Waking Up From the Mormon Dream During the Pandemic
A year ago, I was living the Mormon Dream in Rexburg, Idaho. I felt right with myself, the Lord, and my community. It seemed as if constant blessings were being poured out of Heaven for me, and I had a fullness of hope that the path I was on would lead me to a peak of personal growth in this life, and everlasting joy in the next life.
I was constantly engaged in just about all of the best things Mormons were supposed to be engaged in and more. I was studying full-time at BYU-I with tuition fully covered, working part-time as a model for the art department on campus, volunteering as an ordinance worker in the temple every Saturday (and regularly visiting as a patron, carrying family names), attending every campus devotional in person with a notebook and pen in hand, keeping up with the Come Follow Me curriculum, taking Institute just for fun, actively fulfilling my ministering assignments, singing in the ward quoir as well as the Sunday night stadium gatherings, showing up to all of my mission reunions, and still finding time to have a fruitful social life. Oh, and I squeezed a few more minutes each day to keep my New Years goal to read the Old Testament from beginning to end. No, I didn’t have a wife and a couple kids, a fiance, or even a girlfriend yet. This seemed to be the only part of my Heavenly Father’s plan for me missing, but I went on more than a few dates, faithfully expecting to meet my eternal companion as a blessing for serving the Lord for two years in Colorado.
That was all before the mass spread of Covid-19 in the United States, before my 22nd birthday, and before the collapse of my lifelong testimony, which all took place within a few weeks.
It was mid-March when the First Presidency announced the closure of church buildings, temples, and MTC’s worldwide and when the BYU-I administration announced that campus would discontinue in-person classes and gatherings for the rest of the semester. The day the latter became clear, I was relieved from my modeling shift early, and one of my roommates and I rushed over to our FHE sisters’ apartment to administer blessings of comfort at their request. Many of them were coping with the sudden urgency to go home to their families to wait out the restrictions in response to the pandemic, while others were still figuring out what to do. There were many tears and hugs exchanged that night, which set the tone for the gravity of the situation.
For the remainder of the week, I tried to spend as much time doing ordinance work in the temple as possible before it closed after the following Saturday, the day of my last shift. When I arrived for the preparation meeting at 9:00 AM that morning, I was told that I would begin the day as a follower for an endowment session. I had received some training for that duty weeks prior but the timing felt sudden; I didn’t even have time to ask questions or review what I learned. Still I determined that I must be up for the task.
A follower in an endowment session sits upfront against the walls to the left or right of the seated patrons. At the time, before changes were made later that year (of which I have only read anecdotal accounts concerning) followers exchanged the tokens to each patron and opened the doors to the Terrestrial Room. It was my responsibility as the Melchizedek Priesthood holding male follower to lead the group prayer at the altar. When I received my training, one of my shift-coordinators, who was very knowledgeable, instructed me and the other ordinance workers present. He taught us that that prayer is a sacred ritual that has existed since the dispensation of Adam, and that it has always been practiced whenever there has been righteous men with priesthood authority on the Earth, according to the late Church President, Wilford Woodruff. We were also taught that that prayer is not just a symbolic exercise of faith, but that it is a vital instrument to changing the course of world events by calling on God’s power. Such teachings filled me with awe and tasted sweet to me at the time. How beautiful it was to think the God I worshipped had instituted such a close conduit for all of His children to receive His blessings. The responsibility to receive inspiration to align my will with my Heavenly Father’s as I prepared to utter the prayer on my knees was a solemn one that intimidated me. Yet I was also proud and eager for the opportunity to be able to help bless the world through my faith.
Over the past few days and during the progression of the endowment session, the anxiety, fear and devastation of the quickly spreading pandemic weighed on my mind heavily. I felt confident that it was a priority for me to pray for the swift relief of Covid-19 within God’s timing and for many lives to be spared in the meantime. Though I was clumsy and nervous as I positioned myself at the altar within the circle (a few seasoned patrons generously helped me out) I managed to vocalize such a request to the best of my ability, among other blessings commonly pleaded for in the group prayer.
I felt embarrassed by my amateurish execution after the session ended, but a senior temple worker kindly assured me that my prayer had been heard and sustained by the Lord. Hours later, I ended my last shift by introducing patrons through the veil, my favorite assignment. Before changing clothes and exiting the temple, I decided to spend a few minutes in the Celestial Room, which would be my last time. I sat alone while many family and friends of patrons who had received their first endowment cheerfully gathered and conversed with each other in high volume whispers and while many young couples not much older than me sat closely with their arms around each other. Though I had no direct company, I felt close with Heavenly Father as I had many times before in that room.
After exchanging brief farewells with a few ordinance workers who hadn’t already left, I exited the temple as large droppings of wet snow fell from a now grey sky overcasting my surroundings. It reminded me of when Adam and Eve had entered the Lone and Dreary World, away from the presence of Elohim and Jehovah in the Garden of Eden. For some reason I can’t fully articulate, I refused a ride to my apartment when it was offered by fellow students passing through on the road (a common occurrence in Rexburg that I miss).
Over the next couple weeks, the exodus of students moving from Rexburg increased dramatically, especially as rumors spread of highways closing. Some of my friends left too quickly to exchange goodbyes. I haven’t seen many of them since. Meanwhile, I was still deciding whether I should go home or commit to my Spring apartment contract. Earlier in the semester, I renewed my contract early and I planned to continue studying at least part-time even though I had some flexibility with the terms of my track. I had prayed about whether that was the right decision to make before, and I took the Spirit’s silence on the matter as an indication that it was up to me. So I went for it, feeling good about my decision.
But the unfolding aftermath of campus closing made me feel uncertain about that decision. I knew that before I could make a final decision, I had to wait to see what options would be offered, if any, for changing my contract, something that many students living under Rexburg Approved Housing complexes were awaiting news on.
During one of the Zoom gatherings for my Humanities class, my professor asked how everyone participating remotely was handling current events. One girl who spoke up quickly found herself sobbing uncontrollably. As I recall, she said that many missionaries serving in Argentina, including her brother, were stuck there as airlines were closing in response to the rapid spread of the virus. The professor offered to give an impromptu prayer for her brother and the Argentinian missionaries to be safe as well as for others in difficult circumstances to be blessed. My eyes still water as I ponder the sincerity and love my professor projected with that prayer.
To keep the Spirit close to me during such turbulent times, I continued to attend the temple grounds frequently. I would often dress in a full suit, and I would kneel on the ground with my hands locked over a bench across from the back entrance to the then closed temple, and I would pray vocally, often for peace and guidance and for inspiration to serve others who were in need of help. Afterwards, I would sit on the bench and I would silently recall the names of the signs and tokens, as well as the words of the covenants associated with the initiatory and endowment ordinances that I had memorized verbatim (I had a goal to memorize all of the saving ordinances, which I nearly succeeded at with the exception of sealings). Then I would sit for a few more moments in silence, except for when there were others nearby of course. Usually, I would ask God if there was any wisdom He wished to bestow on me before walking back to my apartment. I would try to keep listening for His voice throughout the day.
I still didn’t know what choice to make in regards to my contract by my birthday on March 24th, but at least I was able to celebrate with a few of my friends still in town. I invited about ten friends (in order to adhere to the social distancing guidelines) to hang out with me in the lounge of my complex. My two remaining roommates helped me provide an abundance of food and games. My direct roommate and longtime friend from back home, even baked a chocolate cake decorated with a #22 candle for me. It was a quaint but cheerful party that was much needed for me, and I would like to think for all of us, at the time. It was also the best birthday I had in years, maybe the best I’ve ever had.
To describe the events of the next day, I will quote heavily from my journal. It's worth noting that when I wrote journal entries during my time in Rexburg, I often took President Henry J. Eyring’s advice from a campus devotional to embellish my journal by making it a “little happier, a little more inspiring”, or something to that effect. Make what you will of that advice, I certainly feel differently about that now than I did then.
March 25th: “Today, I found out my options for my housing contract for the Spring, and [I] have made my decision after much prayer and reflection. I could either sell my contract, move it to a future semester for a 35% fee or cancel it with a 60% fee. This made things very flexible, meaning that it was still up to me. I called mom to let her know, and she informed me that the coronavirus was confirmed in [my home county] now and that even one of dad’s bosses was home with a fever. I told her I would go to the temple and pray about whether I should stay or not. So I quickly got dressed and moved forward with a drive. I teared up as I walked uphill against the strong gusts of wind because I knew that I wanted to stay, but I feared for the well-being of mom.
When I made it to the temple grounds, the gates were locked to the steps that ascended to the bench I had been praying on across from the backdoors to the baptistry, surely due to the temple being fully closed now. This made my heart sink more, but I knew any spot on the grounds would be suitable for my purposes. So I kneeled on the ground facing the wall lower to the ground of the baptistry floors, with the towering upper floors of the temple visible if I looked up over the wall. I cried and told Heavenly Father that I would be in the walls of His house to pray in the Celestial room if I could, but that I had the faith to come to the temple grounds to hear His voice and to know His will for me. I told Him that I desired to stay in Rexburg and that I felt it was the best choice I could make despite everyone leaving and everything changing. But I also shared my fear and concern for my family…”
Both of my parents, especially my mom, are at risk of exceptional health complications in the event of contracting the virus. I prayed to receive feelings of peace to confirm that they would be alright, and that I would be able to see them again if I stayed through the Spring.
“...The wind tossed around and brushed bluntly against me as I strived to listen and [ultimately] received no clear feelings or impressions. To consider all possibilities, I asked if I should go home to New York. Still no answer. I asked if my decision made any difference. Still the rhythm of the wind. I shifted to a pressing feeling of anguish as I considered that I just needed to make my decision in faith without a confirmation beforehand, as I did originally when I extended my lease a couple of months ago. I took a few moments to gain [the] courage to declare that I felt I should make my decision in faith and that I would, trusting that my family would be ok and that I would be guided to gain all I could and serve exactly as I was prompted to. I sobbed and soon closed my prayer and [I] walked away, as if I had swallowed a bitter pill, with the nourishment and peace I was looking for remaining elusive.
After crossing the street and starting to walk down hill to head home, I stopped and stood still, feeling that I should turn back to gain the assurance I was looking for that I told Heavenly Father I had the faith and desire to receive. As I walked back, I had an unusual idea that I decided to act on when I knelt again in prayer in the same spot.
I apologized for going back on my vocalized faith for turning away so soon without assurance. I told Heavenly Father that perhaps I was not capable of receiving a confirmation from the Holy Ghost at this time and [I] asked Him as humbly and non offensively as I could for a sign. I asked for the wind to cease for a few moments if it was right for me to stay in Rexburg through the Spring and for the wind to increase twofold if I should go home to New York through the Spring…”
Lets just say this experiment in sign seeking still left me fairly uncertain due to inconsistent observations, though after trying it, I felt more confident that I should stay in Rexburg and I definitely felt content enough to go back home before seeking more revelation. It was when I read over my patriarchal blessing that I finally felt I received the full assurance I was looking for. Here is one of the many impressions that I received.
“...as I finished reading [my blessing, I felt] that my family and loved ones would be well in the end [on] the day of the resurrection. It was one of my most insightful and powerful experiences reading my blessing...I knelt down against my bed side, in gratitude for the multiple impressions and signs I had received, and [I] said that I felt better to move forward with more trust, not only in my decision, but in Heavenly Father’s will to look after and preserve my family...A couple minutes after closing my prayer...weight lifted from me subtly but distinctly as I came to a full acceptance and realization that I had no fear or concern left for my family, including my mom, I felt overwhelming tender joy and peace come over me. I sobbed and planted my face on my bed as I felt the warmth of the Holy Ghost…
...I’ve realized...more clearly in hindsight the reason I did not have assurances when I prayed about extending my lease months ago, yet I realize that my promptings to do so have been from the Lord all along. I also realize that despite my feelings about my choice and the signs I received, I could not receive the peace and comfort I was looking for until I forfeited all fear first and replaced it with unchallenged and unwavering faith…
...A few minutes ago, as I have been finishing this entry, [my roommate] came home and informed me that the governor of Idaho has ordered a 21 day lockdown starting tomorrow...I am not anxious. I have been temporally and spiritually prepared for such news. I am ready.”
That was the last thing I ever wrote in my journal. Everything else following is a retrospective of just a few things I would have likely recorded if I had picked up the pen again.
By April 2nd, I had adjusted to staying in my apartment for over a week since the start of the lockdown. I focused on keeping up with my virtual classes and final assignments while also enjoying the extra time to pray and study my scriptures (not that I had struggled much to make time before when I was busy). That day was an especially great day for me. A new pair of elders from my branch back home reached out to get to know me and I accepted their spontaneous offer for me to take a virtual lesson from them. I felt the Spirit as they shared their simple message and I acted on their invitation afterwards to read a particular chapter in the book of Helaman.
I posted dozens of pictures from my mission on Facebook that I hadn’t gotten around to sharing publicly before. I also expressed how much my testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel had increased throughout my two years in Colorado and since being honorably released a year prior as of that day. That post got lots of likes and positive comments. It was the last testimony affirming the Church and its claims that I ever shared online, and certainly the last one I bore with any sincerity.
Sometime that day, likely after I posted my photos, I saw some activity from a Facebook group that one of my friends was a member of. The group was for Biblical discussion between Latter-day Saints and Christians from other denominations. I had glanced at posts and conversations from the group on occasion. Since returning home from Colorado, I also got exposed to diverse and sometimes critical commentary towards the Church from google search results, discussions I followed on Reddit and Quora, and even videos recommended to me by Youtube’s algorithm. Most of what I had come across didn’t phase me. A lot of it was more of the same grievances I heard expressed by individuals I spoke with as a missionary.
But for some reason, on that particular day, and that particular time, the post and following comments from that group I read made a big impression on me. The non-LDS Christian who posted remarked bluntly that the Church’s claims to an exclusive priesthood authority to administer saving ordinances that no other Church possessed was functionally a placebo cure for problems that were mere inventions of the Church’s theology. Many others agreed and added their snarky sentiments. I noticed that a lot of the LDS members of the group struggled to provide convincing or persuasive responses, though not for a lack of effort nor for any hesitance to use a multitude of scriptures at their disposal from both the Bible and canonized LDS books.
No, that's not when my testimony started to unravel or when my metaphorical “shelf” caved from the weight of unresolved questions and concerns, though it didn’t take long for that swift domino effect to follow. I only saw the commentary as potentially justified criticisms from an outside point of view. I desired in good faith to do research so I could respond to such perspectives in a way that I could feel intellectually and spiritually honest about, and possibly with enough effectiveness for others to respect, and maybe with just enough persuasive ability backed by divine truth to help such individuals reconsider their positions so they could open their hearts and minds to the fullness of the gospel available to them.
Bless my naive mormon self.
I started my research close to midnight and kept it up into the morning. Going in, I thought of it as just additional personal study, something I could never seem to get enough of. But as the hours slipped by, it became much bigger than that. In just one night, there was a lucid clarity and heavy soberness that struck me as newfound knowledge changed how I saw almost everything about the Church. Many of these topics included Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s polygamous marriages as well as their general honesty and integrity (or lack thereof), the reliability of the witnesses to the gold plates that allegedly sourced the content of the Book of Mormon, anachronisms and textual problems with the Book of Mormon, an extensive amount of issues with the Book of Abraham, as well as doctrinal teachings that justified the priesthood ban, temple restrictions and other discriminatory policies towards those of African heritage and at times other people of color.
One important point I want to stress is that few of the things I learned that night were completely unfamiliar to me. Not only were many of the facts I consumed related to other facts I acquired gradually over the previous year and throughout my mission, but they brought back to the forefront redflags that I had wrestled with since youth, maybe as long as I could remember. It was like finally seeing the bigger picture to an elaborate puzzle after connecting just a few more crucial pieces.
That morning on April 3rd, I was simply coping with my worldview beginning to fall apart. At first I had trouble feeling anything in particular but the pain surfaced gradually. I didn’t consider myself a non-believer yet, but I couldn’t securely hold onto my core beliefs like I did the day before. It was like my beliefs shattered like glass all around me, leaving me burdened to salvage all the pieces I could with my bare hands and not knowing where to start.
Still, I believed in God at least and I wanted with all of my heart for the Church to be true, even if a part of me knew deep down that I was close to hitting a dead end. I knelt down by my bed, expressing that in spite of my life-long faith and devotion, I found myself dealing with more questions and concerns at once than any time prior. I prayed desperately to receive divine peace and assurance of the truthfulness of the Church and its teachings that could only come through the Holy Ghost over the general conference weekend, which would begin the next day. I didn’t need all of my answers questioned or all of my concerns resolved, or even most of them for that matter. I could be patient enough to receive wisdom in God’s time, I just simply needed something to hold onto, something to give me enough of a spark to keep moving forward with trust in God and in His anointed servants. I just needed to be heard, and to receive something back.
Afterall, President Nelson had said at the end of the last conference in October that the April 2020 conference would be a historic bicentennial celebration of Joseph Smith’s first vision. President Nelson stated that for those who followed his instructions to prepare spiritually, the experience would “not only be memorable but unforgettable”. I had prepared spiritually for the last six months with eager anticipation for the conference. I had even attended a poignant and uplifting evening stake conference session on campus earlier in the semester that was focused building students' faith to receive revelation for the April conference as well as the traditional Disciple Leadership Conference. Surely, there was no reason I couldn’t take away something that would renew and strengthen my now damaged testimony.
If I had received the crumb of inspiration I needed as a blessing for my mustard seed of faith that weekend, you would not be reading this article right now. Perhaps instead, you would be reading an entirely different story from the faith promoting mormon blog I only dreamed of creating.
I do not recall nor do I find it necessary to relay every impression I had about every talk I watched over that weekend. Generally, I would say that I found the Saturday morning and afternoon sessions to be mostly unremarkable besides noting the lack of a live audience and musical performances. That was ok though. I knew the evening session had to be big since it had been announced for some time that it would be a special session for all members of the Church. President Nelson had teased in his opening message that there would be special announcements shared later that had apparently not come yet, and anyone whose kept up with Church developments since 2018 knows that Nelson has announced more than a few historic changes to the Church. If something “unforgettable” didn’t take place during the evening session, I didn’t know when else to expect it.
The evening session started off with perhaps the best talk I remember from that conference, from the apostle Elder Gong. It wasn’t exceptional to me and I didn’t think there was much said that a leader of another Christian faith couldn’t have said, but I could at least say it was solid. However, the rest of the talks that session were even less than inspiring, and even disheartening to me. Two youth speakers, Laudy and Enzo, each gave a talk. I had never seen teenagers speak in general conference before and I would have perhaps thought it was neat, if only their messages didn’t come off so generic and their deliveries so rehearsed, like their talks were scripted for them. After a few more speakers proceeded, President Nelson finally came to the pulpit. This was it, it had to be! Here are a few excerpts from the talk sourced straight from the Church’s website.
“What a unique and wonderful session this has been! Thank you, dear Laudy and Enzo. You represented the magnificent young women and young men of the Church so very well…
...[Nelson reveals the new Church logo depicting Christ standing with an arch shape around him]...This symbol should feel familiar to many, as we have long identified the restored gospel with the living, resurrected Christ.
The symbol will now be used as a visual identifier for official literature, news, and events of the Church. It will remind all that this is the Savior’s Church and that all we do as members of His Church centers on Jesus Christ and His gospel.
Now, my dear brothers and sisters, tomorrow is Palm Sunday, as Elder Gong has so eloquently taught. Then we enter the special week that culminates with Easter. As followers of Jesus Christ, living in a day when the Covid-19 pandemic has put the whole world in commotion, let us not just talk of Christ or preach of Christ or employ a symbol representing Christ.
Let us put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ into action!”
No one can imagine how much I was leaning on the edge of my seat to hear what President Nelson would say next. He took his time to teach principles related to fasting before he spelled out what was intended to be his climatic invitation.
“In my [recent] video message, I invited all to join in fasting on Sunday, March 29, 2020...Now we still need help from heaven.
So tonight, my dear brothers and sisters...I am calling for another worldwide fast...I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday, April 10, that the pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized...Let us unite in pleading for healing throughout the world...Dear brothers and sisters...This is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He stands at its head and directs all that we do. I know that he will respond to the pleading of His people. I so testify in the sacred name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
And that was it. A new logo and a second worldwide fast for Covid-19. I was surprised to see my roommates and hundreds of my LDS friends on social media express high spirited enthusiasm for the announcements (I remember an especially cringey meme shared of Nelson’s head cropped in place of Captain America’s from a screenshot of Avengers Endgame). I felt that much of the buzz from Church members was a result of high desperation and low expectations.
Of course many could accuse me of setting my expectations too high. I don’t want to argue with anyone who draws that conclusion, but I would like to attempt to justify my immense dissatisfaction. Though I had cheerfully participated in the first fast just a week prior, I was less than thrilled to fast again so soon for a few reasons. For one thing, I thought such a close gap between the two fasts was very puzzling. Some might suggest that fasting twice in a row isn’t much different than when Naaman was instructed by the prophet-king to bathe in the river Jordan seven times to cure him of his leprosy. However, I felt this was very different. For one thing, Nelson did not ask people to fast twice in just one message. He called for the first fast in March with no hint that there would be another one announced a week later at the long anticipated general conference. Either Nelson had planned this ahead of time, or he felt spiritually prompted to include the second invitation at the last minute.
If Nelson wasn’t confident enough that the first fast would stick so soon after the fact despite the high viewership for his Youtube video, then wasn’t he lacking faith, not me? Even before the first fast, I had the faith to ask for worldwide relief from the pandemic at the altar in the temple, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. M. Russel Ballard, the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, wrote in his book Our Search For Happiness (which is still one of the few books in the missionary reference library as far as I know) that the president of the Church was just as capable of parting seas and moving mountains like prophets of old such as Moses. He had self-reportedly stated this quite boldly to the astonishment of a man who interviewed him on the radio. Could Nelson not use his priesthood authority to remove the virus from the earth if he wished? Of course the will of God would still have to be considered. Many mormons say that the pandemic is a sign of the times before Christ’s second coming. But if that’s the case, what was the point in fasting at all if there was no apparent miracle to come? Wouldn’t have the Lord told Nelson that there was nothing to be done but to endure faithfully?
Now that vaccinations have begun distribution since then, some believe that this is God’s answer to the worldwide fasts and prayers, though I’m not convinced. In fact, I don’t see any particular reason why divine intervention needs to be attributed to recent developments at all. But even before the present time that I now have the luxury to comment on, there were a great many other things related to this that troubled me that night on April 4th.
I thought about Nelson’s opening remarks for the Saturday morning session; it seemed to me like he had tacitly admitted that he didn’t see the pandemic coming in a way that came off as very out of touch. I also thought about the distressed girl from my Humanities class and all of the missionaries I later read were evacuated in various ways out of Argentina and other countries as a result of the Church’s initial inaction. Not to mention the many missionaries in the U.S., including some of my friends, who were still knocking doors as the virus was reported to be spreading quickly. If Nelson couldn’t see the pandemic coming as a prophet, seer and revelator, couldn’t he use his expertise as a former surgeon to better protect members of the Church? He never seemed shy to refer to his lifelong career, so why not put it to use in the most critical of times? At the very least, couldn’t he tell members to wear a mask and adhere to social distancing guidelines? Nelson was the best suited president of the Church to respond to this global problem, but it seemed to me like he refused to do the bare minimum due to a lack of decisiveness or initiative.
I grew yet more frustrated as I considered the Church’s wealth and assets at its disposal. I read the Washington Post article in December 2019 concerning the whistleblower from Ensign Peak Advisors, one of the Church’s many investment arms. The Church turned out to have over $100 billion in assets within EPA alone, that was supposedly being reserved for “Christ’s second coming” according to EPA officials. This had baffled me at the time, though I didn’t let it bother me since my parents and many of my friends in the Church didn’t think the leak was that big of a deal (and of course I was still quite invested in my lifestyle as a BYU-I student and active Church member). But I couldn’t ignore the ramifications of this knowledge any longer. Now I was not only troubled by Nelson’s lack of foresight and his wishy-washy solutions towards the pandemic, but I was left to wonder why he didn’t use the Church’s abundant resources to boost the economy, manufacture masks, feed those who lost their jobs and homes and to fund vaccine research and development. I will admit that I am not well versed in economics or business and I will acknowledge that since April, the Church has publicly made significant and worthwhile financial contributions and volunteer efforts in response to some of those problems in several countries. However, I don’t necessarily think that the Church has done all it could or should have considering what It has to offer.
But that is beside the point. The point is, at that time following the Saturday conference sessions, I felt deeply disappointed, distrustful, and confused. Not only did general conference so far fail to give me the scrap of spiritual relief I needed, it had piled on even more problems and doubts that I couldn’t shake away. This was not the last straw for me though. That occurred the morning of the next day.
During the night of April 4th, I felt that almost all of the pillars to my testimony had collapsed, or were weakly held together at best. The only major pillar I felt I had left standing was my confidence in the legitimacy of the temple ordinances. I wasn’t comfortable in carrying my testimony on that pillar alone, especially since for every thing I took out of my temple service that strengthened my appreciation for the ordinances, I could think of something else I observed that de-mystified my perceptions.
I knew many people would have given up trying to believe after losing a strong conviction of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s experiential claims, and the reliability of current leadership like I had. I had always internalized that the Church was either essentially all true or it was all false. If I determined that the temple endowment and all of the canonized scriptures supporting it were false as well, it would at least ease my confusion. But if the endowment made enough sense historically and theologically, then perhaps I could begin to reconstruct the more brittle and broken pillars of my testimony since all of the pillars had to stand together in my mind. Either way, it was clear to me that whatever conclusion I came to about the temple endowment would be decisive in how I moved forward concerning all of my working conclusions about the Church’s truth claims.
I spent most of that night researching as much as I could about the endowment. I found leaked recordings and transcripts of older iterations of the endowment. Yes, some endowment footage online is staged for defamation of the Church (such as the misleading and intentionally disturbing depiction from The God Makers documentary). But I could tell a lot of what I found was likely authentic. Eventually, I came across a website called LDSEndowment.Org. The website developers present themselves as faithful Church members and they openly state their intentions for the site to be a safe place to get good information about temple ordinances without revealing signs, tokens and promises that endowed mormons are under covenant not to disclose outside of the temple.
I was horrified to find that the site’s timeline of the endowment’s development confirmed many of the disturbing elements that I was exposed to from the transcripts and videos I found (as well as from many rumors I heard from chatty temple workers, intellectual missionaries and former Church members). Not only that, but I found much more that I had no clue about. I won’t go into much detail about what I found, but the site confirmed and revealed for me many elements that had been done away with such as the Oath of Vengeance against the United States government for Joseph Smith’s death, the Five Points of Fellowship, the penalty tokens and covenants, women covenanting to their husbands instead of God, and the invasive touching of functionally naked patrons receiving their initiatory ordinances.
All of these things and more forever changed how I saw the temple endowment. The late apostle James E. Talmage wrote the following in his 1912 book, House of the Lord: “No jot, iota, or tittle of the temple rites is otherwise than uplifting and sanctifying. In every detail the endowment ceremony contributes to covenants of morality of life, consecration of person to high ideals, devotion to truth, patriotism to nation, and allegiance to God,” (pg. 102). How could James E. Talmage sincerely state any of this in regards to the endowment when all of the features I mentioned were part of the ceremony at the time? And how could so many major changes be justified in less than 200 years when the Church claimed the Great Apostasy was a direct result of wicked people who had “...transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance [and] broken the everlasting covenant,” (Isaiah 24:5)?
As I dwelt on such problems, I knew that there was little point left in trying to rationalize anything from a faithful perspective. But still, I pressed for more information, until I came across the final straw that utterly collapsed the testimony I had worked so hard to build and maintain my whole life. That final straw was a clip from the 2012 BBC documentary, The Mormon Candidate that I found on a blog. In that clip, journalist John Sweeney first spoke with former Church members who shared the penalty tokens and covenants with him. Then the scene cuts to Sweeney speaking with apostle Jeffrey R. Holland about the penalties and other elements of the temple endowment that many citizens were concerned about in regards to Mitt Romney’s trustworthiness as a presidential candidate. I know many people have looked at this conversation between Holland and Sweeney in different ways than I did. But when I watched the footage, I couldn’t help but feel that Holland was a bold faced liar. Not only did I see him as dishonest when he first responded to the questions, but once his lies were spotted and corrected, I felt his follow up answers were nothing more than desperate and deplorable stammers and excuses.
I would encourage anyone reading to open a tab to watch it for yourself on the BBC website to make up your own mind, but unfortunately, the Church took action for BBC to take it down (I included a link to the full documentary and a separate commentary on the interview between Sweeney and Holland at the end of this article for those eager to look into it). That discovery in and of itself made the whole thing all the more upsetting to me. My whole life, I was raised to value absolute honesty in thought, word and deed from the Church. But now I had seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears, a man who I once sustained as an apostle of Jesus Christ, lie straight to someone’s face. And worse, the Church did all it could to hide this from the public instead of following It’s own standard of repentance by making a public confession of error in response to a public mistake. There were few other apostles I could have felt so betrayed by since Holland had become one of my favorites; more than a few of his talks have made me laugh, cry and feel inspired in equal measure. But for all of the passion he expressed and for all the integrity I thought he possessed, he turned out to be no more than a man who is not much more exemplary in being honest or dignified than anyone else.
I had long told myself that I would never let the faults of Church leaders weaken my testimony, but this, on top of everything I had learned and observed already was too much. I felt more than disappointed, I felt betrayed. Though so much that transformed my original perceptions had little to do with the criticisms on Facebook that piqued my attention to begin with, in a roundabout way I had come to the same conclusion, that the Church’s claims to exclusive authority and the alleged sanctity of its ordinances was all pretense or delusion.
I was now disgusted by the temple garments that I wore so proudly for three years. I used to take comfort in the physical and spiritual protection I was taught that they provided when I first received them. I now saw the garments as the Church’s way of possessing me, of branding me.
I wanted to scream, but it was still the early hours of the morning before sunrise and a part of me was still processing too much to do so. I stripped my garments off and took my first bath in years, feeling raw and utterly vulnerable. It had been fourteen years since I was baptized at the age of eight. Looking back, I see that bath I took as a symbolic cleansing of the lies about myself and the world around me that I had inherited as someone born into mormonism. Just as baptism is only the beginning of the covenant path within the Church, this bath represented the beginning of a new path for me outside of the Church.
Hours later, I still had to watch the Sunday morning session with my roommates to keep my cover. Though I didn’t externalize any of my sentiments, much of what I watched that morning effectively poured salt on my wounds. The following quote from Holland’s talk was especially painful for me:
“Observing the Christian world in that day [the 19th century], we would have hoped to find someone authorized by God with true priesthood authority who could baptize us, bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost, and administer all gospel ordinances necessary for exaltation. In 1820, we would have hoped to see fulfilled promises of Isaiah, Micah, and other ancient prophets regarding the return of the majestic house of the Lord. We would have [been] thrilled to see the glory of holy temples established again, with the Spirit, the ordinances, the power, and the authority to teach eternal truths, heal personal wounds, and bind families together forever. I would have looked anywhere and everywhere to find someone authorized to say to me and my beloved wife Patricia that our marriage in such a setting was sealed for all time and eternity, never to hear imposed on us the haunting curse ‘until death do you part.’ I know that ‘in our Father’s house are many mansions,’ but speaking personally, if I were to be so fortunate as to inherit one of them, it could be no more to me than a decaying shack if Pat and our children were not with me to share that inheritance.”
I would have likely taken some issue with that last sentence even if I still believed since I had grieved throughout the last year as I adjusted to being the only faithful member of my family left besides my parents after I found out that the last of my active older siblings were no longer active by any definition (not to mention the struggles I witnessed of countless mixed-faith couples and families I had met while serving in Colorado). But after the past few days and the previous several hours especially, I had to do all I could to not react in outrage. Holland’s words came off as spiritual blackmail to me, and they augmented my terror in imagining how my parents would react once I told them of my shifting beliefs. It took me a couple months to come out to my parents because of that talk alone.
Later in the morning session, Nelson announced a new proclamation signed by himself and the rest of the apostles. A pre-recorded scene of Nelson reading the proclamation in the “Sacred Grove” by the Smith’s replica property in Palmyra, New York, was presented. Instead of revealing something new, the proclamation was just a glorified repackaging of the Church’s basic truth claims that I now couldn’t take seriously. In other words, it was the first Preach My Gospel missionary lesson condensed to one sheet of paper.
Instead of feeling more angry, I actually wanted to laugh a little at how much Nelson managed to outdo himself after the previous night. 200 hundred years after Joseph's first vision supposedly took place, that myth and all the ones that followed were still being perpetuated, published and idolized. The many differing accounts of the vision as well as the complicating details of Joseph’s life and claims that had been released by the Church through the gospel topic essays, church history topics, Saints volumes, and Joseph Smith Papers project (to name a few) weren’t even acknowledged in the proclamation or in any other talk within the bicentennial conference weekend to the best of my recollection. It was nothing but the white-washed and correlated narrative. Or, the safe narrative.
Afterwards, Nelson concluded the session by leading the long sign-posted Hosanna Shout. I stood up and phoned it in with my roommate, feeling like a total idiot. How had I sacrificed two years of my life to convert people to this organization?
The state-wide lockdown got extended at some point to early May, making for one of the longest months of my life. After I finished my finals, I moved into another bedroom left behind by two of my roommates who left weeks earlier, giving me the privacy I needed to process my initial stages of grief and to continue my research of Church history. There were many days I didn’t go outside. I often excused not going for even a walk to stay safe from contracting Covid but the truth is I didn’t step out the door much because I was depressed. For weeks, I didn’t sleep much and I often didn’t know what to do with myself when I wasn’t reading about the Church from all the sources I could find, watching TV, listening to music, or texting my older brother (who had left the Church most recently in the family). Sometimes I just layed on my bed or the couch feeling numb. I spent so much time in my own head, it felt unnatural to interact with my roommates on occasion.
When the lockdown ended, I gradually came out of my shell more and began to feel somewhat sane again. I had more opportunities to socialize once a few of my friends came back to town and as restrictions eased, though I still spent a lot of time by myself. I got a Reddit account just to talk to “exmos” and PIMO (physically in, mentally out) members like myself. I found out the hard way through such correspondence as well as from my study of the BYU Honor Code how much could be at stake if anyone found out I no longer believed.
This is a complex problem that I have not found easy to explain to even all former members who have never been unlucky enough to face such a dilemma firsthand. For anyone who would like an approachable source to better understand what I was up against, please check out FreeBYU.org. It takes only a few minutes of reading on that site to better understand the problems that PIMO members deal with at CES schools. That website’s agenda isn’t to attack the Church or Its teachings, only a plea for CES policies to change so that the Church can improve in its goal to promote religious freedom. This site is so useful, I wish I had known about it while I was still in Rexburg.
That said, I’ll give a very basic idea of what I understood at the time, much of which FreeBYU.org has confirmed or clarified for me. At any CES school, ecclesiastical endorsements must be renewed at least once a year, usually from the bishop of your YSA ward. These endorsements are dependent on answering worthiness questions that closely overlap with temple recommend standards, which include professing a belief in the Godhead, sustaining the leaders of the Church, and not affiliating with any “apostate” groups. Though some bishops may decide differently than others in difficult cases (a phenomenon known informally as “bishop roulette”), it is almost entirely up to them to determine whether your endorsement is renewed or not. It is essential to have your endorsement renewed to attend a CES school since it proves that you are keeping the Honor Code, which is strangely stricter than temple recommend standards. Not only can a bishop functionally determine whether your attendance continues with a phone call, but this can also result in a loss of on-campus employment and residence in campus or BYU-approved housing. Many former students have also reported that getting kicked out of school for an honor code violation or lack of an endorsement can make it very difficult for credits to be transferred to another school (apparently BYU-I has gotten the brunt of such allegations). The best part is that while anyone of a non-mormon faith attending a CES school can convert to mormonism, mormons who convert to another religion cannot continue to attend, even if they keep every rule of the Honor Code.
Presenting an exterior faithful mormon persona was exhausting for me to keep up, even though I wasn’t taking any classes and Church activities were limited. I hated blending in and even lying at times, but I felt I had no other sensible choice. To my friends reading who are shocked or who feel betrayed by my dishonesty, I really am sorry, but I also hope you come to understand why I did what I did.
At first I seriously considered keeping my cover for a couple more semesters until I could get an Associates degree, but I decided that it wasn’t worth the detriment to my authenticity or mental health. It was all the easier for me to decide to withdraw sooner as I learned of even more lies, abuses, and absurdities in the Church’s history and in it’s contemporary state. I vented a lot on Reddit and I would spend a good part of many days walking anywhere and everywhere to process my feelings, memories, and new information. It was way better than laying around at least. I even wrote a few poems, something I hadn’t done in awhile. This one best captures my internal conflict.
I found myself trapped in this Cage
Not knowing how much I can safely engage
Shackled as a silent slave to your dogma
I’m a victim to some mastermind’s schema
Your hungry eyes feast on me like I’m some grand enigma
Little do you know, you’ve coerced me into a prisoner’s dilemma
But without a partner in crime
Steeper and Steeper for freedom I climb
As long as I play along with your every lie
You unsuspectingly hand me the perfect alibi
But if I expose my secret you would never let sleeping dogs lie
Bound like a predator you’ll chase me till the day I die
So here I wait watching the clock tick till the time is right
For me to make my escape, hoping not to break out a fight
Then as a phoenix I’ll take flight
Leaving you blind to the flames I’ll ignite
Till then you’ll be left cold seeking my shadow that’ll flee without so much as a final goodbye
Much of the weight on my shoulders was lifted once I finally sent my parents an email about my faith transition in June, as well as my decision to withdraw from BYU-I once my contract was fulfilled. Though I no longer considered myself Christian, I still prayed from time to time and I did so with great intensity then to gain the courage to send the email at 2:12 AM. My parents responded very compassionately and respectfully, which still means everything to me this day, though I also don’t want to downplay how hard it was for them to see their last faithful child make this confession, even if it had become a familiar one to them.
This exchange helped me to focus on making the most of the remaining time I had in Rexburg with less anxiety. There are many interesting, wonderful, dramatic and poignant chapters I could share throughout the whole time I stayed in Rexburg that Spring, but then this already long article would look more like a book.
However, I will cover some broad strokes from that span of time. After getting laid-off from work in March, I got rehired to do occasional modeling shifts again, which went a long way in giving me more spending money and in helping me feel more productive. I got called as the Elders Quorum Secretary, which I wasn’t thrilled about, though I did try to do at least the minimum I was supposed to do. The few times I had to wake up early to attend Ward Council weren’t too bad either and I quite enjoyed hanging out with the Elders Quorum President and his two counselors (one of whom was a roommate). When it was considered safe enough to gather for sacrament meeting, members of the ward met in separate apartments within FHE groups instead of meeting all together on campus, (the ward was only about forty people total then, including the bishopric). There was something really special about gathering in small groups to take the sacrament. I’ll never forget the beautiful silences that would follow after we partook of the bread and water. Usually at least one person would share a spiritual thought or a testimony that was focused on Christ or the blessings they saw in their life recently, which was hard for me not to appreciate. Then we would just hang out, talk about whatever, and maybe throw out a rough idea for what FHE activity we would do together the next day. Sunday School and Elders Quorum meetings were usually harder for me to sit through since history related to Joseph Smith or teachings from general authorities I took issue with would come up more. I could only imagine how unbearable taking religion classes several times a week would be if I were to attend for another semester.
I sought out opportunities to socialize and do fun things outside of my ward social circle, which helped me make new friends and sometimes have great conversations with strangers that would make my day. I got to hike the “R” mountain with a few people, one of whom I befriended joined me for runs and walks from time to time. Once I discovered Nature Park, I walked there almost daily, enjoying the trails and river that reminded me of home, as well as (often unsuccessfully) trying to feed the ducks and geese there. One of my former roommates and I attended the wedding reception for another former roommate in Utah on one occasion and on another I got to go to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming with one of my then current roommates, who took amazing photos and videos. In July, I had an excellent dinner with some extended and honorary family members I had never met, who had moved to Idaho Falls. I would have loved to have gotten to spend more time with them.
Deep cleaning my apartment to pass my final inspection was a stressful ordeal, but my roommates and even one of my good neighbors next door did a lot to lighten the load. My final week really couldn’t have been much better overall. My bishopric decided to use the budget saved up for two grand ward activities in one week before too many people left town. The first was the traditional once-a-semester reservation for Fat Katz, where we could go bowling and play indoor mini golf and pool. The second was at the Squealers amusement park in Rigby, where there was a petting zoo, golf course and a race car track, which I never got tired of.
I withdrew from BYU-I a couple days before my housing contract expired. I was open about this, which allowed me to have closure with many of my friends, though I didn’t tell anyone the full reasons at the time. I hung out with my friends in the ward and said my final goodbyes the night of July 16th, hours before I was supposed to take the bus to the Salt Lake City airport at 7:00 AM on the 17th. A few of my friends, including my Elders Quorum President, told me how much they appreciated my testimony and my example in living the gospel, which I had mixed feelings about.
Close to midnight, I decided to take a walk to the temple grounds one last time. I had walked by it on occasion over the last few months but this was the first time I consciously visited it since March 25th, when I sought guidance on whether to stay in Rexburg or not. I walked all the way uphill and approached the gate to the front entrance this time. Instead of looking my Sunday best, clean shaven and wearing a full suit, I came now with facial hair, wearing jeans, sneakers and a sweater, with no white garments underneath. I stood on the bottom bar of the gate, hanging my arms over the top bar. I uttered a vocal prayer to God, though it was more like having a really long one-sided conversation with the building before me. I can’t recall every word I said, but this rough recreation captures the general substance and spirit of what I expressed that night.
“Hello God. I used to come to this edifice that I once considered sacred to receive wisdom and inspiration, and to feel your presence. Perhaps I’ve come here now to feel closer to you, even though I now consider the ordinances I participated in to be empty rituals concocted by a 19th century con man. The last time I was in these walls, I prayed at the altar for people in all parts of the earth to find relief from the pandemic and to receive close comfort from you. Despite the many ways I consider myself and others relatively fortunate, I see great panic, confusion, unrest and despair only increasing throughout the world, and you have since distanced yourself from me. Throughout my life, I never blamed you for my trials or for the disasters and disparities common in life. I had trust in what I thought was your plan. I have had many profound experiences in my life that made me feel that you were really there and that you really knew me. Now I don’t know that you really do. I can’t even call you “Father” anymore. You led me to believe that I was on the right path my whole life and I was convinced you wanted me to stay in Rexburg these past few months. I thought you wanted me to stay so I could continue on that same path and grow in the gospel for the rest of my life. But as badly as I wanted to be here, and as much as I wanted to keep pursuing that path, I’ve only come to the conclusion that it is no longer right for me. These past few months have only shown me that I have to leave. Why has it always been so hard for me to hear your voice and know your will? Why are you so silent and unapproachable? Why would you confuse me my entire life? Why can’t you be more clear about what you want me to do with my life after all I have sacrificed for you? Why did you give me all I ever wanted and put such great friends in my life who I must now leave behind? I don’t understand you God. Some days I don’t know if you care or if you’ve ever existed to begin with. All I know is that if you want anything to do with me, if you want me to trust you and rely on you again, you need to give me something to work with. Anything, please. But for now, I walk alone, not because I haven’t opened the door for you, but because you’ve abandoned me. Farewell for now.”
I crossed the street and entered campus to walk through it one last time on my way back to my apartment. I walked by the Ricks building where I attended Sunday services for two semesters before Covid. I proceeded through the entrance across from the Hinckley building to Ricks Garden, my favorite place on campus. There was a lovely couple sitting on a bench who must have been about my age. Perhaps they were married or engaged. If it weren’t so common to see young couples at any place and at any time in Rexburg, I may have thought they were imaginary.
I progressed to a small gazebo-like structure with a circular wall and rectangular window space. It was connected to an open semi-hallway with a parallel structure on the other end. I stepped into the shadowed space inside the structure and looked at the plants and decorative stones lit by the night lights on the ground. I began to feel the full weight of my impending departure after months of build up. I layed down on my side on the hard, cold floor. I found myself weeping abundantly, too far away from the couple or anyone else to hear me. I thought about all of my friends I loved and all the memories I cherished from the span of three semesters that I spent in Rexburg. Though I knew intellectually why I withdrew from school, the choice all of a sudden tore me up to the core emotionally. I felt as lowly and insignificant as the spider crawling before me. I had left the Garden of Eden and entered my own personal Garden of Gethsemane. Like Jesus, it seemed the God I called Father had forsaken me to partake of a most bitter cup.
There was so much good I was leaving behind and perhaps even more to enjoy if I stayed. I was sacrificing the best chance for a future temple marriage that I had long dreamed of. I had no plan on what I was going to do with my life, just like when I graduated high school. Just like when I stalled my decision to embark on a mission by going to a local SUNY college, where I felt that there was a void in my life I couldn’t fill. The church, the mission, BYU-I, it all gave me purpose and direction and the community I wanted, and soon it would be all behind me. I would have to walk alone.
Was there no other way?
My despair and hopelessness left me parilyzed. I didn’t know if I could stand back up and make it to the bus stop on time. Everything felt so pointless, including time. An all too familiar numbness started to swallow my whole being. During my darkest hours like this, I had relied on Jesus Christ as my source of strength, because I believed with all of my heart that He had taken my sins and sorrows upon Him. But by now I doubted that more than ever, as much as I wanted that to be true.
Eventually, a compassionate Voice whispered to me in my mind.
Get up. Your life will get better. I promise. But you have to get up. You can do this. It will all be worth it.
This Voice I had once thought to be God the Father’s, my Lord’s, the Holy Spirit’s, was now clearly my Own. My internal Voice. It kept encouraging me and fighting for me, until in time, I regained the strength and the will to get back up on my feet. I walked back to my apartment and layed on the couch with my suitcases beside me. I didn’t sleep much before I headed out one last time to the bus stop, but in a way I felt rested.
When I found my gate at the SLC airport, I saw a missionary sitting by himself at a gate close by. I decided to greet him. We both wore masks, bringing each of our eyes to focus.
“Hey Elder! You on the way to your mission field or are you going home?”
“I got sent home from the previous mission I was assigned to and I was quarantined at home here in Utah. I’ve been reassigned to Boise, where I’m heading to now.”
“Gotcha. This is kinda weird---I just withdrew from BYU-Idaho and I don’t believe the Church is true anymore, but I know how transformative a mission can be. I hope you have lots of success and fun while it lasts. Take care.”
“Thanks, you too.”
I walked away, feeling satisfaction from that brief interaction. Perhaps two years from then, he would have a similar journey as my own that would lead him out of the Church. Or perhaps he would continue on the covenant path, marry a faithful woman in the temple, and live happily ever after to enjoy all the Mormon Dream has to offer.
Since moving back home to be with my parents and twin brother, things haven’t always been smooth. Though my relationship with my parents is great overall, there have been occasional long and difficult conversations between us. I took up counseling to deal with some mental health problems, many of which are related to my transition (though I have received counseling for various reasons over the past few years while I served my mission and even during my first semester at BYU-I). I got re-accepted to the SUNY school I formerly attended and my credits from BYU-I were transferred, though I’m unable to resume my studies currently for financial reasons and I am unemployed.
Still, it has been beneficial for me to slow down and take my time to work on myself. I have the freedom now to decide what truly matters to me and to determine what I really want in life. I continue to study not only Church history and culture, but also other religions, philosophy, science, psychology and whatever else peaks my interest while trying to do better on keeping up with current events. I ended up deactivating my Reddit account once I felt my participation in the exmormon subreddit was no longer useful for me, though I still communicate with inactive and non-believing mormons online. I gradually opened up about my faith transition to the rest of my family and to many of my close friends in and out of Church. I have even gotten back in touch with some siblings and friends I had become distant from and have seen improvements in many of those relationships despite geographical distance. I came out about my faith transition publicly on Facebook on January 25th, which I have received largely positive responses for, even among many of my active and faithful Church friends.
Since my departure from Rexburg, I have gradually prayed less as I have found myself unable to intellectually or spiritually sustain any serious belief, faith, or trust in any conception of deity. I try not to define myself by labels, but I suppose its suitable enough to say that I’m currently an agnostic-atheist with an appreciation for humanist values. I know many of my religious friends reading this, whether you be Mormon or of another faith, will find this alarming. However, I hope that anyone concerned can accept that my beliefs and choices are honest and that they are what makes the most sense to me right now.
I don’t claim to have all the answers and I try to keep an open mind while strengthening my foundation for critical reasoning every day. But from my own study and experience, I affirm strongly that we as human beings are not naturally savvy on picking up on how storytelling, tradition, culture, indoctrination, dogma and even various degrees of undue influence shape our perceptions of our identities, our experiences and our beliefs, including the ones we hold most dear. For the time being, I am mostly satisfied with scientific, psychological, and common sense explanations for understanding experiences that I formerly attributed to divine communication, feelings, and miracles. However, I don’t think that a grounded perspective makes any of such experiences less impactful, important, profound or beautiful. Every time I have felt inspiration, wisdom, compassion or love or have witnessed something extraordinary, I have become a better person, and I still continue to grow as I identify such experiences since I have left the Church.
Looking back, many aspects of my journey have been paradoxical. I don’t think there is a divine justification or any particular rhyme or reason for the pandemic and the devastation it has caused. Yet, my rude awakening that followed the Covid-19 restrictions was in many ways a silver lining, even though I couldn’t fully appreciate it at first. I recognize that my exceptional activity in the Church was an addiction that could have persisted if the social factors feeding me hadn’t been removed. Though I had tried to independently sustain the high that I believed was a result of close proximity with the Holy Ghost, my inevitable withdrawal allowed me to begin thinking soberly and rationally enough to wake up from the spell I had been under for at least three years. I have stated more than a few times that I wanted the Church to be true even while I was facing serious doubts and concerns, but I think the reason I was able to see the truth for myself was because I no longer needed the Church to be true. All of the good I took out of my lifestyle in the Church can still benefit me now, but I don’t think I could have grown as much if I took another semester at BYU-I or continued to attend Church services. In fact I’m pretty sure I would have stagnated, maybe even regressed morally, intellectually and spiritually.
I remember a paraphrase attributed to former Church president Gordon B. Hinckley that was quoted often while I was still in Primary. It was an instruction that “We as Latter-day Saints should be in the world, but not of the world.” In some ways, I was in the world of Mormonism, but not of it. Many of the Church’s teachings had resonated with me as long as I could remember and I consciously worked to build my testimony throughout my entire life, but there was also a part of me that I wasn’t being true to when I molded myself into the image that I thought would please God and almost everyone who mattered to me. Familiarizing myself with Steven Hassan’s BITE Model and reading his work related to it has helped me better understand how I’ve always been at war with myself internally to some degree. When I was Mormon, I thought that all of my desires, interests, values, and ideas that didn’t align with the Church’s, and therefore God’s, was from the Natural Man inside of me, which is described as sinful, selfish, and short-sighted in the scriptures. But now I realize that there was the largely artificial Mormon me, and then there was just me.
Like Adam and Eve, I partook of forbidden fruits of knowledge that enlightened me, but instead of being removed from paradise, I walked away from a false one that was truly a prison. Not a literal prison, but one of the mind. I had always been terrified by the doctrine that taught that my “wicked thoughts” would be exposed by God on Judgement Day if I didn’t sufficiently repent. I no longer fear being punished for such thoughtcrime. I am also overcoming the toxic perfectionism that has burdened me throughout my life, especially while I was wearing a name tag and knocking doors in Colorado. I embraced a worldview that taught that if it weren’t for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, all humankind would be destined for Outer Darkness with Satan and the Sons of Perdition. I now see a world full of people with potential to do right or wrong, but I no longer believe that people are inherently unworthy or that a parental God or Messiah is the only hope for obtaining righteousness and redemption.
I would be gravely disappointed if anyone reading this article saw me as an object of pity or if what I have shared is viewed as a chronicle of my “downfall”. Whatever your relationship with Mormonism is and whatever your beliefs are, the one principle I hope you can take away from my journey is this: Empowerment. As I touched on concerning my climactic episode during my last night in Rexburg, Christ was my source of empowerment before I recognized that I was my own savior and intercessor. I cherish what Christ used to mean to me but now I am happy to be no one’s disciple. I am my own Master and I am in charge of my own destiny. I don’t have faith in many things anymore, but I have faith in Humankind’s capacity to rise, to persevere and to overcome, individually and collectively.
I have imagined what it would be like if I were to travel back in time to last year and speak to my past self. I will refer to that self as “Brother Shirtz”. Perhaps I would approach Brother Shirtz walking back to his apartment from one of his Saturday temple shifts. I would tell him essentially what I have shared in this article, but in only a few minutes. Shocked, he would look at me, unable to fully comprehend or appreciate what I have shared. He would probably say something like this.
“Peter, how could you do this? How could you break your covenants? How could you turn away from your Heavenly Father and your Savior? How could you give up being with mom and dad forever? How could you let your future eternal companion and children down? How could you forsake the truth and turn down kingdoms, principalities, powers, and thrones? How could you abandon your sacred destiny detailed in your patriarchal blessing to gather Israel and save many of God’s children? How could you throw away your opportunity to have everlasting joy? How could you depart from the straight and narrow path that leads to Eternal Life?”
I would pause and look deeply into Brother Shirtz’s misty eyes. For a few moments I would feel his indignation, and the fear behind it. Then, being filled with compassion and empathy, I would disarm him with a big smile. I would then respond.
“Someday soon, when you are ready, when you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, to behold things as they truly are, you will understand that you won’t have to give up any of those things. You will only have to let go of an illusory Dream that you have constructed upon a sandy foundation. You will see that there are so many real and wonderful possibilities in life for you to embrace outside of this small world you have limited yourself to, and you will see that there is greater growth and joy to be obtained. You will have to suffer and make some of the hardest choices in your life first, but you will come to know as I know. Through your darkest hours, I will be with you. I will be there to help you do what must be done. But for now I must say ‘farewell’. I love you, don’t you forget that.”
Though I no longer pray or believe I have access to any supernatural power to bring about universal change, I still move forward with the power and will I possessed when I was a dutiful mormon. If I were to worship a higher power again, or call for blessings upon the world on an altar or within my own heart, I would pray for all humans and all creatures in the universe to recognize and embrace their inherent worth and potential, for them to channel their power to pursue their own freedom and joy.
I would pray for all to be brave enough to take flight and let their flames ignite, as I have.
https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x31u248 (This World: The Mormom Candidate Full documentary)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPVpUJj_gbs (Thinker of Thoughts - “Elder Holland on the BBC”)