I entered BYU as a freshman in 1976. I was accepted into a new, experimental program called the honors colloquium. It was an interdisciplinary approach to education, combining subjects that were traditionally taught separately. The professors were definitely "liberal" by LDS standards. One of the first books we read was Juanita Brooks' book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The atmosphere was very open, and no subject seemed off limits for critical analysis or discussion.
As part of the colloquium, we were required to prepare a paper as part of a major project. I had heard something about controversies surrounding the Book of Abraham. I wanted to do a paper on the Book of Abraham, and my roommate and best friend agreed to work with me on the project.
To research the paper, I went to the special collections in the BYU library. That was where they kept the "anti-Mormon" literature. Students could not check the material out, probably out of concern that zealous students would destroy it. I also read everything in print by LDS authors on the subject that I could find. I even tried to interview Hugh Nibley, the LDS "expert" on the Book of Abraham, but was rebuffed in a terse conversation in which he told me I shouldn't bother with such things.
We organized the paper by first describing all the criticisms that had been made of the book. We then summarized all the possible explanations and solutions that had been offered by LDS authors. We did no original research -- just summarized everything that we had found.
As we were preparing the paper, my roommate told me that he thought it was very important that we include our testimony that we knew that the LDS church was God's true church and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I felt funny doing this, because I wasn't sure it represented a very scholarly approach to our subject, but I agreed. After all, I didn't want anybody to think we were implying that Joseph Smith wasn't a prophet, did I?
As part of the assignment, we gave an oral presentation to our instructors and fellow students. We did it in two parts -- I think the two parts were on consecutive days. The first session laid out the various criticisms and problems. At the end of the first session, the other students were dumb struck. A few were in tears. After the second, in which we presented the possible "solutions" people were more talkative and seemed to feel better. Our basic conclusion was: we know the truth, there are lots of different explanations to choose from, and we are sure there is an explanation out there somewhere.
At the end of the whole exercise, I felt dishonest. It felt wrong to write a scholarly paper based on the assumption that we already knew the answers. In hindsight, our instructors should have called us on the carpet for our approach. If I recall correctly, we received an excellent grade.
In the fall of 1977, I was called to a mission on the Navajo reservation. My best friend received his call at about the same time. We went to Provo together to go through the temple. I was shocked. Nothing had prepared me for the endowment ceremony. This was in the bad old days before the blood oaths were removed. Did my eternal salvation really hinge on knowing some secret handshakes and phrases? Did my church really believe that all other churches were of the devil? I had lots of questions and doubts, but since we were instructed never to discuss the ceremony outside of the temple, I never voiced them. I just clung to the belief that God must know what he is doing, and trusted him.
I spent several weeks in the Language Training Mission studying Navajo. During this time, I struggled with my testimony. I wanted desperately to believe, but found that my doubts crowded in time and time again. Just when I felt I had taken a step forward, I slid two steps back.
I arrived on the reservation at the start of winter. My mission president was George P. Lee, a Navajo who had been appointed as one of the church's "General Authorities." He was very dynamic and inspirational. He constantly pushed us to do our best for God and for the Navajo people. I was thrilled to have such an inspired man as a mission president. I had one personal interview with him that put me on a spiritual high for days.
Being a missionary to the Navajos was often discouraging to me. They treated us politely, would invite us in, would listen to our lessons, and would send us on our way. Even when someone agreed to be baptized, they seemed to drift away into inactivity in a short while. Our records were full of inactive Navajo members. We baptized a few young children and one of my companion's parents. But the conditions on the reservation were very depressing, and I constantly struggled with the question of whether we were doing any good for the people.
In my second area, we lived in a small apartment in the back of a laundromat behind a trading post. The trading post was run by church members, who were very kind to and supporting of the missionaries. They also had a copy of the documentary history of the church, which they lent to me. I started reading it during my scripture study time. I made it through the first five volumes. The more I read, the more problems I found with the church. I began to realize that the church of which I was a member bore little resemblance to the organization founded by Joseph Smith.
As winter turned to spring, our efforts turned to "placement baptisms." At that time, the placement program was the LDS church's major effort to bring Lamanites (the LDS term for Native Americans) into the church. Children were taken from the reservation into LDS family homes throughout the country to attend school. Many Navajo parents wanted their children to participate as a means of getting them away from reservation and into what they perceived to be a better environment. There was one catch......to participate, you had to be a church member. So, every spring, lots of children would be baptized so that they could participate in the program. We were told that the previous year there had been 900 placement baptisms. The mission was very gung ho with this program, but there was little discussion of the impact of separating children from their families and their cultural heritage for three fourths of every year.
President Lee gave us a stirring speech on placement. He stressed to us that conversion continues during placement, so we should not hold people out of the program because they weren't really converted. We shouldn't worry about whether they really have a testimony before baptizing them. If they applied and were doing well in school, our orders were to baptize them. If we pushed the program, we would help fulfill the promise in the Book of Mormon that the Lamanite people would "blossom like a rose."
The more I read from the church history, the worse I felt. The more I studied, thought and prayed, the more problems I found with the church and what it claimed to be. I started compiling a list of problems. It became harder and harder for me to go out and teach. When I got to the part of a lesson where I had to bear my testimony (even memorized in Navajo), my stomach would tighten into a knot. I became physically ill and couldn't go out to teach.
Finally, I realized that I couldn't do it anymore -- tell people that I knew the church was true when I had such serious doubts. I felt like I was in a fog, and I didn't know what to do. I wrote this in my Missionary Journal:
I took Wednesday for a huge personal inventory. I went across the little footbridge that spans the San Juan River, took my "problem list" of things that I had found out about the church that disturbed me. I wanted to come to a decision. I was tired of putting up a front. I was teaching things, not only that I didn't know were true, but even had serious doubts about. I was lying to myself, the people and God. That's a crummy way to live. I had, many times, when I reached the testimony bearing part of a discussion, gritted my teeth and said to myself "Here goes another lie." I was a good actor in high school -- I think the training helped. I could fool everyone -- almost all of the missionaries thought I was strong. Yet I couldn't fool two important people -- myself and God. So -- something had to change -- I couldn't keep going like that anymore.
I sat out in the bright sun, by the river, with the biggest, hardest, and most significant decision of my life before me. One the one side was staying -- a good life in the church, a chance to serve, almost all of my friends, [my girlfriend], the respect of my home ward, my grandparents, BYU, the church values and standards. Then there was leaving -- a loss of all those things, an insecure future ... but also a facing up to all of those questions, doubts and fears and a renewal of integrity that I hadn't experienced in a long time.
I took my list -- prayed hard to God for wisdom, guidance, and courage, and looked carefully at each item. I said to myself "Is this basis enough to discard friends, values, a whole way of life?" I had, I think, 27 items on the list. After three I knew the answer -- I had to go. I laughed and almost cried as the relief and peace flooded into my soul. I stood on the bridge, staring up the river, knowing I was going home, knowing that God would take care of me.
In practice, leaving my mission wasn't quite that simple. I was lucky because my parents were also having their doubts about the church. I called my Dad and told him about my problems. He told me "Just be honest with yourself, do what you know is right." I was getting cold feet and told him I wasn't sure what I would do and told him I didn't need him to do anything yet. After a couple of days I realized that I was just stalling, and called to ask him to drive out from California to pick me up. When I called, I learned that he had left two days before and would be there that night. My mom said that he "just knew to come."
But I was pretty well conditioned by authority, so I was determined to leave through official channels. I called my zone leaders and told them I was leaving and that I wanted to see President Lee. They said to drive down to meet with them, as President Lee was in Salt Lake for General Conference. The mission assistants also drove up to meet with me. I spent two hours talking to them. They tried to persuade me to stay. They told me that I was going off blindly, that I had no plan. They had a plan. I would be transferred to the mission home, where I would study the Book of Mormon and try to regain a testimony. I couldn't explain all my doubts to them, but simply told them I didn't believe and I couldn't be a missionary any more. They didn't understand.
We returned the next day because President Lee wanted to speak with me on the telephone. The missionaries that had been friendly and cajoling the day before were stone faced and tense. A definite wall had gone up between us. President Lee called, and my diary records what happened next:
He started with reminding me all that Jesus Christ had done for me, he lived and died for me -- and now I was turning my back on him, and kicking dust in his face. That's what he kept saying over and over -- that I was kicking dust in the face of Jesus Christ. That hurt -- but what could I say?
First, he said he would come right down. Then he wanted me to wait until Wednesday so he could give me a priesthood blessing.
He asked me why I was leaving -- and I told him. He didn't believe me -- told me that that was just an excuse. Wanted to know why. He couldn't accept that I just didn't believe in what I was doing. He said that Satan had led my father away, and through my father was leading me away.
He told my that I was making things worse. He warned me against planning on repenting later, that I was almost throwing away my chance to go to the Celestial Kingdom and become a God.
He offered me every out: a new area, a transfer to the English side [of the mission], a respite in the mission home, a different mission. I turned them all down.
He said "Do you want to talk to President Kimball? Would it help?" I said that I would -- but it probably would not help. He asked me if it would help to talk to him. I said that it probably wouldn't (after all, we were talking then).
Events took a definite turn for the worse. He said "It sounds like your mind is already made up -- before you even talked to me." I said "I think it is President." He then said something that still rings in my head -- and will for a long time.
"Elder Hudson, by the authority of the Melchezedic Priesthood, and in the name of Jesus Christ, I command you not to leave the mission. [pause] "And if you do, something will happen."
Stunned, I flatly said "What?"
"I'm not telling you Elder, and I say it in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen"
My brain exploded and my soul cried out that this was wrong. This shouldn't be happening. The only things this man of God had used to "persuade" me to stay were guilt and fear. I told the assistants what had happened, and they were stunned. They said I must have misunderstood.
They called President Lee back. I did something he had asked me to do -- I prayed. It only took a couple of minutes, and any lingering hesitation or doubt fled. I was leaving, and there was no question about it.
The assistants came back in and told me that President Lee had instructed them to go on about their work and not attempt to counsel me anymore. We did have a last prayer, and I said a tearful goodbye. My father asked me if I was sure that I wanted to leave, warning me that I would probably be excommunicated. I told them it didn't matter.
President Lee was right -- something did happen. The last thing in my missionary diary is a newspaper article titled "Mormon Elder Excommunicated." The funny thing is, the article isn't about me. It is about George P. Lee. It says he was excommunicated for "apostasy and other conduct unbecoming a member of the church."
A couple of years ago I drove past the trading post. Well, now it's just a gas station and the laundromat has been torn down. The footbridge is still there, although there are a few planks missing. I looked up the river, and could still feel the peacefulness that filled me when I realized that the church was not teaching the truth, that I didn't believe, and that I had the courage to face the truth no matter what the consequences. The most important lesson I learned from the LDS church is that living a lie is actually a slow, painful spiritual death. It is much better to face the truth and live.
- E-Mail: DBradHud@aol.com