Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of public declarations from people who’ve left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wanted to make my own public declaration about my relationship with the Church. A lot of it hinges on an experience I had somewhere around April 6, 2002 (that only lasted a few moments) and the message that came with the experience.
Let me back up a bit. I was raised in a devout Latter-day Saint home, the fifth child of nine. My father owns a local health food store in coastal Southern California. Serving a customer base and being surrounded by people who on the surface seemed like they lived contradictory lifestyles from us was normal, yet I never felt any tension that’s not felt by just about anyone growing up in any faith-oriented home.
I was expected and encouraged to go to a Church-owned school and a Church mission. I can’t say I felt any undue pressure from those expectations. Those were things I wanted as well. My parents and community did a great job selling me on how wonderful those things would be. And they were right — they were adventurous, difficult, and wonderful! I had a lot of Church responsibilities in my young men’s and youth groups, and my dad was our bishop during my older teenage years. While I felt some mild pressure to be good and righteous from these things, I never felt overwhelmed by any of it.
Our family vacations included campfires loaded with religious campfire stories and even mini-services on Sundays, when appropriate, where we took the time to keep the Sabbath day as best we could in the woods and mountains of the high Sierras of California. Some of these I still remember as extremely “spiritual” and notably emotional. We had Family Home Evening most weeks, and we had family prayers and “scripture time” most mornings.
My dad’s family were converts to the Church and modern-day pioneer immigrants to the USA from Denmark. My mom’s family has pioneer family lines associated with Joseph Smith and handcart treks across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley. The stories about how admirable and brave and courageous my ancestors were are plentiful.
I attended an EFY camp at BYU and had a number of “spiritual/emotional” experiences there. I remember telling my mom as a kid that I could feel the “Spirit” during some of our church hymns. I remember praying to know if the Book of Mormon was true and having “good feelings” while doing so. These are the kinds of things I leaned on for my “testimony” as a kid and teenager and young adult. They were how I “knew” that how I was living my life was good.
Facing Doubt As a Missionary
As a missionary in British Columbia, Canada, I was exposed to all the problems of the world, as well as its virtues. I was exposed to books and literature that attacked the Church, especially the temples. I’d only been through the temple a few times before my mission and didn’t have access to one as a missionary, so it was difficult to refute what was true and false. However, I tried not to let those things get to me, so I didn’t… mostly. I didn’t have a whole story, so I didn’t have to make up my mind at the time anyway.
I’d been exposed to plenty of anti-Mormon stuff as a teenager anyway, and most of it had no substance, or was unfounded or laced with half-truths. A girl in high school tried to tell me, “Did you know that Joseph Smith renounced the Book of Mormon on his death bed?” It took me an hour to remember that Joseph Smith didn’t die on a death bed. (I’m not the fastest thinker in the world.)
I was exposed to this even more as a missionary by well-meaning but misinformed members of other religions. Interestingly, it was the Wiccans and self-proclaimed “Pagans” of British Columbia that could carry on the best conversations and heartfelt discussions about spirituality and the peaceful feelings our Church associates with the Holy Ghost. It was a witch, a touch-healer, who tried to convince us of how profound and incredible 2 Nephi 2 was when we read it with her!
A member of another Christian faith gave me an article written by his faith about our church. He challenged me to make any corrections needed and return so we could discuss it. I highlighted every statement that was untrue or partially untrue, and by the time I finished the article, between a third and half of the article was highlighted bright yellow.
There were just too many things to even address a part of them, and all intermingled with things that were true. A single sentence could switch from true, to false, to true again — like a messy soup. But most people don’t want you throwing away their soup. They like their soup because it is theirs, and it tastes better than uncooked raw fresh vegetables. When we returned to discuss the article, this person claimed that there couldn’t be any falseness to the article since it was written in a widely spread publication, and no valuable discussion followed.
Fighting Doubt with Faith
Then a few years later, a bolus of controversy started surrounding the Church regarding its policies about women, homosexuals, and its history. I wasn’t too emotionally involved in these battles but would engage with others (sometimes extensively) online when I felt the Church was being unfairly attacked. There was a lot that was brought up that wasn’t new to me and what was new had the same flavor as the article I mentioned above. Many friends and family members left the Church over these things and more still leave, but most of my friends and family in the Church have stayed.
It’s easy to see the negative and put all of our attention on it. When a pond is still and silent and a leaf falls onto the surface and spreads ripples across the water, overall, the pond is still and calm. In fact, it’s the stillness and calm that makes such small ripples so noticeable. All is not well in Zion — just ask any person that’s in a church leadership position. There are struggles and troubles everywhere, below the surface, since most people don’t like to air their dirty laundry out for the world to see — but it’s always there. Even still and silent ponds have a flurry of activity constantly going on under the water, but overall, beauty and life is what dominates.
When Doubts and Anger Surface
I had to go through a divorce that I didn’t want to go through, and it happened faster than I could have imagined. All I could do was hang on and try to survive. It was partly my fault, and there were things that I could’ve done better as a husband, but just about all of my life’s decisions were my attempts to build an eternal family as promoted by our church, and it all crashed down and fell apart outside of anything I could do. I lost everything of value in this life except for my education and most of my relationships. I felt the Savior close by me through this ordeal in a way I had never felt before.
When my new wife and I got engaged some time later, there were a few people who were really angry at me who told my bishop and stake president a number of half-truths about me, which made both of these leaders uncomfortable with approving my application for a temple sealing. We were told we would have to wait for the sealing ceremony until things calmed down between these other persons and me, all while being told that ultimately, they could not hold up our sealing.
When we moved to another state to be a little closer to my older kids, the pattern followed, and rather than meeting my new bishop and stake president as strangers, I was called into their offices to defend myself from false accusations as a first introduction. My job where I was working ended after just six months, so we moved to Utah to be close to the kids — jobless, homeless, with hardly anything in our bank accounts, expecting our first child and unable to get medical insurance, but with some generous help from extended family and anonymous gifts from our new ward.
We managed to get to our bishop first this time, and he was ready to help us with our sealing application, but the congregation was divided and reorganized before he could complete the process, and the new bishop was approached by these angry people before we could meet him. After months of meetings, we managed to convince our new bishop of our worthiness to be sealed, and then the ward was divided again and a new bishop assigned. We had to start over — again.
Even after we won this bishop to our side, the stake president refused. For whatever reason, he seemed to give more weight to their story despite any evidence we could give him of our faithfulness. We followed every bit of the counsel, advice, and direction he gave — at times at GREAT sacrifice to my new family — and still, each time our request to send in our application was denied. He gave us reasons and justification for doing so, but none of them felt real. In the end, he just “wasn’t comfortable” with it. All of our years of prayers and fasting for a righteous desire were not working.
My anger at the situation boiled. I wanted to vent and yell at our stake president. I wanted to quote his own handbook to him to convince him that he was doing his job wrong. We were doing our absolute best to live the gospel and its commandments so that my new wife and I could be sealed. My wife had waited and worked and sacrificed her whole life to be sealed to someone, only to be told she couldn’t, and it was completely out of her and my control.
I felt my faith end. Completely. My faith in my church leaders and the church structure was gone. They weren’t guided by the Spirit, they weren’t behaving appropriately. I was free to choose my own way. To live the kind of life I wanted to live. No pressure now. It was scary and exhilarating. I could do what I wanted with no guilt. My life was mine to choose without restraint. I was Free. Were social pressures enough to keep me going? Nope. Were family pressures? No. What about all those other spiritual experiences and good memories associated with church activity? Not important enough anymore, except for one . . .
Remembering Faith in Challenging Times
On an early April morning in 2002, while reading the Book of Mormon as a missionary, marking and underlining any and all references to the Savior, like I’d been doing for a few months, a feeling engulfed me that I’d never felt before. Separate from my body, I felt my spirit become engulfed in a blue fire (I don’t know why blue, but that’s what it felt like) and my soul lit up in what I can only describe as PURE JOY. A taste of a celestial heaven. I was just sitting at a desk in a dim apartment near the water’s edge in Campbell River, BC, reading a book of scripture that I didn’t understand all that well, but something inside me was ablaze like an Angel of Glory.
It wasn’t like the other spiritual experiences I’d ever had, and not like any other rush of emotions, endorphins, or dopamine I’d ever felt from other exhilarating or emotional experiences. This was something completely different. It was more REAL to me than anything has ever felt real before. It became my new standard for reality. As if everything I’ve ever seen, felt, and experienced before in this life on Earth was more like a fuzzy, hazy dream compared to what I was “seeing” and “feeling” then.
And there was a message that came with the feeling. No words were spoken, but they were seared on me somewhere inside like a brand on cattle; indelible and every bit as REAL as the joy I was already feeling: 1) Jesus Christ is the Savior of the World, and 2) the Book of Mormon is True. Unmistakably, this was the message of the experience. I KNOW these two truths, and all I have to do is look inside myself and see those two facts there, permanently.
I’ve read a lot of psychology, I’ve studied physiology and anatomy and neuroscience. It is part of my career, and it’s the kind of thing I do when I’m bored. I understand the power and effects of hormones, substances, and neurology. What I felt and experienced does not mesh with any other known occurrence or effect I’ve ever come across, except for similar experiences shared by other spiritual peoples, with similar messages, and never has anyone or their reported experiences contradicted what I felt that day.
Since then, I have also been “branded” through other experiences with the truth that what I know to be the priesthood is a real power and force of the universe similar to gravity, similar to the nuclear forces and electromagnetic force. I don’t have much control over it, but I am an instrument for its application and use in this world.
What Made Me Stay?
When I felt my faith in everything end and I had come to that fork in the road to act in any way that I felt was right for me, I had to address this experience and memory and how it would apply to my life. Was I going to live in a cognitive dissonance for a while, fighting off and pushing down that burning memory, or was I going to embrace it for what it was and live up to its message?
The gospel and the Church are true, I could not deny it. The people who run it are still just people, at all levels. There is no doctrine of infallibility in the LDS church, but there is a promise that God will not let the prophet and president of the Church lead the Church astray. That is a subtle but important distinction. Everyone makes choices and sometimes mistakes, even huge ones, and when you are called to lead others, your choices can and will impact many, many lives. Whether a choice or decision is a mistake, really, can only be answered by that person and God. Whether a church or prophet is God’s Church or prophet is determined solely by God, regardless of what we think of their actions.
People leave this church for all sorts of reasons: intellectual, emotional, social, and physical. I’m not going to put down or disregard any of these reasons; I don’t know what they know, and they don’t know what I know. Depending on what we are taught to value in this life, we will find enough rationale for backing up our decisions, whatever the reason (and though we don’t like to admit it, most often, our decisions are environmental and hormonal).
There is healthy debate with plenty of “proof” about this church on both sides. And often what gets touted as irrefutable “proof” gets “disproved” after more careful study, by both sides. It can be fun and interesting, and what cannot be refuted or denied is worth serious thought and study. But almost none of it really matters in the end or interferes with what our church teaches is important for salvation.
I was tempted to leave this church because of what I thought was a mistake, or several mistakes made by what I believed were inspired leaders being misled by those who were angry at me. It was a stronger temptation than I thought I’d ever have to face. If it weren’t for a gift of undeniable knowledge given to me by Heavenly Father, a gift I didn’t do anything to deserve, I would have left. But that key bit of heaven-sent knowledge and the memory of it made ALL the difference.
I still don’t know whether my leaders were wrong in making me wait, but in my anger, I wanted to think they were. I learned just a bit better that patience and faithfulness pays off, eventually: Earlier this year, my wife and I and our two beautiful daughters were sealed in the Oakland Temple by my own dad, and it was an amazing, incredible experience for everyone there. That angry moment is now fading into the fog of time, but that burning knowledge about the Savior and the Book of Mormon and the priesthood is still bright and new.