Do you want to find someone guilty? Whom do you want to accuse?

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]

i Note this is not the process by which commenters at BCC are banned.

ii M-W entry for “ostracism”

iii Source for Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes



  1. Thank you, mmiles. It was wonderful to read those minutes.

    A similar discussion just wrapped up on T&S, where there was some pointed discussion on exclusion.

  2. Great post, and a great response (whether it was intentional or not) to the T&S post Sonny mentioned.

  3. My understanding is that this post is a direct response to the T&S post–isn’t that the case, mmiles?

  4. Absolutely.

  5. Great post and all, but it kind of presents shunning as institutional and requiring effort, instead of organic and natural. I think the opposite is true — NOT shunning is institutional and requires effort. It’s hard not to shun the guy with the strong BO.

  6. Martin,
    You’re right that shunning come naturally to us in many ways and sometimes it requires effort to be with others. I think if we get stuck in a mindset that shunning is right and good, it becomes institutional.

  7. jJulie M. Smith says:

    Thank you.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    mmiles, I’m so glad I know you.

  9. This is aweseome. I think the ideas of mercy and forgiveness are not mentioned enough, but they are so key to our salvation and our progression. Forgiving someone has been at once liberating and empowering, in my own experience, and better healing for my own hurt than anything else. Thanks for this post mmiles.

  10. Mmiles, this is painful to read because my husband and I are going through it right now. At this point in our lives, we are seriously struggling with certain doctrinal issues and have stopped attending church. When we moved to our current location, and my husband started medical school, (and since we did our undergrad at BYU it is obvious what religion we were in) the Mormon church members–of which there are many in our school, strangely enough–have been giving us weird vibes. We can feel the eyes of judgment pouring into our backs when we do anything un-Mormonlike. I realize that we could be sensitive to this issue, but it’s hard to not think this way when they practically ignore us when we go places. Sigh.

  11. Thanks, mmiles. I hadn’t ever read these words by Joseph Smith and they really touched me – not so much because I treat others in the branch with any kind of ostracism, but these words: 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, have given me needful reminder of how I should go about dealing with my daughter right now. …


  12. One of the reasons I hear sometimes as a rationale for not associating with “sinners” is that it is necessary for self-protection and fear that others (like kids) may see you associate with a sinner and assume that you condone the behavior. The idea of sheltering the family to the point of excluding association with others, I think, takes on a life of its own. A personal experience– My oldest son wanted to invite a few friends over for pizza and X-box for his birthday when he was an early teenager. All the boys invited were LDS, except one neighbor boy who is not, but is an absolutely wonderful, wholesome kid. One of the LDS parents asked if any of the boys at the sleepover were not LDS and we said one was. She then said she would pick up her son late in the evening because he was not allowed to sleep over when a non member was present. She said that is what her Stake President did with his family and so she felt it is what she should do also. It was very awkward going into the family room to tell this poor kid that his mom was here to pick him up. Our son could not understand it and asked us why he had to go.

  13. Sonny,
    I too think it’s a silly thing. When someone gives me that rationale I want to ask if they live in a cave. But then again, I haven’t come across a kid that thought mom and dad condoned having sex out of marriage by letting a pregnant daughter live at home.

    Does anyone have an experience in which the self-protection and condoning explanation Sonny shared held weight?

  14. Note this is not the process by which commenters at BCC are banned Good to know.

  15. Sonny, I have encountered that practice, too, and find it utterly bizarre.

  16. the unpleasant obnoxious mumbling idiot

    Hey! I don’t mumble.

  17. In all seriousness, Great post.

  18. .

    Although this is kind of tangential. I can’t get this New Yorker article out of my head and I feel convinced there’s a connection.

  19. This is a brilliant post, mmiles. Th., that’s one of the most haunting pieces of journalism I’ve ever read. If you wanted to get really tangential, you could tie it to the crowds of people cheering Rick Perry’s death penalty record the other night during the Republican debates. To tie it all back to the OP: Do we cheer when the undesirables have been cast out of our congregations?

  20. Do we cheer when the undesirables have been cast out of our congregations?

    Honest question Kyle: Is there a difference between cheering when the undesirables have been cast out and cheering when the influence of the undesirables has been cast out?

  21. Well played, mmiles. This is a very, very nicely written post.

  22. .

    Not-so-secretly, I hope that story impacts Perry’s nomination chances. Lately I’ve been thinking that Republicans would consider it weakness if any moderates voted for them. Because I’m plenty open to voting Republican next year, but I’m not sure they want me to.

    Anyway, back to the previous two comments, I have never seen this cheering. I don’t doubt it happens (it’s a big Church, after all), but I’ve never seen it and so it’s hard to believe we as a people could ever be so unChristian. Maybe part of my stance comes from spending the last half-decade in a ward that is delightfully open and coming to see that as perfectly normal (about a year ago my dad told a story of my home ward wherein someone was talking bad about gay people and I was utterly befuddled — this happens in elders quorum???), but I look back at previous wards and I still have a hard time imagining cheering.

    I hope we’re getting better every year.

  23. .

    And, since I’m apparently going to be commenting a lot today, let me add something my grandfather used to say:

    If all sins smelled as bad as smoking, no one would come to church.

  24. mmiles,
    Great as always. One of the funny things about online discourse is that we are all capable of ostracism and it makes it so easy. There are plenty of people who, because they don’t live near me and because I’m tired of dealing with them, cease to exist for me when I turn the other way. There is a little blessing in that (I, for instance, get much less Tea Party propaganda than I used to), but it saddens me that I can so easily end a relationship (even a fractious, borderline self-abusive online one). Perhaps one of the ways that the internet is changing us is in making the ease of discontinuing online association seem appealing in real life. And that would be truly terrible.

  25. Wow. A great post.

    Some months ago, I was listening to a stake conference talk beamed in from SLC, and it struck me that we talk much more about being saved from the influence of the world than we do about being saved from our own sins. I wonder if our tendency to shun is a reflection of that, or another manifestation of the same concept: that the problem we seek to solve in church is not our own sin, but the sins of others having an effect on us.

    Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand and watch over them with tenderness.

    That’s some straight dope.

  26. I’ve always liked “The church is not a museum of saints but a hospital for sinners.” But we all dress ourselves up for a visit to the museum. Visiting the hospital, we would presumably not try to hide what ails us, but at church we do this all the time.

    Of course, waiting at a hospital to get an X-ray or something, we might encounter someone who just got a gunshot wound to the chest, and we might think, “Wow, at least I’m not as bad off as that guy.” So I guess the metaphor works in that sense. Unfortunately.

  27. I’m a bit late to the conversation, but I agree that this is a great (but challenging) post. JS consistently from Kirtland onward expressed a willingness to overlook or not seek out the sins of his co-religionists. This was a strength, but it also proved very difficult to manage.

  28. (I haven’t figured out yet how to isolate a quote from another poster. I apologize in advance…)

    Per Norbert:
    “…It struck me that we talk much more about being saved from the influence of the world than we do about being saved from our own sins.”

    Yes, yes, YES!

    I’m growing weary of people bemoaning “the world” lately. Folks, to quote Michael Jackson and friends: “We are the world.” The world is *us*. I feel like we’re starting to ignore the first part of “in the world, and not of the world.” We have far more in common with the “gentiles” around us than we do to Christ. Now, I know we’re supposed to be trending toward Christ, and hopefully we are, but my point is we’re probably a lot more like the “sinners” around us than we are to Him. Perhaps we need to be a little less afraid of our other brothers and sisters. I have work to do in this regard.

    We need to break a few eggs to make our eternal family omelet; be a little less afraid of the “unclean thing”–isn’t that all of us anyway?

  29. I was raised by a social worker who was very accepting of others regardless of their problems, disarrangements, addictions, antisocial tendencies, etc. My Dad loved everybody taking them as they came. Sadly, my experience has been that the saints have been the opposite. I generalize and can think of many many counter examples, but if I had to see a trend, it would be towards exclusion rather than acceptance of others who are different, hold different opinions about this and that, or are struggling with things that have an outward expression that can be keyed in on. We spend so much time talking about how the world is out to get us and how we’ve got to be constantly vigilant and somehow this has come to mean we’ve got to watch out for others, rather than welcome and succor them.

  30. By the by, people this is an important post (thanks mmiles). Also I love unicorns and accept them without qualification.

  31. 27. I’m really interested in this “This was a strength, but it also proved very difficult to manage.” Could you expand on that a little? Thanks.

  32. Wonderful. Thank you.

  33. Thanks all for your generous comments.

    “the problem we seek to solve in church is not our own sin, but the sins of others having an effect on us.”
    That’s truly profound. I know I seek to keep others sins from having any effect on me, often to my detriment. But it was Eve’s transgression that have me life, and the sins of others and how they affect me, and the way I affect others that are the point of life. None of us leave this world without scars. We are here, as Nephi said, to act and to be acted upon.

    That’s tough. I hope it gets better.

    Wow. Thanks for linking. We hate the injustice in the world and we need to find someone to blame, usually if falls to the weakest (or poorest) and most incapable of defending themselves who get the blame.

    Blessings to you and your daughter.

    Indeed. Some of the irony here is that Joseph Smith is the one that suggested they vote sisters in, or not.

    Right back at ya’.

    John C,
    I’m also glad I know you.

  34. mmiles, this post gives me great hope. I love me a good JSJ quote, and the RS minutes from Nauvoo are a treasure- thank you for including them. The post at T&S made my stomach hurt, and I found myself unable to contribute anything- this is a balm for that pain. Thank you.

    Like RJ says, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

  35. Mommie Dearest says:

    Tracy I hope I didn’t cause you any pain, I commented briefly and late on that thread.

    I’ve been sorting out this question and related tangents for most of my life. It’s hard to figure out what to say here without getting all RTS on you. Perhaps it’s just my point of view, but I see they way we ostracize and stigmatize people as a formidable problem in the church and largely unexamined. So many otherwise good and decent people are just simply blind to their own smug superiority. The worst part of it is the cost to others which ranges from mildly hurt feelings to great distress that brings all function to a halt. It impacts the church as a whole by destroying it’s credibility, and it’s ability to do good things in the world. And no one. ever. talks. about it.

    I find it hard to frame my thoughts without looking like a first class whiner.
    Alan is correct in saying (in 28) that we give far too much attention to being saved from the influence of the world and not enough to being saved from our own sins. I think in the frantic effort to avoid the appearance of evil, that some unseen evils are committed.

  36. Tracy,
    The T&S thread left me disturbed, more so that perhaps any other thread I have read in the Bloggernacle. I don’t comment much, usually just to thank someone for a great thought, but I felt I had to comment on that thread. It has been through a few experiences the past few years that have convinced me, finally, of how much we need to uplift one another in this life. I see this as a clear directive for me to follow, and not to be practiced on only those in good standing in the church.

  37. “It’s hard to figure out what to say here without getting all RTS on you.”

    Best. Line. Ever.

    I participated on the T&S thread but finally gave up. I just didn’t want to keep reading it and some of the comments and feeling like I was defending Jesus of Nazareth to my fellow religionists. it just got too discouraging.

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