I wanted desparately to be loved and liked my Mormon friends in the small Mormon town of my youth. I felt I had big obstacles to overcome, however, since my parents did terrible things like drink beer at family picnics, open their grocery store for business on Sunday, and drink coffee every morning for breakfast. Then my mother brought real scorn upon me when she started smoking; first secretly and then semi-openly. Probably one of the first Mormon women to smoke in my small town. My closest Mormon friend discovered her secret while playing over at my house. He taunted me with his knowledge.'Na na na na naa your mother smokes." I wanted to die.
I felt like I needed to atone for the sins of my parents.It seemed to me that becoming a super Mormon was the only way I could be accepted by my Mormon friends and neighbors. I was determined to be a saint. I attended church every Sunday, went through four years of seminary even though only three were required for graduation, begged my dad to close the store on Sunday, tried to get my mother to quit smoking, read the scriptures regularly, prayed about everything, and dreamed of the day I could go on a mission.
I was planning to go to BYU but won a scholarship to the University of Utah. My first two years were an eye opener. I learned in sociology classes that there have been hundreds of groups started by charismatic leaders who claimed to be representatives of super natural beings, I thought the Mormons were unique. I learned in psychology classes that the emotions I assumed were testifying to the truthfulness of the church were also reported by people of almost every faith and cults. I took a church history class from T. Edgar Lyon and learned that the sanitized version of church history that I'd been fed as a seminary student was not as pure and clear cut as I'd been taught. I took an archealogy class and learned that the Book of Mormon was not taken seriously as a guide to South American ruins by any reputable archealogist. I'd been led to believe by BYU apologists that the archealogical evidence supporting the Book of Mormon was overwhelming. I took a world history class and realized that contrary to what I'd been told, a great deal was known about the Aztec ruins in 1831. I took a philosophy class from Waldemar P. Read and discovered a whole body of scholarship dedicated to the question of how people know a thing is true. It made me rethink my claim that I knew the church was true beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Had I been a little more critical of the church as I was growing up, I may not have been so shocked by these alternative explanations, but I'd embraced the church with total dedication. I believed every word every church leader had told me. When a person has that type of belief, even the slightest chink in the armor raises serious questions.
My faith was so seriously shaken by those first two years of college that I probably would have left the church or at least become inactive had it not been for Lowell Bennion. He said, "look, the important message of the church is love it's main mission isn't proving that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Mormon church is the only true church on the face of the earth, it's about loving our fellow man and Christ. That has to be our highest priority at all times." That made sense, he had given me a rationale for staying in the church.
I accepted a call to go on a Hawaiian mission. While there I tried to make love the focus of every decision I made. I was a very successful missionary by any standard. Even though I loved my mission president and he loved me, I irritated him because I wouldn't say that I knew the church was true. I would say I believed it was true with all my heart, but I wouldn't say I knew it was true. I also irritated him because I was always quoting Brother Bennion, instead of the standard chuch line. My mission was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
When I returned home I began to look at my parents differently. I asked myself how could I have been so hard on them when they were such absolutely supportive, wonderful parents. Yes, they weren't active, yes they had a drink once in a while to relax , yes my mother fell for the advertisement that said reach for a cigarett instead of a sweet, but they had so many other wonderful qualities as human beings and parents. I felt like I'd betrayed them as a teen-ager to gain the approval of my Mormon friends and neighbors. I also realized that I'd had a double standard for my parents. I'd pleaded with my dad not to open the store on Sunday, but when I was 16 I went to work for the bishop in our ward. He raised fruit and sold it at a fruit stand on the highway. You guessed it. He kept the stand open on Sunday. I also realized that I'd idealized the lives many of the neighbors. I later discovered that under the surface of several of these Sunday perfect families existed a cauldron of anger, tension, and abuse that did not exist in our home.
When I returned home from my mission, I returned to the University of Utah (1956). I married a wonderful woman and we began to raise our family. About that time the church had begun to organize student wards to better serve the needs of those who were in college. In the first few years of that program great leeway was afforded the questioning student. I was called to be a member of the YMMIA stake presidency. When I went in for my interview, I told the stake president that I had serious doubts about the truthfulness of the church. He said, "So what , half the students I interview hold a similar position." That attitude allowed me to stay in the church until I finished graduate school.
During this time a group of scholars dedicated to proposition that a person could be both intellectually honest and true to the church, published research that to my mind totally undermined the claims of the church and confirmed for me the hypothesis that Joseph Smith was a charismatic con man. Much of that research is published elsewhere on this web page. This conclusion was extremely painful for me. So much of my identity was tied to the church. I half expected to become invisible if I ever decided to leave.
I remember asking Oscar W. McConkie what he would do if I presented him with irrefutable evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud. He answered,"It would not make any difference to me whatsoever since my testimony is based on faith not reason." His answer crystalized the choice I had before me. Trying to carry water on both shoulders was not really an option. The choice was clear: Did I want to live by faith or reason?
Shortly thereafter we moved to Southern California and joined a very conservative ward. Our questioning style was totally out of sync with the other ward members. When the time came for us to baptize our oldest child, we agonized over what to do. We finally realized that no matter what we said, he would know that we didn't believe the church was true. So why make him go through the pain that we'd gone through. About that time, 1966, we moved to a different ward. We've not been back since.
We chose to live by reason, not by the type of faith that was required of us in the Mormon church. And that has made all the difference.
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