David P. Wright speaks
These are the letters David and Dianne Wright sent to their bishop, which I am posting at their request. Any errors are my own. David decided after much consideration not to attend his disciplinary council this afternoon. Following the letters, David adds a few brief statements about this decision.
Jill Bradberry Keeley
February 17, 1994
Dear Bishop Reeder:
I received with sadness and frustration your letter notifying me that a disciplinary council will be held against me for apostasy. It grieved me that I was about to be pushed out of my spiritual and cultural home for my honest and sincere scholarly thought and expression which were motivated by my care for the Church. I am not sure that I will attend the disciplinary council because I have great reservations about its propriety and moral legitimacy. In this letter I want to explain my understanding of the factors and events that led to the present charge and then outline my reservations about the proceedings.
The chain of events began with our meeting on April 27, 1993. In this meeting you said that a general authority had contacted the stake president and had asked him to inquire after me because of my article “Historical Criticism: A Necessary Element in the Search for Religious Truth” published in SUNSTONE (16/3 [September 1992; appeared February 1993] pp. 28-38). The stake president delegated to you the responsibility of contacting me. In the meeting you showed me a copy of my SUNSTONE article which you said Church headquarters had sent the stake president. Your judgment at that time was that my ideas were apostate. Your main interest was encouraging me to become orthodox in my thinking so that a disciplinary council wouldn’t be necessary.
We met again in a formal way July 11. This meeting was to determine if I was orthodox enough to perform the baptism of my eight-year old son and the priesthood ordination of the twelve-son. You asked me a list of questions, mainly about the priesthood claims of Joseph Smith. I expressed my views positively but felt it necessary to put my answers in the context of my theological thinking that had grown out of my studies. You denied the legitimacy of my theological reconstructions. You said that I could not perform the ordinances if I did not have a conviction of the traditional understanding of the matters about which you questioned me. You said it would be hypocrisy to perform the ordinances without that conviction. Our family went ahead that month with the ordinances work because we felt it was important. (A friend performed the ordinances.) I was not asked, or allowed apparently, to participate in the ordinance work either as an official witness or as a silent participant in the confirmation and ordination circles. My family and I ceased going to Church at this time because we felt hurt and marginalized by events to this point.
Our next contact was September 19 when you called and asked me to meet with the stake president that day. I was reticent to do so because at that time in September six other scholars and thinkers in the Church were being brought up in disciplinary councils. I met with the stake president. He indicated that there was no particular impetus from the Church hierarchy for this meeting with him. It seems that your acquisition of the book New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (ed. B. Metcalfe; Salt Lake City: Signature, 1993 [appeared May]) which contained my article “‘In Plain Terms that We May Understand’: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13” (pp. 165-229), which I had told you about in earlier meetings and which the stake president said you had purchased, was what precipitated this particular meeting. The stake president basically urged me to undertake a spiritual discipline so that I would become orthodox in my thinking.
As the decisions came down about the six scholars and thinkers at the end of September (one disfellowshipment and five excommunications), I decided out of principle that I did not want to be a party in the investigation of my scholarship, which had the goal in part of condemning it and implicitly condemning me for it. I did not want to be involved in a situation of negotiations with the Church in which it thought it could put pressure on individuals for their scholarly pursuits.
In October your secretary called to arrange a meeting with you. I told him that I preferred not to meet. You called a few days later, on October 28, to arrange a meeting. I said that I preferred not to meet. Though we did not set up an appointment, we spent several minutes discussing matters on the phone. You confirmed that the discussions with me since April had come by general authority instigation and that the goal of our meetings and discussions was to lead me to change my historical and related views or suffer disciplinary action. Your reiterated that you viewed my publications as apostate. You said that my publications were not scholarship because they did not support the Church’s traditional teachings.
No further contacts were made until February 2, 1994, when your secretary called to set up a meeting between me and you. I declined for the same reason as before. He said that you did not call me personally because you did not want to get into a conversation over the phone about the issues, but that you preferred to meet face to face. About February 6, a counselor in the bishopric called to ask if I had objections to my son being called to the deacons’ quorum presidency. I said it was up to my son. He said that he would get back in contact with my son in about a week. On February 13 your representatives delivered the notice of the disciplinary council set for February 20 at 4:00 p.m.
The content of the discussions just described and the nature of our interaction over the past year leads me to the conclusion that the charge of apostasy is based mainly on my publications. I also suppose that my unwillingness to meet with you and to a lesser extent my not attending Church for the past six or so months are also considerations.
The foregoing chronology has alluded to some of my reservations for meeting with you as part of a Church investigation of my scholarship and ideas. I want to add to these and make clearer my view why I think such investigations are improper, morally questionable, and even destructive to the Church.
First of all, scholarship is not some sort of sin, a “failing of the flesh,” which an individual recognizes to be an error and which that individual considers to be a blemish to his or her personal integrity. Scholarship, rather, is a constructive activity and is one of the purest expressions of a person’s character. Scholarship involves a failing of the flesh, paradoxically, only when one is not forthright with his or her conclusions, when one holds back evidence, when one dissembles about his or her views in the face of social–or ecclesiastical–pressure. To express one’s views, especially when they fly in the face of tradition, in other words, is hardly a sin but rather a virtue. Because Church disciplinary proceedings treat scholarship as if it were sinful, and even employ along the way the polemical myth that sin is what is responsible for a scholar’s unorthodox views, the proceedings are an attack on the individual’s integrity.
Another objection I have is that these proceedings are a matter of killing the messenger for the message. In my articles I discussed evidence that suggests that some traditional understandings of Mormon history and scripture are in need of revision. The sorts of difficulties I discussed are real. Many scholars have recognized them. And many members of the Church have accepted nontraditional solutions to them similar to mine. The questions and evidence cannot be pushed out of view or made innocuous by disciplinary actions. It is necessary for these issues to be talked about openly and the discussion should go forth without threat of punishment. Punishment especially should be avoided when scholars, such as I, have tried to be constructive. I have had no desire whatsoever to injure our–my!–religious tradition and community. My only desire has been to be honest with regard to the evidence as I have seen it and suggest how this may be viewed positively within our tradition. I would urge you to reread my articles with an eye open to my positive assertions and solutions. You may not accept them, but a positive and constructive attitude is there.
Another reservation I have about these proceedings has to do with the connectedness of my Mormon studies with my professional activity and thought. I am an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at a highly respected university which is committed to freedom of scholarship. There I teach courses on the Hebrew Bible, on ancient Near Eastern history, and on the languages and thought of the peoples of the ancient Near East, and I conduct research in these areas. The views expressed about the Bible in my articles that you have read are the things that inform all of my professional research and are things that I teach my students every day. My views about Joseph Smith’s scriptures have grown out of this and prior professional activity and preparation. The Church’s investigation of my scholarship is an indictment of and an attack on my profession and scholarship at large. It is an attack which will contribute to the characterization of the Church as anti-intellectual.
The Church learned several years ago to leave certain controversial professions alone, such as the biological and earth sciences, and let them go their way. That is why one can learn about evolution at Brigham Young University from teachers that accept the concept as valid (I hope this is still the case). Along this line, you yourself said in our first meeting about my publications that you preferred to see scholars go about their work and let that work succeed or fail by peer review and the ongoing process of discovery. I wish that the Church would adopt this perspective in regard to the study of ancient history and religious literature. If it has objections to a particular conclusion, it need not discipline its proponents but simply say that the conclusion is not Church doctrine.
I also question the propriety of the investigation of scholars because the process contradicts some basic Church principles and values. We value free agency. But these proceedings, since they are implicitly coercive, strike at the heart of this principle. The Church, too, values truth. We say that we accept truth from wherever it comes and claim in our scriptures that the “glory of God is intelligence,” a motto hanging at the gates of Brigham Young University. But investigating and disciplining scholarly activity effectively denies this profession. Mormonism also respects the Constitution of this land and even views it as inspired. But disciplinary proceedings against scholars implicitly mock the freedoms enumerated in that document. While the Constitution does not require that religious institutions hold to its principles, great dissonance arises when a member is allowed freedom of expression and conscience outside of the Church but is denied it inside the Church or with regard to Church issues. There is no little irony in the Church’s sacrifice of these traditional values to go after scholars when their conclusions are not traditional.
My final point is a reiteration of something I have said to you before in our conversations. Action against scholars and against other constructive thinkers threatens the faith and commitment of members of the Church just as much as any of the things that scholars and thinkers may say or publish. Indeed, because these actions are conducted by the Church leadership officially, greater consternation may arise. I have heard reports from and about friends and relatives, very orthodox in their perceptions, that they are disturbed at the Church’s actions against thinkers over the past year. The actions have the ostensible goal of bringing scholars and thinkers into obedience to Church leaders. But the result is more questioning of the validity of the leaders’ authority among the membership.
I conclude by stressing that my membership in the Church is valuable to me. I stress also that my scholarly work on Mormon matters has grown out of concern for the Church and has been guided by commitments I made to contribute constructively to the Church and its life. I have also been guided by the Church’s desire to seek after knowledge and understanding. I hope that commitment to this search will not be used to push me out of my community or to place me in its margins. I had hoped over the past several years as I have kept track of the Church’s attitude towards scholarship, and experienced the effects of that attitude personally, that the Church would become more tolerant. The reverse has been the case. It is a dark time, but I still hope for a day when tolerance will increase and unity in our tradition will be gauged, not by uniformity, but by a willingness to work together for a common good in a context of individual diversity.
David P. Wright
P.S. I have included some publications that will help you set the investigation of my scholarship in the larger context of actions against scholarship in the Church. I hope you can read this material before you make any decisions in my case. Please pass it on to the stake president.
cc: President Ned B. Wheeler
17 February, 1994
I would like to speak in behalf of my husband, David. As I think about this situation, I realize that none of you know either David or myself. A few of you may have spoken to us three or four times, but none of you know us as people. None of you understand Biblical scholarship, which is the basis of the events that have brought David to this court. I cannot imagine how in a few short hours you can even begin to understand either David or his arguments. Without this understanding, it is impossible to make righteous judgment.
Given this reservation, I will attempt to help you understand David.
David is an honest, conscientious scholar. His honesty is more important to him than his own personal comfort. David cannot say that there is evidence to support something just to make people like him or even to protect his membership in this church. David’s beliefs are based on a careful, detailed study of the scriptures. To be orthodox, David would have to say that the evidence that he sees in the scriptures is not there. In other words, (from his viewpoint) he would need to lie.
David’s honesty has cost him dearly. He was fired from BYU because he had the courage and honesty to tell a vice president of BYU his beliefs. David’s beliefs are founded on thousands of hours of detailed research. These conclusions did not come easy for David. The church is a great part of his identity. To be a scholar of integrity, one must hold to truth above all else.
This church was founded on the search for truth by Joseph Smith. Joseph used every means available to him to find truth. Indeed, one of the great joys we have on this earth is our quest to find truth.
David has spent much time and devotion in his quest for truth. His journey will continue for the rest of his life. He will use every resource available to him to find it.
To many of you, his search is evil because it does not come to orthodox conclusions. However, can this church really claim to be the only true church and cast out an individual for his sincere search for truth? Is scholarship a problem in the church? I believe with all my heart that scholarship does not need to be a problem. Scholarship will enrich our understanding as well as give us challenges. However, the church will be made much stronger by facing these challenges honestly.
The real problem in the church today is the growing intolerance toward people that don’t fit into the orthodox ideal. Intolerance breeds hate. Hate will destroy the church. We need to love and respect each other more. We need to realize that there is more than one way to be a good Latter-day Saint. Some of us find God by listening and obeying others. Some of us find God by asking questions and then searching for the answers to these questions. Still others are compelled to help the needy. God created all the diverse people of this great world, and he loves all of us. Each of us can serve God in our own way. We do not need to be Mormon clones in order to have unity. Diversity will make us a stronger, healthier people. We do not need to all think alike in order to be Jesus’ disciples.
The Savior told us how to know if we are his disciples: “By this shall all men [and women] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
We all need to be more tolerant and loving of people who believe or understand the gospel in a little different way. You may not understand David or his scholarship, but you can help Mormonism become the great religion I have always believed it to be by allowing us the freedom to think about God and search for him in our own way.
Dianne T. Wright
February 20, 1994
Dear Bishop Reeder:
After serious consideration and prayer, I have decided not to attend the disciplinary council today. I cannot negotiate what cannot be negotiated, my God-given right and ability to think and discover. It is a sad day when those committed to discovery and truth are forced to stand away from the Church. It is a sad day when the search for truth must be pursued outside the Church.
David P. Wright
What you can do:
Local leaders of the Church are not educated about what has been going on in the Church regarding attacks against scholars. Take the opportunity to educate them. If you cannot talk to them directly, photocopy articles (such as Lavina’s Dialogue chronology, Jackson Newell’s recent article in Sunstone, etc.) and send them to them, with a polite note. Educate the general leaders of the Church too.
–David P. Wright