High-ranking Mormon official, who twice spoke in General Conference, is excommunicated; first such ouster in nearly 3 decades

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Mormon church has excommunicated one of its top leaders.

On Tuesday morning, James J. Hamula was released from his position in the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after disciplinary action.

LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins provided no details about the removal. But the church did confirm Hamula was no longer a member of the church and that his ouster was not for apostasy or disillusionment.

In cases involving members of Mormonism’s presiding quorums — rare as they are — the faith’s governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles form a disciplinary council to consider such actions.

Hamula, 59, who could not be reached Tuesday for comment, was born in Long Beach, Calif., and served in many positions with the Utah-based church — including as a full-time missionary in Germany, bishop, stake president (overseeing a number of LDS congregations), mission president and Area Seventy.

When Vicki Wimmer Johnson was rearing young children in Mesa, Ariz., Hamula was her stake president, and their children went to the same elementary school.

“I remember feeling the love of my Savior, Jesus Christ,” Johnson wrote in an email Tuesday, “when President Hamula taught us.”

Both families had teenagers when the Mormon leader was called to be a mission president in Washington, D.C., and then as an LDS general authority,

“I had some very painful times during my years of raising children, and I remember well a time when I wanted to give up. I no longer wanted to live,” said Johnson, who still lives in Mesa. “Elder Hamula was in town and giving a fireside for the adults in our stake, and I felt prompted to go. It feels like yesterday sitting near him while he spoke.”

The Mormon authority encouraged members to “never, never, never give up,” she recalled. “I felt Jesus Christ speak to me that night through James Hamula’s words. His words saved my life.”

Hamula became one of the church’s general authorities in April 2008. These full-time leaders — from the faith’s prophet at the top to its apostles and dozen of members of the First and Second Quorums of the Seventy and Presiding Bishopric — leave behind their careers and work only for the church. They receive a living allowance that the church says is the same across the board for all of them.

From 2009 to 2014, Hamula was a member of the Pacific Area Presidency, headquartered in Auckland, New Zealand. Upon his return to church headquarters in Salt Lake City, he served as assistant executive director of the Church History Department from 2014 to 2016. Before his removal, Hamula was serving as executive director of the Correlation Department.

According to a biography on the LDS Church’s website, Hamula earned a bachelor’s degree in 1981 in political science and philosophy from church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, where he graduated magna cum laude. Four years later, he received a master’s in political philosophy and a law degree from BYU.

He worked as an attorney until his assignment to full-time church service, the bio states. He married Joyce Anderson in April 1984. They are the parents of six children.

Twice, Hamula addressed Mormons worldwide during the faith’s semiannual General Conferences.

In October 2014, he talked about the sacrament (or communion) and Christ’s atonement.

“With a small cup of water, we signify that we remember the blood Jesus spilled and the spiritual suffering he endured for all mankind,” Hamula said. “ … In taking the water to ourselves, we acknowledge that his blood and suffering atoned for our sins and that he will remit our sins as we embrace and accept the principles and ordinances of his gospel.”

All people, he continued, have become “soiled with sin and transgression. We will have had thoughts, words and works that will have been less than virtuous. In short, we will be unclean.”

Jesus offers a way to erase those misdeeds, Hamula counseled. “He ... offers to make us clean if we will have faith in him sufficient to repent.”

In October 2008, six months after his call to the Seventy, Hamula took to the Conference Center pulpit in downtown Salt Lake City in a speech to the all-male LDS priesthood, specifically urging teenage boys to remain faithful and win the war against evil.

“Satan is marshaling every resource at his disposal to entice you into transgression. He knows that if he can draw you into transgression, he may prevent you from serving a full-time mission, marrying in the temple, and securing your future children in the faith, all of which weakens not only you but the church,” he said. “ … Make no mistake about it — the focus of his war is now on you — you who seek to keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Mormons view excommunication as a way for offenders to get right with God and the church. Ousted members can and do rejoin the fold — through rebaptism — if they show sincere repentance.

Excommunication • Mormons can and do, in LDS lingo, get “exed.” It is the severest penalty that church leaders — usually at the local level — can exact after a congregant commits a serious moral sin or is found guilty of apostasy or certain crimes. When a senior church leader is implicated, disciplinary councils take place before the governing First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In recent years, Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly was ousted from the faith for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church” — later labeled apostasy — in her quest to have women ordained to the all-male LDS priesthood. Podcaster John Dehlin got the boot for the same reason. Excommunicated followers are, in essence, no longer Mormons. They lose all the rights and privileges of membership, including any priesthood offices or temple blessings. They no longer can pay tithing or wear temple garments. These believers can and do rejoin the fold — through rebaptism — if they show sincere repentance. “Disfellowshipped” Mormons retain their membership, but their privileges are temporarily suspended.

The most dramatic 20th-century discipline of a high Mormon official came in 1943, when then-apostle Richard R. Lyman was excommunicated for adultery. His wife, Amy Brown Lyman, was the general president of the LDS women’s Relief Society. The prominent couple stayed together, and he was rebaptized a decade later.

It was more than four decades before another high-profile disciplinary action occurred. In 1989, the LDS Church removed George P. Lee. The first American Indian Mormon general authority was excommunicated for “heresy” and “conduct unbecoming a member of the church.”

Lee insisted the move was triggered by his opposition to the faith’s shifting approach to its Indian members, who Lee believed were meant to be leaders in the church.The former LDS general authority later admitted to attempted child sex abuse, and his wife divorced him. He died in 2010 at 67.

The headline-grabbing ousters of Lyman and Lee rocked the church, Mormon historian Matthew Bowman said Tuesday, but for different reasons.

The action against Lyman came amid “swirling rumors about polygamy surrounding the affair,” Bowman said. That and the couple’s high visibility “made that case a troubling one for many Latter-day Saints.”

For his part, Lee had been a popular and powerful speaker, said the historian who teaches at Henderson State University in Arkansas, but “his race and the things he was saying made him more of a marginal figure than Lyman.”

Hamula came of age in an “era of multiplying Seventies,” said Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” and is “much less well-known.”

Every excommunication is a “traumatic and devastating incident for the individual and the family,” Bowman said, “but on a [churchwide] level, this will be a lighter blow.”

(Courtesy LDS Church) Former LDS general authority James J. Hamula

(Courtesy LDS Church) Former LDS general authority James J. Hamula