Deconversion part I
I’m sorry for missing last week, but I’ve been very ill with Covid. I’m feeling better than I was, but still not completely recovered.
Today I thought I’d address my deconversion story. I have heard a lot of deconversion stories over the years, and while I’m not arrogant enough to think my story is unique, but I’ve never heard another like it. My deconversion started much younger than most people’s and took far longer to complete. Since it is long, I will tell it in at least two parts.
I was born a 6th generation Mormon in Bountiful, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. My ancestors joined the Mormon Church early in its existence, some of them even met its founder, Joseph Smith. All of my great, great grandparents were Mormon. Mormonism was engrained almost in my DNA. All of my large extended family was Mormon, as was nearly everyone I knew as a child. I rarely had any interaction with people who weren’t Mormon, and I had no non-Mormon friends until I was a senior in high school and became friends with Ana, an exchange student from Spain.
With such a background, you might expect that I was fully indoctrinated from the beginning and lived my life with no doubts of its truthfulness. This is the way many deconversion stories begin, but not mine. From my earliest memories I was uncomfortable with the patriarchy in the Mormon Church. All positions of authority in the Mormon Church are held by men, and Mormon men are given the priesthood (the power to act in the name of God) at 12. Women never are. In my family, my father, as a holder of the priesthood, presided. He was the one who lead family scripture study and called on one of us to pray at mealtimes or in family prayer. My mom only did such things when my father was absent. It bothered me slightly that my dad was put before my mom, but the idea of a male-exclusive priesthood started to make me angry when my oldest brother turned 12. After my brother received the priesthood, rather than my mom presiding in my father’s absence, my brother now did. It seemed grossly insulting that my adult mother had to defer to her 12-year-old son. This I hated. But at 10 years-old, I started to believe that this imbalance in power mandated by the Mormon Church was a temporary wrong that would soon be corrected.
Before 1978, the Mormon Church taught some incredibly racist doctrine about African Americans. They denied black men the priesthood and forbade all black people from attending the temple.* The justification for this exclusive was the teaching that in the War in Heaven** before the creation of the earth, black people hadn’t been valiant. They were fence sitters who watched to see who was going to win before taking part. Because of their lack of valiance, they were condemned to being born in the lineage of Cain, the mark placed on Cain being that of dark skin. This was a symbol that they were to be denied some of the blessings of mortality. Despite the fact that the Church today tries to claim that it never taught any such thing, I clearly remember being told this as a child.
Then in 1978 with BYU’s participation in the NCAA and even its accreditation in danger, Spencer W. Kimball, the Mormon prophet at the time, had a “revelation” that black men should now receive the priesthood and black people should have all the rights of membership in the Mormon church. When I was merely 10 years old, everything I’d been taught about black people was suddenly no longer true.
In light of this monumental change, it didn’t take me long to decide that what the church taught about women was equally untrue and would be changing shortly. There are several aspects of Mormon doctrine and Mormon history that allowed me to hold this belief without questioning the basic truths of the church or doubting that Joseph Smith was a prophet who restored God’s true church to the earth. The first of these is the belief in ongoing revelation. Mormons believe that not only did Joseph Smith talk to God, but all church presidents since Smith have also been prophets with a direct line to the Big Man upstairs. The 9th Article of Faith*** states: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” The church taught God revealed truth as people were ready to receive it and that new revelation usually came in response to the prophet asking questions. For example, in the Mormon history as I was taught it, Joseph asked God why it was okay for David, Solomon, and other Biblical prophets to have multiple wives. In response, God told him that He was super cool with polygamy. In fact, it was actually the divinely sanctioned way marriage should be. Joseph was merely following divine command when he had married and had sex with teenage girls behind his wife Emma’s back.****
Another doctrine that allowed me to justify waiting for the Church to fix itself was that of personal revelation. The Mormon Church teaches that everyone should pray to God to know whether or not the Church or any particular doctrine of it is truly from God. If we prayed with faith, God would let us know it was true through a “burning in the bosom” (the witness of the Holy Spirit) or not true through a “stupor of thought” (what this means was never clearly explained).
Somehow I missed the memo that the only correct answer to such a prayer is that everything that church is currently saying is true, so when I prayed, I was open to either answer. I got a burning in my bosom when I prayed about the general idea if the Church was true, but I received a lot of stupors of thought in response to my prayers about the Mormon patriarchy. (Yes, I realize now that my emotions were merely confirming what I wanted to believe, but at the time, I believed the feelings were from God.) I reasoned that the persecution of the early Church was what made it necessary to deny African Americans the priesthood to begin with (the Church was founded in the years leading up to the Civil War.) Then it took a long time afterwards for Church presidents to ask God for an update on the issue. They were only human after all. They did get around to and fixed the problem. Now, because the Church’s leadership were all extremely old, white men, it was taking even longer for them to ask about women, but eventually they would. In the not-too-distant future, the Mormon Church would cease to be sexist, just as it had ceased to be racist. After all, in American history, granting civil rights to black people has always preceded granting the same rights to women. I just needed to be patient.
And so I was. For years and years. I bristled and raged inwardly about the constant lessons about how women should support the priesthood, get married and have children young, and be a full time homemaker. I was never that fond of children, and I hated housework. I knew I would be miserable if I did what the Church told all women to do. To me it seemed as ridiculous as telling all men to be doctors. While some men would love and thrive in a medical career, others are just not cut out for it either intellectually or emotionally and would be miserable failures if they tried to become doctors, but could well be happy, successful men in another field. Women all doing the same thing made no more sense to me than men doing so. However, I knew saying such things at Church wouldn’t go over well. So I kept quiet, but planned my own life to avoid this horrible fate and waited patiently for this “truth” about women to change. Mormons taught that it never would change because truth never changes. This, I knew was a lie. I had watched the truth change about black people when I was 10 years old. So I was patient, kept praying and receiving those stupors of thought.
It was by no means easy to maintain this balance as a teenager, and even more difficult to do so when I started college at Brigham Young University, the Mormon college. When I reached college, the message given to girls changed FROM NEVER EVEN THINK ABOUT SEX to pair up and get married right now. This pressure to marry is the constant drumbeat that permeates everything at BYU. It is not at all unusual for freshmen girls to get engaged, and men frequently joke that women are only there to obtain their MRS degrees, a joke which I always found offensive. Still, I had a boyfriend seriously interested in marrying me when I was a freshman. I broke it off, finding the idea of marrying that young revolting. Other than my freshman boyfriend, I didn’t date much in college. Partially because I couldn’t stand the condescending way nearly all Mormon men treat women and partially because I wasn’t the ideal Mormon woman that men were looking for. I wasn’t after my MRS degree, but planned on having a career. After graduating BYU, I planned to go to graduate school, get my doctorate, and become an English professor. I was repeatedly told that I’d change my mind when I found the right man.
I will stop at this point and finish the story next week. If there is anything you have questions about or would like to know about in more detail, please leave your questions in the comments. If you’ve deconverted from Mormonism or any religion, I’d love to hear your story as well.
- * Denying temple attendance has important implications in Mormon doctrine. It is only through temple ordinances that people can be exalted. This doesn't mean non-exalted people go to hell. Mormons don't really believe in hell, but instead posits three kingdoms of glory with the Celestial Kingdom being exaltation. In other words, by denying black people the temple ordinances, Mormons believed they were denying them the opportunity to achieve this highest degree.
- ** Mormons believe that we all existed with God before we were born into this world. People, Satan, Jesus are all equally the spiritual children of our Heavenly Father and Mother. In the council of heaven, we discussed how earth life would be run. Jesus proposes giving people free will and allowing them to choose whether or not to obey God, which would mean many would be lost. Satan proposed forcing everyone to be good so that everyone could return to be with God. Jesus's plan was chosen, but 1/3 of the host of heavens rebelled and followed Satan, leading to the War in Heaven. Satan's followers were defeated and throw out, condemned never to have a body.
- *** The Articles of Faith were written by Joseph Smith as a summary of Mormon beliefs. All children need to memorize these 13 articles before they are baptized at age 8. For a full list of the Articles of Faith, click on the link.