Writer excommunicated during ‘September Six’ purge loses her bid to rejoin the LDS Church

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lavina Fielding Anderson, who was excommunicated in 1993 as part of the so-called September Six, has had her request for rebaptism into the LDS Church rejected by the faith's governing First Presidency after being approved by her local lay leaders. Anderson was photographed at her Salt Lake City home with the work of her late husband, Paul L. Anderson, on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.

Lavina Fielding Anderson, one of the famed “September Six” writers and scholars disciplined by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1993, got a big “no” last week to her request for rebaptism from the men who matter most: the faith’s governing First Presidency.

“I was not surprised or angry about the outcome,” Anderson said Wednesday, and she has no plans to try to open that door again.

“I have kept my covenants, remained close to the church and have felt that what I have done is accepted by the Lord,” the Salt Lake City editor and writer said. “If there is unfinished business, it’s the First Presidency’s, not mine.”

The church declined to comment on the decision.

Anderson was excommunicated for an article she wrote in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought that described episodes of what she called “ecclesiastical abuse” of Latter-day Saint intellectuals.

In the quarter-century since her ouster, Anderson consistently has attended weekly services at her Latter-day Saint congregation, the Whittier Ward. She has sat quietly in the same pew as the emblems of the sacrament, or communion, have passed by her more than 1,200 times without being able to partake. She has participated as much as she was able — playing the piano and singing in the choir — and watched as seven lay bishops have come and gone.

On March 23, 2018, Anderson’s husband, Paul, died of heart failure. It was his death and funeral that prompted the couple’s current bishop to bring up the possibility of her rejoining the church.

While preparing for the retired Brigham Young University artist’s memorial service, Bishop Mahonri Madrigal read Paul’s written “testimony,” or statements of faith, that the ward had compiled in 2000. Right next to Paul’s was Lavina’s description of her beliefs in Jesus Christ, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, the scriptural text he produced, The Book of Mormon, and the role of prophets.

Her testimony was “that of a believer,” Madrigal later told her. “He wept as he read it” aloud to others.

Not long after that, the bishop met with Anderson and asked her ever so gently if she would like to discuss reinstatement.

She has been visited by all her ward and stake leaders since 1993, she said, but this was the first time anyone had ever proposed it.

Courting mercy

A year later, David J. McLean, president of the Salt Lake Liberty Stake, reconvened a high council, a body that had excommunicated her 25 years and six months earlier for “apostasy,” Anderson wrote in a summary of her experience for a forthcoming volume of her essays, “Mercy Without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church.”

McLean invited her, she said, to describe her faith in a letter, which includes her conviction that God cherishes everyone.

In many respects, Anderson’s affirmations mirror those of other members. She did, however, tell her leaders her concerns about church “exclusion” policies: barring worthy LGBTQ couples who are legally married from full participation; blocking “worthy and righteous women” from the male-only priesthood; and keeping Mother in Heaven “from her place in our understanding.”

The high council also heard from Anderson’s son, Christian, who offered his personal assessment.

“Her sincere belief in Jesus and determination to follow him no matter the adversity faced within or without the church should be commended, and this good and faithful servant should be rewarded,” he wrote. “She embodies, more than anyone else I know, the ideal of a ‘broken heart and contrite spirit,’ which has influenced me so strongly that I, the last time I checked, was one of only two of the 21 children of the September Six who is still an active member.”

The regional council forwarded her request to church headquarters, with the recommendation that she be approved for rebaptism.

“A beaming Bishop Madrigal said I should expect ‘very soon’ to get a telephone call scheduling an interview with a general authority,” she wrote. “No telephone call came.”

On Aug. 27, McLean delivered the First Presidency denial. The stake president, who oversees a number of congregations, remained optimistic, she said, zeroing in on the words, “at this time.”

But the writer replied, “There’s hope, and then there’s experience.”

Besides, she said, “it was a form letter.”

No regrets

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lavina Fielding Anderson, who was excommunicated in 1993 as part of the so-called September Six, has had her request for rebaptism into the LDS Church rejected by the faith's governing First Presidency after being approved by her local lay leaders. Anderson was photographed at her Salt Lake City home on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.

If her reentry had been approved, Anderson would have been the third of the six — the other five are Avraham Gileadi, Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, D. Michael Quinn, Paul Toscano and Maxine Hanks — to be welcomed back into full fellowship with the Utah-based faith.

Gileadi, a Hebrew scholar who got into trouble for unorthodox writings about the biblical Isaiah, was rebaptized within several years.

Hanks was accused of apostasy for editing an anthology, “Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism,” which included a discussion of the all-male priesthood and women’s relationship to it. Hanks officially came back into the fold in 2012.

"Nobody asked me to disavow my book or stop writing," Hanks told The Salt Lake Tribune that year. "All they asked me about was my relationship to Jesus Christ."

Hanks’ return predated the Ordain Women movement, which pushed for women to join the faith’s priesthood, said Latter-day Saint scholar Matthew Bowman, who heads the Mormon studies program at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

One of Ordain Women’s founders, Kate Kelly, was excommunicated in June 2014.

Though the letter from the current First Presidency — made up of church President Russell M. Nelson and counselors Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring — offered no explanation for the rejection, Bowman speculates that there may be “at least two possible answers” — history and dissent.

“I could imagine the First Presidency thinking that this is not an episode worth revisiting,” Bowman wrote in an email. “The institutional church’s position toward its intellectual community has shifted slowly and subtly but in real ways in the past 30 years; it is possible that there is a worry that allowing for her rebaptism would unearth battles the present First Presidency would like to let lie buried and spur a public relitigation of the issue.”

Secondly, the controversies surrounding Anderson “had a great deal to do with feminism in the church and with ecclesiastical dissent,” he said. “Many of the shifts in the church administration's position toward intellectuals recently has had to do with history and intellectual openness, while the issues driving Lavina’s excommunication are still very much alive and unresolved today.”

It is possible, Bowman posits, “there was fear that allowing for her rebaptism would send a signal on those issues that the First Presidency did not wish to send.”

It is also worth noting that the church president in 1993 was an ailing Ezra Taft Benson. The president in 2012, when Hanks was readmitted, was Thomas S. Monson. Today, it’s Nelson, with a new counselor, Oaks, instead of Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

Could that be a factor?

“Perhaps, sure,” Bowman said.

For her part, Anderson always has felt a “great sense of peace that I made a moral decision, an ethical decision, a decision of integrity and conscience,” she wrote. “I did the very best I knew how to do, the thing that I felt was the right thing to do.”

And she’ll be in the pews again Sunday.