What We Fear

I’m going to wade into the waters of the Sam Young excommunication.  Let me suggest that telling the truth about the church is not what got him excommunicated.

Sam Young drew attention to a point on which few would disagree: that it is awkward, inappropriate, and even dangerous to have ecclesiastical leaders question minor children on sexual matters without a parent present. The church appears to have largely conceded that point, giving leaders flexibility on how interviews are conducted and affording parents the opportunity to be present during these interviews. So if the church pretty much agreed with Young, why was he excommunicated?

In my opinion, what we fear in this church is not necessarily truth-telling, or change, or even public expressions or protests. What we fear is ceding control and authority, destabilizing our structure. This organization depends on a few cultural elements for its ongoing survival, and hierarchy is part of that culture. Sam Young was able, quite safely, to decry the practice of bishops’ interviews. What was the line he crossed that brought him into church discipline and excommunication? Quite simply, it was his refusal to stop when his local leaders asked him to stop. It has little to do with his activities and everything to do with his disregard (perceived or real) for the order of the church.

We can question — and maybe we should question — the original decision of his leaders to intervene and ask him to desist with his protests and his collaboration with notorious enemies of the church. Perhaps his leaders thought that they were acting in his best interests, to help him back away from a precipice of being antagonistic to the church and to return to regular activity. Perhaps they thought they were acting to protect the rest of the flock from someone they saw as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Perhaps the old whispers are true, and Central Command asked for Young’s head. We will never know why they decided to act. But once they did, they started Young down a path where his refusal to comply became the cornerstone of discipline against him.

This is the cardinal sin within Mormonism, for activists: failing to recognize the authority of leaders. You can say whatever you want, act as you please. But when your leaders call you to heel, you best step in line. This is because our church depends on this authority from top to bottom. It is infused in our culture and our discourse. Presiding authority is commemorated in our church programs. Authority and “keys” are invoked in almost every meeting, every week. Even the act Young decried, bishops’ interviews, are an exercise in authority. So, Young’s refusal to comply with leadership goes right to the heart of the contemporary church. The public spectacle engineered around his discipline is only further evidence of the central offense [1]. Young demonstrated that his movement was more important to him than perceived loyalty to the institution.

I’m sympathetic to Young’s stated purpose — who isn’t? Everyone wants to protect children, everyone wants to improve their lives. I’m also sympathetic to church leaders who want to protect the church and to help members. Personally, I think his excommunication was stupid. Asking folks to obey authority like some Abrahamic test is stupid. I also think it’s stupid to make excommunication into a public stunt. Church discipline shouldn’t be auto-da-fé theater where we all show much we are driven by our fear. Everyone loses.

[1] This, incidentally, is part of why appeals within the disciplinary process are doomed to failure. If your offense is a failure to respect authority, isn’t an appeal a further act of noncompliance?

Update: I can’t monitor this thread, so I’m turning off comments. Thanks for your thoughts.


  1. Well stated, and I particularly liked these lines: “Asking folks to obey authority like some Abrahamic test is stupid. I also think it’s stupid to make excommunication into a public stunt. Church discipline shouldn’t be auto-da-fé theater where we all show much we are driven by our fear. Everyone loses.”

    Everyone lost here. The Church looks bad. Sam has lost his membership, and the church has excluded a good man from fellowship. All in the name of sending a message that members need to keep their heads down and do precisely what they’re told to. No good optics to be found.

  2. A non-member friend of mine is perplexed by our church’s policies about and approach to excommunication. (He has been following the Sam Young story.) I sent him a 2X2 to show the dynamic when it comes to apostasy. He is also dismayed by our youth interviews, which he says would immediately result in the dismissal of his mainline Protestant minister should he ask similar questions of any youth (or adult). In his church tradition, pastors counsel, spiritally advise, but leave the job of parenting to parents. It’s interesting to get the informed view of a religiously committed person from a different faith tradition–and one I might add that embraces Victorian virtues–on our ‘worthiness’ interviews.

    Steve, If you are interested in seeing the 2×2 I created please email me. I would be interested to know what you think if you have the time.

  3. FYI I’m gonna moderate this thread pretty heavily.

  4. Anon this time says:

    Oof, sorry if I pushed any boundaries Steve. (Unless the moderation warning was in general.)

  5. It was in general.

  6. All very well said, Steve. The number of people I have met in my life–liberal and conservative, traditionalist and feminist, young and old, believing and doubting–who cannot wrap their heads around and make decisions in light of the obvious and no sense hidden fact that the LDS church is, in plainest terms, an authoritarian organization has never stopped surprising me.

  7. Tnbuttercup says:

    Excellent synopsis and conclusion

  8. I think there was fear behind Paul’s insistence that women keep silent in the Church. We’ve since learned that it’s better that they speak.

    I think there was fear behind the insistence that men rule over their families. We’ve since learned that it’s better that “fathers and mothers… help one another as equal partners.”

    I agree that many fear behind excommunications like Sam’s. We tend to see the prophets and apostles as holding the exclusive right to receive revelation for the Church. Yet in the pre-mortal world, God held council with all of His children. I think that there is a place for the ideas of the regular members of the Church. I hope that the unfolding restoration will one day allow us to better utilize the ideas and inspiration of the members in partnership with the inspiration of leaders.

  9. My understanding is that he wasn’t excommunicated for his protesting. He was excommunicated for publicly trying to get others to join him. You can’t organize movements against the church and expect to remain in good standing.

  10. Spot on, Steve.

  11. I might quibble on some procedural points, Steve. (For example, the bootstrap effect is an important part of the story.) But the essence about challenging authority is spot on.

    I believe the same authoritarian structure is also responsible for the Church’s difficulty/inability to do what’s right about interviews. The immovable object in the path is the bishop’s authority to make the calls about sin and repentance and worthiness. Not self. Not parents. Not community. Not even God. We rest that authority in the bishop and will not give it up lightly if at all.

  12. I haven’t followed it all that closely, but in his interview in Mormonland, Sam said that he chose to spend his time at the disciplinary council to speak on the issue of interviews instead of explaining that he didn’t oppose the leaders of the church. I don’t know what he said at the council, but if that’s accurate, it sounds to me like somebody who was deliberately provoking excommunication, perhaps as a ploy for more publicity. And regardless of whether excommunication seemed to the leaders on the ground like the right call at the time, the effect of it giving him just that.

    It’s trite, but I believe that the really the only answer to whether excommunication is warranted is whether the spirit told the members of the disciplinary council that it was the right course. I’m in no position to judge that, and I believe in giving local leaders a presumption that they acted appropriately. But from my point of view, I don’t think excommunication is generally the right call when the issue is disagreeing with a church policy, and whether it is or isn’t the right call for “insubordination,” for lack of a better term, I question the wisdom of escalating a disagreement into a power struggle by issuing an ultimatum or a direct order unless absolutely necessary.

  13. JKC, I am uncomfortable with such decisions being made on the basis of what amounts to a collective and biased hunch. There’s enough noise and uncertainty in the “workings of the Spirit” to seriously question whether any impression is divine. Hence the good old guideline, all good things come from God, which is really just a lame admission that there is no good way to tell where an impression comes from. This is especially true when the impression is influenced by years of being conditioned to defer to authorities.

  14. Another perspective: Church leaders might not like disagreement, but they are, I think, generally willing to tolerate it as long as it’s clear that the person values their membership in the church over their activism. But if devotion to the cause replaces membership in the church as the top priority, excommunication isn’t far behind, and I wonder if the intervening by leaders is often as much a way to gauge where the person’s first loyalty lies as it is motivated by a desire to shut down the disagreement itself.

  15. JKC, your last point is basically my post.

  16. Ted, I’m not so naïve as to believe that revelation is unambiguous, and I agree with you that there really is reason to question whether any impression is divine. Still, I believe revelation is real, and I think there’s more to it than a collective and biased hunch. But if that’s how you feel, I understand why you’d have concerns about excommunication being based on that.

  17. John Mansfield says:

    I’m reminded of when my father died at age 83, and the cause of death entered on the certificate was heart failure. Of the various health matters he had been treated for the final years of life, cardiovascular condition was not one of them, but describing the death of an old man who was wearing out is too complicated for one line of a vital statistics form. My father was found in his room with a heart that was no longer beating, as is characteristic of dead people. To say that he died of heart failure was true in a broad sense, but glossed over too much to be a meaningful statement.

    My heart, it don’t beat / It don’t beat the way it used to

  18. Yeah, basically, Steve. I read your post as more focused on the issue of leaders’ authority, and my last point is more focused on the activist’s values/priorities. But that’s a fine distinction, and really more two ways of looking at the same thing than two different things.

  19. I’ve seen a few places where individuals are claiming that the church used to be some big democracy where everyone argued with leaders openly, and the church was better for it. History shows, though, that the Loyalty Test was alive and well starting with Joseph Smith and used as grounds for excommunication.

  20. Steve, thank you. This was an illuminating perspective. I feel for Sam, and also for the leaders tasked with receiving revelation and guidance in the disciplinary council. I’ve been in a disciplinary council before (as an observer), and I’d never seen a Bishop agonize over a decision as much as then.

    I’m reminded of J. Bonner Ritchie’s Sunstone article, “The Institutional Church and the Individual,” which for me was seminal in my understanding of how the church (and really, any organization) works and on institutional abuse specifically. Have you read it? I’d love to see a BCC roundtable or article on the essay. It seems to apply. I feel like Sam was pushing too hard and too fast; the church is a big ship, and it doesn’t change quickly. Which is a shame, because I really sympathize with his points, though I’d like to see more data gathered on the actual impact/extent of the issue. Thanks again, Steve.

  21. (I think in response to JKC, but it isn’t necessary to tag one person . . .)

    Without diving into the details of the Sam Young situation, which I am not qualified to do anyway, here’s the sequence I have seen, found troubling, and (I think) is at the heart of the OP:

    1. Protester agitates. Not very many people notice. Nothing happens.
    2. Protester ups the temperature, agitates more loudly, and gets attention. And then two things happen:
    (a) The Church (or leader or member) hears and ignores-or-makes a small change-or-makes a large change. Almost never with an apology or any acknowledgment or credit to the protester.
    (b) The protester’s Stake President calls the protester in and delivers some version of a “we heard you, now stop” order.
    3. Protester sees no change or not enough change and persists.
    4. Stake President holds a disciplinary council where the issue brought to the table is not the protest, not the Church’s former actions or response, but only the “now stop” from the Stake President and the protester’s failure to stop.
    5. The council has a relatively easy black-and-white decision to make. Some of the discussion may go to substance, the original protest and responses, but that examination comes uncomfortably close to questioning the Stake President’s “now stop” order. In the end, the council is likely to come to its conclusion on the open-and-shut case of defiance.

  22. @Angela C – The Loyalty Test was definitely alive and well 150 years ago when my great-great-grandfather was excommunicated for disagreeing with local leaders. And the consequences for him were devastating — his wife was taken away from him and “given” as a plural wife to a man who passed the Loyalty Test. I used to think that things have changed a lot for the Church since then, but with Kate Kelly’s excommunication, and now Sam Young’s, I’m not so sure.

  23. The odd thing is that two of the recent dissents effected change and then got ex’d. Kate Kelly got some resulting changes: Priesthood session became televised for all, the Church started working more on optics such as having women pray in GC, putting up female leaders’ pictures in the conference center, including women way more prominently in the Worldwide Leadership broadcasts, etc.. Sam Young got some resulting changes in at least two ways: youth now have the right to invite a trusted adult in with them, and the Church put out a streamlined list of interview questions for them in order to deal with some of the roving questions. Both advocated for change, got some changes made and then both got ex’d. Had each stopped at their ward or stake level and not sought a larger audience, neither one would have succeeded in getting any changes. It was only their willingness to engage the larger audience and to generate discomfort when told not to that elevated their concerns to those who had the power to effect Churchwide changes. Were these changes worthwhile? The Brethren seem to think so or else they wouldn’t have made these changes. Didn’t these changes require that these critics persist when told to drop their issues?

  24. anon for this says:

    If you look a little bit into Sam’s history beyond this episode, it’s pretty clear this wasn’t just a case of pushing too hard too fast. This was a case of demanding that the church entirely cave to all of his demands and essentially elevate himself to a decision maker at the same level as the twelve despite not actually believing in the church in any way. See this article for a good recap of what he has been up to: https://www.millennialstar.org/guest-post-what-is-sam-young-really-after/

    Frankly, it’s a pretty straightforward case for excommunication in my opinion. He clearly didn’t have any belief in the church anymore and was using whatever issue he could find to lead people away (the key part of apostasy). He only focused recently on the issue of interviews because that’s what seemed to work best.

  25. anon for this says:

    @Sam, I have it on good authority that most (if not all) of the changes you mentioned were being planned before even the Wear Pants to Church event back in 2012. So while it’s probably naive to think that people like Kate and Sam had no effect, they shouldn’t get nearly as much credit as you’re assigning to them. In fact, in some cases, they were counterproductive.

  26. IMO, somebody losing their testimony is not apostasy. Actively and publicly opposing the church?Yes, that’s one of the the handbook definitions of apostasy. But not having a testimony? No.

  27. I agree with Anon and others on Sam. He had a long list of greviences with the Church (read his blog) of which the youth interview issue was not initially one of the first on the list.

    He found that the interview gripe resonated with folks and so he ran with it as it gave him the attention to his theatrics he seems to enjoy.

    In the end I think Sam was looking to be seen as a marty.

  28. Jb & Anon: you may be right that Sam Young had nefarious motives and the interview thing was a façade. I have no idea. I haven’t followed him. I think it’s still worth asking, if I’m a leader with a member doing that, whether it’s right for me to escalate the situation into a power struggle that results in an ultimatum that provokes church discipline. And maybe in some cases it is, I don’t know. But I don’t think that should be the knee-jerk response.

    I can understand wanting to remove somebody from the church that’s there under false pretenses, but I also see the wisdom in letting the tares grow with the wheat. If the person really is determined to be a martyr, why make it easy for them? Isn’t that just giving them exactly what they want? Why give them more fodder? And if that’s the knee-jerk response, doesn’t that run a pretty serious risk of mistaking somebody with sincere and honest concerns for somebody with nefarious motives? I’m not saying that the local leaders in this case necessarily acted inappropriately, but escalating it to an ultimatum just seems in most cases like it’s going to be a self-inflicted wound.

  29. Yet another anon (sigh) says:

    Rita, that happened 150 years ago? 1860s? In which community? Do you have original sources? Are you certain the woman didn’t leave the marriage herself? Can you name the names of the participants including church leaders? There is so much legend built up around such stories. It’s interest to compare that kind of story development with the legend making we’re seeing happen in real time with the Sam Young story as people not at all involved in the event provide rationale and draw conclusions which may or may not be warranted.

  30. @Yet another — I don’t have the original sources in my possession, but the history is common knowledge in my family history. I just went back to Family Search to check the biography, and I misspoke before that he disagreed with local leaders. Rather, it was a council in Salt Lake City involving Brigham Young, John Taylor, Daniel H. Wells, G. Clements, and S.W. Richards that decided to excommunicate my great-great-grandfather because of perceived disloyalty. My relative got this information by copying from the records in the Church Historian’s office in 1949. My great-great-grandparents had their temple sealing blessings restored several years ago when someone in the hierarchy of the Church finally recognized that it was all a horrible injustice.

    This story is not a legend, and it has hurt my family for generations.

  31. Also, the father of my great-great-grandmother was instructed by Brigham Young himself to take her away from her now excommunicated husband or she would be cut off from the Church as well. One of her sons never saw his father again. It was all a terrible tragedy and so unjust.

  32. I agree with JKC’s last comment about the unwise escalation of the situation by threatening excommunication which results in a stand-off, the consequence of which is that everyone loses. I have good friends who were on their way out of the church just before all this happened, but to them this was the final straw. They made what I thought was a good point and I had no answer for: why on earth couldn’t someone in a fairly senior position meet with Sam, thank him for bringing the issue to everyone’s attention, state the church’s position and then kindly but firmly agree to disagree? That would have taken the wind out of his sails and given people a lot less to protest and gripe about. I cannot understand why the General Authorities go into siege mentality and leave all contact/action to the very lowest soldier at the bottom of the ‘chain of command’.

  33. The use of excommunication is expedient for a small religious sect that’s dealing with the threat of violence from external enemies and the threat of schism from within. The group has to take extreme measures just to stay intact. But the bigger and more established the group gets, the less helpful excommunication becomes. At some point, the cure of excommunication becomes more divisive than the diseases it’s meant to treat. Excommunication and its accompanying frame of reference start to limit growth.

    The question in today’s church is whether we have grown up enough that we can put the practice of excommunication behind us. The fact that excommunication is still routinely used in cases like Sam Young’s suggests that general authorities are still quite concerned about the threat of schism.

  34. OftenPerplexed says:

    I don’t know Sam Young personally and I didn’t know anything about his movement until recently, but I discovered that I do know one of his daughters quite well. Based on what I know of her and her family, I seriously doubt that ex-communication was the right thing to do to her dad. She is sweet and popular and stalwart. It will have a generational ripple. I give her dad credit for the changes that we have seen with respect to 2 deep leadership in all of our youth classes/activities and the opportunity we parents now have to horn in on our children’s interviews. I guess he really is a martyr. Selfishly, I am embarrassed by the media coverage of his ex-communication. I live in the mission field and I hate having to explain why we allow men to sit one on one and ask us, especially our children, questions about our sexual feelings and practices. I have found that I can’t even articulate a good reason for why this practice developed the way it did.

  35. I recall Kate Kelly making a comment to a newspaper encouraging people to leave the church if it didn’t bring you joy. Given her stature at the time and the context, I thought it was crossing a line. I don’t recall Sam making the same type of comments and his excommunication surprised me. I thought he’d be disfellowshipped but clearly my view of the line is off and Steve is more right than I realized.

  36. OftenPerplexed says:

    One further note, Sam became very angry when he discovered that his children had been asked prurient questions in interviews. His outrage was not manufactured. I think he used that anger to attempt to find out how widespread sexual abuse is in the church, whether physical or emotional. As I understand it from his daughter, he feels as though the weak and the oppressed have no voice in the church. He felt the need to become their voice. I know that when I was wronged I felt like I had no one to turn to. Even when the Stake President corrected my bishop about French kissing not requiring my formal church discipline, my bishop wasn’t released and there was no apology for the weeks of interviews and psychological torture. Do I know if he did things the right way? I don’t know. It has blessed my family.

  37. “FYI I’m gonna moderate this thread pretty heavily.”

    Oh! The irony!

  38. Ryan Mullen says:

    Sam Young was the ward mission leader in my last mission area 15 years ago. He was the best WML I ever worked with. Passionate. Insightful. Creative. Theatric, sure, but the Venn diagram between theatrics and spirituality overlaps more than a little IMO. He also had an ability to cut to the heart of issue in ward council that I still try to emulate.

    All this to say I would find it incredibly difficult to believe that Sam is only in this for the press.

  39. Same reason as Quinn, although I’d much rather see him back than Young.

    He still has such a strong testimony of the truth claims.

    I hope Utchdorf or someone can reach out to him.

  40. Kristen Inouye says:

    When church members see something that is problematic in church policy or practice, there is absolutely no way to communicate or discuss it with the top 15 leadership in the church. A member can go to their bishop or even their stake president but that is always a dead end. If the member feels strongly enough about the problem, they are left with little choice other than to raise a big stink and hope that someone at the top will take notice. Even if we assign the best of motives to both Sam Young AND the leaders who excommunicated him we must admit that there’s something disconcerting and broken in a system that operates in this way.

  41. Amen to Kristen Inouye’s comment. I’ll refrain from making a judgment call on Sam Young’s disciplinary action, but the lack of any formal mechanism to speak to / interact with church leaders at a level where those leaders can actually enact change is frustrating to many.

    I work in a very large company, about 300K employees. If I want it badly enough, I could get an audience with the CEO, or more easily, a vice president. Maybe I have to wait a while, but there is a way to do it. I realize the church is much larger and many worry if you open the door to something like this, you’ll have every crackpot out there demanding a sit-down with Pres. Nelson. But I think leaders could develop an escalation path or mechanism to hear legitimate, well-vetted concerns. It’s possible.

  42. OftenPerplexed says:

    What we fear? We fear honest conversations. We need the church to have the appearance of perfection. There can’t be any problems especially if the problems may emanate from SLC. For years I was scared to say anything.

  43. I wish leaders would listen more carefully and openly to people like Sam. I hate how this all turned out. I completely agree with Sam’s points, as does every civilized nation. You’re so right Steve, there are no true winners here.
    We have no way to express concerns or recognize legitimate harms in our church without a Stake President effectively placing them in a cardboard box, like Dwight Schrute’s complaints. How can we build the kingdom together if the cries from the members go ignored?
    Topics will only grown more and more loud, as members tolerate less and less the unpalatable aspects of Mormonism. *cough* temple* LGBTQ* WOW*cough
    Everything can be leaked, recorded, and broadcast far and wide. We need to be able to support our leaders, but that means we have to feel loved and heard.

  44. When a member locks horns with the church like this – it usually ends in spiritual violence (excommunication). The boundary-guards (zealous church leaders) see this in such a black and white way- someone wins and someone looses and the church must be defended!

    There is a third way. A peacemaker could step in with a unique solution- stopping the madness. I keep waiting for such a peacemaker to step forward from the leadership of the church.

    I look to the church for spiritual guidance and illuminated patterns of discipleship. Seeing my leaders spar with members and fail to seek or inspire us to the “road less taken”- that peaceful third option- I am left completely bereft- deeply disappointed.

    The Islamic Prophet Mohammed (prior to his calling) observed a hot dispute between four clans that each claimed the honor of setting a sacred stone into a temple wall being renovated. Mohammed stepped in and suggested that someone bring a blanket- place the stone in the center- and let each clan hold a corner. Problem solved.

    Doesn’t every parent of at least two children come up with such solutions on a daily basis?

    Why aren’t the church leaders similarly stepping up to be the grown-ups – the peacemakers? If they won’t or can’t, is it possible for us to be the grown-ups?

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