“Faith and Reason, Conscience and Conflict: The Paths of Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin, and Obert Tanner”

April 12, 2014

McMurrin Lecture: In her lecture, Flake defines an intellectual as one who loves and is committed to the life of the mind, one for whom thought is both a delight and a necessity, a source as well as means for human flourishing. This does not mean a life without conflicts, as illustrated by three intellectuals – Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin, and Obert Tanner. Flake will consider their intellectual lives in relation to the religious culture from which they came. Doing so will tell us something about whether there is a Mormon intellectual tradition and, if so, what are its distinctive features.

Kathleen Flake holds the Richard L. Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Professor Flake has been awarded grants from the Mellon Foundation, Lily Endowment, Pew Charitable Trusts, and American Philosophical Society.  She has held office in the American Academy of Religion, the American Society of Church History, and the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion. Frequently invited to comment on Mormonism in the news, she is also a panelist for the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” blog.

Symposium: Mormonism is often seen as a religion of conformity, with a hierarchy in tight control of members’ beliefs and behavior. Yet this perspective misses a rich tradition of intellectual independence and principled dissent. With an eye to the present and future, the Tanner Humanities Center will offer a unique symposium on the lives and legacies of Sterling M. McMurrin, Obert C. Tanner, and Lowell L. Bennion. Their stories reveal the tensions between faith and reason, conformity and dissent. This symposium will mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Obert C. and Grace A. Tanner Humanities Center.

Panels include “Challenge of Conscience: Sterling M. McMurrin” (9:00-10:30 AM), with Bob Goldberg (Chair), Jack Newell, James Clayton, and Brian Birch; “Challenge of Loyalty: Lowell Bennion” (11:00 AM-12:30 PM), with Irene Fisher (Chair), Greg Prince, Tony Morgan, Sam Allen, and Emma Lou Thayne; and “Challenge of Faith: Obert C. Tanner” (1:30-3:00 PM), with Greg Thompson (Chair), Kent Murdock, Bob Goldberg, and Grethe Peterson. A concluding panel, titled “Public Men and the Challenge of Their Private Worlds” (3:30-5:00 PM), will focus upon the personal, intellectual, and working relationships that existed among these men, with panelists Linda King Newell (Chair), Carolyn Tanner Irish, Ellen Bennion Stone, Charlotte Hansen Terry, and Bill McMurrin.

These three intellectuals who shared a determination to act were rooted in Mormonism, but possessed distinctive visions that penetrated beyond their treasured religious heritage and drove them to embrace—and respond to—the pressing social, cultural, and political issues of their time.  With mutual respect, but using distinctive methods, Tanner, McMurrin and Bennion shared a passion for justice and impatience with racial discrimination in their church and across American society.  At various points in their careers, they served the LDS Church, the University of Utah, their state, and the nation in pursuit of their visions of a more enlightened and humane society.

Pursuing justice and adhering to conscience brought its own rewards, but also exacted a cost. As Director of the University of Utah’s LDS Institute of Religion, Lowell Bennion chafed at supporting church authorities in their denial of the priesthood to African American men.  Largely over this issue, he surrendered this post, swallowed his disappointment, and vigorously channeled his religious instincts into serving the needy in Salt Lake City.  Sterling McMurrin chose to proclaim himself a heretic and relished that identity, but lost friendships and some sense of community. Obert Tanner, a closet skeptic, muffled his doubt and kept his silence to play prominent roles in the life of his country, state, and city.

Symposium speakers and panelists will not only examine the specific, contemporary impacts of Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin, and O.C. Tanner, but also consider their enduring legacies on the issues facing the Mormon Church today: the inclusion of women more fully in church leadership circles, the need to face painful facets of church history more honestly, the challenge of retaining the engagement or affiliation of socially and culturally liberal members and young adults, the quest to understand the effects of new technologies on Mormon practices and beliefs, and other concerns of our time. A concluding panel will focus upon the personal, intellectual, and working relationships that existed among these men.

The Tanner Center is partnering with the College of Humanities, Smith-Pettit Foundation, and Michael Morris to bring you this event.


  1. ChrisWir February 7, 2015 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    If they excommunicate you (partly) due your support for same sex marriage… and the Church has a fully restored, eternal, gospel… how will they then treat members when same sex marriage has become a federal law in the U.S. Will they excommunicate everyone not opposing federal law?
    Also, in Sweden, where I live, same sex marriage is federal law and a civil right… I have written my stake president and bishop about my support for the same, and not heard anything back. Chances are that they find me crazy imagining to be excommunicated (in Sweden) on equal grounds.

    • Anon February 7, 2015 at 9:01 pm - Reply

      I give the Church 5 years, if that, before they will come back to John and others to hand deliver an invitation back into the Church once it reverses it’s stance on marriage once again, like it has done so many times before, and allows SSM, in the temple even.

      The Church has had so many different stances on marriage since it’s beginning, that it’s hard to keep up with their changes or even know where they really stand today on marriage, for they keep changing doctrine with the wind of inside or outside pressure.

      I believe the return of polygamy is next, as soon as it’s legal nation-wide too, which is right behind SSM. For it’s obvious that the vast majority of members and church leaders totally support, agree with and even like polygamy, especially in it’s various forms it still allows today.

  2. Marsha Bette February 7, 2015 at 2:27 pm - Reply

    That was a very interesting talk and I, especially, enjoyed the question-answer segment.

    I liked what she said about the conservatism of the LDS religion being cultural, and not really stemming from the religion, itself (which is definitely a path less followed, in Christian circles). The actual theology of Mormonism, to a large degree, is very out of the ordinary and quite interesting to study, as she said! I was excited about it, when I first joined the church, 15 years ago, but over time, it’s easy to get worn down, by the stifling culture.

    Personally, I don’t see the conservatism going away anytime soon. But, we’ll see. I wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised.

  3. Dale February 7, 2015 at 4:00 pm - Reply


    Best to you and your family tomorrow. You are a pioneer of epic courage to get to the truth and make the lives of others who are impacted by the Mormon Church. So many families are being torn apart because of the lies, cover-ups and deceit orchestrated by the Mormon Church since the time of Joseph Smith in their efforts to distort and rewrite history. Fortunately, you have shed a light on the hidden truths the Mormon Church has tried to keep from its members.

    Above all, record the proceeding tomorrow. It is you right! Anything less than a full record of the proceedings would be a travesty to justice.

  4. Lily February 7, 2015 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    Dear John Dehlin,
    I wish that you were allowed to have your opinions. I have heard it said that we live in a day and age where men can do as they please with zero consequences, but say the wrong thing and he is punished severely!
    God bless you and your family for ever and ever.
    I do not understand the workings of men in this church. Could they not pursue the real bad guys? I know an individual who I reported for rape to my Bishop… He later molested my 9 year old daughter.
    He is still a member in good standing. And yet, they put you to council? What has this church become? The priests of King Noah come to mind.
    I walk by the pure waters. Those who received Alma the Elder were Christ’s true church.
    I have been persecuted severely by Mormons. I was not a member of Ordain Women. I fought hard in California for Prop. 8… And yet, my local church chased me out of town and harbored my adulterous enemies.
    Kind Sir, if this were Christ’s church… He would elevate you… Because you received the least of these, those meek, those of low estate, homeless, broke, devastated.
    A True daughter of God

  5. Deana Ballard February 7, 2015 at 6:09 pm - Reply

    Eventhough Im not sure how I feel about all the controversial subjects, such as Ordained Women, Sam Sex Marriage, when I listen to Mormon Stories, especially you John Dehlin, I am put at ease. Not because I have lived a controversial life myself, but because you seem the sort of person that if I needed to talk to someone about my feelings with church, you would make me feel that I am ok no matter what it was, Id be ok. No prejudice, no judgement…just a listening ear.
    Thank you for that! The good news is I know that excommunication will not change you. Thank goodness. You are a rare and good person. My thoughts are with you and your family

    from Salem, Oregon

  6. Anon February 7, 2015 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    Christ clearly taught us in his parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, that it is ‘not’ Church leaders, or those who pridefully think themselves righteous, who help those in need and those who suffer, but it’s the ‘outcasts’ themselves, those who ‘know what it’s like’ to be treated badly, cast out and shunned, who are the ones who succor those in need and tend to their wounds.

    While Church leaders and members walk on by with their high heads.

    You are a ‘Good Samaritan’ John, and an example to a Church that isn’t ready to learn yet.

  7. jg February 7, 2015 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”

  8. Aaron February 7, 2015 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    John, Mormons can be proud that they have a member like you who stands up for social justice and honest, open discussion. No matter what the current leadership says, you are doing God’s work. The Church is on the wrong side of history, and my prayer is that it might realize this in our lifetimes.

  9. rich February 7, 2015 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    You must have incredible patience to be where you are and do what you do. Or maybe its just that truth never needs encouragement and can never tire?
    Hats off to you tomorrow. Been there too. Lots of tears from mis-placed concerns from my buddies, (the council) but still true concern.

  10. Judy West February 9, 2015 at 9:32 am - Reply

    Thank you for taking on this difficult fight. You represent so many of us.

  11. bob tueller February 9, 2015 at 7:00 pm - Reply

    My thoughts are how John can be in the same stake with Mark Jensen as Stake President and have meaningful and spiritual conversations regarding his feelings and belief, and no church discipline is taken.
    President King is sustained and all of a sudden a court is convened to determine John and his future standing in the church. Living in the same stake as John, I know both stake presidents and yet fail to see how they can reach such different viewpoints and courses of action.

  12. Kris February 9, 2015 at 11:39 pm - Reply

    I can’t help but wonder, would Christ excommunicate John?

  13. Ris February 10, 2015 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    The catholic church in America has a reputation of being very conservative and dogmatic, but in reality unlike members of the LDS church they are allowed to dissent without excommunication. Several years ago some members tried to deny communion to politicians who did not oppose abortion rights and they failed. The clergy has a much more nuanced view of Jesus and the bible and rarely denounce homosexuality. Priest have told me that the bible should not be taken as the literal word of god. The creation stories in genesis (it does offer two distint and different versions) have been explained to me by my priest as parables. It is sad that Mormons don’t allow the same intellectual flexibility.

    Jesus doesn’t discuss homosexuality so people often simply impose their cultural views on others in his name. Even if Jesus did come out against homosexuality it would be reasonable to disregard it like we do his views on divorce: Matthew 5:32 “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery”. Like Jesus’ condoning slavery that passage is disregarded my most Christians.

    Questioning the basis of faith shouldn’t result in excommunication. After all it is common for jesus to be called ” the prince of peace” when he explitly contradicts that concept in Matthew 10:34 “I come not to send peace, but a sword.”

    I have read the book of Mormon and find its narrative to be unlikely, but my faith says that at every mass when the priest says a few magic words and the altar boy rings his bell bread and wine become the actual body and bloos of christ. If my christiannsect let’s me question institutional canabalism and still be a member in good faith, the LDS. Church should allow youmtomdo the same.

  14. Everett Robinson February 10, 2015 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    Mr. Dehlin:

    I applaud you for standing up and seeking the truth. This disciplinary council passed judgment upon you for speaking the truth that there are errors in the teachings of the Church. All you need to prove that is look to the “Official Declarations” published by the Church, which practically admit to errors in the teachings of polygamy and white superiority. This disciplinary council proves itself to be comprised of fools who do not know the rudiments of their own religion.

    The disciplinary council would do better to follow the Christian teachings recited in Matt. 7:1-5. This council has proclaimed its measure of judgment; it will haunt them for many years to come.

    People forget that Jesus himself was a revolutionary: the Pharisees and Saduccees of his time on many occasions excommunicated him from their circles. The sin lies not in speaking the truth, but in speaking the propaganda coming forth through official communications channels, knowing it to be false.

    Do not concern yourself, Mr. Dehlin, that officials in the Church have separated themselves from you. It is not you that is condemned, it is they: Matt. 7:21-29.

  15. Zac February 10, 2015 at 3:16 pm - Reply


    I think it’s great you speak your opinion, I admire an open mind. I do however think you could have seen this coming long ago. The church isn’t like a suit that you can buy and then tailor to your wants. In your bio you say that you don’t believe in a current prophet that speaks to god or that anybody can tell what the other side is like. If that’s what you believe, great….but it’s obvious the mormon church isn’t for you because that’s what it’s teachings are. Find a church that suits you or try to understand the principles of the churches beliefs but don’t try swimming upstream. I mean this with all due respect though, and I wish the best for you!

  16. Maylaine Marie March 10, 2015 at 9:27 am - Reply


    I wish for you that it were true that dissent had a place in the LDS church. It does not. Your excommunication is only the latest in a long history (See also, “From Housewife to Heretic” by Sonia Johnson). The church will do whatever the hierarchy deems necessary to perpetuate its power through control. The church will no more sanction same-sex marriage than it does today support the ERA.

    I pray that you will find the joy and peace that comes with being free from the LDS church. My best advice to other members who are having doubts is to do your research, find out the truth, and then leave. You needn’t break the china on the way out the door, but you cannot live with integrity within the Mormon religion anymore. If you wish to live in a faith community, explore the myriad other churches that allow their members to grow in faith, love of God, and love of fellow human beings without all the guilt, control, intimidation, and mandatory conformity that accompanies the Mormon gospel. Or live in kindness and compassion for your friends, family, and neighbors without the need for a faith mythology. There really is life after “the church” and it really is beautiful, joyful, and sweet.

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