Story on Leaving Mormonism - He wrote an epistle to the ward members in which he asked 21 fairly innocuous questions
I was Born In the Covenant--BIC, as it's written on genealogy sheets . That is, my parents had been sealed in the temple--the Mesa temple, if it matters--and so, supposedly, I would automatically go with them to the celestial kingdom, IF we all lived righteously. I remember when I was very young feeling a little intimidated by the fire and brimstone sermons we sometimes heard in those days, but mostly I remember always feeling secure to belong within the family of the ward, the church.
Not long before my birth, prayers during sacrament meeting had been introduced with the phrase "All eyes to the eternal god" and everyone turned their eyes heavenward--just a note on changes (one of thousands) within the Mormon church. When my father and mother married, my mother was pregnant. Her mother-in-law made her stand up in testimony meeting and confess her sin to the entire ward. My mother was never able to deal very well with that experience and I learned of it only a few years ago, but she was a faithful Mormon her whole life.
Before I started school, I was well acquainted with the pioneer hardships my ancestors endured--in the Mormon Battalion, the handcart companies, the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, losing family members as they crossed the plains, ad nauseum . I also knew that I was expected to do well in school and, as a Mormon, always set a good example.
My family lived on a farm outside of a Colorado town, and there were less than 2,000 people in the valley. The Mormon church had the most members of any church in the valley, but was just one of several churches.. Of course I knew from infancy that it was THE true church.
As I grew a little older, I occasionally encountered strange doctrines--such as the imminent return of Jesus, stories about contact with one of the "three Nephites," and the need to be ready at all times to pick up and return to Missouri (I'd never been there, but that was (supposedly where the Garden of Eden had been and where Jesus would return). "They" (the priesthood leaders) engendered within me a fear of sinning, and I remember telling my younger sister that Jesus had been born with a diaper on because God wouldn't allow him to be naked. We all went to both Sunday school and sacrament meeting every Sunday and then us kids also went to Primary during the week.
I'm grateful that the ward didn't at that time provide any seminary and that my Sunday school teacher through most of my teenage years was my own mother, who provided a sense of people being what really mattered. Intentionally or otherwise, she encouraged me to think and not just accept everything that was said. For instance, she questioned whether sincerity was enough. She taught and tried to live by the concept--albeit her actions were not always totally in compliance with it--that all men are equal and are to be treated as our brothers and sisters.
The ward had many activities for the youth. It kept us busy with Sunday school parties (my mother loved to have young people come to our house), MIA dances, choir practices, stake conferences with many miles of travel, and other events, and there were also neighborhood parties at which almost everyone was Mormon. It was fun, but it also kept us too busy to think.
After high school I naturally went to BYU. I was another copy of what my mother wanted her children to be--valedictorian, faithful LDS, music-loving, generous.... As a freshman at BYU I took courses in stellar astronomy, geology of the past, U.S. history, missionary approach to the gospel, and of course the Book of Mormon--required of all first year students. All of those courses provided fuel for questioning the church, but I was faithful in my attendance at the weekly devotionals and the ward activities in the academic classrooms, which on Sundays became chapels. For the most part I enjoyed that year in Helaman Halls E-2109 and spouted platitude after platitude in the little journal I was keeping. There were panty raids on the neighboring girls' dorm, and the campus police came and tried to catch the offenders (I noted in my journal that the university president--Wilkinson--had been hit by a water balloon), and the police came again when students protested noisily that they weren't getting enough time off for Christmas. I was sometimes unimpressed with the unthinking and arrogant attitudes of fellow BYU students. My roommate that year just stopped attending church functions, and I verbalized, at least in my journal, a few doubts; in fact at one point I wrote, in a pseudo-voice, that religion is "the quieter of the multitude, suppressor of men, bringer of inhumanity in the name of humanity" and in a somewhat lucid moment wrote: "We are much too much afraid. We are afraid of a shadow on a cloudy day or a wasted hour. We are afraid to be alone or with someone. We are afraid of happiness and so afraid of fear. We shy from real thought and from all forms of strain. We are afraid of sin and of failure; afraid so much that we fear to enjoy a pleasant sensation for fear that we might be sinning." But I always ended up convincing myself that I believed the church taught truth and was the way to live.
After I had been at BYU a short time, I became convinced I needed to confess that I sometimes masturbated. Knowing the bishop in my home ward was coming to Utah to attend conference (or perhaps for some other reason), I asked my mother in a letter to have him stop and see me. He came to my room, sat down briefly, and asked me how I was doing. He seemed very ill at ease, as if sensing I needed to talk about something discomforting. Before I had an opportunity to raise the subject, he quickly left. I remember being a little unimpressed with his lack of inspiration and willingness to listen; in fairness, I should note that Mormon clergy receive no training and have to work for a living like other members. Later that year I talked with my parents about me going on a mission, but they weren't comfortable with that idea. We really didn't have much money, to understate our real financial situation. Even though their response was rational (and my two older brothers hadn't gone on missions either), it made me wonder about their commitment to the church.
During my second year at BYU, President Kennedy was assassinated. That shocked my little world. But there was much more that happened in my world that year, even though it's a little difficult to remember it all now. My roommate was planning to go on a mission, get a business degree, and make lots of money so he could "build up the kingdom." He seemed so shallow. That year I served as a reporter for the Daily Universe (the college newspaper) and editor for the Helascope (a mimeographed paper for Helaman Halls), which I typed and in which I expressed some rather individual ideas. Two of the most intelligent and sensitive students I knew that year--Michael Quinn and Lavina Fielding Anderson--have been excommunicated from the church in recent years, but the rather arrogant and narrow-minded editor of the newspaper has become the church's PR person. The BYU Honor Code Dept.--or whatever the actual name was--called me in for violating the school's rules and helping a dorm mate with an English assignment. They tried to intimidate me, and that wasn't too difficult as I had always been quiet and timid. But they couldn't keep me from thinking. I had many discussions about religion with various guys in the dorm that year, most of them trying to convince me that I was wrong to question anything about the church. But I KNEW that a belief in a god was not necessary to live a good life.
And I knew I had to take action to prevent my life from becoming a trivialized and meaningless copy of well-meaning Mormons who couldn't think for themselves and whose lives were replete with narrowness and sometimes bigotry. So I intentionally flunked my religion class and wrote a letter to the professor telling him that he was narrow-minded and wrong. That spring I read Fawn Brodie's "No Man Knows My History," as well as Nibley's repulsive reply ("No, Ma'am, That's Not History"). I felt exhilarated that spring: I read widely and wrote a lot and felt newly awakened to life. I was no longer so inhibited and at Arizona Club dances held coeds close to my body--those that were willing to be held that way, and certainly some were quite willing.
My parents were of course concerned about me flunking religion (and political science and p.e.--they too seemed pushed on me) and at the same time getting A's and B's in my other classes, including an A in a 5-hour graduate level 20th cent. lit. class. Maybe a part of my parents' concern was with me not being able to renew my partial scholarship, but they were always serious about Mormonism. My literature classes at BYU helped me question the church too: they helped me see through the eyes of a number of intelligent and compassionate writers who certainly didn't have Mormonism as a reference.
About that time my hometown bishop asked me to go on a mission. I'm sure I didn't laugh at him: I wasn't that sort of person. But I told him that it wasn't something I could do. That next September, after spending the summer living with my parents and failing to make much money working as a logger's helper in the woods, I joined the army. I knew I had to get away so that I could live my own life and find out what was true for me. My first day in the army I started smoking and had my first beer. During the next 15 months the army and I faced off about personal rights within the military and the right of a citizen (even in uniform) to think for himself and the rightness of war (I strongly condemned the military in a series of poems I hand-delivered to the lieutenant-colonel, the commanding officer). I must have said something in a letter home, because my mother first tried to dissuade me from such unworthy thoughts as questioning the military and then, when I resisted her warnings, she disowned me.
I had some tough days in the military, feeling rejected and confused and worrying about my sister who was increasingly in poor health; I could repeat what she has strongly hinted at between her and my father, but I don't have first-hand knowledge. The military was a very alienating environment but in some ways invigorating. That was during the Vietnam War, and I enjoyed such things as a college extension course taught by an apostate Mormon, who questioned what I wrote about Joseph Smith on an exam. I also attended a poetry seminar where I again heard Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum..." (sweet and glorious it is to die for one's country) and went to movies like The Americanization of Emily. I wonder now if I didn't have a touch of a manic episode when I wrote the poems for the Lt. Col., but I was very sincere.
Many weeks after being sentenced to confinement and loss of pay and rank for not wearing my baseball cap to formation one morning, I finally achieved my objective: the army ousted me. A wonderfully intelligent girl in Pennsylvania had written letters encouraging me to think for myself and express my truths. I visited her and her family at Thanksgiving after getting out of the army. She was warm in person too, sensitive and intelligent. But her father wanted to direct my life, and this was too soon after the army and I didn't want anyone else deciding my future, so I caught the bus back west. And the girl and I permanently parted (it was an awful distance, at least in my mind, from Utah and Colorado to Pennsylvania). I wrote, but nothing came back. I was so lost and confused that I even contemplated returning to BYU and visited the campus. I then quickly realized I couldn't begin to fit in there.
I returned to my hometown, lived with my parents on the farm, and worked at jobs like a "green sheet" puller in a plywood mill and a laborer with the Forest Service. I told my parents that it was this life that was important, that emphasis upon heaven was misplaced, and that it was lives here that are valuable. A few months later I met a red-headed girl from the nearest larger town. As it turned out, we were both planning to attend the University of Colorado that fall. As soon as she got there, I showed up and we drove around. We were both totally green in a world as big as that university, small town kids from religious families who had never had any extra money. After just a few weeks I asked her to marry me. It seemed safe enough: she wasn't a Mormon.
Two years later our first son was born, and I took my first teaching job, in New Mexico. She decided she wanted to attend a church (perhaps to raise our son in; it's hard to remember some of the details), so she went to the Mormon church. At the end of the year we moved back to my hometown so I could take a teaching job there, and my wife had my father baptize her. I figured it was her decision and hoped that that way she would be able to see through it. Instead she became (eternally?) fascinated with it. I was busy trying to survive economically, as I had a wife and son and another son on the way. I quit teaching, took a seasonal job, and tried to make do. During this period of time I was called to be a ward clerk. I tried to get out of it, but my cousin (the bishop) wouldn't take no for an answer. And so I of course had to be confirmed an elder; I almost refused the job because of that, but didn't. Not long after that, in 1971, I wrote in my journal: "I served as ward clerk for about a year, rather an absurd experience for one of my beliefs. Yet I tried to do well, tried to find good in those alien ways. I cannot say there was none, just not enough."
A few years later my father gave me forty acres. The land wasn't good farm land, so I sold it and returned to college, this time to pursue a degree in natural resources. Occasionally I went with my wife to church, and I tried to get her to go with me to the Unitarian church. She refused. After getting a second degree, I ended up in New Mexico again. For a few years I tried to live the Mormon dream, tried to believe it, put it at the center of my universe. I accepted some silly calling and even went to the SLC temple with my wife and three sons. I found the temple ceremonies crude, anything-but-spiritual, and definitely insulting to my intelligence. The "bow your head and say yes," the "password" into heaven, and the threatened violence upon my body (my throat to be slit from ear to ear) if the "truths" there were ever revealed were just part of the moronic rituals.
Even so, I kept trying to live the parts of Mormonism that I could accept. I dug for what I saw as the good parts, such as the emphasis on families, the statements about the goodness of learning, and the concern for other members of the community. I returned once again to my hometown, this time to build and run a greenhouse nursery business, and was soon called to the bishopric.
I was present during bishop's courts of two young girls who had discovered sex. They were not treated respectfully and were disfellowshipped--an alternative to excommunication that is sometimes used to warn wrongdoers. I found myself increasingly angry at the attitudes of ward members and especially the bishop, who was a cold, money-seeking man and once told me that as far as he was concerned the members of the ward could all go to hell but he was going to save his family. A couple of years later his son and friends physically abused a Native American by incarcerating him over night in the high school's quad area. I even became uneasy even with the words of the hymns. Uneasy, my foot! They made me angry too!
As much as anything, I was angry that there was no opportunity to discuss what we individually believed, no chance of changing the emphasis of the church away from such unworthy activities as baptism for the dead, missionary work, temple work, and the celestial kingdom. And I was angry that the members hardly tried to live the more important parts of their religion. These were basically good people, many my relatives, and most of them didn't smoke or drink and attended church regularly, but that wasn't what I meant about the important parts of Jesus' message. I finally realized that I still had the same beliefs I'd had when I got out of the army ("This life is all there is, and we better help each other now while we can").
So in 1985 I wrote an epistle to the ward members in which I asked 21 fairly innocuous questions, such as why the church had to be a wall instead of a bridge, why we couldn't recognize that the mid 1980's were not the 1850's, why there was such an emphasis on the next world when this one mattered so much, why they dismissed our stewardship of the planet.... I posted copies of my questions inside the chapel door. That door stayed shut and the paper invisible until someone shut the door for the sacrament ritual, and the door was at the front of the chapel, beside the raised dais. I also posted copies on the pulpit, in the holder for tithing slips, and at various other places where members would discover them. Most ward members were a little cool after that. And the act of writing had clarified enough things in my mind that I then knew the Mormon church was no place for me. Before returning my building keys, I went to the ward clerk's office and tore up my membership--only symbolic of course, as I knew there was another record in the Salt Lake computer.
I've been to few LDS church services since then (in the last ten years, just one son's missionary homecoming address and my mother's funeral, at which I spoke (without the constant reference to the supernatural that my brothers appealed to). I have attended a few Unitarian services when I happened to be in a city (seldom have I been in cities) where there was a Unitarian church. A couple of years ago I attended a United church for about a year. It didn't have all the problems that the Mormon church has, but it didn't correlate with my understanding of what is true.
I had contemplated more rash actions when I left the church, such as leaving my wife since she couldn't accept what I believed. But basically I'm fairly level-headed and pragmatic and so I've stayed with my family. One factor was that at that time I had a baby son (our fourth), and it was at that time difficult for my wife and me to make it financially even living together and it seemed it would be impossible alone, especially for her.
Yes, I've found joy in being essentially outside of the church--freedom to study history and science, freedom from those awful temple garments, not having to put up with the arrogant disregard of the beliefs of others and of our need to be responsible and sensitive in how we treat this planet, peace in considering alternative beliefs, and pleasure in such things as beer and dessert coffees. But the church has hardly ceased to be a source of trouble for me. My second and third sons both went on church missions--even knowing that I didn't approve and wouldn't support them financially; but I had to let them make their own decisions. Incidentally, my oldest son has not yet returned to the church. He was the only one who rebelled as a teenager; in fact one day I took him for a drive and told him he had to be more respectful in seminary, which I was very temporarily trying to teach. After high school he joined the army, drank more, and used more drugs than he already had. But he did his work in the army well. Since then he has worked hard--starting with just about as close to nothing as anyone could--gotten an associate's degree, and now has a responsible managerial position in an electronics company.
And in the past 15 months sons number two and three have married good LDS girls in the temple (one each, of course). Wandering around the Manti temple grounds wasn't too bad: I could enjoy the trees and talk to my youngest son. The Salt Lake temple, however, not only reminded me of bad memories, but also Temple Square was so completely pervaded by Mormonism that I was definitely uncomfortable (oppressed).
A few months ago I received an advertisement for The Humanist magazine (I had subscribed once a few years earlier) and so I joined the American Humanist Association. I related well to what I was sent. Yes, my beliefs closely corresponded to those of humanists, or more specifically to those of secular humanism. People are what matters. Truth is found through rigorous investigation of the actual and not from authority or from feelings of faith. This life is all there is, and it's enough.
Then my wife insisted it was time to get hooked up to the Internet. I finally gave in. While browsing the net, I happened to find (well, happen isn't totally accurate, since I followed a chain of sites starting with humanism) a site that reminded me that the words "under god" were added to the pledge of allegiance during the McCarthyite 50's and that, contrary to those words, the Founding Fathers fully intended citizens to have freedom from religion as well as freedom to practice a religion if they so chose.
Then my wife asked my why I didn't say the words "under god" during the pledge of allegiance to the flag before our youngest son's basketball game. I told her that I had a right not to say those words. We argued about whether atheists (her term) had any rights at all, and she insisted atheists just wanted to destroy all religion and there were very few of them anyway. I told her that there were millions on non-theists in the world and that the number didn't matter, that separation of church and state was right and also the law. And I told her I certainly didn't want to take away anyone's right to practice religion.
Then I found the Recovering from Mormonism web site. Christmas was upon us, and I enjoyed the season but had a new resolve not to hide my beliefs.
After the first of the new year, I waited a few days to have a new bishop called (I had heard the old one would be released--something formerly kept totally secret--and because I worked with the outgoing bishop preferred not to add an unrelated strain to our working relationship). So I sent my request for name to be removed from the church records to a brand new bishop.
At the same time I sent short letters to my siblings, sons, and wife telling them that I cared about them but had decided I needed to terminate my membership in "the" church. I handed my youngest son his, and he read it and said nothing. Later my wife returned home from another long day of teaching school, and I handed her letter. After she read it, a small tear appeared, and she noted that I had really left the church many years earlier. I agreed.
My oldest brother sent a reply letter that said that he would support my decision but warned I might find a big separation between me and the rest of the family. His relationship with the church has been interesting: once excommunicated, since re-baptized, he believes the merest bit of Mormonism (but that with complete conviction) and teaches priesthood classes in hopes of letting light into their minds. Later my sister and I talked on the telephone, and she said that she was not surprised and warmly supported my decision. She has been almost completely inactive for decades, and her children have been mistreated because their family was not active in the church there in Salt Lake City. My oldest son and I talked on the phone one night, and he too assured me that he had no problem at all with my decision. He's the son I referred to earlier, the one who has no connection with the church. I still find it hard to talk about anything that resembles beliefs with my wife. My three faithful Mormon sons have not mentioned the letters I sent them, and neither has my faithful Mormon brother.
I have included in this little story only the merest hint of my reasons for not wanting to be a Mormon. I have never been a real student of anti-Mormon literature, but I have read enough history to see gaping holes in what the church authorities present as church "history" to members. The Book of Mormon is a joke, but I recognize that believing Mormons cannot see that. I'm enough of a writer to compose something as unoriginal, plagiarized, pointless, imaginative, and occasionally adventuresome as the Book of Mormon and call it spiritual, if I wanted to. I certainly don't want to. With liars and scoundrels like L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith in our history, we have more than enough religions, thank you. It may appear that I have written my story as a polemic against the Mormon church. But actually I see it only as a matter of degree. I've seen enough of other Christian churches (and I won't now discuss whether Mormonism is a Christian church) to have observed that they too are founded on appeals to the supernatural and tend to forget the teachings of Jesus to love one another and put their emphasis on a future--and totally unproven--world. Mormonism is a terribly oppressive drug, and questions about truth need to be settled by using our minds and not by accepting some authority's version of what they would like reality to be. There is no real evidence of the existence of a personal god, and no need for one. We're here. And we better start accepting responsibility for what we do while we're here, including our pictures of the world.
The thirty days in which the church was supposed to remove my name are nearly up. I'll not be too surprised if the church Xes out my membership in the next month or two. Nor would I be surprised if it puts up a stupid fight about that stupid piece of paper.
Relations with my wife seem to have improved considerably during the past month. Even though she believes the illusions of Mormonism, she is a good person, and I'm willing to make a definite effort to live with a believing Mormon--after all, one might say, she's having to live with an Agnostic christian (or whatever term might be applied to me on a given day). I try to live what I see as the essentials of Christianity, but truly don't believe the doctrine.
Life has been good to me, and it's been getting even better. Questioning the church when I was at BYU, defying the army, and leaving the bishopric and the church behind are among the finest moments in my life, but there has been a lot of beauty, a lot of goodness, a lot of learning, a lot of friends and conversation, a lot of growing in my understanding of my place in this unimaginably vast universe. And I am grateful.
E-mail to: Ron Ellis