Is There Really No Room at the Mormon Inn for “Nonconformist” Believers?

Laura Harris Hales is the executive producer of LDS Perspectives Podcast. After raising five brilliant children, she took her brain out of cold storage and has since worked as a paralegal, adjunct English professor, academic editor, and freelance copy editor. She is also the co-author and editor of books published by Greg Kofford and RSC/Deseret Book respectively.

The noted Swedish theologian and Harvard Divinity School professor Krister Stendahl is famous for urging followers of all faiths to leave room in their hearts for “holy envy.” He meant it as a departure for understanding other religions, but I have always taken it as a fitting label for the unfulfilled yearnings of my religious soul.

A part of me will always be searching for those missing pieces. Perhaps that is why the advertisement on my Facebook page announcing a “fascinating conference on the Book of Mormon happening this month at Utah State University. Details here! Spread the word!” caught my attention. I attended; “fascinating” was apt. I’m a conference-going nerd, and this was the most intellectually and spiritually inspiring one I had ever attended. I wasn’t envying anything on Friday.

My euphoria was not unlike that of an adolescent boy who sneaks into a slightly naughty movie. This was not your typical conference. It was similar to those closed academic conferences at which I had always wished I could have been the proverbial fly on the wall. The presenters gave their speeches and then responded to feedback, clarified points, explained where they were going next with their research. Serious? Is this a thing? Pinch. Phew. I’m awake. “The Book of Mormon: Toward a Conversation” lived up to its name.

Even the lighthearted keynote address by John Turner was taken from a different playbook. “My religion isn’t ‘non-Mormon,’” he joked. “I’m actually a Presbyterian of the evangelical tradition.” Then he embarked on a short treatise on a topic, which he unabashedly admitted he had but shallow knowledge. When questioned about his next project in Mormon studies, he bluntly declared that he didn’t anticipate one. Two projects had sufficed; apparently Mormonism doesn’t hold an overwhelming fascination for everyone.

After an intoxicating first day, I did the unprecedented in schlepping myself to the organizing meeting.

The order of business was deciding if they wanted to continue “this.” “Yes, oh yes,” my soul screams. I laud the organizers for creating an atmosphere akin to that of a closed conference yet opening their doors to the public. My husband bemoans that it wasn’t better advertised because he found it faith-promoting and thought additional attenders, if there had been more, might have similarly benefitted.

The organizers redirect the focus. Any future organization would need to have that closed academic focus and the conference was intentionally under-advertised. (Umm, “spread the word” to only certain individuals?) A first-year masters’ degree student pipes up. He needs a forum to freely explore the Book of Mormon on an academic level without upsetting mainstream members. I hear you, buddy. I hear you.

Wait. Was this a mistake?

Have you ever felt like an interloper? I think the most awkward I have ever felt was when I made the mistake of double dating with my college roommate. It was a first for me, and she was with her fiancé. After dinner her fiancé drives to the lookout point, and they start making out in the front seat. My date and I look at each other, start wringing our hands, and wish we were anywhere but there. Déjà vu, anyone?

I lean over to one of the conference presenters sitting in the chair next to me. “Was this ‘by invitation only’? It was listed in the program, so I thought I could come,” I whisper. “Oh no,” I am assured, “I just came, too.”

I walk out of the meeting befuddled and struggling to accept my label of outsider. “What am I,” I ask a Maxwell Institute veteran. I hold a master’s degree in English, have published books on Mormon history and theology, presented at the Mormon Historical Association, and executive produce a successful podcast about LDS History and Doctrine, but I am not an academic. For Pete’s sake, as an academic editor, I even work with these peeps to refine their thoughts and words for publication. “You’re an interested party,” he replies. “You’re an interested party.”

And with that evaluation, I totally agree.

Yesterday I attended another venue to which I am an outsider – my ward Relief Society. One of the sisters urged me to move to the center. I politely told her that I preferred the outside of the row. (It makes for a less obtrusive escape when discussions become uncomfortable.) Her reply: “Can’t you even conform when it comes to where you sit.” Sigh. Apparently not.

Richard Bushman once suggested moving to Manhattan if one was having difficulty finding a like-minded Mormon community. I ran the numbers, and a studio apartment for four doesn’t sound appealing.

Since the PhD yacht sailed a couple of decades ago, I am taking to my keyboard. I’m not willing for this to be a one-time conversation, Book of Mormon Conference people (and academics in general). Online communities are the simple carbohydrates of the social food pyramid, so I respectfully plead for conference organizers to save me from an apex consisting of Facebook group discussions.

If independent thought and independent groups are to make contributions to Mormon culture and provide a place for those who are “nonconformists,” we need to pry open the elitist doors of academia and ensure that the best and brightest thoughts are not confined to an echo chamber at a time when they are culturally most needed.


  1. Once you pry open the elitist doors up there in Utah, bring those conferences here to intellectual desert of Texas.

  2. “I preferred the outside of the row. (It makes for a less obtrusive escape when discussions become uncomfortable.”

    HaHa! I thought I was the only one who did this!

  3. I am an out-ie, too. Nice to find friends.

  4. Brother X says:

    Every academic conference is open to the paying public.

  5. Some conferences are closed. I am asking that more open their doors.

  6. Interested Observer says:

    When the church shut down Sunstone and Dialogue in the late 80s and early 90s as places where LDS academics could inflect their academic learning with believing LDS audiences. That put academic conversations into academic conferences and devotional offerings into places like your (excellent) podcast and Education Week. Academics are castigated as unbelievers and, by and large, are not encouraged to share their learning in ward settings. Those 20% that want something beyond the curriculum aimed at 8th graders aren’t spiritually fed in the ways they would like to be. Those that want to share or hear more are ignored while wards care for the 80% that don’t want anything more than what is offered already.

    This is not a comment I’m happy to share, but it is the current reality. Perhaps, in the future, the church will realize that it shuts up some of its greatest supporters that want to build the kingdom by castigating them as unbelievers because they don’t see church the same way that 80% of the rest of the church does. Who is reaching out to us, the other 20%?

  7. Brother X says:

    Which conferences are closed? Sunstone, MHA, Education Week, etc. are open.

  8. Brother X says:

    I should add, LHH, that I would also like there to be more gatherings on this front.

  9. Clever comparisons! It is so important to find new ways of learning and ways to share truth. In Sunday school I’ve heard plenty repeat stories, what a novel idea of supplementing religion study with scholars. Love it.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I attended my first MHA in Kirtland back in 2003. I had previously been under the impression that MHA was an academic conference for true, you know, academics, so it took some courage for me to invade that inner sanctum. What I quickly found out was there were lots of folks like me there and that i was perfectly welcome. I’ve gone back (almost) every year since. I’m well read in Mormon history, but I’m not an actual historian: I consider myself a stakeholder in or on history. My hope is that academic groups will leave room in their gatherings for the non-academic stakeholders.

  11. I agree with what Laura says.

    I just wanted to comment about Sunday School. I don’t believe it’s the proper forum for scholarly intellectual discussions. Sunday School is about worship. It is about coming in from being in the work world all week, and being renewed in the Spirit, and reminded about faith and love and our covenants. By this measure, Sunday School is almost always a success for me.

    Most member do not seem to me to need an intellectual discussion in Sunday School. Many, perhaps most, are not ready for it. I believe it would damage some people’s faith – the opposite of what Sunday worship is about. And, sorry, but it’s not essential in the way that being edified in the Spirt is.

    I am perplexed that there does not seem to be an official church venue for intellectual learning. I can only assume that the prophets and revelators leading the church don’t feel it’s needed. And nothing is stopping all of us from reading books, going to conferences, talking with like-minded friends.

    If anyone feels there is not room in the inn for non-conformist believers, than I believe there is some truth to that. But that is just because our church is made up most of people who, like most Americans in general, are not intellectually inclined, and do not seem interested in asking deeper questions.

    It does not mean that there is anything wrong with learning, scholarship, or asking questions – these things are also core to our faith. Do not confuse current weaknesses in Mormon culture with the infinite, mind-expanding gospel that Joseph Smith revealed. And remember the main way Smith taught to learn spiritual knowledge, which comes from God via the Spirit, was obedience to God.

  12. Michael H says:

    The exclusivity you describe is irksome to me, and you are good for starting this conversation.

    Tight-knit communities should never be discouraged from forming around intellectual pursuits, but I’m non-plussed when I see some the best minds in those communities very publicly cultivate their intimate social relations in the name of academic inquiry. No adult is totally immune from that playground-like shame that comes with feeling arbitrarily left out.

  13. As much as I dislike the church curriculum, if members would take a chill pill when a new thought on a familiar topic is introduced, then things would improve. All statements that are new do not necessarily involve deep academic discussion. With the concentration on church history this year, are we supposed to just sit there while inaccurate information is repeated week after week?

  14. Elizabeth says:

    “After raising five brilliant children, she took her brain out of cold storage” whoever wrote the into, the mothers of the world thank you for your estimation of their worth.

  15. The faith and knowledge conference has been closed at times, and for good reason. I attended a conference at BYU just last week that was completely closed and unadvertised. I think in some ways conferences like this are more for refinement/trading of the scholars and scholars-in-training who are presenting, with the ideal that what is presented will eventually be made manifest to the broader public once we find.

  16. Kristine A says:

    I, also, am an interested observer who loves Mormon studies conferences & presented st MHA. I’ve often wished there could be one central Mormon studies location that posted/advertised info about all conferences, author visits, etc type of events. The worst feeling is finding out about something you’d have gone to after the fact.

  17. EnglishTeacher says:

    Mark Christiansen, re: “And, sorry, but it’s not essential in the way that being edified in the Spirt is.”

    Why is intellectual edification separate and distinct from spiritual? We are told that the Spirit functions in a heart *and* mind capacity, so why is worship confined to only to moments of the heart and not the mind? Intellectual moments at church are ones that have worked hand in hand with the spiritual ones for me– I grow increasingly frustrated with lessons that avoid engaging the mind and instead rehearse talking points from the same manuals and the same scripts. I wonder how many others there are in my ward who end up ducking quietly out of lessons because the parking lot invites better mental exercise than anything the encounter in a classroom.

  18. No, but it does take a particular set of skills in order to introduce new ideas. I don’t think this is unique to the church or Mormon studies, either. You can read a science book and participate in academic conferences in the sciences, and unless you have a PhD you will feel very much like an outsider. On the other hand, there are books written by people who are not known for being good scientists, but are great at explaining science to a lay audience, for example Carl Sagan in Cosmos or Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene or Brian Greene in The Elegant Universe.

    If you were teaching Gospel Doctrine and brought up all the scientific evidence against a global flood, and all the parallels in Genesis to The Epic of Gilgamesh, you would raise a few hackles and convince few, if any, that you were right. A far more effective approach would be to encourage a close reading of the text and compare it to other scriptures, like Luke 2 where Caesar Augustus decrees that “all the world” should be taxed. Really? The whole world? After reading that, people are a lot more open minded to the idea that “all the world” might reasonably refer to the just the part of the world they knew about, raising the possibility of a local flood. Then you bring up 1 Peter 3:21 where it says the flood was “the like figure” of baptism. So not a literal baptism of the earth by immersion, but symbolic of it. Now when you present the scientific evidence or historical context, they will be much more open to seeing things in a new light.

    Or just find an apostle to back you up. You would be surprised how much support there is for nonconformist beliefs among leaders of the church. For example, when I taught Elder’s Quorum a few weeks ago I was very grateful for Elder Cook’s talk from last April’s conference. He talks about Joseph Smith’s translation using a seer stone in connection with the New Testament account of the woman being healed by touching Jesus’ robe. He points out there’s nothing special about Jesus’ robe, He never said anything like “Whoever touches my robe shall be healed.” Jesus was not even focused on her. And yet the woman’s faith in the act of doing so literally drew out of Him the powers of heaven to perform a miracle. I’d never thought about the story that way, but the parallels are clear. I have long held the opinion that there’s not anything special about Joseph’s seer stones but that they were just objects that focused the subconscious mind or something so that spiritual gifts could be manifest. Elder Cook suggests something very similar; that robes, or stones, or any ordinary object can be imbued with divine power through faith whether there is precedent for it or not. And thanks to him I can teach it in church without anyone batting an eye.

    Neither of these approaches would pass muster at an academic conference. But some standards of scholarship and exclusivity are probably necessary to avoid the excesses of past organizations, like the ad hominems and parallel-o-mania of the old F.A.R.M.S. or the eclectic free-for-all that is the Sunstone Symposium. That said, Mormonism is such a niche field and has such a rich history of contributions by amateurs that I think there will always be a place for people doing good work, whether you have a PhD or not.

    Love the podcast, by the way.

  19. That last comment was supposed to be in response to the question:

    With the concentration on church history this year, are we supposed to just sit there while inaccurate information is repeated week after week?

  20. I disagree that Sunday School is only for spiritual edification. As a teacher, I find that members have a hunger for actual learning. Lessons that teach and edify (both can actually be done at the same time!) are the ones that are the most effective and most praised by the class. This doesn’t require a PhD scholar. It doesn’t even require scholarship. But it does require massive amount of work on the pat of the teacher and a willingness to look outside the manual/correlated Mormon box.

  21. Andrew H.’s and ReTx’s comments describe exactly my experience as a Gospel Doctrine SS teacher. It will be interesting to see whether the increased emphasis on discussion in the 2018 adult curriculum allows much “actual learning” since SS and PH and RS class members mostly do not prepare. Making discussion the goal, rather than one of several methods, might increase engagement by some. It might also result in reducing our classes to a mere sharing of ignorance if class members continue to be unprepared and do not do any, let alone, a massive amount of work and looking ousted the correlated materials.

  22. While I might appreciate some of the correlated materials being “ousted” :) , the word auto-correct “corrected” was “outside.”

  23. Ben S. I understand the need for closed conferences, but I am just asking that ones like the conference in Logan last week remain open. There are plenty of closed venues for testing ideas among academics. Does there need to be a stand alone organization formed for this purpose?

  24. Andrew H. You are talking about introducing new information. I mentioned just gently correcting misinformation that has been floating around for half a century. The Joseph Smith Papers have released excellent resources designed to do just that, but some of the Gospel Doctrine teachers in my ward seem to think the manual is their own resource.

  25. Elizabeth. I wrote the sentence about my brain being on ice, which it absolutely was not. It was meant as a tongue and cheek response to those wishing to keep audiences exclusive. I chose to raise my children rather than to pursue a PhD. In my case, those were mutually exclusive options.

  26. Andrew H. I wasn’t suggesting that non-academics present papers but merely that we be allowed to listen to them. I know it frustrates trained historians that everyone who reads thinks they can write a book on history. I hold an advanced degree in editing, and it bugs me when historians think they are editors. This was a history/theology conference. Papers were accepted from academics holding degrees in English, theology, philosophy, and history. The presentation process only selected the best and weeded out the less valuable.

  27. Thanks Laura. This of course is not about “doubts” as some may mistake your point. It is about a vibrant Mormon community…our tribe…that wants to discuss and explore nuance of faith. Explore understandings of beliefs that cannot have certainty. How invigorating to the faith of all that would be if sharing and exploration of nuance could happen without shaming and shunning within our families and church meetings? All of us, including “conformists” and “non-conformists” within our Mormon group, must allow room for the nuance that God can and does inspire in us all. And by the way if you haven’t noticed, “orthodox” belief seems to be changing over time anyway…so let’s make room for the “non-conformists”…please :)

  28. Craig L Foster says:

    Great essay a point that should be carefully considered by academics and regular members alike.
    Probably one of the brightest and best read members I ever met was a gentleman in the ward where I grew up. He was extremely knowledgeable and could discuss the ins and outs of Book of Mormon studies like no one I had met until I attended university. Demonstrating my own ignorance and biases, I wondered how a school custodian could be as knowledgeable and well-read as he. I later learned he had studied at university and there were reasons why he had picked a career as a school custodian (it was a second career and i had not known that growing up).

    Is there no room for academics, intellectuals, run-of-the-mill members who have a thirst for knowledge to sit at the same table and share their views? There will be differing opinions and interpretations but that’s what makes the gospel rich and strong.

  29. The title of this excellent conference included the phrase “Toward a Conversation.” I hope the organizers will keep that conversation an open dialogue and not a monologue. This type of conference has tremendous potential to benefit both scholars and general members. Let’s keep the conversation open!

  30. I can only assume Sister Hales wrote her own bio, but that comment about taking her brain out of cold storage after raising kids is so distasteful and offensive and devaluing to full-time mothers that I don’t have any interest in reading further. How am I supposed to take a woman seriously, who makes comments like this about the work that this church reportedly values as important above all others? It’s like the woman who makes sexist jokes against. Shameful.

  31. That should read it’s like the women who make sexist jokes against other women.

  32. Hi Laura. I really liked your thoughts in the “Mormon inn”. I too feel kind of an outsider… but some kind of longing to know and understand is driving me to places where I am in a way a stranger, outsider. Just came in to my mind, that maybe you could find something good to write about a thing that has been bothering me for some time. There are those negatives, who are like teasing kids telling me/us that we do not have real solid academic scientific research behind us (tongue out). What ever we say (Fex on Fair Mormon sites aso) is not really academic; you cant find them in good known academic publications. Neither are they peer reviewed by a real scholar(=not LDS). I have been trying to answer the negatives, but they just keep on and on, as to them LDS scholars are not scholastic. Especially they think BYU does not reach scholastic standards. I think many in Europe has no idea how high up in scholastic world the LDS and especially BYU scholars are reaching and have reached earlier. Often they only know their own universities and think they are much higher standard in scientific research (after all they are not LDS). It is irritating when they brush the LDS scholars away as nonscientific. I would love to hear something about this, especially why non LDS scholars do not per review the work of LDS scholars and why why the other universities do not have Mormon studies and what has happened to those who have studied Mormonism. I think some non-Mormons have joined the Church and thus become «non-scientific» to not Mormons over night. While some Mormons have resigned the church when they have found something that challenge their faith and understanding of their faith (but in such cases there are often other things also that work against the Church for them). It is a bit ridiculous to hear about objectivity of scholarly research from the non Mormons… in the same sentence, where they condemn Mormon scholars as extremely subjective, and the research idiotic and not worth research at all.

  33. I can only assume Sister Hales wrote her own bio

    You assume correctly.

  34. You are talking about introducing new information. I mentioned just gently correcting misinformation that has been floating around for half a century.

    Yes, the key word there being gently, since both tasks in my experience require the same kind of finesse. When someone says that one of the first things Joseph Smith learned from the First Vision was that God and Jesus are two separate Beings, as I heard over and over this year, it’s hard to correct that on the fly without derailing the whole lesson and undermining the teacher or student who said it. It’s usually not enough to just have the correct information from a good source. It should be, but it’s not. That’s just not how people work.

    I wasn’t suggesting that non-academics present papers but merely that we be allowed to listen to them.

    Yeah, I got that. I’m not sure that would fix all the problems they’re trying to avoid, e.g. when someone gets on the mic at the Sunstone Symposium during the Q&A to ask a “question” that ends up being little more than several minutes of sermonizing on whatever theological axe they have to grind that is only tangentially related to the topic. One way to keep distractions like those to a minimum is to impose some standard of scholarly rigor and exclusivity. Is there a better way?

  35. To answer the question in the title of the original post, it depends on what you mean by “the Mormon Inn” and “nonconformist believers.”

    Wikipedia list quite a few offshoots from the Church, some of which are defunct, and some of which are not (yet).

  36. This post conflates a single conference held last weekend at Utah State, MHA, Sunstone, and academia.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and propose that such a conflation is misleading and unhelpful to the author’s stated aims.

  37. JCJ when did I mention Sunstone?

  38. Jen. If you had read the article you would have realized that I consider myself to have done the opposite of putting my brain on ice. I get sick of other women who did not choose to stay at home and raise their children assuming that I had.

  39. I think JCJ means the comments in this post.

    And I disagree, I think the comparisons are helpful to show what the organizers of the Logan conference may be going for by keeping things scholarly and somewhat exclusive.

  40. I read the post, including the introductory bio, without any disturbance of my hackles. I assumed (correctly?) that Ms. Hales was only speaking about herself and not the entirety of motherhood. Speaking only for myself, having part of yourself in cold storage in order to meet the demands of family is familiar. I also know the sting of wanting more educational credentials than your window of opportunity allowed. While I truly admire a feminist tornado who can do everything all at the same time (I’m related to four of them), I think it’s small-hearted to be too much of an ideological purist, especially when it comes to someone else’s description of their own life. I’m giving the bio a generous reading and looking forward to reading another [female] scholarly voice here.

    I enjoyed the rest of the OP too. We’re all outsiders wanting to be part of the conversation, aren’t we?

  41. Thank you MDearest for your comment. Well assessed.

  42. Gilgamesh says:

    “I preferred the outside of the row.”

    I do this, but is because of my bladder size.

    All said, for a time non student adults were invited to enroll in institute. They changed that policy a few years ago, closing a place for intellectual exploration. They tried Stake Institute callings, but the idea never really took off. It is one venue that could potentially scratch the intellectual itch many members have. Back in the day, the Know Your Religion series filled that role.

  43. A late comment, but if intellectual aspects are not appropriate or essential to Sunday School we should really stop calling it “School “.

    Especially when we have scripture proclaiming intelligence to be God’s glory….

  44. Elizabeth says:

    Okay, I understand tongue in cheek, when speaking of yourself. I’ve done the same. Guess if I had thought about it more I would have realized you had written the bio yourself.
    Is it really too late for you to pursue a PhD, if only for your own satisfaction? I knew a lady who got her law degree in her 60’s. She never joined a law firm or anything, but she had always wanted to study the law and finally did.

  45. Unfortunately, at only about 20-40 minutes a week, the Relief Society lesson has to try to be all things to all people. The membership is too broad to do anything but the basics there. I don’t go to RS or Gospel Doctrine because I have been the primary pianist for the last five years. Otherwise I have a big full time professional career and no family. I am an outsider too! My gospel knowledge and study is completely up to my own efforts. Thanks goodness for the online community!

  46. Ok so I’ve always preferred to skip Sunday School and even wondered why we have it. Honestly, I really dont need to study something a million times. I might as well just sit in primary and at least get snacks out of it. I’m by no means a scholar but as a full time mom this is my chance to to fill my cup both intellectually and spiritually.

    That being said we have both gospel essentials and gospel doctrine Sunday schools classes. Would it not be appropriate to have the 8th grade repetitive version taught in gospel essentials leaving gospel doctrine for a more in-depth intellectual disscussion to expand our faith and knowledge?

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