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SALT LAKE CITY — Senior LDS Church leaders on Tuesday excommunicated a member of the Quorum of the Seventy who had been serving as the executive director of the church’s Correlation Department, the first such action with a senior church official in nearly three decades.
"This morning, James J. Hamula was released as a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, following church disciplinary action by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles," Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the church, said in a prepared release Tuesday.
The announcement came following a disciplinary council comprised of the two senior councils of the church held for Hamula, 59. It is the first excommunication of a high-ranking LDS leader in the age of social media and prompted wide-ranging reaction, including expressions of love and support for Hamula and his family.
Messages left for Hamula on Tuesday were not returned.
Excommunications are unusual among Mormon leaders. Hamula's is the first since another General Authority Seventy, George P. Lee, 28 years ago. A Seventy assists the First Presidency and apostles in preaching and directing the church around the world.
"It's just so rare, especially in 20th- and 21st-century Mormonism, that it really is news," said Patrick Mason, an expert in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. "For me personally, on one level, it's news. General authorities are public figures. On the other hand, this is someone's private life. This might be a deeply intimate, private matter that should stay between him and his family and church leaders."
The church also confirmed that Tuesday's action was not due to disillusionment or apostasy on the part of Hamula.
"They're sensitive to that and the moment we're in," Mason said of church leaders. "There are people who would love to see general authorities lose their faith."
Many church members took to social media to express love and support for Hamula and his family and to pledge to pray for them. Some expressed hope that he would rejoin the church in the future. Other people kickstarted baseless speculation, unreliable gossip and base jokes.
"You'll find all kinds of reactions ranging from support for him and his family, which is generous and I think the proper response, especially from church members, to people who are happy any time they see bad news about the church," Mason said.
Details of the disciplinary council are private and were not released.
"All church discipline is carried out in complete confidence," according to an article on the church's official Mormon Newsroom website. "Church leaders have a solemn responsibility to keep confidential all information they receive in confessions and interviews. To protect that confidence, the church will not discuss the proceedings of a disciplinary council."
"In rare cases," the article noted, "the decision of a disciplinary council may be shared publicly to prevent others from being harmed through misinformation."
Hamula had been a general authority and member of the Seventy since his call in April 2008. He previously had served as a mission president in Washington, D.C., as the church’s Pacific Area president and as the assistant executive director of the Church History Department, where Ron Esplin knew him.
"I'm saddened to hear about this," said Esplin, general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. Esplin has done research on early LDS Church apostles excommunicated and dismissed from the Quorum of the Twelve during the faith's formative years. Those were young, inexperienced men in a rapidly changing church caught up in disagreements about what a modern-day prophet's role should be, for example.
Since then, most excommunications of church leadership positions have not involved apostasy, Esplin said, noting the church has had "very steady leadership."
"We have so many more total general authority leaders than we had then, but it's very, very rare there's a problem at that level," he said. "Luckily, we haven't had to deal with this for quite some time."
Elder M. Russell Ballard, a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve, described the three purposes of church councils in a 1990 article in the Ensign, the church's official magazine — "to save the soul of the transgressor, to protect the innocent, and to safeguard the Church’s purity, integrity, and good name."
He added that church disciplinary action is not intended to be the end of the process but the beginning of an opportunity to return to full fellowship and to the full blessings of the church.
"The desired result is that the person will make whatever changes are necessary to return fully and completely to be able to receive the marvelous blessings of the church," he said.
In 2014, the Deseret News published an inside look at "How LDS Church disciplinary councils work and change lives."
Six months after his call to become a General Authority Seventy, Hamula addressed the priesthood session of the church’s worldwide general conference in October 2008 in a talk titled, "Winning the War Against Evil."
Hamula spoke at general conference again in October 2014, delivering a talk on "The Sacrament and the Atonement."
He became the executive director of the Correlation Department in 2016, providing priesthood oversight of the department. The correlation department operates under direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Its role is to ensure unity in church structure, practice and doctrine in a global faith with 15.8 million members.
Hamula earned bachelor’s, master's and juris doctorate degrees from BYU. He practiced law from 1985 until his call to be a general authority in 2008.
Hamula has served in other church callings, including as a full-time missionary in the Germany Munich Mission, bishop, stake president, president of the Washington D.C. South Mission (1994–97) and Area Seventy (2000–08).