Twenty years ago this month, an event rocked the Mormon intellectual world that has been shaking it ever since.
It was September 23, 1993 when the last of the six feminists and intellectuals that would come to be called the “September Six” were disfellowshipped or excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormon Church.
The Mormon Church has a vibrant history of liberal intellectual thought, which has often served as a counterpoint and refuge for many in the conservative church. However this element was repressed by the “purge” of 1993 that sent many intellectuals packing from the church, by choice or by force. Boyd K. Packer, a leading apostle in the Mormon Church, is said to be the driving force behind the excommunications. He had shortly before said that the three biggest dangers to the church were homosexuals, feminists, and so-called scholars.
With the then-current president of the church, Ezra Taft Benson, being sickly and essentially non-functioning, Boyd K. Packer held greater power in the leadership of the church. Though some apostles, such as Dallin H. Oaks, had claimed that there was no organized “purge” and the excommunications all came from the local level, not from the presiding authorities in the church, many have suggested that this was indeed false and that the local leaders received calls and letters form church headquarters and from Boyd K. Packer himself. In the aftermath of the affairs, Dallin H. Oaks came off as deceptive, and Boyd K. Packer as uncontrollable. Dallin H. Oaks said of his fellow apostle Packer, “You can’t stage manage a grizzly bear.”
The repercussions from the September Six can still be felt in the Mormon community. On a general level, it shook many Mormons' faith in the leaders of the church. Some scholars have noted that the purge of the September Six marginalized much of the intellectual firepower which could have been used to help defend the church against the growing historical attacks on it in the 21st century. Many more liberal Mormon scholars in the years since have felt a need to keep their ideas silent, or go into areas apart from Mormon scholarship because of the events of September 1993.
There were social consequences too. The families of those involved, such as the daughters of Paul Toscano, an attorney who was excommunicated for his writings, experienced rejection in the very close-knit Mormon community in Utah. Even today, those who were involved still feel distress at the events. At a recent Sunstone Symposium, a meeting place for Mormon intellectual thought, Paul Toscano spoke with passion about how the men who lead the church put themselves as spiritual roadblocks for gays, feminists, and intellectuals in their quest for spiritual truth.
Toscano has also said that Mormonism has become "an archconservative culture built on the sand of family and tribal values with respectability as its chief cornerstone. Its adherents are less like living stones in the mystical temple of God and more like living stiffs in a morgue of quiet conformity."
Some Mormons have made restitution with the church. Avraham Gileadi, who was a conservative member of the September Six, was re-baptized three years after his excommunication and is currently an active member. Lynne Whitesides was never removed, as her local leader decided there was not enough evidence to excommunicate her and so decided to give her the lesser disciplinary action of dis-fellowship. She had shortly before published an article listing abuses of Mormon leadership in an article in Dialogue-A Journal of Mormon Thought. She is currently a practitioner of Native American spirituality.
Maxine Hanks is the opposite extreme from the Toscanos. She was excommunicated for her involvement in compiling and editing the book Women and Authority: Re-emerging Latter-day Saint Feminism. At the time she said how she was happy to be out and done with the church. She took a 20-year journey of faith where she became a chaplain in a Protestant church, and recently went through the long process of being re-admitted into the Mormon Church. She spoke the same weekend as Toscano, but instead of criticism toward the church, she showed respect and compassion, saying, “Nobody asked me to disavow my book or stop writing, they only asked about my relationship with Jesus Christ.”
D. Michael Quinn is arguably the most well-known of the group. He is a prolific writer on Mormon history, and has written five foundational books and over 20 articles. He is considered by many to be among the best and most important Mormon historians. In an address at the Sunstone Symposium 10 years after the events of 1993, he said the excommunication had been both a blessing and a curse. He had lost his companionship with the fellow members that he loved so much but gained the intellectual freedom to object to church leaders and policies.
After it all, D. Michael Quinn, like Lavina Anderson and other members of the September Six, still feel they are Mormon. “I still feel the burning of the spirit from time to time,” said Quinn. “I still talk to God as my Heavenly Father… I also feel the same convictions about the afterlife as I did from my teenage years onward. In view of Latter-day revelation, Mormons don’t or shouldn’t believe in a hell of everlasting torment and punishment. Instead Latter-day Saints believe in eternal degrees of glory for every human being except for those who hate God eternally. After death I expect to be as close to God or as distant from his presence as we are both comfortable to be. If that means that we can embrace once or twice, that is enough. If that means I will serve him and others more worthy than me from a distance throughout all eternity, then I am satisfied… If my status is to be as a twinkling star rather than as a brilliant sun as those who are exalted, I will be happy to be in my proper place in the companionship of those who feel comfortable to be in my presence.”
All of the September Six have gone on different paths since 1993, but their influence is still felt within the Mormon Church.