March 20, 2009

A Brief History (My Exit Story)

[Revised 9/23/17]

My concerns with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began as early as I can remember. I cannot, in honesty, say that I ever believed without a doubt that the Church is correct in its claims. Before I ever knew about polygamy or the denial of priesthood to anyone with African ancestry, I had sincere doubts that the Church is what it claims to be. That does not mean, however, that I never wanted the Church to be correct. For most of my childhood, I hoped that the doctrines and teachings I learned were really how the universe works. So much of it was beautiful and full of hope. But so much of it seemed nonsensical. 

I remember when I was a child we would read the scriptures as a family. Many of the stories sounded similar to my other storybooks. Of course, I knew that my storybooks and fairy tales were just make-believe: Fairies and unicorns aren't real; Beanstalks can't grow to reach the sky; There are no magic wardrobes, etc. Still, I could not help but feel that the stories in the scriptures were just as incredible: Animals can't talk, except for the one time it happened in Numbers 22; Jesus actually can turn water into wine; Two of every single species somehow fit onto a boat and somehow survived for months, etc. I was struck by how I was expected to believe the scriptures literally, but other unrealistic stories as merely figurative.

As I grew older and learned more about the teachings of the Church, and contrasted them with my own experiences and understanding of how the universe works, my questions and doubts grew stronger. These doubts were unwanted, however, as I desired to belong; The Church was the only social and familial environment I had ever known. Still, I could not reconcile some of the most basic teachings of the Church with common sense.

It started with things as simple as the mythological sense of the Old Testament. I found it extremely difficult to accept that God would literally speak to Adam and his children as if over a loudspeaker, but that He did not do so now. I found it to be an ignorant argument that people with black skin would be white except that God cursed their ancestor. In the same vein, it seemed a poor explanation that people speak different languages because God confused everybody when they were trying to build a tower to Him. My questions grew throughout my youth, simply due to the things that the Church taught on the surface. I had no real clue about the things that the Church held true but did not want me to know.

Around age 13 or 14, I distinctly remember being in a bookstore and seeing a book with an image of Joseph Smith which caught my attention. On the cover were five paintings of women. The title read something to the effect of “The Wives of Joseph Smith.” It was then that I first learned about the hidden side of the Church. I discovered that what I had been taught and raised to believe as true was only part of the story, with a great deal more tucked away or only half explained, pleading that it be taken on faith. 

I denied at first. "Joseph Smith wouldn't have had plural wives. That is directly contrary to the Church's teachings about sexual propriety, the sanctity of the family, and so on. Why would any reasonable person be a member if that kind of thing had gone on? It must be one of the anti-Mormon lies they told me about, and I should avoid it like the plague." But after repeatedly hearing that ignoring it is the most responsible action, I wondered what it was the leaders hoped that I would not discover. Surely, either such claims are false, or have perfectly reasonable explanations.

As a teenager, I took J. Reuben Clark’s advice to heart and decided that real investigation of the Church is the most earnest route to know if it is true. I learned of other explanations for our existence and contrasted them to the doctrine I had been taught since birth, allowing my conscience to guide me. I began to look for answers to my questions about the Church and, to my surprise, by wanting to know if the Church's teachings were true, I met opposition from everyone I knew. Almost no one cared what my questions were or what I believed; they were simply angry that I was not fully on board with the LDS perspective. I clearly received the message that it is dangerous to truly investigate the claims of Joseph Smith as a prophet and the Book of Mormon as Holy Scripture. Church leaders, my parents, my friends, and my Church teachers discouraged any investigation that involved evidence they did not provide. But I knew that if the Church was actually the one organization with God’s truth on Earth, He would help me to know that. As J. Reuben Clark stated, if the Church is true, then investigation should lead me to that conclusion. But if it is not true, then conscience allows me to do nothing else but to leave it and seek out what is true.

My parents eventually stopped trying to force me to attend Church and seminary through coercion. I was finally “allowed” to make my own religious decisions, and I felt closer to God than I ever had previously in my life. I felt as if I were seeking truth with my own eyes, free from the lenses of the Church. I felt comfort and peace, and was happier than I had been in a very long time. 

My joy was short-lived, however. I had a close LDS friend with whom I had fallen in love. She told me she felt that we were meant to marry. I felt the same way. Of course, the Church made it clear that a union would be full of obstacles unless I disregarded my concerns and took it on faith that the Church was what it claimed to be. My world turned upside down again as I wanted to believe more than ever. As I tried to look for options or pathways to faith, she told me that her patriarchal blessing prophesied she would marry a returned missionary (a prophecy never fulfilled; she married a convert). I wrestled with my options over several miserable days. I knew that if I was ever to gain a testimony that the LDS church truly is of God, it would be on a mission where all of my time would be focused on the study of it. I knew that this young woman's love for me was conditional upon my gaining of a testimony (which I now understand is not love at all). My parents were open with their disappointment in my religious decisions, which had led to relationship strains with my siblings. I even had some friends who'd been told to spend less time with me. I felt that perhaps I was in the wrong. Maybe I hadn't given the Church a fair chance. I cursed my doubts for being the cause of all of these problems, and determined to try anew: I went on a mission to Munich, Germany.

While away from my family and the young woman who had led me to believe she was my soulmate, I was desperate to deliver. Through her letters, she continued to point out the spiritual obstacles to our being together. My parents and siblings wrote of how much they supported me, and how proud they were of my service. I wrote in return about how well I was doing, how I had felt the Holy Ghost, how I was beginning to believe. But as much as I tried to believe, my reports of the results were all exaggerated. I truly felt good about what I was doing for the mere fact that it was an adventure, I was living in Europe, learning a new language, and felt I was helping some people. I immersed myself in the language, and took on the role of an LDS missionary as best I understood it. I studied the intricacies of LDS doctrine, and debated with people of other faiths. I did learn a great deal more about the LDS church, but it would be untrue to state that what I learned quashed doubt. On the contrary, the more I attempted to find answers to my sincere questions about Church history and doctrines, the more unsatisfactory explanations were apparent. 

As I neared the final stretch of my two years, I had internally concluded that the LDS church was no more divine than any other religion. But I had also decided that I could do nothing but live my life as a Latter-Day Saint; My relationships with my parents and siblings were finally on the mend, for no reason other than I was doing what was expected of me. The possibility of marrying the girl who seemed like my soulmate was finally within reach after my years of effort. The LDS lifestyle was mostly comfortable to me; I knew the drill, I spoke the jargon, I could live like that. I believed and still believe that the Church teaches good values, most of which I wanted in my family, so I decided that the questions I had were either not important, or I could live my life ignoring them. I would just keep my mouth shut for the sake of comfort.

I returned home to find that the young woman had apparently overstated her feelings for me: At best, she'd changed her mind and just let me believe that we were on the same page; at worst, she'd been playing a reactivation game with me from the beginning, using my love for her as the fuel to manipulate me into Church activity so that she could feel like she was doing God's work. To put it lightly, I was devastated. I had spent the last two years pleadng with God and thanking Him that she and I would have a chance to be together, and instead it turned out that the relationship had probably been a sham from the beginning. For a moment, I considered being honest about my feelings about the truthfulness of the Church: using this heartbreak as further evidence that there was no divine plan. 

I decided instead to try to trust God, knowing that questioning the Church again would just make her even more certain that she had made the right decision to reject me, and I hung to the idea that maybe this would be resolved over time, as I had so many times pleaded with God and thought I'd received comfort. I remained faithful in action and served as best I could, staying as active as I could in the hope that she and God would work things out, seeing my responsibility an sincerity. Over several excruciating and emotional months, she slowly cut me out of her life, and then married one of my best friends whom she convinced to convert to the Church. I continued on, scarred, but insisting that it had all happened for some purpose I did not yet understand. I wondered whether it had all gone so wrong as punishment for my doubts, and I resolved again to keep a lid on them, to serve in my calling, to pay my tithing, and to pray always so that I might regain God's favor.

Eventually I fell in love with my wife. She was beautiful, kind, intelligent, and selfless. One of the most attractive things about her was her unwavering faith. I thought perhaps I could lean on her in my most difficult times. I thought that I could borrow strength from her in the times I doubted. I had been taught my entire life that to give in to doubt was one of the worst mistakes a member could make, and I had accepted my fate of living in the LDS world, for better or worse, so I was naturally attracted to a woman who I hoped could help cover my doubts. I did tell her of my doubts about the Church, but I admittedly minimized them, perhaps having learned the consequences of honesty from my previous experiences. I transferred to BYU, we married in the LDS temple, served in nursery and other callings, and lived the LDS life.

As I lived among the LDSs, what I like about the Church was clear. My doubts were never silenced, but I was able to keep a lid on them. We had a daughter together, the most spiritual experience of my life. We moved to Colorado, and I attended graduate school. I was seeking a master's degree in clinical psychology, and the courses intentionally caused a lot of introspection and insight. My thoughts often dwelled on the notion of living authentically. I knew that I had been fighting a battle for my whole life between living authentically and living as other people thought I should live. This was a large motivator for me to finally gain some clarity on the LDS church. I had for too long simply cast aside my doubts, and feared truly examining the details of the history and doctrines I found troubling. I took a few hours each week in the library at the university to read about Joseph Smith's polygamy, evaluating exactly how his actions fit in with his teachings. I found books by LDS authors on the priesthood denial to people of African descent, and evaluated the explanations for how this fit in with God's teachings.

In addition to the introspection my courses encouraged, an important catalyst to my search for answers was my daughter's birth. Family is more important to me than anything on Earth, and so when I became a father, I felt more deeply than ever how important these questions are. I began to wonder if I would be comfortable with her growing up obligated to believe some of that doctrine that I feel is fundamentally contrary to the values I hold most deeply and dearly. I feared that she would one day learn the disturbing things that I have learned about the Church, and ask me why I never told her, and how I could possibly justify them. While I still leave it up to her to decide, I refuse to let her think I believe that I will be married to more women than her mother in heaven, or that she will have to share her husband with other women in heaven (D&C 132: 3-4, 6) and that God or I would be okay with that. I refuse to do as my parents did: using guilt and fear to silence the little voice inside of her that says that is wrong to call such things evil. 

Things were clear for me quickly. I had played the part of a true believer for the sake of my family’s peace of mind and status in the Church, to maintain my relationships with siblings and parents, and most recently to save my dear wife and precious daughter any heartache. Unfortunately for my loved ones, my conscience compelled me to break the ranks. I had been dying inside, living a lie. As I continued to search for answers to my deepest questions, I found only more questions and ended up with answers with which I fundamentally disagree. I reached the point where I cannot believe that Joseph Smith did the things he did under the direction of God, and I refused to let the lie continue. I told my bishop on March 10, 2009.

It was an awkward conversation. The ward boundaries were changing, and we were getting new leadership. The new bishop, whom I had not met, invited me to come into his office so that he could extend me a calling. I figured that would be as good a time as any to let him know of my decision. He was understandably shocked at the revelation, and immediately openly wondered if I had committed adultery. I assured him it had nothing to do with a sin, and gave him an outline of my doctrinal and historical concerns with the Church. He cast it aside, visibly upset, and warned me of the consequences of leaving the fold. I respectfully thanked him and assured him of my certainty. 

I arranged two separate conferences with family: one for mine and one for my wife's. I briefly outlined my story, and explained that I had resigned my membership. I explained that I have reasons, but that I did not want anyone to change their belief based on my actions. I offered them outlines of my reasons, but put no pressure on any of them. Some took the news with love and respect, others argued with me about Satan's influence and how my family would be spiritually harmed because of my carelessness, but no one offered answers for my questions. Some vaguely directed me toward books, all of which I inspected, and none of which provided reasonable answers. 

The Stake President arranged for me to meet with him on two occasions so that he could talk me out of my exit. The Elders Quorum President visited me to do the same. They all pleaded with me to just pay attention to the good parts of the Church and to pray about Joseph Smith. When I responded with questions about how his polygamy was righteous or even defensible, racist doctrines and practices in the LDS scriptures and history, and other issues, no one had any reasonable response.

Now, aside from the occasional passive-aggressive email or comment from a family member, no one talks to me about the Church, which is partially why I have this blog available.

I believe that the Church is a good organization that attempts to create hope and love and peace. It does so much good in the world, and gives people a sense of belonging and community. I have felt a lot of that. The best friends I have ever had are LDS. Some of the best people I have ever known are LDS. I love being among such people and witnessing the selflessness and charity and genuineness most of them show for the rest of humanity. It is unfortunate that what separates me from them is that I do not and cannot believe some of the things many of them do not realize they are obligated to believe. For the sake of understanding, and in the hope of preserving relationships with those I love, I have outlined my concerns in what I hope is a clear and plain way (see link on the right sidebar). I hope and pray that in reading the following posts and the outline of my concerns, others will be able to respect my decision.


Jones, M.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Epicurus said...

Thanks for posting your experiences. A lot that you have written has resonated with me since I was an active Mormon during my late teens and into my 20's. I was a convert as a teen and went on a mission overseas. I was a fervent believer for at least ten years and then my perspective changed. Thanks again for sharing your story. It helps to know that we are not alone in our experiences.

Anonymous said...

"My hope is to help my loved ones, on some level, be able to understand that I have valid reasons for my decision."

In other circumstances, explaining & discussing one's reasons for leaving an organization are a natural part of living. In other circumstances, those left behind may express regret but typically will offer best wishes and hopes to the member who leaves.

Is Mormonism one of those circumstances?

Not in my experience.

The True Believer will typically be incapable of accepting the right, and the *necessity* of leaving, when one has discovered and accepted what you have. The idea that you might be well-wished upon your journey out by the membership at large is so far beyond the realm of possibility that it cannot even be termed "science-fiction".

Ties of blood may mitigate somewhat, but asserting the inalienable right to follow your own conscience is an act utterly proscribed in the mormon way of life, an act completely alien to it.

Best of luck to you; there may be rocks in the road ahead, but ultimately the smooth paving of an authentic life awaits.

Anonymous said...

And I have been dying inside, knowing that I am living inauthentically.

This is exactly how I felt until I left the church. Kudos for you for choosing to live an authentic life - I hope that for you, living true to yourself has been as much of a relief as it has been to me.

Jean said...

It wasn't until I left the church in March 06 that I realized that I had been living an inauthentic life for 39 years. How does one know that detail about oneself? After all we get out of bed and put our shoes or slippers on one by one like everyone else; is that authentic living? Did I ever question my authenticity? NO? I didn't because I didn't need to. I was everything the church said I was and it was authentic; true even. What on earth does that mean; the church is true? I would like a dollar for every time I have heard that statement or even said it myself. Did I know the church was true? Well...I had been told by others who professed to know that the Book of Mormon was the evidence that Joseph Smith was a prophet. If Joseph was a prophet the church was true. Simple math! Trouble is, I'm not very good at math and I did not bother to see if the equation was worked out correctly.
There is a book named The Book of Mormon - true
There was a man called Joseph Smith - True
Do those two things added together make the Church true also? No, but I just believed that it did. Anyone can see that there could be numerous reasons why that answer could be false; IF they were looking for an answer like that. As you said Blogger, you began to look to find out IF it was true. Even then, IF it was true does that mean that it should not be questioned or scrutinized?

I was in a comfortable place; complacent about the true church and my membership in it. I loved being around Mormons; they are great people; determined, helpful, honest and kind and I could not wish for better company. Yet deep inside me were nagging doubts; guilty doubts; things I should not be thinking about.

The authentic me was trying to speak to my intellect and my intellect kept saying buzz off, I'm comfortable and don't want to listen to you. Authentic selves can be quite persistent as you have discovered and this one would not leave me alone; it just kept nagging. When I wouldn't listen it just jumped out and grabbed the coattails of my son as he left the church. My intellect was challenged by his reasoning; it made so much sense but this was not the answer. "Endure to the end Jean - endure." After a tremendous struggle, the self that I had subdued and gagged so many times fragmented into tiny pieces and I didn't know who I was. Just a tired, past middle aged woman with no hope and no beliefs. I didn't know what to wear or what to do. The next year and a half were wretched in so many ways but I was beginning to like the authentic me that was emerging.
Last year, 2008 I went to the Exmormon Foundation Conference in Salt Lake City and found my authentic self. I was surprised! I was a feminist, an activist, a social butterfly and I found a group of people that just loved me the way I am. Ex Mormons are like other Mormons only without the religion and the dogmatic rules, making them the best friends in the world.
I love who and what I am; and it is sad that the real me is not acceptable to some members of my family whose inauthentic selves will not allow them to love me and interact with me as though I have a horrible contagious disease. For them the church is true, the Book of Mormon is True and Joseph Smith is all that they have been taught; that I have taught them.

I believe with all my heart that they would be happier people if they were able to let go and allow their authentic selves to dictate their direction in life, but sadly I sit on the sidelines of their lives wanting to join in the game but I have lost my place on the team.