Britain Puts Mormonism on Trial
A London court called the church’s leader to account for “false” doctrines—the latest in a string of sensational charges leveled against Mormons since they first landed in Liverpool.
The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been ordered to appear before a British court to defend the Mormon faith against charges that it used false teachings to defraud church members.
The court order is the result of complaints filed by Tom Phillips, a disaffected Mormon living in Portugal, on behalf of two men he says were induced to pay an annual tithing to the Church based on “untrue or misleading” claims. These claims include seven central LDS tenets, such as the belief that the Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates by Joseph Smith and “is the most correct book on earth and is an ancient historical record.”
That an alienated Mormon went public with his grievances about church doctrine is nothing unusual. But what makes this case surprising is that a magistrate judge has backed Phillips’ claims by ordering LDS President Thomas S. Monson to appear before the Westminster magistrates’ court, in London on March 14 to answer to the accusations.
Legal experts are baffled by the magistrate’s decision to pursue the case, which claims that Monson violated the 2006 Fraud Act, a British law that forbids false representations to secure financial gain.
“I’m sitting here with an open mouth,” Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and writer on religious freedom told The Arizona Republic, which broke the story. “I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I’m frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it.”
Yet at the same time, legal observers have downplayed the significance of the filing, calling it an outlier case that will likely languish in the magistrates’ court. “It is never going to come to court,” Frank Cranmer a researcher on law and religion at the Cardiff Law School, told me. “Unless the president of the LDS Church turns up himself voluntarily, the only way to get him to court would be to issue a warrant and can you see the American government extraditing him on that charge? I can’t.”
But while the case might be an aberration in the British court system, it is also a reminder of anti-Mormon attitudes that at one time abounded in British society and were often expressed most loudly by disaffected Mormons themselves.
Broadly speaking, Mormons are tight-knit, and accepted minority group in the United Kingdom and Europe. There are roughly 200,000 church members in the U.K., making up less than one-third of one percent of the population. The days when “the only things people tended to know [about Mormons] were polygamy and Donny Osmond” are long gone, said James Holt, a scholar of LDS history at the University of Chester. The British press’s voyeuristic fascination with Mormons notwithstanding, America’s homegrown religion has become increasingly normalized across the pond.
Early Mormons in England, however, faced persecution by civilians even as they were largely left alone by the state. Mormons first came to England in 1837, just seven years after Joseph Smith founded the Church in Fayette Township, New York. The first group of seven missionaries landed in Liverpool, and quickly began converting local citizens; they gained 50 new members in less than a month. In the ensuing years, more Mormons, many with English heritage, came from North America to England. They included recent English immigrants to Canada who wanted to return to their home country to expose their extended families to their newfound faith.
Anti-Mormon pamphlets—many of them distributed by Church of England clergy—surfaced within a year of the seven missionaries’ arrival. Soon, a “flourishing industry of anti-Mormon literature, and later, anti-Mormon films” developed said Craig L. Foster, a LDS historian of early anti-Mormon writing in Britain.
Some of the literature contained well-argued analysis of Mormon doctrine. But many of the pamphlets espoused falsehoods and stereotypes about Mormons, such as the notion that they had come to England to steal money, said Foster. (That claim is “reminiscent” of the Phillips lawsuit, he added.) Another major theme was that Mormons wanted to take English women back to Utah for marriage, an accusation that intensified after the LDS Church publicly admitted in 1852 that its members practiced polygamy (a practice the Church renounced in 1890).
Some of the allegations about kidnapping English women verged on the absurd. In the late 1800s, said Foster, a myth began to circulate in Europe that Mormons had built a tunnel to traffic young English virgins to polygamist families in Utah. The tunnel started in Liverpool and continued beneath the American continent to empty into the Salt Lake Temple, where the virgins would be immediately deflowered. News of the tunnel supposedly got around after an English woman jumped out of the window of the Temple into the Great Salt Lake (which is 20 miles away), swam to freedom and lived to tell her tale. Foster said that he heard the myth repeated as recently as 1980 in Belgium, where he was serving a mission.
Myths aside, the LDS Church was indeed in the business of bringing people from the U.K. to Utah in order to fortify its fledgling base. According to David M. Morris, co-founder of the European Mormon Studies Association, by 1852 there were 32,894 Mormon converts in Britain, “more than the rest of the worldwide Church combined.” By 1900, that number had shrunk to 4,183. “A large portion of these migrated to America to be with the main body of the Church in Utah.”
Some recent British converts grew disillusioned with the coarse settler existence in Utah, and with LDS teachings and polygamy. When they returned to the U.K., they became some of Mormonism’s most vocal opponents. “Basically, they felt that they had been lied to and they were going to reveal all to the public as a way of warning,” said Foster. He sees a similar attitude in Phillips, the church’s current accuser.
According to Phillips’ biography on the MormonThink web site, where he is an editor, he converted to Mormonism in 1969 and went on to hold several leadership positions in the LDS Church in England, including Bishop, Stake President and Area Executive Secretary. Phillips’ falling out with Mormonism began, he wrote on the site, when he couldn’t square certain scientific beliefs with LDS teachings.
“There is a part of me that says, O.K., alright, fine, we have another person who is dissatisfied with Church doctrine,” Foster said of Phillips. “And they are writing a tell-all story or causing some kind of disturbance, be it legal or whatever else to get attention.”
But it’s unlikely that the suit will do much to shake the standing of the LDS church in the U.K. Mormonism’s reputation in the U.K. changed for the better in the 1940s, after the church donated food and supplies to war-torn European countries. In the 1950s, the first two temples were erected in Europe, one in London and one in Switzerland. Today, Holt said, second and third generation Mormons experience little religious discrimination from other British civilians. “I meet people and they tend to know one other member of the church. That breaks down myths.” Still, he said, “It’s not like living in Utah, where it seems every other person is a member of the church.”
Many observers of the Phillips case have compared it to another recent religious freedom debacle in Britain. In December, a 25-year-old woman succeeded in her five-year-long legal battle to be married in the Church of Scientology chapel in London. The case, which was decided by Britain’s Supreme Court, overturned a 158-year-old precedent defining the worship of god as central to state-recognized religions.
But Holt disagrees with the comparison; he can’t envision the British courts legislating Mormon doctrine. “There is a question about whether the Church of Scientology is a religion or not,” he said. “Whereas, I don’t think Mormons have that question hanging over them.