This massive housecleaning may be one of the church's largest since the 1850s, when thousands were excommunicated for everything from poor hygiene and low church attendance to disobeying the Ten Commandments.
In recent months, Mormons from Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Idaho have been expelled and many others have been threatened. Numbers are impossible to determine because excommunication records are guarded closely.
Don LeFevre, LDS spokesman, would not confirm that mass excommunications are unfolding. However, he did say LDS Church leaders increasingly have been concerned about ultraconservative ``super patriots'' and survivalists, many of whom have quit their jobs and moved their families to mountain retreats.
Those interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune say they have faced church discipline for a range of transgressions -- from having too much emergency food storage to adhering to the doomsday predictions of popular Mormon presidential candidate Bo Gritz, who received more than 28,000 Utah votes in the November election.
Targeted are those obsessed with the early speeches of LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson and who believe the ailing, 93-year-old leader has been silenced because his opinions no longer are politically popular.
``We support President Benson 100%,'' says Elaine Harmston, who was excommunicated from her Manti ward last month with her husband, Jim. ``He has warned us thoroughly. But there are some brethren who speak 180 degrees against him.''
LDS Church leaders worry that some members are taking too literally statements made decades ago by Elder Benson before he became president.
In a recent speech, Elder Malcolm Jeppson, a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy who oversees the Utah-South region of the church, urged Mormons not to ``take out of context words and statements made by church presidents that were given at a different time and circumstance than the present.''
He urged Mormons ``walking on the fringes of our faith to seek the safety of the center.''
At the church's October general conference, LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer cautioned members about falling for the survivalist line.
``Do not be deceived,'' he warned, by those ``who have not been regularly ordained by the heads of the church, who tell of impending political and economic chaos, the end of the world -- something of the `sky is falling.' . . . They are misleading members to gather to colonies or cults.''
LDS Church leaders from central and southern Utah complained of such ``troublesome ideologies'' during a Nov. 13-14 meeting at the Edgemont Stake Center in Provo. Elder Jeppson outlined a profile of dissidents. Stake presidents have used that profile to compile a list of warning signs.
``There is a lot of concern about some things that are going on,'' says Harold Nicholl, one of six Sanpete County stake presidents using the list as a guide for excommunications.
Among activities sounding the alarm at stake houses across the West:
-- The practice of home schooling.
-- Having leanings or membership in the John Birch Society.
-- Holding study groups.
-- An inordinate preoccupation with food storage.
-- Reading doomsday books and other materials unapproved by the church.
-- People who sell their services of gospel understanding for money.
-- Quoting the exact day of the coming of Jesus Christ.
-- Performing temple ordinances outside the temple.
To some, the list contradicts church standards. For decades, Mormons have been urged to store food for an emergency. The church always has insisted that members follow the president, whom the faithful believe is a prophet.
By the new standards, ``President Benson wouldn't even be allowed to stay in the church,'' says a prominent Utah Mormon, referring to the leader's association with the ultraconservative John Birch Society.
The profile apparently was used to finger Elaine and Jim
``Our stake president said, `You cannot discuss the gospel in your own home with anyone except your own family or you will be excommunicated,' '' says Elaine
Harmston. ``That was something we couldn't go along with.''
But it was more than scripture study that upset the Harmstons' Mormon leaders. The couple continue to teach and practice a special form of prayer prohibited outside Mormon temples.
Several weeks ago, the Harmstons' bishop read an open letter to the congregation warning them to stay away from the Harmstons' study group or risk discipline.
The next week, more people attended the study group than ever, Mr. Harmston claims.
``There are thousands of people hungry for the truth and they're tired of the pablum they're getting from the church,'' he says.
As the study group swelled, Manti church leaders began surveillance on the Harmstons' home, taking down visitors' license-plate numbers. The visitors were later called in for interviews by LDS leaders, says Mrs. Harmston.
Larry Garmoth believes that's how he got caught.
``It's a small town,'' he explains. ``Everyone knows what everyone else's car looks like.''
Mr. Garmoth says he was interviewed by his stake president and told not to associate with the Harmstons. Within weeks he was demoted from his security-guard job at the LDS Manti Temple to groundskeeper.
LDS Church officials feared Mr. Garmoth was letting apostates into the temple after hours to perform clandestine religious rituals -- a charge Mr. Garmouth denies.
``My guts are just torn out because of the stupidity of this thing,'' he says.
Another church member in nearby Fairview says he was threatened with excommunication for having too much food in storage.
``I was told that one year's worth of food storage is enough and anything more is excess,'' says the lifelong Latter-day Saint, who asked not to be identified.
He says he amassed a huge cache of food to help other church members during a crisis. ``I haven't done anything I haven't been told to do by the prophet.''
The extreme actions taken by LDS Church leaders indicate their sense of urgency in squelching the survivalist movement among their ranks. No fewer than three LDS general authorities spoke directly to fringe Mormons at the October conference.
Apostle M. Russell Ballard told members ``not to overreact'' to signs that the end of the world is near. He cautioned against being ``caught up in extreme preparations.''
While the church is focusing on the ultraconservatives for now, Elder Jeppson also has counseled stake presidents to watch out for feminists who advocate women holding the priesthood and pray to a Mother in Heaven. He also warns of intellectuals who challenge the origins of the Book of Mormon and church authority.
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