To start, it’s important to understand that I was a believer. I believed enough to go to seminary every morning, to read the Book of Mormon almost daily, I served a mission and married in the temple. I did all of the things I was supposed to do because I believed.
As I experienced it, there are two requirements of Mormonism that supersede all else. The first was the pressure to be pure. To Choose the Right is to have the Spirit. To fall short is to be sad, to lose the comforting influence of the Holy Ghost, and to maybe have an embarrassing conversation about sex with whichever plumber or accountant was currently called by God to ask people in your ward who they had touched and where.
The second great requirement of Mormonism was to have a testimony. To KNOW that this church was right and all the others wrong. You might not know yet, but older people in your ward did, and one day you would have to as well.
In the end, failure on either of these two requirements could result in separation from your family. Mormonism doesn’t really have a hell, at least not a very traditional one. It has lesser kingdoms, which are still beautiful, but where you aren’t with your family. Families CAN be together forever. Teach me ALL THAT I MUST DO to live with him someday. Nearly every song and lesson carries the implicit warning that you might not make it, or even that your future wife and kids might be given to another because you couldn’t cut it. Or if you make it you’ll be there without your more rebellious family members.
I believed enough to have the occasional panic attack at the thought of the Second Coming, believing I possibly wasn’t good enough to make it. I believed enough that when cracks formed in my belief of the Book of Mormon, it affected my health. I was a full-time missionary and zone leader, as fully invested in the church as I could possibly be, separated from friends and family. I knew the Book of Mormon intimately, and had read many times a particular passage where Nephi laments “O wretched man that I am”. Nephi, we are to believe, lived in the 6th century BC. Because missionaries are taught to preference the Book of Mormon over the Bible, I had only a superficial understanding of the Bible. But when I finally got around to digging in to the New Testament, there was Paul proclaiming “O wretched man that I am”. That phrase made everything grind to a halt. Nephi had sailed to the New World around 600 BC. Why was Nephi quoting a man who wouldn’t live for hundreds of years? It didn’t stop there, I found the Book of Mormon full of direct quotes from the New Testament, a book ostensibly written hundreds of years after Nephi. The thought of it being written by Joseph Smith, and not translated from plates, was a terrifying proposition.
I read Lectures on Faith, where the brethren are taught that there are two members of the Godhead, God and Jesus, Jesus with a physical body, God a spirit. This was written several years before Joseph’s proclamation that there are three members of the Godhead, and that God is a man, with a body of flesh and bones. Joseph had said that knowing the true nature of God was essential to worshiping him, why did the early church keep changing the true nature of God?
Cracks started to form, but to tell anyone felt like blasphemy. To be half a continent from my family, committed to completing an honorable full-time mission, this kind of realization was devastating. I lost weight and sleep as I limped through the final months of my mission. It’s hard to overstate the physical, mental, and spiritual toll a faith crisis has on a missionary.
I enrolled in University, adding as many archaeology classes into my schedule as I could manage, devouring FARMS reviews (now the Maxwell Institute, at the time dedicated to archaeological and academic work trying to support the veracity of the Book of Mormon). But the more I studied the Book of Mormon, the more I saw the world of Joseph Smith in it, and the less I could justify it as an ancient record. The language, the technology, the agriculture, everything about it pointed to religion and culture of 1800’s New England. I wanted more than anything to believe that it had come from ancient American prophets, but on one issue after another Mormonism seemed to fit a 19th century context, not an ancient one.
I had devoted my life to the church, and my inability to mentally make the Book of Mormon work as an ancient text shattered my worldview and my security. What was worse, I discovered that I was far from the first to have this realization. BH Roberts had written an internal report in the early 20th century detailing the similarities between the Book of Mormon and other books available to Joseph Smith. Other books predating the Book of Mormon had speculated about branches of Israel sailing to the Americas, building cities and splitting into wicked and righteous factions.
In archaeology I learned that pre-Columbian Americans had grown crops like corn, beans squash, wild rice, they had relied on animals like bison in the north, llamas in the south. There was no wheat, no cows or pigs or horses. This was all known long before I had been sent to seminary and institute to bolster my belief that the Book of Mormon was translated from ancient plates.
No one had ever brought up the serious doubts about the origins on the Book of Mormon, it was a trap I had to fall into alone, miles from home, and afraid to mention to anyone my suspicions. It’s hard to overstate the mental anguish many church members suffer when their belief is shattered. I’m sympathetic to the believers who would be hurt by going through the same process I did, but it’s crucial that we stop setting the next generation of kids up for their own painful realizations.
The church at the highest levels seemed to have questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, why did they let me leave home without telling me? How can we continue to send kids out without telling them? The missionary program is recognizing how prevalent mental health issues are among missionaries, they’re allowing more exercise, and more calls home, but without honesty about our founders and founding documents they face an impossible uphill battle.
Every member faces the prospect of a difficult and deeply painful reckoning with the difficult history of the church, the path with the least damage and pain is to do it at an institutional level, where we can guide each other through as a community.
The pathway to spirituality in the church runs right through several “checkpoints” of authority. You get a good feeling, find out the Book of Mormon is true, which tells you Joseph Smith is a prophet, which tells you the brethren are God’s chosen mouthpieces, and you are part of the only true church. What happens when you come to question the Book of Mormon? Or Joseph Smith? Your pathway to spiritual wellness is shattered, you might become a pariah in a culture that subscribes to the one true path. You lose faith in any one of those checkpoints and you’re in danger of losing your entire tribe.
When you lose belief, you quickly learn that testimony, your belief in the foundational mythology, and in the top leadership as literal prophets, is at the core of participation in Mormonism. To speak in church presupposes this belief, speakers are expected to affirm belief and bear testimony. Teachers are expected to affirm literal belief and bear testimony. Status and attendance at church schools has traditionally required belief. To lose one’s testimony can threaten one’s academic career. Temple attendance requires a belief in the foundational claims, and in the leaders as prophets, seers and revelators. This means attending family weddings is often only available to those who believe. We are literally separating families based on things as intimate as thoughts and beliefs.
Even church discipline presupposes belief. In a “court of love”, the defendant is expected to work their way back into good standing. The process in most cases intends for the disciplined individual to rectify their behavior, and in humility seek reinstatement. This humility hinges on a belief in Priesthood authority. Absent testimony the process is little more than an expulsion.
When callings, ceremonies, talks, weddings, university degrees, in many cases social acceptance, are dependent on testimony, to lose testimony is an instant demotion to second class status.
As long as testimony is the central litmus of worthiness, loss of belief is catastrophic.
What if we just focused on finding moments of peace, or inspiration however we can find them? If the Book of Mormon helps you have that experience, great! If you don’t connect with the Book of Mormon? Who cares! You can still search inside the community. The choir inspires you and the General Conference talks don’t? You’re on equal footing with everyone else in the pews. You’re not overlooked for callings because you can’t proclaim with certainty that Joseph Smith was a prophet. You’re worthy to serve just because you’re willing and you show up.
Moments of peace, of inspiration, camaraderie, and growth are at the core of the religious experience. Scripture, prayer, music, the people in pastoral roles are tools to help you get there. Lose belief in the Book of Abraham? It’s a speedbump and not a wall.
I’ll reiterate that the membership is full of wonderful people, there are winds of change at all levels. I don’t see the leadership as uncaring, there is slow creaking change. But testimony can’t be a prerequisite for full standing and participation in the church. Currently it still is and we’re losing many of our best and brightest because of it.
As difficult as the process was for me, there is so much benefit to membership in the church community I would like to see something healthier emerge. Pushing questionable foundation mythology hurts people. I don’t feel the same way about youth programs, dances, home teaching, family home evening, casseroles, the Relief Society, funeral potatoes, and a long list of aspects of the church that I think are great. In part two I hope to offer a vision of what I would like to see.