Palmer, a longtime Mormon educator, was asked to defend himself on charges of apostasy stemming from his 2002 book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, which challenged traditional beliefs about the church’s history.
The all-male priesthood leaders in his Willow Creek Sandy LDS stake could have excommunicated the 64-year-old author, but chose instead a lesser punishment – to “disfellowship” him – which means he may not enter the temple, serve in a church position, give a talk, partake of the weekly sacrament or offer a public prayer. This typically lasts about a year, but the length will be determined by his LDS stake president, Keith Adams, who may also spell out more conditions of the suspension in a letter sometime later this week. Palmer has the right to appeal the decision to higher church authorities.
Both Palmer and his ecclesiastical leaders left without speaking to reporters waiting outside the LDS stake center after the closed-door hearing, which began at 7 a.m. and ended about 1 p.m. LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills also declined to comment on the hearing or the punishment.
Reached at his home later, Palmer did not want to discuss the hearing, but said only he was pleased with the outcome.
“As church trials go, this was pretty fair,” he said. “But I’m very tired.”
The discipline is reminiscent of the 1993 sanctions imposed on six high-profile Mormon intellectuals – three men and three women – for their views on feminism, church policies and history.
At that time, five were excommunicated and one disfellowshipped; several other scholars since then have been excommunicated or chastised.
Palmer’s disciplinary council came two years after his book, which has sold more than 3,000 copies, was published by Signature Books. The book was the culmination of Palmer’s years of study, including a master’s degree in American history from Brigham Young University, and working for 34 years in the LDS Institutes of Religion in California and Utah and as an LDS seminary teacher in Utah.
In the book, Palmer argues that the faith’s scripture, The Book of Mormon, reflects LDS founder Joseph Smith’s own 19th-century environment, not ancient America as Mormons believe. He further suggests that Smith embellished his divine revelations to respond to critics and to stabilize the church.
In the charges, Adams said that Insider’s View had damaged others’ faith.
But earlier this week, Palmer insisted that was not his intention. He has never counseled anyone to leave the LDS Church, he said. The fourth-generation Mormon said the Book of Mormon may not be a historical record, but it is “an inspired document. It brings many people to Jesus Christ.”
Though there was no early morning vigil or television cameras at the Sandy LDS chapel, news of Palmer’s disfellowshipping spread quickly among supporters and friends. Some thought any punishment too harsh for simply recounting discrepancies in Mormon history, while others saw a reason for optimism in it.
“I’m pleased that he was not excommunicated,” said John Hatch, a friend and fellow Mormon intellectual who has read Palmer’s book. “I hope he can continue to work with his stake president and return soon to full fellowship in the church.”