LDS Discussions Blog
Why I Left Mormonism, But Won't Leave It Alone (April 25, 2019)
Note: This was written over a period of time as I would occasionally start and stop. It's also a bit lengthy, but I wanted to tell my journey through Mormonism to explain why it is that I now write about it and discuss the troubling issues within it.
It's such a cliche to both believing members and those who have left and it's said so often that it's become more of a meme at this point: You left the church, but why can't you leave it alone?
And the answer to that is different for everyone, so in this case I only want to speak for myself.
It's been years since I became an inactive member of the LDS church. I am still on the member rolls since the church considers me a member for statistical purposes until I turn 110 years old or someone lets them know when I die so I'm officially removed. That's why you'll see the church boast of 16,000,000+ members while most estimates have that closer to 4-6 million active members.
I was not born into the church, and I am sure that was a factor in not being able to wrap my head around the only two problems I knew of as an active member: polygamy and the ban on black members from the priesthood.
My wife (born in the church) and I began dating when I was in high school, and I took the missionary discussions soon after. During that time I did not question anything I was told. My future in-laws assured me that I might hear some things from people outside of the church, but they had all been debunked as anti-Mormon lies over the church's 150 years. And I believed that and never once looked outside of the info I was given. The same things would be told to me before going to the temple for the first time, and again I never thought to question it for even a second.
Because I did not join during high school due to family reasons (and my then girlfriend refused to go to BYU), my future in-laws moved across the country before our senior year of high school. It sucked and was beyond soul crushing because all I could think of for that year was "What is so wrong about me that they would rather move across the country than have their daughter date me?"
There's no way around how horrifying of an experience that was, and how those feelings have stuck with me through all of the time since. It is hard to describe how small you can feel when you're rejected in such an enormous way, and that was compounded by one of the few people I felt I could talk to at our local ward effectively saying that moving across the country is what people do to protect their kids from dating/marrying within the church.
Yet I kept going to church during that time and joined once I went to college. I felt the same spiritual confirmation that everyone else talks about after reading the Book of Mormon, although I have no idea how it compares to others because it was my own experience. I also view it differently now, but we'll get to that later.
Since I never researched Mormonism outside of what I was told from the missionaries and church materials, I really had no idea what the problems were at the time. But I did know about polygamy, and that drove me nuts mentally. Having dated in high school we both experienced times of jealousy when we spent time with other groups of friends, and just thinking of how my wife would feel knowing I was out having sex, kids, and emotional connections with many other women... I just could never fully shake how abhorrent the idea of polygamy was.
You don't even have to get graphic here to state just how awful polygamy is. Even just having an 'emotional affair' would drive most spouses to insanity, yet polygamy (and polyandry, which I was unaware of at the time) in the LDS church took love out of marriages (their own essay admits as much) and replaced it with sex and spiritual promises, but even worse, it allowed men to pick and choose their polygamous wives at the expense of their 'first' wife. There is no way to have a conversation about what polygamy is in the LDS church because it is so painful for women to have to think about, and it still awaits them all in eternity as it is the everlasting covenant that they will be subjected to after this life.
The other thing about Mormonism that weighed on me was the idea that my family would never be with me in the afterlife. During my entire life I never thought my family could be separated in heaven until I joined the Mormon church. The idea of families being together forever is one that is accepted by pretty much any religion that believes in a form of heaven - Christians all assume they will be with their loved ones in heaven, because what is heaven if you're not with the people you love?
In other words, Mormonism creates the problem of families not being together in order to sell you the solution. But once I went all-in on Mormonism, I realized that meant my parents and siblings would never be with me, because they knew of the Mormon church and had no interest in joining. That's a really hard problem to shake, and at the time it was always greeted with "it will all work out in the end," which I've come to learn is a very artful dodge of tackling the tough questions.
That's also tied to the ban on blacks from the priesthood, because we are taught that without the temple ceremony you can not enter the celestial kingdom, meaning that black families would be forever separated due to the supposed sins of their ancestors. Even as a believing member that weighed on me, because what kind of God would tell an entire race of people that because of the sins of their ancestors they would be denied the chance to be with their families forever in heaven? And this was before I learned of how the ban took shape and how Mormon leaders called it doctrine from God.
No matter how I thought about the problems, I could not make sense of them. I thought of the constant anguish my wife would experience under polygamy, and trying to reconcile how a loving God would do that every women who would be subjected to that doctrine. The church likes to talk about how polygamy was a spiritual experience, but there are so many journals that show the torture and pain it caused and I invite anyone reading this to start with In Sacred Loneliness which was written by a faithful LDS member (Todd Compton) and not from a critical perspective. Just envisioning my wife sitting at home as I was visiting my other wives, having sex with them, and raising families with them... it's just grotesque. It makes me nauseous to know that is how Joseph Smith made Emma feel, and I knew without question that was not something a loving God would ever do.
And it can not be stated strongly enough that this is what women will be subjected to in the afterlife. It is still the doctrine of the church, and no amount of "it'll all work out in the afterlife" can undo the quotes and teachings of church leaders who have declared that polygamy will absolutely continue in heaven:
Brigham Young: Monogamy, or restrictions by law to one wife, is no part of the economy of heaven among men. Such a system was commenced by the founders of the Roman empire... Rome became the mistress of the world, and introduced this order of monogamy wherever her sway was acknowledged. Thus this monogamic order of marriage, so esteemed by modern Christians as a holy sacrament and divine institution, is nothing but a system established by a set of robbers... Why do we believe in and practice polygamy? Because the Lord introduced it to his servants in a revelation given to Joseph Smith, and the Lord's servants have always practiced it. "And is that religion popular in heaven?" It is the only popular religion there. (Deseret News, August 6, 1862)
John Taylor's 1886 Revelation: "My son John, you have asked me concerning the New and Everlasting Covenant how far it is binding upon my people.
Thus saith the Lord: All commandments that I give must be obeyed by those calling themselves by my name unless they are revoked by me or by my authority, and how can I revoke an everlasting covenant, for I the Lord am everlasting and my everlasting covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with, but they stand forever.
Have I not given my word in great plainness on this subject? Yet have not great numbers of my people been negligent in the observance of my law and the keeping of my commandments, and yet have I borne with them these many years; and this because of their weakness—because of the perilous times, and furthermore, it is more pleasing to me that men should use their free agency in regard to these matters. Nevertheless, I the Lord do not change and my word and my covenants and my law do not, and as I have heretofore said by my servant Joseph: All those who would enter into my glory must and shall obey my law. And have I not commanded men that if they were Abraham’s seed and would enter into my glory, they must do the works of Abraham. I have not revoked this law, nor will I, for it is everlasting, and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof; even so, Amen." (Revelation given to President John Taylor September 27, 1886)
Joseph F Smith: "When the wife is faithful and desires to obey the divine law and the husband is rebellious, or unwilling to obey the will of the Lord, if she maintains her integrity to the best of her ability, she will be given to another husband in eternity and will receive all the blessings of the celestial kingdom." (Answers to Gospel Questions’ Vol. 3)
I could go on and on, but the point is that both D&C 132 and the early leaders of this church are clear that polygamy is an everlasting law, which of course includes the afterlife. The current prophet is a polygamist in that Nelson is sealed to two women, and there's no question about what the implications are for their eternity together. While current leaders fall back on "it'll all work out in the end," that is nothing more than a dodge to avoid answering a question that causes women pain today. This point could not be better illustrated than this quote from Carol Lynn Pearson's book in The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy:
“When my husband told me one day, after many years of marriage, that he fully intended to be obedient to God in all things, including plural marriage, I felt a terrible rift being born between us. I asked him how we could be one as the Lord commands if he was desiring another woman, desiring her and her and her and her. How could this be heaven for me? He replied that I would be as happy as I would choose to be and that our children would soothe my loneliness. Plus, he added, God will make you like it. He wants you to be happy. Since then the rift is ever there. A part of me is walled off, wondering how I can be with a man who looks forward to this future, knowing it pains me terribly, but feeling my suffering isn’t his problem or concern. He has said only selfish and weak women reject polygamy because if God commands it, it is holy and pure.” — Anonymous member of LDS Church, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy (158)
And if you do not believe this is a real quote, listen to podcasts on polygamy or check out Lindsay Hansen Park's amazing Year of Polygamy series which highlights polygamy in the church as well as how it impacts members today. Most members do not want to think about this as it causes so much pain to do so, but it is church doctrine and is absolutely what awaits LDS women in the afterlife if you believe the church is true.
Those two things never left my "shelf," and my first visit to the temple was when I mentally began looking for an exit. I won't detail my temple experience out of respect for the secrecy of the temple, but I was not prepared and I went before members were allowed to be clothed for the washing/anointing. In that one moment I was put into a mental space that allowed me to realize that things were not OK, and that was the beginning of the end for me as a believing member.
It was a long time between the temple and when I stopped attending, but mentally it was a pretty slow burn out. But even during this time I never researched church claims because I was so terrified of what it would mean to my marriage, and those fears were rooted in my experience prior to joining the church as mentioned above.
But like so many others, there came a point when I just couldn't attend anymore and I stopped attending while my wife continued. We didn't really talk about it, and in hindsight that is when I should've done the deep dive as I knew things were not right. But I was terrified of what it might lead to and instead just kept all of the problems with polygamy, the (potential) separation of my family, and the overall issues with Joseph Smith to myself. It clearly was not a smart way to handle it, but it was what I thought was best at the time.
After I stopped attending I never turned into the caricature that Mormon leaders paint those who leave as. I never cheated on my wife, never smoked, never even drank coffee. At just a few gatherings with co-workers or friends I would have a single drink just to avoid answering the constant "why aren't you drinking" question that would come up, but even though I didn't consider myself Mormon I still felt that horrible awkwardness that comes from having to live in its shadow.
And that was OK. I never had a huge desire to drink coffee (although it's without question healthier than the Coke that I am allowed to drink under the current church interpretations of the Word of Wisdom), never wanted to start smoking, and even though leaders always infer people leave the church in order to sin, I had no desire to cheat on my wife or start committing horrible acts.
So flash forward and I now have a child who is just beginning to recite what he's been learning in primary. Over a fairly short period of time he shared with me that he "Can't wait until he can go to the temple" and "You know who can share the Book of Mormon? We can!"
It was difficult to hear because I knew that things with church truth claims were not right and that my young child was already repeating the lines he was taught in primary without a second thought. And why would he have a second thought? I jumped head first into every claim the Missionaries made as a teenager -- why would he question it as a young child?
That started to shake me mentally, but what finally broke me loose of that fear of looking into church claims was hearing discussions among family about missions and attending BYU. It finally pushed me to look into the church's truth claims that I always wondered about, but was too afraid to even glimpse at. I went into another room and searched for info on polygamy, since that was the biggest issue I knew about at the time.
I was not prepared for what that one Google search would lead me to, and I have been going down that rabbit hole in the year since. The initial search about Mormon polygamy initially led to the CES Letter, MormonThink, and some great podcasts which opened me up to so many other problems with Mormonism:
Polygamy under Joseph Smith was not even spoken of as a revelation until he had already been practicing it, Joseph Smith married the wives of faithful members, and promised exaltation to these women in exchange for marrying him
And on and on and on. It confirmed every fear I had from the moment I knew that polygamy was not from God - that Joseph Smith was not a prophet and that this church is not only untrue, but harmful to so many groups whether it's the LGBT community, women, Native Americans (who are told an untrue history of their ancestors), blacks (banned until 1978), or those who leave and have families that consider them lost or 'taken over by the adversary.'
Since that time I've read apologetic responses and talks about these issues and at first read thought there were some good answers to these issues. The problem is that when I read through some of them a second time (the FAIR response to the CES Letter is a good example), I started to see the inconsistencies and deflections in their responses depending on the issue at hand. You see this when both tight and loose translation theories are used to defend problems with the Book or Mormon, or redefining what "translation" means regarding the Book of Abraham, or claiming that Joseph Smith changing revelations amounts to nothing more than a new understanding of the word of God.
I began talking with a few others about the apologetic responses and the different ways that apologists utilize the very tricks they accuse critics of, and that led me to some great discussions with people who had already begun dissecting the LDS Gospel Topics essays, which quickly became the foundation of this website. Our annotated essays go paragraph by paragraph with the official church essays, pointing out the reasons that the apologetic responses just don't work whether it's polygamy, DNA, Book of Abraham, ban on blacks, Book of Mormon translation, and others.
The reality is that most members do not know about any of the problems beyond the most surface of details - most members (and even many bishops) are not even aware the actual gospel topics essays even exist. So the reason for this site is to present all of these topics from the perspective of the apologetic response and then to show why they does not work. All too often the apologists begin with the CES Letter to try and show that the church's truth claims are valid, when in reality they are presenting a flawed argument using the very tricks they accuse the CES Letter of using.
There are legitimate reasons that so many who leave can not leave the church alone, and a big one is that even after you leave, the church never really leaves you alone either. Since I left years ago, the church's grip has always followed me. When a spouse/child/friend leaves the church, it's painful both for the person who leaves and those who stay behind. But for me personally, even though I've left I still was constantly feeling the presence of the church in those very rare occasions I had a drink at a party and knew it was torture for my wife, knowing that my family was being told that I was an 'apostate' who would lead them down a bad path in church devotionals, and knowing that my family was being taught that we would be separated for eternity even as those teachings simultaneously dodge the obvious problems with "it'll all work out in the end."
Russell Nelson just this year (April 2019) made it crystal clear that families would be separated forever if they do not maintain temple worthiness in this life, and while some have claimed that his words are being twisted, I argue that is only because members do not want to address the elephant in the room. You can read/watch Nelson's talk here and a rebuttal from the Salt Lake Tribune here.
In 2019 alone, there have been many high profile talks attacking doubts, doubters, and those who leave the church. In the youth devotional from the Renlunds, the compared those who leave the church to spoiled children who leave after discovering "the water from the canteen is a bit stale and not what you would've preferred like Evian or Perrier. The crackers tasted good but what you really wanted was some delicatessen meat followed by a chocolate croissant." We have a write-up of that here.
Beyond painting those who leave as whiny children, the Renlunds went on to address those who leave because of their doubts in the following manner: "So, would you seek financial advice from someone who is broke and in debt? Would you ask for medical advice from a charlatan snake-oil salesman? Who would you take some advice from on how to perform your forehand in tennis? A weekend hack or Roger Federer? So why would you entrust your eternal welfare to those who are spiritually bankrupt because they have ripped up in doubt what they once planted in faith."
Keep in mind that this talk was a worldwide youth devotional. The active rate in the church is estimated to be around 30-35%, which means that a lot of kids being told this message from the Renlunds have parents, siblings, or relatives who have left the church. What kind of message is it sending to these children that the leaders of their church consider their parents "spiritually bankrupt" if they walked away or that they are nothing but "snake-oil salesmen" for discussing the problems with the church? My six year old child might not pick up on those attacks, but older children would just as LGBT members notice the subtle jabs directed their way during every General Conference (even including the April 2019 one after the 2015 revelation was revoked by a 2019 revelation).
In the talk given by Elder Corbridge, he told BYU students that the secondary questions are not important such as polygamy, Mormon history, anachronisms, Book of Abraham, etc as long as you focus on the church being true. We also posted a write-up of that talk, because it is the very antithesis to tell college students not to research the doctrines and history that make up the foundation of the church. How can you know if a car will run well if you only look at the exterior? Corbridge is telling members to accept that the church is true while at the same time telling them that all of the things that make up the church are secondary. While that sounds great, it is a very dishonest way to discourage research and critical thinking.
And perhaps the most well known story of 2019 in this regard was when Dallin Oaks told members in Chicago that "research is not the answer." This talk generated a lot of publicity due to the obvious implications of the statement, and how one of the top leaders of the church telling members not to research their history and doctrine is just not a confident thing to say if you believe in the church's truth claims.
The "New Era" magazine from the LDS church, targeted to the youth, explains those who leave the church this way: "Apostasy=wickedness. When an individual or group turns away from the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rejects the prophets, and falls into sin, they are in apostasy."
This is why I can not leave the church alone. As long as my family is still a part of this church, I know that I will always be spoken of as a 'spiritually broken snake-oil salesman' for doing the deep research and discovering the truth. And not only will I be vilified by the church, even those who would trust me with any other subject will be terrified to talk to me about church issues because they believe I have "been taken over by the adversary." (The missionaries said that exact quote when I asked about issues about polygamy from the church's gospel topics essay.)
I will never know what my family (and extended family) truly thinks of me and how I fit into their future in this regard, because while they sustain the leaders of the church and what they say, they also can see that I am not the person they paint me as. And to be fair I was once there as well, believing that I would be separated from my own parents and siblings and how that could somehow be an OK thing. A great comment after Nelson's talk about families being separated came from Lindsay Hansen Park: "A heaven that requires family separation isn't heaven at all and isn't worthy of our aspirations."
And I know that my family may never see the church the way that I do or how I believe that the evidence does. It is one of the most hopeless feelings in the world to think that my family is taught that heaven is going to be without me for eternity, and that is somehow still "heaven." But I made the choice to walk away and I have to live with that, and there's no amount of facts or data that can overcome emotional connections until each individual is ready to see them. A popular meme during the 2016 election was "facts don't care about your feelings," which is absolutely a true statement... because until you're ready for the facts, they simply do not matter.
I recently heard a great analogy of how (as believers) we deal with church problems on an old Mormon Expression podcast (#220): All of the church's problems are in a room that you're in, but as a believer the lights are turned off. You are holding a flashlight to navigate around, so sometimes you'll have that flashlight hit a problematic issue (polygamy, ban on blacks, stone in a hat translation of the Book of Mormon, LGBT, etc) but you still can't see everything in totality and it becomes easier to just move the flashlight to somewhere else when you start to feel uncomfortable.
There is a light switch in the room, but until something happens to trigger a person to turn it on, there's no way to flip that switch. For me that trigger was hearing others talking about missions and BYU as I thought about my child's future, for a friend I met recently it was how Joseph Smith implemented polygamy, and for some it was the November 15 LGBT policy, blacks and the priesthood, etc. While many stories about those leaving the church are ultimately similar, the small differences in what finally leads you to let your mind entertain that the church might not be true are crucial.
The last caveat to the dark room analogy is that everyone's light switch is in a different place in the room, and no one can find that light switch but you. For me I found it on that one day where I finally gave myself permission to dive in, but for my family and for you or yours... it's likely going to be different.
Like so many others who leave the church, I made the mistake of thinking that I could flip the light switch on for others by spilling all of these issues out at once, and it was a horrible way to approach it. Not until a while after did I start reading those who tell you not to do that, but of course it is the first instinct in protecting those you love to try and expose what you perceive to be a church that is not true.
The truth is that the most difficult part of studying Mormon truth claims is to give your mind permission to just entertain the idea that the church might not be true. We often speak of having an "open mind" on our posts and I think that's too simplistic -- what it really comes down to is just being in a place on the journey where you can give your mind an 'out.' In other words, you can look at new data and realize that your previous beliefs about the church were based on the information you had growing up and while you were right to make those decisions, new information is available and that you are now willing to assess it and possibly make new decisions based on that research.
If you can get to that point, everything else falls into place very quickly. Early on I thought a lot of how all of the issues were like watching The Sixth Sense -- I had these lingering doubts when I'd see certain things as a believing member, but I just never could see it all together to understand what the clues were telling me. Once I gave myself permission to look online and came across some resources like the CES Letter, MormonThink, etc, it all made sense for the first time in my life.
At the end of the day, I do believe that there will be a time when I do fully walk away and "leave the church alone." For now, though, I see the harm the church has caused me and others, and I want to help provide the information that I can only now wish I had 5, 10, or 20 years ago. I have received some messages and emails that it has helped at least some people who are going through a faith transition, and if that is the case, it is worth doing.
I see the harm done to LGBT members who have dealt with a lifetime of pain due to being born gay and being told that acting on it makes them an apostate, the pain that many women have knowing that polygamy is still the doctrine of the church, or the black members who until 1978 were told they were 'less valiant in the pre-existance' and cursed by God. This post is not meant to be a laundry list of problems, but just to highlight that things are not as they seem and that there are answers even if they are not faith promoting answers.
The indirect harm that I noticed while in the church and really see from the outside looking in is the way the church gets us to tie our value and worth directly to the church. We see this when the church tells us that all good feelings are God confirming its truth while any uncomfortable feelings are the 'adversary' trying to deceive us. The church tells us we are not worthy to be with our families in the temple if we drink coffee, even though studies have shown that coffee is much healthier than Coke (which is now proudly served at BYU). We are told that blessings are received for paying tithing even when we can not afford to pay the bills, that we are protected by wearing temple garments, and that the happiness we find in life is due to being a part of the church.
But the problem with these teachings is that we can compare it to the outside world. We are taught that having the priesthood gives us the power to heal, yet there is no increased rate of healing in Mormon areas vs non-Mormon areas to the point that we are now taught to have the "faith not to be healed." (Bednar, 2013) We are told that the prophet can foresee future events, yet they never prophesy about events and some of Joseph Smith's revelations have been proven false.
So while I looked forward to the day when these things no longer bother me, for now I am trying to channel that pain into something constructive and helpful to others. One thing I take pride in is that even if you ultimately disagree with some of the conclusions we have made on here, you can see the sources we pull from as well as the evidence behind them.
The last thing I want to point out is that no matter how many times the church tries to use fear to keep you from looking outside, we live in a great, beautiful world that has endless possibilities and hope. Sure there are problems, but we've come so far at lowering world poverty, lowering hunger, eradicating diseases, and giving hope to countries that used to live in the worst circumstances. We're constantly told of the world being such a scary place from the church, but in reality it's a really great time to be alive even with the political and social turmoil.
When talks are given asking "where will you go," telling you to "stay in the boat," or declaring that you'll never find joy outside of the church, just take a look around you. There is a reason that Marlin Jensen said that "maybe, since Kirtland we've never had a period of, I'll call it apostasy, like we're having right now, largely over these issues." More members are taking that look outside and realizing that there's nothing to be afraid of in looking at church claims, and that giving their mind permission to study this new information and make decisions based on it can only be a positive step whether you end up a believing member or you walk away.
If you're reading this as someone who has left the church, I hope that when you have interactions with active members that you remember we were all there once too. That is advice I wish I had early on when I was just spouting off every charge against the church's truth claims, and I wish every day I could get a second chance at that. Please don't troll members online with "Joseph was a pedophile" (he was not a pedophile by definition and it really lessens the awful ways he abused his power through polygamy), outright mock things that are sacred to them, and please, please never deface or vandalize church property. The best way to show the church that there is happiness and joy outside of the church is to focus on that in a positive manner and to be welcoming to those who are still active and interested in having that dialogue about the church's truth claims.
If you're reading this as an active member of the church, please remember that we were once where you are. Often times when you're confronted with critical information about the church's truth claims, it is taken personally. You will very likely feel like the person presenting this information to you thinks you're naive and stupid for believing in the church's claims. The truth is that we were all where you are today, and the last thing we think of you is that you're stupid or foolish. There is nothing wrong with having believed in a system that you trusted without question. I do feel like I was foolish for not looking into the church's history sooner, but I don't feel stupid for having been trusting of it. Also, while your instinct might be to brush those who have left the church off as thinking the person 'never actually had a testimony' or that they've been deceived by the adversary, almost all people who leave felt those same warm feelings that you did. Maybe they didn't feel them the same way, but please don't assume they never had a testimony as an excuse to not look at the church's truth claims.
This ended up being quite a bit longer than I was originally thinking, and it could have easily been 2-3x as long. It was written over a period of months because it's much more difficult to talk about my journey through Mormonism than it is to write about specific historical/doctrinal issues, but something I wanted to do because I have received a few emails asking what my story was.