Monday, February 11, 2008
Our journey out of mormonism: Saved by His sovereign grace
Our journey out of mormonism: Saved by His sovereign grace
I have long felt compelled to put down my thoughts and our experiences as we found ourselves first investigators, and then members and finally apostates of the mormon religion, and how God’s gracious hand was ever-present along the way. At the time when we left mormonism, we initially felt lost and confused. How could everything we knew to be true suddenly be shown conclusively to be false, how could God have allowed us to be taken in by a lie all those years? But as the years have passed, more and more we have recognized the hand of God even as we were deepest in mormonism.
Neither my wife nor I grew up in what would generally be considered a “Christian home”. Our homes were good homes to grow up, for different reasons, but faith was not a priority. Eva was a “good” Catholic growing up, weekly going to Mass, completing catechism on Mondays, serving as an altar girl. In her teens she really began seeking the face of God, with a growing desire to know Him more, a desire I did everything I could to quash as a youth. A Baptist friend at work really tried to share the Gospel with Eva, and we still own that white King James Bible that she gave her. My home was agnostic at best, and in my youth I wore my atheism like a badge, assured that my own intelligence was adequate to explain anything. Religion for me was a means to control weaker minded people, rubes who needed a crutch to get through the day (to paraphrase that great philosopher Jesse “The Body” Ventura!). My first exposure to church came when Eva and I were married and we went through the pre-marriage classes mandated by the Roman Catholic church where we were wed. I am afraid that I came out of that experience with an even lower opinion of religion and religious people than I harbored before (which is saying quite a lot!)
In my college years, we had the first two of our eight children and that experience of holding a tiny child, a new life had a profound impact on my thinking. No longer did I assume, could I assume, that life was just a random act explainable away by science and reason. In my last few semesters at Bowling Green State University, I took two courses that gave me my first exposure to the Word of God, an English course “The Bible as Literature” and a history class on the New Testament. Both were completely secular classes and neither approached the Bible as the literal Word of God. In fact in my literature class the instructor was a more than slightly kooky former Roman priest, who needless to say didn’t have a high view of the Bible. In the months leading up to graduation, as I sought employment, I was offered a management position with a retailer in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As we prepared to move “Out West” after graduation, we got advice from quite a few people to find a church when we settled in to give us a sense of community. A few months after arriving in Cheyenne, my wife called me at work to let me know we had company coming over, a couple of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Now, being relatively ignorant of all things religious I knew very little about the mormons. I knew that they were highly regarded as being industrious, faithful, family oriented, conservative folks. I knew about the prohibition on drinking and of course the ever present issue of polygamy, but that was about it. Like so many people who are ensnared by false teachings, I didn’t know what the truth was and so was unable to recognize a lie for what it was.
The two missionaries who came over that night were great guys, Noah McDaniel and Henk Fisher. They were polite and patient. The first night they came we got a lesson in how not to deal with mormons and other cultists. The maintenance guy who lived in our apartment saw the missionaries coming in, got in their faces and threatened to call the police. Right away, we were given two contrasting images: the nice, clean-cut mormons and the angry, intolerant Christian. The two missionaries hit it off with us right away, they were a lot more relaxed than most missionaries we would meet in the years that followed. They were earnest but not self-righteous, and they presented the message of mormonism as well as anyone I have ever seen. We still have some of the hand drawn diagrams they used to illustrate their points. We were like sponges, and having virtually no knowledge of the Bible, we didn’t know where to question what we were being told. After completing the investigators lessons, we decided to get baptized as members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In November of 1995, around Thanksgiving, we were both baptized and began attending as regularly as my schedule working in retail permitted. Noah McDaniel and Henk Fisher eventually moved on to new assignments, but our fondness for missionaries would remain for the rest of our time in mormonism. We even named our fourth child Noah, after Noah McDaniel.
Life in mormonism was kind of a blur for the first year. We moved back home to Ohio shortly after converting, and then to Auburn Hills, Michigan. We never really got as connected as we should have. It took way longer than normal for me to receive Melchizedek priesthood as an adult male. Because we moved around so much, it was more than a year before we really got hooked in. In Ohio, we lived on the East side of Toledo and the ward was pretty far away in an affluent part of town and we never were really comfortable there. Just the opposite was true when we lived in Michigan, the church was pretty small in the area, so rather than a full ward we were part of the Pontiac branch. We met in a non-church owned building, and the group was pretty small. Pontiac is a pretty rough town, and again working in retail we didn’t make it very often to church. The one constant was that we had the missionaries over on a regular basis, and they formed the main connection with the church at that time. It wasn’t until we moved to New Hampshire that we really got comfortable in the church. In New Hampshire, I went from retail to working at Fidelity Investment, my first Monday through Friday job, and because Fidelity had relocated a number of employees from Salt Lake City I worked with and knew a lot of other mormons. We shared a corporate culture as well as a church culture, and I felt more involved in the goings on because our local Bishop was a mid-level manager at Fidelity. We still had the missionaries over for dinner all the time, and I began going out and accompanying them on home visits. We liked it a lot better in New Hampshire, when we joined in Wyoming most of the people were very intimidating. Keeping up with the Mormon Joneses was hard, and it seemed like we would never be able to live up to the standards of righteousness that was in our faces all the time. In New Hampshire it was different, we were friends with lots of other mormons, we really got into the new member classes (over a year after we were baptized). We made a few really good friends, people we and our kids hung out with even outside of church. It was after a few years in New Hampshire that we finally went to the temple. More on that later, as that whole experience deserves separate treatment. Life was good church-wise in New Hampshire, but it was so incredibly expensive to live in New England that we decided to move back to the Midwest, and I ended up with an ill-fated and short lived job in Wisconsin.
After a short stay in Wisconsin, we moved to Northern Kentucky and back to Fidelity Investments. Like every move, the first contact we made was with the local mormon church. They helped you move in, get acclimated to the area and get integrated into the local church. Moving is jarring, and by keeping in touch every step of the way, the mormon church ensures that people don’t stray or fall away when they change wards. In Northern Kentucky, we settled back into church. As usual, the missionaries were very important to us. We had them over at least once a week, often times several nights a week to feed them. I went out with them almost every week on visits and to drive them around, since they covered a pretty big geographical area and had limited mileage on their car. It was during this time that I was called as a membership clerk in the Bishopric. That is a pretty minor calling, but it gave me insight into the inner workings of the local church leadership as I attended most of the Bishopric meetings. It was a rude awakening how people were called into their church callings, the process being a lot more pragmatic than inspired. It was also disturbing how many people who were listed as members never attended and of those how many either wanted no contact with the church or were outright hostile towards it. Most mormons outside of the bishopric would be shocked to learn what a high percentage of “members” are openly hostile toward the church that claims them as members. It is true of many Christian churches that members on the rolls often are not attenders, but you don’t see the same level of hostility towards the institution.
Life was pretty well set, laid out in front of us for the rest of our days. Raise our children up, send them to BYU and on their missions, retire and perhaps become retiree missionaries for the church. Our kids would marry other mormons, and raise good mormon kids. We were in a very comfortable groove, temple worthy mormons fulfilling our callings and generally doing what good mormons were supposed to do. We had it all figured out.
But that was not what God had planned for us…
As I look back, the beginning of the real questions came when we finally went to the temple. After a few false starts in New Hampshire, including a whole cancellation of a trip (it was a big deal, this was before the Boston temple, so the nearest temple was in Washington, D.C. a trip of some 450 miles), we finally completed the temple preparation classes and made the journey to the D.C. temple in February of 2000 with our four oldest children. The trip itself was exhausting, driving through the night, stopping to sleep for a few hours in Delaware. I still remember the stench of the garbage barges in New Jersey! We stayed with my sister who lives in the area, and went in early with some people from church who were also co-workers of mine at Fidelity. The day is kind of a blur, but some things stand out for us. As we sat in a brief meeting, a greeting from the temple president, I remember looking out in the hallway and seeing guys in all white walking by with funny hats on. We thought they were chefs, because no one told us what to expect. The whole lead-up is pretty mysterious, you know very little of what is to go one in the temple before you go (and for good reason, as the whole thing is pretty freaky!) As we went through the ceremonies, including the “take of your clothes and put on this sheet so an old guy can dab oil on you” part, it became increasingly weird. This was the high point of mormonism? This is what we had looked forward to for all of that time? The only thing that redeemed the trio at all was as we were entering the room to watch the video and take out our endowments, we walked past a young couple. I thought he looked familiar and sure enough it was Noah McDaniel, one of the missionaries who had baptized us and that we hadn’t talked to since. We were able to catch up with him later and introduce to the little blonde boy who we named after him. If we had not met up with Noah and his wife, I am not sure what we would have done afterward as we were more than a little freaked out. We got our new temple names, Heber for me and Lydia for Eva (sharing those names is a big deal, as that is highly secretive. Eva never knew my temple name until some time after we left mormonism. I knew hers of course so I could call her through the veil and she wouldn’t get left outside of the celestial kingdom. But I digress…) We learned the secret handshakes, watched the cheesy video, spoke the sacred oaths and acted out calling our wives through the veil and entered the celestial room. That was hardly the pinnacle of spirituality on earth, we were mostly just tired and feeling anything BUT close to God. Finally we went to the sealing room, with it’s altar and double mirrors to give the image of eternity. By that time we were exhausted, and for me the sealing ceremony where we were joined as a family for time and eternity was just annoying. Noah wouldn’t behave (a sign of things to come!), and it was for me a pretty non-spiritual event, in fact anticlimactic might be the best way to describe it. It is hard to take things seriously wearing a goofy get-up like that. We drove away with our packet of stuff, including the obligatory temple certificate and picture of the temple and I remember looking at each other, sworn not to speak of the events of the temple but with a clear question in each of our eyes: “What the heck was that!”. Mormons are encouraged to go back early and often to the temple, I believe to lessen the strangeness of it all through familiarity. But although we carried our temple recommends until the day I mailed them back to our local Bishop and we always spoke highly of the temple, we never went into a temple again. The temple to me was hardly this little slice of heaven on earth. They are beautiful on the outside but what goes on inside is not the work of Christ, but the work of the Devil. It brings to mind what Christ said about the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:27: “"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness.”. Beautiful and clean on the outside, but full of spiritual death on the inside is an apt description of the mormon temple.
In the summer of 2001, our oldest daughter was turning eight, the age when most mormon children are baptized into the church. We had it all planned out, she had been in to meet with the Bishop to make sure she understood what was going on and was “worthy”, we had special dispensation to baptize her in Northern Michigan. Things were proceeding as they were supposed to. I remember distinctly that at that time I was reading that old mormon faith affirming standby, The Work and the Glory series. It was designed to reaffirm your faith, while giving you a sanitized history of the church that was also faith affirming, but it didn’t have that impact on me. The more I read, the more I started to realize how poorly the Book of Mormon was written, and that when I was the same age as Joseph Smith, I could have crafted a similar tale. One afternoon, after reading I knelt down to pray. I never imagined what would happen after my knees hit the ground.
It was very sudden. I knelt down as a mormon, and when I stood up I no longer was. It wasn’t because I was offended by someone in the church. It wasn’t because I had an un-confessed sin in my life. It wasn’t because I had fallen under the influence of apostates or read anti-mormon material. I can only attribute it to God breaking my heart, breaking the pride that made me think that I could be saved through my own righteousness, that by obedience and works I could become like God Himself, either dragging Him down to me or lifting myself to His level. Semantics in mormonism suggest that we never become the equal of our Heavenly Father, but the reality is that mormonism teaches that God was once a human, no different than us, and that He became a god and by following the tenets of mormonism we could do the same and become like Him. I was not looking to get out, I was not seeking Him. He came seeking me. The Great Shepherd who searches for one lost sheep found one, kneeling down next to his bed in Kentucky, worshipping the image of a false god. If there was ever a more unlikely candidate to be saved than me, I can’t imagine who that person might be. Maybe Saul. Like Saul I sought to persecute Him by spreading lies about Him and seeking to lead people away from Him, and like Saul I thought I was doing His work because I was so earnest about it. I see no similarities between myself and Paul, post-Damascus Road conversion but I see a lot of similarities between myself and Saul the persecutor of the church. In that moment I knew a few things. I knew that no matter how hard I had tried to convince myself, the Book of Mormon was not Scripture, that it was not the Word of God. Joseph Smith was a shyster and a liar, and had made up the whole thing. And I knew that I would never again worship a false god in a mormon church.
I walked into the living room and told Eva I didn’t want to baptize Caitlin. At first she assumed that I meant that I didn’t want to do it myself, but then she came to realize that I meant not that I didn’t want to baptize Caitlin but instead that I didn’t want Caitlin to be baptized as a mormon at all. Things started happening pretty quickly. The missionaries came over, and I had a curt but cordial conversation with them. We got an anonymous letter in the mail that I kept, along with a book warning us about staying clear of those evil anti-mormons like Sandra Tanner and that apostate mormons are one of the few categories of people who go to hell in mormon theology (murderers are the other group). The local Bishop called Eva when he knew I would be at work, and I recall leaving him a fairly ugly message telling him to not call my house anymore. It was about that point that I started to read “anti” mormon material, and what I read was stunning and confirmed what I had come to believe about mormonism. The changes and inconsistencies in the story of the “First Vision” and the Book of Mormon, the fact that Joseph Smith was hoodwinked into buying Egyptian documents and then “translating” them into what is now known as the Book of Abraham which contains much of what makes up distinctive mormon theology. That “translation” has now been shown categorical to be false, and laughably so. As I read the Bible without looking at it through the lens of mormonism, I began to see how deviant mormonism is from Biblical Christianity. Rather than regretting my decision to leave, I began to praise God for saving me from a lie and from myself.
One momentous (for me) occasion still sticks out in my mind right after we left. A young woman I worked with had a boyfriend who was a lapsed mormon, and she knew that we were mormons so when I told her we left mormonism, she challenged me to get a cup of coffee and then wanted to watch me drink it! It was a liberating moment for me, that first cup of coffee and I have been making up for lost (coffee) time ever since. Another time that I remember was a business trip back to Massachusetts. I had lunch with a couple of buddies from my old job, one a mormon and one a Catholic who knew I had left. My Catholic friend asked how things are going since we left mormonism, and the look of horror on my mormon friend’s face was telling. He later emailed me and said something pretty typical, in talking to some other mormons who knew me the assumption was that someone had offended us. It had to be something like that, right? For mormons it is, because the alternative that someone had earnestly come to the conclusion that mormonism is false topples the whole house of cards. I rarely heard from him after that and finally not at all.
It was a hard time in our marriage. When I stood up from my knees that day, I was done. I was utterly convinced that mormonism was a lie, and I walked and never looked back. It was much harder on my wife. Eva went with me at first because of her loyalty to me, but for years afterwards still clung to many of the positives of mormonism. As her husband, the one called to be the spiritual head of the family I had let her down and let us be led astray (not the first and certainly not the last time that I failed in my role as husband). Those who were out friends stopped speaking to us, shunning us in fact as apostates. A particular event stands out in my mind shortly after we left mormonism. One of our favorite missionaries, David Card, came over after we left, along with two other missionaries. We had a nice dinner and then they started looking at my Book of Mormon and all the pages I had tabbed with various inconsistencies and heresies. Rather than confidently refuting what we had come to believe as they planned, they retreated back into the “I have a testimony” defense. I could see in their eyes as they were backed into corners that they were shutting down, and eventually they completely shut me out. I always took offense at mormonism being called a cult, but when we left the actions of other mormons, and especially those missionaries that night, showed me pretty clearly that so much of the way mormons structure their church is designed to work like cults do: shunning apostates, quashing dissent, discouraging investigating, reliance on a modern prophetic voice.
The whole event solidifies for me the sovereign grace of God. I was not seeking Him, in fact I was quite sure that I was already in His church and doing His will. I suspect that is true of virtually everyone who comes to Christ. In our natural state, we are not seeking Him. Ask the average unbeliever, at least those who are not militant atheists, and chances are that they are in another faith tradition and believe they are following God or are relying on good works (I am living well, I am generally a good person, etc.) for their salvation. We want to have a hand in our salvation. Mormonism takes that to another level: not only can you help to save yourself by your works, if you work diligently and faithfully enough you can become a god too! But in spite of my arrogance and blasphemy of assuming that God was merely a partner in my salvation and that I would one day climb to godhood myself, God worked that miracle that only He can do, quickening my dead sinners heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. If He had not worked in my heart, I would likely have stayed in mormonism and be as lost as the most vitriolic atheist. Therefore all the praise and glory for my salvation belongs with Him, and Him alone, and that is the way it should be.
UPDATE: I have started recording my thoughts about mormonism on a different blog, The Fo-Mo Chronicles. I encourage interested readers to check it out.