excerpt – The Sacrament of Doubt
I doubt that as a youth I could have doubted the gospel of Christ restored through Joseph Smith. I wanted eternal life. I still do—wishing my wife, children, friends, and dog will live on hereafter. Even after my 1993 excommunication, I considered myself a faithful Mormon, albeit in exile. I viewed my excommunication as improper and invalid, instigated by church leaders acting beyond their authority and wanting to silence my publicly stated concerns and criticisms of them. Those thoughts appear like rationalizations to me now; and my former Mormon life, the stuff that dreams are made on. Though oblivion seems to me a waste of innumerable, intricate, and stunning marvels, I have come to fear that our little lives, like the life of the cosmos, may be rounded with a sleep.
My doubts have grown over the fourteen years since my excommunication. What began as self doubt about my assumptions, aspirations, and expectations, about my place in the scheme of things, has escalated into doubts about my spiritual experiences and insights, then doubts about the Restoration, the gospel, and finally about Christ himself.
I doubt that the current Mormon view of the spiritual is any better than its view of the temporal or that LDS notions of a hereafter are any more reliable than its constructs of the here-and-now. Mormonism’s articles of faith, its teachings on kingdoms of glory, its assertion of continuing revelation, its insistence on living prophets, its exclusive claim to priesthood, salvation, and exaltation—at least in the watered-down and arrested form they have assumed in the modern church-seem threadbare, tribal, and inadequate. With the exception of Joseph Smith, the founders and shapers of Mormonism intrigue more than inspire, even as current LDS leaders bore more than bless.
I fear that Jesus, whom I love so much, may be a fiction. If real, where is he? Why does he seem to care so little about churches and states or the disciples he reputedly saves? Certainly he is neither clear nor accessible. And his gospel, as compelling as it is inscrutable, seems to sanctify least those who make it their career.
My doubting thoughts resonate best with the words of the dying child’s father to whom Jesus said, “All things are possible to him that believeth.” With bracing candor, that father replied: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief (Mark 9:23-25). Jesus reportedly rewarded this honest admission of doubt by healing the man’s child and so, perhaps, his doubts as well.
I doubt. Yet my doubts themselves are seasoned with doubt. I am presented in Christian scripture with a God who speaks in uncertain paradoxes. In the same breath, he asks:
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” and then says: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35-36).
Is doubt a cross to be borne, the cross from which Jesus himself cried: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Pss. 22:1; Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34)? This vignette from the Passion narratives is too dark and disturbing to be pondered by simple believers raised on consoling cliches. Perhaps better for the doubt-troubled mind are the distractions of the daily task. Work sometimes seems to soothe the soul more than the rounded assurances of a resurrection from the mouths of those employed and served by ecclesiastical structures.
My doubts, however, have not placed me beyond faith even though I am currently dead to it and know I cannot raise myself; yet I am unable to abandon hope for a revival or a revelation that will pull together the polarities of life and death, of being and nothingness and that will connect the exteriorities to the interiorities of experience.
The essays in this book are a poor record of my coping with doubt—a constant wavering between distant poles. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I tried to tell the truth. As a former member, I am still trying to tell it here. The problem is that truth can be cold comfort and elusive. I once imagined myself spiritually able. How silly! I think now the best that may be said of me is that I was no more an apostate than an apostle, but an angst-ridden captive of mortal opacity—one coming to terms with death in the turbulent flux of belief and unbelief.
Boyd K. Packer—Modern Prophet in a Post-Modern World
Many Mormons feel that as an apostle and acting president of the Council of the Twelve, Elder Boyd K. Packer is or should be above criticism. In this paper, I do not honor this convention. It will probably be said that my criticisms should be ignored, first because I am an excommunicant, and second because I am biased. I frankly admit my bias against Elder Packer. He played a well-documented role in my excommunication.1 But for his involvement, I doubt I would have been disciplined at all. Moreover, Elder Packer has attempted to silence other members of my family for our religious views. My bias, therefore, is not, I think, unreasonable.
Besides, I was once biased in his favor. Between 1974 and 1984, however, I found myself increasingly opposed to Elder Packer’s views because his teachings seemed incompatible with secular knowledge, on one hand, and Mormon scripture, on the other hand. I disagreed with him not because I wished to cover my sins but because I came to believe his teachings to be corrosive of liberty, truth, love, and grace. I did not reach my conclusions suddenly or with relish, but by a long, painful, and painstaking process. My recent review of his writings, summarized in this paper, has only reinforced my belief that Elder Packer is one of the most wrong-headed and dangerous apostles Latter-day Saints have ever had. The weight of my criticisms will ultimately depend, not on my current status as an excommunicant or even on my admitted bias, but on the soundness and accuracy of my analysis and conclusions.
Let me be clear. I do not intend to belittle Elder Packer, and certainly not on the basis of some personality quirks or incidental inaccuracies, misstatements, or politically incorrect usage. I will not make him an offender for a word. My intent is to consider the themes of his ministry and the assumptions upon which his oft-repeated teachings are predicated, then to contrast them with the principles of the gospel he is required by his apostolic calling to uphold before the Saints and the world.
Elder Packer turned seventy on September 10, 1994. His brown hair is now flecked with gray. He has a solid build, a square jaw, and a handsome face. His blue eyes penetrate with the unflinching gaze of a man comfortable with command. He has a quiet voice not given to modulation but tightened with studied restraint. Beneath its placid surface lurks something vaguely threatening that suggests a man not to be trifled with or crossed.
Boyd Kenneth Packer was born in 1924 in Brigham City, Utah, the son of Emma Jensen and Ira Wight Packer. He was the tenth of eleven children.2 When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was a senior in high school. After graduating, he briefly labored as a construction worker and then enlisted as an air force cadet. He described himself during this period as “discouraged and homesick.” He prayed that if God “would help him succeed in accomplishing life’s real purpose and to resist temptation, he would dedicate himself to the Lord.” He flew as a pilot in the Pacific theater, stationed in Hawaii, the Philippines, and finally in occupied Japan. After his discharge, he attended Weber College and then Washington State College. He obtained a bachelor of science degree from Utah State University in 1949 and a master’s degree four years later. In 1962, after being called as a general authority, he received an Ed.D. from Brigham Young University.
It was either at a sacrament meeting (his recollection) or a library (her recollection) that Elder Packer met Donna Edith Smith in January 1947. They were married that year in late July. They had ten children between 1948 and 1969.3 In the 1940s and 1950s, Elder Packer served a term on the Brigham City Council and as a high councilor in the North Box Elder Stake. In 1949 he helped inaugurate a seminary program at the Intermountain Indian School near Brigham City. Six years later he became church-wide Supervisor of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion—notably without having ever served as a bishop or stake president. In July 1961, while Vice-Administrator of the Unified Church Schools System, he was named to the administrative council of Brigham Young University. Less than two months later, at age thirty-seven, while a doctoral candidate at BYU and member of the Union Fifth Ward in Salt Lake City, he was called to be an assistant to the Council of the Twelve and set apart by Elder Henry D. Moyle. From mid-1965 to mid-1968, he served as president of the New England Mission in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during a time of student unrest. Immediately upon his return, he was appointed Managing Director of the Home Teaching Committee, replacing First Presidency counselor Alvin R. Dyer. Between 1968 and 1970, during the height of the Vietnam War, he served as chair of the church’s Military Relations Committee.
In April 1970, he was called to the Council of the Twelve and sustained at the 140th annual general conference of the church. He was ordained by President Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. He was forty-five years old. The next month, he was assigned to supervise all the missions in the British Isles, replacing Elder Spencer W. Kimball. In December 1970, less than a year after his ordination to the Twelve, Elder Packer was named chairman of the Adult Correlation Committee, replacing Thomas S. Monson, who was named chairman of the Youth and Young Adult Committee. Gordon B. Hinckley continued as chair of the Children’s Correlation Committee. The church president, Harold B. Lee, charged these committees with coordinating all activities of the church. This appointment provided Elder Packer with greater authority than usually enjoyed by junior members of the Twelve. Since then, he has been a relentless defender of his particular view of Mormonism, which he has promoted in at least two conference talks per year for over thirty years. He has also spoken at annual and semi-annual priesthood and welfare sessions, college devotionals and firesides, and conferences for teachers and youth. The general conference addresses alone number over a hundred in all, many of which are available in two books. Both of these books had the opposite effect on me than their titles promised: That All May Be Edified: Talks, Sermons & Commentary of Boyd K. Packer (1982) and Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (1991). I was not able to read all his talks in their entirety for this presentation. Sometimes Elder Packer gave what might be called standard fare for general conference, primarily quoting from scripture and previous church leaders without further comment, and in such instances I skimmed over parts of the text. However, I thoroughly reviewed and analyzed what I found to be his most important addresses—those that gave the clearest utterance to his most oft-repeated concerns. I fear that time constraints will permit only a cursory review of my findings.
In general, I found that Elder Packer is often in error but never in doubt. He is not shy about addressing controversial issues. He has taken on historians, musicians, artists, gays and lesbians, feminists, ecumenists, and educators. He is, however, shy about discussing sex—a subject he approaches gingerly and by means of every imaginable circumlocution such as “the sacred act of procreation” or the “most intimate and personal of relations.”
He often quotes scripture, from all the standard works, but usually without interpretation. Generally, regardless of content, he assumes the scriptural quote he has chosen supports his point. In his latest conference address, for example, he quoted several verses of the Doctrine and Covenants stating that God reveals ideas to the mind and intellect. He used these verses, apparently without regard to their plain meaning, to support his belief that revelation comes principally to the heart instead of the head.
As a speaker he speaks with authority, usually in the voice of a wise older teacher giving kindly advice to an inexperienced, naive, and often rebellious young person. His speeches nearly always have a condescending air and often contain veiled threats. They do not provide information or allow an individual to reach an independent conclusion. Instead, they structure a conclusion and invite the listener to accept it on the basis of little or no evidence and lots of authority. His addresses nearly always seek to bring open questions and sometimes controversial issues to closure, though usually without dealing with the most difficult aspects of his chosen topic.
Anecdotes abound. Elder Packer is an excellent story-teller. Through narratives, he conveys by implication his opinions without drawing attention to their deficiencies. Often he uses stories to parade horribles. In a 1963 speech given at BYU and entitled “Prove Up to the Blessing,” he tells of his interview with a missionary who had committed a serious sin, though Elder Packer never says exactly what. He uses the unnamed missionary as a negative object lesson. He says he tried to understand why the missionary transgressed. The young man himself did not seem to know. Elder Packer reports that mid-interview he suddenly asked the missionary, “Did your mother work outside the home?” The missionary is surprised but answers “yes.” Then Elder Packer sadly concludes that this is why the missionary sinned. No argument is given to support this view. He makes no attempt to prove causation. He makes no effort to consider the missionary’s own agency, that his mother was no more responsible for his sins than for Adam’s and Eve’s, as set forth in the Article of Faith. Elder Packer provides no facts to help us understand why he reached this conclusion. He suggests, but does not say, this was revelation, not seeming to know that this kind of spectral evidence was condemned by Joseph Smith. Nor does Elder Packer consider the effects of this accusation. He merely tells the story. Blames the mother. And makes his point that working women destroy their sons. He is unaware apparently that an equal number of horror stories could be told about young men and women whose lives were ruined by working fathers, or of young people who sin despite having a mother at home, or about those whose lives are immeasurably blessed because both parents were occupied outside the home.
Elder Packer likes simple and clear solutions. He is an idealist. In the “Ideal Teacher,” a speech given in June 1962, he settled on thirty-four characteristics of a model teacher. Knowledge, enthusiasm for learning, and ability to transmit information to growing minds were not on his list of ideals. Instead, he cited characteristics such as getting along with administrators, not complaining about salaries, not discussing salaries, being happy with salaries, not agitating for reform, not straying from the party line, graciously accepting suggestions from superiors, and so on.
In his talks, Elder Packer asserts many contradictions. These usually lurk in the margins of his stories, metaphors, quotations, and asides. Some of these can be quite striking, as you will see presently. For now, I would like to give you a taste of his rhetoric, his assumptions, and my reasons for thinking his teachings are flawed. I will address here only his talks on the gospel, authority, and obedience. His addresses on the gospel are his most important, far-reaching, and in my opinion destructive. All his other teachings are colored by what I see as his misunderstanding of the mission of Jesus Christ.
In “The Mediator,” a talk given in 1977, he explained his theory of Christ’s atonement with an oft-employed analogy from the world of commerce. He said each of us is a debtor unable to pay his debts. Elder Packer does not make clear who our creditor is, but from the context it could either be God or simply the demands of an impersonal law of justice. In his analogy the debt is due and the debtor cannot pay. Taking the point of view of the creditor, Elder Packer role-plays in words that are slightly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:
… we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced.… Mercy is always so one sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand.… Mercy cannot rob justice.
Elder Packer then says:
Fortunately, the debtor had a friend willing and able to pay the debt. This is the mediator. He says to the debtor, “If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?” The debtor agrees. “Then,” said the benefactor, “you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.”
In these brief lines, Elder Packer puts forth the following notions. (1) The law of justice demands perfection. (2) Since no one is perfect, everyone is condemned. (3) Without an atonement, everyone would suffer the full punishment, which by implication is death and hell. (4) Christ’s atonement frees the faithful from the demands of justice, giving them a probationary period in which to perfect themselves. (5) Christ, the mediator, becomes the new creditor, whose credit is extended on even harsher terms. This last point is one Elder Packer made clear in his 1988 address entitled “Atonement, Agency, and Accountability,” where he said:
The Atonement was absolutely essential as the means for men to cleanse themselves from sin and overcome the second death, which is the spiritual death, which is the separation from our Father in Heaven.
Elder Packer posits that it is men themselves, rather than Christ, who need to cleanse themselves of sin and thereby overcome the second death. He believes the Law of Moses condemned only outward sins such as adultery, but under Christ’s law even lustful thoughts are considered sin—showing how much more harsh Christ’s law is. This may explain why Elder Packer so often speaks of the importance of controlling one’s thoughts. He teaches repeatedly that Christ does not free us from the law; rather, Christ brings us under his more exacting law. The full weight of salvation is upon us, in Elder Packer’s view. This is not good news. It is not the gospel. It is legalism. Though called as a special witness of Christ, he either does not understand or chooses not to emphasize the severity of our plight as mortals or the sublimity of Christ’s redemption.
In my view, we are not merely debtors, we are slaves living in bondage to sin and imperfection, to egocentricity, opacity of mind, narrowness of soul, and limitations of body. In my reading of scripture, Christ is nowhere presented as our creditor. Christ assumes our sins. A creditor could not and would not assume the risks of our business. A creditor wants regular payments whether our business succeeds or fails. The devil is portrayed in the scripture as a creditor: “The wages of sin is death.” Christ is portrayed as a benefactor: “The gift of God is eternal life.” More than that, Christ is a liberator and our savior. He frees us from slavery to sin, releases us from mortal corruption, and freely gives all that God has. He offers full and equal partnership with him, not because we have earned it, but because we are beneficiaries of his salvific act. He is not indifferent to our sins but does not demand perfection. Instead, in a mysterious act whereby he identifies with us, he assumes our liabilities and shares with us the untold riches of his kingdom. He provides a never-ending fund of spirituality that cleanses and heals us and helps us to grow from our mistakes. This boundless reservoir of spirit at his disposal allows us to take risks without fear. This gift is not to be abused. In fact, it cannot be abused. The Spirit does not tarry with those who are controlling, abusive, or insincere, or with those who undermine the inherent humanity and free will of others. But Christ can extricate sinners from even these debts. The gospel empowers us first to be his children, then his friends, and finally joint heirs with Christ in the godhead.
What Jesus said was this: “Come unto me all ye that labor and I will give you rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Elder Packer teaches that each must carry a heavier burden under Christ—the impossible burden of self-purification. He says, “… the scriptures tell us—seven times they tell us—that no unclean thing may enter the presence of God.”
Yes, the scriptures do say this, probably seven times. What Elder Packer does not see is that because we cannot enter God’s presence, God entered into our presence. God so loved the world that he came and entered into every willing soul. The transcendent God is imminent. The kingdom of God is not a distant piece of real estate. The kingdom of God is at hand. It is within us. It is not beyond the veil. It does not rest with a chosen few or with a corporate church. It is available to all who believe and love God. Faith brings the spirit directly to the soul. That spirit changes the heart and mind. What is required is a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Baptism shows, not that a person is pure and clean, but that a sinner has died and a saint has been born of water and of the spirit, a new spiritual creature breathing anew in a new world.
Elder Packer’s gospel brings the bondage of stricter laws and harsher taskmasters than those who whipped the Israelites in the mud pits of Egypt. Jesus’ gospel offers to free us from the law—from creditors and quacks alike. Elder Packer says his gospel is “absolutely essential as the means for men to cleanse themselves,” but Jesus’ gospel is not about self-purification; it is about maturation. Elder Packer, an apostle, fails to testify of these things to the Saints. There is much more I could say about Elder Packer’s fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel message, but I will move on to discuss his views on authority and obedience.
There is in almost every talk he gives a reference to authority, which Elder Packer usually advances in the form of a story. One of the best appeared in “The Edge of the Light,” an address delivered at a BYU fireside on March 4, 1990, in which he said:
Shortly after we [Boyd and Donna] were married, I was invited to speak in a sacrament meeting. Patriarch [S. Norman Lee, former stake president] was seated on the stand. As the meeting closed he said to me, “That was a fine talk, Brother Packer, but may I point out that the correct pronunciation of this one word is as follows …” to which I replied with some impudence, “Oh, is that so?”
Later I felt very ashamed of myself and called Patriarch Lee and apologized. I thanked him for the correction and invited his continued interest.
Shortly thereafter I was called to the stake high council and on fairly frequent occasions spoke in meetings where Patriarch Lee was in attendance. Always he would compliment me and then add a correction or a suggestion. Always I tried to respond with sufficient appreciation to encourage him to continue his interest.
This is an important story because it has many subtleties to it. Elder Packer was just married. He had reached full manhood in Mormondom. He was speaking in sacrament meeting. Like most faithful Mormon men of that age, he wanted to make an impression on his leaders. A former stake president and current stake patriarch approached him after his talk and complimented him. Elder Packer was surely gratified by this. He had probably given an excellent talk. Then the old patriarch spoiled it. He added a criticism. An embarrassing one. He told Elder Packer about a mispronounced word. Elder Packer does not disclose what the word was or how he pronounced it or whether or not the correction was well-taken. He leaves this an open question. This is important because whether the patriarch was right or wrong is not the issue. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Elder Packer wanted the approval, love, and recognition of this older man. But the patriarch did not give his love, not unconditionally in any case. Instead, he corrected him. This may be the last pleasure old men have—correcting young men. The old man took his pleasure at Elder Packer’s expense. Elder Packer expressed understandable but controlled resentment. In saying, “Oh, is that so?” he indicated his sensitivity to criticism. It hurt him that the praise he received was conditional. Even from a third-party perspective, it appears the old patriarch was a nit picker. Why not compliment the young man? Why spoil his moment? It was probably done out of jealousy, envy, unchecked habit, or the old man’s need to maintain some connection with the power he no longer held in the stake.
Elder Packer went home and thought over the incident. It bothered him, both what was said to him and what he said back. He said he was “ashamed” but did not make clear what caused the shame. Was it his rebuke of the patriarch or the patriarch’s rebuke? I surmise it was both. The shame is critical because it is what Elder Packer had to deal with. He had several choices. He could have written off the old man as a busybody. He could have resolved the question by looking up the proper pronunciation and accepting the correction had he been wrong or standing his ground, had he been right. He could have gone to bed and revenged himself with love-making, which the old man could probably no longer do. But he chose another course. He called the patriarch, flattered him, smoothed over their disagreement, and invited the patriarch to further indulge his taste for advising young men.
Packer submitted, not for the sake of truth or ethics, but because he saw this was what the system required of him if he were to ascend. How do we know this? He tells us. After stating that he invited the patriarch’s “continued interest,” he abruptly concludes by suggesting a causal relationship between his submission and what followed: “Shortly thereafter I was called to the stake high council and on fairly frequent occasions spoke in meetings where Patriarch Lee was in attendance.”
This is the lesson he learned. If you submit to your leaders, you are rewarded with authority and power. He adds: “… always [Patriarch Lee] would compliment me and then add a correction or a suggestion. Always I tried to respond with sufficient appreciation to encourage him to continue his interest.” This revels Elder Packer’s way of acquiring power. He allowed the old man to compliment him and correct him, however painful that was to endure, and then assures us that he responded with sufficient appreciation to encourage the old man “to continue his interest”–the very interest that undoubtedly contributed to Elder Packer’s calling to the high council.
This is a story of a young man submitting to an older man’s domination, of making himself an object so he could achieve his goal of being granted power and influence to do right. Elder Packer is obsessed with this theme of young men becoming submissive to achieve the power to do good. He tells these stories over and over again and they always contain the same elements. A young man encounters an older church leader and is counseled or seeks counsel. The young man chafes at the advice, but soon comes to accept it. If the counsel is sought, the young man may consider it unreasonable or unresponsive but nevertheless submits. He does this because he sees his leaders as honorable men to be loved, honored, and obeyed. This is the order of the priesthood. He submits because he is a good soldier and seeks advancement.
Elder Packer, I believe, is trapped in a terrible and painful dilemma. In exchange for the power to do good, for the privilege of being respected by his seniors, he has had to sell his soul. And he cannot now easily get it back.. He subscribed to a system of domination. To get power, he had to sacrifice his own judgment. Now to continue exercising power, he must shield himself from and even destroy the judgment of others. It’s a Faustian bargain: he cannot wield the power he obtained without exacting from others the same submission he gave; he endangered his soul for power and cannot now use that power without endangering the souls of others. This may be why he is hostile toward intellectuals, feminists, and homosexuals, because they do not yield their judgment to him. This is why, in his view, obedience is the first and final law of the gospel: it justifies his own life’s choices. It seems never to occur to him that this mechanism may be corrupt, may be corrupting, may lead those in authority to do to others the evil that has been done to them.
His deafness and blindness to the evils of power is apparent in one of his earliest conference speeches, “The Disease of Profanity,” given in October 1967, in which he told of a man involved in a car accident. Although the man was not injured, he was taken to the hospital for examination. The young Boyd Packer and his brother towed the demolished car to the Packers’ Brigham City service station and repair shop. Later that day the driver showed up to assess the damage. He was so shocked by what he saw, he let loose a stream of profanity even the World War II veterans at the garage found shocking. One of Packer’s brothers crawled out from under a car, grabbed a sixteen-inch wrench, and approached the profaner. Elder Packer emphasized the size and weight of the wrench. Brandishing it threateningly, the brother ordered a stop to the profanity. And so ended the story. From there, Elder Packer went on to preach against the disease of profanity, with this hidden contradiction: It never occurred to him that his brother had threatened bodily harm with a deadly weapon, had exercised unrighteous dominion, and had enlisted arbitrary force to promote purity of speech. Elder Packer mentioned his brother’s actions with pride because they promoted a moral principle he agreed with. The story illustrates more than the evils of profanity. It shows Elder Packer’s insensitivity to coercion unless turned against something he values. He strains at a gnat and swallows a camel, condemning profanity, which is a breach of etiquette, while condoning attempted assault with a deadly weapon, which is a crime.
Elder Packer embraces authoritarianism because he believes coercion and manipulation are what are needed to assure people obey. He sees obedience as the only reliable way to impose order and to avoid sin. In “Spiritual Crocodiles,” a conference speech from 1982, Elder Packer tells of a trip to Africa and a long dreamed of chance for him to observe the wild animals and especially the birds he loves so much. Observing a water hole, he noticed that some of the animals were skittery. He asked his guide why. “Crocodiles,” was the reply. “Nonsense,” Elder Packer said. “There are no crocodiles out there. Anyone can see that.” He thought the guide was teasing him. Then the guide showed him. Elder Packer says:
I couldn’t see anything except the mud, a little water, and the nervous animals in the distance. Then all at once I saw it—a large crocodile, settled in the mud, waiting for some unsuspecting animal to get thirsty enough to come for a drink.
Suddenly I was a believer.
The guide then told Elder Packer a tragic story.
A young man from England was working in the hotel for the season. In spite of constant and repeated warnings, he went through the compound fence to check something across a shallow splash of water that didn’t cover his tennis shoes.
“He wasn’t two steps in,” the ranger said, “before a crocodile had him, and we could do nothing to save him.”
Elder Packer used the metaphor of spiritual crocodiles to represent sin. In so doing, he held out no hope for salvation outside of prevention. He said, “Fortunately, there are guides enough in life to prevent these things from happening if we are willing to take counsel now and again.” His main point was that sin is better avoided than repented of. He did not see that sin is inevitable. He concluded the address with this advice:
… the basic exercise for you to perform in your youth to become spiritually strong, and to become independent lies in obedience to your guides. If you will follow them and do it willingly, you can learn to trust those delicate, sensitive spiritual promptings. You will learn that they always, invariably, lead you to do that which is righteous.
Notice that Elder Packer believes independence stems from obedience. He does not allow that the spirit may lead us into temptation, which is to say into trials, and then deliver us from evil. In fact, all our calculations cannot save us. Elder Packer envisions safe compounds like the one in his story, not perceiving that there are spiritual crocodiles everywhere and that we are the skittery animals driven by thirst and threatened by death. To be bitten, mauled, and killed is our lot. It is our love of God and God’s love for us only that can save us. We are not in the hands of our guides, but of a living God. This is a fearful things, indeed. Contrariwise, Elder Packer believes our salvation lies in sound warnings, obedience, and prevention. He says, “I have been nipped a time or two and on occasion have needed some spiritual first aid, but have been otherwise saved because I have been warned.”
What poor remedies these are for those who, like the young man from England, have already been devoured. Elder Packer holds out no hope to them. How unlike the teachings of Jesus this is, thank God! For Jesus taught: “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” One would think this latter point about spiritual and physical resurrection, rather than the one about obedience and prevention, would have been the point a special witness of Christ would have been most eager to make.
Time prevents me from discussing Elder Packer’s other views except in summary fashion. His opinion of women and their desires and needs seems grossly uninformed for a married man with daughters and granddaughters. He damns women with faint praise, burdens them with guilt and responsibility, and denies them power and authority. In June 1970 at BYU, he told the fearful story of a mother exposing her children to what she thought was chicken pox but turned out to be small pox; all her children died. The foolish mother image is a recurring theme in Elder Packer’s stories. In this instance, it is intended to warn against exposing children to fatal ideas.
I could spend the entire hour on Elder Packer’s October 1993 conference talk, “For Time and All Eternity,” in which he gave a parable, laden with inadvertent sexual symbols, about how a Mormon woman holds a sacred key, but how a Mormon man holds two sacred keys to a treasure hidden in a sacred vault. I have decided against saying anything more about this because I’m not a psychiatrist. However, as a humorist of sorts, I can say that the talk is a parody of itself.
Elder Packer’s views of family and home and procreation are relentlessly patriarchal and Victorian. He seems incapable of admitting that any good can come from family structures he disapproves of or that evil can come from those he does approve of. His ideas about homosexuality and lesbianism are benighted and punishing. He believes revelation comes only to leaders who hold his presuppositions and that members are entitled to revelation only that inspires them to follow the Brethren. He believes people who think for themselves pose the greatest threat to the church.
Let me conclude with a story Elder Packer told in his 1990 BYU speech, “The Edge of the Light.” He begins with this strange remark: “There is one category of experiences which by long standing rule I do not speak of in public.” I will return to this comment in a moment, for it is a key to understanding the meaning of the story he tells—a remarkable story of which I can quote only a few excerpts:
In 1971 I was assigned to stake conferences in Western Samoa, including the organization of the Upolo West Stake … [W]e chartered a plane to the island of Savaii…
We waited until dark; no plane arrived. We were finally able to learn by radiophone that … the plane could not take off. We were able as well to tell them we would come by boat…
As we pulled out of port, … [n]one of us realized that a ferocious tropical storm had hit Upolo Island.
At Mulisanua, there is one narrow passage through the reef. A light on the hill above the beach marked that narrow passage. There was a second lower light on the beach. When a boat was maneuvered so that the two lights were one above the other, it was lined up properly to pass through the reef.
But that night, there was only one light. Someone was on the landing waiting to meet us, but the crossing took much longer than usual. After waiting for hours, watching for signs of our boat, [the person] tired and fell asleep in the car, neglecting to turn on the lower light.
The captain maneuvered the boat toward the single light on shore while a crewman held a flashlight off the bow. It seemed like the boat would struggle up a mountainous wave and then pause in exhaustion at the crest of it with the propellers out of the water. The vibration of the propellers would shake the boat nearly to pieces before it slid down the other side.
We could hear the breakers crashing over the reef. When we were close enough to see them with the flashlight, the captain frantically shouted “reverse” and backed away to try again to locate the passage through the reef. After many attempts, he knew it would be impossible to find the opening. All we could do was try to reach the harbor in Apia 20 miles away. We were helpless against the ferocious power of the elements. I do not remember ever being where it was so dark.…
We made our way to Pesanga, dried our clothing, and headed for Vailuutai to organize the new stake.
Then Elder Packer makes this ominous statement:
I do not know who had been waiting for us at Mulisanua. I refused to let them tell me. Nor do I care now. But, it is true that without that light, the lower light—the light that failed—we all might have been lost.
He then concludes:
There is in our hymn book a very old and seldom sung hymn that has very special meaning to me.
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore,
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning;
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.
Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost. (Hymns, 335)
This is first-rate story-telling. The images are clear. One is carried along by the action, the details, and the suspense to the conclusion. The story conveys a vivid sense of the exotic island culture that served as the setting of this wonderful reminiscence.
But what is deeply troubling is that Elder Packer sees this as a story only for us and not for himself. He was angry that someone charged with keeping the lower light burning failed in his responsibility, and he assumes a threatening tone in saying: “I do not know who had been waiting for us at Mulisanua. I refused to let them tell me. Nor do I care now.”
The event took place in 1971. Almost twenty years later, Elder Packer still does not know the name of the person who failed to light the lower light. In all that time, he never spoke to him, never learned his story. In a 1977 address called “The Balm of Gilead,” Elder Packer told of a young farmer named John whose wife died tragically after being inadvertently infected by the country doctor who assisted her in childbirth. The farmer could not forgive the doctor. Finally, years later, the farmer went to his church leader, who told him to “leave it alone, John.” This is Elder Packer’s advice to those who are angry or bitter: “Leave it alone.” But Elder Packer cannot leave it alone. Nineteen years after the event at Mulisanua, he remembers with perfect clarity. Nineteen years later he still says: “I do not know who had been waiting for us at Mulisanua. I refused to let them tell me. Nor do I care now.” In these three cold sentences, he manages to shame and blame, not just the nameless soul at Mulisanua, but countless, nameless Latter-day Saints who have flagged or failed or fallen short due to exhaustion or pain or blindness or rebellion. This is the rhetoric of reproach employed by school yard bullies and mafia dons. The shaming, the blaming, the disapproval—all are calculated to twist the soul into compliance.
Then without batting an eye, without the slightest awareness of the contradiction, Elder Packer quotes, “Brightly beams our Father’s mercy / From his lighthouse evermore …” But Elder Packer there is no mercy for those who fail. Nor does he see his own failure.
Recall his opening statement: “There is one category of experiences which by long standing rule I do not speak of in public.” What category of experience is it that “by long standing rule” he will not share with the Latter-day Saints? I can only assume that the experiences he does not share are his spiritual or revelatory experiences, for you never find them discussed or even mentioned in his talks. Elder Packer, apparently, does not wish to share them because he does not wish to cast pearls before swine. It is his policy to keep the Saints in darkness, to maintain control of information, to insulate himself from questions about his contacts with the spiritual world.
Elder Packer does not see that this “long standing rule” conflicts with the moral of his story. Should not Elder Packer himself “keep the lights along the shore”? How can he if he refuses to tell us the truth? For nineteen years, this apostle has refused to know the name of the person who failed at Mulisanua. But I know the name. And I will tell him now. That name is Boyd Kenneth Packer.
It is you, Elder Packer, who have not kept the lower lights burning. It is you who have failed us in our struggles, we who are sinking in the dark storms that beset us. It is you who have fallen into the unforgiving deep of legalism. Your writings and speeches tell us you have rejected the chief gift of the Holy Spirit–the gift of irony–the gift to see yourself as you are seen, to see yourself as you see others, to see yourself as needy rather than as needed, to see yourself as sinner rather than as saint, student rather than teacher, and as apostate rather than as apostle. You sit in Peter’s seat. Like him, you deny the Christ—not by name, certainly; but you deny Christ every time he comes to you in an image other than your own, in ways you do not expect, as intellectual, feminist, homosexual, or as a thief in the night. What Christ said to all, he has also said to you: “As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
What will become of Elder Boyd K. Packer? Will he continue as he is and ruin a good church by trying to perfect it? Will he continue his relentless assault on freedom and grace? Will he experience a miraculous conversion like Peter on the roof of Cornelius’s house and accept those whom he has heretofore rejected? Will he ascend to the presidency of the church too enfeebled to do any more damage? Will he simply die and his memory fade away?
If I were a betting man, I would put my money on the “too enfeebled to do any damage” proposition, but only because it has happened so often in the past. I never bet with money. I’m not that kind of a gambler. I only gamble with my soul. I’m gambling on the irrelevance to God of his errant apostles. After all the criticisms I have uttered about the teachings of this man, let me be clear: What I have said is said not out of animosity, but out of a solemn and unsentimental devotion. Boyd K. Packer is the Lord’s apostle. His calling is sacred. His ministry is sacred. His person is sacred. And he may yet become in the post-modern world what Peter was to the gentiles, a principal champion of salvation to the disenfranchised. Don’t laugh. The church is ripe for a miracle.
I, however, am not holding my breath. I have spent thirty years in Mormonism, joining it, learning about it, trying to live it, enduring it, and fighting the worst of it. It’s been character building. I have an excess of character. I’m tired. I suppose I have some promises to keep. After that, I will take an extended vacation to spend more time with those who love me rather than worry about those who don’t. Others more qualified than I can deconstruct the rest of the leadership one by one without my help. Please accept my apologies for being too bold, speaking too long, and leaving too early. God bless you all and thank you for listening to me.
This address was presented at the Counterpoint Conference at the University Park Hotel in Salt Lake City, November 5, 1994.NOTES:
1Originally Elder Packer targeted my wife, Margaret, for discipline after a presentation she gave at BYU in June 1993. Stake president Kerry M. Heinz was informed by his friend F. Melvin Hammond of the First Council of the Seventy that certain general authorities were not happy that President Heinz was unable to control Margaret. On July 11, Elder Packer met with President Heinz to discuss this problem. On August 5, Margaret and I met with Heinz. During this meeting, the focus of attention shifted to me and I became the principal target of investigation. In a September 5 meeting, I asked President Heinz whether Elder Packer had requested my excommunication. Heinz said, “No, Elder Packer did not direct a verdict.” I asked, “But wasn’t the implication of his words to you that I should be?” Heinz responded without hesitation, “Yes, that was the implication.” In October of 1992, Elder Dallin Oaks, whose background is in law, stated he had cautioned Elder Packer against becoming involved in local disciplinary councils. On September 5, 1993, in a private meeting with Steve Benson, grandson of the late church president Ezra Taft Benson, Elder Oaks noted that dealing with Elder Packer was like “stage managing a grizzly bear.” Clearly Packer was involved in the decision to excommunicate me even though President Heinz subsequently denied this. Heinz maintains it was the judgment of the stake president and high council, based on my August 1993 Sunstone speech, “All Is Not Well In Zion: False Teachings of the True Church,” and my answers to the council’s questions regarding that paper.
2His oldest sister, Verna, was sixteen years his senior. One sister, Adele, nine years his senior, died at age eight, a year before Boyd was born. The last child was William, three years Boyd’s junior. The first six of his siblings have died, four of them in their sixties. His brothers all served in the military. Leon, seven years Boyd’s senior, was among the first American pilots to fly a B-24 bomber out of England during the Battle of Britain.
3Allan, 1948; Kenneth, 1950; David, 1951; Laurel, 1953; Russell, 1954; Spencer, 1956; Gayle, 1958; Kathleen, 1959; Lawrence, 1962; and Eldon, 1969.