown women cannot officiate in sacred rituals, and are limited to leadership of women’s and children’s auxiliaries. Ordain Women’s public actions, like asking for admittance to the Priesthood Session of the semi-annual General Conference of the church this past April, as well as their published materials for 6 “discussions” (similar in number and format to the lessons LDS missionaries used for many years) were meant to call attention to these disparities and encourage hierarchs to ask for revelation that might change the situation. While Kelly’s appeal of the decision in her case is pending, Ordain Women vowed to continue its work. Executive Board member Chelsea Shields Strayer said, “You can get rid of Kate, but something else is going to crop up.”
Joanna Brooks has described excommunication as “a 19th-century answer to Mormonism’s 21st-century challenges.” This is apt shorthand, but the current conflict is also the result of the LDS church’s twentieth-century history, when it developed its contemporary practice of excommunication and its definition of apostasy. For Mormons, disciplining individual members has a long history and has been a fairly predictable response to uncomfortable moments in the church’s cautious reconciliation with modernity. LDS excommunication has changed over the last century as the church has changed its administrative methods, deriving its own hierarchy models from business corporations—a shift that has made the LDS Church wildly efficient in some ways, but poorly equipped to handle the local theological disputes throughout the LDS Church’s now vast geographical reach.
Academia, not surprisingly, has often been the site of conflict between the church and heterodox ideas. At the same time Latter-day Saints were starting to leave Utah to be educated in places like Chicago and Boston, the theory of evolution was gaining traction and disagreements in the church erupted over Darwin’s theories. In 1911, a group of Mormon professors, who were interested in reconciling their faith with Darwin’s principles, created new modes of scriptural exegesis that came into conflict with LDS hierarchy. The academics were eventually fired from the church-owned Brigham Young University (though their punishments stopped sort of excommunication).
Conflicts over evolution and over new methods of Biblical exegesis and criticism continued through the next several decades. While public disagreement between church authorities became rarer, private disputes were carried on behind closed doors at BYU and also in correspondence between church members and leaders. These disagreements, while often heated and occasionally bitter, seem not to have prompted moves toward excommunication or charges of apostasy. “Apostasy,” then as now, had more to do with intangible qualities like loyalty and humility. In the close-knit and still relatively small community of Saints in Utah, familial and neighborly relationships between members and their leaders seem to have permitted even strong differences of opinion without raising questions about the legitimacy of dissenters’ Mormon identity.
A notable exception to this general state of affairs was the case of Fawn McKay Brodie, a niece of president of the church David McKay, who was excommunicated in 1946 for publishing a biography of church founder Joseph Smith that concluded he was a fraud. In that case, her family connections seem to have made the sense of betrayal more acute among church leaders.
David O. McKay played a different role in another conflict over public disagreement with church doctrine and policy. In 1954, a liberal University of Utah philosophy professor named Sterling McMurrin was investigated by the leaders of his congregation, who planned to begin excommunication proceedings against him. However, Church President David O. McKay heard rumors of the investigation and, in McMurrin’s account, offered to be the first witness at his trial. The investigation came to a halt, and McMurrin continued to regularly and publicly criticize the church, but never faced disciplinary action again.
In the 1960s, the Mormon practice of racial discrimination in priesthood ordination and temple rites became a matter of controversy, both within and outside the church. In 1966, a group of graduate students at Stanford University founded Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the journal I now edit, which explored the priesthood and temple restrictions among other topics chosen to “bring … faith into dialogue with the larger stream of world religious thought.” The journal was controversial from the beginning but early editors of Dialogue were able to engage in direct and productive conversations with at least some of the highest authorities, and no official sanctions were imposed on the authors or editors. In these conflicts, as in the earlier disputes over evolution, church hierarchs engaged directly with questioning members in correspondence over doctrinal issues and arrived at resolutions that allowed even vocal critics to retain their membership. (The only excommunications over the priesthood ban were for men who performed unauthorized ordinations of black men to priesthood offices.)
In 1978, Sonia Johnson gained national attention by founding a group called “Mormons for ERA,” which undertook several public protests against the LDS church’s involvement in campaigns to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being ratified. Some surmise that it was her speech to the American Psychological Association in September 1979 that was the final catalyst for her excommunication. In that address, titled “Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church,” she asserted that:
The Mormons, a tiny minority, are dedicated to imposing the Prophet’s moral directives upon all Americans and they may succeed if Americans do not become aware of their methods and goals. Because the organization of the Church is marvelously tight and the obedience of the members marvelously thorough-going, potentially thousands of people can be mobilized in a very short time to do conscientiously whatever they are told, without more explanation than “the Prophet has spoken.”
She was excommunicated in December of that year.
Finally, in 1993, six Mormon intellectuals, including several feminists, were disciplined for various offenses, including “apostasy” and “conduct unbecoming of a member.” The accused had published articles and books that were deemed intolerably heretical in their approaches to Mormon history and theology, their advocacy of feminist ideas, and unorthodox interpretation of scripture. Two more feminists were excommunicated in 1995 and 2000 for refusing to stop publishing articles and giving talks about the Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother and other feminist theology. Notably, in contrast to the experience of earlier dissenters, none of these writers and thinkers were able to engage directly with general authorities on the subjects of their doctrinal concerns—disciplinary councils were carried out by local leaders and were largely about obedience to church leadership rather than the substantive issues of heterodoxy. It was subsequently revealed that a committee in the central church administration had instigated the actions.
All of these episodes mark points of tension between an authoritative religion and a liberal democratic society. The questions of who has the right to interpret Scripture, what role women ought to play in the faith, and how to confront scientific evidence that complicates or contradicts dogma have vexed many religions for many decades. What is interesting about the Mormon example is the imposition of governance models derived from American business practices, and the similarity of the church’s growing pains to those of a multinational corporation.
Between the time that Sterling McMurrin was not excommunicated and the time that Sonia Johnson was, the LDS Church implemented a set of ideas that came to be known as “Correlation.” Correlation borrowed organizational principles from both progressive social movements and mid-century American corporate practices to streamline and systematize Church teachings and publications. This work enabled the church’s expanded missionary efforts and the establishment of congregations far from its geographical center in Utah. It also aided in the translation of curriculum materials into many languages. Many credit Correlation with facilitating the remarkable growth of the LDS Church from under 2 million members, concentrated almost entirely (90 percent) in Utah and the Western U.S. in 1950, to around 8 million members in 1990, with fewer than half of those members in Utah and the Western U.S. During this period of rapid expansion, leadership and governance remained tightly centralized, with all leadership above the level of stakes (roughly similar to archdioceses) headquartered in Salt Lake City. As this model was implemented and refined, communication flowed almost entirely top down and from center to periphery.
In many ways, this has been a highly successful model. Besides church growth, Correlation has created an efficient and effective template for creating congregations that provide spiritual, emotional, and physical help to their members. The system has also enabled an impressive consistency in teaching core doctrines of the church: a Mormon can walk into a Sunday meeting of a congregation anywhere in the world and recognize the form of worship and anticipate the content of sermons and Sunday School lessons.
This model is not, however, especially good for working out theological subtleties or coping with doctrinal questions that arise as Mormons make their way through the political and cultural world that surrounds them. Because Mormons also have no paid clergy and no seminaries or institutions for training ministers and administrators, doctrinal questions tend to be either subsumed by practical problems or answered in an ad hoc way by authorities who happen to be interested. Early in the church’s history, authorities regularly and publicly disagreed. If this was not a particularly satisfying way to resolve doctrinal conflicts, it did at least have the virtue of making questions and disagreement licit.
Moreover, the geographical concentration of members in the Great Basin and the thick kinship networks between the first several generations of Mormons meant that serious doctrinal disputes were resolved face-to-face, among people who had ties to one another that did not depend on assent to identical beliefs. The case of Sterling McMurrin is a dramatic illustration: McMurrin’s philosophy was heretical, sometimes blatantly so, and he was an outspoken critic of church policies. Nonetheless, he retained membership by virtue of personal loyalties and affiliations.
As the church expanded geographically and converts attenuated the family networks that had bound the Saints to Utah, belief became a more important marker of Mormon identity. At the same time, Correlation inculcated the notion that disagreement was undesirable (at best), and that doctrinal pronouncements emanating from church leaders in Salt Lake represented an official and unitary position that believers ought to accept as a matter of course. The tangled strands of doctrine, family, and place that formed the complicated mesh of Utah Mormonism were replaced by strong but brittle spokes extending outward from Salt Lake City.
The center is still held mostly by white, middle-class, politically conservative American men. This is slowly changing, but not without resistance, as Kate Kelly and others have painfully discovered. There is still no mechanism for communicating from the periphery to the center, as Mormon feminists have noted with frustration for decades. Kate Kelly’s founding of Ordain Women was the nearly inevitable response to the unidirectional discourse that characterizes post-Correlation Mormonism. With no system for allowing support or reinforcement from outside the center, the spokes extending from the hub become weaker the farther one moves from the lived experience and perceptions of the men working to administer an ever-growing church from its less and less geographically and demographically relevant center. When confrontations occur at the edges where Mormonism reaches into unfamiliar ideological and cultural territory, thin doctrinal agreement can be pulled beyond the breaking point. The resulting fractures send shards and debris flying, and the resulting mess is called “apostasy.” Fixing the blame for apostasy on individual members may temporarily reassure those who are working to maintain stability, but it does nothing to reinforce the structure or tend to the wounds of those who are pierced when its pieces splinter.
Kristine Haglund is editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She lives with her three children near Boston and is a member of the Belmont 1st Ward.