A church disciplinary council near Salt Lake City was scheduled Sunday to take up charges against Grant Palmer, whose book, “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins,” had come under scrutiny by church authorities since it was published two years ago.
In his book, Palmer traced scholarly challenges over the last 30 years to a number of fundamental teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the story that its founder, Joseph Smith, had been led by the angel Moroni to a set of golden plates in 1827 from which Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
Palmer is the latest Mormon scholar to face excommunication. In 1993, the church excommunicated five prominent scholars for their views on church policies, history and feminism.
Michael Purdy, a church spokesman, said Wednesday that the church did not comment on “confidential” matters.
But in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, he said disciplinary proceedings in general were intended to “help a transgressor to repent; to identify those who do spiritual or physical harm to Church members, and to safeguard the integrity of the Church.”
Purdy said there were four possible outcomes of a trial. He said the council could take no action, place an individual on formal probation with restricted privileges temporarily suspend membership privileges, or terminate membership.
Palmer, 64, said that scholars, including himself, had found that accounts of Moroni’s characteristics and personality had changed over time, and that the Book of Mormon had been influenced by the King James version of the Bible, 19th century evangelical Protestantism, other thinking of the day and Smith’s family history.
“It’s not a real ancient historical record for a real ancient people,” he said of the Book of Mormon. “It was created by Joseph Smith — an inspired text and inspiring, but I don’t think it’s [ancient] history,” Palmer said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
He also said that Smith’s accounts of his four major visions — which constitute a significant part of the church’s theological foundation — had evolved over time, even in Smith’s own telling. Among those accounts, one formed the basis for the church’s belief that its priesthood was the only legitimate one.
The controversy appeared likely to focus new attention on the teachings of the church, which for the last decade has discouraged the use of the term “Mormon” and stressed that it is a Christian church, despite rebuttals from mainline Christian denominations.
“It’s been a long time since a church has brought such a charge to a high-profile person,” said Jan Shipps, a United Methodist and president of the John Whitmer Historical Assn., whose members are historians of the Mormon faith. “The church is facing modernity, and this is what happens.”
Although scholars have questioned the origins of the Mormon canon over the last several decades, Palmer said he believed he came under fire from the church because his book made academic scholarship, including his own, accessible to the average reader.
“I have done nothing that warrants excommunication,” he said.
Palmer said he was surprised that charges had been filed against him, especially since his book had been sold in church bookstores without incident for two years.
His family roots in the church go back six generations, he said. Until he retired about two years ago, he spent 34 years teaching high school and college Mormon history and theology for the Church Educational System.
Thirteen years ago he asked to be transferred from teaching to serving the church as a counselor and a teacher of the Bible, but not the Book of Mormon, at the Salt Lake County Jail.
“I was conflicted enough by teaching [Mormon] studies that I asked to go to the jail,” Palmer said.