I’ve been reading Greg Prince’s Leonard Arrington biography off and on. One of the interesting observations Arrington made was about the existence of “the underground church.” He was referring to unofficial study groups that met to discuss history, doctrine or scripture, to have conversations that weren’t the “approved” or limited Sunday School answers.

From the biography:

In a late-night conversation in Philadelphia after a day of sessions at a history meeting in 1969, Leonard discussed with two other scholars the existence of two Mormon churches, “the formal church of Sacrament meeting, Sunday School, MIA, etc., and the Underground church. The latter is the church of study groups, circles, discussion groups, family get-togethers, etc., where there is a Christian fellowship with ideological similarity, both within and without the Church.”

He talks about these groups having existed since the earliest days of the Church, the 1830s. Prince continues:

Leonard considered the underground church to be a sign of institutional health, for it was and generally is composed of church members who feel deeply about the gospel, but who have no outlet within the formal church structure for discussing many of the issues that are of greatest importance to them. “One can’t raise meaningful questions or discuss them honestly and fully in SS, seminary, Institute, MIA, Sacrament meeting, etc.”

Participants in the bloggernacle will make the obvious connection to the online Mormon discussions that have proliferated since the inception of the internet, and those blog sites and groups come in every flavor of belief and hobby horse topic imaginable from the orthodox to the closet atheist,  from the conspiracy theorist to the humanist, from those experimenting with breaking the Word of Wisdom to those experimenting with improving their adherence to the Word of Wisdom.

Many, many groups are dedicated to discussing doubts, history, or issues with the institutional church, topics not generally permitted in open discussions at Church. This was another pet peeve of Leonard’s:

“The attempt to suppress problems and difficulties, the attempt to intimidate people who raise problems or express doubts or seek to reconcile difficult facts, is both ineffective and futile. It leads to suspicion, mistrust, the condescending slanting of data. The more we deny or appear to deny certain demonstrable ‘fact,’ the more we must ourselves harbor serious doubts and have something to hide.”

He also didn’t like the attitude of anti-intellectualism he saw coming from some of those in leadership positions above him:

…the emphasis on the spirit, the ‘put down’ of the intellect, does a disservice to religion in general and to Mormonism in particular, for it suggests that religion–Mormonism–cannot be intellectually supported; its support rests on an emotional basis; one must put one’s mind aside to accepts its truths. This is palpably false.

He did feel, though, that the more open dialogue that was found in these in-between spaces improved his and others’ ability to accept divergent viewpoints.

“I no longer hate those who disagree; I respect and tolerate those persons. Most of all, I tolerate and respect the ideas and opinions which these people possess.”

It has occurred to me that the new council meetings in Relief Society and Elders Quorum are designed to be more like the Underground church Leonard described, although that doesn’t mean they will work that way. For one thing, the group isn’t self-selected, curated of like-minded intellectual people who have common interests. But, even so, there’s something powerful in enforcing an open discussion among ward members.

  • Have you experienced what you consider to be the Underground church aside from the Bloggernacle? What was your experience?
  • Do you consider the new council meetings to be an effective method to improve understanding between members or will it continue to be a self-censoring policing of the ‘right’ answers rather than a free exchange of ideas?
  • Is the Underground church a sign of health of the organization or a sign of weakness that these types of discussions are squelched by institutional efforts like correlation? Provide examples.
  • Do these types of groups open minds to new ideas or do they create more polarization by limiting the discussion to like-minded individuals?