285-287: D. Michael Quinn – 21st Century Mormon Enigma

On August 12th, 2011 Mormon Stories held an event in honor and celebration of Mormon Historian D. Michael Quinn. Michael Quinn is undoubtedly one of the most important historical figures in 20th and 21st century Mormonism.

  • Michael Quinn has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and worked as an LDS church historian (under Davis Bitton and Leonard Arrington) and as a BYU history professor for many years.
  • Several of his books, including The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, and Early Mormonism and the Magical World View have literally changed the face of Mormon history (and Mormonism) forever.
  • Michael was excommunicated in September 1993 for his historical endeavors as one of the famous “September 6.”
  • In spite of his hard hitting history, excommunication and sexuality (as a gay man), Michael remains a literal believer in the divinity of the LDS church.
This is his story.



35 comments for “285-287: D. Michael Quinn – 21st Century Mormon Enigma

  1. July 29, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    As much as I’d love to attend, my wife and I are expecting a baby within a few days of the meeting and Salt Lake City is a little too far for comfort. My regards to Mike Quinn! 

  2. Rad Bailey
    August 1, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    live to far away to attend. My wife and I have a deep admiration and respect for Michael Quinn and his works, trials etc. We are on vacation but let us know where we can send a donation to this worthy event. Hopefully we can obtain a copy of presentation.RB

  3. Cheryl Nunn
    August 2, 2011 at 1:19 am

    John, I just got in Utah, will try to make it, what a wonderful event and man to honor!

  4. Enk33
    September 19, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Michael, your story is moving. It is not unique and not yet over.

  5. Jason
    September 20, 2011 at 7:03 am

    I often wonder, and I mean this as no insult against Dr. Quinn, how educated, intelligent people still maintain a literal belief in Mormonism. There is not mistake about it: many scholars, scientists, judges, politicians, doctors and other educated professionals believe in a literal set of gold plates, angels, etc. Dr. Quinn is in good company. Yet, I simply do not understand how, while knowing all the historical discrepancies and problems, they can maintain a system of belief. 

    In an article entitled Why Smart People Believe in Weird Things, Michael Shermer argues that “[s]mart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” Schermer further writes:  

                      Such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life                
                      impressions shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural 
                      influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and 
                      choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us 
                      through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through out lifetime.    
                     We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those 
                      that are disconfirming.

    Is this true for Dr. Quinn? Perhaps he would partially acknowledge some truth here. I wonder whether Dr. Quinn arrived at a literal belief system as, Shermer bluntly puts it “for non-smart reasons” in his early years. Did Dr. Quinn apply the same academic rigor to his early spiritual experiences  as he would to his historical writings? Having arrived at his belief system through a non-reliable method of epistemology in his youth, Dr. Quinn now uses his intellect to defend conclusions to which he arrived through emotion – at least, that is one way to look at it. Yet, I respect Dr. Quinn’s dedication to truth and that he acknowledges his own blind spots. He is credible to me. I cannot dismiss Dr. Quinn’s early spiritual experiences as uncompelling. 

    • N Chung
      January 2, 2012 at 7:10 pm

      He already said, he has the gift of faith, didn’t you hear him?

  6. September 21, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Jason seems to assert that “smart people” should know truth only by rational, logical processes. He seems to dismiss non-rational ways of knowing as having legitimate value.  

    • Ross
      September 21, 2011 at 11:59 am

      That’s because non-rational ways do not have legitimate value. That’s exactly the point.

      • Anonymous
        September 21, 2011 at 11:28 pm

        And with that we eliminate love from every process.  Cold, hard logic everytime.

        Luckily mothers still learn by non-rational processes.

        • Jason
          September 22, 2011 at 5:24 am

          It’s a fortunate thing, darkmatter. I agree. Nobody here is arguing that our decisions must be based on cold, hard logical, as you seem to imply. I might buy a fancy, gas-guzzling car because it makes me feel good – even though I cannot afford one. Or, as you indicate, a mother might have and take care of her child because of love. But as for separating what exists from what does not, emotion falls short. A mother’s love does not tell me whether the gold plates are real. 

          • Anonymous
            September 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm

            ” But as for separating what exists from what does not, emotion falls
            short. A mother’s love does not tell me whether the gold plates are
            real. ”

            Didn’t Joseph Smith’s mom insist the plates were real???….  🙂

      • Eugene
        September 22, 2011 at 3:02 pm

        [This is to repeat. I missed placing this correctly yesterday] Yes, Ross, as you say  “that’s exactly the point”, but that point is not legitimate. That’s my point, if you will go deeper. Read physicist/psychologist Arnold Mindell’s magnum opus “Quantum Mind, the Edge between Physics and Psychology”, published in 2000. He talks about consensus reality (“CR”) or the rational approach, which is defended by physics versus non-consensus reality (“NCR”), which is the realm of psychology. We are talking about inner versus outer reality

    • Jason
      September 22, 2011 at 5:19 am

      You make a good point, Eugene. I don’t believe that cold, hard rationalism is the only way to arrive at truth. As I mentioned in the last couple of sentences above, I cannot easily dismiss Dr. Quinn’s early spiritual experiences as merely nonsensical. But I do believe that all truth must eventually pass rational muster. 

      There is a certain inconsistency I notice in Dr. Quinn and many other academics who literally believe in Mormonism. For such people, reasoned, careful thinking is seen as a correct avenue for truth in their careers, but it apparently is not applied with equal rigor in the religious sphere. If reason works so well in all other aspects of life, why not here? Ultimately, I believe it is because matters of faith cannot stand against reason. Hence, what was a useful and indeed essential tool in day-to-day living must be muted in matters of faith. That is why we often heard Dr. Quinn say things to the effect of, and I paraphrase: “I know the Lord saved me that day. As to why the Lord does not save all the other people, I don’t know why. I leave that to the Lord.” I suspect that Dr. Quinn has to suspend his rational analysis that he would otherwise use in the academic realm because further thinking as to why God does nothing for all the other people leads to troublesome outcomes. Even Dr. Quinn admits that Occam’s Razor cuts against his worldview. While Dr. Quinn would likely apply Occam’s Razor (or the like) in drawing probable historical conclusions based on evidence, he is not willing to do so in matters of faith. 

  7. September 21, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Yes, Ross, as you say  “that’s exactly the point”, but that point is not legitimate. That’s my point, if you will go deeper. Read physicist/psychologist Arnold Mindell’s magnum opus “Quantum Mind, the Edge between Physics and Psychology”, published in 2000. He talks about consensus reality (“CR”) or the rational approach, which is defended by physics versus non-consensus reality (“NCR”), which is the realm of psychology. We are talking about inner versus outer reality.

    • Jason
      September 22, 2011 at 5:26 am

      Please expand, if you don’t mind. This fascinates me.

      • September 22, 2011 at 12:25 pm

        If you are serious, Jason, I’d be glad to. Consider Mindell’s most recent book: “Process Mind: A Users Guide to Connecting with the Mind of God” (2010) or Ken Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything” (1996), where he presents his AQAL concepts and shows how the rational or “flatland” approach is profoundly deficient in explaining or arriving to truth. If this is not to your liking, perhaps you might consider my own Odyssey into these waters, beginning in 1964 with a first poem: http://orthodoxodyssey.blogspot.com/2009/01/pilgrim-my-first-poem.html. At the time I was a new Ph.D. in the hard sciences with an obsessive idea. 

  8. New2podcasts
    September 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    This was a great trio of podcast segments with  information sharing. Thank you.

    In visiting with a friend on one occassion I said that it would be nice to be able to read Emma Smiths diaries and get the facts from her history to which I was told that Brigham Young had ordered her writings burned. Is there any further information definitively on if such was the case and if Emma had even kept a record of her trials with her wild husband?

    A second thought I had was in viewing the part 3 segment Mr. Quinn at about the 17:50 mark replying to a question is possitive and gracious about describing the church leadership being very committed and their approach to dealing with issues for the church are the best they could think of. My mind immediately recalled the President Hinkley interview with Larry King when all that he could say about they historical facts were that … that is how the church leadership interpretted things then but this is now… He poopoo’d the problem and skipped over it and said it is behind us we are moving forward.  —-  To me these two comments were both in stark contrast to “continuing reveation from God”.  The black and white of it is about the question of is God a liar? Interpretation of how to best proceed does not equate to what today is akin to Thomas Monson speaking face to face with God and carrying out direct wishes and information to save the world.

  9. gerald
    September 21, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    interesting, but there are
    many other responses to his interpretation of history that don’t agree with his.

  10. Cray
    September 22, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Nine minutes into part one, I’ve never heard such a strange prayer given in a “mormon” meeting.  “Dear God, Our Eternal Parents”?  

  11. Angrybert
    September 23, 2011 at 3:50 am

    I just love listening to this man. Thanks to everyone involved in making this happen.

  12. Porter Rockwell
    September 23, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Very nice podcast/video. I really enjoyed hearing more of Quinn’s story. Thank you for this!

    One thing I wondered, Michael maintains he’s a literal believer, that is he believes in moroni’s visitations, actual gold plates etc. I just wonder if he sees the Book of Mormon as a literal ancient text, and how he explains/deals with the many anachronisms in it. And the many parallels to JS time etc. Horses / swords / wheat / barley / Isiah writings after lehi departure / the just unbelievable size of battles with no remains (no comparable battles with that many dead until modern warfare) and many many more. 

    There are just so many problems with the text, that I cannot see it as history of a literal people. It would be very interesting to hear Quinn’s take on this, does anyone know if he has addressed this? Does he see it as just a spiritual document, revealed by God with many inspiring truths in it, or is  it more, or is it on the shelf? I haven’t read his books, only heard a couple of different podcasts with him, although I plan on aquiring the books. 

    Again, thanx for this fabolous podcast, I will donate once again…

  13. September 25, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    I’ve just finished viewing the Mormon Stories podcast series with Mike
    Quinn. I was surprised to learn that he struggled early on with believing he
    would be called as an apostle and went to Pres. Spencer Kimball about it, who unexpectedly confirmed it. John Dehlin made light of this in the podcast
    in view of current circumstances, and the audience laughed. But in my book,
    Mike is in fact now in that role in a legitimate way, if one defines the word by Merriam-Webster Thesaurus terms below and beyond the narrow LDS ecclesiastic definition.


    Apostle: a
    person who actively supports or favors a cause.

    Synonyms advocate, advocator, apostle, backer, booster, champion, expounder, espouser, friend, gospeler (or
    gospeller), herald, hierophant, high priest, paladin, promoter, proponent, protagonist, supporter, true believer, tub-thumper, white knight

    loyalist, partisan (also
    partizan), stalwart; adherent, cohort, disciple, follower; interpreter; applauder, cheerleader, encourager, fellow traveler

    enemy, foe, rival; belittler, critic, faultfinder

    Antonyms adversary, antagonist, opponent”

    • Anonymous
      September 26, 2011 at 4:08 am

      I agree, Eugene. And I didn’t mean to make light. He is an apostle to me…for sure.

      • Eugene
        September 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm

        Thanks for your acknowlegement, John. The most interesting thing to me about the Mormon Stories initiative in general, and Michael Quinn’s interview in particular, is the spontaneous, unvarnished honesty of it. It offers a safe and encouraging environment for all to tell the truth of their own experience and have it heard. For Mike to feel free to share such a deep, anchoring experience as the spiritual prompting of a future role is testament to its value. I have long searched for Mormons in and out of ecclesiastical favor, who are brave enough to share their deepest places. Until I heard Michael’s story, I’d heard the story of only one other at a casual private breakfast during the 2007 Sunstone Symposium.

        • Anonymous
          September 26, 2011 at 4:07 pm

          Thanks for the kind thoughts, Eugene. Super warm regards.

          • September 26, 2011 at 4:57 pm

            John, I have something more add to my comment above, but this is not yet the place. You have my email address, but I don’t have yours. Will you contact me? 

    • Randy Snyder
      September 28, 2011 at 6:06 pm

      Impressive ad hoc but implying Spencer meant the kind of apostle described in a generic sense is dubious.  Maybe you aren’t implying that but that’s what I inferred anyway.  🙂

      • September 28, 2011 at 7:23 pm

        To be clear: I was NOT implying that SWK would consider anything but an official LDS ecclesiastical definition of “apostle”. No matter. In my view, the official LDS ecclesiastical definition for such functions is not the last word for the truth of it, if it EVER was.

  14. Nonny
    September 26, 2011 at 2:12 am

    John, thanks for sharing the Michael Quinn interview with those of us who were not able to attend.  Fascinating listening.

  15. Stephen Bennett
    October 16, 2011 at 4:55 am

    Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction — faith in fiction is a damnable false hope. Thomas A. Edison

    Spiritual sense says that any who is a true prophet of God gets right Who God Is existentially. It comes with the authority of God and the anointing of His Spirit. A true prophet does not preach that God was Adam, particularly for decades, as did Brigham Young nor does he change his teaching that God Is drastically different ontologically to that which he had taught, especially for the duration of the several years previous, as was so with Joseph Smith. 

    “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you. Amen.” 2 Cor. 13:14

  16. Darrick_evenson
    November 22, 2011 at 1:23 am


  17. Stairs1000
    January 1, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    “Repetition and reinforcement”  is a form of brainwashing.   (The Mormon testimony is an example of repetition and reinforcement.   And “truth” derived by group and cultural repetition and reinforcement is more strongly believed than truth based on scientific method and experiment.  Truth derived by  repetition and reinforcement can be strongly EMOTIONALLY   motiveated, supported, repeated and reinforced by the group with which the person identifies.  Moreover, the higher you go up the hiearchy of  your group, the more frequent and more powerful the repetition and reinforcement becomes.   Repetition and reinforcement is stronger at the top because it is essential in order to remain at the top..  It  is required in order to maintain position in the hierarchy and to be accepted by the group, sisterhood or brotherhood.

    Group bonding is also an excellent framework for brainwashing.   When one joins, bonds and
    identifies with a group,  from then on it is the GROUP right or wrong.  You see this happening all the time, in every kind of group from a football team to political or religious groups. 

     I observe every form of brainwashing taking place among Mormon groups.   How is this for powerful brainwashing.   “You will not see your children again unless you do what  is essential to get into the Celestial Kingdom.”  And of course you will not get into the Celestial Kindgom unless you REPEAT AND REINFORCE beliefs and behavior outlined by the hierarchy.   Not to mention you need also to devote your resources and attention to the church.   Kicking money into the Mormon Church in order to be “exhalted”  is similar to contols applied by the Medieval
    Christian hierarchy for getting money into the medieval church.   


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