My guest poster today is a friend of mine, “S” – a student from the San Francisco Bay Area. She was brought up as a Mormon but changed her beliefs in early adulthood. I found her story intriguing partly because Mormonism is unfamiliar to most of us in the UK and partly because of the parallels with stories from other belief systems.
“There’s a reason I’m anonymous with this posting, because there are family members I still respect who are in the religion. I’m not ready to confront them about the one thing in their lives that keeps them together. Someday.
I grew up in a Mormon family of eight in a central California town, a far cry from the stereotypical hippie land that California is made out to be. The Central Valley is about 42,000 square miles of culturally-conservative farmland. It’s called by some as the West Coast’s Bible Belt.
So as you can see, I was surrounded. I can’t blame myself for being mistaken, because it’s simply how I grew up. Though many of the Christian Central Valleyites thought Mormonism was a cult, we still shared the mindset of religion, and it was hard to give it up totally when it no longer served me.
I left the church when I was 20, and it’s hard to define what I currently believe simply because it changes from day to day. I can say that I still believe in a higher power. Whether you call it God or nature or the laws of physics, I’m not particularly picky.
It’s just easier to say what I don’t believe anymore, and I no longer believe Mormonism is the “one true church on the face of the earth,” like I thought it was.
There were the good, moral things Mormonism taught, and I credit my religious upbringing with instilling a sense of integrity and responsibility in me. But what level of deception was it worth?
I remember being at the library at my community college when I was about 18 and stumbling on a book about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.
I wish I remember the name of the book, but it was an objective and fair collection of first-person accounts from people who interacted with him during his lifetime in the early 1800s.
It painted an entirely different picture of the man I grew up to call a true prophet of God.
I grew up believing that when the last direct disciple of Jesus died centuries ago, God took his true church from the earth until Joseph Smith restored it in the early 1800s.
I grew up believing the Book of Mormon was a holy scripture translated through Joseph Smith by the power of God, and it contained the truth about the original inhabitants of the North Americas and how Jesus visited them shortly after his crucifixion.
This book I found at the library told me that Joseph Smith was just a guy who thought some crazy things and was able to convince a lot of people that these crazy things were true.
I can’t believe I never saw him in that light before. I never thought it was weird that a 22-year-old man in 1827 could translate by the power of God some lost ancient script written in gold plates.
I mean, it’s GOD. He can do anything.
I saw this book, its references, its research, and knew it was more accurate than anything within my Mormon framework could tell me.
I later picked up a book called Conversations with God, a new-agey tome that had me hooked. It emphasized free thought and creative expression as what God really seeks, not man-made structures and controlling dogmas.
Though I no longer agree with many of that book’s claims – namely that we are each the center of the Universe – reading it was still pivotal for me. The book showed me another way to believe in God without having someone else’s laundry list of doctrines to follow.
It took me until I was 20 to finally confess to my parents how I felt, and I risked being disowned like other Mormon children who have become “rebellious” or “apostates.”
Luckily, my parents didn’t disown me, or my three other siblings who each left the church on their own.
Because just two years after I made my announcement to them, my parents made their announcement to all of us that they were leaving the church too.
This is practically unheard of in my Mormon community. Kids leave the church all the time, but entire families leaving the faith is a big deal. I know it happens, thanks to the Internet, but I haven’t heard it happen in my area before or since.
Today only one of my sisters remains in the church, as well as my cousin and her six children.
I don’t talk about religion much with any of them. I simply don’t know where many of them stand, and I don’t much feel like bringing up old complicated pains.
It’s just so difficult to realize that what you’ve been told all your life was no longer necessarily true.
I grew up believing that you couldn’t obtain the highest of highs in heaven unless you were married in the temple, and you could only enter the temple if you were a faithful Mormon and passed the interview with your local bishop.
I grew up believing that people existed as spirits in heaven before birth and wanted to come to earth, and that denying them that opportunity was the most selfish thing imaginable. (This is why Mormons have such big families.)
I grew up not only believing, but KNOWING – as it is encouraged in the Mormon culture – that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, and that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
And we would all be encouraged to repeat these truths to each other once a month during “testimony meeting,” where members of the congregation are invited to speak at the pulpit as the spirit moved them and share all the things they “know.”
It was sort of an open mic, except the scripts never deviated from the pre-approved Mormon ideals.
Kids learned they would earn their parents’ love and other social brownie points if they rushed the stage and rattled off the typical basic script: “I like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true, I know Joseph Smith is a true prophet and I love my mom and dad and IsaythisinthenameofJesusChristAMEN.”
You have to marvel at the invisible social controls in Mormonism. In my 20 years as a Mormon, I never recalled anyone using testimony meetings to openly question what was being taught.
When I was 20, I seriously considered doing it myself.
I wanted to ask them why any sort of loving, omniscient, all-understanding God would require some bizarre temple ceremony to find the secret password to the highest of heavens.
Or if they knew how Joseph Smith had three distinctly different versions of his first meeting with God – the “First Vision,” as it’s called. They don’t tell you that in Sunday School.
Nor do they tell you much about the early church’s polygamist practices. Any time someone would ask about it, the teacher would somehow avoid the answer or say “now is not the appropriate time to talk about that.”
Same thing with blacks not holding the priesthood until 1978.
They never mention the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857 either. Google that one for kicks.
I have half a mind to return to a testimony meeting and inform them of all the things the church leaders fail to tell their members about their own faith.
Now that I think about it, there wasn’t anything in my old congregation that would stop a random stranger from giving their “testimony” either. A former Mormon, an atheist, even a disagreeing Christian, could probably have everyone’s undivided attention on the first Sunday of every month.
All they’d have to do is show up dressed in their Sunday best, pretend they are simply curious about the church (because if it’s a close-knit congregation, a new face will not go unnoticed), and when the time comes during the meeting, they would take to the stand and say their piece.
If they sounded Mormonly enough, they’d probably be able to hog the microphone for the rest of the meeting.
If it sounded too deliberately non-Mormon, they would probably be escorted out of the building in the middle of their “testimony,” but what they say could change someone’s mind.
Will I ever have the courage to do this? I don’t know. It’s possible, it’s nice to think about, but to be completely honest, it will be difficult for me to stomach another Mormon service. There are too many people who need a wake-up call, and it deeply saddens me to know I won’t be able to change everyone’s mind.
But I know it’s not futile. I could change one person’s mind. I just don’t know if I can face all the old anger, disappointment and resentment again.
The past is past, and for now that’s where it belongs for me. I have to save myself first. Then I can think seriously about being brave and confronting the faithful with truth.”
Many thanks S, for taking the time to share your story with us.
I hope you one day feel able to confront Mormons about their beliefs, although I appreciate it would be an emotional undertaking. I’m coming to the conclusion that people often do more to change other people’s minds by their actions, such as your leaving of the Mormon church, than with words and arguments. I wonder if your parents’ decision to leave the Mormon church was influenced by your own?