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Remembering the Mormon crackdown on the ‘September Six’
Religion » 20 years later, LDS observers still debate whether the “Purge” was helpful or hurtful.
First Published Jun 12 2014 01:02 pm • Last Updated Jun 19 2014 12:37 pm

As Mormon activists Kate Kelly and John Dehlin await their fate before LDS Church disciplinary councils, many observers are harking back to 20 years ago, when the so-called "September Six" were punished in a crackdown that sent shock waves throughout the LDS intellectual community.

Here is a story published last fall on the 20th anniversary of that watershed event:

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Even now, 20 years after the LDS Church disciplined six Mormon writers in a single month, observers still debate the reason for the "Purge."

Was it an unnecessary assault against well-meaning intellectuals or a vital strike against legitimate threats to the faith? Was it offensive or defensive? Was it an overreaction or overdue? Was it a warning shot or merely growing pains?

Either way, it made headlines around the world and sent tremors through Mormonism’s expanding intellectual community that reverberate to this day.

The writers who were rebuked in and around the fall of 1993 — Lavina Fielding Anderson, Avraham Gileadi, Maxine Hanks, D. Michael Quinn, Paul Toscano, and Lynne Whitesides — became known as "the September Six."

Five were excommunicated and one disfellowshipped, a less-severe punishment, marking the end of innocence for many Mormon intellectuals.

Writers such as Quinn were forced to recognize that the LDS Church did not see as helpful their work exposing problems in Mormon history, culture or approach.

Tensions were heightened because, apostle Boyd K. Packer had warned, just four months earlier, that the LDS Church faced dangers from three groups: gays, feminists and "so-called scholars or intellectuals."

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At the time, Joanna Brooks, a respected LDS writer and observer, was 21 and an emerging feminist.

The ousters suggested to her that "hard questions — particularly questions about the role of women in Mormon culture and institutions — were not welcome in Mormonism," Brooks says. "That was especially painful because a sense of fearless spiritual inquiry — [church founder] Joseph [Smith] in the sacred grove — was core to my concept of my faith."

Brooks stepped away from the religion of her birth for a number of years, eventually returning in 2008.

The church’s discipline "branded Mormon feminism as an excommunicable offense," says Brooks, a professor of comparative literature at San Diego State University. "I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked if I have been excommunicated. I have not, nor have the vast majority of thousands of Mormon feminists I know. But to say one is a Mormon feminist is to meet with that assumption."

It wasn’t only feminists who feared church discipline.

Mormon academics of all stripes, especially moderates at Brigham Young University or otherwise employed by the church, retreated from independent forums of scholarship, says Philip Barlow, chairman of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.

That left such forums "radicalized," Barlow says. "Conservative voices in these fora were silenced or ghettoized."

In hindsight, Barlow writes in an email, LDS leaders and the excommunicated members could have better navigated their conflicts.

"A couple of [the September Six] had grown so animated by their (sometimes legitimate) issues and activism that they struck me as having lost the spirit of good will, humility and good judgment; I empathized with the church’s concern," he says. "In other instances, I thought we as Mormon people and leaders shared responsibility for letting things get to the stage of confrontation without more lovingly, thoughtfully and patiently addressing issues of real importance that have come back to hurt the church."

The LDS Church declined to comment for this story.

BYU political scientist Ralph Hancock, who explains that he has no specific knowledge of the September Six cases, says his experience with Mormon disciplinary hearings "supports the church’s claim that its councils are councils of mercy."

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