Story of a Former Mormon missionary to Sweden and Georgia - Includes reflection on a Post-Mormon life


Dear Eric,
My mission began in Sweden in March of 1959 and ended in Georgia in September of 1961. You mentioned that an extra six months would have killed you. [His mission was 30 months instead of the 24 months currently.] Well, by the time I had six months to go, I think the job had been fairly well completed. My companion and I were expelled from Sweden in December of 1960 for sharing a Thanksgiving dinner 'out of district' with Elders in a neighboring town. I had long since abandoned the idea of leaving my mission early because I felt an obligation to my parents. (After three months in Sweden, I had tried to convince them in tapes and letters that I'd made a mistake going on a mission, and that I'd like to come home, but their startled reactions--emotional letters to the mission president imploring his patience, and tapes and letters to me entreating me to reconsider, caused me to abandon my pleas.) They--my father in particular--had pinned much of their hopes for eternal salvation as well as an improved earthly life for themselves and our family on my completing my mission.

"After he has taken his vows as a priest, how shall he dare to violate them? He knows that if he loses his faith on a mission--in other words, if he dares to make any inquiry into the authenticity of the mission which he is performing--he becomes a deserter from God in the very ranks of battle. He knows that he will be held forever in dishonor among his people; that he will be looked upon as one worse than dead; that he will ruin his own life and despoil his parents of all their eternal comfort and their hope in him." From, "Under the Prophet in Utah," Frank J. Cannon and Harvey J. O'Higgins.

Ours was, I suppose, the classic example of a family handicapped by too constrictive an interdependence. My younger brother, only sixteen at that time, was out raising Cain, trying to gain recognition by pulling the family apart, while I was out on a mission, seeking heaven's blessings, trying to gain recognition by pulling the family together. The symbiosis was unnerving; unhinging.

My companion and I were sent back to the States on separate flights (the joke between us--though the humor was no match for the despair--was that they had put us on separate flights to prevent the aircraft from plunging into the ocean). He was sent to the East Central States, and I ended up in Alabama and Georgia. As my plane crossed the Atlantic I felt like a condemned man. Or worse, since I was convinced that I was bound to become a Son of Perdition. I remember trying to console myself with the thought (from the "Journal of Discourses" that there was only going to be a handful of souls whose sins would merit eternal damnation, but I was certain (otherwise why such despair?) I was destined to join that handful cast into dark and everlasting space with our unexpepiated sins forever weighing on our souls. The Swedish Mission President, Gideon Omer (an ex-crane operator who looked, and at times acted--the General Authorities had decided that our mission needed more discipline--like Gert Frobe in his role as the malevolent "Goldfinger"), hurled wrathful prophecies at me on the eve of my departure, which leads to this of his prophesies was inspired by a rumor he'd picked up from his Traveling Elders--the mission 'inquisitors'--that along with being 'head strong,' I had aspirations to be a writer. "I prophesy," he thundered in a voice to rival Odin's, "in my capacity as president and prophet of this mission, that you will never publish a line." Seven years later I sent a story off to "Rogue," a 'men's' magazine, wherein I used Gideon as the model for my antagonist. It was the first story I'd ever submitted for publication, and I was paid $90. I considered sending him a copy--his unflattering portrait pressed between an interview with Timothy Leary and several pages of unclad women, but my kinder self prevailed...Back to the grime. After I arrived in Georgia I lost, for several months to follow, my ability to enjoy the taste of food, or to appreciate music, or see a movie without assuming for myself the guilt that should have been reserved for the villain. Even a Walt Disney movie like "1001 Dalmations" tapped feelings of fear and self-loathing.

Here my story intertwines with yours. With less than a couple of months left to serve, Spencer W. Kimball visited us in Atlanta where I was working as mission recorder [misnomer for treasurer]. And two incidents occurred which--although they took months for my spirit to assimilate--eventually helped me along the road to liberation. The first was a comment he made one evening after dinner in the presence of two or three of us mission staffers. The subject was 'faith,' and Kimball, who must have been in his mid-sixties, had suffered a recent mild heart attack, and he was telling us how difficult it had been for him to confront his mortality. "I can't emphasize enough," he said, mopping Georgia sweat off his brow, "the importance of faith, for I must tell you, I have had no direct witness of the truthfulness of the Gospel. Without faith, not even I would have a testimony." I was stunned. I knew he'd been an apostle for ages, and I just assumed he had a direct line to the Almighty, and who in that circumstance could fear death? Perhaps, had I not been so self-absorbed in guilt, the candor of his words might have set my spirit free right then and there. Or if not there, then later at the airport where he responded to my confession (I had gotten his permission to ride along with him to the airport for the express purpose of bearing my soul) of having had girl friends in Sweden. "Did you penetrate?" was his first and only question. I thought for a moment while my mood shifted, if I may use literature as metaphor, from "The Inferno" to "Popular Mechanics." "No," I said. "Well, all right then. You see we run into problems when missionaries get sexually involved with girls in the mission field. Word spreads and the Church gets a bad reputation. We have an image to protect. You go on back and finish up your mission, and God be with you." He patted my shoulder and turned towards the terminal. I was driven back to the mission home, pondering, pondering.

After my return home, I gradually drifted away from the church with an ever-expanding sense of relief. I have, over the years, at various times started to write about my mission, but plagued by feelings that there is small interest in so parochial a theme, I've never gotten very far. Is there, I wonder, anything published to rival LeGrand Richards's, "A Marvelous Work and a Wonder?" Something on the order of "An Insidious Work and a Blunder," perhaps? I have ample anecdotes for the sort of document that might be useful to someone suffering on a mission, or to someone contemplating going on one. Any suggestions?

Part 2 in response to a request for "Post-Mormon" life

I'll begin with (the roots of) my post-Mormon tale, although the shadow-line between bondage and liberation is rather blurry. True Belief, after a long tenancy, faces eviction with a grim defiance, and once given the boot, leaves its refuse behind. I agree, wait as long as possible before taking in any new borders, for the odds are that they too will turn out to be despots. In my opinion, we're better off never surrendering our will to authority, whether in the guise of an institution, or a charismatic leader.

There is a wide-spread rumor, with more than a little truth to it, that we are a nation of adolescents. Familial bonds, without authentic rites of passage, become cultural bonds, and we never grow up (or--in psychological jargon--individuate). I like what Joseph Campbell, the mythologist-storyteller, had to say on the subject of finding our way, "Find your own trajectory, and stick to it. Find kindred spirits. Follow your bliss." I also agree with what he had to say about Mormonism, "The cults are usually oversimplifications: life could be much simpler, and all of that. Many of them think of going away to far places and setting up a whole new community. This was the case all through the nineteenth century in America. Mormonism is one example that comes to mind. The individual is not able to do anything alone; life consists in a relationship. And even though one is living an individual life--not following the formulae of the past--one has to have some kind of companionship and response. The cult seems to offer that echo to people, and many of those people in cults are not greatly individual; they don't have the courage of their own individuality; they follow the lead of someone who seems to be and individual. That is respect for the individual, you might say, but it's too bad that a possibility of fulfillment doesn't come out of these things. They are all in-group things again: 'We're special, we've got The Message and the world is evil.' [but] the answer isn't there." And lastly, "I taught a course at Sarah Lawrence College on comparative mythology for thirty-eight years. I taught young people of every available creed. More than fifty percent of my students from the New York area were Jewish; many were Christians--Protestant, Catholic; there were Mormons and Zoroastrians and Buddhists. There wasn't much of a problem with the Buddhists, but all the others were somewhat stuck in their provincial traditions."

Back to my shadow-line; while the allure of True Belief lingered after eviction; my free (post-Mormon) self had set roots even before my mission had begun. All it lacked was nourishment, and that for me meant books. Books eventually lighted my path out of the Mormon wilderness.

I entered the Swedish Mission in the Spring of '59, gullible and inarticulate--probably related. I had read but a handful of books, only a smattering of Thoreau, but enough to grasp the notion that there was more to life than endless conformity (these were the 50's, after all, symbolized by 'the organization the grey flannel suit.') I remember bugging my parents, whose attitudes had been shaped by the 'great depression,' and who, given the choice (and it seemed one had to be made) preferred prosperity over philosophy, would counter with, "If Thoreau was so wise, why was he so poor, and why did he die so young?" "He outlived Jesus, didn't he? And I'll bet he made more money." "Don't get wise, buster," and so the jousting went until I eventually dropped the subject.

Following high school, I fell into a typical adolescent funk, got active in church (my father's rule was: 'if you want to borrow the car, you'd better go to church'), and soon latched onto the purpose of converting the world to Mormonism. "If anything ail a man," my forgotten Thoreau had said, "so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even...he forthwith sets about reforming the world."

But a couple of months into my mission, my mind began to hunger for something a little more nourishing than the monotone offerings of James E. Talmadge (the Mormon 'intellectual'--proclaimed in a high-toned manner implying there had only ever been the need for one 'thinker' in the church; living or dead). And so I began slipping into bookstores looking for authors whose minds weren't mired in dogma. I used the scripture, "From the great books get wisdom," to justify (although my companion and I were leading the mission in hours spent proselytizing) my time spent reading. I remember my companion, a lanky farm boy, took a dim view of my practice, "There are only four great books," he declared, his Adam's apple bobbing, "and they are the Standard Works of the church. Everything else is a waste of time."

But I persevered, my mind dividing into camps, one side defending True Belief; the other, Freedom of Thought. "But once you've accepted the Gospel, of what use is Freedom of Thought?" asked T.B. "But how can individuality and creativity flourish in a system that discourages open-mindedness?" asked F. of T. "Individuality? Creativity? Illusions! Don't tell me you've forgotten your vows of obedience?" asked T.B. And so the battle raged, with questions, not answers.

Before my mission was completed, I had collected one suitcase full of books, although during the final months I was too dispirited to read them. But in spite of the bother of lugging them around, it helped somehow having them in my possession. And then, with about five months to go, the Traveling Elders (the Mission Inquisitors) arrived in Florence, Alabama with instructions to straighten me up. (The Mission President could tell which Elders were slacking off from the tone of their weekly letters, and I had long since lost the will to fake testimonials to the joys of missionary life.)

I'd been in Florence for six weeks. It was April, and starlings were nesting in a column on our porch. A guppy had just spawned babies in a pickly jar on our mantle. At a nearby park an aspiring ball player had begun daily workouts, trying to exorcise the devils from his arm before trying out for the local team. Saturday mornings I'd shag balls for him for an hour or so. A retired professor we often met walking about town had given me a book called "Greenwillow" to tuck away until my spirits had revived. Meanwhile, not too far away in the town of Birmingham, Martin Luther King was stirring things up with speeches about racial equality, while in the White House, a new president was charming the nation with his youthful vitality and wit. The only mention of either of these events within the mission came from the Mission President's wife who denounced Kennedy (she'd gotten the word from Utah's Mormon senator, William F. Bennett) for allowing ashtrays to be installed in the White House, and from the President's counselor who, whenever Martin Luther King's name came up, twirled his hat and went into his routine, "This here's no hat, it's a 'gar,' not a 'see-gar' but a 'nee-gar.'"

After we'd asked the Travelling Elders in, the senior stood frozen for awhile in the center of the room, like Moroni on top the temple, gathering wind for his horn, and when properly inflated, he began, "Elder, the Mission President doesn't think you are making the most of your opportunities in the mission field. He thinks the problem is books. Is it true that you have a lot of books." "Yes, I have books," I said. "Can we see them?" I dragged the suitcase from under the bed and opened it up. He walked over and began picking them up, one by one between his disdainful fingers, and asking, "Is this book going to get us converts?" "I guess not." "And what about this one?" "Probably not." "And this one?" "No." "And this?" "I guess not." "I think you're getting the point," he said, flipping "Greenwillow" back onto the pile, "let's take a little trip to the post office, get rid of these things so that we can get you back on the Gospel track."

With a few weeks left, I was allowed to take the S.A.T.'s, and within days of my return home, I started college. I left the church through the back door, so to speak, a few months later after being told by one of the stake leaders (a man I had once admired) that he was 'concerned for my soul' because I was putting too little attention on 'the first principles' in my 'return missionary' talks. After I quit going, my father began addressing me as 'Elder' trying to shame me back to the fold, until he got used to the fact that I wasn't returning.

After college--where I majored in English--I became a social worker (still wanting to change the world, I guess), but after one year, I switched to surveying. And from this point on, the sinuous trail that leads to the present is too lengthy to trace, though books have remained a constant.

A post script in closing; a few years back (twenty-five years had past since I'd been in church), I got an itch to express the resentment that, in spite of everything I'd done to free myself form the church's spell, like refuse, still lingered. So I made an appointment with a bishop and met him in his office. I introduced myself and laid it on him. He, a convert, listened sympathetically and apologized for whatever I felt may have been done against me. He said the church had, since the time of my mission, rethought its attitude towards missionaries, that I ought to give the 'new' church a chance. But that wasn't the point, for...

...if faith, as they like to say, is the knowledge of things unseen, it is also the ignorance of things known, and once the ignorance is removed, the faith is sure to follow. That is why it's so important for cult-like religions to keep their flock in the dark. On the other hand, someone who gains knowledge has a distinct advantage if he wants to play the game, even if he plays with altruistic motives, which I'm certain most do.

For example, I had a companion in Sweden who lived a double life without apparent strain. He was a charismatic fellow who had little trouble converting people to the church (although they usually stopped attending as soon as he was sent to another town), and he suffered no qualms about hanging out in the beer halls with the ladies after the sun had gone down. The mission president was so taken in by his presence that he put me under this tutelage for a couple of months in an effort to straighten me out. He was, last time I talked to him, a bishop. I had called him, as I was wont to do every couple of years, to let him know I still thought kindly of him; to hear his voice and cryptic laugh, but the last time we talked, I made the mistake of asking him point blank, "You don't really believe all those stories about the golden plates and the angels that took them away, do you?" There was an awkward silence, and then he said, "America was built on freedom of religion!" The anger in his voice discouraged my probing his obtuse response, for the point here was that I'd breached the line, broken the code of silence, threatened the vail of deniability. It was our last conversation. I never was any good at the game.

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