Subject: David P. Wright speaks
To: MORMON-L@byu.edu, LDS-NET@andrew.cmu.edu, MORM-ANT@byu.edu
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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"
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
David P. Wright
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