in Religion

Logan’s History of Sound and Fury

“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”
 – William Shakespeare

Sonia Johnson, like John Dehlin, came from Logan, Utah. And like John Dehlin, she asked a lot of questions and didn’t much care for the church’s answers. Johnson’s issue was the Equal Rights Amendment, and she cited the Church’s opposition to same as evidence of “savage misogyny” in the Mormon hierarchy. She refused to support church leaders and even vocally shouted “No! No! No! E.R.A. says no!” in the Tabernacle when it came time to sustain Spencer W. Kimball as the President of the Church. She gave speeches across the country counseling people to turn away Mormon missionaries until the church reversed its position on the ERA. Finally, when she was excommunicated in December of 1979, the news media reported it as a major story that would generate a tremendous backlash against the LDS Church.

Indeed, excommunication did little or nothing to slow Sonia Johnson down.

She chained herself to the gates of the Seattle Temple to protest the church’s position, and she found herself thrown in jail for her efforts. She ran for President of the United States in 1984 and came in fifth, with over 70,000 votes. (She lost to Ronald Reagan, who got considerably more than 70,000 votes.) She announced she was a lesbian and founded an all-women commune in Arizona. She spoke at a number of radical feminist gatherings and made a name for herself in various academic and feminist communities.

She is still alive today, but no one knows where she is.

Wikipedia says her last known speaking engagement was in 2007,  and in 2010, a Logan newspaper tried to do a follow-up, “Where are they now?” story about Johnson and came up short. The reporter of that piece contacted one of Johnson’s relatives, who said they thought Johnson was now living in Costa Rica, but they weren’t sure. My own Google searches have come up empty, too.

This is very different from the 1980s, when national stories about the church often included a quote from Sonia Johnson, who invariably used the occasion to criticize the church of which she was no longer a member. Johnson had every bit the national profile that John Dehlin and Kate Kelly now enjoy, and her arguments were very much in line with what Kate Kelly is now saying to every media outlet that will listen. Yet in Johnson’s case, we now have more than three decades of hindsight to determine what kind of lasting impact her excommunication and subsequent anti-LDS activism has had on the Church at large.

Time has not been kind to Ms. Johnson’s legacy.

The Church has not made the requisite changes to its doctrines and practices that Sonia Johnson demanded, yet it has somehow continued to grow and thrive. The media, once infatuated with Sonia Johnson, have forgotten her entirely, as have the vast majority of current church members, most of whom have likely never heard her name. It’s hard to argue that all the sound and fury she generated all those years ago has signified anything other than nothing, at least as far as Mormonism is concerned.

Understand my purpose here. I am not trying to mock or vilify Sonia Johnson, just as I am not trying to mock or vilify  John Dehlin or Kate Kelly or anyone else whose spiritual journey leads them outside the boundaries of the Church. I am, rather, trying to provide some needed perspective. If you  think Dehlin’s excommunication is some kind turning point, or that it heralds the inevitable decline of the corrupt Church he has exposed, or that Dehlin’s and/or Kelly’s influence will continue to expand while the Mormon house of cards comes tumbling down…

If you’re of that opinion, you might want to talk to Sonia Johnson about how all that worked out for her.

If you can find her, anyway.

From the desk of Scott C. Kuperman
The Rise of Ad Hominem (and the decline of everything else.)

Leave a Reply

  1. Oddly enough, I didn’t study the Sonia or Sonja Johnson case until I was at Clark Air Base in the Phillippines waiting for a ride back to Hickam. That took about a week so I spent some time in the library and stumbled across a book by, or about, S.J.

    One thing that I remember to this very day is a phrase she may have coined, “churchspeak”, rather like “newspeak” of George Orwell.

    I had noticed certain traditions, vain repetitions, multiplying many words, frequently from the pulpit. Even as a recently joined teenager I challenged the insincerity of it; once in Cedar City a bishop announced “I would like to welcome you to Sunday school” back in the day when Sunday School was its very own meeting complete with its very own sacrament service. Anyway, I spoke out loud but I didn’t expect everyone to hear it — but its one of those strange moments when for just a few milliseconds everyone in the hall is quiet and so my words rang out: “Well then why don’t you?”

    He would “like to” but wasn’t actually welcoming anyone to Sunday School. So he said “Welcome to sunday school!” and from then on that’s the way it was.

    Another peeve is “My talk is about…” and for five minutes you get a prequel of what the talk is going to be about. When I talk, it’s two minutes before you have figured it out and you’d better be listening carefully. I dive right in and start with a dramatic, or at least slightly interesting anecdote relevant to the topic. Especially with high priests — they know every lesson by heart; what they don’t know is my stories, and I don’t know theirs. So that’s my approach; tell stories and in those stories are bits of wisdom and life itself, the “waters of Mormon”.

    One day I doodled a starship navigation device called a “Guidan Directus”. Many such things exist around the starship, slaved to the master, which is called a “Lead Guidan Directus”.

    Speaking all three words that mean pretty much exactly the same thing is (1) multiplying many words and (2) “churchspeak”. If I cannot think of a long complicated prayer, I think 10 to 20 words is probably sufficient.

    Another aspect of Churchspeak is the monontonous, sing-song perfectly even tempo, no modulation, no pitch changes, no passion, either. Maybe it is a computer talking, or someone speaking the same exact way for 60 years and thinks any deviation is a sin.

    Some years ago I drove across country to Washington DC and on the way played cassette tapes of the Book of Mormon. It was well done, easy to listen to, voice inflections and everything as told by a good storyteller.

    More recently I downloaded the Book of Mormon on MP3 files. Quite frankly it’s awful; no voice inflections, monotonous. I could not listen to very much of it, its lifeless.

    I think some of these disaffected members and former members wonder where is the passion, the life, the Waters of Mormon, among the Latter-day saints; but they are looking in the wrong place. Out in the “mission field” it is normal to find vibrant, passionate congregations; people that often made hard choices to join the church and are committed to it — they also come from many other cultures and religions and tend to bring that with them; so you have Methodist Mormons, Catholic Mormons, that sort of thing; and it’s great until the philosophies of men (or women!) start to dominate. Lutherans and Catholics tend to be a bit more worshipful than a typical LDS Sacrament meeting. I attended Sacrament at Palmyra and I expected something wonderful; but it wasn’t — the only mention of Jesus was at the very end, “In the name of…”. Then I went to Hill Cumorah, was all alone up there and I expected something grand there, too; but nothing — other than a grand view from the top. It made me wonder if this is the public place held out as important but the real spirit is elsewhere, such as the sacred grove where many people report a strong spirit but I didn’t go there (alas).