Mormon Issues

522: Three Inspirations on the Eve of My Disciplinary Council: Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin, and Obert Tanner

February 7, 2015


“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.

2014 Symposium

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.

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9 Responses to 522: Three Inspirations on the Eve of My Disciplinary Council: Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin, and Obert Tanner

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

    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

      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

    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. Andrew Ainsworth
    February 7, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    John, if the LDS church punishes you for being ahead of the curve on women’s ordination and same-sex marriage the same way it punished McMurrin and so many others for behind ahead of the curve by opposing the church’s totally un-Christlike and racist ban on blacks holding the priesthood, do you think you will apply for membership again in a few decades when the”inspired GAs finally get a revelation to catch up and adopt your current positions?

  4. Dale
    February 7, 2015 at 4:00 pm


    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.

  5. Lily
    February 7, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    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

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

    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

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

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

    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.