Today marks a milestone. Ten years ago today, I flew home from my LDS mission in California. I knew at that time that my faith was lacking, but I had no idea that within five years I would leave the church.
And as I approached the 10th anniversary of coming home, I had to write my exit story. At 6 p.m. on June 6 (6 o’clock on 6-6) — 10 years ago — I stepped off the plane at Salt Lake City International Airport. I was home from the “best two years of my life” (I hated almost every minute of it).
But my path away from Mormonism goes back much further. As a teenager, I attended church because it was expected. I went to seminary because it was expected. I was in youth leadership at church, because it was expected.
Most of my life had been charted for me. I was the fourth of six children and the second of four boys. I was the middle child in the “perfect” Mormon family in the “perfect” ward.
It was a charade. Every chance I had, I skipped out on church. But there are so many watchful eyes in the heart of Zion that I didn’t have many opportunities to play hooky.
Doing what was expected, I went on a mission. Not going would have been a black mark on my family. The expectation in generational Mormon families — especially those as hard-core as mine — is that the boys go on a mission. In my case, even my sisters went before me.
Even though I had become inactive when I moved away from home for college, I went back to church once I decided I was going on a mission. I gave it an honest effort. I read scriptures, prayed, payed and obeyed. I wasn’t going to be a halfhearted missionary.
All missionaries have their own set of challenges, and I don’t think mine were unique. As much as I tried, I didn’t “know” the church was true. Even 10 years later, my biggest regret from my mission is that I told many people that I knew the church was true. I told them I knew the Book of Mormon was true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet. But I didn’t know any of that. I lied. That’s where the breakdown began.
I don’t completely regret going on a mission. I learned Spanish and I learned a lot about my religion — and a lot of what I learned bothered me. But it wasn’t enough to make me give it all up. Yet.
It started with little things, like discrepancies within the Book of Mormon and the changing dogma. More than anything, as I learned about history, philosophy and science I could see the church for what it was: one in a long line of cults that claimed to have a superior world view. I could see that it was nothing it claimed to be. And of course, I was furthered along that path by dating and then marrying a woman who was a lifelong atheist and whose moral code more closely mirrored Captain Picard than Jesus.
I read a lot during those years — most of it online. Mormons would call some of what I read “anti-Mormon.” However, the most compelling and useful information came from sources I wouldn’t consider “anti,” like the church’s own records, “Journal of Discourses” and “Doctrines of Salvation.” It was disturbing at first, but in the end disgusting to see how leaders interpreted and altered church teachings over time. I read about blood oaths — which were gone by the time I went to the temple. I learned about Mountain Meadows Massacre and other atrocities that early Mormons committed. Much of what I had been told was persecution was significantly provoked by the church itself. Other church teachings and practices that helped me leave were treatment of women (as a lower class), gay rights (Prop 22 and Prop 8 in California), blacks and the priesthood, polygamy.
One of the biggest catalysts was the temple. To start, there were the changes to the ceremony and the magic underwear. Then there is the part where women can only get to heaven through their husbands. All the signs, tokens, names and other such secrets seemed just like the secret combinations in the Book of Mormon. How can a secret combination be OK in one place but not in another? Talk about hypocrisy.
One of the real kickers — though I didn’t really discover it until after officially leaving the church — was Joseph Smith’s disregard for the First Amendment. As a professional journalist, I find it unacceptable that in June 1844 — as a civic leader in Nauvoo and a religious leader within the church — Joseph caused the destruction of not just allegedly libelous printed material in the Nauvoo Expositor, but also the press where it was produced.
What follows is a sad chapter in church history and one where the church’s account of what happen diverges from virtually every other account of the next three weeks before the death of the Mormon prophet and his brother.
There’s a sick irony that the same group of people who claimed religious persecution would so blatantly violate this country’s tradition of free press. The First Amendment puts freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same sentence. It’s impossible to reject one without rejecting the other. And it’s hypocrisy to claim a violation of religious right while at the same time denying the right of a free press. Order within society doesn’t allow individuals to pick and choose what laws they are going to obey or whose rights to violate.
For some years after returning to Utah, I stayed in the church despite not believing in it. I hoped to one day have a life-changing experience that would firm up my testimony, like what I read about in the Mormon magazines. I wanted it to be true. It would have been easier that way.
Eventually I had the realization that the path I was on meant living a lie for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be the kind of guy that gets married and has a bunch of kids only to walk out on them when he changes his mind.
So the decision had to be made: Was I going to live a life lying to myself and everyone around me? If so, would I consciously do so for the rest of my life — at the expense of my own personal happiness and integrity? That path was set. It was a mormon family in a mormon ward, a calling and a mini-van — just like my parents, just like my grandparents, just like my sisters had already chosen and just as my younger brothers would eventually choose.
Or: Was I going to live a life outside the church, even though that meant risking abandonment from friends and family and causing them heartache? That path was wide open. That was terrifying yet enticing.
I chose the latter. When it came to a head in early 2004, I knew my true friends would stand beside me regardless of what religion I was (or wasn’t). But there was still the question of family.
My older brother had been excommunicated in 2002 and his exodus from mormonism provided some insight into how my family would react. But his was a different tale and my own experience would be different. By 2004, my brother had landed himself in federal prison after a series of stupid choices. He was no role model and could not be the support system I knew I’d need outside the church.
Without the church, there was a lack of structure. Mormonism controls nearly everything members do. Without the church telling me how to live, I had a blank slate. That was fucking terrifying. For once in my life, I saw a world of possibilities. I could do or be whatever I wanted. I could be … me.
One of my (non-mormon) friends helped me understand religion and morality are not connected — though religions don’t want you to think that. I have since learned that without a religion I have more opportunity to discover the exact moral code that works in my life. I can live by my own beliefs, not by the beliefs of creepy-old, pasty-white perverts sitting on the 17th floor of the LDS Church Office Building.
It was in the fall of 2004, that I met my future wife. About the same time I took my first job as a journalist, working at the local newspaper. Without the Mormon church sucking everything from my soul, I poured myself into my job and my relationship. My girlfriend was supportive and patient during the process. No one who hasn’t been in Mormonism can fully appreciate what it’s like to leave, but she was there for me more than I probably deserved. I was a basket-case and anyone would have been within their rights to cut and run. But she stuck with me.
Eventually, I determined — with some prodding — that I wanted all the way out. So in 2006, I mailed my resignation. I specifically told the church not to inform anyone who didn’t need to know. The church was not to tell my family or announce anything over the pulpit. As a reporter in a small Utah town where much of my extended family lived, I didn’t want the church to fuck up my career. Though my parents didn’t say anything for some time, I later learned that they found out at the end of 2006 at tithing settlement. It was nearly three years later before I broached the subject with my parents and later with each of my siblings.
Mormonism turned me off to religion as a whole. In deconstructing the religion, I ultimately deconstructed any belief in a god. As an outsider, I see what religions do to their members. For what little good religions do in the world, there is so much more harm.
I left. It was the best decision of my life. In the years since, I’ve left Utah, also a good decision, since much of what I deplore within the Mormon religion has been ingrained into the cultural biases of Utahns. Today, I live in upstate New York, just a few miles from the founding-place of Mormonism. But there are few Mormons here. What little role Mormonism played in this area has long since vanished.
Les,As somebody from the "perfect ward," and your former Home Teacher to boot, this post says a lot about some of the same feelings that I had leaving the church. While I didn't go on a mission (I felt that I couldn't fake it enough to go to the shitty place they probably would have sent me), I know that it was hard on my family, especially as, eventually, 5 of 6 Eberhard kids left the church in some way. Our reasons may be different, but your experience echoes mine very similarly. I also met, married, and divorced a lifelong atheist, though she had no real impact on me leaving the church. I too became fed up with hypocrisy in the church and a lot of what they said in public. I completely left as well, and I still haven't really broached the topic with my parents. I'm sure they know, however, even though I left the church while living in CT (plus, I posted the story on my blog). I am still friendly with many people in the church, though most of the people I keep in real contact with were never actually members of the church. It is actually pretty interesting to me that two peers from my age group in church, from two "strong" LDS families, are now avowed ex-Mormons (Brittany Fellows being the other).
Nice work. I did the whole mission thing and it was about three years after when I left after trying to convert someone to mormonism and she would not accept "that is just something made up by the devil". So I went to the source and found out it was real and found even more that totally disgusted me. I fought against it though trying to find answers talking to my parents, bishop, and stake president. I only found more questions and only excuses and no answers. It was one of the the hardest things for me to do. Glad that you and your home teacher escaped!
dearest Lester,I heart you.
Robert, I went back and read your story about the letter and the interviews. Nice.Chris, I had several talks about my initial concerns with my mission president, who was completely unhelpful. I learned than that the church has little interest in in helping resolve concerns. Rather, they pacify members and investigators with inaccurate, misleading information. Their true goals are clearly different.
Your experiences are different than mine, but your emotional reactions and feelings are the same. I am glad that I read this, because now I know that I am not alone. Thank you for sharing this very personal experience. Know that it has helped me in my "exit" as well.
I’ve always enjoyed the way you write. Thanks for sharing.
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Les, interesting post. I encountered it just now through a series of links originating in my LinkedIn updates. As another from the “perfect” ward you grew up in, I confess that I have wondered about your process and reasons for leaving the church.
I have confronted several of the same concerns you had about the church, and so I empathize with your concerns, though I should emphasize that I have come to different conclusions than you have. I won’t share with you my conclusions or my processes unsolicitedly (especially since many of them rest on theological reasoning), but as an amateur historian, I do want to address, from a purely secular view, one of the issues you raised.
You’re right that Joseph Smith destroyed the printing press of the Nauvoo Expositor—perhaps even wrongly, that’s not the point I’m discussing—but he did not violate the First Amendment by doing so. Under today’s Constitutional interpretation, he almost certainly did violate the First Amendment, but not under mid-19th century First Amendment jurisprudence. The First Amendment did not become operative for states and municipalities until the 14th Amendment was adopted during the Reconstruction Era and the Bill of Rights was incorporated to the states through the 14th Amendment due process clause (and really not until the 1920s when the Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment in this way). Thus, when Joseph Smith acted, the First Amendment only restricted the federal government from restricting Free Speech and Press.
You could say that Joseph Smith violated the principle surrounding the First Amendment even if not the First Amendment itself, but for me at least, it is softened by the fact that the 1840s was a different time and a different world. You wrote, “There’s a sick irony that the same group of people who claimed religious persecution would so blatantly violate this country’s tradition of free press. The First Amendment puts freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same sentence.” An example of the “freedom of religion” jurisprudence from the late 19th century (incidentally involving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) provides a parallel example as evidence that 19th century First Amendment jurisprudence was a far cry from today’s standards: the Supreme Court upheld local governments’ practice in Idaho prohibiting from voting anybody who belonged to a church that taught or encourages others to practice polygamy—even if the individual did not practice polygamy himself! (Davis v. Beason) The federal government also went on to take all the church’s assets and property until they gave up polygamy, and the Supreme Court upheld their ability to do so. (Late Corp. of Church v. U.S.) The current Supreme Court could surprise me, but I’m pretty confident in saying that these governmental actions would never pass First Amendment muster in the 21st century.
Anyway, just wanted to raise the point for your consideration. I hope you’re doing well. Take care, my friend.
First, I’ll grant you you are right from a purely technical look at the law — at least federal law.
While I did not delve into it during my post, the legal background is much more nuanced than I stated and indeed more nuanced than your comments.
The 14th Amendment is what made states and municipalities subject to the provisions of the U.S. Bill of Rights. And I point out municipalities because Joseph Smith’s illegal actions were not just those of a private citizen nor of a delusional, charismatic, confidence man. Rather, the destruction of private property was ordered by Mayor Joseph Smith and the Nauvoo City Council — the publication had been declared a public nuisance.
However, from a purely legal perspective there are several problems with the city’s order.
First, the Illinois Constitution expressly granted free press rights and had specific language to address accusations of libel: “The printing presses shall be free to every person, who undertakes to examine the proceedings of the general assembly or of any branch of government; and no law shall ever be made to restrain the right thereof. The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty. In prosecutions for the publication of papers investigating the official conduct of officers, or of men acting in a public capacity, or where the matter published is proper for public information, the truth thereof may be given in evidence. And in all indictments for libels, the jury shall have the right of determining both the law and the fact, under the direction of the court as in other cases.” (Illinois Constitution of 1818, Article VIII, Clause 22-23.)
Second, the legal justification of the City Council was that the Nauvoo Expositor was a nuisance. However, there was no nuisance law in the city at the time of the newspaper’s printing. Rather the City Council declared the press a nuisance after the fact — an ex post facto law. Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution forbids these, but we can’t rely on federal law at a municipal level in the 1840s. So, again we turn to the Illinois Constitution, “No ex post facto law, nor any law impairing the validity of contracts shall ever be made; and no conviction shall work corruption of blood or forfeiture of estate.” (Illinois Constitution of 1818, Article VIII, Section 16.)
In 1965, Dallin Oaks, later named an apostle of the LDS church, wrote a paper outlining why Mayor Smith and the Nauvoo City Council were on dubious legal footing. They destroyed and damaged personal property (the press and the building) when in fact the offending materials were the printed papers. Oaks basically states that the city leaders at a minimum committed trespass.
But let’s move on from the purely legal perspective. Here we have a man who claims to be chosen by a god, and granted some degree of moral authority over the rest of mankind. The leaders of the LDS church, who controlled governance of the city, were opposed to the criticism levied in the Nauvoo Expositor. The three specific criticisms were (quoting Wikipedia here): “(1) the opinion that Smith had once been a true prophet, but had become a fallen prophet because of his introduction of plural marriage, exaltation and other controversial doctrines; (2) the opinion that as church president and Nauvoo mayor, Smith held too much power and desired to create a theocracy (see also Council of Fifty, Theodemocracy); and (3) the belief that Smith was corrupting young women by forcing, coercing or introducing them to the practice of plural marriage.”
The first and second opinions rely in the specific religious and political views of the parties involved, but let’s take a look at the third element. To be blunt, he was fucking little girls, which even in frontier America of 1844, was decidedly wrong. And don’t you dare claim this is anachronistic. Morality hasn’t changed that dramatically in 168 years. I’ve had that argument before. Four of his wives we should note are Fanny Alger, who was 16 when Joseph married her; Flora Ann Woodworth, age 16; Helen Mar Kimball, age 14; and Nancy Winchester, age 14.
There are many more records with more names and more marriages. Those are just the obvious ones that raise red flags beyond just the questions of polygamy. I ask, what do you think of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS? Would Jeffs’ actions have been justified in 1844? I think not. And I assume you think Jeffs is a creepy, morally depraved man. So let’s just apply the same logic to Joseph Smith.
The Nauvoo Expositor revealed that Joseph Smith was marrying other men’s wives and marrying little girls. Even by standards of his day, he was morally corrupt. But still, her was a “prophet of god.” I don’t buy it. Not for a minute.
Regarding everything above “But let’s move on from the purely legal perspective”: good points. Though I was addressing the “First Amendment” issue since that is what you cited in your original post, I admit that I had not thought of state law, and I found your points to be informative.
Regarding everything below “But let’s move on from the purely legal perspective”: in my initial comment I mentioned that I had considered many of the issues you raised but have come to different conclusions. I went on to say that I would not share my conclusions and analysis with you unsolicitedly, and went on to discuss a more objective issue that you raised—did Joseph Smith violate the First Amendment?—rather than a more subjective issue of whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or is Joseph Smith moral or can an individual come to know there is a God or is this or that “true.” (More colloquially, I was trying not to open that can of worms…) But your reply seems to invite my response at least to the details of Joseph Smith’s involvement in polygamy. Nonetheless, I will still withhold any comment on this issue even though a comment would now seemingly be outside the realm of “unsolicited.” I choose to withhold because 1) I’m in the middle of finals and I honestly don’t have time to engage in that conversation and, more importantly, 2) my inclination is that the discussion would be counterproductive since a) I would necessarily speak from a paradigm that you have already rejected (faith and revelation and experiences with God and other otherworldly matters), and you would speak from a paradigm that has limits within my paradigm (proof and definitive answers and logic and scholarship); and b) frankly, your reply ratcheted up the tone of the conversation (“And don’t you dare claim…,” “fucking little girls,” etc.) and I am not interested in taking further steps down this path, inciting further ratcheting and antagonism.
Les, let me just leave it at this: even if we have very different views about many things, I respect you and your right to believe what you will. And I meant what I said last time: I hope you’re doing well. Take care.
Let’s remember that I brought up the points of Mayor Smith ordering the destruction of the press in the context of his morality personally and the validity of the LDS church more generally. That means I tacked onto the issue all the baggage that you reject from debate. So it is unhelpful to focus on the legal perspective out of that larger context.
I picked the issue of the Nauvoo Expositor because it resonates with me. As a member of the press, the actions taken are all the more unconscionable. And it’s still a pathetic irony that the same sentence of the Bill of Rights covers both religion and means of dissenting from religion and government — aside from its applicability to 1844.
You are right that we operate from different paradigms. The paradigm of Mormonism allows for the so-called “men of god” to violate whatever laws (including god’s) to accomplish whatever means they see fit. Take for instance the story of Nephi killing Laban in the Book of Mormon. In that story, the “man of god” kills another man, robs him of his clothes, lies to his servants and then steals even more property. That’s a trifecta of sins against the Ten Commandments. And if we apply the “higher law” of the New Testament, why did Nephi not help Laban, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s remarkably inconsistent, but there it is, right in your inerrant “word of god.” This same god is supposed to be the epitome of righteousness and his laws and commandments are supposed to by eternal, unchanging and perfect. That’s the paradigm that your belief in Mormonism carries.
My paradigm, quite simply, is this: show me. If you have a better idea, a better way of living, great. I’m willing to listen. But if you are going to make claims of the supernatural, I expect some supernatural evidence to back up those claims.
I’m not asking for miracles or demanding the impossible. But I refuse to believe in a god first conceived by Bronze Age nomads and further propagated by corrupt despots and lunatic confidence men — an inconsistent and cruel god who does not reveal himself and can be easily explained as the fabrication of imaginations running wild. The Judeo-Christian god is either a liar and a total asshole or he doesn’t exist. I refuse to worship either.
Also, my point in this is not to offend, though I think I have — these debates inevitably end up with someone being offended by my comments. I realize religion is a sensitive subject. Remember, I’ve been in your shoes. I know how it eats you up when someone starts undermining what you have been taught to esteem as the perfect truth. Please understand my comments are not directed at you as a person, but at your beliefs — and when you enter these debates, you must separate your beliefs from yourself, as difficult as that is.
I often quote Johann Hari: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do … When you demand ‘respect,’ you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”
I reject the idea that religion is off-limits from criticism. If you are going to believe in Mormonism (and virtually any other religion for that matter), prepare to be mocked. The way to avoid the mockery is to not believe in such assclownery.
So please understand that I am criticizing Joseph Smith and the religion he invented, not necessarily his followers.
I too hope you are doing well, my friend. I honestly hope for the best for you.
Just a few points in response:
1. I think perhaps there was a misunderstanding that I was “entering a debate.” I realize that I probably asked for the misunderstanding by commenting on a blog post of this nature in the first place, and I apologize for the misunderstanding. As a history undergrad and current law student, my academic side thought it appropriate to isolate and correct your First Amendment argument. You have adequately responded to my correction and the argument you were making in your blog post has only been strengthened.
If anything, I was attempting to enter into a dialogue (not a debate) with you. But I refuse to engage in either debate or dialogue where the discussion is not executed with civility (i.e. finding common ground, talking to each other rather than at each other, honestly and fairly considering points made by the other individual(s), showing respect for the individual(s) and their points, and ultimately agreeing to disagree if the parties must, but only in a cordial manner).
2. I disagree with your belief (though I will not mock that belief) that you can simultaneously show respect for an individual while mocking the individual and/or beliefs deeply held by the individual. As you said, religion is a very sensitive topic, and that is precisely because the feelings associated with religion are profoundly personal (and often unseverable from the individual holding those feelings).
3. All that being said, I don’t think I was offended at your remarks…I think being offended is to a great extent, a choice. I was admittedly disheartened by the way in which you talk about my beliefs, and I was disappointed that the conversation took an uncivil turn, but I was not offended.
4. To find a point of solidarity between us: I agree that religion is not out of bounds from criticism. There have been many awful things done in the name of religion (Mormonism not excluded) and, among other things, criticism helps keep believers in check, helps bring us believers closer to truth (for I do put considerable stock in the 9th Article of Faith), and criticism helps us see, for example, that not everything is as black and white as Mormons often paint things.
That being said, and to tie into my other points, I find one-sided criticism laced with belligerence unhelpful to furthering anything productive. As a point of constructive criticism, I submit for your consideration that you only weaken your arguments (within the paradigm of logic which you have chosen) when you do not restrain your anger and passion in conveying your thoughts with respect to these things. Maybe because of your individual life experiences you can’t help but let these feelings show through, but take it for what it’s worth.
And with that, I really need to go study the wonderful intricacies of corporate tax. (If I cease to reply, please note that I concede to you the final word, and have found more productive things to do.) Take care, Les.
I’ll make my response short, because I too think this is going nowhere. But first my brief answers to your points:
And finally, I’m not angry. I employ the words I want because they convey the message I want. I use harsh language because of its impact. I admit I take a lot more latitude here on my blog than I might on other forums. I let debate and discussion come to me; when it does, I don’t use kid gloves, because I think it’s dishonest. If that offends people, they should stay off my blog and away from my Facebook wall. It’s my sandbox and I throw sand.
Thanks for being so gracious as to allow me the last word on my own blog. You’re always welcome back when you don’t have better things to be doing.
Good luck with corporate tax. Sounds exciting.
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