A heretic looks at the way things are and imagines the way things could be.

I’m Not an Apostate Mormon, Just a Garden-Variety Heretic

A heretic looks at the way things are and imagines the way things could be.

A heretic looks at the way things are and imagines the way they could be.

I’m a heretic. There are strongly held cultural traditions in Mormonism that I’d love to change, whether they are major (women's lack of authority), minor (embroidered Kleenex box covers—um, why?), or somewhere in the middle (having three hours of church).

A heretic is someone who challenges cultural or religious assumptions and codes. The word comes from the Greek root for “choice,” and acknowledges that human beings make choices to better themselves and their world. Heretics care, often too much, about truth and justice and all that muckety muck.

An apostate, by contrast, is someone who is literally out of the fold (apo + stasis = “standing away from or outside of”). An apostate is someone who has renounced her religion and has no role in it anymore.

Being a heretic sounds exciting and quite cutting-edge, but the sad reality for us heretics is that we are rather dull creatures. We know the truth of what Helen Keller once said: “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.”

In other words, whatever we’re pushing for right now, whether it’s heliocentrism or woman suffrage or the end of slavery, is likely to be old hat in just a few generations. “But of course,” our great-grandchildren will say. “Haven’t Mormon women always held the priesthood?”

So when I am accused of seeking to "discredit the church" (see here), being an "armchair quarterback" (see here), or acting like a "spoiled kid who always wants more and is never satisfied" (see here), I'm not going to take it personally. It means that people are reading and thinking.

Even if they don't agree that my views represent a viable way forward.

Even if they resort to name-calling.

And even if their only response to change is to shoot the messenger who asks why we do things the way we do.

At root, a heretic is only a person who wonders aloud about established conventions. I plan to continue doing that.


The image of the impossible becoming possible is used with permission of Shutterstock.com.


  1. I’m a heretic too, I don’t mind being called one. I do mind being called an apostate, for the reason you shared here: I’m IN the fold. And I’m not going anywhere. Thanks for this.

  2. From one heretic to another: I LOVE you, Jana Riess. And continue we must. “Press forward…”

  3. Jana,

    I love that you are a heretic. I would be devastated if you became apostate. Keep doing what you do.


  4. It can be a little presumptive to assume that one’s particular “heresy of one age” will become “the orthodoxy of the next.”

    While it’s true that many of today’s norms were “heresy” in the past, it doesn’t really work the other way around. Because of the number of “heresies” that individuals advocate today, most of them will remain heresies or be simply abandoned and forgotten in future generations. Some will be incorporated, but these are the exception as opposed to the rule.

  5. One of the Apostles (I think it was Pres. Benson) speaking at BYU said something to the effect of, “We don’t care if your thinking is orthodox or heterodox, we just care that you think.”

    I love that about the Church. Harry Reid and I are at polar opposites in many things, and yet can both ultimately be good Latter-day Saints. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

    Now, probably, there may be someone out there with a “Yes, but what about …. ”

    My response is that while some cultural things (such as sisters praying in Gen Conf), once realized, should change (and do, last conference being just one example), the core doctrine provided in the Standard Works (canonized church scripture) is what it is.

    God has every right to make doctrinal upgrades through the First Presidency, it’s pointless to try to bully or politically correct Him into making upgrades or changes that may yet be down the road, or may never happen.

    I may (and do) at times wonder “why” or “how,” but I never feel it appropriate to “counsel God.”

    I do ask Him a lot of questions and I do get answers, eventually. Once I have an answer that specific question need never be asked again.

    The mainstream of the church is the safest (safest, not always the most comfortable!) place to hang one’s hat. The on and off ramps in which so many pride themselves on travelling have, I’ve seen, the highest number of highway-of-life casualties.

    How sad it would be if I allowed my as-yet unanswered doubts to be verbalized loud-and-far, potentially causing spiritual wreckage in myself and others.

    The non-Israelite woman at the well, to whom Jesus could not then minister, surely wondered at His response. But with faith appears to have accepted it and waited for additional light to be shed on what appeared to be an exclusionary policy. If she remained faithful to what little she had, a new era burst on her with the revelation to Peter to expand the teaching and saving ordinances to a wider range of people – including her.

    I hope I will be like this great and remarkable woman, believing and accepting without the constant need for all answers RIGHT NOW, or a demand for policyand doctrinal changes that must align with the way I think the Savior should run His church.

    In the end if it really is Jesus’ church, I can build on what I already know to be true, and patiently await the ongoing unfolding of the Savior’s plan for me as an individual, and the Katter-day Saints as a whole.

    David Honaker
    Paradise Valley Stake, AZ, USA

  6. David,

    It was from Hugh B. Brown:

    “Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts. One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed there seems to be little time for meditation.

    “Dissatisfaction with what is around us is not a bad thing if it prompts us to seek betterment.”

    See here: http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2012/02/07/guest-post-president-hugh-b-browns-most-famous-statement/

  7. Why the swipe at Kleenex box cover thingies? I know it’s fashionable to be dismissive of something so passe, but why not spare a moment of honor for a lady (quite possibly my beloved Grandma, who makes many such things) who just wanted to use her time and hands to beautify the building she loves?

  8. Loved this! Wow! I want to read some of your books. Are they on Amazon?

  9. Because Mormon theology is a wild and hairy thing, full of interesting declarations from prophets that may look contradictory, but it is those raw statements that are authoritative, while we are left to puzzle out what they MEAN. There are few official interpretive statements or creeds. We are free to ponder the connections and implications.

    The emphasis in Mormonism is on orthopraxis (right behavior) rather than orthodoxy. As long as you are pulling with us, diverse opinions are not a problem. By contrast, an apostate is somone who has chisen to become an obstacle to the achevement of the mission of the Church.

  10. Oh and glad to see you back!

  11. Maybe you are a heretic and not an apostate. Maybe you are a visionary or maybe you have grasped onto a thread that will lead you out of the kingdom. I do not know which is what perhaps you know. Maybe you only think you know.

    I know that it will all come out in the wash. Someday we will know of what should be or shouldn’t be in the Lord’s church and kingdom. We all will have to follow our own conscience as to what change we will be.

    For now, I stand with the conservative 15 brethren. Who may be too slow for some and too fast for others. I will not assume that I know what future revelation will be. I will accept the revelations I have. And practice the doctrine of Christ in anticipation of later promptings to my conscience.

  12. David, I find it funny you thought that was Pres. Benson, because he was nearly a polar opposite of Hugh B. Brown. Benson was an ultra-conservative conspiracy theorist type who was fond of claiming that when the prophet had spoken, the thinking had already been done.

  13. But their surnames both begin with B. 😉

  14. I appreciate your sentiments. One bit of caution: there are three separate though related entities at play when you talk about the LDS Church and its membership. Only two of those things can change.
    First, the unchanging doctrine and gospel of Jesus Christ, encompassing all love and truth. From all I can ascertain, eternal families (not gay marriage) and male priesthood holders are doctrinal. They in fact can’t change, because God doesn’t lie.
    Second, the Church itself, which teaches the doctrine. The policies of the Church do change from time to time to best meet that objective, and also to correct for any flaws of human nature or culture, since it is administered by mere mortals.
    Third, the Mormon culture. I agree, the culture throws things into the mix that don’t have much to do with the doctrine or the Church! I’ve lived in places where the culture is completely different to the point that “Mormon culture” isn’t a factor, and I say thank goodness for that.

  15. My role model in the Church is former President Heber J. Grant, who told my mother once, many years ago of course, that he did not doubt the truthfulness of the Gospel but that he, even as a prophet of God, wondered about many things. It is all right to wonder about things in the Church. I have many questions.
    We should all be seeking to find and understand what is good and right.

    I believe, though, that I should always go to our Heavenly Father and seek to understand what he would have me say and do. This is the safest route.

  16. I am not a Mormon, just an interested happy Catholic. Heretic or not, there is something unseemly about a person self-proclaiming as such. It calls to much attention the person and not to her views. Held honestly, but your views seems to come in second to placing the crown of heresy on your head.

  17. I’ll grant you, it means they’re reading. Thinking? Not so sure.

  18. Seriously, Captain? She’s not being ostentatious about this. She’s responding to the accusations of people that she’s an apostate. People have a right to set the record straight about themselves.

  19. Lord, save us from safe routes! Safety is the antithesis of progress. Remember progress? The ultimate goal of the plan of salvation: eternal progression?

  20. If doctrine can never change, then why has it changed no more than one occasion? If doctrine can’t change, what’s the point of prophets?

  21. Why the swipe? Well, because it is so darn self-satisfying and self-affirming to be dismissive (“um, why?”) of those who appreciate different values. Because that way, we can make ourselves appear smarter, more sophisticated and just downright better than those sweet older sisters who were so cruelly subjugated by the patriarchy into thinking that craft work had any meaning or value to them. What saps they were; what saps they still are. Those of us who imagine ourselves to be on the cutting edge of wonderfully progressive, um, I mean positive, developments can regard ourselves as ever so much better than the poor dears who don’t know any better.

    That’s why.

  22. Offensive, Raymond. Particularly so after Jana gave you the correct definition of apostate: someone who has left the faith.

    Where in that definition do you see anything about being an impediment to the church?

    WE really need to get our terminology straightened out. A heretic is not an apostate is not an anti-Mormon. To mix those up only shows that you’re agenda is to negatively label people you disagree with.

  23. Or maybe she was indulging in a littel humor. Lighten up, people!

  24. It’s not presumptive. It’s a pattern we can detect in history.

  25. I think the topic of women holding the priesthood is addressed in the temple endowment. Am I simple-minded? Absolutely, but I prefer that to pushing a cause that seems completely at odds with what the church teaches.

  26. Matt, Thanks for the correction and added information Matt. I appreciate both very much. In my 20’s I was pretty good with whom said what. Now that I am 56, not so much!

    I read the text in the link you supplied. Just a follow-up comment on it. What was oriented in church media contained more than was actually spoken during his speech. This isn’t unusual. Often, in many settings (general scholastics, scientific symposiums, governmental presentations, and etc.) when a text of the talk is provided it may well contain sent sentences, paragraphs, or more than was actually read out loud.

    In the case where I’ve given talks (university, Sacrament Meetings, and – well, I guess just those two venues!), more than once I didn’t read out loud everything I had written and intended to say due to:

    1) Time constraints (don’t enjoy public speaking so I always pray I’m the final speaker and that previous speakers are overly verbose)

    2) By error, when trying to engage my audience with sweeping eye contact I inadvertently skip a paragraph or two and…

    3) I add a little impromptu to augment my written remarks as the occasion or circumstance may dictate.

    I’m sure for others there may be other reasons why their published remarks contain more text than what was spoken when they read the prepared speech.

    So, spoken or published infill in a church publication sometime after his speech in persona propria, the thought (and important message in the teaching) stands as valid.

    Just a quick follow-up to somebody else who questioned the need for living prophets. Were it not for the revelation to Peter (the senior Apostle and living prophet to the early church after Jesus’ final – at that time – assention into heaven), all Christians would still be under Kashrut (Kosher dietary laws) obligation. No disrespect to my Jewish cousins, but I LOVE a good cheeseburger! There are many, many more examples of early prophets receiving revelations for their times and situations that better explained, more fully expanded or progressed, and often altered previous doctrines and laws.

    At 56 (I joined the church at 18) most if my “why” questions have been answered (a few remain that apply only to me) through study (I’ve read all books published in the last 50 years or so that are clearly anti-Christian and/or anti-Mormon) of books, scriptures (including the Old Testament in Masoretic Hebrew and the New Testament in a few versions of Greek), and as many articles written about church history and doctrine (both Mormon and non-Mormon sources) as I can. Nearly bedridden and experiencing increasing blindness, I’m sad my decades-long studies will soon, of a necessity, come to an end.

    I’m not self-deluded then (I thought becoming a Mormon would ruin my life as all I ever wanted to be since early childhood was to be a Roman Catholic Priest). But reading the Book of Mormon at 17, and fighting the power and witness of the Holy Ghost until it was too strong to ignore, I know for myself that Joseph Smith, a self-admitted imperfect man (how many false prophets insist on publishing revelations where the Lord calls said prophet to repentance and severely chastizes him?), was the person through whom Jesus restored His (living) Church and fullness of his Gospel. I further know, through decades of study (deep study of both sides of the coin), questions that received answers (eventually, sometimes taking years), prayer and the indescribable witnesses if t Holy Ghost (aka Holy Spirit) that Pres. Thomas is Joseph’s sole, authorized successor today.

    The Spirit of God has born very simple (elegant in its simplicity) witness that God lives, as does His Son who is our Savior. The Savior, a perfect being, shares His church leadership with imperfect women and men who make mistakes but are doing their best. The proof that He entrusts His church largely into the hands of we imperfect members is found in the two “OF” words in the formal title of the church.

    So, do rank-and-file (from which group leaders are called) make mistakes and sometimes espouse incorrect views? If course! Only a fool or an egomaniac would presume otherwise.

    Did the Prophet Joseph Smith make mistakes and errors along the way? Yes, as he himself said, and revelations reproving him (published in canonized scripture attest). Is President Monsoon, and all prophets before him (in all ages) imperfect? I’m thrilled to answer in the affirmative as that gives me hope for myself. Do I personally have all the answers? Not in the least. Do any if the women or men called to lead us on the local or church-wide level arrogate to themselves any claim now (or ever) of perfection? No, such belongs only to the humble Christ, who we try, and daily fail, to follow as best we can.

    Does the world need prophets as much today as in times past? Surely nobody can see the mess the world (and our lives as individual daughters and sons of a living, ultimately involved God and father of we all) and pretend that there is no need for living prophets of God. (Moses wished that all men were prophets, and the Hebrew word used that was translated as “men” could easily and correctly be translated as “people” since a testimony of the living reality of Jesus Christ, given by the Holy Ghost, is the very definition for a prophet/ess).

    The honest seeker of truth, without hypocrisy of purpose, will ultimately be lead to an absolute knowledge that the very imperfect Apostles and Prophets in Salt Lake City are called of God and have unique authority found nowhere else. They may (and will) have personal views and opinions that are incorrect – who doesn’t? A Latter-day Saint has no expectation of perfection in them and every word they utter. But the core doctrines (not to be confused with cultural views and habits), the Standard Works (canonized church scripture), and organization of the church (Ephesians 2:20) is perfect. And the living Prophet will never teach anything that would be detrimental to the salvation and eternal life of God’s children, who we are.

    Best regards and thanks again for your correction and additional information Matt. I love learning and appreciated your time and effort to point me to the additional information.

    David Honaker
    Paradise Valley Stake, AZ, USA

  27. Dear Reader of my Reply to Matt:

    My phone’s auto-correct appears to have changed some of my words. What can I say? It drives me crazy, but without it my own poor spelling would render my note totally unreadable. – D.

  28. PS: I love this blog and am grateful for the young lady/sister who started it. Some blogs on religion (Mormon or otherwise) seem to want to engender hostile exchanges that devolve into back-and-forth irresponsible and hateful mud slinging. (I don’t bother to reply to such, let alone look at them again.) I’ve never read this blog before, but I’ll be sure to follow her future posts.

    I really enjoy an exchange of divergent views and ideas that incorporate responsible and respect by and for the various parties. (Well, one or two not so much, but the majority happily approach this as adults.). I’m excited to have this as an intelligent, thought-provoking outlet.

    Thanks to all who participate, and especially Jana.

    Best regards to all, Me

  29. I agree. We still use things that my mother, grand-mother, and great-grand-mother made. They are hand-made crafts, bordering on art, and have great value to all the family. Or, we could just go down to Target and buy a plastice Kleenex cover with daisies painted on it.

  30. Why not be a heretic/apostate/-prophet? Let’s make the call for the next round of changes. I’ll start:

    A Call for Ecumenism
    There are many inspired people in the world. Since it is not fashionable to claim to have the truth, we need to be more inclusive. We should recognize the authority of all churches and their leaders and not just Christian. If men and women have the priesthood, why not children and all people on earth. We are all God’s children.

  31. It seems a little self-flattering to present oneself as a visionary and a leader for repeating the most cliched ideological position of the age. Women’s institutional roles should be identical to males’? Wow.

    I have a lot of questions about the meaning of sexual differences in the kingdom, and I will continue reading and thinking about all that. And I will stand with the Brethren.

  32. Well, exactly. It’s just dismissive humor directed against those toward whom the humorist feels superior. Bigots practice that all the time. And then they say, “Lighten up, people.” On account of the humor, don’t’ya see.

  33. To be more precise, it is a pattern that the presumptuous believe they can detect in history. But it’s presumption all the same.

    Here, let’s do this. Look back 50-100 years to see what projections for the future were popular then. The people at that time had the same ability that we have, presumably, to detect patterns and project them forward. So, what percentage of those predictions actually occurred?

    Oh wait. I bet you don’t know the answer to that question. You’re probably uncertain about how you would actually go about trying to research it. And I confess the same is true for me. But until you show that there is a reliable track record – and not just an anecdote or two, no matter how impressive you think they are – for predicting future social developments based on past experience, you should admit that you’re just blowing smoke.

  34. I’m very grateful for this testimony. Thank you.

  35. I really appreciated this article as well as I do your other writings. Heretic is a loaded word and I think people get themselves all worked up when words not don’t fully understood are used, even if your right there explains them. I’m glad you say the things you say. You are in a unique position to do so. I read Flunking Sainthood as a book group and it had a weighty resonance. We discussed the idea that you stand in a place to think about things differently than those of us raised in the LDS church. Your adult conversion as well as your theological training and the elements of your being that lead you down those paths, your profound love and respect and yearning for the sacred wherever it’s found, makes you see and say somethings we who have been a part of this church as members and as part of the culture all our lives miss. Thank you.

  36. The doctrine has not changed.
    Policies, procedures, and practices change from time to time.

    The Church’s website explains that its authoritative doctrine is what is in the scriptures, in official declarations and proclamations, and in the Articles of Faith.

    The Church has been constant in the doctrines found in those.

    As for two common misperceptions:

    MAY be commanded of by the Lord when he wants to raise up a people. “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people [to have more than one wife]; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things [monogamy].” (Jacob 2:30, The Book of Mormon). Interestingly, to me at least, The Book of Mormon has no instance of the Lord santioning polygamy; we have to turn to the Bible for such examples, like the tribes of Israel coming from Jacob and four women.

    Priesthood restriction based upon race
    There is no such mandate in the scriptures. Church leaders said it was a policy, not a doctrine. I’m glad it’s over.

  37. There are many things I don’t like about the culture of the Church, but I have learned through experience that there is a beauty to simplicity, plainness and the exercise of patience. I look to Christ as the best example of being patient with the “organization” of the Church that is imperfect and the people within the Church who are also imperfect.

    Being a heretic requires a fundamental expression of superiority that is frequently unjustified and more frequently, less charitable. Christ told Peter, the chief of his apostles, that when he was converted, that he should watch over his brothers. I wonder how many heretics lack a fundamental understanding of how Christianity works?

    Charity is long-suffering. That isn’t just a statement to put on a wall and call it good. It is a commandment. So for those who are much more advanced in the intellectual aspects of the world and of the gospel — good for you. Now you have to wait patiently for the rest of us to catch up to your obvious superiority. I guess my only question would be shouldn’t you be catching up to the superiority of Christ and be less concerned about those catching up to you?

  38. Jana,

    Every time I read your articles I think I understand your sentiment but I’m usually left more confused than anything. It’s fun to be different. Mormons thrive by living with that feeling that they are somehow special and are living a different law.

    When I was a student at BYU-Idaho, I saw many students who came from Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia or somewhere outside of the west who felt like all-stars in their high schools because they were “the Mormons”. They felt like they were cut out of a different mold and they thrived because of the attention it gave them. More to the point: they were heretics to their Christian friends. Then they got to college and were surrounded by other all-stars and they immediately became disillusioned. The fun went away. The novelty of being Mormon didn’t exist. No more being a heretic. It’s way more thrilling to be a heretic than it is to be a conformist. It’s also a lot easier.

    My question for you is this: When did that thrill of being different and loving to write about your own heresy replace your love of the Gospel? Sure, Mormon idioms and cultural peculiarities are fun to joke about but certainly not enough to spend a whole career writing about.

    At the end of the day, most Mormons could laugh at themselves for having embroidered tissue boxes but we’ve all made covenants to try to build each other up not tear down the few things left on earth that seem undefiled (like the embroidered tissue box that sits in my chapel made by the lovely 92 year old Sister Hansen).

    I love the thrill of being a heretic. Everything about Mormonism is heretical in every detail according to other Christians. Why isn’t this kind of heresy fulfilling enough for you?

    Ironically, if you had it your way, every change you made to the Mormon Church (women in the Priesthood) would remove the heretical status of the Mormon Church! We’d be a mainline, watered down denomination.

    We’d be like everyone else. Who really wants that?

  39. It’s much easier to conform than to be a “heretic.” It’s much easier to be easily accepted than to take a stand.

    Jesus was the ultimate heretic. He challenged the Jews on many fronts. He did not conform to their beliefs. His nonconformity eventually led to his death.

    Conformity is easy. Many Mormons have a hard time leaving the Mormon Corridor because it’s hard being a heretic. The church would grow much faster if we were less concentrated. Conformity, and fear of being different and being surrounded by those who are different from us, is holding us back.

  40. David said:

    The honest seeker of truth, without hypocrisy of purpose, will ultimately be lead to an absolute knowledge that the very imperfect Apostles and Prophets in Salt Lake City are called of God and have unique authority found nowhere else.

    Randall responds:

    I do believe that the Lord has ways that are not apparently clear to us. We trust in the long run all who keep their second estate will be exalted to the level their true desires/actions take them. I believe the scriptures allow for this interpretation: There are billions of people who can follow the Spirit of Christ that they are each given (whether they know it by that name or not) without begin told by that Spirt to come to SLC to find the true authorized church. They might well be told to stay put and raise the level of goodness in their own community. Oh, that I were an angel and could get everyone to join the church with my persuasive voice . . . but I sin in my wish . . . for a just and loving God gives sufficient to all in their own nation and language to bring them to salvation. (Alma 29 paraphrase)

    Thanks for your comment.

    Randall Paul

  41. Jana,

    What a beautiful and clear statement you make here. I do love your heretical heart (and your brain ain’t unattractive either!)


  42. 50 years ago, many members wanted the blacks to have the priesthood, and many other members would have found that idea contrary to the teachings of the church, and thus heretical. Your turn.

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  44. “We’d be like everyone else. Who really wants that?”

    The Church’s PR department, from the looks of things.

  45. Jana, you seem to be using a different definition of apostasy than the Church does. Actually, the definition of apostasy that the Church uses can include some things which the dictionary might define as heresy, so I do not fault you for that. However, apostasy in the view of the Church has nothing to do with your geographical location for 3 hours on Sunday. Elder James E. Faust quoted from the Church Handbook what is considered apostasy by the Church in his October 1993 Conference talk, a talk which was a direct response to the “September Six” excommunications. There is a lot of good stuff in it, so I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, but here is the quote itself on what constitutes apostasy:

    Among the activities considered apostate to the Church include when members “(1) repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders; (2) persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority; or (3) continue to follow the teachings of apostate cults (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority.

    People who fit definitions 1 and 2 often show up every Sunday as part of their effort to draw people away from the Church. If you are citing scriptures to say the leaders of the Church are wrong, then you clearly fit into definition 2 as an apostate. But saying that having embroidered tissue covers is silly won’t get you excommunicated, just frowned upon by those who appreciate the artwork of others more than the corporate logos and other signs of commercialism.

  46. I would guess Jana is a heretic *because* she loves the gospel, not as a replacement for it.

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