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Monday, April 27, 2020

23. David’s Story - A Former Branch President’s Journey

            Just a brief introduction for this post as I have a bit of an intro in the last article. This one was written by Chrystal’s husband, David (Chrystal wrote the last blog entry). They left the church together several months after I did. When I moved to Edson, Alberta David was one of the counsellors in the Branch Presidency and soon thereafter was called as the Branch President. So needless to say, he was a fully believing member. He was someone who checked even more boxes of faithfulness and belief than I did. To say that only those that did not have a testimony of the church to begin with, or that we were too weak to continue, is not accurate in the slightest. The only requirement to end in our position is to allow yourself to be open to all available information, a desire to know objective truth, and a hunger to follow the rabbit hole to the very end.

            Being very close friends with David over the past eight plus years, I think it’s fair to say I know who he is as a human being. He has always been someone that exudes caring and integrity. He has always been a person that you could go to when you needed anything and if at all possible, he would be there. If there is someone that I would call Christlike, it would probably be him. Anyways, enough of my bromance. I’ll let David explain how someone can go from a fully faithful and invested member of the LDS church to no longer believing the exclusive truth claims.

            Let me start this off by saying that I admire Dason for writing his blog posts and allowing others to follow his journey through his faith crisis and eventual exit from the LDS church.  It is not an easy thing, as I came to learn and experience for myself.
            My name is David Johnston.  I was born and raised in the LDS faith, graduated seminary, served a mission in Alabama for 2 years, married my wife in the Cardston Temple, and served in many callings in the church, the most notable being a Branch President for seven years (I was released in March 2019 as the Stake Presidency felt it was time to let someone else serve, thank goodness, lol.)  I met Dason when he moved to Edson, but we also have a family connection as our wives are 2nd cousins (only one wife each, don’t get excited).  We instantly became friends and have maintained a strong friendship ever since.  When he moved to Airdrie, we stayed in close contact and visited each other often.

When he opened up to me about his concerns with the church, I admit that I was blindsided and caught off guard. As a good friend I was concerned about his eternal salvation and standing in the church, and I wanted to resolve his concerns and bring him back to the gospel. Through a series of phone calls and emails we talked about some of his concerns, and I quickly realized that he had researched these things in far more depth than I ever had, and I was grossly unprepared to answer his questions.  My failsafe was to revert back to my faith and to bear my testimony of the gospel, but that wasn’t enough to resolve his difficult questions.  In order to maintain our friendship, we determined that it was better that we didn’t discuss these things and to respect each other’s beliefs, which we did and felt comfortable with.  He told me about his blog, and I read some of the posts but stayed away from the three he said could be troubling to believing members.  I tried to understand where he was coming from, and his blog helped a lot in gaining that understanding.
            We went camping with Michelle and Dason in the summer of 2019; and late at night, sitting around the campfire, we talked a lot about some of his basic concerns and how life was going despite his doubts and questions.  It was a very open discussion, and we didn’t try to convince each other of our beliefs.  We were just friends trying to listen and understand one another.  We didn’t resolve any concerns, but it was nice to talk openly about it and reassure them that we were still their friends no matter what happened.  In the next few days, I wrestled in my brain trying to understand why Dason felt the way he did.  Was it because of sin?  Was he just being lazy? Were the demands of living the gospel wearing on him and he was tired of it?  Did he want to drink coffee or alcohol to fit in with work colleagues and this had led him to question his beliefs?  Did he not get along with people in his ward and this led to them not feeling welcome and therefore not wanting to attend church?  My wife and I repeatedly said that if Dason and Michelle had not moved away from our town that this probably would have never happened because they were happy here and seemed very strong in the church.  I tried to think of ways to help him but mostly concluded that I needed to be his friend without judgment or criticism because that was what Dason and Michelle needed most.

            About a month after our camping trip, I was scrolling through Facebook and noticed a friend of mine from college talking about leaving the church, and he mentioned something called the CES Letter.  This friend was very strong in the church at one point but had since left. He had some sharp criticism of the church and its history, which really surprised me.  I had never heard of the CES Letter, so out of curiosity I clicked on the link to see what it was about.  I knew it was probably something against the church, but I felt confident in my testimony and beliefs that nothing could shake me!  I scrolled through a few topics, but I found one that I had never heard about before; Blood Atonement.  I read through part of the section and was shocked!  I immediately texted Dason to ask if he had heard about this practice, and his reply was basically, “Let’s slow this down. Are you sure you want to know about this?  It’s not too late to ignore it, stop researching, and just move on within the church.”  I pressed the question because I really wanted to know, so he answered a few things, all the while telling me that if I wasn’t comfortable with it then we should just drop it and that some of these things were very hard for a true-believing member of the church to hear, so I thanked him for being honest with me, and we ended the conversation.

            This is an aspect of Dason that I hope anyone reading this understands, he is not someone whose purpose in life is to get people out of the church. Even when I came to him with a huge issue, essentially on a silver platter, his goal was not to get me to stop believing. He told me that we could slow down and that maybe I didn’t want to go down this path considering how hard it is. He gave me every opportunity to shut that difficult conversation down and to walk away without going any further.

            The next day I was still curious, so I went back to Facebook and read some of the comments under my friend’s post about the CES Letter. There were over 100 comments, and I read all of them.  Some people were arguing for the church, some were arguing against it, but the one thing that stood out to me was my friend telling others to read the Gospel Topics Essays in order to find out these less known aspects about church history.  I remembered receiving an email years ago about the church producing essays on difficult church history topics, and I even remember clicking on the link and seeing the essays on the church website, but I didn’t read them or give them much attention.  His comments on the essays piqued my interest, so I went to the church website and found them.  I picked the topic of polygamy since that had always been a black spot on the church, and I honestly didn’t know a lot about the practice despite my growing up in the church and serving in many leadership positions.  As I read about Joseph Smith practicing polygamy, polyandry, and the church trying to justify his actions, I became sick inside and couldn’t believe that all of this was factual.  I always thought it was Brigham Young that began polygamy, but here I read about Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives as well as girls as young as 14; that Joseph claimed that an angel with a flaming sword commanded him to practice polygamy, but God didn’t give any specific instruction on how to fulfill it; and how in the beginning it was a very secretive and selective practice.  One of the worst things was reading about Joseph being sealed to many of his multiple wives before he was sealed to Emma, as he didn’t tell her until numerous years after beginning the practice.  With her being his first wife, I would have thought that she would be the first woman sealed to him, but she wasn’t.  It was shocking and repulsive all at the same time!

            I decided to read more of the essays, and more shock and confusion resulted.  The different accounts of the first vision, the method of translating the Book of Mormon being completely different than what I was taught, black people being banned from the priesthood, and the other essays about polygamy.  I couldn’t believe what I was reading, right there on the church’s website!  I served my mission in Alabama where I encountered many zealous people who wanted to argue against the LDS church and its truth claims and presented evidence to me as to why it was false.  I remember talking to my mission president, and he reassured me that the things they were saying were all lies.  I remember some of the issues vividly because I had to defend them on a weekly basis; but as I read the essays, I started to see some of the issues I had heard about were not lies but were facts in church history and acknowledged by the church! To say this was shocking is a gross understatement.  I felt sick.  I felt betrayed.  I felt lied to.  I felt doubt and confusion. 

I did what any good LDS member does to try and combat these feelings, I prayed, fasted, read the scriptures, and prayed a bunch more, but the reassurance that the church was true never came.  The spirit never witnessed the truth to me and that these things were actually lies.  In fact, I felt empty and alone with no reassurance from God that the church was actually true.  How could this be?  I was reading from the church’s own website.  It was their information, not someone who could be described as “anti-Mormon.”

It was at this time that my wife and I went on a backpacking trip in Jasper National Park. For three days it was nothing but me, her, and the mountains; no electronics or tv to distract us.  So, as we were hiking, I hesitantly brought up some of the things I had read and my concerns regarding what this then meant about the church.  She listened, and then she shared some of the things that she felt were wrong about the church. She opened up a lot about her real feelings toward the LDS faith.  I always knew she had some issues with the church, but nothing strong enough to make her want to leave.  But with my doubts and concerns she lovingly listened and encouraged me to do more research and find out the truth for myself.

            After our hike I felt determined to read and learn more.  It was at this time that I went to Dason’s blog and read the three difficult posts that earlier he had warned me not to read.  As I read them, I found that he brought up some things that I had already read about in the church’s essays, but I realized that it was just the tip of the iceberg compared to what he had researched and discovered.  I was enthralled!  Reading those three posts was like watching a train wreck.  I was horrified by what I read, but I couldn’t stop or look away.  How did I not know about these things?  How could I have been raised in the church, served a mission, served in leadership positions and not know about these issues with the church?  My bubble essentially burst, and a wave of information came pouring in that left me drowning in doubt, anger, fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and most of all complete shock.  It took me about a week to process everything, which resulted in an even greater desire to know more and more about why some people I know had also left the church.  I talked to four friends and acquaintances, and they all told lengthy stories about what led them to leave the church and to no longer believe it’s truth claims.  I was curious and intrigued by what they told me, and I found that many of them had the same issues and experiences that I was currently having.  The biggest question for me though was how did their family respond?

            My family is very strong in the LDS faith.  My father served as a branch president several times; my mother comes from a pioneer heritage; my brother is a bishop; my brother-in-law is a counsellor in a bishopric; and my parents serve in the Edmonton Temple.  They are fully in, and my mom prides herself in the fact that all of her children were strong in the gospel and did all the things that good Mormon people do.  To say that I was terrified to talk to them about my doubts is an understatement. I had heard them talk about people in their ward who left the church.  The criticism and shaming were evidence of their own attitudes towards people who leave the church no matter what their reasons were.  How on earth could I talk to them about this when I know they would push back heavily that the church was true, that I should already know this, and ask how I could ever question that “knowledge” that I have?  I already knew that they would question me about my life and what I had been doing to try to keep my testimony.  I knew all of the things they would ask because they were the same things that I advised people to do as a branch president.  I knew what I was supposed to do (read scriptures, pray, fast, etc.) I did that, and no reassurance or answers came from it.

I decided to write a letter to my family.  It was nearly five pages long, but it laid out what had happened, how my feelings had changed, and that I no longer believed that the LDS church was the only true church on the earth.  I first sent it to my parents a day before I was going to stop by and see them so that they would have a chance to read it and process.  When I stopped by their house to talk to them, there were a lot of tears, questions, and disappointment that I hadn’t come to them sooner (so that they could have helped me through this).  They asked me to give it three months, to pray and go to church and read my scriptures, and that after that time period we would see where I stood.  I agreed because they are my parents and I love them, and I wanted to appease them at that moment while I went through this process.

            The next few months I tried to find answers both for and against the way I felt and what I had learned.  It was a confusing time because it made me question everything that I had ever known and stood for.  Going to church lost its luster, and the meetings weren’t as inspiring or helpful.  Prayer didn’t help, and the scriptures didn’t provide answers like they used to.  I talked to my branch president (who was my 1st counsellor when I served as BP) and he was very understanding and just listened to my concerns.  He has friends and family that have left the church, so he wasn’t critical or judgmental.  It was nice to talk to him, but it didn’t help persuade me one way or the other.  My wife asked to be released from her calling, and my calling as young men’s president was dissolving with the new changes to the church’s youth program.  I tried to do as my parents asked, but there was no witness to me that the church was true. I found no convincing faith promoting answers to the difficult questions I had. I tried to doubt my doubts as Elder Uchtdorf had said, but the doubts made much more sense than the church’s truths. 

After much reading and soul searching, I came to the realization that the church didn’t provide “informed consent” to its members.  I work in the health care field, and informed consent is where you explain to your patients (after asking them a lot of questions about their health concerns) what the procedures are that you would like to do for them in order to help them with their problems.  You then explain what the alternatives are, the risks involved with those procedures, and then ask if they have any questions regarding what you’ve explained to them.  If you only tell them all the good things about your procedures and none of the bad things or the risks involved, then of course they are going to trust that everything will be fine because that’s the only information they have to go on.  I feel this has been my experience with the church.  I only knew all the good or “faith promoting” information about the history and doctrines of the church.  I had been exposed to some of the bad or “anti-Mormon” information, but I was always told to dismiss it because it was falsehoods and lies conceived by Satan and evil people trying to tear down the church.  Now that I was learning the alternatives, from church approved sources, and seeing that some of the history and doctrines of the church led me to believe it was not led by God, I could now make an informed decision about the church without having to rely on faith and personal “feelings.” 

This informed decision led me to conclude that the church was not what it claimed to be.  It is a church, just like other Christian church out there, and it was conceived and designed by a man.  This man made mistakes, sought to glorify himself and his standing, and he certainly wasn’t a prophet called by God.  Sure, the church has grown and holds some good principles and values, but it is not the one and only true church.  And if the restoration is not real, and the priesthood is made up, and the covenants of salvation and exaltation are just empty rituals, then why should I give so much time and money towards this organization?  I came to the conclusion that I don’t have to, that I don’t need to, and that I can be very happy outside of the church.  This has been incredibly liberating and surprising all at the same time!

            Still the most difficult thing about leaving has been my family and other faithful church members and the way that they look at me.  You would think that Christlike love would prevail, and I know some of them try, but it’s difficult and will take a lot of time, I’m sure.  Like Dason, I didn’t leave the church because I was lazy, or because I wanted to sin, or because I lost the spirit and Satan took a hold of me.  I left because I found out that the church isn’t what it claims to be.  Believe me when I say that I was all in.  The church was my life, and every life decision revolved around the church and its teachings.  It would have been much easier to just keep going and ignore all the things that I have read, but why?  Why subject myself to rules of strict obedience, sacrificing time and money, living the church’s commandments, and making and keeping ordinances and covenants when it’s not true? 

            My parent’s biggest argument was that we will never find true happiness outside of the church.  I’ll be the first to admit that this process has been life shattering, and I’ve experienced every emotion imaginable, but in the past six months since leaving the church, I can honestly say that now we are much happier than we ever were while in the church.  We live our lives founded on good moral principles.  We still teach our children to be honest and kind people.  I hope that one day my family and friends can understand that and appreciate where I stand because I will always respect their decision to stay in the church. I will never try to convince them that the church isn’t true as I realize it brings them happiness. I love and respect them for that but it doesn’t work for me anymore. For me the church is not what it claims to be, and that is my truth. It is what I believe is the objective and actual truth. This is my new reality, and that is why I can never go back.

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