The history of ostracism can be traced to Athenian democracy. The word ostracism comes from the Greek ostraka (from ὄστρακον), or potsherds. Pieces of broken pottery served as scraps (like paper) on which to vote. Every year Athenians had the chance to cast someone out of society for up to ten years. But instead of finding fault with someone and thus casting the penalty on them, citizens were first asked; Do you wish to find someone guilty? This didn’t mean that someone needed to be found guilty of actually doing something that fell outside of the realm of normal social conventions; but simply the person was found unacceptable in the moment—often given his or her political leaning.[i] If the winning vote was yes (and I’m guessing a lot of people who bothered to vote were up for a good banning), then the next round of voting was to decide who to ban. Whom do you wish to accuse?
Within communities ostracism today serves to regulate social norms and behaviors. Ostracism excludes by general consent from common privileges or social acceptance.[ii] Within Mormonism formal ostracism takes place in the form of disfellowshipping and excommunication. This means by common consent of the religious community (via chosen leaders) persons who have broken religious norms are excluded from common privileges such as taking the sacrament or entering the temple. However for Mormons this cannot mean the person being formally ostracized (or the person not being ostracized) is shunned; deliberately and especially habitually avoided—but the opposite action is taken.
It’s too easy to pat ourselves on the back, assured we don’t live in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Boston and that there aren’t modern day Hester Prynnes within our own religious community, while still allowing ourselves an internal yes vote to the question, “Do you wish to find someone guilty? We drool the names from our tongues; the drug addict, the alcoholic, the gossip, the gay, the thief, the unpleasant obnoxious mumbling idiot, the adulterer, the divorcee, that guy sent home from his mission, that girl that always dresses like that, that family with the badly behaved children, the incessant boaster, the person with the strong body odor. We beg for the next question, Whom do you wish to accuse? Once you get to vote on the first question, the possibilities are endless personal prerogatives.
In the early Relief Society of Nauvoo, sisters voted new sisters in. Upon seeing the unkindness toward a Sister Overton, Joseph Smith stood and said he was “going to preach mercy.”
It grieves me that there is no fuller fellowship— if one member suffer all feel it— by union of feeling we obtain pow’r with God. Christ said he came to call sinners to repentance and save them. Christ was condemned’d by the righteous Jews because he took sinners into his society…
Supposing that Jesus Christ and angels should object to us on frivolous things, what would become of us? We must be merciful and overlook small things… It is the object of this Society to reform persons, not to take those that are corrupt, but if they repent we are bound to take them and by kindness sanctify and cleanse from all unrighteousness, by our influence in watching over them — nothing will have such influence over people, as the fear of being disfellowship’d by so goodly a Society as this. Then take Sis. O. as Jesus received sinners into his bosom.
Sis. O. In the name of the Lord I now make you free.
Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what pow’r it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.
It is one evidence that men are unacquainted with the principle of godliness, to behold the contraction of feeling and lack of charity. The pow’r and glory of Godliness is spread out on a broad principle to throw out the mantle of charity. God does not look on sin with allowance, but when men have sin’d there must be allowance made for them.
All the religious world is boasting of righteousness — tis the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind and retard our progress, by filling us with self-righteousness — The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more are we dispos’d to look with compassion on perishing souls— to take them upon our shoulders and cast their sins behind our back. I am going to talk to all this Society— if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.
Lord saying, that soul that has righteousness enough to ask God in the secret place for life, every day of their lives shall live to three score years & ten— We must walk uprightly all day long— How glorious are the principles of righteousness! We are full of selfishness— the devil flatters us that we are very righteous, while we are feeding on the faults of others. We can only live by worshipping our God— all must do it for themselves— none can do it for another. How mild the Savior dealt with Peter, saying “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren”— at another time he said to him “lovest thou me? ‘Feed my sheep.” If the sisters love the Lord let them feed the sheep and not destroy them.
How oft have wise men & women sought to dictate br. Joseph by saying “O if I were br. Joseph I would do this and that.” But if they were in br. Joseph’s shoes, they would find that men could not be compel’d into the kingdom of God, but must be dealt with in long suff’ring— and at last we shall save them. The way to keep all the saints together and keep the work rolling, is to wait with all long suff’ring till God shall bring such characters to justice. There should be no license for sin, but mercy should go hand in hand with reproof.
Sisters of this Society, shall there be strife among you? I will not have it— you must repent and get the love of God. Away with self-righteousness. The best measure or principle to bring the poor to repentance is to administer to their wants— the Society is not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.
Nauvoo RS minutes June 9, 1842[iii]