N THE DAY FOLLOWING BRIAN DAVIDMITCHELL’Sarrest on suspicion of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart,
Public Affairs emphatically denied that Mitchellwas Mormon: “Neither Brian David Mitchell nor his wife, Wanda Eileen Mitchell, are members of The Church of JesusChrist of Latter-day Saints or are affiliated with it in any way.”The official statement conceded that Mitchell and his wife “areformer Church members” but hastened to add that they hadbeen “excommunicated for activity promoting bizarre teach-ings and lifestyle far afield from the principles and doctrines of the Church.”
Church officials admitted to the
New York Times
that mediacoverage surrounding Mitchell’s arrest had put them “on thedefensive.”
News stories around the globe linked Mitchell to
teachings about polygamy and personal revelation. Themedia commonly suggested that Mormonism’s emphasis onobedience to male authority, or affinities between Mitchell’s re-ligious ideas and mainstream
beliefs, might explain whySmart had been so susceptible to Mitchell’s control. There wasthe suggestion—at times the outright assertion—that this hor-rible incident was a product of Mormonism. “Like it or not,”one online commentator wrote, “the truth of the matter is thatwithin the Mormon doctrines lie evil seeds waiting to germi-nate in . . . deluded specimens like Brian David Mitchell.”
In the wake of Mitchell’s arrest, Latter-day Saints respondedin various ways to what they perceived as negative publicityfor their religion.
Public Affairs continued to chastise journalists who called Mitchell or other polygamists“Mormon” and dismissed as “nonsense” the suggestion thatMormon teachings were at the core of the Smart story.
SomeSaints minimized the connection between their faith andMitchell’s by insisting that Mitchell had “twisted” or “miscon-strued”
teachings, taken them “out of context,” or gone“off on a tangent.”
Mitchell has been dismissed as delusional,deranged, mentally ill, perhaps even a conscious fraud.
Mitchell may be mentally ill; he may have acted with con-scious intent to deceive. But Mitchell is also devoutly, all-too-devoutly, religious; and the religious worldview to which hesubscribes
rooted in Mormonism. Mitchell believes he is thedivinely appointed prophetic successor to Joseph Smith.Mitchell’s revelations, which have frequently been described as“rambling,” actually reflect a coherent worldview synthesizedfrom statements by nineteenth-century
leaders, teachingsof former Mormon apostle and Church president Ezra TaftBenson, and beliefs endemic to entire subcultures within the
community. Mitchell’s beliefs may be “far afield” of whatthe majority of today’s Saints profess, but there are possiblythousands of members and former members of the Churchwho would find that in many ways, Mitchell’s beliefs coincidewith their own.“I N
Who is Brian David Mitchell? What does he believe?
ITCHELL WAS BORNinto a family largely alienatedfrom the Church but with roots going back to theMormon pioneer era.
Although he attended churchas a child, Mitchell professed to be an atheist until he wasnearly thirty, when an
-induced vision convinced him thatGod wanted him to return to the Church. Twice-divorced,Mitchell has been accused of physical and sexual abuse, but hehad served as a high councilor and a temple worker and wasunusually strict in applying Church standards—the kind of Mormon who eats only whole wheat bread and walks out of movies containing profanity. Media interviews with relatives
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The worldview laid out in the writings of Elizabeth Smart’s alleged abductor is entirely derivative.Every one of his views that is likely to strike mainstream Latter-day Saints as bizarre hasa precedent in beliefs that thrive on the margins of the
THE MAKING OF IMMANUEL
By John-Charles Duffy
JOHN-CHARLES DUFFY holds a masters degreein English from the University of Utah, where heteaches composition and coordinates an interdisci- plinary Mormon studies brown bag series. This ar-ticle is based on a presentation given during the ses-sion, “An Uncomfortable Connection: Brian DavidMitchell and the Mormon Prophetic Tradition,” at the 2003 SaltLake Sunstone Symposium (Tape SL03–121).
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