In April 1966, the president of Brigham Young University gave a controversial address meant to “rock the campus from one end to the other.”[fn1] President Ernest L. Wilkinson’s goal was to provoke reactions from several suspected “liberal” BYU professors, which would then be recorded by select students. Wilkinson later used these reports to charge at least one BYU professor as “pro-communist and disloyal to BYU.”[fn2]
Ultimately, the plan backfired. Targeted professors caught wind of the spy ring and the administration attempted to cover its tracks. One student developed a conscience and confessed his actions to a local church leader. Another student eventually went to the press. The scandal culminated in Ernest L. Wilkinson admitting that he’d requested the inappropriate surveillance in a statement to the Board of Trustees.[fn3]
A couple weeks ago, two BYU students created a petition on Change.org titled “Emphasizing Christ-Centered Education at Brigham Young University.” On July 31st, one of the students, Hannah Seariac, introduced the petition by tweeting, “If we can’t have a pro life club or a Fam Proc club, clearly something’s up. Pls sign, RT, and like, thnx.”
Seariac told ABC4 News, a Salt Lake-based television station, that she attempted to start a pro-life club at BYU, but she couldn’t find a faculty member willing to sponsor it because it was “too political.”[fn4]
“That was a big wake-up call for me,” Seariac says of not being able to find support to start a pro-life club at BYU. “The church’s stand on abortion is pretty defined. It is not something I would say is debatable. I would say prophets and apostles have been quite clear that we are pro-life (except in certain circumstances such as rape or incest).”Lindsey Peterson, “BYU students start petition to bring university back to ‘Christ-centered education,’” ABC4.com
Seariac also mentioned the difficulty in creating a club oriented around the Church’s 1995 Family Proclamation. It seems likely that some students wanted to create this club in response to earlier protests regarding adjustments to the Honor Code (and their subsequent reversal) concerning LGB behavior. Hanna Seariac interviewed her co-petitioner, Tristan Mourier, on FairMormon’s FAIR Voice podcast because he countered those Honor Code protesters with a reading of The Family: A Proclamation to the World. At the time, members of the Deseret Nation (DezNat) also mobilized a Twitter #SaveBYU movement and raised money for “spreading the truth of the Family Proclamation” on BYU’s campus.
In a BYU Daily Universe news article, Seariac and Mourier explained that they’ve personally “experienced professors teaching philosophies or ideologies that oppose the Church’s doctrine.”
Mourier said he has kept a log of similar instances in which professors have taught things in class he felt were explicitly contrary to Church doctrine. He said he and Seariac have decided not to release the log or share the names of the professors they found problematic because it is not their goal to throw anyone under the bus.
“I don’t want them stoned to death in the public place. I just would rather them not be paid on tithing dollars,” he said.
Prior to the creation of the petition, someone* created a Twitter account called “Keeping Faith at BYU.” That account has since then become aligned with the creators of the petition. An Instagram page of the same name was created and advertised on that Twitter feed. On these Twitter and Instagram accounts, and at the Change.org petition, stories are being solicited from other students of how BYU has “stray[ed] from its spiritual mission.” On a petition update from August 14th, Hanna wrote, “Please send all specific stories to firstname.lastname@example.org for our Instagram page.”
*Update 8/18/20: This post previously stated that the authors of the petition created the “Keeping Faith at BYU” Twitter account. Hanna Seariac commented below, “I did not make and am not associated with the Twitter account ‘Keeping Faith at BYU’ and therefore, am not responsible for its content. I am tangentially involved with the Instagram account, but did not create that Twitter account.”
Interestingly, the request on the “Keeping Faith at BYU” Twitter account accompanies a retweet from Tristan Mourier suggesting that this effort will aid in “the exposing of Cultural Marxism infiltrating BYU.”
Which brings us to a recent Twitter thread by historian Benjamin E. Park. Park explained that two of the quotes used in the recent petition are from periods of tension in BYU’s history.
When explaining what they believe BYU should mean, they reference BYU addresses delivered in 1912 (Alfred Kelley) and 1962 (Ernest Wilkinson). Notably, those addresses came during 2 of the biggest crises at BYU during the century, & reflect the school’s evolving dyanmics [sic].Dr. Benjamin E. Park, Twitter thread
In 1911, several professors from BYU resigned after refusing to alter their teachings on the compatibility of religion and science, such as the theory of evolution. Park explained, “Kelley’s 1912 address was a conscious course correction, rejecting worldly learning.”
Decades later, many felt that BYU was again becoming too secularized. Park states, “SLC leaders finally found someone willing to be their attack dog when they hired Ernest Wilkinson as president, who was dedicated to rooting out unorthodoxy and emphasizing conformity.” As the 1966 spy scandal illustrates, Wilkinson sometimes got creative in the way he rooted out offenders.
Something that has struck me as I’ve researched Wilkinson’s efforts to root out heresy at BYU is the significant role of political views. Lou Midgley, one of the targeted professors in the 1966 scandal, explained, “Any kid might have fallen into that kind of nonsense if it appeared to them that ELW [Ernest L. Wilkinson] was behind it. And given the kind of hysteria that was then common at that time about communists lurking behind everything, it is easy to see how kids could have fallen into the spy trap.” Elder Ezra Taft Benson was perhaps the Church’s most vocal ultraconservative leader warning of communist conspiracies at the time. In the October 1967 general conference he said, “There is no doubt that the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America…”[fn6]
Objections to Black Lives Matter, a New Diversity Committee, and the BYU Slavery Project
It seems obvious to me that there are parallels with today’s efforts to cleanse BYU from “cultural Marxism” (per the Keeping Faith at BYU tweet) and the 1960s efforts to cleanse BYU of communism. In both cases, there are significant pressures related to civil rights, represented by today’s Black Lives Matter movement and BYU’s newly created committee to “examine race and inequality on campus.” Just as politically conservative members in the 1960s suspected communist motives behind the civil rights movement, there are members of the Church today who ascribe to the politically conservative view that the Black Lives Matter organization and wider movement care are pushing Marxist and anti-family ideals under the guise of anti-racism.
Although both Seariac and Mourier have denied their petition was related to race issues, the Keeping Faith at BYU Twitter account suggests otherwise (Update 8/18/20: Again, Hanna Seariac commented below that she was not involved in the creation of this relatively new Twitter account and is not responsible for its content. What is certain, though, is that Seariac and Mourier have allied their cause with whoever is behind the Keeping Faith at BYU Twitter account. This is shown by the Keeping Faith at BYU Instagram page and the email@example.com email address used to solicit submissions on Change.org). The Keeping Faith at BYU Twitter account has critized BYU, BYU Football, and the BYU Law School for their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Tweets indicate that they view BLM as destructive, violent, anti-family, anti-Mormon, and allied with “Antifa terrorism.”
Keeping Faith at BYU has suggested the new committee on diversity may have Marxist underpinnings because they use the term “equity” instead of “equality.”
Keeping Faith at BYU has denounced the BYU Slavery Project, a new effort to examine historical links between slavery and the founding of BYU, as “point-scoring against our pioneer ancestors.”
The political parallels with this petition and motives of the attempted purge in the 1960s are concerning. It’s unclear if Church leaders will become convinced of a “Marxist infiltration” and begin investigating professors. It’s possible that they may instead begin to crack down on some of the more extreme political beliefs of church members. In the early 1990s, the Church disciplined members on both the left- and right-wing edges of the political spectrum. Most people are aware of the September Six, where several predominantly left-leaning scholars were disciplined in late 1993. Many, however, are not aware that the Church was also going after those on the right. A church spokesman in a November 1992 Salt Lake Tribune article confirmed that Church leaders were “increasingly… concerned about ultraconservative ‘super patriots’ and survivalists.” Lists of “troublesome ideologies” circulating among church leaders at the time included such characteristics as membership in the John Birch Society, feeling that President Benson was being “muzzled” by other church leaders, and believing the federal government was corrupt.[fn7]
A few years ago, Church leaders were condemned white supremacy and “white culture” movements. Some church members previously sympathetic with the alt-right have now become active in the new Deseret Nation (DezNat) movement. In a 2017 Buzzfeed News article, a church member who described himself as “sympatico” with the alt-right explained that “the biggest gulf between Mormonism and the alt-right was merely one of style. ‘Mormons are nice people,’ he said, ‘and the alt-right largely isn’t nice, and so it seems antithetical to Mormonism.'” As I explained last week, however, the newer DezNat movement is not known for being “nice,” and that same church member is a now a DezNat major player. Although I argued last week that DezNat is not equivalent to the alt-right, they use much of the same imagery (Pepe the frog), vocabulary, and ideas. It’s unclear, however, how closely the the petition’s creators affiliate themselves with the DezNat movement.
- Did you know about this petition? What are your thoughts on it?
- Do you think this new petition will help BYU administrators root out unfaithful or politically liberal BYU professors?
- Do you think the petition will have an effect on how professors express themselves in classes and in public?
- Do you think Church leaders or BYU administrators care about possible political elements behind these complaints?
[fn1] Jeff D. Blake, “Ernest L. Wilkinson and the 1966 BYU Spy Ring: A Response to D. Michael Quinn,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 164.
[fn2] Blake, “1966 BYU Spy Ring,” 166.
[fn3] Blake, “1966 BYU Spy Ring,” 166-168. Some historians, like D. Michael Quinn, have suggested that then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson initiated the spy ring, but Lou Midgley, one of the targeted professors, denied Benson’s involvement in 2001.
[fn4] The Church handbook refers to abortion as a sin due to its similarity with murder, but it does allow that there may be circumstances to justify an abortion (Section 38.6.1). Because of these exceptions, some pro-life groups do not consider the Church a pro-life organization. Officially, the Church does not favor or oppose “legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.”
[fn5] Lee Davidson, “FBI files shed light on Ezra Taft Benson, Ike and the Birch Society,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 16, 2010, https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=50349153&itype=CMSID. See also Matthew L. Harris, ed., Thunder from the Right: Ezra Taft Benson in Mormonism and Politics (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2019).
[fn6] See the October 1967 Conference Report, p. 35.
[fn7] Lavina Fielding Anderson, “The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring 1993), p. 54.