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Seattle Times, December 07, 2002, B5

Mormon dissidents rally behind scholar

By Janet I. Tu Seattle Times staff reporter

(Be sure to read the text in red below, this Mormon scholar thinks the Book of Mormon is fiction, but wants to remain a Mormon.)

A small article in an obscure book that could lead to the excommunication of a local anthropology instructor from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has turned into a national cause célébre among some disaffected Mormons.

Thomas Murphy, 35, published an article in May in an anthology, "American Apocrypha," in which he used genetic data to challenge the Book of Mormon claim that Native Americans are descendants of a heathen tribe of ancient Israel.

For that, Murphy, chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood and a graduate student at the University of Washington, is being accused of apostasy. He will appear tomorrow evening before a disciplinary council of local church officials who will decide whether to excommunicate him.

A candlelight vigil, organized by some of Murphy's students, will be held at 6:15 p.m. tomorrow at the headquarters of the Lynnwood stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon church.

Vigils in support of Murphy also are planned in several other cities tomorrow including Salt Lake City; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Mesa, Ariz.

Steven Clark, of Park City, Utah, who is organizing some of the vigils, says he is backing Murphy because the church, "rather than altering the myth to fit reality, would rather excommunicate scientists and intellectual people who are thinking through the issue."

Clark, who resigned from the Mormon church in 1996 and heads a group fostering more open study of Mormon history, also objects to passages in the Book of Mormon that he considers racist. These include passages that mention "Lamanites," a Middle Eastern tribe that Mormons teach were the ancestors of Native Americans.

The Book of Mormon considers dark skin to be cursed, Clark said, and originally stated that when Lamanites convert to Christianity, which to Mormons meant Mormonism, they would become "white and delightsome." In 1981, the church changed the phrase from "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome."

Murphy says his goal is not to discredit the Book of Mormon but to have it be regarded as scripture rather than history.

"There's a group of Mormon scholars, which includes me, that believe that the scientific and historical evidence against the historical claims in the Book of Mormon is so overwhelming that it's time to openly discuss the possibility of viewing the Book of Mormon as fiction, but inspired fiction," Murphy said.

That view cuts to the very foundation of the faith.

Behind the Book
According to church orthodoxy, Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, had a vision that led him to golden plates that were said to have told of some Hebrew families who came to the Western Hemisphere around 600 B.C. In 1830, the Book of Mormon was published as a translation of those golden plates, which, according to most church teachings, were then taken up to heaven.

To dispute the Book of Mormon's claim that Native Americans are the descendants of ancient Israel is to call into question all the historical claims in the Book of Mormon, Murphy and his supporters believe.

This is not the first time the historical truth of the Book of Mormon has been questioned.

Ever since it was published, some have taken issue with everything from its naming of animals that shouldn't have existed in America during ancient times to the lack of any archaeological sites that can be tied to the book.

What's relatively new is the use of DNA evidence to challenge some of its claims.

But some scholars take issue with Murphy's conclusions.

Although most Mormons believe the Book of Mormon covers the history of all Native Americans, the book actually never says it does, said Daniel Peterson, professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

So genetic evidence that says some Native Americans were not descended from ancient Hebrews doesn't mean that other Native Americans aren't, he said.

Clark, of Park City, says at least two other Mormons in the U.S. are facing expulsion over similar issues. He and others worry it's part of a movement by the national church to expel dissident scholars, as happened about 10 years ago when six scholars were expelled from the church in rapid succession.

Expulsion campaign denied
Kim Farah, a spokeswoman with the Mormon church in Salt Lake City, says the church is "not at all" attempting to expel academic dissidents.

She said that "Mr. Murphy has publicly stated his dissatisfaction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on numerous occasions. His complaints against the church go well beyond his current area of research, which is refutable by other scholars."

Matthew Latimer, president of the Lynnwood stake and the man who will ultimately decide whether to expel Murphy, said "there's been no direction from Salt Lake on this. This is a purely local matter." Latimer declined to discuss the case further, citing church confidentiality.

Some experts say protecting the integrity of the book is of increasing importance to the church.

"It used to be that you knew a Mormon because they didn't smoke, drink alcohol or drink coffee," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. "Now anyone with good sense doesn't smoke, and they know coffee makes cholesterol go higher."

Belief in the Book of Mormon is one of two remaining thingsthe other being participating in rituals at Mormon templesthat makes Mormonism distinctive, Shipps said.

The religion does allow individuals to hold differing interpretations of the Book of Mormon, Shipps said. "But once you begin to publish and your interpretation differs from not only the Book of Mormon but doctrinal positions generally, then you are flirting with disfellowship, or apostasy."

Murphy, who is a direct descendant of one of the first Mormon families, says he knows many Mormons disagree with him. He expects to be excommunicated tomorrow.

"I wish the church would provide open space for discussion on the Book of Mormon," he said. "But I'm not optimistic that that's going to happen."