Part 66: CES Letter Other Concerns/Questions [Section H]
by Sarah Allen
Continuing the trend of things that are actually controversial, Jeremy kicks off this week’s post with the Strengthening the Church Members Committee (SCMC). This is a topic our critics love to run with, though as always, they distort the reality into something bizarre and twisted.
I’d like to go over some of the history and responsibilities of this committee, because, as I’ve said before, when you put the context back into these supposedly controversial things, they become a whole lot less controversial.
The SCMC was formed in approximately 1985 by President Benson, though it has much earlier roots. Its goals, as I’ll show in more detail with statements later, were to give assistance to bishops, branch presidents, and stake presidents who didn’t have the personal knowledge needed to help their members, and to monitor publications by members that taught false doctrine. This was apparently to protect the members from falling victim to those apostate sects who still practice unauthorized polygamy.
The SCMC became public knowledge in late 1991/early 1992, when Jerald and Sandra Tanner of the Lighthouse Ministry published a private memo sent to the Committee from a member of the Presiding Bishopric. Ever since then, those critical of the Church have twisted the goals of the Committee into something unrecognizable.
Backing up a little, in the mid-1980s, around the time the Committee was formed, another phenomenon started sweeping through United States culture and would last for approximately a decade: Satanic Panic. This was when some therapists and social workers—a tiny minority, I want to make that very clear—started using hypnosis and other techniques to find “repressed memories,” which were often implanted by the therapists themselves. When you’re under hypnosis, your brain becomes more susceptible to suggestion, and false memories seem very, very real to the person having them, but are often not real at all.
In one article on implanted memories, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus said, “We’ve done hundreds of experiments involving thousands of subjects showing that it’s relatively easy to change people’s memory of the details of an event that they’ve actually experienced.” The linked article continues:
Despite the ethical limitations imposed on laboratory studies of artificially created memories, research showed that creating false memories of a relatively benign childhood experience, i.e., becoming lost in a shopping mall as a young child was easily induced. In other studies, even much more extreme example of false memories (eg., spilling punch on the bride’s parents at a family wedding or nearly drowning as a child) could be induced in as many as a quarter of the subjects tested. Even in subjects who failed to develop a complete false memory, partial recall could be induced in nearly half of all research subjects.
This phenomenon is commonly seen, not only in recovered memory cases, but in people who “recall” details of alien abductions or past lives which can be produced by improperly administered hypnosis or other psychotherapeutic methods. As Dr. Loftus pointed out in her talk, commonly used treatment approaches such as guided imagination, dream interpretation, hypnosis, and direct confrontation based on other people’s memories are notorious for creating false memories in patients.
Starting in the mid-80s, a few of the therapists using these techniques in their therapy started coercing young children, and later adults, into making accusations of horrendous sexual abuse, torture, and Satanic rituals at the hands of their parents and other prominent community leaders. However well-intended the therapists might have been, they were asking deeply probing questions under hypnosis and other treatments like the ones described in the article, and the phrasing of the questions themselves would give rise to those false memories. These patients were all describing the same things, so it sounded believable…at first.
A woman in my ward while I was growing up fell victim to this very thing while in therapy, and believed, until the day she died, that her parents had done this to her. Her siblings all disputed it, but she didn’t believe them because she remembered it happening. She cut off contact with her parents and changed her name to avoid any association with them, and I don’t know that she ever spoke to them again. One of Hugh Nibley’s daughters also accused him of the same thing, despite all of her siblings rejecting the claim as false. It was a pretty widespread thing, so pervasive that Elder Richard G. Scott spoke out about it in the Spring 1992 General Conference:
There is another danger. Detailed leading questions that probe your past may unwittingly trigger thoughts that are more imagination or fantasy than reality. They could lead to condemnation of another for acts that were not committed. While likely few in number, I know of cases where such therapy has caused great injustice to the innocent from unwittingly stimulated accusations that were later proven false. Memory, particularly adult memory of childhood experiences, is fallible. Remember, false accusation is also a sin.
This is all applicable because, in July of 1990, Glen Pace, a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric under Robert D. Hales, wrote a memo in response to a query by the SCMC regarding Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) among the Saints. In this memo, he stated that he interviewed 60 Latter-day Saints claiming to have repressed memories of enduring SRA by other Church members, and he believed them because they were all telling the same stories. (After an investigation, they were later rejected as false claims without any corroborating evidence to back them up.)
Somehow, Jerald and Sandra Tanner of the Lighthouse Ministry (who have spent almost their entire adult lives publicly criticizing the Church in any way they can) got their hands on the memo and leaked it in November, 1991. That memo being released was the first time the public had ever heard of the SCMC.
Because rumors immediately started swirling around about the intent of this Committee, the First Presidency released a statement in mid-1992:
Generally, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not respond to criticism levied against its work. But in light of extensive publicity recently given to false accusations of so-called secret Church committees and files, the First Presidency has issued the following statement:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830 following the appearance of God the Father and Jesus Christ to the Prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York. This sacred event heralded the onset of the promised ‘restitution of all things.’ Many instructions were subsequently given to the Prophet including Section 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “And again, we would suggest for your consideration the propriety of all the saints gathering up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon them….
“‘And also of all the property and amount of damages which they have sustained, both of character and personal injuries….
“‘And also the names of all persons that have had a hand in their oppressions, as far as they can get hold of them and find them out.
“‘And perhaps a committee can be appointed to find out these things, and to take statements and affidavits; and also to gather up the libelous publications that are afloat;
“‘And all that are in the magazines, and in the encyclopedias, and all the libelous histories that are published…. (Verses 1-5.)’
“Leaders and members of the Church strive to implement commandments of the Lord including this direction received in 1839. Because the Church has a non-professional clergy, its stake presidents and bishops have varied backgrounds and training. In order to assist their members who have questions, these local leaders often request information from General Authorities of the Church.
“The Strengthening Church Members Committee was appointed by the First Presidency to help fulfill this need and to comply with the cited section of the Doctrine and Covenants. This committee serves as a resource to priesthood leaders throughout the world who may desire assistance on a wide variety of topics. It is a General Authority committee, currently comprised of Elder James E. Faust and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They work through established priesthood channels, and neither impose nor direct Church disciplinary action.
“Members who have questions concerning Church doctrine, policies, or procedures have been counseled to discuss those concerns confidentially with their local leaders. These leaders are deeply aware of their obligation to counsel members wisely in the spirit of love, in order to strengthen their faith in the Lord and in His great latter-day work.”
— The First Presidency
In 1993, President Oaks sat down for an interview with the Arizona Republic which ended up becoming an article titled “Cracks in the Temple: Mormon Unity in Peril”. After an hour of searching, the only place I could find this article was behind a subscription here. I didn’t want to pay for it, so I haven’t read the article in question, but I can share what I’ve found about its contents.
Apparently, in this article President Oaks described the Committee as a “clipping service,” in which, in the pre-internet days, newspaper and magazine articles that were critical of the Church were cut out and kept for research purposes. When those articles were determined to have been made by a member of the Church, they were often sent along to the person’s bishop so that he would be aware of it if it escalated into a larger problem. President Oaks later stated that this article “seriously distorted” some of the facts.
When the September Six were excommunicated and it was all over the press, a common charge was that the SCMC, under President Packer’s direction, leaned on their bishops and forced their disciplinary councils. In another subsequent article with the Deseret News refuting that charge, President Oaks denied that the Church was “purging” intellectuals and scholars and described this Committee again:
A former Utah Supreme Court justice and the church’s expert on disciplinary procedures, Elder Oaks said the disciplinary decisions ranging from probation to excommunication are meted out by bishops and stake presidents.
He explained that local leaders are informed by church headquarters about members who may possibly be violating church standards. The church’s Strengthening the Members Committee pores over newspapers and other publications and identifies members accused of crimes, preaching false doctrine, criticizing leadership or other problems. That information is forwarded on to the person’s bishop or stake president, who is charged with helping them overcome problems and stay active in the church.
“It is a way of keeping busy bishops informed,” he said. “But it is up to the bishop to handle it. Bishops don’t report back.”
… Elder Oaks said the information comes with no instructions to take specific action. “As a justice, one of my duties was to train judges on how to be judges. But I didn‘t tell them what verdict to reach,“ he said. “Bishops are trained (by general authorities) and know how this (procedure) works.“
… He explained that LDS scriptures have long taught that general and local church leaders are responsible to see that members stick to approved church doctrine when they teach or speak, and weed out those who persist in preaching false doctrine or criticizing leaders.
But that doesn’t mean members can’t differ with their leaders or express personal opinions, he said.
… Elder Oaks said disagreements between leadership and members have occurred since the church began. “But the issue isn’t disagreement, it’s how you handle it,” Oaks said.
I don’t find it particularly egregious that the Church would keep its eye on attacks by critics, especially those attacks that come from people claiming to be faithful members. It’s important to understand that the SCMC wouldn’t be monitoring the random blogs of members, looking for any hint of questions or doubts. They look for wolves in sheep’s clothing, who are deliberately trying to poison the flock and lead people astray. However, I’m sure you can all guess exactly what kind of a spin those critics put on this Committee, and we’ll get into Jeremy’s take on it in a moment.
First, though, it was apparently news to some when Elder Holland confirmed its continued existence in 2012, with that interview that was aired on the BBC Special about Mitt Romney that we discussed a while back. There’s a transcript of his remarks here, and the relevant portion is as follows:
John Sweeney: What is the Strengthening Church Members Committee?
Elder Holland: The Strengthening Church Members Committee was born some years ago to protect against predatory practices of polygamists.
Sweeney: I asked what it is, not was
Holland: That is what it is…
Sweeney: So it does still exist?
Holland: It does still exist…it does still exist…
Sweeney: And it….looks at….it’s there to defend the church against polygamists?
Holland: Principally, that is still its principal task.
Sweeney: So what is its subsidiary task?
Holland: I just….suppose to….to be protective generally, just to watch and to care for any insidious influence. But for all intents and purposes, that’s all that I know about it….is that it’s primarily there to guard against polygamy. That would be the substantial part of the work. I’m not on that committee so I don’t know much about it.
This goes along with what I was saying earlier: guarding against “insidious influences” like polygamous off-shoots is not the same thing as targeting members for asking questions—which is exactly the spin Jeremy puts on it:
The spying and monitoring arm of the Church. It is secretive and most members have been unaware of its existence since its creation in 1985 after Ezra Taft Benson became president. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland admitted it still exists in March 2012. The historical evidence and the September Six points to SCMC’s primary mission being to hunt and expose intellectuals and/or disaffected members who are influencing other members to think and question, despite Elder Holland’s claim that it’s a committee primarily to fight against polygamy.
You see how he starts off with hyperbole, and then escalates from there? It’s not the “spying and monitoring arm of the Church.” It’s also not “secretive” when the Church has put out official First Presidency statements on it and Apostles openly discuss it in interviews. If most members are unaware of its existence, it’s because they didn’t read the articles or statements or watch the documentary linked above. “Secretive” is not the same thing as something not being well-known. And when Jeremy says Elder Holland “admitted it still exists,” that implies that someone in the Church leadership earlier denied its continuing existence, which never happened.
What “historical evidence” suggests the Committee’s “primary mission” is “to hunt and expose intellectuals and/or disaffected members” who question things? Jeremy certainly didn’t provide even a speck of evidence supporting that claim. Beyond that, nobody’s ever been able to show any actual evidence that the Committee or President Packer had any involvement in the September Six’s excommunications, either. It’s all just insinuation and innuendo. If there was anything concrete there, they would have offered it sometime in the last 30 years. They haven’t.
Yet again, Jeremy is just asking us to trust him without offering any proof whatsoever to back up his claims.
- Eldon Tanner, first counselor in the First Presidency, gave a First Presidency Message in the August 1979 Ensign that includes the following statement:
“When the prophet speaks the debate is over.”
He did say that, though it’s presented here in an entirely different context than the one in which he originally said it. Jeremy positions it as if we aren’t supposed to think for ourselves, but that isn’t what President Tanner was saying.
President Tanner was quoting and expounding on what Sister Elaine Cannon of the Young Women’s presidency said during a fireside:
Though we are women with different cultural backgrounds clear across the span of my voice, some with varying differences in personal situations (we may even clash at times on opinions regarding temporal trends or how to bake a loaf of bread properly), my firm feeling is that we must pursue a course of a covenant people. We must secure those traditions which are sacred to good people everywhere. In each country as you hear this program by direct line, your course should become clear, your priorities ought to be known to you as a daughter of God. Personal opinions may vary. Eternal principles never do. When the prophet speaks, sisters, the debate is over. So I urge us all to provide powerful unity as women for those things we can agree upon—family, chastity, accountability to the Lord, responsibility in the community, sharing the gospel.
Sister Cannon was very clearly saying that, in the matters of doctrine and moral right and wrong, we should be obedient to the Lord’s prophet. She was not saying we shouldn’t think for ourselves, have our own opinions, or pray to know the truth. Heavenly Father gave us brains and He expects us to use them. He also expects us to learn how to bend our wills to His, and we do that by following the prophet’s counsel. The debate over God’s commandments is what is over when the prophet speaks.
President Tanner’s advice was exactly the same:
Why should there be any debate over the moral issues which are confounding the world today? From the beginning God has made his position very clear in regard to marriage, divorce, family life and love of children, immorality, chastity, virtue, and the high and holy role of women. Through his prophet today he reiterates the Old and New Testament teachings which are clear on these matters.
History and experience have proven that whenever and wherever there is departure from following the word of the Lord, calamity occurs. Civilizations have fallen; there has been general and individual destruction; there have been weeping and wailing and great sorrow; there have been famine and pestilence. Only Satan and his cohorts have been left to rejoice. He is the author of the debates on moral issues. He has sworn to thwart the purposes of God. He it is who deceives and lays in wait to promote his cunning schemes, promising the riches of this world as a reward to those who follow him. … We cannot serve God and mammon. Whose side are we on? When the prophet speaks the debate is over.
But, due to the easy misconstruing of comments like this, President Kimball actually went to Sister Cannon and asked her not to phrase it like that again:
…President Kimball spoke to Sister Cannon in the aftermath of this talk about her “the debate is over” remark and asked her not to repeat that way of speaking. According to Sister Cannon, he wanted to make sure members felt free to decide for themselves about prophets’ statements, and he worried that her remark could be misunderstood to imply something different—i.e., that members did not have agency and were coerced into following their leaders.
… Sister Cannon tells us that President Kimball asked to meet with her the morning following her talk and asked if she had said something to the effect that “when I [the prophet] speak, the people must obey.”
I answered, “President Kimball, what I said is that when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” His next comment took me by surprise. “I don’t think the people like to hear that.” I replied, “But it’s true, isn’t it?” He paused for a moment and answered, “Yes, it’s true, but I don’t think they like to hear it quite that way.”
We learn from this brief episode that President Kimball was confident in his reliability as a spokesman for the Lord—in his knowledge of the Lord’s will and in his ability to represent it accurately and with authority. In talking with Sister Cannon, President Kimball did not try to disavow or distance himself from this thought; he merely wanted to correct her way of saying it. Speaking so directly risked coming across as confrontational—claiming that members do not have agency to decide on their own how to respond to prophets’ teachings.
Something similar happened way back in 1945. In the June issue of the Improvement Era that year, the “Ward Teaching” section contains the following paragraph:
When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.
As you can imagine, that caused some controversy at the time, and deservedly so, in my opinion. That runs counter to what numerous prophets and apostles have taught over the decades. As FAIR puts it, this message “caused much concern among many inside and outside of the Church.”
A Dr. J. Raymond Cope, leader of the First Unitarian Society of Salt Lake City, wrote a letter to President George Albert Smith saying:
Last June there was delivered to my door a short religious editorial, prepared by one of your leaders, entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church.” Its message amazed me a great deal, and with the passing of weeks my distur[b]ance became very acute. It might have passed, except that several members of your Church have come to me to discuss the subject. … I do not know who is responsible for this statement, but I am sure it is doing inestimable harm to many who have no other reason to question the integrity of the Church leaders. Many people are suffering because of this. My reply to each of those who have spoken to me is “please do not become distrubed [sic], for this cannot be the position of the true leaders. And, from my knowledge of the early writings of your leaders, I must assume this to be non-representitive [sic].”
He then repeated a quote from Brigham Young that I have shared with you in the past:
I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful that they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.
Dr. Cope was a good man who was not trying to cause trouble between churches, but who was genuinely concerned with what he had read. The full text of his letter shows his sincerity. President Smith replied with a letter of his own (emphasis in the original):
The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.
I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.
The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof. On one occasion in answer to the question by a prominent visitor how he governed his people, the Prophet answered: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Again, as recorded in the History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498 ) Joseph Smith said further: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”
I cite these few quotations, from many that might be given, merely to confirm your good and true opinion that the Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.
So, what this all boils down to is, there were two quotes, one from Sister Cannon and one from President Tanner, which were badly taken out of context and twisted to imply something they weren’t saying. President Kimball went to Sister Cannon to clarify and ask her not to say it again in the future, because it could be taken the wrong way. There was another quote, roughly 80 years old, that wasn’t attributed to anyone directly but was printed in an official Church magazine that did say what critics claim. That statement was disavowed directly by President Smith. It was noted that it was a source of great agitation and embarrassment, and never should have been published as written.
Some things that are true are not very useful + Censorship + Deceptively altering past quotes + Prioritizing tithing before food and shelter + It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true + Spying and monitoring on members + Intellectuals are dangerous + “us versus them” rhetoric + When the prophet speaks the debate is over + Obedience is the First Law of Heaven = Policies and practices you’d expect to find in a totalitarian system such as North Korea or George Orwell’s 1984; not from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Oh, please. First of all, in every one of those things, Jeremy twisted what was actually being said beyond recognition. He straw-manned this entire Other Concerns section into something none of those quotes ever said.
Second, the talk on obedience is a good talk, and there was nothing even remotely objectionable in it.
Third, I don’t believe that Jeremy knows much about totalitarian regimes if he thinks a church that is entirely voluntary to join or leave, and that encourages its members to gain all the education they can and learn as much as possible in this lifetime, to pray for themselves and gain their own testimonies and opinions, and to allow every man or woman their own agency to make their own decisions and have their own beliefs, is one of them.
Fourth, I don’t know if Jeremy has read 1984 or not, because if he did, he apparently missed the point. It’s about the government spying on its people and using force, coercion, fear, and propaganda to monitor their thoughts and actions. Can anyone honestly say that resembles the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at all?
As a believing member, I was deeply offended by the accusation that the Church was a cult.
As he should have been.
“How can it be a cult when we’re good people who are following Christ, focusing on family, and doing good works in and out of a church that bears His name? When we’re 15 million members? What a ridiculous accusation.”
Cults aren’t determined by size, but otherwise, this is absolutely correct. It’s not a cult, and claiming it is one is indeed a ridiculous accusation. No one here is brainwashed or prevented from leaving. No one is being followed or spied on. No one is being preyed upon.
It was only after seeing all of the problems with the Church’s foundational truth claims and discovering, for the first time, the SCMC and the anti-intellectualism going on behind the scenes that I could clearly see the above cultish aspects of the Church and why people came to the conclusion that Mormonism is a cult.
That’s what happens when you only look at surface-level, twisted caricatures: you have a distorted and highly biased idea of the truth. You can’t cut through the lies when that’s all you’re surrounded by.
The reason I’ve spent so much time in this series laying out the context and history of everything is because you need to look at the full picture. You need to be able to understand how and why things happened. You need to understand what was really being said.
If you only look at what critics say and that’s all you immerse yourself in, you’re going to drown in it. But the Savior is there, reaching out His hand to you, desperate to save you from the storm. Lean on Him while you study these things, and He will lead you to the answers. You just have to accept His help and trust in Him and His guidance.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.