Parting: Seven years after he left the church, he says the action is about his book, not an affair he had
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An Australian who wrote a book saying DNA evidence contradicts ancestral claims of Mormon belief faces disciplinary action that could excommunicate him from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Simon Southerton has been ordered to appear at a July 31 hearing before church leaders in Canberra, Australia, he said in a telephone interview.
Southerton's book, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church, was published a year ago by Salt Lake-based Signature Books, a publishing house for Western and Mormon studies. It used established DNA data to refute Book of Mormon teachings that ancient Americans inhabitants were descendants of Israelite patriarch Lehi.
Mormons believe Lehi was an ancient seafarer who came to the New World about 600 B.C., according to church founder Joseph Smith's 1830 Book of Mormon. Smith claimed to have translated the text from inscribed gold plates unearthed from an upstate New York hillside. His book is viewed by many members as a literal record of God's dealings with early Americans.
''We know from evidence that that's completely false,'' said Southerton, a plant geneticist who abandoned his church and post as an LDS bishop in 1998 in a struggle to reconcile his faith and science. ''The church needs to modify its doctrine.''
Southerton, a researcher at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra, faces charges of adultery, not heresy. Southerton admits he had an affair five years ago after he separated from his wife, Jane, and says church authorities are latching onto that instead of proving more difficult charges of apostasy.
''[The letter] completely ignores what is obviously the major issue,'' says Southerton, who was baptized as a Mormon at age 10 in 1970. ''They've been snooping around. Clearly I should be excommunicated for the most serious offense and, in my view, apostasy is much more serious.''
Southerton says church authorities never mentioned adultery when they paid him a recent visit, instead bringing up his book, his renunciation of Mormon faith and his years of postings on the Web site, www.exmormons.org.
''I would have to be regarded as a threat to the church,'' he said.
Church officials in Salt Lake City said they were unaware of any disciplinary action being taken against Southerton. ''We wouldn't because those decisions are local,'' spokeswoman Kim Farah said.
Farah referred a reporter to an official church Web page that calls DNA-based challenges to the veracity of the Book of Mormon ill-considered.
''Nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes migration into the Americas by peoples of Asiatic origin,'' the statement reads. ''The scientific issues relating to DNA, however, are numerous and complex.''
Daniel C. Peterson, editor of the FARMS Review, the journal of Brigham Young University's Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, says Southerton's view of DNA evidence is naive.
''His contention is that the DNA research thus far doesn't support the Book of Mormon,'' Peterson said. ''Our contention would be that we would be surprised if it did.''
FARMS scholars, who examine the history, culture, geography, anthropology and archaeology of Latter-day Saint scriptures, don't dispute that DNA evidence seems to disprove lineage claims. But the available evidence is too limited to represent the entire population of the early Americas, and the Book of Mormon isn't a record of every population, Peterson said.
Peterson insisted the church doesn't retaliate for DNA-related scholarly work, but another critic said he was taken to task for doing just that. Author and anthropologist Tom Murphy, a friend of Southerton's who teaches at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Wash., said he was ordered to a disciplinary hearing in 2002 after publishing an essay comparing DNA evidence to Book of Mormon claims.
Southerton could be the seventh Signature Books author removed from church rolls, publishing house spokesman Tom Kimball said.