We generally feel more comfortable around those who share our beliefs and outlook on life, who think the way we do. The naysayers, gadflies and critics in our ranks can be such a bother. They often challenge our perspective and compel us to rethink our opinions. Even when they do it politely and diplomatically, it can be unsettling.
Leaders likewise do not like dissenters. This is especially true with religious organizations, which are hierarchal in nature and believe their authority originates with God, thus shielding their actions and decisions from questioning. But heads of organizations of all stripes, in moments of frustration, often throw up their hands and say: “Why is it so hard for you to do what we ask, to simply conform?”
No one has ever given voice to this sentiment with greater candor than the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston. In the 1840s, he became so exasperated with the Indian civil service officials who were constantly criticizing his South Asian policies that he said he would rather have second-rate obedient people than first-rate independent minds. But if Mr. Palmerston had carefully considered the views and warnings of those “independent minds” when they urged him in 1839 not to proceed with an unprovoked invasion of Afghanistan, then perhaps 5,000 of Her Majesty’s soldiers and civilians would not have lost their lives three years later when the local population predictably revolted against the British occupation.
Sadly, there are instances in our church’s history where ecclesiastical officials have embraced Mr. Palmerston’s approach. And, at times, the costs have been steep.
Shortly after the Willie handcart company began its trek from Iowa City to Salt Lake in the summer of 1856, it arrived in Florence, Nebraska, where the leaders and members of the company gathered to consider whether they should make winter quarters or press on. Virtually all of the church officials, company captains and sub-captains spoke in favor of continuing the journey, assuring their listeners that their collective faith would see them through.
A sub-captain by the name of Levi Savage, however, took an opposing view, saying that, by departing so late in the season the Saints would be compelled to wade through snow “up to our knees” and endure sub-freezing temperatures for which they were ill prepared. People were going to die, he said.
Brother Savage knew whereof he spoke because, unlike all but three other members of the company, he had actually crossed the plains before. Nevertheless, his dissenting vote was greeted with scorn and derision by company leaders and church officials. He was called “a recreant to the cause of truth and a disturber of the peace of the brethren and an opposer of those who were placed over him and called upon to repent.” Captain James Willie, according to Savage’s diary, said that “the God he served was a God that was able to save to the uttermost, … and he wanted no Job’s comforters with him.” William Kimball then chimed in, sternly rebuking “those of little faith, and he promised that he would ‘stuff into his mouth all the snow they would ever get to see on their journey to the valleys!”
While Savage reluctantly agreed to continue, some church members elected to pull out, making winter quarters either in Nebraska or back in Iowa City. They realized that the failure of the company to depart in springtime, as originally planned, would mean they would likely confront unforgiving, and potentially lethal, winter weather once they reached the mountains; so they chose to wait until winter passed before continuing on to Zion. By and large, these “back outs,” as they were pejoratively labeled, were mothers and fathers who were concerned for the safety of their children and the older members of their families. Such motives, however, were deemed impure by many church and company officials who vilified the dropouts, impugned their faith, and called them the “chaff” that the Lord was sifting from the wheat.
I have often wondered if, a couple of months later when Brother Savage’s predictions came true and members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies began to succumb to the elements, what ran through the minds of those company and church leaders who had castigated the “back outs” and Brother Savage. When they found themselves trying to dig a shallow grave in the frozen earth for an infant child that had frozen to death during the night, did the thought ever cross their minds that maybe the dissenters were right? Over 200 members of these two handcart companies died that winter, a mortality rate of approximately 20%.
I do greatly admire those individuals and families who, once the elements turned against them and they realized they had been misled as to the risks, exhibited great courage in the face of impossible circumstances. But those Saints who elected to wait until spring to complete the trek, who determined that the journey would endanger their lives and those of their families, who were threatened with the loss of their membership if they did not conform, they, too, I hold in high esteem.
In more recent times, there is the story of Lester Bush, an army physician and member of the church, who incurred the wrath of its leaders by doing something seemingly innocuous: writing a lengthy, scholarly article for a publication few church members had heard of. But this article challenged the church’s narrative regarding the origins of the infamous Priesthood Ban, a doctrine (later called a policy) that barred those of African origin from receiving the priesthood and denied them access to temple blessings.
Prior to the publication of his work, the conventional wisdom was that the Priesthood Ban had its origins in a revelation Joseph Smith had received and that it existed in ancient times as well. Bush’s research, however, found no contemporary records or journals linking Joseph Smith to this restriction; rather, most documentary evidence pointed to his successor, Brigham Young, as the source of the doctrine. Further, no church leader at the time ever made reference to a revelation to justify the Ban.
Bush’s thesis had a profound impact on how the Priesthood Ban should be viewed and, more significantly, it raised serious questions regarding the validity of the Ban. Not surprisingly, some in Salt Lake were not pleased.
Boyd K. Packer tried to persuade Bush not to publish the article while others, at Packer’s behest, lobbied the editors of Dialogue. Thankfully, they all failed. But the story does not end there.
Bush, following the article’s publication, was marginalized by local church leaders. According to one LDS scholar, this shunning, though subtle, apparently came from a higher authority. The extent of his ostracization and discomfort reached the point that he and his family simply withdrew from all church activity.
This is tragically ironic since there is evidence that Bush’s article had a profound impact on the church leadership. Years later, Bush was told by Marion D. Hanks, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, that his “article had had far more influence than the Brethren would acknowledge. It ‘started to foment the pot,’” thereby contributing to the lifting of the Priesthood Ban five years later.
Merely tolerating the dissenters, eccentrics and nonconformists in our midst is not enough. Indeed, tolerance in this context has an unspoken air of condescension: “Yes, we will allow you to speak your mind without fear of retribution, but don’t expect us, your superiors, to take seriously what you have to say.” As Thomas Paine once observed: “Toleration is not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assures to itself the right of withholding Liberty of Conscience, and the other of granting it.”
Our church needs people like Levi Savage and Lester Bush—members who are willing to “foment the pot,” to look their leaders in the eye and respectfully say, “I think you are about to make, or have made, a serious mistake.” And while critics are sometimes wrong, they should not be punished or ostracized for having the temerity to question, provided they do so in a way that acknowledges and respects the ultimate authority of the decision maker. President Hugh B. Brown said we should be unafraid to dissent, as long as we are informed, but at times those words ring hollow when experience teaches us there is often reason to fear.
The 19th Century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his seminal essay, “On Liberty,” wrote: “[T]he amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of our time.”
Given the hostile reception mavericks often receive in the LDS community, it is not surprising that so few members dare to be eccentric. This can be a serious obstacle to the acquisition of truth. It is also at odds with the origins of our church. Arguably the most eccentric and iconoclastic individual to walk the earth in the last 200 hundred years was a visionary who made it his life’s work to challenge established conventions and who was never afraid to reexamine and modify, if necessary, his own ideas and teachings: Joseph Smith, Jr.
 Rory Stewart, “Lessons from Afghanistan,” The New York Review of Books, August 16, 2012, 82.
 David Roberts, Devil’s Gate, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008) 147-149.
 Roberts, Devil’s Gate, 149.
 Marshall Hamilton, review of The Price We Paid: The Extraordinary Story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Pioneers, by Andrew D. Olsen, The Journal of Mormon History Vo. 33, No. 3 (2007): 211.
 Roberts, Devil’s Gate, 98-100.
 Lester E. Bush Jr., “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” 8, No. 1, Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought 11-73 (Spring 1973).
 Gregory A. Prince. “The Long Awaited Day,” June 8, 2010. By Common Consent.
 Lester E. Bush, Jr., “Writing ‘Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,’: Context and Reflections, 1998.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 25, No. 1 (1999): 264-265.
 Paine, Thomas, Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution (Library of America 1995) 482.
 Mill, John Stuart The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty” (New York: The Modern Library, 2002) 69.