When I lived in England, I would have been considered a Shi’ite Muslim fundamentalist Mormon. However in 1997, upon landing in Provo, Utah, to attend graduate school, that was no longer the case. I assumed I would probably need time to assimilate. After all, this was Mormon country.
Utah County is the real center place of Mormonism. Most people would disagree because the church offices, its leadership, the huge towering skyscraper that is the church offices, the famous Temple Square, and all the historical buildings and sites are all situated in Salt Lake City. However, the overwhelming Mormon population in Utah County controls the purse strings and the major share of the young missionaries that proselyte throughout the world.
The people who live there know it and are not slow at letting you know who really controls this juggernaut called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They saw themselves are the ‘Strong Ones.’ Peculiar and totally dedicated to the cause, just like I thought I was! I was told I should be grateful for them and their bank accounts on more than one occasion in Priesthood meetings.
Mormons love to express — loudly and firmly — their love for freedom. In fact, one of the central tenets of church teachings is that of ‘Free Agency.’ The ability to choose is taught in every lesson in every chapel. And yet, I soon discovered I had misinterpreted this core value.
It was, in reality, the ability to choose the right. Not the wrong. Of course, not that I ever taught the wrong. My mistake was in believing that freedom of speech actually meant freedom of speech. After all, this is written in the tourist guide for immigrants and high schools everywhere.
You not-so-poor people with a job and money in the bank, come to God's country, and you will be given freedom of speech. It did not take me long to realize that they meant . . . as long as you agree with us. As a faithful Mormon leader myself, I certainly did all that was asked of me. So what was my crime? Why was I deemed as being disobedient? I asked questions. Yes, I asked questions. Not controversial questions. Just questions.
To this end, in 2000 I was finally asked to visit with my Bishop. He was the leader of the church members in the area I lived. He invited me to sit with him, and from across his large desk, he offered his advice or counsel to me. To this day, I am still amazed at what I heard that day.
My ecclesiastical leader informed me very firmly that I needed to be more obedient. I was confused and asked for more counsel. To which he said, “If I tell you to put your newborn baby in the microwave and turn it on, you should do exactly that.” I was stunned at what I was hearing. I had heard crazy things said before in the church. But nothing that was as insane as the advice I was now given.
I want to say I behaved splendidly, but, alas, that was not the freakin’ case! In return to this middle-aged, balding white man, my reply was that Jesus Christ watched over the church I belonged to. Not Satan. We then agreed to disagree.
That moment was my first moment of uncertainty about the church I had spent over ten years attending at that point. Over the next twenty years, there would be a lot more. Nobody likes to be wrong—especially an Englishman in Utah.
© Stephen G. Arrowsmith 2021
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