30 years after the ‘September Six’ purge, would the LDS Church do it again?

The ousters worked, silencing many scholars. And while today’s technology has forced the faith to be more open and accepting, some fear the recent “retrenchment” at BYU could spread to the overall church.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Three decades ago this month, Utah saw a powerful and public move by the state’s most powerful private institution.

In September 1993, six scholars and activists associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were punished by their local ecclesiastical leaders for what was deemed to be “apostasy.”Though others were excommunicated before or after that month, this group became known as the “September Six,” and their collective stories have taken on a kind of mythic quality with them as martyrs.

The rebuked writers were Lavina Fielding Anderson, Avraham Gileadi, Maxine Hanks, D. Michael Quinn, Paul Toscano and Lynne Whitesides.

Their respective “sins” included reporting on “spiritual abuse,” exploring biblical prophecies about the end times, editing a book of women and authority, publishing facts about post-Manifesto polygamy, challenging apostolic leadership and taking part in feminist activism.

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

Two of the September Six (Hanks and Gileadi) were rebaptized into the church, one (Anderson) continues to attend her local congregation but was denied rebaptism, another (Quinn) maintained his faith but not his church ties until the day he died, and two (Toscano and Whitesides) migrated to other spiritual paths.

Such disciplinary actions taken in a single month were portrayed as a battle between intellectuals and a controlling institution over who owns the faith’s narrative — past and present.

At its core, author Sara M. Patterson argues the skirmish was a long fight about different understandings of “restoration.”

The church hierarchy “worked to create and maintain firm boundaries around what was acceptable and unacceptable,” Patterson writes in the soon-to-be-released “The September Six and the Struggle for the Soul of Mormonism.” The leaders believed “they were simply maintaining the course that [church founder] Joseph Smith had set.”

To Latter-day Saints scholars and activists, though, the restoration was about “egalitarianism and the democratization of spiritual authority,” she writes. “It was chock-full of new theological and social innovations that pushed the community toward a more rewarding path.”

Either way, the issue is not simple, nor is the retelling. And now, 30 years later, the push and pull between church scholars and leaders have gone through various forms and still rage — with vastly different players and perspectives.

Chilling effect

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, says the "September Six" ousters were “a broadside, a frontal assault on the entire independent Mormon intellectual community.”

If the church wanted to send a message about crossing an intellectual Rubicon, “the September Six excommunications were a resounding success,” Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, states in a forthcoming issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

“The tactic worked, at least in the short to medium term. The show of force did exactly what it was supposed to,” Mason writes in a roundtable of essays on that landmark action. “It made clear that church leaders would not tolerate intellectual exploration that they perceived as challenging church doctrine and what they deemed to be apostolic prerogatives.”

It was, he writes, “a broadside, a frontal assault on the entire independent Mormon intellectual community.”

And it shut down the potential productivity of an “entire generation of Mormon intellectuals,” Mason writes, “smart, talented people who should have written books, led scholarly organizations…and shaped both the academic field of Mormon studies and the broader public understanding of the religion.”

W. Paul Reeve, a respected Latter-day Saint historian and author, was among those who were scared away from the field by the excommunications.

“I was at BYU working on my master’s degree when it happened,” Reeve recalls. “The chair of my master’s committee left BYU as a result, and I had to reconfigure my graduate committee. The message seemed quite clear: that it was not safe to pursue Mormon studies.”

He instead attained an education in western U.S. history and identified himself that way.

“Because of shifting circumstances, I found my way back to Mormon studies at the University of Utah, of all places,” Reeve says, “where I have found a welcome home for the work I do.”

(Courtesy of University of Utah) W. Paul Reeve, professor of Mormon studies professor at the University of Utah, says the "September Six" purges influenced his educational path.

Another history graduate student in the 1990s remembers thinking that she would never do “Mormon women’s history” because that would get her in trouble with the church.

Like Reeve, the scholar, who asked not to be named due to fear of religious criticism, moved into other areas of U.S. history.

But she had read books by Hanks and Anderson and was influenced by “their methodology and framework for studying Mormon women.”

Indeed, for years “this field of study had a cloud hanging over it,” the writer says, “and I felt I was stepping into dangerous waters.”

These are hardly isolated cases, Mason explains in his essay.

“The September 1993 excommunications effectively and tragically cowed a generation of Latter-day Saint intellectuals. When institutions and individuals are threatened by new ideas, there is always a temptation to retrench. The blunt force of church discipline worked in the short term.”

What the Utah-based faith underestimated, though, was the inescapable impact of the internet — a democratizing and uncontrollable vehicle for spreading information.

A window opening

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The last volume of The Joseph Smith Papers project. This sweeping academic endeavor opened up the many writings of the faith's founder.

In the early 2000s, Latter-day Saints were learning via social media about controversial elements of their faith’s past — including details about polygamy provided by the scholars, like Quinn, who were reproved by the church.

Members surveyed in 2007 overwhelmingly responded that they wanted an “unsanitized history.”

The church had quietly begun doing just that, most prominently in the massive Joseph Smith Papers project, publishing and posting documents written by the church founder.

By 2013 — the 20th anniversary of the September Six — it had begun tackling its most controversial doctrines and practices in groundbreaking “Gospel Topics Essays” to give the church perspective on everything from the translation of the faith’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon, to its beliefs about a female deity and its former temple/priesthood ban on Black members.

Though church censure was applied in a few random cases, the term “apostasy” was rarely invoked, especially not for individual researchers.

One kind of action, however, was not tolerated: leading a movement challenging church authorities.

Denver Snuffer, a writer who argued that all Latter-day Saint prophets after Smith were apostates, was himself considered an “apostate” and lost his church membership in 2013.

Kate Kelly, who helped organize public marches in favor of ordaining women to the all-male priesthood, was excommunicated in 2014.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kate Kelly, shown in March 2022, was excommunicated in 2014 for her advocacy of ordaining Latter-day Saint women.

John Dehlin, a podcaster who had disputed aspects of Latter-day Saint teachings, was tossed out in 2015.

Sam Young, a former lay bishop who rallied to reform the sometimes-explicit questions in church leaders’ interviews with youths, was ousted in 2018.

The September Six excommunications “are often characterized by disapproval, like we have somehow learned a lesson from ‘being too harsh on dissenters,’” says Brigham Young University alum Daniel Ellsworth, a business consultant in Charlottesville, Va. “But given the trails of spiritual wreckage that numerous church-affiliated influencers are leaving in their wakes in the present day, I would suggest that we reevaluate any notions that excommunication for apostasy is somehow misguided.”

‘Bad timing’

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Columnist Jana Riess, shown in 2019, says The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “no longer has any hope of fully controlling its own narrative."

Jana Riess, a Religion News Service columnist, was baptized into the church the same month the six scholars were disciplined.

Future historians will see the 1993 collective condemnation “as tragic,” Riess writes in the Dialogue series.

The six “suffered from a perfect storm of bad timing, being called in shortly after the church had stiffened its disciplinary response to ‘apostasy’ but just before it lost the ability to quell the tide of people speaking out.”

Two things have changed since then.

First, the church “no longer has any hope of fully controlling its own narrative,” she writes. “Today, every member of the church is a potential content creator, to say nothing of every outsider who has an opinion about the institution’s doings.”

Second, younger Latter-day Saints do not have the same “sense of authority” that older generations had. They are more liberal on LGBTQ issues, women, politics and practices, like drinking coffee, which is prohibited in the faith’s Word of Wisdom.

In response, Latter-day Saint officials under the leadership of Clark Gilbert, the church’s commissioner of education, have clamped down on “BYU faculty and students who promote ideas that differ from church positions.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General authority Seventy Clark G. Gilbert, commissioner of church education, speaks at General Conference in 2021. He is overseeing what some see as a period of retrenchment at BYU campuses.

Ralph Hancock, a professor of political philosophy at BYU, reiterates his support of the faith’s right to discipline those who challenge its authority.

“The whole mission and identity of the church depend upon prophetic authority and the ecclesiastical authority that issues from it,” Hancock says, “and I see no reason to contest the church’s right to determine its own boundaries.”

For its part, BYU “holds both reason and revelation to be legitimate, indeed necessary, avenues to truth,” he says. “The challenge of a university affiliated with the church is to coordinate and align these two avenues of truth-seeking. The tension between revealed authority and the authority of secular paradigms defines BYU’s present and very challenging task of articulating a ‘gospel methodology.’”

The U.’s Reeve sees the global church of 17 million members sending mixed messages.

“BYU seems to be going through another period of retrenchment,” Reeve says, “at the same time that Deseret Book, the church’s publishing division, appears to be more open to scholarship from academics, my own work ‘Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood’ included.”

The “Let’s Talk About” series is one example of transparency, he says, but others include works from scholars Terryl and Fiona Givens and Adam Miller, including his recent and popular “Original Grace: An Experiment in Restoration Thinking.”

“It is difficult to know what to make of a conservative retrenchment in church education and a simultaneous flowering of open and honest scholarship at Deseret Book,” Reeve says, “but perhaps it is a sign that there is an effort at balance.”

One thing is clear — the church’s language of discipline has changed since 1993. The terms “excommunication” and “disfellowshipment” are out, and the more benign “membership withdrawal” and “restrictions” are in.

Some worry, though, that softer rhetoric could give way to hard lines — again.

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