Guilt by Association: Apostasy in the Temple Recommend Interview
In this neck of the woods, it’s probably one of the more awkward questions from the temple recommend interview.
“Do you affiliate with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or do you sympathize with the precepts of any such group or individual?”
What does that actually mean? That you go to coffee shops? Shop at Wal-Mart? Live as a part of a bisexual commune? According to social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, humans are hardwired to think in terms of social networks. When we become acquainted with a new person, idea, or organization, we’re not naturally given to ask questions of its objective goodness; we want to know: “is he/she/it a friend or a foe? Will it help my cause (what e’er it may be) or hurt it? What’s in this new association for me?” By Haidt’s reasoning, Church leaders’ desire to know where you stand is a fundamental human impulse.
The Saints have long exhibited this impulse of establishing boundaries between themselves and the unbelievers. Though the Kirtland Temple and Nauvoo Endowment had no formal questionnaire, those who received these ordinances were handpicked by church leaders. Joseph Smith regularly held disciplinary hearings when individuals were caught even so much as uniting with the world in a dance.” From Winter Quarters to his death, Brigham Young acquired a reputation for making the environment inhospitable to members who had apostatized. In 1856, Heber C. Kimball declared that recommends should only be issued to those who do not “speak against the authorities of the Church and kingdom of God” and “pay due respect to their presiding officers.” The earliest list of worthiness questions came during the 1856 Mormon Reformation when church leaders sought to infuse–or scorch, in many cases–the Saints with a new fire of spirituality. One of the questions asked the Saints if they “speak against…any principle taught us in the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Doctrine and Covenants, Revelations given through Joseph Smith the Prophet and the presidency of the Church as now organized” (see John Pulsispher Notebook/Autobiography, 56-57). In the late 1860s, William Godbe lead a faction of free market spiritualists in opposition to Brigham Young economic protectionism and religious strictures. Orson Hyde compared the Godbeites to the premortal of Lucifer. With words drenched in sarcasm, Hyde mused: “Would it not have been far better for Lucifer to remain in heaven with all his difference of opinion, causing a very agreeable variety in the midst of the heavenly throng?”
The exact question regarding affiliation with dissenter communities was formalized in the years following the ending of plural marriage in 1890. Polygamists continued to marry and with some degree of official sanction, but it tapered off with some degree of rapidity. By 1904, church leaders had issued a second Manifesto clamping down on any vestiges of plural marriage in Mormons. Yet it took some time for leaders to enshrine the question in the interview. Future FLDS leader Joseph Musser remained in the good graces of several church leaders for several years afterwards. Even after being disfellowshipped, Musser was commissioned to preside over the India mission in 1909.
It would not be until the early 1920s when the Church began to purge plural marriage supporters from their ranks. By the 1930s, polygamists had been ostracized from the mainstream Mormon community. He could not find work, and “many…erst-while friends and loved ones now shun[ned him].” In 1933, the First Presidency released a statement declaring that plural marriages were “unauthorized and therefore illegal and void, but [also] contrary to the rule of the Church.“ Those affiliated with polygamist movements were to be prohibited from church activities “such as entry into the temples, the payment of tithes, participation in the activities of the priesthood quorums or of the auxiliary organizations of the Church, or in other Ward, Stake, or Church activities-and should, unless now truly repenting, be immediately and formally dealt with by excommunication, as directed in the Official Statement.”
It’s tempting to pigeonhole the “affiliation” question to the anti-polygamy campaign of the early-twentieth century. But the rise of this question was merely the latest incarnation of a longstanding Mormon (and really, institutional) impulse to draw theological lines in the sand. When leadership included the question in the 1940 General Handbook of Instructions, they were not breaking new ground. Nor has the question been confined to the topic of plural marriage since then. The 1985 handbook changed the wording from focusing on “affiliation with or sympathy for” apostate groups to sympathy for their “precepts.” A few years later, the wording continued to address polygamy but only as a parenthetical example of groups considered to be “apostate cults” (for above references, see here) In 2013, this question has come to be seen as being more ambiguous, even if the territorializing impulse has been par for the Mormon course. Does supporting gay marriage constitute apostasy? It largely depends on whether one is a Saint in a San Francisco singles ward or in a family ward deep in the heart of the Mormon corridor.
G.K. Chesterton once quipped that morality (and, I would add, fidelity) is “like art, ” as it “consists [of] drawing the line somewhere.” Defining this line between ourselves and the institutional church is a profoundly personal journey and well-beyond the parameters of this post. It’s a line that has been vexing, taxing, rewarding, and heartbreaking journeys for Latter-day Saints of all persuasions.