A Mormon Wasp article about the Strengthening Church Members Committee, that was taken offline for unknown reasons.
The Strengthening Church Members Committee
News of a pending disciplinary council for Grant Palmer, author of the book An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, has included talk of the involvement of a church committee called the Strengthening Church Members Committee (SCMC). The Signature Books website now features a news release [hat tip to Dave’s Mormon Inquiry for bringing this to my attention] claiming that the committee provided Palmer’s stake president with a dossier on the book.
The SCMC is somewhat of a mysterious entity within the church. Its origins probably date back, at a minimum, to the 1980s. A June 13, 1994, article appearing in Time Magazine simply noted that the committee was created “[s]ome time during the [President Ezra Taft] Benson presidency.” D. Michael Quinn has written that the committee was established “[a]fter [President] Benson became church president in 1985.” I don’t know if it’s possible to be much more specific than that.
We do know that the committee existed as of July 19, 1990, which is the date of a leaked memo written by Glenn L. Pace, former second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. Pace noted that the memo, which concerned allegations of ritualistic child abuse within the LDS Church, was written “[p]ursuant to the Committee’s request.” The committee’s existence was first publicized in the fall of 1991, when an anti-Mormon ministry published the memo.
Widespread publicity of the committee’s existence, however, did not occur until the summer of 1992. On August 6, 1992, Lavina Fielding Anderson, speaking at the 1992 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, described the committee as “an internal espionage system” that kept information files on certain church members and alleged that some church members had been punished by local leaders based on files provided by the committee. Then-BYU professor of English Eugene England responded to Anderson’s charges by saying, among other things, “I accuse that committee of undermining the Church.” He also asked those attending the symposium session to lobby the church to disband the committee.
News coverage of Anderson’s charges reached readers across the United States. The Salt Lake Tribune led out with stories published on August 8 and 15. The church’s official response was initially vague. Later another church spokesman, Don LeFevre, provided additional information on the committee to the Religion News Service:
Don LeFevre, told Religious News Service on Monday that the aim of the group, known as the Strengthening Church Members Committee, is to prevent members from making negative statements that hinder the progress of the Mormon church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LeFevre said the committee neither makes judgments nor imposes penalties.
“Its purpose is implied by the committee’s name, to strengthen members in the church who may have a problem or may need counseling,” LeFevre said. “It’s really an attempt to help the individual.”
LeFevre said the committee receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that “conceivably could do harm to the church.”
“What this committee does is hear the complaints and pass the information along to the person’s ecclesiastical leader.” Any discipline is “entirely up to the discretion of the local leaders,” he said.
(“Mormon Church keeps files on its dissenters,” St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 15, 1992, at 6e)
The issue did not die, however. On August 22, the New York Times ran a short piece on the committee entitled “Secret Files.” The article quoted church spokesman LeFevre as stating that the committee “provides local church leadership with information designed to help them counsel with members who, however well-meaning, may hinder the progress of the church through public criticism.” LeFevre denied that the information was intended by church leaders for purposes of intimidation. The Times reported that F. Ross Peterson, a Mormon historian, had recently shared his experience with the committee with the Salt Lake Tribune:
“[T]wo years ago local church officials had questioned him about public comments he had made on changes in Mormon ceremonies. At the interview, he said, the officials relied on a file of photocopied material and asked him about things he had written decades earlier, but they refused to let him examine the file.”
That same day the church issued a formal statement on the committee which included a rationale based on section 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
FIRST PRESIDENCY STATEMENT CITES SCRIPTURAL MANDATE FOR CHURCH COMMITTEE
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
Lyndon Cook provides some information on Doctrine and Covenants 123, which was taken from a two-part letter dictated by Joseph Smith, while imprisoned in Liberty Jail, to church leaders in Quincy, Illinois:
On 4 May 1839, pursuant to the instructions of section 123, Almon W. Babbitt, Erastus Snow, and Robert B. Thompson were appointed “a traveling committee to gather up and obtain all the libelous reports and publications which have been circulated against the Church” as well as “other historical matter connected with said Church, which they can possibly obtain.” Referring to this assignment, Erastus Snow wrote,
“[On 4 May 1839] I was appointed by the conference one of three committee to collect the libilous publications of all kinds that had been published against the saints and to insert and refute them in a church history which should be compiled by us after the conference.”
Joseph Smith advised that Erastus Snow and Almon W. Babbitt each travel and preach as their circumstances would permit and “gather in our travels what publications we could and send them to Elder [Robert B.] Thomson who should be writing and compiling the history which should be subject to our inspection.”
(Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 241-42)
Thereafter many petitions and affidavits, which itemized personal losses in Missouri, were formulated by church members and then forwarded to Washington, D.C. for consideration by the federal government.
It deserves noting that the First Presidency statement characterized section 123 as a revelation from God to Joseph Smith in several places. “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….Leaders and members of the Church strive to implement commandments of the Lord including this direction received in 1839.”
The March 1993 issue of Sunstone introduced a new twist to the story. In a letter to the editor, BYU professor Eugene England, who had denounced the committee’s existence\r\nthe previous August, struck a conciliatory tone. He wrote:
In connection with your report of events and publicity last August concerning the Strengthening Church Members Committee (“Church Defends Keeping Files on Members,” SUNSTONE 16:2), I offer an apology and an invitation.
I am sorry that I spoke out so rashly and angrily — and before I learned more about the Committee or spoke privately to its members about my concerns. My main objection to the Committee (which I wrongly understood to be an ad hoc group of Church employees) was that as a result of its reports people were being punished or at least intimidated without being confronted directly and privately by the offended parties-a process that both our democratic and our Mormon Christian ideals call for (see D&c 42:88 and Matthew 18:15).
Yet in my accusations I violated those same ideals — with what I recognize now was a desire for revenge on those whom I thought had hurt people I know. I have apologized privately and now do so publicly: I regret what I said and the spirit in which I said it.
I also invite all of us to find ways to deal with our differences of opinion, even our offenses, directly and privately-in such a way that both offended and offender can express fully their concerns and hear full explanations and, when necessary, apologize or repent. I invite my colleagues at BYU — and all in the Mormon community as a whole to refrain from criticizing our leaders and each other in ways that violate that ideal.
I also invite all who are involved in or affected by the actions of the Strengthening Church Members Committee, including local leaders, to work toward the ideal of open, patient, and direct exchange. I suggest we all report in detail to Committee Members Elders James E. Faust and Russell M. Nelson what is happening to us and those in our care as a result of their Committee’s actions, so they can assess those results.
A story appearing in the Arizona Republic in November 1993, following the excommunication of five LDS scholars and the disfellowshipping of another in September, provided further information on the committee. The reporter quoted Elder Dallin H. Oaks as describing the committee as a “clipping service.” According to the story, “Oaks acknowledged that the Strengthening the [Church] Members Committee…may have monitored speeches, writings and activities of those suspected of apostasy and passed on material to church officials.”
D. Michael Quinn writes in Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power:
Building on files created while Benson was an apostle [related to surveillance of LDS professors and students suspected of being “left wing,” “liberal,” Communist, or socialist], staff members of this now-centralized committee began maintaining files on every member of the church regarded as critical of LDS policies or as too liberal…. During the past decade [i.e., the decade preceding 1997] this committee, whose total number of staff members and operatives is unknown, has staked out a daunting task. Its files include even a sentence regarded as controversial in an LDS member’s writings about any Mormon topic for such independent publications as the academic Utah Historical Quarterly, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Journal of Mormon History, for the LDS magazine Sunstone with its open-forum and sometimes irreverent format, and for LDS feminist publications such as Exponent II and Mormon Women’s Forum.
This clipping service at LDS headquarters is also interested in published letters-to-the-editor in all Utah’s newspapers, including the student publications of BYU and other Utah colleges. Statements considered controversial about LDS policy to national media are also targets for these files. In addition, the [committee] uses operatives to obtain tape-recordings of every Mormon who gives presentations at public forums regarded as suspicious. As a glimpse into the extent of these files, a history professor at Utah State University [Ross Peterson] was informed during a meeting at LDS headquarters in 1990 that his surveillance file included an anti-war statement he made as an undergraduate in college “ (p. 311).
The identity of the present members of the SCMC is not fully known, although some have reported that Elder Lance Wickman of the Seventy is on the committee.