The Case of the Mormon Historian

What happened when Michael Quinn challenged the history of the church he loved.

A box of old photos belonging to Michael Quinn at his home.
A box of old photos belonging to Michael Quinn at his home.

Daryl Peveto/Luceo Images for Slate. © 2012

One Sunday in February of 1993, Michael Quinn was home sick with a fever when his doorbell rang. Wearing a bathrobe, he answered after several rings and found three men in suits and ties on his doorstep. The Mormon church is organized into congregations called wards; a group of these is called a stake. The men at his door were the local stake president and his two counselors, the men responsible for overseeing all the congregations in the area. The stake president, a man named Paul Hanks, tried to step into the apartment as he said hello, Quinn recalls. It struck him as an old missionary’s trick.

Quinn had been avoiding this confrontation for nearly five years. In 1988 he resigned his position at Brigham Young University, the private college owned and operated by the Mormon church, having decided that his interest in the “problem areas” of the religion’s past jeopardized not only his position on the history faculty but his membership in the church itself. He took a fellowship at the Huntington Library, near his hometown of Pasadena, Calif., and began indexing his enormous collection of notes on old Mormon documents, in preparation for his next book. After 18 months, he moved to New Orleans, where it was less expensive to live. There, he tried other kinds of writing, thinking maybe he’d put Mormon history behind him.

In California, Quinn had picked up his mail at a P.O. Box 15 miles from where he was staying, and in New Orleans he had it delivered to a receiving center a little ways from his apartment. The modern Mormon church has become a fairly top-down organization, but most responsibility for attending to its members still resides in local lay leaders. Quinn’s religious status would—officially, at least—be decided by his own stake president, not by the higher-ups in Salt Lake City. If those top leaders did not know where he lived, then they could not assign him to a particular stake, and his church membership could not be threatened. That, in any case, was his thinking. Quinn had spent three years in the military in the late ’60s, working in counterintelligence. “I know how to avoid people I didn’t want to be in contact with,” he says. Though he maintained a solemn belief in the Mormon gospel and in the sacrament partaken of by the faithful at Sunday services, he stopped attending church altogether.

But by the fall of ’92 he had to return to Salt Lake City to finish research on the book, and he had grown tired of hiding from church authorities. He moved back to Utah and began receiving mail at his actual address. The book he was finishing, which would be published in 1994, was called The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. When the men from the stake presidency came to his door in February, Quinn was living three blocks from the Salt Lake Temple and the worldwide headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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A view of the Salt Lake Temple outside Olympic Medals Plaza in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A view of the Salt Lake Temple outside Olympic Medals Plaza in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

“In what dissidents have described as a purge, church leaders took severe disciplinary action in September against six Mormon scholars and feminists,” the New York Times reported on Oct. 2, 1993. It was the paper’s second article in two weeks about a series of church courts held across 13 days in September and reported in media outlets across the country. Quinn and four others—Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maxine Hanks (a distant relative of Paul Hanks, the stake president who showed up at Quinn’s apartment), Paul Toscano, and Avraham Gileadi—were excommunicated by stake presidents in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah; a sixth, Lynn Whitesides, was “disfellowshipped,” meaning that she remained a member of the church but could not fully participate in its rites and activities. Before the first court, Whitesides and Anderson alerted friends and the press, and word spread quickly. A candlelight vigil was held outside the Salt Lake City meetinghouse where it took place. Hymns were sung. TV and newspaper reporters came. Whitesides says that “Connie Chung’s people” asked her to take a hidden camera into her court. She declined.

Dubbed the “September Six,” the group were mostly left-leaning writers and scholars who had published articles or given talks about the role of women in Mormonism and the way the church’s leaders handle dissent. There have always been dissidents in the Mormon ranks—the religion itself is one particularly dramatic dissent from the rest of Christian tradition—but a new community of Mormon intellectuals had coalesced in the 1960s and ’70s. Independent publications—most notably Dialogue (founded in 1966) and Sunstone (1974)—provided forums for scholarship and reflection about Mormon history and theology. This made some church leaders uneasy. “There are three areas where members of the church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away,” declared Boyd K. Packer, one of the church’s Twelve Apostles, in May 1993. These “dangers,” Packer said, were the “relatively new” feminist and “gay-lesbian” movements, and “the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.”

One of the central questions in the aftermath of September’s events was just how involved Packer himself had been in them. At the pinnacle of the Mormon hierarchy is the First Presidency—the church’s prophet and his two counselors—and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Those 15 men oversee the multiple Quorums of the Seventy, who in turn direct the stake presidents and bishops who minister to congregations on a part-time, voluntary basis. The prophet at the time was Ezra Taft Benson, who, at age 94, was mostly incapacitated. The most senior apostle, Howard W. Hunter, also suffered from serious health problems. (Benson died in ’94, Hunter in ’95.) Packer, the second-most senior among the 12, was the “substitute president” of the Quorum of the Twelve whenever Hunter was sidelined for medical reasons. And he was the most strident of the group when it came to denouncing internal critics of Mormon leaders and teachings. He insisted that the September councils were local affairs, but church employees who reported to him had, it turned out, been keeping tabs on the six who were disciplined, and rumors swirled that Packer himself personally insisted that the courts take place.

Packer’s involvement mattered because the Twelve Apostles are considered by devout Mormons to be “prophets, seers, and revelators.” If they directed the councils, then the excommunications were, essentially, a message from the church’s highest spiritual authorities about what Mormons were allowed to do and—publicly, at least—to say. Many religions have strictures that establish who is in and who is out, but the Mormon church draws a brighter line than most. The church keeps fairly careful records of its membership, for one thing, records that play a part in the worldwide effort to bring salvation to all of God’s children. There are important aspects of Mormon life, such as temple ceremonies, that are open only to the truly faithful. What’s more, all Mormons are supposed to have a calling in the church, which makes for a wonderfully participatory religion but also discourages casual membership. Excommunication has played a significant role throughout the church’s history. Until 23 years ago, one could not formally leave the church without being excommunicated. (In 1985, an Arizona man filed an $18 million lawsuit against the LDS church for not allowing him to do so. The suit was settled out of court and a process for voluntary withdrawal was established in 1989.)

That bright line is one of the reasons Mormons still sometimes seem separate from the mainstream of American life even after a century of assimilation. Many people do reside in the borderlands between Mormon and not. My own name remains on the rolls of the church, and I plan to leave it there, though I stopped believing in the Mormon gospel 15 years ago. Ultimately, the events of September 1993 may have helped broaden those borderlands, encouraging other members of the faith to openly question Mormon orthodoxy without entirely leaving the religion behind. It did not happen overnight, but many LDS leaders seemed to regret the furor and the hurt that surrounded those excommunications. Some, perhaps, simply regretted the bad press. But gradually, pressure on Mormon scholars eased, and today many write and publish without any obvious concern for what their stake presidents might think. In hindsight, the “purge” of September 1993 looks like the last big push for a kind of control that LDS leaders will probably never have again. But it also betrayed tensions within the church that may never entirely go away.

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Michael Quinn at 17.

In 1961, when Michael Quinn was a devout Mormon of 17, his best friend’s girlfriend gave him a copy of Family Kingdom, a biography of the one-time apostle John W. Taylor. The book, published a decade before, was written by Taylor’s son Samuel, best known today, perhaps, for writing the short story that became The Absent-Minded Professor. The seventh son of Taylor’s third wife, Samuel sympathetically portrays his notorious father, who continued to marry multiple wives well after the LDS church officially renounced polygamy in 1890. Taylor fled to Canada during the congressional hearings for Reed Smoot, a fellow—but monogamous—apostle, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate. He was excommunicated in 1911. The book opened Quinn’s teenage eyes to dissent within the highest echelons of LDS leadership, and to the apostles’ debate—and apparent dissembling—about “plural marriage” after 1890.

Quinn was already on the alert for such wrinkles in the church’s history. Just prior to reading Family Kingdom he’d seen an anti-Mormon pamphlet called The Book of Mormon Examined, which highlighted hundreds of changes Joseph Smith made to the Mormon scripture in its first few printings. “This is all lies!” he told the friend who showed it to him. Still, he sought out the scripture’s first edition himself, and did his own comparison. He decided that only 16 of the changes were significant. Soon after, he happened to attend, with some friends, a meeting of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a splinter sect that believes Joseph Smith’s son, not Brigham Young, was Smith’s rightful successor as prophet. A member of that sect told Quinn about a since renounced bit of theology once preached by Brigham Young, referred to as the “Adam-God doctrine.” Young’s notion, roughly speaking, was that God and Adam are one and the same. This new knowledge sent Quinn to the Journal of Discourses, a 26-volume collection of Mormon sermons. These three shocks to Quinn’s testimony—about the Book of Mormon, polygamy, and LDS theology—spurred a pursuit to unearth and understand those parts of his religion’s past that complicated the simpler story of the faith he had learned as a child.

Quinn studied English literature in college—he attended BYU—but during his three-year stint in the military he decided to become a historian, and make what had become a consuming pastime into his profession. At first, his timing appeared serendipitous: In 1972, while he was completing a master’s in history at the University of Utah, an academic named Leonard Arrington was appointed church historian. He was the first academic to occupy the post, previously held only by high-ranking LDS leaders, and his appointment signaled a broader effort to reorganize the historian’s office along professional lines. The LDS archives became more open to scholars than ever before, and Arrington oversaw research and writing by fellow academics and graduate students—including Quinn, then 28, whom he hired as an assistant. For the next year and a half, Quinn spent hours every week in the archives, taking detailed notes on diaries that belonged to 19th-century Mormon leaders, among other documents. Every morning he worked there “was Christmas morning,” Quinn says. In Mormon history circles, this period is often called “the Camelot years.”

After those 18 months, Quinn left for Yale to do a Ph.D. and finished it in just three years. He was 32; he and his wife, Jan, were expecting their fourth child. BYU and Utah State both wanted to hire him. The latter, a smaller school, offered less money, but BYU had its own drawbacks: It was and is a conservative place, politically as well as religiously. During Quinn’s college years, BYU’s president, Ernest Wilkinson, organized a student “spy ring” intended to catch out professors with communist leanings. Wilkinson was reprimanded, though, and in 1970 he was replaced by Dallin H. Oaks, a law professor at the University of Chicago who had clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren at the U.S. Supreme Court. The intellectual climate had improved under Oaks, people said. During the hiring process, a college dean offered to “protect” him, Quinn says, “from those people”—the LDS leaders—“up in Salt Lake.”

Before he could be hired, though, he had to visit LDS headquarters at 47 East South Temple in downtown Salt Lake and sit for an interview with one of “those people”—specifically, a “general authority,” one of the 100 or so men who run the church. These men are often referred to by Mormon faithful as “the Brethren.” Unlike local lay leaders, who hold secular day jobs and perform their ecclesiastical duties on a voluntary basis, they are full-time employees who oversee the global operations of the church. They don’t acquire these positions by filling out an application and sending in a résumé. They are called to them by the men at the very top of the hierarchy. Devout Mormons consider these callings divinely inspired. While such a calling does not officially confer infallibility on the man who receives it—and the general authorities are all male—publicly criticizing the men in these positions is strongly discouraged. At its worst, such talk is sometimes called “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed.”

Boyd K. Packer in 1976.
Boyd K. Packer in 1976.

Screenshot via Youtube.

The general authority assigned to interview Quinn in the spring of 1976 was Boyd K. Packer. Born in 1924 in Brigham City, Utah, the 10th of 11 children, Packer worked for years as a teacher and administrator in the Church Educational System. In the late ’60s, he was called to preside over the church’s missionary efforts in New England, and moved with his family to Cambridge, Mass. In an April 1968 talk about military service, he described the “restless, unchallenged young people” who are “repudiating their citizenship responsibilities” by avoiding and protesting the draft. Two years later, he was called as an apostle. With his background in education, he became interested in how the church taught its own past, and decided he did not like what was going on at the church historian’s office. He was troubled by “the openness with which materials were being made available to certain individuals other than those authorized,” according to Lucile C. Tate’s admiring 1995 biography, Boyd K. Packer: Watchman on the Tower. In 1975, partly at Packer’s urging, Leonard Arrington’s role at the church historian’s office was greatly diminished.

When interviewing Quinn in ’76, Packer said, “I have a hard time with historians, because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting.” That’s according to Quinn—my request to speak with Packer, whose health has badly deteriorated in recent years, was declined. But Packer certainly said similar things before larger audiences. In 1981, he gave an address to church educators called “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” which was organized around four “cautions.” The second of them is this: “There is a temptation for the writer or teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” It’s not clear whether Packer read Quinn’s work before interviewing him, but if he did, it probably would have struck him as less than useful. In his Yale dissertation, Quinn examined the “highest leadership” of the LDS church “as a social elite,” focusing on the extensive family ties within the hierarchy, the considerable wealth of Mormon authorities, and their long-standing involvement in politics. He had also just published an article titled “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” which detailed the confusion about who should succeed Joseph Smith after his assassination. Quinn showed that Brigham Young had a legitimate claim to the calling, though he was not the only one who did.

Packer approved Quinn’s hiring, but he may have come to regret it five years later. In 1981, Quinn was asked by the college’s chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, a national honor society for history students, to respond to “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect.” He did not pull his punches. He compared Packer’s treatment of Church leaders to “the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility,” which is anathema to Mormons. The Bible and the Book of Mormon, which depict flawed, human prophets, are, Quinn said, “an absolute refutation of the kind of history” Packer advocated. He also criticized Ezra Taft Benson, then a senior apostle, who had made comments similar to Packer’s. A history full “of benignly angelic church leaders apparently advocated by Elders Benson and Packer would,” he said, “border on idolatry.”

That last comment became the caption for a Newsweek photo three months later, when the magazine’s religion reporter, Kenneth L. Woodward, wrote a 1,000-word story about Quinn’s talk and the controversy it prompted. Few people had attended the talk itself, but an independent BYU newspaper ran a story about it, and copies of Quinn’s remarks, titled “On Being a Mormon Historian,” began to circulate. They were eventually published, without Quinn’s permission, by two prominent anti-Mormon activists, Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Woodward’s piece, headlined “Apostles vs. Historians,” called Quinn’s talk “a stirring defense of intellectual integrity” that “had put Benson and Packer on the defensive.” It was illustrated with a large photograph of Quinn up top, and a considerably smaller one of Packer.

After the Newsweek article ran, Quinn got a phone call from Marion D. Hanks. Hanks—whose nephew Paul would show up on Quinn’s doorstep in 1993—was himself a general authority, and he had overseen the two-year Mormon mission Quinn served in England after his freshman year at BYU. He had become a father figure of sorts, even officiating at Quinn’s marriage ceremony. (He also, as it happens, officiated at the wedding of my parents.) He asked Quinn to come see him in his office after work one day, Quinn says. There he told a story about the time Packer embarrassed him in front of fellow church leaders as apparent payback for a slight from six years before. “Elder Packer,” he told Quinn, “will never get over this.”

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On Oct. 16, 1985, Quinn was having a late lunch at a BYU food court when he heard a news report that Mark Hofmann had been blown up by a pipe bomb in Salt Lake City. He froze. The day before, a similar bomb had killed Steve Christensen, a friend and Mormon history enthusiast who had arranged for Quinn to speak at lunch and dinner engagements, paying him with generous gift cards to his father’s clothing store. A second bomb that first day killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of one of Christensen’s former business partners. One theory on that first day of panic was that the bombings were connected with the business, an investment company called CFS. But the third bomb, which badly injured but did not kill Hofmann, hinted at a tie to the “salamander letter,” a disputed historical document that Christensen had purchased from Hofmann a year before and which had inspired Quinn’s latest research project, a book eventually titled Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview.

Dated Oct. 23, 1830, the letter was addressed to an early Mormon convert named W.W. Phelps and signed Martin Harris. In it, Harris, who paid for the first printing of the Book of Mormon, tells a story of that book’s origins strikingly different from Smith’s later, official account. Most memorably, Harris says that the spirit who appeared to Smith and directed him to the golden plates—from which Smith claimed to have translated Mormonism’s founding scripture—appeared as a white salamander and struck Smith three times. Experts authenticated the letter, and Christensen, a devout Mormon, bought it from Hofmann, with plans to donate it to the church.

A page of the so-called Salamander Letter, forged by Mark Hofmann.

But it was a forgery. That was established definitively in 1986 after Hofmann confessed to the murders of Christensen and Sheets as part of a plea to avoid the death penalty. (He was delivering the third bomb—to whom it is not entirely clear—when it blew up accidentally.) In a detailed confession, Hofmann said that he had secretly stopped believing in Mormonism as a teenager and had hatched a plan to embarrass the church by creating fake documents that exposed uncomfortable facts about early Mormon history. Like Quinn, he’d first become interested in Mormon history when he learned that polygamy had gone on for years after its public abandonment—he knew about this because his mother’s parents were among the secret polygamists. Hofmann eventually became, in the words of one expert, “the most skilled forger this country has ever seen.” For LDS leaders nervous about church history, he was a nightmare personified: a lying, murderous man hell-bent on embarrassing the religion while glorifying and enriching himself.

And he based at least one of his forgeries on the work of Michael Quinn. In 1981, he produced a blessing allegedly given by Joseph Smith to his son Joseph Smith III, declaring him “my successor in the Presidency of the High Priesthood.” The document was partly inspired, it appears, by “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” which refers to such a blessing. (There is “no conclusive evidence” it took place, Quinn writes, but he does not dismiss the idea of one outright.) If the blessing really happened, then Brigham Young, who led the early Mormons to Utah, might have been wrong to seize control of the church after Smith’s murder. Not long before Hofmann sold that forged document, he approached Quinn in the church archives, and asked about the succession crisis and the article.

The bombings and subsequent murder trial cast a pall over the practice of Mormon history. It was already, in the minds of some, a dangerous pursuit, and it had now become a deadly one, marred by fraud and riddled with errors. In the first few days after the bombings, several people who had come into contact with Hofmann feared for their lives. After Quinn finished his lunch at BYU, he decided not to go home. He went to stay instead with an old college friend, Richard Lambert. By then an assistant district attorney, Lambert later helped prosecute the case against Hofmann. Quinn, who later assisted the police in their investigation, did not go home for several days.

Wilford Woodruff in 1889.
Wilford Woodruff in 1889.

Wikimedia Commons.

It had been a difficult year. In the spring, he had published “LDS Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,” the culmination of his interest in post-1890 polygamy, first prompted a quarter-century before by Family Kingdom. Running almost 100 pages and including nearly 400 footnotes, the essay was the fruit of decades of thought and research. And it was not popular with those of the brethren that Quinn had already angered with his talk on Mormon history four years before. For the faithful, the simplest narrative regarding LDS polygamy is that God wanted Mormons to practice it between 1843—when He revealed the doctrine of “plural marriage” to Joseph Smith—and 1890, when He informed one of Smith’s successors, Wilford Woodruff, of a change in course. The church’s critics find the timing convenient: By 1890, the U.S. government had threatened to seize LDS property if polygamy wasn’t renounced. Where a skeptic sees convenience, a believer may see God’s hand. A diligent historian, meanwhile, will come to see that the truth of the matter is complicated. Woodruff himself said in his journal that he was “acting for the temporal salvation of the church,” and the 1890 Manifesto—as his official statement is known—was not immediately taken to be a divine revelation. Nor does it read like one. “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land,” it says. Some church leaders continued to marry multiple wives, which is why there was a Second Manifesto in 1904, during the Reed Smoot congressional hearings. Even after that, a few high-ranking Mormons continued to authorize such marriages. As Quinn writes, “the Manifesto inherited ambiguity, was created in ambiguity, and produced ambiguity.”

Quinn’s polygamy essay, meanwhile, produced more trouble for him with LDS leaders. After it was published, Hugh West, the president of his stake in Salt Lake City—Quinn never moved to Provo, finding the hourlong commute worth it to live in Utah’s one metropolis—asked to see him. West said he’d been told by a higher authority to “take further action” to “remedy the situation,” Quinn says. That higher-ranking leader, James Paramore, had further instructed West to say that the decision was West’s own, and had not come from above. West refused to do this, according to Quinn. Instead, he simply took away Quinn’s “temple recommend.” Temples, distinct from regular meetinghouses, are reserved for sacred rituals, and require a recommend, a small card indicating one’s worthiness, to enter. Quinn was an “ordinance worker,” meaning he went to the temple regularly and helped others perform those rites. West did not formally revoke the recommend, he just put it in his drawer. Quinn’s status in the church remained unchanged. But he could no longer go to the temple. He has not been since.

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The same month that his essay about post-Manifesto polygamy was published, in April 1985, Quinn and his wife separated. They divorced soon after. It was a long time coming: Quinn had known he was gay since he was 12 years old. As a Mormon, he also knew that “same-sex attraction” was considered unfortunate at best—something to be struggled with, and, if possible, overcome. When he came to understand this aspect of himself, and learned a name for it, he did what was already typical of him at that age: He went to the library. He looked in the card catalog under “pervert,” which was the word his grandmother had used after he told her that another kid at church had been groping him. The entry for “perversion” said “See homosexuality,” and he read all the available books in that category—not a lot in a small public library in 1956, though fairly heady stuff for a 12-year-old: Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, some Freud, some Havelock Ellis. Quinn read fiction, too, including James Baldwin’s new book, Giovanni’s Room. Even in the novels, he noticed, the gay characters came to terrible ends. He decided he would suppress that part of himself and be a good Mormon.

Or a great one, if possible: Since childhood, Quinn had been told by his grandmother that someday he would be an apostle of the church. This is not entirely uncommon in Mormon culture, but Quinn took it sincerely to heart. His father was never Mormon: The son of Mexican immigrants, he changed his name—though never legally—from Daniel Peña to Donald Quinn, apparently wanting to escape his heritage as well as his poverty. (He took the surname from actor Anthony Quinn, whom he knew growing up in the Los Angeles barrio.) Quinn’s mother, on the other hand, was a sixth-generation Mormon: She had an ancestor who converted when the Mormons were still in Nauvoo, Ill., and who is mentioned in Joseph Smith’s journals. Quinn’s parents were divorced when he was 4, and he was raised largely by his mother’s parents, who frequently fought. When they did, Quinn, an only child, would go to his room, put on a classical record, and turn the volume up.

From an early age, he felt within himself the presence of God, “this burning of the spirit,” as he says. He developed a fervent testimony not only that God exists but that God spoke to Joseph Smith face to face and that the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are, like the Old and New Testaments, divinely inspired. Ironically, this testimony only ever deserted him on his Mormon mission. While serving it in England, he was tasked with cleaning up the results of the “Baseball Baptism Program,” in which missionaries used sports to attract young converts. Once the kids were interested, the missionaries were supposed to contact their parents, with the aim of converting whole families. But some simply baptized the boys—a few without explaining what the baptisms were for. By the time Quinn arrived, the program had been disavowed, and many of these baptisms needed to be undone. Quinn went over local church rolls and found addresses of kids who didn’t come to Sunday services. He visited these homes with his missionary companion and asked the boys if they still wanted to be Mormons. Some did not know that they were.

Mike Quinn in his Rancho Cucamonga home in California this summer.
Mike Quinn in his Rancho Cucamonga home in California this summer.

Daryl Peveto/Luceo Images for Slate. © 2012

There was no process for voluntary withdrawal from the Mormon Church in the 1960s, so each of these kids had to be excommunicated—technically, for apostasy. Quinn was so depressed by the experience that for a few weeks he lost his belief in God completely. It was not the last time he helped to excommunicate people, though. At Yale, while serving as one of two counselors to the local bishop, he found unanswered letters in the ward’s files from people who wished to leave the church. He, the bishop, and the other counselor held the necessary courts, excommunicating those who wanted out. (These soon-to-be former Mormons were not required to attend.) More painfully, as a high councilor in a Utah stake several years later, Quinn was part of courts prompted by personal sin—such as engaging in homosexual acts. Quinn argued against excommunication, he told me, but he did not have the final say.

I asked Quinn this past summer if he thought the provocations he penned as a historian might have been fueled on some level by his own inner conflict with Mormon teachings—if perhaps, unconsciously, he wanted to force a showdown with church authorities. He had, after all, believed for many years that he would someday be a leader of the church, knowing that if this were true he would have to forever suppress an essential part of himself. Maybe, I suggested, he was trying to bring his full self out into the open. We were sitting in the front room of a house owned by a gay couple he knows in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Salt Lake City. He was housesitting. “I’ve had more than one therapist I’ve talked to about this issue say, ‘Don’t you see that you were purposely setting yourself up for this fall?’ ” he told me. But that was not how he experienced it. “I prayed every article I wrote into print,” he said, continually asking God what he should do. “I always felt that I had God’s sanction and encouragement, so I went ahead following that path.” Even early on, a fellow Mormon historian started telling Quinn he must have a “death wish” regarding his membership in the church.

In the early ’90s, when he was living in New Orleans, Quinn, nearing his 50th birthday, tried his hand at fiction, going back to the literature he once studied as an undergraduate. He wrote a short story about two male missionaries in Louisiana who become attracted to each other and are stalked by a religious psychopath. He revised the story occasionally over the next decade, submitting it unsuccessfully to the Paris Review and the Atlantic. He never wrote another work of fiction.

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During Quinn’s New Orleans years, the First Presidency put out a statement discouraging Mormons from participating in academic conferences and other independent forums devoted to the discussion of their faith. The main target of the statement, issued in August 1991, was the Sunstone Symposium, an annual gathering started by Sunstone magazine 12 years before. It had since become the premier event for the “so-called scholars and intellectuals” of Mormonism to gather and exchange ideas. “We appreciate the search for knowledge and the discussion of gospel subjects,” the First Presidency said. “However, we believe that Latter-day Saints who are committed to the mission of their Church and the well-being of their fellow members will strive to be sensitive to those matters that are more appropriate for private conferring and correction than for public debate.” “There are times,” they added, “when public discussion of sacred or personal matters is inappropriate.”

Dallin Oaks speaking at the General Conference.
Dallin Oaks speaking at the General Conference in April 1989.

Screenshot via YouTube.

The “Statement on Symposia” was another tear in the already fraying relationship between church leaders and scholars. In 1989, Dallin H. Oaks, the onetime law professor and BYU president who was now an apostle, had given a talk called “Alternate Voices” at the church’s semiannual General Conference. Using the familiar Christian metaphor of a lost sheep who listens “for the one voice that can guide it” back home, Oaks said Mormons should beware of “alternate voices … whose avowed or secret object is to deceive and devour the flock.” Among the voices Oaks warned about were the ones “heard in magazines, journals, and newspapers and at lectures, symposia, and conferences.” At the same General Conference, another apostle said that a true “stalwart” of the church “would not lend his or her good name to periodicals, programs, or forums that feature offenders who do sow ‘discord among brethren.’ ”

When the Sunstone Symposium next convened, in the summer of ’92, Lavina Fielding Anderson presented a paper on this growing conflict between leaders and intellectuals. In her paper, she mentioned an “internal espionage system that creates and maintains secret files on members of the church.” A BYU literature professor named Eugene England rose to speak as soon as Anderson finished. England said he knew about this espionage system—it was called the Strengthening Church Members Committee, and it compiled documents and highlighted statements considered critical of the church. It was run by William O. Nelson, he said, once an assistant to Ezra Taft Benson who now reported to Boyd K. Packer. Supposedly Nelson, like Benson, was a supporter of the John Birch Society, a radically right-wing, conspiracy-mongering, anti-Communist group. “I accuse that committee,” England declared, “of undermining our Church.”

Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith.

Wikimedia Commons.

Local TV reporters were filming the session, and the AP reporter Vern Anderson was sitting at the far side of the room about halfway back. He left quietly and went to call the LDS Church Office Building to ask about this committee. A church spokesman told him that it did exist, and the First Presidency issued a formal statement about it the following week. They cited a 19th-century revelation to Joseph Smith, in which he spoke of “the saints gathering up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon them,” and said that “perhaps a committee can be appointed to find out these things, and to take statements and affidavits; and also to gather up the libelous publications that are afloat.” The First Presidency did not mention that when Smith received this revelation he was in prison in Missouri, where a “Mormon extermination order” had been decreed by the governor not long before. As the historian Ross Peterson said at the time, “Comparing Sunstone and Dialogue folks to people who were shooting Mormons in 1839 Missouri is unfair.” Peterson, after speaking about Mormon temple rites in the press, had been shown his own file during a conversation with local church leaders. It went back to his college years.

The Strengthening Church Members Committee almost certainly passed along notes about Quinn to his new stake president, Paul Hanks, in early 1993. When Hanks showed up on Quinn’s doorstep in Salt Lake City that February, he brought a letter citing two of Quinn’s articles and a statement Quinn made to a reporter in 1991 as evidence that he was an apostate. One of the articles came from an anthology called Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, edited by Maxine Hanks, a distant relative of Paul—and his uncle Marion—and, soon, one of the September Six herself. The essay, “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843,” cites writings by Joseph Smith and other early church documents to argue that women already possess much of the spiritual authority granted to men, and that today’s LDS leaders simply fail to recognize this. Vern Anderson, the AP reporter, wrote an 800-word story about the essay in January, just before Hanks showed up at Quinn’s apartment.

Quinn read Hanks’ letter that night and wrote a detailed response. He recounted what his former stake president, Hugh West, had done when he received what Quinn saw as similar orders from above. He put down in words his sincere testimony in the Mormon gospel and in Ezra Taft Benson’s status as a true prophet of God. Then he made copies of his letter and Hanks’ letter and dropped them off at the offices of Vern Anderson and Peggy Fletcher Stack, a former Sunstone editor who had become a religion reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. Anderson wrote another piece that was again picked up by multiple papers, including the Los Angeles Times, which ran it under the headline “Mormons Investigating Him, Critic Says.”

Quinn went to California—he had another fellowship at the Huntington Library—staying this time with his mother. She was upset that he was not attending church, and so he drove 45 minutes to a “singles ward,” a Mormon congregation specifically for unmarried adults, near UCLA. He’d been told it was an unusually accepting congregation. During Sunday school, a man approached him and said, “The bishop would like to talk to you.” Quinn dreaded what was coming. When he went into his office, the bishop, a man named Tom Andersen, said “he’d read this article in the L.A. Times,” Quinn told me. The bishop’s next comment was, “What’s wrong with those people up in Salt Lake?” He was “thrilled” to have Quinn in his ward. He’d read the essay about women and the priesthood, and he asked Quinn to speak on the subject at an upcoming “fireside,” an informal evening meeting often held at Mormon meetinghouses. Quinn attended that ward in Westwood every week while he was in California.

And he continued to correspond with Paul Hanks, who had written to express his displeasure at seeing his words quoted in the newspaper. Quinn wrote back more harshly this time, listing all the things Hanks had done that troubled him. Hanks became conciliatory, reading “On Being a Mormon Historian,” and writing to say he’d gotten from it “deeper insight into your devotion and your dedication to history and the Church.” He asked again to meet when Quinn came back to Utah. Quinn refused. Hanks became less diplomatic. By “declining to talk with any priesthood leaders,” he wrote, “you are cutting yourself off from the blessings of the Temple and the blessings of the priesthood.” He insinuated that the church’s problems with Quinn were not all theological. “There are other matters that I need to talk with you about that are not related to your historical writings. These are very sensitive and highly confidential and this is why I have not mentioned them before in writing.” Hanks alluded to these matters in subsequent letters, but never explicitly said that he had Quinn’s sexuality in mind.

Quinn was convinced, in any case, that his fate in any disciplinary council was predetermined, that Boyd K. Packer wanted him out of the church and Hanks was going to make it happen. Hanks worked for the Church Educational System, where Packer had long been an administrator, and Quinn heard that Loren C. Dunn, a friend of Packer’s and fellow general authority, had spoken to Hanks personally. Whether Quinn’s fate had truly been sealed is hard to say. In September, Hanks wrote Quinn another letter, saying that he had listened, twice, to a recording of Quinn’s paper about the Baseball Baptism Program, delivered at the Sunstone Symposium that summer. He also mentioned reading Quinn’s long Dialogue article about the politics of Ezra Taft Benson. He referred to the “pathos that I felt in your private letters to me—a plea to not be discarded from something that you love.” “I want to help resolve that pathos,” he added, “and a sadness that seems to pervade your private writing to me.”

By then, Quinn had more or less moved on. He rejected the idea that his writings and his comments to reporters about Mormon history warranted disciplinary action, and he had come to a kind of peace about what he was sure awaited him. Hanks had already held one church court in Quinn’s absence, in July, at which Quinn was disfellowshipped. On the Sunday it was held, Quinn went to a movie theater in downtown Salt Lake and bought a ticket for the first screening he could find, to take his mind off the disciplinary council. The movie was a live-action adaptation of the Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. The noisy nonsense on-screen felt to Quinn like a rough equivalent of what the church was doing to him. Later that evening, having dinner alone, he felt a new sense of relief about what had happened so far and what he believed was about to happen.

*    *    *

Brigham Young, mid-19th century.
Brigham Young, mid-19th century.

Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Quinn’s final disciplinary council was held on Sept. 26, 1993, in the Salt Lake Stake Center, the headquarters for the oldest stake in Utah, founded by Brigham Young in 1847. The other five people who were by then being referred to as “the September Six” had already faced their courts. Maxine Hanks’ was held in the same stake center one week before, though she did not attend it. Lavina Fielding Anderson decided not to appear at her court, either, which took place at another Salt Lake meetinghouse a few days afterward. Paul Toscano, a combative lawyer, showed up for his, at the Cottonwood Stake Center in the southern part of Salt Lake City. It took several hours—a vigil was held outside for the first few, with candles and hymns and hot chocolate. Down in Provo, Avraham Gileadi met more quietly with his local leaders. Gileadi was not part of the Sunstone and Dialogue circles that the others moved in; he had been writing and teaching popular workshops about biblical and Book of Mormon prophecies, which appear to have been deemed “false doctrine” by LDS leaders. Gileadi, Toscano, Anderson, and Hanks were all excommunicated.

Lynne Kanavel Whitesides was not. She was also the only one whose disciplinary council was overseen by her bishop, rather than her stake president. The Mormon church holds two different kinds of disciplinary councils: a more elaborate process that is often reserved for those who hold the Melchizedek priesthood—generally speaking, all devout adult men—and a simpler process mostly used for those who don’t—meaning women and men who have not advanced far in the church. While the simpler approach is handled by a bishop and his two counselors, the more elaborate version is run by a stake president, and it involves not only his two counselors but the stake’s high council, a group of 12 men. Half of these men speak for the accused, and half for the church. (They draw numbers to pick sides.) After a prayer, the stake president explains to them the details of the case. The accused is called in, another prayer is offered, and the court proceeds. In both forms of LDS courts, the accused is typically allowed to bring in character witnesses.

Quinn told friends that he did not want anyone to lobby on his behalf. He himself did not even stay in town. He went to San Diego to give the keynote address for the annual conference held by Affirmation, a support group for gay and lesbian Mormons, and he stayed in California for several days afterward. At the conference, he spoke about the history of same-sex relationships in the church and the shifting attitudes toward them on the part of Mormon leaders. On Sept. 30 he called Hanks to ask what the court had decided. Hanks told him he had been excommunicated, and said that the court lasted six hours. Quinn was shocked that it took that long. Later he was told that despite his request that no one speak for him, a friend had attended and done just that, playing recordings of Quinn’s presentations at past Sunstone Symposia and reading excerpts from his writings. (Quinn attempted to reach this friend through a third party before my piece was finished, but declined to give me his name before speaking to him.) This friend, Quinn says, told him that the men on the council disagreed about whether Quinn was an apostate, and that President Hanks finally declared that Boyd K. Packer was pressing him to take action, and they needed to do something.

While Packer’s precise involvement remains a matter of dispute, what little is known hints at his interference. After Paul Toscano was excommunicated, Steve Benson, grandson of the then Mormon prophet, met privately with the apostles Dallin H. Oaks and Neal A. Maxwell, and asked them about—among many other things—the rumor that Packer had something to do with it. Oaks said Packer had met with Toscano’s stake president, and acknowledged that this was a mistake. When Benson asked why no one had stopped him, Oaks allegedly replied, “You can’t stage manage a grizzly bear.” Benson resigned his Mormon membership shortly afterward and became a vocal opponent of the church his grandfather ostensibly led.

In October, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a threatening phone call had been made to the home of a local man named Michael D. Quinn. (Quinn is known professionally as D. Michael Quinn; the first name on his birth certificate is Dennis.) This other Quinn was not home when the call came, and a baby-sitter answered the phone. She was told to pass along this message: “I’m tired of hearing him criticize the church. He’d better start keeping it to himself. If he doesn’t, I have his phone number and I know where he lives. I’ll come get him. I hate him. He stinks.”

*    *    *

Following the wave of media attention that greeted the September excommunications, the First Presidency defended what had taken place. They had “the responsibility to preserve the doctrinal purity of the church,” they said, adding that, because Mormon leaders are constrained by confidentiality rules, “the media have relied on information supplied by those disciplined or by their sympathizers.” Similar councils occurred more sporadically over the next few years. A former BYU professor named David Wright was excommunicated in 1994 after publishing a paper arguing that the Book of Mormon was not an ancient text. Paul Toscano’s sister-in-law was excommunicated for her writings about the Heavenly Mother, a controversial aspect of Mormon theology. His wife Margaret, an English professor and feminist who attracted attention from church leaders before her husband did, was excommunicated in 2000.

Disciplinary councils still happen, though they appear to be less frequent, particularly when it comes to apostasy. Once in a while such a case will hit the press. Last month, for instance, the Daily Beast reported that a blogger named David Twede was facing excommunication because of critical pieces he had written about Mitt Romney. This was almost certainly wrong: Romney has plenty of LDS critics, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the Church’s case against Twede will never be known: After the Daily Beast story, the council was postponed, and a few weeks later, Twede resigned from the faith.

Jay Christian, left, and thousands of other people protest against the passage of California's Proposition 8 outside the world headquarters of Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jay Christian, left, and thousands of other people protest against the passage of California’s Proposition 8 outside the world headquarters of Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 2008 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images.

While LDS leaders can be defensive about media attention, sustained criticism from the outside world seems to have an effect. After organizing a massive campaign to pass Proposition 8 and make gay marriage illegal in California, for instance, the church suffered a massive backlash and has since appeared more tolerant toward gay rights activism. Something similar, if more protracted, took place after September 1993. I attended the Sunstone Symposium this past summer, held on the University of Utah campus, and many people I spoke to there said that as Packer’s influence has waned, a more tolerant approach to dissent is taking hold. Earlier this year, Maxine Hanks became the first of the September Six to fully return to the Mormon Church since the conservative outlier Avraham Gileadi was quietly rebaptized almost two decades ago. At Sunstone, Hanks described her path back to Mormonism as a hero’s journey, à la Joseph Campbell. In order to have her blessings fully restored, she had to meet with a general authority at church headquarters. As she entered the building at 47 East South Temple, she happened to pass Boyd K. Packer on his way out. He was in a wheelchair. She was struck by how frail he appeared, and found herself feeling “nothing but compassion and love” for a man who had once seemed like an enemy. She said hello, but he did not recognize her.

In the field of Mormon history the changes are particularly pronounced. In 1997, the acclaimed historian Richard Bushman, who spent much of his career writing on non-LDS topics, began studying his religion again in earnest, and convened an annual seminar that helped attract young scholars who might have pursued other interests. In 2001, a long-standing effort called the Joseph Smith Papers Project received additional funding and became a major draw to those who wished to study the early days of the church. Crucially, much of that project is online—more than anything, the Internet has revolutionized the field. Nowadays, anyone can Google “Mormon polygamy” and learn more than they’d ever need to know about that practice, about its abandonment, the subsequent fallout, and so on. Packer’s notion that those writing church history should share only those things that are “faith-promoting” is not just intellectually offensive now—it has become quaint, the relic of a time when information was not so freely available.

Boyd Packer, left, and Dallin Oaks, right, Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wait for the start of the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Boyd Packer, left, and Dallin Oaks, right, Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wait for the start of the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference.

Photo by George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Which has also, it seems, made Michael Quinn’s singular focus on the unspoken parts of the Mormon past less relevant to younger historians, who operate with more freedom and less pressure—and who draw far more interest than their predecessors from the wider world, which has suddenly become fascinated by Mormonism. The field has grown and appears to have moved on, even though the research that Quinn did, and the fights that he picked, were crucial to what has come in his wake.

The timing of his career, which once appeared serendipitous, now seems almost cruel. Following his excommunication, he finished The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power and turned his attention to another scholarly book with deep personal meaning. Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example, published in 1996, argues that same-sex intimacy was much more accepted by early Mormons—including Joseph Smith—than it is today. The book won an award from the American Historical Association, but it brought Quinn more grief in Utah. He contends that a former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had openly romantic feelings for men, and highlights a once hushed-up gay affair from the 1940s between a prominent church leader and a 21-year-old Mormon serving in the Navy. Vern Anderson wrote an AP story about the book, and several Utah papers carried reviews. Quinn got hate mail. At the time, he was grieving the death of his son, who had gone missing and was found weeks later hanging from a tree by an extension cord. It was, Quinn told me, “an awful, awful year.”

When he had recovered enough to write, Quinn finished the sequel to The Mormon Hierarchy and revised Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview. Despite his productivity, though, he’s never broken back into academia. In 2004, after a series of fellowships and visiting appointments, he was the only finalist for a tenured position at the University of Utah. But multiple faculty members argued that, in the words of one professor, “Mike was not the right person to head up any kind of Mormon history or Mormon studies program given the fact he’s very publicly excommunicated. There would be quite a number of people in the Mormon community who would look unfavorably on that.” Later that year, Quinn was recommended for a one-year appointment at Arizona State. His hiring was vetoed by the ASU administration, and many observers believe the administration caved to pressure from Ira Fulton, a Mormon donor who between 2003 and 2006 gave at least $155 million to the school. Fulton has called Quinn “a nothing person.”

Mike Quinn in his Rancho Cucamonga home.
Mike Quinn in his Rancho Cucamonga home.

Daryl Peveto/Luceo Images for Slate. © 2012

With no regular income to speak of, Quinn moved into his mother’s condo in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. He slept on her futon and had no Internet access or health insurance. When his mother died in 2007, she left him the condo. He turned 65 two years later, making him eligible for Social Security and Medicare. He has continued to publish articles about Mormon history and to participate in the Sunstone Symposium. This year he completed the third and final volume in his trilogy on the Mormon hierarchy, which examines the church’s business and financial activities from 1830 to 2010. It will be published next year. Quinn is no longer actively seeking an academic job. He hopes that eventually he’ll manage to sell the condo and will get enough money for it that he could move back to New Orleans and live there for the last couple decades, God willing, of his life. He loves cities, and when he lived in New Orleans in the early ’90s, he made friends in bars and in an informal group of gay professionals who gathered once a month. He does not have friends in Rancho Cucamonga.

Just before his excommunication, in the spring of 1993, Quinn bore his testimony at the singles ward he was attending each week in Westwood, near UCLA. Mormons devote one sacrament meeting each month to personal testimonies, and Quinn was sure this would be his last opportunity to offer his in church. He got up in front of the congregation and declared his belief in the Mormon gospel, in Joseph Smith’s status as a prophet of God, and in the Book of Mormon as divine scripture. He then expressed his gratitude to the church for providing, throughout his life, a vehicle for service. The Mormon church, he said, drew him out of his largely monastic life and compelled him to help the men and women he saw every Sunday. He acknowledged to me that, of course, it is possible to find outlets for service outside of Mormonism. He has occasionally attended other churches. But nothing else has driven him to contribute to the lives of others the way the faith in which he was born and raised once did.