I recently read through Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture: Silence, Secular Conformity, Counterrevolution, and Emerging Reform by Mark Kim Malan and Vern Bullough (Sexuality & Culture, Fall 2005, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 80-127.). I put together a timeline of the history of masturbation in the Mormon church as I read through the article:
1700s Masturbation is first connected to insanity and disease in popular and medical literature—anti-masturbation sentiments rise in response—homosexuality and pederasty are linked to masturbation—hysteria becomes widespread and leads to the popularization of male circumcision (which was previously only a religious rite) in an effort to curb masturbation
1830 Joseph Smith organizes the Mormon church
1800s Smith remains publicly silent on masturbation leaving no record of any statements on the issue—Brigham Young, Joseph’s successor, is also silent on the issue of masturbation leaving no record of any statement on the issue—in the absence of official guidance, members of the church tend to go along with popular, hysterical opinion of the day
1870–71 The subject of masturbation is addressed in meetings of the School of the Prophets by Apostles Daniel H. Wells and Lorenzo Snow and President George A. Smith, First Counselor in the First Presidency—polygamy is seen as a cure for masturbation by church leaders—Elder Wells echoed the common sentiment that masturbation would lead to insanity and an early death
1883 Masturbation lumped together with excessive marital coitus as cause of disease in a meeting of the First Presidency
1800s (late) increased acceptance of the bacterial causes of disease undermines the idea that masturbation leads to disease
1920s and ’30s a new era of more factual attitudes in the Church’s official response to masturbation—masturbation shame linked with mental health concerns—official church manuals encouraged parental guidance rather than repression—warned against parental overreaction to masturbation
1940s Church promoted “better dead than alive and unclean” to Mormon members of the military in WWII
1950s several church leaders publish opinions which encourage total abstinence from masturbation—church reverses previous moderate stance, the first time that church policy diverged from the common medical opinion of the day
1958 Elder Bruce R. McConkie publishes Mormon Doctrine with a statement that directly condemns the psychiatric opinion that masturbatory shame is a mental dysfunction thereby creating the impression of an authoritative denunciation of masturbation because of his position as an Apostle
1969 Elder Spencer W. Kimball writes The Miracle of Forgiveness which denounces masturbation and states that religious authority trumps any empirical evidence
1972 American Medical Association declares masturbation to be normal behavior—Boy Scout manual is rewritten to affirm the normalcy of masturbation and its positive role in sexual development—25,000 copies of the manual are destroyed under the influence of Catholic and Mormon churches—revised edition advises boys to counsel with parents and spiritual leaders regarding masturbation—Mormon health care professionals come under increased pressure to honor their priesthood oaths over their professional oaths and standards
1976 Church distributes pamphlet To Young Men Only, a reprinting of an speech by Elder Boyd K. Packer in which he promoted his personal ideas about sexual physiology and desire which contradicted contemporary empirical medical evidence—the pamphlet promotes the idea that sexual desire would be almost absent during puberty if it were not incited, that masturbation causes sexual desire
1980s Elder Mark E. Petersen authored Steps in Overcoming Masturbation targeted to young, male missionaries—his pamphlet advocated harsh psychological control methods and aversion therapy techniques to control masturbation—Mormon psychiatrist Cantril Nielsen pays a large settlement in the wrongful death case of 16-year-old Kip Eliason who he advised to follow his bishop’s counsel to abstain from masturbation in order to be worthy (contrary to the standards of his psychiatric profession)—Kip Eliason committed suicide due to overwhelming feelings of unworthiness while trying to abstain from masturbation—medical experts in the case confirmed that masturbation posed no risks to mental or physical health, but that attempted abstinence from masturbation had a documented history of suicidal risk
1990 LDS church officially publishes For the Strength of Youth pamphlet which continued to denounce masturbation as morally unclean
1994 Is Kissing Sinful?, a book by church member Grant Von Harrison, is published which promotes the extreme position that “If you allow yourself to become sexually aroused prior to marriage, you commit a moral sin”
1995 In a study of 103 married Mormon women (91% of whom attended church services weekly, 5% monthly), 43% reported that they masturbated currently, 54% when they were younger
2001 The church publishes a highly revised For the Strength of Youth which no longer mentions masturbation by name
2004 And They Were Not Ashamed: Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment by church member Laura M. Brotherson aims to counteract some of the sexual shame in popular LDS culture—she admits to suffering from psychosexual shame which caused marital dysfunction—she advises that masturbation is permissible when intended to promote marital health
There is a lot more to the article that isn’t covered in this timeline. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Mormon church or in masturbation.
The picture that I got from this article is that—in the absence of scriptural or official guidance on the issue of masturbation—the popular hysteria and religious distaste for masturbation in the days of the early Mormon church were adopted by default by the members of the church and later enshrined in church doctrine by conservative members of the church hierarchy. The church promoted healthy attitudes toward masturbation during a short time in the early twentieth century. The church then reversed course and now promotes unhealthy attitudes toward masturbation due to doctrinal inertia despite clear evidence that this policy causes its members great, undue emotional distress, all for the sake of a man-made doctrine which insinuated itself into the culture and dogma of the church.
2010 The new edition of the Church Handbook of Instruction fails to mention masturbation in its discussion of the Law of Chastity (transgressions of which law are said to merit disciplinary action). The only mention of masturbation is to say, “A disciplinary council should not be held to discipline or threaten members who do not comply with the Word of Wisdom, who are struggling with pornography or self-abuse,…”.