Thinking Is a Social Act

By Elbert Eugene Peck

Being immersed with Sunstone as the magazine editor and symposium chief for fifteen years was damn fun. I wasn’t the creator of content, just a networker of people and a facilitator of ideas—but being a lazy intellectual, I enjoyed the job. Sunstone fed my broad intellectual cravings for history, critical thinking, and thoughtful making sense of Mormonism. It met my gregarious social needs by connecting me with bright, fun, and truly great souls. In the end, it also exhausted me.

For me, Sunstone was a big tent where, in the Mormon democratic tradition, everyone could listen to and learn from each other: historians, sociologists, psychologists, artists, liberals, conservatives, actives, inactives, Mormons, gentiles, believers, nonbelievers, professionals, and amateurs. We worked hard to recruit conservative and especially moderate voices, and their numbers increased noticeably, as did subscriptions. In every magazine issue, I strove to present a spectrum of thought—Ed Kimball and John Whiting’s mainstream “Spencer Kimball and the Service Station Guy” (June 1989) alongside Scott Kenney’s “At Home at Sea: Confessions of a Cultural Mormon.” I wanted every reader to be able to say, “I don’t agree with everything in the magazine, but I really liked X.”

After Daniel Rector and I settled in as publisher and editor, in 1986, we requested an interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley, then first counselor in the First Presidency. He welcomed us warmly, and we had a long, tension-free conversation. Noting his occasional brief comments about “critics inside and outside the Church,” I invited him to elaborate on his concerns at an upcoming symposium, to speak directly to the people he had in mind. He graciously declined.

Daniel and I shared how we felt that a place like Sunstone was vital for some Saints. It gave them a place to share their scholarship, experiences, and observations without the imprimatur of official Church forums. Sunstone was a supplement, not a replacement. President Hinckley said he didn’t see the need. He felt that people were served best in approved Church educational and service programs. Steady-the-ark individuals who gave critical commentary weren’t helping the Church, he said; even people who tried to give constructive quotations to the media “should know better.”

I tried to initiate more conversation about how people could share their thoughts and observations; could they do so publicly? He deflected that topic and posed several rhetorical questions, “simply for your consideration.” Beginning with, “Who called you to run Sunstone?” He quoted several scriptures about the need to be called to preach. I responded that we shouldn’t have to be commanded in all things but do many things of our own free will (D&C 58:26–29). And so the meeting went: President Hinckley focusing on the needs and prerogatives of the institutional Church; us focusing on the need for independent discussion and exploration.

Daniel Rector and Elbert Peck celebrate the completion of a successful Sunstone Symposium.
Daniel Rector and Elbert Peck celebrate the completion of a successful Sunstone Symposium.

As we rose to leave, Daniel, overcome with emotion, exclaimed, “President Hinckley, I love you,” and hugged him: a gesture President Hinckley was surprisingly awkward at, and perhaps uncomfortable doing. I hugged him, too, and we left.

While walking back to the office, I said, “Well, from that meeting, he might conclude that we’re wrong-headed but hopefully also that we’re good guys who mean well.” I was wrong. We later learned from a reliable source that underneath his pleasantness he was actually seething at our presumption, especially at our attempt to get an “endorsement” by having him speak. At the next meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve, he vented at length about Sunstone and us. Where we saw the need for conversation, knowledge, and soul-bearing, he saw threats to doctrinal purity and Church authority. There was no room for coddling heretics, which he clearly felt we were doing (and perhaps he thought we were heretics ourselves).

With the Church’s war with historians going on for a decade, this was just one event in the escalating conflict between the Church and what Elder Dallin Oaks would soon call its “alternate voices.” I often compared what goes on at Sunstone to the unofficial conversations shared in the church foyer. You don’t really want many of those insights and commentaries to be spoken over the pulpit, and there’s inherent tension when the bishop encounters those speculating foyer-chatters (inevitably late to class), but that sociality and information sharing are nonetheless essential to a healthy community.

I didn’t give up on conversation with Church leaders. If they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be a part of Sunstone’s discussions, I figured it would be a good thing to let them overhear our deliberations, to give them an accurate knowledge of what people are saying and thinking, so that they didn’t solely rely on exaggerated secondhand reports or yellow-highlighted offending passages. Surely they would see the overwhelming good in what we were producing. So we gave a complimentary subscription to each of the Brethren. Big mistake. A couple of years later, an apostle’s son who was a Sunstone supporter urged us to stop sending the magazines. All they did was give the Brethren more things to be mad about more often, he reported. Each new issue just reminded them of Sunstone’s existence and prompted another discussion of what to do about it. They didn’t see an article as someone simply expressing a view; it was someone telling the Brethren how to run the Church—a big no-no. No matter how many positive features a magazine contained, one “negative” piece damned the whole project.

grondahl_eden-magazinesSadly, this gulf widened dramatically during my tenure:

  • In the April 1989 General Conference, Elder Oaks counseled members and leaders to avoid independent forums: “One article or one issue of a publication or one session of a conference may be edifying and uplifting, something a faithful Latter-day Saint would wish to support or enjoy. But another article or another session may be destructive, something a faithful Latter-day Saint would not wish to support or promote.”1
  • In 1990, Sunstone ran a news story that reported on the media coverage of changes in the temple ceremony. We noted that some stories quoted directly from the ceremony, but we purposefully did not run those quotations. As a result of running that story, Daniel and I were each called in by our stake presidents who took our temple recommends. Each president said that he was acting on his own without any direction from above. Shortly thereafter during a chance meeting, our area president, Elder John Carmack, told me that the order to yank our recommends had come from above him.
  • After the August 1991 symposium, the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued a “Statement on Symposia” that advised “faithful members” to avoid Sunstone because “some (though admittedly not all) presentations” are inappropriate.2 In concert with this, the harassment of Sunstone-participating faculty at Brigham Young University increased, eventually leading to the departure of several professors and the silencing of many more.
  • In September 1993, six Latter-day Saints, all of who had participated in Sunstone at one point, were disfellowshipped or excommunicated, some directly for views expressed in a Sunstone forum. Later, other Sunstone contributors were excommunicated, including Janice Allred, David Wright, and Margaret Toscano. In response to the September Six brouhaha, President James E. Faust of the First Presidency quoted a century-old statement by apostle George Q. Cannon in response to the independent-minded of his day: “we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the Authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing these differences of opinion . . . and not be an apostate.”3 That reminded me of the famous statement by Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet: “We have nothing against ideas. We’re against people spreading them.” To ban the publishing and sharing of thoughts is to ban thinking, for as Janice Allred stated: thinking is a social activity.4 No man’s mind is an island.
Elbert Peck and Carol Lynn Pearson are depicted thrust into the lone and dreary world by artist Carolyn Toronto.
Elbert Peck and Carol Lynn Pearson are depicted thrust into the lone and dreary world by artist Carolyn Toronto.

In the late 1990s, my stake president convened multiple five-hour, one-on-one inquests with me in which he read long, many-pointed indictments of Sunstone for heresy and apostasy. He had scrutinized many issues and an entire Salt Lake symposium. I wasn’t charged with saying anything offensive, he explained, but for facilitating others’ offensive statements. I wasn’t “the bank robber, but the getaway car driver.” Impressed with his presented case, he twice scheduled excommunication courts, only to later call them off.

Through these events, the Church won: many faithful members pulled back from Sunstone. Until then, the psychological threshold one had to cross to read the magazine was minimal; now it was high. The line-drawing became intense. Orson Scott Card, a founder of Sunstone, refused to participate as long as we allowed participation by excommunicated Mormons like Michael Quinn and Lavina Fielding Anderson. Others were upset that I had published Card’s conservative “A Changed Man” columns, especially those containing his views on homosexuality (“The Hypocrites of Homosexuality,” February 1990). Believing Mormons had started Sunstone, but since then their lives had taken divergent paths; I felt to include them all. Many articles and presentations throughout my tenure reflected these times and examined the dynamic of free speech inside Mormonism.

For my part, my editorials often meditated on the social side, how we are bonded together and how our community can embrace difference. I was inspired by Karl Popper’s “open society.” Since any ideology is a human creation, it is flawed, and if enforced rigidly by a “closed society” it will eventually crack and crumble (think of Communism). (As Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem”: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.”) In contrast, an open society is self-correcting because it welcomes critical thinking and freedom of thought. I saw Sunstone as a helpful “open forum” within Mormonism. It did not advocate any position except honest, respectful discussion.

Some people thought that by “open forum” I meant that anything goes—like the famous soapbox in Hyde Park. Instead, I meant that no presentation would be denied expression because of either the topic or the speaker. We didn’t avoid discussing Book of Mormon historicity or homosexuality, as some prominent liberal Sunstone supporters advocated, simply because the topics were “too hot.” Nor did we reject a proposal because its author had been excommunicated, as many also encouraged. We accepted proposals on any topic based on the quality of thought, research, and expression. Rejecting something on those grounds is not censorship; it is judgment.

A November 1991 cartoon by Calvin Grondahl pokes fun at Sunstone's readers during a time when intellectuals were being disciplined by the Church.
A November 1991 cartoon by Calvin Grondahl pokes fun at Sunstone’s readers during a time when intellectuals were being disciplined by the Church.

In those turbulent and divisive years, Sunstone shrunk. I still wonder how I could have better negotiated the times. I wince at mistakes I made. There are discussions I should have framed more constructively. But given the Church’s antipathy toward independent conversation, whether conservative or liberal (or even mainstream: think of Deseret Book acquiring Bookcraft or BYU assimilating FARMS), I suspect any fine-tunings would not have significantly mitigated Mormonism’s inescapable conflict with its so-called scholars, intellectuals, feminists, and gays. I was naive to hope that one forum could embrace such a wide spectrum of thought. Still, imagine how different things would be now had the Church overwhelmed Sunstone with the thoughtful moderates we yearned to publish, instead of isolating it.

Although that conflict defines my years, most of Sunstone’s pages were dedicated to other fascinating and thoughtful topics. I recently perused all the issues from my time; the theological articles, spiritual journeys, columns, fiction, plays, poetry, and cartoons are impressive. Many made a positive difference in my own life. John Durham Peters’s notion that perfection means fullness or completeness instead of without flaw made the life of this questing Mormon richer and less stressful (“Perfection: A Social Criticism and a Theological Alternative,” May 1987). I still draw on Esther Peterson’s talk on how her Mormon roots motivated her to do good in the world (“The World beyond the Valley,” November 1991), and similarly on Wayne Booth’s idea of “hypocrisy upward” (“Confessions of an Aging, Hypocritical Ex-Missionary,” March 1998). The magazine’s diverse and thoughtful voices, perspectives, and analysis are as relevant now as then. Many magazines are disposable, but issues of Sunstone may be fruitfully revisited like a cherished book.

Sunstone’s founders dreamed big. They wanted a publication that mirrored the best in every other magazine: scholarship, personal voice, visual and literary arts, news, analysis, review essays—all in a popularly written, briskly edited, visually stunning publication. Given their meager resources, their greedy reach far exceeded their grasp. Having been tutored by the incomparable Peggy Fletcher, I inherited that vision and appetite, and with each issue of Sunstone, I was as much aware of what it wasn’t as what it was—how much it missed the mark. So when world-class scholars complimented Sunstone, I felt embarrassed, knowing what a shoestring operation we were. More than one scholar said they loved the magazine and the symposium because their participants truly cared about the issues and their implications, unlike most academic journals and conferences they were affiliated with. Maybe it’s that I’ve forgotten most of the glitches and poor judgments, but I now better see what they saw: a passionate attempt by intelligent seekers to apply good thinking and articulate expression to heart-felt matters.

Today, I mostly remember Sunstone’s incredible community—the people. I truly love them all. The eager symposium attendees and loyal magazine readers who shared critiques, the thoughtful scholars who devoted hours writing articles that did not advance their careers, the earnest office staff who worked long hours for little pay. It was a lot of work, but it was sweet because of thousands of generous people.

Not to say the Sunstone community was a utopia. Like the endearing villagers of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof, these wonderful people were quirky, zealous humans who often quarreled. For the cover illustration for Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?” (March 1996), Pat Bagley drew a dramatic, conquering female Captain Moroni hoisting the Title of Liberty, surrounded by a throng of uplifted phallic-like swords. Many readers were outraged, damning Pat and the editors as sexist men who just don’t get it, who “don’t like women.” Carol Lynn graciously defused the outcry by embracing the cartoon as a wonderful “anti-illustration . . . of the absurd notion that women do or should play the same game as men traditionally have done” (September 1996). I love the drama of that story—the spirited readers, the generous author, the beleaguered artist—all caring volunteers. Every day at Sunstone was lively like that.


For some lonely Mormons, Sunstone was singularly important because it connected them to precious ideas and a far-flung community. We regularly fielded calls from someone in, say, Alabama who’d rejoice: “I just read a copy of Sunstone. I had no idea anyone else was interested in these things!” In fundraising letters, I boasted that one couldn’t get Sunstone’s news section anywhere else. Considering it was mostly just a digest of months-old news stories, with occasional original reporting on intellectual controversies, that’s amazing. But it was true: It was nigh impossible to learn what was happening. If you wanted to read a complete transcript of the angry, handwritten letter Elder George P. Lee released after his excommunication, Sunstone was the only place.

That’s all changed. Now, Sunstone is not as central. With the Internet’s information superhighway, that lonely Alabaman can connect with thousands of like -hearted souls. Google Alerts will instantly notify you of Mormon-related news. And for opinion and scholarship that help individuals make sense of Mormonism, well, there are more sites and blogs than one person can read—and unimaginable diversity, too. The gatekeeper forums are bypassed by the Internet: the true open forum for Mormonism.

The Church once tried to reign in Sunstone and its few thousand supporters; now it must accommodate millions of unregulated wired Saints discovering, responding to, and adding their own alternate voices. Thinking is now a social media act. Jan Shipps talks about how Correlation in the post-World War II Church changed Mormons from being ethnic members of a tribe to being members of an organization. Sunstone was created by baby-boomer Saints reacting to Correlation. Now, the Internet is creating millennial Mormons with different attitudes and questions and modes of participation. O brave new world that has such people in’t!

What role does Sunstone play in these times? As a relic, I’m not the one to say; nevertheless, I have a few ideas:

  • Maintain and raise the standard for discourse. Sunstone shouldn’t host the dissemination of half-baked, armchair analysis seen on so many blogs. It should be a reflective forum for thoughtful analysis and respectful discussion. With so much information available, we need gatekeepers. I don’t want to waste time sifting chaff. I don’t have time to read everything in The New Yorker, but I subscribe because I know that what I do read will be worth it. Sunstone should be a similar place of quality that stretches the mind and the heart.
  • Celebrate the visual arts. This dream of every past editor was limited by funds. Sunstone can now affordably host in print and online color images of Mormon arts with interviews and essays explicating the works’ spiritual and moral aspects. When Mormon artist Paul Jung walked into our office with his black-and-white etchings, we ran them along with an interview (“The Imagination of Paul Jung” September 1994). Sunstone should now do more of that.
  • Feature more humor. We all crave it. It needs to be part of the magazine’s brand—cartoons and satire. I didn’t publish enough of it, but I loved what we did publish; of course, Cal Grondahl and Pat Bagley’s cartoons, but also pieces like Paul Toscano’s “The Unpleasantness at the Salt Lake Fortune Cookie Factory” (September 1988) and Peter Sorensen’s “Flannel Boards and Flip Charts” (December 1993).
  • Explore the international Church. Get past the nineteenth century and North America. Features like anthropologist David Knowlton’s insightful “Missionary, Native, and General Authority Accounts of a Bolivian Conversion” (February 1989) and posts like Tim Behrend’s “Report from Indonesia” (July 1988) should be routine.

My departure from Sunstone was messy. After fifteen years, I was burned out, suffering from a deep physical exhaustion that even a long vacation couldn’t heal. Many Mormon issues no longer engaged me, and my delight in the quirky Sunstone community too often became annoyed indulgence. I stayed with Sunstone after I knew I needed to leave because I feared the direction some wanted to take it (and I didn’t appreciate the feet of some to my back). But I should have left. I should have trusted the Sunstone community. Broken, depressed, and weary, I started dropping many of the balls that even in my best years I barely juggled. In the event, the issue became a debate about me, which wore me down even more. Then one day on my way to work, I just couldn’t go, so I drove out to the Great Salt Lake instead. I couldn’t go the next day either. Or the next. After a week being AWOL, I said to myself, with surprise and resignation, “Well, I’ve quit Sunstone, and I just now realized it.”

Traumatized, the next few years were painful. I felt like I’d let down friends and the organization. I withdrew from my broad embrace, conversing with backlogged non-Mormon books and associating with a handful of buddies. I’m fine now, and in remembering the countless splendid people and great articles, I feel lucky to have had the rich privilege of furthering this grand discussion.




1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Alternate Voices,” April 1989 General Conference, (accessed 5 June 2014).

2. “News of the Church,” Ensign, November 1991, (accessed 5 June 2014).

3. James E. Faust, “Keeping Covenants and Honoring the Priesthood,” October 1993 General Conference, (accessed 5 June 2014).

4 Janice Allred, “Defense of Janice Allred,” Sunstone(April 1995), 82.