Dissidents are Driven Out in Mormon Purge

The Sunday Times (London), April 26, 1998
By Susan Ellicott, Los Angeles

Jim Harmston and his wife Elaine used to look forward to services at the 143 year old Mormon Temple overlooking their hillside home in Manti, Utah. But since November they have had to pray elsewhere, excommunicated in one of the Mormon church's biggest expulsions of its members since the 1850's.

"We haven't done anything that our founders wouldn't have done," protests 51 year old Elaine, a mother of five. "In fact, we've done less. We've never practiced polygamy."

As political correctness sweeps America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has launched a purge of dissident thinkers, apparently aimed at giving it a more mainstream image and distancing it from fundamentalist practices.

The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that hundreds of Mormons in the states of Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Nevada have been disciplined or expelled. Church leaders dispute the figures, saying they are "grossly exaggerated", but refuse to elaborate. The Harmstons say they know of a dozen acquaintances expelled in recent weeks.

Many members are being punished for espousing the very doctrines which the original church leaders went into exile in 1846 to defend, trekking across the Great Plains to set up a community where they would be free to worship as they pleased.

Brigham Young, who led the pilgrims on a 1,300 mile journey to Utah and oversaw the building of Salt Lake City, introduced polygamy in 1852. A restoration of Old Testament traditions, the practice was briefly adopted as a way of boosting membership numbers, but was officially abolished in 1890 as a condition for Utah joining the Union.

The Harmstons probably fell from grace because they made no secret of their belief that the church will one day reinstitute polygamy. The couple are also "survivalists" who store at least a year's supply of food in preparing for Armageddon. Church officials, however, have become increasingly irritated by the amount of publicity given to right-wing, armed Mormons preaching about Christ's second coming from remote mountain outposts.

Elaine suspects the couple were "shopped" to the church elders by a Mormon who attended one of their study groups and was offended by their views. The couple were warned to stop their discussions and later received a letter expelling them from the church for apostasy, or the teaching of false doctrine.

"What's happening here is that the Mormon church is moving more to the left to appeal to the rest of the world," complains Harmston, a building contractor and one time Mormon missionary. "Those of us to the right are being cut off as if we're expendable."

James Allen, a professor at Brigham Young University who was raised as a Mormon, says the latest purge is unusual because it is targeting fundamentalists and conservatives rather than liberals. During the purges of 1850s, expulsions were meted out for lax church attendance, poor hygiene and disobedience of the Ten Commandments; excommunications were reserved for immorality or apostasy.

Allen says the church, which preaches the merits of chastity, personal responsibility, family values and the capitalist work ethic, has been moving towards the mainstream since the turn of the century.

Elders have warned Mormons in past weeks to refrain from taking "out of context" the words of church presidents "at a different time and circumstance".

Other Mormons facing disciplinary action and possible excommunication include Ronald Garff, a survivalist who has been selling videotapes with extracts of speeches from Mormon ecclesiastical leaders. The tapes imply the world will end around April 6, 2000. Excommunication is a reversible measure, but it hits Mormons where it hurts, barring them from taking part in religious services.

The church, always secretive, has been reluctant to discuss the disciplinary measures. Don LeFevre, a spokesman at its Salt Lake City headquarters, says all details are being kept secret "to protect the individuals". But at a time when the church is especially sensitive about its image, the excommunications have done little more than attract unwelcome publicity.

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