Mormon writer in hot water over Native DNA
Seattle - After a wide outcry in the press, a local congregation of the Mormon church has indefinitely postponed a disciplinary hearing that could have led to the excommunication of a scholar who challenged a church tenet on the origin of American Indians.
At issue is a church tenet that holds that American Indians are descended from people the church calls Lamanites - "heathen descendants of ancient Israel," said Thomas Murphy, the lifetime Mormon whose writings were at issue. Most Natives consider the claim to be negative, he said.
Murphy is chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood. His trouble with the church grew from an article published in the May 2002 Signature Books anthology, "American Apocrypha," that used genetic data to discredit the Book of Mormon claim that American Indians are descendants of ancient Israel.
Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is a history of Hebrew families who migrated to the Americas around 600 B.C. and were later visited by a resurrected Jesus Christ. The "keystone" scripture of the Mormon faith relates how a group of Lamanites who decided to forgo violence and war then became white Christians.
Murphy employed DNA research findings to refute those claims, and says the depictions of American Indians as Lamanites are racist and hurtful.
His technical survey, entitled "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy and Genetics", concluded, "Current genetic data suggest that ancestors of Native Americans separated from their Asian neighbors about 40-50,000 years ago and from each other in what may have been three or more separate waves of migration by 7-15,000 years ago. No support for Mormon beliefs linking American Indians to ancient Israelites is evident in the data."
He admonished his fellow believers, "Mormons need to look inward for spiritual validation and cease efforts to remake Native Americans in their own image."
(An online version of the article is available at mormonscripturestudies.com.)
Murphy said candlelight vigils - scheduled at the Mormon church in north suburban Lynnwood, where the hearing was planned Dec. 8, and at others around the country - had been postponed along with the disciplinary hearing.
He held a thank-you party for local supporters at his Lynnwood-area home the night of Dec. 8; about 50 people attended.
One vigil did proceed as planned, at church headquarters in Salt Lake City. (The Mormons are formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (LDS))
About 40 people showed for the hour-long demonstration. One was Shane Whelan, author of the book "More than One: Plural Marriage A Sacred Heritage," who was excommunicated in July for apostasy after he refused church orders to cease selling his book and writing about polygamy.
"Everybody in the church should be concerned about censorship, not just excommunication," he said.
Demonstrators marched quietly around the Main Street plaza, where thousands of people were observing the church's annual Christmas light display. The plaza has been a source of fierce dispute since an appeals court in October ruled the church couldn't enforce restrictions on speech and behavior.
In a letter to supporters, Murphy said his intent was "to bring attention to the racism and sexism in Mormon scripture and to object to homophobia and intellectual intimidation in the LDS Church."
Intellectual freedom within the church has long been a matter of contention. Murphy has said he expected to be excommunicated at the now-postponed disciplinary council.
"The postponement of this disciplinary council is truly a victory for all those who favor an honest search for truth and are willing to speak out against the injustices of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism," he wrote.
In a telephone interview Dec. 8, Murphy said he hoped the postponement "means it's now okay to speak about the Book of Mormon as a work of 19th century fiction.
"And I am also hopeful that the church is willing to abandon its teaching that a dark skin is a curse from God," he said.
Matthew Latimer, president of the Lynnwood LDS Stake, confirmed Dec. 8 that excommunication was one possible outcome.
"Decisions relating to spiritual welfare are a private matter between each member and his or her local church leader," Latimer said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this matter has received significant media attention, and Mr. Murphy himself has stated publicly that my decision to hold a disciplinary council is emotionally very difficult for him.
"In light of these considerations, I think it is best not to proceed at this time."
Latimer said he hoped to meet privately with Murphy "in the hope that his relationship to the Church can be strengthened."
Murphy, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Washington, also questions the lack of minority representation in church leadership, the church's political campaigns against women's and homosexual rights and "the policy of excommunicating scholars who honestly confront problems with church history and doctrines."
Murphy said he values his Mormon heritage, though, and has no plans to leave the church voluntarily.
In May 1993, Elder Boyd K. Packer, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, declared feminists, homosexuals and "so-called intellectuals" dangers to the church. A series of excommunications followed.
Murphy is one of at least three scholars now similarly threatened with expulsion or excommunicated in the past few months, raising concerns among Mormon writers and scholars about renewed efforts to purge dissident church members.
(Staff and Associated Press reports.)