The Story of Alexander Doniphan is well-known and probably does not need to be recounted here (For more information see Mormon Heretics Post – A Memorial Day Jack Mormon or see this). Very simply: when a number of the leaders of the Church were threatened with execution the man asked to carry it out, Alexander Doniphan, refused to do so on the grounds that he thought it was illegal. He is now recounted in LDS history as an example of integrity. However, his refusal is also an example of dissent and viewed from another point of view would not be lauded as it now is. For example, if a Stake President refuses to excommunicate someone, at the request of a higher General Authority, because they feel that is the right thing to do, would their integrity be praised? Is there a way of valuing LDS dissenters and what is the criteria for doing so?
I want to use the example of Hugh Nibley as someone who successfully navigated this treacherous path. He has written: “There may be things about the Church that I find perfectly appalling. But I know the gospel is true.”  Many of his more popular writings have been critical of the Church’s culture and leadership and yet he is accepted and even quoted. He even published with Signature Books; which as you know is just asking for trouble. Neal A. Maxwell has said: “Hugh, of course, is above the fray not in the sense of his being esoteric or highly advanced but likewise I think his commitment has been so visible and so pronounced and so repetitively stated so that’s not even the issue. So then we get on to what is Hugh saying?” 
Is it enough to be visible, vocal and pronounced about your commitment? Michael Quinn believes that his essay on Post-Manifesto Polygamy was one of the reasons that he was excommunicated and yet this essay has a declaration of his continued faith in the Gospel. In addition, I have heard many who fear being ostracised or disciplined for views they espouse online, even if they would fall under the category of things you find ‘perfectly appalling’. It seems to me that there is an acceptable limit to dissent, but where is that limit? What else is required to be within the limits of faithful dissent?
Lowell Bennion argues that we do not have to “accept any interpretation of scripture (I would add this applies to any ‘revelation or direction’) that denies the impartiality or love of God or the free agency and brotherhood of man. These concepts are too basic to the gospel to be denied by someone’s interpretation of a verse of scripture” or a policy. Bennion suggests that we can legitimately dissent if we can justify it upon the basic ethical principles of Christ’s message (like Doniphan did). Yet, to what extent is this a viable option for individuals within the Church? Eugene England shares the experience of being a Sunday School teacher for a few weeks before being released for expressing his ‘liberal’ views on some sections of the O.T.. Clearly this was not an acceptable level of dissent.
In addition Jeffrey R. Holland has discussed the line(s) of faithful dissent in the extreme cases. He has said “We don’t discipline people in this church for very much.” Moreover, he thinks the “church has a history of being very, very generous.” In addition he argues that there are “lines” plural that members should not cross, if they want to retain the blessings of being a member of the Church. He believes that “The chief among these is the issue of advocating against the church” because then “the institution itself cannot retain its identity and still allow that”. For example, he notes that “There are plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are firmly in this church and the church isn’t going to take action against that. [The church] probably will be genuinely disappointed, but there isn’t going to be action against that, not until it starts to be advocacy: “Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve.”” Yet it seems to me that there is a fine line between advocacy and discussing, raising questions and writing about these issues.
- Where do you see the limit of Faithful Dissent?
- Why is a declaration of commitment and faith not enough in some cases?
- Is there a space for dissent within the Church upon ethical principles, like Bennion argues?
- Does Elder Holland sound like he is accurately defining that limit and do you agree that this is an appropriate limit?
1. Hugh Nibley, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978], xvii.
2. Neal A. Maxwell, Faith of an Observer [Provo: BYU & FARMS, 1985]. A Transcript is available here.
3. Michael Quinn, Transcript for The Mormons, PBS [online]. A Transcript is available here.
4. Lowell L. Bennion, The Best of Lowell L. Bennion: Selected Writings 1928-1988, edited by Eugene England [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988], 208.
5. Eugene England, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel in Sunstone [Salt Lake City: Sunstone Education Foundation, Dec 1999].