40 years ago today - 40 years ago - Dec 3, 1979-Monday

[Leonard Arrington]
There are many articles in the newspapers, much discussion over the radio and some TV stories that relate to the Church trial of Sonia Johnson. I thought it might be helpful to some future historian for me to record some personal impressions. Nearly all of the articles in the papers and interviews over the radio and TV have been initiated by Sonia and not by the Church, and it would seem appropriate to give a more balanced perspective.

It is my understanding that Elder Gordon Hinckley is chairman of a Church political action committee [Special Affairs Committee] which has been interested in several projects:

1. A drive against pornography in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.

2. A campaign against abortion and birth control.

3. A series of movements designed to prevent the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

... It is my understanding that this central Church committee assists with literature, pins, buttons, etc., state groups attempting to influence the legislature against ratification or in favor of rescinding the ERA. Groups of LDS women, in advance of legislative action, are organized and are instructed specifically not to reveal that they are LDS women but simply that they are residents of the state opposed to ERA. They get hundreds of Relief Society women involved and some of their husbands as well. Regional Representatives have given them counsel and support, as have area executive administrators. This has been true in Virginia, Washington, Maine, Nevada, Illinois, and Florida, and possibly in other states as well that I am not aware of. All those participating understand that they are doing what the Church wants them to do. To some extent the General Authorities have been mobilized; Elder [Boyd K.] Packer gave a talk in Idaho and another in California on the ERA; Elder Neal Maxwell has also talked in at least two locations with the same theme. And of course the theme is carried out in many of the talks delivered by Elder [Ezra Taft] Benson, Elder [Mark E.] Petersen, and others.

Not every Latter-day Saint man or woman accepts the Church stand on ERA. I am sure they're a small minority; I would guess perhaps one-tenth of the U.S. adult members of the Church-something like 100,000 persons, maybe. Because of the First Presidency's letter on the subject and following-up letters in the Ensign and other publications, this group has not been vocal. It is made up of "liberals" and perhaps in a number of instances people who are never very responsive to Church counsel.

Sonia Johnson, however, made a personal decision to establish a small organization, "Mormons for ERA." She was able to raise some money, probably from non-Mormon sources and organizations, and has carried out an active campaign. She has made it a policy to follow the Mormons against ERA into a state and has held news [conferences and issued news] releases, appeared on TV and radio, and given talks designed to demonstrate to everybody that there are Mormons for ERA, and she has gotten a good deal of mileage out of this publicity. When LDS people have questioned her she has insisted that ERA is a political matter, not a religious matter, and that she has a right to disagree with the Church and its officials on this political matter, also that she has a right to actively campaign against it [the church]. Occasionally in talks she has gotten a little carried away and has said that the Brethren are badly informed and not inspired in adopting the anti-ERA position. She has urged Church members and others to campaign for ERA and by inference campaign against a stand taken by the First Presidency. Her remarks about the Brethren have not been complimentary. She has insisted that she strives to be a loyal Latter-day Saint on religious matters, and that she is free to depart from the Church's political position on this one matter. Non-LDS people have cheered her on and have made of her a sort of heroine for her courage and determination.

Sonia's activities have not only included campaigning against the Mormon political action group in several states, but also flying pro-ERA banners over the [Salt Lake] Tabernacle during [general] conference, and news releases and interviews in newspapers in New York, Washington, and elsewhere. ...

LDS officials have been irritated by her activities, which has tended to counter the effectiveness of the Church's campaign against ERA. Complaints have been made to her bishop, Bp. Jeffrey Hinckley Willis, of Oakton, VA. One wonders whether he is a relative of Elder Gordon Hinckley and if so, how close the relationship is. One speculates whether Elder Hinckley advised the bishop to put her on trial for her membership, or perhaps President Benson; or perhaps the bishop received complaints from people about her behavior and asked the counsel of Elder Hinckley or President Benson or someone else about placing her on trial. It is our information that a woman who is active in the John Birch Society in Utah Valley heard her speak in Provo and was so infuriated that she telephoned Bp. Willis, made a complaint, and said she would like the opportunity of testifying against Sonia at a trial held for her membership. Bp. Willis, incidentally, is said to be the personnel director of the CIA.

Sonia has declared that the decision to try her for her membership was made on Tuesday, November 13. She said a written notice to her to appear at a [ward] bishop's court was received by her on Thursday, November 15. She said the notice did not mention any specific charges nor any specific complaints. Sonia, immediately upon receiving the letter that she was to appear Saturday, telephoned a number of her friends and supporters and released statements to newspapers in Washington, D.C., New York, and Utah, telling about the trial and indicating how unfair it was to conduct the trial before she had an opportunity of preparing her defense. As she thought about it, she felt she needed people to testify in her behalf and needed to prepare argumentation. She telephoned the bishop and asked him for a postponement. The bishop finally agreed to postpone it for two weeks. The trial was therefore rescheduled for December 1.

Several groups of friends, supporters, and other persons in Utah interested in a "fair trial" met in Salt Lake City and Provo to discuss aspects of the case. Some telephoned her and offered their help and assistance. They talked with her about Church trial procedures, they raised money to send a delegate back to testify for her-a person who was at the same meeting that the John Birch women had attended. I do not know the names of all of these persons, but it is my understanding that they raised money enough to send Jan Tyler back to testify. It is my understanding that they also made contact with Esther Peterson, who volunteered to testify. At the same time Sonia's mother agreed to testify on her daughter's behalf. Reba Keele [[Reba L. Keele (1941-) was a Utah native who graduated from BYU, served a church mission to France, and received a PhD in educational psychology from Purdue. She returned to Utah and became director for the Center for Women's Health at a local hospital, and was hired to teach organizational behavior at BYU from 1978, becoming in 1991 dean of undergraduate education at the University of Utah.]] of BYU faculty and Kathryn MacKay, of the University of Utah, also testified in the trial on December 1. One group, in which J. D. Williams was vocal, sponsored a large ad in the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune of Tuesday, November 27, asking the First Presidency to intervene to prevent an action against Sonia for what they called "exercising her free agency and free speech." The letter was signed by about a hundred persons of whom a large number were not LDS. Probably more than half were non-LDS. ... The ad was signed by the "Supporters of Sonia (SOS) committee"; but that title has been popularized generally with "Save Our Sonia (SOS)." Among the names were some of our own friends...

(I learned after dictating the above that Bishop Willis did go to her home on the Thursday before the first hearing. There were fireworks and her husband finally invited the bishop to leave. ... The bishop refused to allow the use of the word Equal Rights Amendment in the trial. He acted correctly in not allowing the trial to become a forum for arguing the merits of ERA. ... I'm told that a group of thoughtful Latter-day Saints, meeting the Sunday before Sonia Johnson's December 1 hearing, listened to her talk (taped) from the University of Utah's women's conference in October. There she had, rather than voice her own opinions in her own voice, read excerpts from letters received from other Mormon women. Her delivery was much like that of a political candidate, eliciting applause in all the "right" places. With a combination of humor and sincerity, she moved her audience to warm friendship. All, that is, but a row of some four or five BYU women, among them some administrative heads, who neither smiled nor applauded. ...

[Confessions of a Mormon historian : the diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997, Gary James Bergera, editor, Signature Books, 2018]

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