A Parting of Ways: Why I Decided to Leave Mormonism
The surest thing there is is we are riders,
And though none too successful at it, guiders,
Through everything presented, land and tide
And now the very air, of what we ride.
What is this talked-of mystery of birth
But being mounted bareback on the earth?
We can just see the infant up astride,
His small fist buried in the bushy hide.
There is our wildest mount- a headless horse.
But though it runs unbridled off its course,
And all our blandishments would seem defied,
We have ideas yet that we haven’t tried.
- Robert Frost
First off, I need to start with a disclaimer of sorts. I want everyone to understand prior to reading any further that regardless of the beliefs I hold, I love and appreciate them. Whether you’re Mormon, LGBT, Catholic, an atheist, or any of the other labels we put on ourselves, you have all had a part in helping to shape and be an influence in my life. I truly appreciate you.
One of the hardest things about discussing some of your own most personally held beliefs is the fear that you will alienate and push away your friends and family. That is the opposite of what I want to achieve by publishing this article. I want to help those closest to me to understand why I chose to leave Mormonism and in any small way help to support those who may be passing through similar experiences or feel that they’re not welcome in the environment they grew up in.
I thought for a long time that I’d rather not “rock the boat” and live my life without any sort of public declaration of my disbelief. However after a lot of thought, I decided that if there was even the smallest of chances that anyone within my circle of influence was experiencing anything close to the loneliness, heartache, or anxiety that I went through, that rocking the boat would be a small price to pay.
Growing Up a Mormon
I think everything will make more sense if I start with some background information. I’ll apologize in advance for anyone who is or has been a Mormon — you probably know quite a bit of this.
I was born in 1991. My parents were and are devout Mormons. In fact, my entire extended family was and largely still is Mormon. There were of course varying degrees of belief and faithfulness on an individual basis but the fact that my family has been Mormon for six generations on both sides was inescapable.
I understand there are many people who grow up in religious families. I certainly can’t claim to have been raised in the most extreme environment; however, religion absolutely permeated every part of our day to day lives. We had meetings or activities Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and most Saturdays. We prayed as a family and individually multiple times a day. Scripture reading was also a daily occurrence. Fasting (not eating for two meals, often 24 hours) happened once a month, unless there was a special need, then it was more frequent.
I also had my fair share of church leadership roles or “callings.” I was asked to be the Deacon’s Quorum president, Teacher’s Quorum president and the Priest’s Quorum 1st Assistant. I served in various capacities in Boy Scouts and earned the rank of Life scout. I also got my “Duty to God” award.
For someone who’s not been around Mormonism, that all might be confusing. They certainly have quite a bit of their own lingo and vocabulary. Suffice it to say that we were active in the LDS Church and I was involved in many, many different ways.
Mission to Guatemala
When you grow up as a male in Mormonism, your rite of passage into manhood is your mission — the two years spent proselyting abroad. Everyone talks about where they served, the people they met, the languages they learned, and the experiences that changed them.
There’s a lot of pressure to go on a mission. Like, a TON. It’s hard to describe the pressure when every single person you respect and look up to wants you to go and everyone who doesn’t or didn’t is looked down upon. In fact, many Mormon women won’t marry a man who didn’t go on a mission. It’s a lifelong stain if you don’t go.
For better or worse, I chose to go. From March of 2010-March 2012 I lived in the northern half of Guatemala. My time was split pretty much evenly between Guatemala City and the department of Petén speaking Spanish and in Alta Verapaz speaking Q’eqchi’.
It isn’t possible to explain all the experiences and insane situations that I found myself in during those two years. There were many good times but also some incredibly dark ones. I credit those experiences with being positive in a lot of ways during a formative period of my life, but also fault them for recurring nightmares for things no young kid should have to witness.
Enrolling at BYU-Idaho
Upon returning home, I was a true blue, dyed in the wool Mormon. I believed in my heart of hearts that Mormonism was true. I had a lifetime of experiences, spiritual impressions, and faith building stories that in my mind pointed towards one seemingly apparent fact: Mormonism was true.
As a result of this internal conviction, I decided I’d go to a Mormon college, BYU-Idaho. Less than a year after returning from Guatemala, I moved to Idaho and enrolled as an accounting major.
BYU-Idaho is a strange place. It’ll make even the most devout Mormon question their sanity. Every class, including secular ones, start with a prayer. There’s a strict Honor Code and the dress code is enforced to the letter. No long hair, shorts, flip flops, beards, or anything remotely revealing. Members of the opposite sex can’t enter each others bedrooms. There’s a city wide curfew for students, a curfew which the local police have been known to enforce. You can’t help but feel at times that you’ve been accidentally transported into Orwell’s 1984.
It was while at BYU-I that I first discovered the essays published on LDS.org. I was in church on Sunday and it was a fast and testimony meeting, a meeting in which members of the congregation can voluntarily take the stand and talk about why they know that Mormonism is true.
The first counselor of our congregation or ward was speaking. He was talking about how often times there are items in Mormon history that weigh heavily on the minds of members and sometimes those items would drive them away from “the Church.” He gave several examples but my interest was piqued when he said that Joseph Smith had translated the Book of Mormon by looking at a stone in a hat.
I thought, “This man is preaching false doctrine from the pulpit. I’ll need to pull up some primary sources so I can show him he’s wrong.” Ha.
Once I started searching, I came across this recently published essay on LDS.org. It talked openly about the translation process of the Book of Mormon. It shocked me. My issue with it was that the narrative it laid out was completely different from the one I’d grown up learning about. I frantically searched the footnotes of the essay for some sort of an explanation. However, the more I searched the more confused I became.
Why wasn’t I ever told any of this? Why was I taught that he used something called the Urim and Thummim when in fact he preferred to use a “seer stone” he found as a boy while digging a well? A rock that was one of multiple that he found and used to discover buried treasure for others for a fee (see footnotes of essay.)
Furthermore, why was it that the very book I was encouraged to study as a missionary, Preach My Gospel, had artist depictions of Joseph and his scribe when in fact the plates largely weren’t even utilized? They didn’t even need to be in the same room? He was looking at a rock, inside a hat?
It wasn’t the absurdity of the method. To be frank, the difference between a magical pair of spectacles and golden plates isn’t all that different from a magical rock placed inside a hat to block out the light. The confusion and subsequent anger were at the feeling of deceit. I felt like I had been lied to.
Why in all my years of reading and studying had this never been brought up? It seemed like the information had been in existence from the very beginning of Mormonism. Why change the narrative? Why cover up the truth? To make it easier to accept?
Mormon History — A Rabbit Hole
If you’ve ever studied Mormon history in depth, you’ll know it’s quite an adventure. There is a saying, “History is written by the victors.” Religious history is written by the faithful and the faithless (often times former members.) It’s incredibly divisive.
That’s probably why anything that’s not produced officially by the LDS Church or that is in any way critical of their history or teachings has been labeled as “anti-Mormon literature” (a phrase that’s constantly preached from the pulpit as something scary one needs to look out for.)
Not wanting to read any “anti-Mormon literature” I read all of the essays on LDS.org (not all of them had been published at that point) and then started searching for more information. I found the Maxwell Institue / FARMS and then FAIR Mormon. I started reading any and all apologetics and scholarly research that devout LDS scholars had produced — only the devout. The further I went down into the rabbit hole, the more convoluted and far fetched the explanations seemed to get. The list was a long one:
Note: To my Mormon friends and family worried about anti-Mormon literature, all of these links are pro Mormon sources. They are either LDS.org itself or pages on FAIR Mormon, the unofficial apologetics arm of the LDS church.
- The seer stone
- Joseph Smith, his polygamy, polyandry, and marriage of underage brides
- Withholding of the priesthood from blacks
- Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon
- The Book of Abraham and the scrolls
- Adam-God Theory
- Masonic ties to temple ceremony
- Changes made in the 90’s to temple ceremony
- Varying First Vision Accounts
- Kinderhook Plates
- etc. (The list of controversial items is too long to list here.)
I was absolutely consumed. I spent hours and hours every single day poring over documents. I tried to identify bias in the different authors I was stumbling across, reading their life stories. I’d search for scans of primary source materials, trying to make judgements for myself over what was actual, recorded history and what was conjecture. I read pioneer journals from the Hale family — in short I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on.
None of it seemed to make sense. Underneath the basic theology that I’d learned over 22 years, underneath the doctrine I’d learned about and taught hundreds and hundreds of times, there was an entire world, a war being fought between scholars. LDS, exMormon, and non-affiliated scholars alike, the historicity of the LDS church and it’s origins were intensely debated.
I processed a lot of complex emotions during this time but at the core, I mostly felt betrayed. I had spent 22 years learning and studying approved material. I had read the Bible cover to cover twice, the Book of Mormon over 9 times, the standard and missionary works in English and Spanish. I’d memorized over 250 scripture passages. I’d read most of the History of the Prophet books. I’d listened to every General Conference address and taken notes. I’d attended Seminary and Institute classes. I had risked my life in Guatemala and preached the curriculum taught at the MTC and by my mission president. And yet here I was learning for the very first time a seemingly darker, more secretive past that seemed from my perspective to have been whitewashed over and hidden away.
In the Bible it talks about giving “milk before meat.” When exactly was someone going to bring up the meat part of Mormonism? Was it going to be before or after I covenanted (promised) to give everything I had to the LDS church? Was it going to be before or after I almost died in a third world country?
Processing the Grief
This was not a happy time during my life. I worried during every waking moment about how to process the information I was learning about. My dreams were still haunted and sleep wasn’t any sort of reprieve. I would often find myself driving aimlessly around Rexburg, Idaho and going on long hikes by myself. I’d skip church on Sunday and go sit by a stream, listening to the water.
I have never prayed, fasted and searched the scriptures more fervently than at any point in my entire life. I was in crisis. I was attending the temple every Tuesday and spending long amounts of time in reflection in the celestial room but each time I went, I felt more and more disingenuous. It seemed so banal, so contrived.
Perhaps, from a faithful Mormon perspective, the one error in my faith crisis was to never reach out to anyone. I suffered through it in silence. From previously witnessing others experiencing faith crises, I knew that it often tarnished the victims reputation. Faith is supposed to be a ‘gift of the Spirit.’ It’s all too common for people to assume or to imply that you are harboring some secret sin.
I decided that if I reached out to anyone who was Mormon that they would be quick to condemn me for doubting and if I talked with anyone who wasn’t Mormon, they’d try to convince me it was false. I was alone. I did attempt a couple of times with different people, but I never unleashed the full force of my doubt since initial reactions weren’t positive.
All of this eventually came to a head. I was driving one afternoon away from the temple and down a long stretch of road when a feeling of impending doom overcame me. My heart started beating frantically and I couldn’t seem to get a breath of air. I later learned I had a panic attack but at the time I thought I was having a heart attack.
I put my hazard lights on and pulled to the side of the road.
“A heart attack?! I’m only 22 and I’m super healthy.” I thought stupidly. But then I felt something a little more sinister. I felt relief. “Thank God. I can just lay down here, die, and be at peace. I don’t have to worry about this anymore.” I reclined my seat hoping that death would be quick.
I didn’t die. Strange. However, it absolutely terrified me how quickly I embraced it. The cognitive dissonance was absolutely consuming me.
Deciding to Leave
In the same way that I never had a specific moment growing up where I went from non-belief to belief, there wasn’t a moment where I went from belief to non-belief. It sort of just happened. As surely as I “knew” that Mormonism was true while a devout believer, after reading the deluge of evidence to the contrary it seemed completely insane to believe it was true anymore.
There was however a single, elucidating moment in which I decided to leave. It was late at night and I was seated in my office reading a lengthy document about Joseph Smith’s fourteen year old child bride and a back and forth argument between two scholars over whether or not the relationship was sexual in nature. I remember finishing the document, looking up from my computer, and smiling. I was done. I was free. I didn’t care anymore. I knew that if there was a God and He was a just God, that He would look at my heart and would be able to see that I was a good, honest person trying to pursue happiness. I remember deciding that I was going to work to build an awesome, happy life completely outside of the paradigm of Mormonism.
After the panic attack, I knew I needed to change my environment fairly quickly. I wasn’t happy in Idaho. I knew that Mormonism wasn’t true. I knew that staying in Rexburg wasn’t good for my long-term health. I decided I needed to get out, to live my life the best way I could, and to live the happiest way I knew how. I needed to live according to what I thought was right and true, not other people.
Over the next couple of weeks, I withdrew from BYU-I and made arrangements via my professional life to, as we say in Arizona, “get the hell out of Dodge.” I packed everything into my car and I drove east. I never looked back.
While I’ve had multiple people tell me they’re waiting for me to have horrific things happen in my life to bring me back to God (as an aside, that’s really quite an awful thing to say to someone) it hasn’t happened yet. Things have been great. Life has been good.
I won’t lie and say it was a super easy transition. In fact, it took a lot of time. I had to replace the sense of community that I lost. I had to replace a lot of friends who stopped talking to me after I left. I did a lot of traveling, read a lot of books, and met some fantastic people. I filled the holes. Not to mention, I had to (of course, that’s what all apostates do!) buy new underwear, develop a love for coffee and red wine, and replace all those memorized scripture quotes with poetry.
It’s been a process.
Why This is Important
As I mentioned in the beginning, I want to provide a glimpse for those of you who knew me as an extremely devout person into the journey I took to get to where I’m at today. I want to make sure that others who are struggling know it’s possible to make it to the other side. Talk to me. I’ve been there. Most importantly, I want to invite everyone to love each other regardless of your beliefs.
Mormonism was a huge part of my life. It was a massive influence in nearly every worldview I developed for my first 22 years. It helped me to learn how important family is to me. It helped me to learn how critical a supportive community can be. It’s not something I can simply forget or move on from. The old adage of apostates “not being able to leave the church alone” is an unfair characterization in my opinion. Of course we can’t. It was and is still a part of us. We can’t simply abandon our memories, our friends, or our families. Additionally, nor can we ignore the fact that the hurt and pain that we passed through continues to affect the lives of others. We want to help alleviate it where we’re able.
I know that all Mormons won’t come to the same conclusions that I have. We all have different experiences, different perspectives, we rank things differently in terms of their importance to us personally and we all have a different story. You know what, that’s ok. There is a lot of hate in the world. It’s unnecessary. It’s a big, beautiful world. There’s plenty of room for all of us.