It's not everyday something interesting happens over at T&S, but yesterday was one of those days. In new comments to this recent post at T&S, there was an open discussion on LDS discussion groups, essentially private associations of generally active Latter-day Saints who get together informally to talk about LDS doctrinal or historical subjects, often with an invited speaker who addresses the group. Apparently there are dozens of such groups meeting around the country with no evident harm to those attending. If one is to believe anecdotal reports, the meetings are generally enlightening and uplifting. That is certainly the case for the discussion group meeting I attended last year, where Prof. Ron Walker, a BYU history prof, spoke to a group of about thirty about his forthcoming book on Mountain Meadows. So how did discussion groups, sometimes erroneously termed "study groups," ever become an issue? Why are there rumors that such groups are sometimes opposed by local leadership? Enquiring minds need to know.
A Case Report
A worst-case scenario is on display in a case report posted at the Mormon Alliance website. I won't attempt to summarize that lengthy but entertaining narrative; you really should definitely read it yourself. Depending on your perspective, it may stand for: (1) a guide on how not to respond to questions posed by local leaders; (2) an example of how an overly zealous local leader might get a little carried away in discharging his stewardship over the spiritual welfare of local members; (3) an illustration of how an overactive obsession with Mormon Studies issues can derail family and employment relationships; or (4) a commentary on small-town versus big-city Mormonism. Maybe it stands for all four.
What the case report doesn't show is any official or unofficial LDS policy against informal LDS discussion groups. In the early 1990s, there was a policy that more or less prohibited LDS employees (i.e., CES and BYU types) from attending Mormon Studies symposia, but that policy appears to have died a quiet death. The recent Joseph Smith conference at the Library of Congress is just the most visible event illustrating the willingness of LDS leaders to allow LDS scholars and employees to participate in open and even "secular" discussions of LDS history and doctrine. There were also apparently some priesthood directives discouraging participation in "study groups," but the primary target was, I believe, groups that promoted polygamy and used group discussions to recruit new adherents. The Krakauer book, you may recall, recounted how the Lafferty brothers were won over to polygamy by attending such a "study group" and pondering the material they encountered there. Polygamous or apostate groups also appear to be the current focus of the temple recommend question about supporting or affiliating with groups whose teachings or practices are opposed to the Church.
The whole discussion group question is of some interest because the Bloggernacle might be thought of as a continuous online discussion group. The good news is that discussion groups are generally tolerated and so is the Bloggernacle. Unless I've missed something lately.