Death threats, racist comments and other negative reactions to a paragraph contained in his 30-page speech on the subject of reconciliation given last week have stunned University of Utah law professor Edwin Firmage.
"Obviously, I touched a very sensitive nerve," Firmage said of a brief passage in his speech that stated there is no reason in Mormon doctrine to prevent women from holding the priesthood, which only men can hold. He also suggested that someday women and blacks will be general authorities in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Since delivering the speech to an audience of more than 900 gathered Tuesday at the Cathedral of the Madeleine for the annual Monsignor McDougall Lecture, Firmage said he has received between 100 and 150 telephone calls and dozens of letters.
While a "very substantial" number of the calls and letters were positive, several to his home and office warned, "Watch out. You can be removed - things like that," he said.
Others, including some of the calls intercepted by his wife and children, were racist references to a single sentence preceding the statement about every position in the church being open to women.
"Within my own religious tradition I long for that time when four black people, three of them women, will sit on the stand as general authorities at General Conference," Firmage had said.
When he spoke those two sentences, "the response was overwhelming, prolonged applause from 900 people. The response not negative." Firmage said he expected them to receive little or no attention from the general public.
Those words and the rest of the speech, which was intended as a deeper discussion of various forms of reconciliation, were his own feelings rather than a call for change, he said.
"I saw this as a serious, scholarly and personal statement," he said. "If I had wanted to make this an issue, I know how to work the media. I would have sent out 30 press releases."
Instead, Firmage said, "I simply opened my heart." He suggested that if his statements had been heard in the context of his entire speech they may not have generated such an intense response.
"That doesn't mean I feel it less. I am in no way backing off of what I said," Firmage continued, adding that even had he known the response it would receive, he still would have delivered the speech.
He hopes that the controversy will subside into a more serious discussion of women's role in all churches. In his speech, he said Jesus was a feminist and applauded the elevation of a black, divorced woman to a bishopric of the Episcopal Church as "a beacon for us all."
"Maybe before you can have a healing of some things, you need an airing of them," he said, noting that some women have already contacted him to thank him for his statements.