LDS General Authority Excommunicated, First in Decades

August 11, 2017
Empty LDS conference center

A mid-level Mormon church official was removed from his post and excommunicated from the church Tuesday—the first excommunication of an LDS leader in almost three decades.

59-year-old James J. Hamula had served as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy—a body of leadership just below the church’s First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles—since 2008. This body of top officials, together called General Authorities, are the only leaders that work for the church full-time, leaving behind their former careers. Hamula had previously worked as a lawyer.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) has not indicated the reasons for Hamula’s excommunication, but noted publicly that the dismissal was not for “apostasy or disillusionment,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The LDS Church official website says that excommunication, although rare, is most often invoked in the case of apostasy, advocacy or practice of plural marriage, or “gross iniquity”—defined as “such transgressions as murder, adultery, sexual perversion, or serious civil court conviction.” Only two other high-ranking church officials have been excommunicated since the turn of the 20th century.

72-year-old Richard Lyman, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was ousted for “violation of the Christian law of chastity,” The New York Times reported in 1943. Lyman was rebaptized into the church in 1954.

In 1989, the first Native American General Authority George Lee was excommunicated for apostasy and misconduct. Although Lee initially claimed the punishment was based in “doctrinal disagreements with church leaders about the role of Indians in the religion,” Lee was later convicted of attempted child sexual abuse that took place around the time of his excommunication.

While Hamula is the first General Authority to be excommunicated since Lee, his is not the first high-profile excommunication in the age of social media. In 2014, Mormon feminist Kate Kelly, who founded the Ordain Women group advocating for female priests in the LDS Church, was excommunicated on the grounds of apostasy. The following year, founder of the Mormon Stories podcast John Dehlin was excommunicated for “publicly trying to convince others that church teachings are in error,” church-owned publication Deseret News reported.

Both expulsions prompted significant public outcry. Upon Kelly’s excommunication, over a thousand Mormons sent letters of support to church leadership on Kelly’s behalf, The New York Times reported. After his own excommunication, Dehlin publicized an internal church notice changing guidelines around the children of same-sex couples, prompting thousands to participate in a mass resignation from the church.

Mormon historian Matthew Bowman speculates that Hamula’s excommunication will have less of a ripple effect than others’, in part because he is “much less well-known” than other excommunicated leaders and public figures were.

Still, said Mormon Studies scholar Patrick Mason, the church should anticipate a wide range of public reactions to the news. “There are people who would love to see general authorities lose their faith,” Mason said.

Official church writings on excommunication stress the potential for the “truly repentant” excommunicated to rejoin the fold. “In the Church there are scores of members who have earned their way back into the Church through true repentance and who now stand on more firm ground than ever before in their lives… They are not likely to make the same mistake again; and surely the blessings of eternity are once again a possibility,” the site reads.

Hamula has yet to speak publicly about the excommunication. His profile on the official church website, however, has already been updated to reflect that he has been “released” from his position “following disciplinary action.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: LDS Conference Center. Photo by Ken Lund, Flickr Creative Commons.