The Unholy Practice of Excommunication

For the second time, the case of Lavina Fielding Anderson has demonstrated that the church discipline system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), especially the draconian practice of excommunication, protects men in power from the inconvenience of criticism and harms the vulnerable people those men are supposed to serve.

In 1993, Lavina Fielding Anderson was excommunicated by a male-only church disciplinary council (the only kind that exist in our church) for whistle-blowing about instances of abuse perpetrated by male priesthood leaders.  Since then, in spite of the humiliating and ostracizing sanctions placed on her for a quarter century as part of the disciplinary process, she has continued to attend church.

After she was recently widowed, another male priesthood leader at last allowed her to seek re-baptism.  The only way back according to church policy would be submitting to another disciplinary council. This time, the men who judged her deemed her worthy to return to church membership.

Today it was announced that the First Presidency denied her request for re-baptism anyway.

The basic protocols for church discipline come from scripture: Doctrine and Covenants section 102, to be exact. However, the header of most sections of the Doctrine and Covenants  begin with the word “Revelation…” followed by details about how this divine instruction was obtained. Section 102, outlining the church discipline system, makes no such claims.  Its header begins with the word “Minutes…” and clearly explains that the LDS church disciplinary council system was established by a group of mortal men who voted on the matter at a male-only meeting in 1834.

The men at that meeting voted for a set of church disciplinary protocols that were fairly standard for their time. Neither religious nor secular justice systems had advanced much since the Salem witch trials demonstrated just how well patriarchy-administered justice serves women. One of their contemporaries, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, described the male-only criminal justice system of their time this way: “[Men] will be judges, jurors, sheriffs; and give woman the right to be hung on the gallows.” It was still 45 years before any state in the United States would admit women onto juries⁠—the first would be Mormon-dominated Utah in 1898⁠and it wasn’t until 1973 that women could not be barred from juries anywhere in the country.  Back then, many faith communities excommunicated activists as a matter of course; Angelina Grimké was excommunicated from her Presbyterian congregation in 1829 for supporting the abolition of slavery. Abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone was excommunicated by her Congregational church in 1851.

We’ve come a long way in our societies since then, but LDS church discipline policies have not. We treat the meeting minutes in Section 102 with as much respect as we do actual revelation and with much more respect than the vulnerable people in our congregations.

Could inspired policy come from a committee meeting? Sure, but we can only judge it by its fruits. Lavina Fielding Anderson’s case is just one of many in which church disciplinary councils have traumatized, discriminated, and coerced. It is time we stopped pretending mortal men have godlike power to cast people out of heaven. Instead of punishing widows like Anderson, our ecclesiastical leaders could focus on following scriptural directives to honor, comfort and protect them.

I do not fault the 19th century men at that meeting for introducing such a flawed and harmful church discipline system into our church. That was the way things were done back then. They knew no better.

But we do.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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23 Responses

  1. Violadiva says:

    Brilliant. Yes.
    And in the case of Lavina, the redemptive power of the atonement seems to be a complete moot point. There is nothing, not even the 25 years of faithful attendance and compliance with her discipline, she can do to be given a path of forgiveness and possible readmission. The atonement doesn’t apply to her, even after 25 years of sackcloth and ashes.
    Her unforgivable crime? Certainly not murder, the unforgivable sin, but in shining light on unethical and harmful abuses carried out by church leaders.
    Man in power abuse a child? Slap on the wrist. Point out ways men in power are abusing those they serve, millstone around her neck and tossed into the ocean. I rage at this horrific rejection of her humanity and her humility. And I hope she never stops singing about all the toxic gases in our mine. I hope this inspires more and more people to join their voices with hers in revealing abuses of ecclesiastical powers until someone listens.
    Unlike last time, I hope Lavina feels the community of people all over the world who are supporting her.

  2. Nancy Ross says:

    Today’s news was terrible. I’m sorry that Lavina has had to suffer this additional rejection from the church. She is a loving and kind person, a generous mentor, and someone I’d want in my congregation as a full participant. I grieve with her today.

  3. Karinna says:

    I admire Lavina’s courage to speak truth to power. She never should have been excommunicated, very saddened by this news.

  4. SizzlingFeminista says:

    Excellent piece; heart wrenching new. Latina never should have been excommunicated to begin with. I believe on that day of atonement there will be much weeping, but not on Lavina’s part. I believe she is right with Christ, and she will be graciously welcomed by him. I believe these men will have much to answer for… in the end, it shows how fearful they are of women who use their intellect to hold men accountable. Silence is a primary tool of oppression, and these actions at their core are an attempt to silence here. I hope and pray it backfires as it inspire a new generation of Mormon’s to read the works of Lavinia and the rest of the September Six to see what the First Presidency and Q15 most fear….

  5. Mary says:

    Honestly, if God wants her in Heaven even the First Presidency can’t keep her out…maybe just maybe, They wanted to reinstate her and God said “not yet.” If her heart is in alignment with God then she has absolutely nothing to worry about. Your statement that these men can keep people out of Heaven is ludicrous… God can and will admit whom He will. I support the First Presidency and feel that they follow direction form God. I pray that she keeps faithful and uses the principles of the gospel to progress, as we all need to do.

    • Tessa says:

      If the First Presidency had legitimate concerns about her worthiness, they should have explained that in their rejection letter. They should have said she could not be rebaptized because of XYZ and said that she should work with her local leaders to resolve those issues and that if she did so, her application would be reconsidered. Instead they sent her a form letter saying essentially, nah, request denied. This demonstrates a callousness and cruelty unbefitting of their calling.

  6. Julia says:

    I wish Lavina love and peace in her journey. She does not deserve the heartache from this dashed hope. Hopefully at some point, their hearts will be softened.

  7. Erin says:

    So just to get this straight:

    A man like Sterling van Wagnen can sexually molest a child, but is only disfellowshipped for a couple years, and is then paid by the church (with, among other sources, Canadian tithing money) to teach at BYU and then later paid again to direct the most sacred film shown in the temple.

    Lavinia shines a light on unrighteous dominion and is excommunicated for life.

    Shame on them. Shame on them all.

  8. Marion says:

    About the men excommunicating and then denying Lavina rebaptism: Words that come to my mind is “who do they think they are?”. And then I realize; of course, this is the problem – who they think they are in comparison to everyone else, especially women. “Above and beyond”, not servants.

    This news is incredible – awfully so. And sad.

    Lavina is a better saint than I, and deserving of so much better than this.

  9. Chiaroscuro says:

    In the news article I read it sounded like her local leadership expected her to get a call from Salt Lake and to be reinstated. She never even got a call. I am inspired by Lavina’s dedication to the church in spite of all it has put her through. I am so sad and angry that speaking out against bad practices by church leaders is apparently considered worse than rape or killing someone. She has spent decades doing everything they have asked, and they won’t let her be an official member in good standing. I watched a documentary on Amazon yesterday (“No Crime in Sin”) about an LDS man who abused his 2 daughters for about 15 YEARS and then the church only excommunicated him for ONE YEAR. Really? This is supposed to be God’s justice??!!

  10. There is a lot I don’t know. And framing is often unfair. But I know Maxine Hanks speaks for her so all I have for LFA is love and hope.

    Not exactly a response to the original post but I wish LFA the best, light and continued grace.

  11. Ashley Archuleta says:

    I cannot imagine the strength of courage, conviction, and faith it takes to attend weekly a church that has denied Lavina the basic kindness of belonging. I believe in love and forgiveness and compassion and righteousness and integrity. I believe in that power. And I believe the First Presidency has used none of these in her second rejection. Where does that leave us? Where does that leave them? God will judge us all. I pray for more mercy than we’ve figured out how to show each other.

  12. Risa says:

    This is the church’s loss. Lavina is a wonderful human being and has continued to serve faithfully and humbly despite being humiliated by priesthood leaders at every turn. The first presidency could have done the Christ like thing and allowed a widow the peace and comfort of her faith. Once again, it’s worse in the church to be someone who shines the spotlight on abuse than to be an actual abuser. Shame.

  13. Allison says:

    I can only hope that the reason for denial of rebaptism is because our Heavenly Parents didn’t accept the excommunication in the first place.

  14. Moss says:

    My heart breaks. She has always been an example of faith and concern for the ‘least of these’. Sending you my love, LFA. We are a better people with you.

  15. Eleanor says:

    April, thank you for your incisive post. I feel so personally saddened by this news. After reading Peggy Fletcher Stack’s article (linked in April’s post), I realized that many of us share Lavina’s ongoing concerns, including the exclusion of women from institutional authority and the side-stepping of the Heavenly Mother doctrine. I couldn’t help but wonder if I, too, would be excommunicated if my concerns were made public. Once again I feel the chill wind of the mid-90s. How is it that we have made so little progress?

  16. Ziff says:

    Great post, April. This is such a sad outcome. Lavina deserves so much better!

  17. Wendy says:

    I got chills when reading this, April. Yes. Yes. Yes to everything you said. This is wrong and we know much better.

  18. SisterStacey says:

    Today is a day that I struggle to stay. I’ve struggled with Nelson as a “prophet” since he was called and then the MTC Abuse Scandal hit and now this. It’s dang hard to be a woman in this church sometimes. Well… anything but white and male.

  19. Anonymous says:

    There are (at least) three very significant problems with this post.

    First, the disciplinary procedure outlined in D&C 102 is absolutely “by revelation:”

    “The high council was appointed by revelation for the purpose of settling important difficulties which might arise in the church, which could not be settled by the church or the bishop’s council to the satisfaction of the parties.” D&C 102:2.

    To say that “the LDS church disciplinary council system was established by a group of mortal men who voted on the matter at a male-only meeting in 1834” is inaccurate.

    Second, excommunication has been a practice within the church since ancient times. Paul specifically refers to “silencing” those “rebellious people, full of meaningless talk.” There are many reference to “blotting out” the names of transgressors, etc. And, given there is no evidence that this ancient practice is a mortal construct, and given its consistency since antiquity, it’d seem prudent to not criticize the practice of excommunication in case deity had something to do with it.

    Third, for as many self-proclaimed intellectuals as there are that frequent this site, I’m shocked not to see more comments admitting what they don’t know rather to suppose what they do. The reasons and motives behind the First Presidency’s decision are, objectively, unknown. Thus, to criticize them as has been done on this site is perniciously irresponsible. Further, given Lavina’s 1993 article was an attack on the church, I would be surprised that she would be admitted for re-baptism without disavowing her prior work. The point is not that she has the right to engage her subject matter. She certainly does. But a member of an organization doesn’t have the right to do so and maintain their membership in the organization while attacking it from within (which is exactly what she did). That’s called common sense.

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