Mormonism and excommunication

This month (June 2014), two Mormons who have been critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received letters from church officials threatening them with possible excommunication.

One, Kate Kelly, is a vocal advocate for the ordination of Mormon women, and the other, John P. Dehlin, is the creator of  “Mormon Stories,” an online platform open to criticism of the church. Their threatened excommunication has set off a wave of reaction, both within and outside the church, and raised multiple questions about the role of the church in the 21st century. It also raises the question of what excommunication is, who practices it and what happens to the excommunicant afterward.  

The church has excommunicated critics before, most recently in 1993, when the so-called “September Six” were ousted for publishing scholarly works seen as critical of the church. Many felt this gave rise to an anti-intellectual strain still being felt within the church.

The current threatened excommunications come just as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the formal name for the Mormon church — has become a cultural touchstone of sorts: The hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon took home nine Tony Awards in June 2011, the HBO series Big Love ended in March of that year after five seasons of critical acclaim, and Stephenie Meyer, author of the hugely popular Twilight series of vampire stories, is a Mormon housewife-turned-novelist who says her faith influences her writing. And in 2012, Mitt Romney ran for president on the GOP ticket without much ado about his Mormon faith.

This edition of ReligionLink provides resources for reporters covering the latest developments and the increasing prominence of Mormons in American life and advances the possibility of writing about excommunication as it is practiced in communities around the world.

Story ideas/questions for reporters

Who in your area of coverage has been excommunicated or disfellowshipped? Why? Has anyone in your area of coverage been restored to membership after being excommunicated or disfellowshipped? How do religious bodies in your area of coverage deal with members they consider outside their teachings or laws? Is there anyone in your area of coverage who has experienced excommunication or disfellowship and moved on to another religion?

General

Background

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the faster-growing religions in the world. It claims about 15 million members worldwide and 6.4 million in the United States. Mormons account for about 2 percent of the overall U.S. adult population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Mormons say they are Christian because they believe in Jesus Christ and consider the Bible Holy Scripture. However, many Christian groups say they do not accept Mormons as Christian because of their beliefs on the nature of God, salvation and scripture. (Mormons revere three other scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, some of whose teachings differ from the Bible.)

 

  • “Is Mormonism Christian?: A Comparison of Mormonism and Historic Christianity”

    Read the statements of five Christian denominations on Mormonism.

  • BBC — Religions: Mormonism

    The British Broadcasting Corp. maintains a comprehensive website on Mormon history and theology.

  • FairMormon Conferences

    FairMormon, a nonprofit organization founded by defenders of the faith, holds a conference each year featuring presentations by top experts in Mormonism and focused on a range of issues facing the LDS.

    Contact: 530-356-2070.
  • “Is Mormonism Christian?”

    Read the forum “Is Mormonism Christian?,” which features essays in the October 2008 edition of First Things that take different views on the question. The first essay is by Bruce Porter, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the other is by Gerald R. McDermott, religion professor at Roanoke College and author, with Robert Millet, of Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate.

Almost every major religion practices some form of excommunication of members it considers wayward, though the process and terminology may differ. And every religion that practices a form of excommunication offers a way back into the fold — excommunication need not be permanent if there is genuine repentance.

Catholicism: Catholics practice excommunication, their most severe ecclesiastic penalty. The excommunicant is not stripped of his or her Catholicism but is banned from receiving sacraments, the sacred rites of the church. The offense leading to excommunication must be severe — committing apostasy, attacking the pope or procuring an abortion are some examples. Read an excerpt  from Catholicism for Dummies about excommunication.

Eastern Orthodoxy: In most Eastern churches, excommunication involves forbidding a person to take the sacrament of Communion. It is intended to jar the person back into the folds of the church. A harsher punishment is anathema, which bars the person from the church until he or she repents.

Mormonism: Mormons practice excommunication. A bishop, appointed from local laymen, determines if a member of his ward, or parish, is out of sync with church teachings. That person is called before a three-member body of bishops and judged. Excommunication is the severest punishment and involves losing membership in the church. Disfellowship is a less serious punishment and involves losing one’s temple privileges. Read the definition of Mormon disciplinary procedures  from The Encyclopedia of Mormonism maintained by the Brigham Young University library.

Quakerism: Quakers, the common name for members of the Religious Society of Friends, once practiced disownment, the social repudiation of a person considered to be acting outside Quaker beliefs. But it is so rare now that in 1984, when Quaker representatives at a national meeting were polled, none knew of a disfellowshipped person in their communities. The Religious Society of Friends’ website has an article on the history of disfellowshipping and other forms of Quaker discipline.

The Amish: Amish and other “plain-clothes people” such as Mennonites apply excommunication only to baptized members, and Amish can accept baptism only as adults. When an Amish person has broken the baptismal vows, he or she is excommunicated by the community, there being no formal Amish clergy. An excommunicant is shunned, a form of public shaming that can take the form of refusing to eat with the person, especially at weddings and funerals. The shunned person does not usually live with other family members. Read a description of shunning from the website of the PBS documentary The Amish: The Shunning.

Protestantism: The larger branches of Protestantism, including evangelicals, have various forms of discipline, but no equivalent of excommunication. Some denominations, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, may practice disfellowship, the social shunning of a member they feel is out of line with church teachings.

Judaism: In Judaism, the strictest form of censure is herem or cherem. But, as with the Quakers, it is largely a thing of the past, except in some ultra-Orthodox sects. Herem is the total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community. Read an excerpt from The Jewish Religion: A Companion about herem.

Islam: Muslims do not have a formal excommunication process but have takfir, which means to pronounce against someone. Someone may be pronounced takfir if he or she is not in compliance with Shariah. But not all Muslims accept the idea of takfir. Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have used it as a reason to attack or kill other Muslims it does not agree with, and the Muslim Brotherhood has condemned takfir as “anti-Islamic” because it divides the Muslim ummah, or community.

Buddhism: Buddhists have no excommunication for members. But some Buddhist monks can be expelled from their orders and monasteries if they break their vows — abstaining from sex, stealing, committing murder and lying about their spiritual powers.

What Mormons believe

Mormon theology differs significantly from traditional Christian theology:

Surveys

  • “Mormons in America”

    A survey of Mormons by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released Jan. 12, 2012, provides a window into the views, attitudes and religious practices of Mormons.

  • “Mormonism, Cults, and Christianity”

    LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, on Oct. 8, 2011, released results of a poll of 1,000 Protestant pastors taken a year earlier and found that three-quarters disagreed with the statement: “I personally consider Mormons to be Christians.”

National sources

Mormons

  • Angela Fallentine

    Angela Fallentine is a co-founder of Mormon Women Stand, a group that does not favor women’s ordination. Contact via the organization’s media contact page.

  • Scott Gordon

    Scott Gordon is president of FairMormon, an organization that defends Mormon theology. FairMormon is based in Redding, Calif., and previously was called the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research.

    Contact: 530-225-4645.
  • Kent P. Jackson

    Kent P. Jackson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He wrote an article titled “Are Mormons Christians? Presbyterians, Mormons and the Question of Religious Definitions” for the 2000 edition of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.

  • Kate Kelly

    Kate Kelly is the founder of Ordain Women, a grass-roots organization that seeks the ordination of women to the Mormon priesthood.
    There are six official spokeswomen of Ordain Women, but Kelly is the only one singled out for censure and is scheduled to face a hearing on June 22, 2014.
  • Robert Millet

    Robert Millet is a professor of ancient scriptures at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He helped organize a 2004 gathering of evangelicals and Mormons in Salt Lake City that included Richard Mouw and Ravi Zacharias and has frequently engaged in Mormon-evangelical dialogue. Millet co-edited C.S. Lewis, The Man and His Message: A Latter-Day Saint Perspective. He says Lewis is one of the most admired, respected and quoted Christian writers in Latter-day Saint literature, and Lewis’ prose, fiction and ability to teach difficult Christian doctrines and principles are without parallel.

  • Michael Otterson

    Michael Otterson is head of public relations for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. He can discuss the church and its stand on politics and government matters.

  • Jana Riess

    Jana Riess is a scholar and journalist known for her coverage and research of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is the author of The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church.
  • Kathryn Skaggs

    Kathryn Skaggs is a Southern California woman who helped found Mormon Women Stand. She has a popular blog called A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, on which she has been critical of Ordain Women. Contact via Twitter, @LDSNana.

Scholars

  • Claudia Lauper Bushman

    Claudia Lauper Bushman is a professor of American studies at Columbia University in New York City and an expert on the history of Mormon women. She co-edited Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays From the Claremont Oral History Collection.

  • Terryl L. Givens

    Terryl L. Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va. He is the author of several books on Latter-day Saints, including The Latter-day Saint Experience in America.

  • Carl Mosser

    Carl Mosser is a co-editor of The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement. He is an associate professor of biblical studies (on leave) at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa.

  • Rodney Stark

    Rodney Stark is the author of The Rise of Mormonism, a collection of essays. He is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Stark has frequently delved into the historical aspects of Christian origins, in books such as The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History and Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • C. Brid Nicholson

    C. Brid Nicholson is an assistant professor of American history at Kean University in New Jersey who has studied Mormonism.

  • Mark Silk

    Mark Silk is director for the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Silk is also professor of religion in public life at Trinity. He is particularly knowledgeable about religious variances from one part of the country to another; his books include (as co-author) One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.

  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a professor of early American history at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the South

  • Robert B. Stewart

    Robert B. Stewart is professor of philosophy and theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He has provided an evangelical critique of Mormonism at several conferences.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • Patrick Q. Mason

    Patrick Q. Mason holds the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., and is author of The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South. Mason is a leading expert on anti-Mormonism.

  • David Knowlton

    David Knowlton is a professor in the behavioral science department at Utah Valley University in Orem. His specialties include the anthropology of Mormonism.

  • Stephen E. Robinson

    Stephen E. Robinson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is the co-author of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation.

  • Sandra Tanner

    Sandra Tanner co-founded the Utah Lighthouse Ministry with her late husband, Jerald. The ministry seeks “to document problems with the claims of Mormonism and compare LDS doctrines with Christianity.” Both of the Tanners were raised in the LDS church.

    Contact: 801-485-8894.

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