MY MORMON INTROSPECTION April 1997
I am an ex-Mormon. Presumably I'm still on the books -- on "Church records" -- as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, elder, temple endowed, returned missionary, and sealed (to my ex-wife); missing in action. I've just never bothered to have my name removed from the records; I haven't felt any real reason to. I am not bitter about my "former" life as a Mormon, nor do I really regret the time and effort I spent in the Church and on a mission. I learned a great deal. I am happy and content with life.
I was born into the Church, though while on a mission I was quick to add that I was really a convert as well. Why else would I be sacrificing two years of the prime of my life? (I know, by no means is the statement original, but it truly was how I felt. Or, was it how I truly wanted to feel?) My mother and father converted a couple years before I was born in Finland, but my father was never active in church. We moved to the US early in my life as Dad continued his schooling at BYU. My mother faithfully brought my sister and me to church every Sunday; our lives were typical of other Mormon families – though not ideal since my father wasn't a believer. My mother, on the other hand, was a true believer. Though I have come to realize through the years that Mom probably would have wholeheartedly attached herself to any number of other strong religious belief systems as she seems quite susceptible to charismatically presented conspiracy/fringe/multi-level marketing-type hype and proselytizing. Perhaps Mormonism was controversial or non-mainstream enough for her, and, if one really believes or wants to believe, the teachings and doctrine really can work, and really can be believable. I believed.
I was actually a pretty good Mormon kid. I experienced the typical: baptized at eight – well, actually I think my mother had me wait until I was almost nine years old since I she wanted me to better understand and appreciate what I was doing. I did scouts and the deacon-teach-priest succession, baptisms for the dead, and so forth and so on. I actually rather enjoyed growing up in the church; I had a lot friends and had fun. I liked going to Church services and activities since that's when I'd see and hang out with my friends. I knew by default that the Church was true, and never thought otherwise.
I recall a time when my father began reading so-called "anti-Mormon" literature that an old friend of his from BYU began introducing him to. This occurred when I was in my mid teens. There was a point when he made an effort to discuss the things he was reading with my mother. I don't know for sure whether at first he made a sincere effort or not, but I do remember that it eventually evolved, or rather degraded, into general bad mouthing of Joseph Smith and Church history. I do feel quite certain that it had no effect on my mother's beliefs. I also recall that my father said a few things to me in an attempt to persuade me to read Fawn Brodie's book (I think it was), but I declined, showing no interest at all and believing it was all a bunch of lies and distortions. (I should ask my father about this time in his and my life.)
I was not a good Mormon kid during the last year and a half of high school, though I did continue attending church pretty regularly. I felt guilty about performing certain duties at church, however. This was my experimentation and experiencing phase of life, as I was fully planning to repent later and go on a mission. Sure I felt bad, but I was able to rationalize and . well, a kid can't be perfect. But, again, there was no questioning the truthfulness of the Church. It's really rather amazing, now that I look back on it all, that I never seriously, if at all, considered that the Church might not be true. This is especially remarkable since I was generally autonomous in other respects -- an "independent thinker" I believe is how mother described me. I have to assume that it was entirely because of having been fed a steady stream of teachings at home and at church that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the Church was the only true church on the earth. That's just the way it was.
A half a year or so after high school I decided to straighten up. I had managed to keep straight A's and was going to take college seriously while my non-Mormon high school friends obviously were not. I paid a couple visits to my Bishop and Stake President to confess my sins and express my seriousness in getting back on the straight and narrow, and also to voice my desire and intentions of going on a mission. I was somewhat surprised as I got the impression that my sins were not that unusual for Mormon young men, and I experienced a bonding of sorts as my Bishop implied that he himself had been guilty of some of the same things when he was younger. I did, however, have to wait until I was almost twenty years old to turn in papers for my mission as I managed to regress a couple of times.
The six months or so before leaving for my mission I made an honest effort to gain a testimony for myself. I had a testimony but I had not actually earned or sought after it myself. I was after confirmation of what I already believed. I put myself through a regimen of regular reading of the Book of Mormon and praying for confirmation of its authenticity as the word of God, and, consequentially, the truthfulness of the Mormon gospel. I never received what I expected I should -- just mild feelings of well-being. Nothing of what a confirmation of such an important question should be (more on this later). I still believed and had what I considered a strong testimony.
I cannot say that my first temple experience was in the least momentous. I went with my Bishop as I was working at his law office before my mission and it was located relatively close to the Los Angeles temple. The evening was quite rushed, though I made every effort to settle into a state in which I might be most receptive to the spirit. Perhaps I was going to get my confirmation that evening, I felt.. I have to admit I remember little of the endowment ceremony now. I recall not being astonished or troubled by the ceremonies and oaths, as some reportedly are. After all, God's ways are mysterious, and even the Old Testament describes ceremonies and ordinance that in these days might be viewed as Satanic -- e.g. animal sacrifice and uses of the blood. (See Lev. 14, I think it was, on the ceremonial cleansing of a healed leper.) We're talking waving of a slaughtered goat in the air, spraying water/oil on the naked and completely shaven body of the participant with a whisk made from a live bird tied to a piece of wood. And the dabbing of blood and oil onto various parts his body. The Mormon temple ceremonies are G-rated compared to this (especially the toned-down post-1990 version). So I received my endowment without too much bewilderment, but also without the spiritual experience I had hoped for.
I was called to the Idaho Boise Mission in the Spring of 1987. I believe that my Stake President at the time recommended that I not be sent to Finland (my Patriarchal Blessing stated that that is where I would serve, and I knew the language) because of his doubts of my complete worthiness, or doubts, for whatever reason, that I would "make it" as a missionary. I say this because of subtle comments that he made to me, and the fact that he purposefully covered a section of some form that he was having me sign and that he was sending to Salt Lake City (it might have been a part of my "papers", I don't recall). He didn't know me.
I arrived in the mission field committed. Committed to succeed.
I'm really rather good at successfully completing something once I have committed myself to it and begun, even though the task at hand might not be entirely enjoyable. It's the future rewards that give me the drive to do my best. (This, I believe, is the reason for most, if not all, of my personal accomplishments in life -- e.g. school, career, etc..) And, from most perspectives, I was one of the best in my mission. I was quite self-disciplined as I was able to pretty much follow most of the very strict rules, except for crossing the line with a few recreational and physical activities (e.g. horse back riding, snowmobiling, a couple movies, and road trips). I don't ever recall noticing any other missionary spend more time than I did studying. I could easily spend the 1 1/2 hours each morning studying while most rarely could or did. I wanted and enjoyed learning, though I never really read anything other than the canonized standard works of the Church, the various study guides, and the half dozen or so books by the likes of Talmage and McConkie. I also read and pretty much memorized a couple not-so-mainstream books that dealt with "proving" the gospel with Biblical references and the Book of Mormon with archaeological findings (which evidences I learned/realized later do not hold water, and, in fact, there exists many more findings and non-findings which prove the opposite). By the end of my mission I had also memorized, word-for-word, 200 -- that was my goal -- scripture passages each consisting of from one to over a dozen verses.
I recall one Saturday evening on my mission we had the opportunity to meet with a group of born-agains (I think that's what they were) in an open-forum discussion session -- with a small audience of twenty or so -- at some meeting hall in Yellowstone Park. I had been looking forward to it as I had been on my mission now for over a year and a half and had studied quite hard the whole time (much more than most missionaries). I could hold my own quite well when it came "bible bashing", thank you very much. The details of that evening escape me now: A few of us missionaries and few of our counterparts took turns getting up and presenting a five or ten minute talk on a subject of our choice, and afterwards we took questions from others in attendance. The evening ended up being rather uneventful -- I had hoped for more spirited debate. I don't recall what topic I had chosen, but I do remember the thrill of being able to quickly look up biblical verses to support my beliefs (I was not hostile, just well versed) and answer questions. I did not use the Book of Mormon. I also remember being somewhat disappointed as another Elder's entire talk consisted of some touching anecdote and the bearing of his testimony. It was quite powerful; there were no questions from the audience. Ironically, as I look back, I realize that this other Elder's presentation was far more effective than mine, as there was no way I was going to logically convince the others of my beliefs. They had their own strong beliefs and "proofs" of those beliefs. (Admittedly, my own "proofs" were not completely solid either.)
I also did a lot of sincere praying seeking a confirmation of the truthfulness of my beliefs and the Church. I never really did get a satisfactory confirmation. Sure I experienced mild feelings of "good" and "peace" now and then, but I've also experienced many more, and more powerful, feelings of "burning in the bosom" as a result of such things as touching movies, etc.. I recently read someone else's (I would give credit if I could remember who) tongue-in-cheek account of gaining a testimony of the country during an emotional national anthem; ice hockey, as the US won the gold metal at the '84 (?) Olympics; and a couple other well put events. Not that I'm belittling the espoused method of gaining a testimony, but frankly it's far from sufficient. I had been living a righteous life according to Mormonism before, during and after my mission, believing and expecting that I would one day receive that confirmation that never came. I recall one experience -- there were other similar ones -- when we were teaching a young man who happened to be a Catholic. At one point during the lesson he began to relate to us an experience he had not too long before that time while in a Catholic church. Essentially he recounted a "burning in the bosom" experience that I would rate right up there near the top, as far these types of manifestations go, and one that effectively burned into him a testimony of his beliefs. He was very sincere, and -- I definitely noticed this -- by no means was he relating his testimony as a counter to what we were attempting teaching him. In fact it was more of an affirmative response to what we were talking about at the time. There was nothing my missionary companion or I could say. He had had just as valid of a spiritual experience as the Mormon church taught would confirm the truthfulness of its gospel. Can you see why I needed more than this? I related another experience during a talk in church upon returning from my mission: We were teaching a young man; this the third or fourth discussion was going extremely well; we were discussing ...; there was a blanket of peace and calm in the room. Then at one point I (or my companion, I don't remember) asked him in an appropriately hushed tone if he knew/understood what it felt/would feel like when the spirit (or rather Holy Ghost, as Mormons prefer to say) touched him. He paused for a moment (I paused in my talk in sacrament meeting), and then he quietly replied, "It feels like the way I'm feeling right now." ... Did you (reader) feel a burning in your bosom? Perhaps my account here was not detailed and emotional enough, but I'm quite certain many in the congregation felt it that day. Unfortunately for Mormons, they do not have a monopoly on this feeling, and it really is not sufficient -- at least not for me -- for a life commitment of unquestioning belief.
As a missionary I rose through the ranks, so to speak, spending the last eight months of my mission as a zone leader of the Rexburg zone, with about two dozen missionaries "under" me. This area, located in eastern Idaho a couple hours drive south of Yellowstone Park, is different than any other in the world. Consider the fact that 95+% of the population there are (were) members of the Church (a higher percentage than anywhere else, even any place in Utah). Really! We also covered Rick's College, the Mormon junior college equivalent of BYU. This would have been too much a temptation for some missionaries. I remember having been in the area since the beginning of summer and being quite overwhelmed when school started and as we were suddenly surrounded by a couple thousand young women. This after being out for about a year and a half and having had very limited contact with the opposite sex. Consider also that we weren't just other students. We had girls coming up and talking to us all the time. So the temptations were there but I remained strong.
That summer I was to have the opportunity to meet the President of the Church, the prophet of God. Well, if not meet him, at least be in his presence. Some Stake or Regional conference was to take place outdoors in a field north of Rexburg. Six or eight of us planned on going and showing up. We expected to get good seats since, well, we were missionaries. Not only did we get good seats, but we got to sit up on the raised platform a dozen or so seats to the right of the prophet. I had been anticipating this day quite anxiously since I would have the opportunity to really gain a testimony of the prophet. I wanted a confirmation from my Heavenly Father that Ezra Taft Benson was His representative here on earth. President Benson arrived to the back of the stage area, and was assisted to the stage platform. I remember his talk to be typical (in fact, I don't remember at all what it was about), and he had a hard time holding on to his prepared text -- written, I could tell from my vantage point, not much more than a few words per sheet of paper -- as it was quite windy that day. That's okay, he was already quite frail by then, and he was the prophet none the less. Or was he? I guess I still believed -- quite strongly actually -- after the day was over, but, as you might have guessed, I didn't receive any confirmation. I honestly believed that despite my shortcomings and imperfections I was entitled to know. That's what the scriptures taught wasn't it? And I was living my life about as righteously as I possibly could.
Well, I made it through and successfully completed my two years. It wasn't that difficult. I had excellent numbers as far as baptism go; I had served very faithfully; I had had a good time. No, it wasn't the "best two years of my life", but I had done what my Heavenly Father wanted me to do. My testimony was strong, but I deserved a stronger one. I felt a little disappointed that if it really was true, why couldn't I get an undeniable confirmation of such. The next couple years of soul searching and reasoned thinking gradually brought realization.
I was married in the Los Angeles temple five months after having returned from my mission to the girl who waited for me. Yes, I was one of the two percent (or so I've heard) whose girlfriend waited it out the whole two years. I recall being quite disappointed with the unenthusiastic impression my wife-to-be had of her endowment experience (three weeks before we were married). She even got in just after the changes to the endowment ceremony and the elimination of the blood oaths. As we were leaving my wife-to-be's house to go to the temple for her endowments -- two sister missionaries were with us -- we happened to pass a Masonic Hall. Without missing a beat I jokingly remarked, "Oh, let's stop here; close enough." Back then I didn't know the half of it.
Neither my nor her parents were in the temple for our sealing.
Everyone was outside waiting for us at the rear exit where such encounters took place. Our marriage lasted two years. I never should have married her in the first place -- I should have followed my feelings on that one -- since we were definitely not compatible. I just thought that it was meant to be since she waited for me and all. Nothing bad really happened, I just finally gave in to my feelings, and we divorced. None of this relates to my exit from Mormonism, except that after we separated I had more time to reflect on life.
During that two years of marriage I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Irvine, and we lived a typical life for a newly married couple in the Church (should I be capitalizing "church"?). My wife at that time served in a couple callings in the nursery and Sunday school and I as ward financial clerk and member of an Elder's Quorum presidency (rather unusual for my age and the location and demographics of the ward). I think I was chosen as 2nd councilor to the Elder's Quorum President because I was the president's home teacher before he was called as president and he was impressed with my dedication in doing that job. I actually did my home teaching every month. That's what we were supposed to do. I was committed and dedicated; I observed the Sabbath, I went to all my meetings, and I studied the scriptures every morning for a half hour before going to school. In fact, I remember feelings of disappointment that my wife's level of commitment was not as high as mine. I do, however, remember times when I became tired, tired of the time commitment. It's amazing to me still to think of the time commitment that leaders like Bishops and Stake Presidents make. That seems like it has to take away from the other family building aspects of the Church. I wonder what the Church would be like if most of the callings/jobs were eliminated so that, say, going to sacrament meeting and Sunday school was all the time commitment required. I think that keeping members' lives so totally wrapped up and consumed with activities relating the Church helps to keep them on the straight and narrow. Otherwise, I think it would be more difficult for many to live by the strict rules -- e.g. Word of Wisdom, etc. -- (I didn't like or use the term "rules" back then since that did not reflect the fact that these were commandments from God), and more would, perhaps, question the teachings. Then again, it may be that the overwhelming commitment the Church requires is part of the reason for the large percentage of "inactive" members. By the way, I could/would not go through life as an "inactive" member of the Church. It was literally all or nothing. It was true or not.
Despite living the gospel, life just didn't seem right. I was not content nor completely happy.
There wasn't a specific time in my life when I suddenly came to believe the way I do now, though it basically happened during the year after my first marriage ended. It was gradual. Here I must defend myself against what I know you true believers are thinking: that I gradually let my spiritual guard down, became inactive, opened myself up for temptation, sinned, started feeling guilty and unworthy, and all too predictably fell away and lost my testimony. That is not what happened.
I spent considerable time thinking, reflecting, and using the mind that I have, that God had given me. And, yes, praying also. Does God exist? Does the Mormon/Christian God exist? If so, and if he is as Judeo-Christians believe, why give the opportunity to know and learn of Him to such a minuscule fraction of His children. Why give us the faculties which we have yet require what really comes down to blind faith? -- blind faith that your faith is the one and only true faith. And I do mean BLIND faith. Sure, you might say, "But look at all the evidence." And I say, "I have." Not only have I, but I have from both sides: as a true believer and as one skeptical of what to believe. I've proved to myself that the Mormon Church was true, I've convinced myself that God exists, I've convinced myself that God does not exist, and I've proved that the Mormon Church is not true. I'll leave the part about God existing or not simply at the fact that despite whatever contortions we put the question and any answers through, it cannot be proven either way. To those of you who have a strong faith in God, I don't mean to offend, and I am truly without condescension happy for you. I, on the other hand, have chosen to live my life as the good person that I know that I am, and not subject myself to a religion -- any religion -- whose teachings I believe to be mostly, if not entirely, man's product of a quest to provide himself with answers to the meaning of life.
Then there is the question of whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is true or not. Unfortunately it cannot be. I say "unfortunately" because of the many true believers out there, including my sister's family and my mother and her new family, and also for the fact that there really are absolutely wonderful aspects of the Church. However, the evidence is indisputable. The history and foundation of the Church do not stand a reasoned test, and no stretch of the imagination or desire to find fault is necessary to come to this conclusion. I'm not about to go into a lengthy discussion or proof session. I don't feel like it, and no matter what I say, I shouldn't be able to convince anyone. Do it yourself. Spend the time yourself if you are a believer. It's a pretty damn important question to answer for oneself. And there is absolutely no reason that the truth should not withstand critical analysis. The council to avoid any material (even if it happens to be the Church's own records and own authorized history?) that might go counter to the currently accepted teachings smacks of cover-up, intentional or not. General Authorities have even counseled members of the church who are historians or academics to avoid topics (facts really) that are not faith promoting. Others who read such material are seen as questioning their faith and inviting the influence of Satan into their lives/studies. I say that the truth should be able to stand up to and resolve any and all such questions/issues. If the Church leaders are afraid that members will be too easily deceived, then they should provide honest, clear, complete and systematic rebuttals to all questions and attacks, instead of dismissing the issues with calls for blind faith and references to the wickedness of those trying to tear down God's Kingdom. Such attempts at rebuttal do exist. So why would it be wrong to confront the questions and weigh the evidence, with sincere prayer for divine guidance even. Then again, perhaps someone whose faith/testimony is weak, yet desires to hang on to it and the life they know, should not research their beliefs too closely. To those of you who know me and are reading this, you know the commitment and faith I had to the Mormon gospel, and you also know that I am a reasonably intelligent person. You must also know that I wasn't a victim of the "anti" crap that is out there. (I make this strong statement because it is clear that too often many go much too far in their quest to disprove the Church, and become guilty of the same thing they are accusing present/former leaders of the Church of doing. Word games are played, contexts are manipulated, hairs are split, history is rewritten, sensationalism is exploited, and lies are told and propagated. They say the evidence exists and is clear -- and it is -- yet they feel the need to add their own sensational spin. This only works against them as it gives the opposition ammunition to discount them. Then again, I guess the same is true for both directions of conversion, as some people need that extra oomph with their dose facts.) And, no, I was not in any way ever hurt by a member of the Church and thus became inactive, and so forth.
I'd also like to share my opinion on the question of honesty and sincerity versus cover-ups, lies, and conspiracy, as it relates to members and leaders of the Church, past and present. Some say that Joseph Smith was a fraud and that the leaders of the Church are knowingly perpetuating the lies with deceit. If we were not talking about religion, God's omniscience, human nature, and faith, then such assertions could be argued to be undeniable. My views on this could in some way be regarded as apologetic, though in no way condoning. I believe a true believer of something with such universal importance and with such eternal consequences can quite easily live with blinders on, can quite easily accept what might otherwise be rationally disproven, and can even justifiably gray over -- or perhaps even lie about -- certain things for the benefit of the bigger picture and those perceived as having less faith or commitment. Ends, in this situation, can easily justify means. And when the ends are so ingrained in a person's belief on the reason for existence, the central and all-consuming point of their (day-to-day) lives, and when their personal investment in that belief has reached enormous proportions, what they are capable of does not seem so amazing. Consider a high ranking leader of the Church – say, an apostle or even the prophet. That person is going to go to extreme lengths not to do or say anything that might in any way shake the testimony of a member of the Church. They would be personally held accountable by God if they did. They must also do everything in their power to not let any doubt they themselves may have show (this applies to leaders at all levels). They must even resort to what might seem to a non-believer to be deception as they work to maintain the faith. All this with the greatest sincerity and love for their fellow man. As for the question of Joseph Smith's honesty: On the surface it can be quite convincingly debated that he was indeed fraudulent. Then again, perhaps he lost control to his imagination, and his delusions built the foundation for, and started this impressive religious movement.
So how to end this introspection? This is the first time I have thought through this entire course of events and analyzed my feeling to the extent that I did. It has been refreshing. I have also enjoyed writing down a few experiences and thoughts that reflect the way that I feel. It's difficult to convey how different I feel today compared to earlier in life. I feel much more comfortable and content with my life. I do not feel in the least like there is something missing, as, in some ways, I did back then. I enjoy life.