Dissenters are not new to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They have walked its halls and made a mess of things since the very beginning. Though the modern day church has attempted to obfuscate much of the dissent of the early days of the church by simply calling it apostasy, avoiding the conversation altogether, or by omitting it from official record, there is enough outside the correlated material of the church to gather a certain level of understanding of the WHY behind the disaffection of its most promising members.
Below are mini-biographies of people that found themselves rejecting what they at one time believed to be the kingdom of God on earth. I think you will come to find that they did not make this decision lightly, and in many cases, was the cause of great personal loss. To those that are believers in the Church it can be difficult to understand why anyone would want to leave it. In essence, their belief is that there are no good reasons to leave it. It is my belief that this is because the institutional church has proactively and carefully constructed a mechanism to hide both the dissenters and the reasons for their dissent from the common member. Those that oppose or attempt to change the structure of the Church have systematically been disposed of since the beginning days of the church. Once you are painted as an apostate, you are placed into a category that is to be shunned and observed at a distance with skepticism. In most instances, you will be either forgotten or your story will be summed up with generalizations that purposefully mislead in favor of the faith and not the individual.
Each of these Hall of Fame dissenters have a unique perspective and story. I hope to highlight their mindset and the reasons behind their dissenting actions. Insodoing, I hope you can come to a better understanding, and also a deeper empathy for these fascinating figures in Mormonism.
Hall of Fame
David Whitmer was one of the original members of the church and was one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Whitmer describes this experiences as going to the woods with Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery where they began to pray. Before long, “a light appeared and it grew brighter until an angel stood before us. In the midst of this light, but a few feet from us, appeared a table upon which were many golden plates, also the sword of Laban and the Directors. I see them as plain as I see you now.”(1, pg25) To his death, Whitmer never denied this experience.
Whitmer’s dissent was closely tied to his belief that Joseph was consolidating too much power unto himself. He said of Joseph’s ordination as prophet, seer and revelator in the early days of the church as “the first error [that] was introduced into the Church of Christ.”(1, pg26) He did not object then as “we all had confidence in Brother Joseph, thinking that as God had given him so great a gift as to translate the Book of Mormon, that everything he would do must be right.” Whitmer’s faith was grounded more in the teachings of Jesus found in the written word and not in a contemporary prophet.
Whitmer’s opposition to Joseph’s attempts to blend governmental and ecclesiastical power continued to deepen over time. This concern was magnified in 1837 in Kirtland when the church sponsored and revelation backed bank failed. Some saints began to think of Joseph as a fallen prophet. Whitmer was accused (of which he denied) of be party to a counsel that conspired to have Joseph replaced with Whitmer. In Missouri these differences in opinion over administrative abuses of power and a spirit of intolerance over individual liberty led to his excommunication. He maintained his faith in the founding principles of the church explaining, “I stand today just where I and the others stood in the early days of the church when the Bible and the Book of Mormon were the rule and guide to our faith.”(1, pg39)
Oliver Cowdery was the first Latter Day Saint to be baptized, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, and one of the first Latter Day Saint apostles. The dissent of Cowdery revolved around three main issues. First, he was displeased with his diminishing role in Church leadership and “disagreed with the Prophet’s economic and political program and sought a personal financial independence [from the] Zion society that Joseph Smith envisioned.”2 Second, he was unhappy with the usurped power that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon took from the Missouri presidency upon arrival. After consolidating power unto himself, Joseph “initiated policies that Cowdery, Phelps, and the Whitmers believed violated the separation of church and state.”3 Finally, in January 1838, Cowdery told his brother that he and Joseph “had some conversation in which in every instance I did not fail to affirm that which I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself.” These issues culminated in Cowdery’s excommunication in April 1838 of which the 2nd of 9 charges against him was, “seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery.”4
For a time Cowdery attempted to practice law and run for various political offices. There are multiple accounts of him losing because his opponents would discover his Mormon ties and use it against him.3 He briefly dabbled in the church faction that followed apostle James Strang after Joseph Smith’s death. He eventually left and desired to rejoin the Brighamite faction in Utah. He petitioned and was re-baptized in Iowa. Because of his health he was unable to move to Utah and eventually died a year and a half later in 1850. On his deathbed he was quoted as saying of his witness of the Book of Mormon, “My eyes saw, my ears heard, and my understanding was touched, and I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind – it was real”14
John Corrill was one of the first converts of the church in 1830. He rose to prominence and played a key role in the Church’s position in Missouri. During the height of Corril’s dissent Joseph Smith described him as an “illbred and ignorant” man “whose eyes are full of adultery and [who] cannot cease from sin.” (1, pg45) Today most historians disregard Joseph’s anger at Corrill and “acknowledge Corrill’s integrity, decency, and ability to hold fast to principle when passion around him ran high.”(1, pg45)
The belief system that Corril was grounded began to erode over time. Corril was known as a primitivist. Primitivists were “deeply influenced by the radical republicanism of the American Revolution, they were especially angered at priestcraft they believed ministers of the Protestant tradition practiced.” They “urged that faith be grounded exclusively on their common-sense reading of the Bible. They also differed in the emerging Mormon traditions in that they “had little use for emotional or mystical religion.” For Corrill the Book of Mormon made sense, and the idea that it could be the “stick of Joseph” prophesied in Ezekiel was convincing enough for him to join and participate.
While in Missouri Corril observed and complained about the “visionary spirits” some of the younger members exhibited. He touted that, “The more substantial minded looked upon it with astonishment,” and believed it “came from an evil source.” Under pressure from the elders (including Corril) Joseph received a revelation condemning these outbursts. Corrill pronounced the revelation, “very gratifying.”(1, pg49)
Corril’s concern with Joseph Smith “grasping Monarchical power” continued and was rebuked by Joseph. Corril continued to see hardship in Missouri where the law of consecration was in practice. He observed the poorer citizens coming from the east in droves, while the richer citizens stayed back and did not send any money of support. In influx of poorer citizens with an attitude of divinely inspired self-righteousness (the Mormons would often boast that Jackson County belonged to them by revelation) caused trouble with the neighbors. This resulted in multiple expulsions of the Saints. Joseph attempted to rescue the fleeing Saints by organizing a militia under the title Zion’s Camp which failed, further disheartening Corrill.
Corrill was still under Joseph’s good graces as late as 1836 when he was appointed to oversee the completion of the Kirtland Temple and receive his endowment. Though this was short lived after Corrill returned to Missouri to more trouble with the non-Mormon citizens. After 1838 and the collapse of the Kirkland bank and the disaffection of prominent members (David Whitmer among them) Corrill’s commitment began to shift. He witnessed the dissent and excommunication of the three witnesses. In the aftermath Joseph and Sidney Rigdon “launched a purity crusade,” with the focus to silene the recent dissenters and remind members their commitment was tied to their salvation. This crusade led to suggestions that the dissenters be killed. Corrill secretly warned the dissenters of the danger they were in.
Over the next couple of years Corrill began to realize that with the endorsement of the danites, it made it “clearly evident to me that the leaders of the faction intended to set up a monarchical government in which the presidency should tyrannize and rule over all things.” When Joseph again received a revelation that the Saints should re-establish communitarianism Corrill began to tell people “that he had no confidence in the revelation.”(1, pg64) Joseph was furious and threatened that “[he] would walk on his neck” if he kept telling people of his lack of faith. Finally, after yet another forced expulsion, negotiated peacefully largely because of Corrill, he had had enough. After selling his possessions totalling about $2,100 he distributed this wealth to nearly 160 needy families. He then finished his civil service to which he was elected and then left the church. John Corrill later published his history and gave this explanation for his apostasy:
I have left you, not because I disbelieve the Bible, for I believe in God, the Savior, and religion same as ever; but when I retrace our track, and view the doings of the church for six years past, I can see nothing that convinces me that God has been our leader; calculation after calculation has failed, and plan after plan has been overthrown, and our prophet seemed not to know the even until too late . . . and still we were commanded in the most rigid manner, to follow him, which the church did, until many were led into the commission of crime; have been apprehended and broken down by their opponents, and many have been obliged to abandon their country, their families, and all they possessed, and great affliction has been brought upon the whole church…But where now may you look for deliverance? You may say, in God; but I say, in the exercise in common sense and that sound reason with which God has endowed you; and my advice is to follow that, in preference to those pretended revelations which have served no better purpose than to increase your trouble, and which would blind you, soul and body, under the most intolerable yoke.John Corrill Brief History of the Church, 48
Thomas B Marsh
Thomas B Marsh served as one of the original twelve apostles and the president of the quorum of the twelve apostles from 1835 to 1838. Marsh said of his conversion, “I believed the Spirit of God dictated me to make a journey west.”5 This journey lead to him to Palmyra and meeting Joseph Smith, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and his and his family’s conversion in September of 1830. His important place in the restoration is evidenced by Joseph receiving a revelation in D&C 31 where Marsh is told he would be as “a physician to the church.” (D&C 31:10)
The failure of the Kirtland Safety Society bank seemed to impact every Mormon, Marsh notwithstanding. As discussed earlier there was a dispute over accusations over financial improprieties between the church leadership in Missouri and the leadership in Kirtland. Marsh sided with the presidency in Kirtland (Joseph and Rigdon) and assisted in the church courts that disfellowshipped the Whitmers, Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery. Marsh was then named as President of the Church in Missouri with David Patten and Brigham Young as his assistants.
Marsh’s dissent began with the formation of the Danites, and group of men, that according to Marsh, “swore oaths to support the heads of the church in all things that they say or do, whether it right or wrong.” In one of these gatherings of the Danites, there was a proposal that they should kill the dissenters. Thomas Marsh and John Corrill spoke vigorously against the motion. Later, under the presumed authority of Sidney Rigdon and his “Salt Sermon” which likened those that leave the church as salt that had lost its savor and was “good for nothing, but be cast out, and trodden under the foot of men,” a group of Danites engaged in looting and burning of non-Mormon settlements. Marsh said of the event:
A company of about eighty of the Mormons, commanded by a man fictitiously named Captain Fearnot [David W. Patten], marched to Gallatin. They returned and said they had run off from Gallatin twenty or thirty men and had taken Gallatin, had taken one prisoner and another had joined the company. I afterwards learned from the Mormons that they had burned Gallatin, and that it was done by the aforesaid company that marched there. The Mormons informed me that they had hauled away all the goods from the store in Gallatin, and deposited them at the Bishop’s storehouses at Adam-ondi-Ahmon.6
On October 19, 1838, the day after Gallatin was burned, Marsh and fellow apostle Orson Hyde left the church. Marsh drafted and signed (as did Hyde) a legal affidavit condemning Smith. He expressed concern that Joseph “is to take the state; and he professes to his people to intend taking the United States, and ultimately the world.”6 Marsh tells of multiple parties that were sent to various towns from he witnessed “beds, clocks, and other household furniture” coming back from these raids. He accuses Lyman Wight of informing Joseph “that the people were gone and the property left.” At another time a company was sent to “bring in fat hogs and cattle” to which they were later seen bringing back “seven cattle” and at another time “four or five” from “people of Daviess [county]”. He continues by describing “a meeting at Far West, at which they appointed a company of twelve, by the name of the Destruction Company, for the purpose of burning and destroying.” To Marsh, It was evidently apparent that this emerging principle of violence in the name of the church was fully endorsed by the top leadership of the church including Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. Needless to say this greatly troubled Marsh and fellow apostle Orson hyde so deeply, they, within days, abandoned the church and informed the government of their concern.
Unfortunately, like so many stories, Thomas B Marsh’s legacy is tarnished by, what appears to be, an apocryphal story which has come to be known as “The Milk Stripping Story.” In 1856 apostle George A Smith (who happened to be the apostle that replaced Marsh after he left7) claimed that Marsh had left the church because of sinful pride over disputed milk strippings between his wife and another women (who happened to be one of Joseph Smith’s secret polygamous wives8). This story is often told in conjunction with apostasy, and attempts to convey a message of the lack of faith that Marsh had to allow the pride of a dispute fester to the point that he would leave the church over it. Modern day apostle David A Bednar gave a talk that contrasted Marsh’s faithlessness with the devotion of Brigham Young. Bednar states, “”In many instances, choosing to be offended is a symptom of a much deeper and more serious spiritual malady. Thomas B. Marsh allowed himself to be acted upon, and the eventual results were apostasy and misery. Brigham Young was an agent who exercised his agency and acted in accordance with correct principles, and he became a mighty instrument in the hands of the Lord.” And thus we see how the church creates and maintains a narrative for those that leave. This narrative illuminates the fear that leaders want members to feel; that even the highest member of the apostles can lose all his eternal blessings over something so minor and trivial, you could to if you aren’t careful.
For a–just as interesting as it is frustrating–dichotomy, read the “falling away” section on Thomas B Marsh from the LDS perspective. The page is ironically named “Revelations in Context”.
William Law was a counselor in Joseph Smith’s first presidency in Nauvoo when he was motivated to publish an expose on what he thought of as Joseph Smith’s apostasy from the true gospel. The destruction of the expose entitled The Nauvoo Expositor set in motion a chain of events that led to the death of Joseph Smith. I was raised to believe that William Law was an evil man that indirectly murdered Joseph Smith. I was raised to believe that what William Law was exposing was anti-mormon lies. What I hope to portray in this short biography is Law’s actual reasons for dissent and if he was justified.
Law was born in Ireland and his family settled in Canada. He joined the church while living in Ontario in 1836 through the missionary efforts of John Taylor (who later became LDS church president in 1880). Before moving to Nauvoo Law was known as a capable business leader who operated a farm, a mill and served as postmaster. He proved himself to be a man having “great suavity of manners and amiability of character, …correct business habits, …and a great devotion to the service of God.”9 In 1841, with divine confirmation, Joseph Smith selected William Law to be a counselor in the first presidency of the church. He served a mission to Philadelphia with Hyrum Smith and another to “the eastern states” to preach the gospel. He received his endowment with eight others and “continued to meet with Joseph in private councils until January 1844. He was quotes as telling a convert that the church was the “only organised Church on the Earth that God now acknowledges.”9 I think it’s safe to say that William Law had a testimony and was fully committed to the church.
Over time, Law began to exhibit some of the same general behaviors of dissent that others had as well. Namely, he was concerned with the “growing concentration of authority” of Smith and the extension of that authority into the areas of politics and economics. The contemporary American frontier culture was strongly democratic in nature and as such feared authoritarianism in government and religion. Nauvoo during this time was, in a very real sense, establishing itself as a closed theocratic society, from which many converts were becoming uncomfortable, Law included. Beside this concern, Law was also known to accuse Joseph of introducing “false and damnable” doctrines such as a plurality of Gods, polygamy, and the doctrine of unconditional sealing up unto eternal life.”9
He accused Joseph of unethically rigging elections. In return for the Mormon vote, the politician Cyrus Walker assisted Joseph with securing his release from jail in Dixon, IL. But within “thirty days church leaders had decided that it would be in their interest politically to vote for Walker’s opponent.”9 Law was stunned and disagreed with this “trickery.” He attempted to sway Hyrum Smith and the people of Nauvoo to vote for Walker when surprisingly Hyrum Smith took the stand and “declared that he had a revelation from the Lord, that the people should vote for Mr. Hoge” (Walker’s opponent). When Law spoke to Joseph about this, Joseph replied, “I never knew Hyrum say he had a revelation and it failed.” To Law this crossed ethical and moral boundaries.
Law accused Joseph of controlling the financial affairs of the church under his authority as prophet. As mentioned, Law and his family were very industrious and immediately began to establish and grow their wealth once they moved to Nauvoo, which eventually would place them at odds with Joseph. When they arrived in Nauvoo Joseph was convincing people to purchase land from the lower half which was owned by Joseph (conflict of interest anyone?). Law decided to invest in the upper part of Nauvoo instead. By 1843 the prophet was insisting that the “Saints purchase building lots from only the Church.”9 This led to many troubles with between Law and the church to which later in life Law recalled that after his alienation from the church “he and his brother were effectively unable to sell their property,”9 which was valued at $30,000, or about $1,000,000 in today’s dollars.
As mentioned earlier Law opposed many of the later doctrines that Joseph was introducing to the church, but none so much as polygamy. Before those that were endowed were introduced to the practice and far before the general membership were told about the doctrine there began to be a concerns about “a plot that was being laid to entrap the brethren that were involved in plural marriage” by Hyrum Smith, William Law, and William Marks (Nauvoo Stake President). These men did not believe that Joseph was practising it and publicly denounced it. Hyrum, on May 14, 1843 publicly preached against the plurality of wives and used the Book of Mormon in Jacob to say “it was an abomination in the Sight of God.”9 Only a couple weeks later, “Hyrum (with the assistance of Brigham Young) became convinced that plural marriage had been divinely revealed to the Prophet.”9 This flip-flop by Hyrum estranged Law from Hyrum and even further from Joseph.
When Law was introduced to the law of polygamy he was shocked. He was particularly embarrassed because he had publicly ridiculed the doctrine, using the Book of Mormon as evidence, and combated the lies of others that it was being practised by the prophet. He, like so many of us that have come to find out about the messy history of the church and feel lied to, felt deceived. He actually went on a mission, in part, to counter some of the “anti-Mormon” lies about spiritual wifery that John C. Bennett was spreading. He came to find out that those lies were actually true. He was in a difficult place because Hyrum gave him the actual revelation that sanctioned its practice as divine. Was Joseph divinely inspired?, a fallen prophet?, or was it all made up? This must have been devastating for Law.
The beginning of the end came when Joseph, according to the Lord’s command by revelation, refused to seal Law and his wife. Later, Law’s wife Jane described Smith’s proposals, saying that Smith had “asked her to give him half her love; she was at liberty to keep the other half for her husband.”10 There is speculation around the validity of the accusation, however it was well known that “Joseph did ask for other men’s wives as part of an “Abrahamic test.”9 Either way, because of Law’s opposition, the relationship between him and Joseph grew toxic and in January 1844 was surprisingly and unilaterally “dropped” from the First Presidency by Joseph without a disciplinary council. After some reconciliation attempts, he was excommunicated without trial in April and was first notified by his Stake President the day after.
However hard this trial was, and the pain that anguish that was suffered by Law and his wife, William “[felt] relieved from a most embarrassing situation. I cannot fellowship the abominations which I verily know are practiced by this man, consequently I am glad to be free from him.”9 After this dismissal, Law had time to reflect on his convictions of Mormonism. His diary “reveals that he was racked with self-doubt, and he realized that the cardinal underpinnings of his faith in Mormonism were being wrecked.” On January 13 1844 he expressed his crises of faith:
“What my feelings have been I cannot relate, various and painful at times almost beyond endurance; a thousand recollections burst upon my burning brain, the past, the present, and the future, disappointed hopes, injured feelings, where they should have held sacred…these things are as poison’d arrows in my bleeding heart.”9
After William, his wife Jane, and his brother Wilson Law (a brigadier general in the Nauvoo Legion) were excommunicated in April there was presumably some agitation in the city around Joseph’s new doctrines and expanding powers. There were some members that began to raise up and speak out against the prophet. On May 10 a newspaper prospectus was circulated, announcing the creation of the Nauvoo Expositor. This prospectus informed its readers that:
The forthcoming weekly would advocate the repeal of the Nauvoo Charter, seek the separation of church and state, champion pure principles of morality, and decry political revelation and unit power. In summary the columns of the new paper would give a full candid and succinct statement of FACTS AS THEY REALLY EXIST IN THE CITY OF NAUVOO – fearless of whose particular case the facts may apply
Those that were a part of the Nauvoo Expositor expressed the very same sentiment that so many former members express, that is, that “many of us sought a reformation in the church … but our petitions were treated with contempt.” (How completely relatable is that!) In response to the May 10 prospectus, Sidney Rigdon went to William Law “fully authorized to negotiate terms of peace.” Law remained stalwart in his convictions saying:
I told him that if they wanted peace they could have it on the following conditions. That Joseph Smith would acknowledge publicly that he had taught and practiced the doctrine of plurality of wives, that he brought a revelation supporting the doctrine, and that he should own the whole system (revelation and all) to be from hell.
Sidney said he was not authorized “to go so far” but that he was authorized to restore his membership.
I imagine a lot of contemplation went into the decision to write and release the Nauvoo Expositor. Law felt deceived, manipulated, and used. He was concerned that the general Mormon populace were also being deceived and decided he should go ahead with the publication. Law was excited about the upcoming publication and felt in some way that it would vindicate him. He said, “This day the Nauvoo Expositor goes forth to the world, rich with facts, such expositions as make the guilty tremble with rage…”11 Joseph was actively combatting the accusations against him saying, “The devil always sets up his kingdom at the very same time in opposition to God.”12
The day after the printing of the expositor, Joseph convened the Nauvoo City Council and decided that “it [was] not safe that such things should exist.” That evening a group of 100 men broke into the shop with “a sledgehammer, dragged the printing press into the street, and smashed it to pieces.”12 The ire of the surrounding townships was kindled, and arrest warrants were issued. On June 27, 1844 Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed at the Carthage jail by a mob.
William Law characterized the deaths at Carthage as an “outrage” but believed that the deaths were the result of a “blasphemed God.” Law, like many of the early dissenters, believed the new doctrines and the totalitarianistic reach of Joseph were corrupting the church. They objected to the continual infringement of the liberties that were granted under the newly established America. Author Lydon W Cook put Law’s apostasy this way:
The pervasive democratic spirit of this period did not encourage institutional good order but tended rather to foster a determination to hold fast to civil and religious liberties. In religious communities, self-reliant frontier life was often expressed in differences over pure doctrine, novel practices, and the use of authority. Not infrequently, the western settler was intolerant of externally imposed authority, and schism would occur when doctrines or practices seemed too intricately reasoned or too far fetched. Thus it would appear that William Law’s case of religious dissent in Mormon Nauvoo was not unique but instead uniquely American.9
For more information read the interview that William Law gave in 1887, I promise, it will not disappoint.
Fawn Brodie was born in 1915 in Ogden and grew up 10 miles east in Huntsville. She came from a very influential and highly educated Mormon family. Her maternal grandfather was the president of Brigham Young University. Her father was a bishop, a stake president, a mission president of the Swiss-Austrian mission, and an assistant to the quorum of the twelve apostles. Her paternal uncle was David O. McKay, who was an apostle when she was born and later became the prophet in 1951. Her son Bruce recalled that she “always said that she had a very happy childhood” and that he could not remember “a single negative thing she said about it.”1 She was extremely smart as a child, advancing to the fifth grade as a six year old. In a bit of foreshadowing, you could say her apostasy falls in the vilified Mormon category of intellectualism. Her very orthodox Mormon upbringing and her subsequent dissent began when she left for college. She recalled, “I was devout until I went to the University of Utah.”(1, pg281)
Though Fawn’s childhood could be said to be a typical Mormon upbringing, her parents, however, appeared to have a different outlook on Mormonism that contributed to Fawn’s future dissent. She describes parents as “devout Mormons” but remembered her mother as “a kind of quiet heretic which made it much easier for me.”(1, pg282) Her religious relationship with her father is, to me, quite relatable. Her father was very busy and often failed to communicate with Fawn regularly. There appeared to be a complete absence of dialog between father and daughter. Whenever Fawn would attempt to raise her religious doubts, “her father would only say, “You’ve got to believe.” “We both found it impossible to communicate on the subject, as on most others.” Fawn grew up in an era that sociologist call the silent generation. A generation described as feeling that speaking out was dangerous and focusing on careers over activism.(19) Brodie attributed the lack of communication she experienced as a child to the family’s tendency “to avoid unpleasant subjects scrupulously.”(1, pg282)
Her dissent quickened its pace while at college. Brodie recalled a philosophy professor who “through Socratic questioning…gently shook the faith of some of us who were devout.”1 She was introduced to literature that was critical of the Church when she took a job at the library repairing damaged books. She came to realize that “the center of the universe was not Salt Lake as I had been taught as a child.”(1, pg283) Her studies led her to graduate school at the University of Chicago. Her dissent levelled up yet again when she met other people outside of Utah “with tremendous intellectual curiosity and completely open minds.”(1, pg283) Within a few weeks of arriving in Chicago she became “inactive” (a term used to describe a member of the Church that stops attending meetings and possibly keeping fully the commandments.) Brodie describes this time like “taking off a hot coat in the summertime. The sense of liberation I had at the University of Chicago was enormously exhilarating. I felt quickly that I could never go back to the old life, and I never did.”
As an illustration of the familial pain that can be caused by dissent, the story of Fawn’s marriage on the day she graduated in 1936. Fawn fell in love with Bernard Brodie who was jewish. This horrified the McKay’s because he was not a member of the church, and as such could not take her to the temple to be sealed which is the “proper” way to do things in the church. Her uncle David O McKay is said to have gone to Chicago to warn her of the family’s “strong objections” to her impending marriage. Out of consideration for her mother, Fawn scheduled the wedding at an LDS chapel. In the end only Fawn’s mother represented the entire McKay family at wedding. This conditional love is all too often endorsed and practiced in the Church. Imagine the pain that this caused, all in the name of orthodoxy and shame.
During this time and soon after graduating, Brodie showed an intellectual curiosity toward serious historical scholarship of Mormonism. Her first initial research was on the Church’s welfare program which the Church bragged had removed “most or all of its members from public assistance.” Her research showed that the members of the church had a “30 – 60 percent higher” rate of public welfare use than the national average. Instead of helping the poor through ecclesiastical assistance programs, Mormonism was benefiting from members that were abusing public welfare while the church collecting tithes and donations and keeping it to themselves. Brodie said that “far from endangering its solid financial structure [the church] is actually the gainer from the security plan (aka church welfare).”(1, pg284) She further criticized the tithing of the poor because it “materially lowered” the financial status of the average Latter-Day Saint. To support her case she asserted that in 1935 there were 25% more Mormons than Gentiles on public welfare in Salt Lake City. This “is an indication of the serious depletion in personal resources resulting from the Church’s exactions from its members.”(1, pg285)
Fawn’s dissidence was in high gear between 1938 and 1944 when she focused her energy on researching and writing a biography of Joseph Smith. She initially was working on an article about the origins of the Book of Mormon and found there was no “good biography of Joseph Smith” and decided to take on the project herself. Fawn took on the role of dissenter for other dissenters:
“I wanted to answer a lot of questions for myself. There were many questions that no one had answered for me. I certainly did not get any of the answers from Utah. Having discovered the answers and being excited about them, I felt that I wanted to give other young doubting Mormons a chance to see the evidence.”(1, pg286)
Within a year of publishing the biography No Man Knows my History the Church excommunicated Fawn. She was charged with: “You assert matters as truths which deny the divine origin of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the Priesthood and of Christ’s Church through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph Smith, contrary to the beliefs, doctrines, and teachings of the Church.”(1, pg288) She felt anguish over being excommunicated because of the hurt that it would cause her parents. Writing to her parents Fawn said, “I could see clearly that it might mean for you and Daddy…I felt badly… because it seemed to symbolize how completely I had burned my bridges behind me.”(1, pg290)
After her communication Brodie continued writing articles critical of Mormonism. She was perplexed at the cultural shift from embracing celestial polygamy as a fundamental tenant of their theology to “outright hostility upon the zealous handful who still [clung] to it.”(1, pg290) She noted the yearning for respectability of Mormon members, which was motivated by their “sense of shame and guilt which has been so successfully buried beneath a complexity of rationalizations and dimming memories”(1, pg291) of Joseph Smith’s polygamy.
Brodie picked up on the paradox of authoritarianism and personal growth:
The church organization is strictly authoritarian, and the leaders, tenacious alike of their traditions and of their power, exhort their people first of all to be obedient. But if obedience to ecclesiastical authority is the primary law of the church, a belief in human perfectability is its loftiest theological ideal. There results, therefore, an uneasing conflict between uncompromising fundamentalism and the eager striving for perfection which is the basis of Mormon educational philosophy. For the very education of which Mormonism is so proud breeds skepticism and often outright rejection of Mormon doctrine.(1, pg291)
Besides her other literary work that Brodie accomplished during the rest of her life, she continued to work with other dissenting writers and historians. She was optimistic over time to see the church being more lenient on “a more liberal climate for dissenting writers and historians.”(1, pg292) Despite such optimism she was an actively critical of many practises and attitudes of Mormonism. The Church’s position on blacks and the priesthood was her main focus in her late life. Early on In No Man Knows My History she describes it as “the ugliest thesis in existing Mormon theology.”(1, pg292) She later accused the leadership of the church manipulating or misreading its past “in order to justify its policy of black priesthood denial.”(1, pg293)
In September of 1980 she was diagnosed with cancer and died 4 months later in January 1981. She came from the humble town of Huntsville where she was sheltered inside the Mormon bubble. At home her personality of being quick, bright, and intelligent was repressed by a culture against “speaking out or discussing controversial issues.”(1, pg294) After attending the University of Utah she awoke to the controversy of Mormonism. As she began to speak out she “felt an intense sense of betrayal” concerning Joseph Smith but at the same time “was working through…an equally intense childhood love” for the man. She came to believe that she had been “conned” and that “the whole problem of [Joseph Smith’s] credibility was crying out for some explanation.”(1, pg295)
Sterling McMurrin, a well known critic of Mormonism put into words what Fawn Brodie did for Mormonism:
Brodie helped usher in “a new climate on liberation” insofar as Mormon letters are concerned: “Because No Man Knows My History, Mormon history produced by Mormon Scholars has moved toward more openness, objectivity, and honesty.”
I would invite you to read more on some of the details from what I have written but from the Church’s perspective. It will be obvious that they have a different take on history. This is a good exercise in understanding the difference in what was taught to me (grew up in the 90s) and what is shown in actual history.
- Launis, Roger D. Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, 1998
- Anderson, Richard Lloyd (1992), “Cowdery, Oliver”, in Ludlow, Daniel H, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing, pp. 335–340
- In July 1867, John Hawley reported that Wilford Woodruff had said, “When Brigham Young got the records of the Church in his hands, after the death of Joseph Smith, he found by examination that William Law’s wife and Francis Higby’s wife and Lyman Wight’s wife and Robert D Foster’s wife had all been sealed to Joseph, as their husbands could not Save them.”
- “Wife no. 19”, Ann Eliza Young, 1875, page 61
- Diary of William Law 7 June 1844
- Gates, Jacob F. (March 1912). “Testimony of Jacob Gates”. Improvement Era 15. p. 92.