I was born and raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My ancestors joined the church and came across the Atlantic at their own expense to join the saints in Zion. They were members of the church when the Doctrine & Covenants still said the Father was “a personage of spirit”, the Son was a “personage of tabernacle”, and the Holy Ghost simply the shared “mind” of the Father and the Son. They were also members when Brigham Young taught that Adam was our Heavenly Father and Eve our Heavenly Mother. I am of the sixth generation of my family in the church. I was raised to be faithful to the teachings of the prophets and apostles of the church. I remember taking great solace in “knowing” Spencer Kimball was a prophet. “Knowing” the church was true was a great source of comfort. I really and truly believed every jot and tittle of the correlated LDS gospel I was taught. I was so sure.
I recall once, when I was a young teen, the thought crossed my mind that the Church might not be true. I devised an experiment: I determined that if I could simply form the words in my mind to express the affirmation that Joseph Smith was not a prophet, then he might not be a prophet. I was subsequently paralyzed in my attempt to formalize that thought in words. This was my “stupor of thought”! Now I had not only had a peaceful feeling when I had previously prayed about it but had also had a stupor of thought in my attempt to deny it. I was certain it was true! The Brethren had told me how I would feel about all this, and they were right! What a relief!
From that day, I never doubted—at least, not until much later. I knew about Book of Mormonanachronisms: steel, horses, chariots, elephants, barley, etc. In fact, those things were even mentioned in seminary lessons! I knew about polygamy, though I didn’t know Joseph Smith practiced it, and I didn’t know it was always illegal in the U.S. I knew about the priesthood ban for blacks. I thought I knew all the church’s secrets. I also knew they were no big deal because I “knew” the church was true. I knew Joseph restored it. I was sure Spencer, Ezra, Howard, and Gordon were prophets in my day. I read the scriptures daily for seminary. When the seminary course of study was Old Testament, New Testament, or Doctrine& Covenants, I did my best to always read at least a few verses from the Book of Mormon every day, too. I was now an older teen getting ready for a mission! I had long since repented of my “sins”—i.e. normal teenage behaviors like masturbating as a young teen before I really had a testimony, trying a cigarette once, and drinking alcohol once. I graduated from seminary and from high school, and then I told my family and my girlfriend goodbye and went on a mission.
Despite my faith and hard work, my mission was generally a dismal experience, punctuated by periods of elation that seemed to come and go randomly. I baptized few people. My mission president assigned me to difficult companions. He even told me he had done so knowingly. He left me with those difficult companions for long stretches—four months, three months, six months. Most of the other companions weren’t difficult, but some of them were trunky. It was difficult and frustrating. I was often depressed, sometimes in the deepest despair because of the companion situation or because the teaching pool was empty no matter how hard we tried. I was worthy, and I worked hard. I was exhausted. My shoe soles were worn thin. My shirts were stained with sweat. I even got a parasitic infection at one point. The muscles of my lower back were killing me. I thought about just going home. I once even thought about taking a mission car and driving back home. But I “knew” I was where I was supposed to be. I “knew” that if I would just endure it I would be blessed. I had to put that thought out of my mind. I could not allow myself to even think about leaving, so I put it out of my mind.
Finally, the day came when it was time to go home. I had served an honorable mission, despite the challenges. My testimony had grown, and my “understanding” of the gospel had grown deeper. By this point in my life, I had read The Book of Mormon at least five times. I had read all the other standard works two or three times. Many verses were committed to memory.
I had a hard time adjusting to my life after the mission. There was nobody to tell me what to do anymore. I was perpetually anxious. All that structure was gone, and I was adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Everything was suddenly different: I was in college pursuing a major that probably would never make me a high earner, but I thought it was my passion because it came easy. I was soon married to my girlfriend who had waited for me, and had written me a letter every week. I was also called as ward mission leader. The trouble was that I felt uncomfortable around missionaries after my mission. Just seeing them gave me flashbacks to my own miserable mission, so I didn’t last long in that calling. Everything changed so fast I was disoriented, nervous, scared.
Then, my brother-in-law’s wife got baptized and he reactivated. What a joyous time! But within a month, they had left the church, and had become atheists. That brought about my first introduction to the problems with The Book of Abraham. I read some apologetics from Hugh Nibley, and that was enough for me to maintain my “knowledge” that The Book of Abraham was true. I reassured myself once . . . twice . . . several times in my “knowledge” and testimony of the doctrinal contents of that book—the pre-mortal life, the patriarchal order of the priesthood, etc. I became comfortable again, and for a time, forgot I had doubts. I had controlled and correlated my mind yet again. I was blessed to have maintained my faith, rather than being led away by that wily Satan.
I was never really “at risk” again until a decade later, when my daughter reached the so-called “age of accountability”. She passed her baptismal interview without a hitch. She gave all the right answers because she had been taught in church and at home about the gospel. We held Family Home Evening only occasionally, but we read the scriptures every night for the 18 months preceding her baptism. She knew and understood how important it was to me.
I only learned the day of her baptism that she didn’t believe Jesus was real. She was frightened to tell me, and distraught at the thought of actually going through with the ordinance. I told her to take some time alone to pray to know that getting baptized was the right thing for her to do. When I came back, she told me she was ready. She was baptized and confirmed. Afterward, we continued to study the Book of Mormon together nightly as a family for another several months. Her reading skills had really improved from spending time reading that book over those many months. However, she soon started telling me some mornings, “Dad, I prayed last night to find out if God is real, and guess what? I didn’t get an answer.” All I could tell her in response was that God was real, and that if she kept praying God would let her know it.
This continued occasionally until one day at dinner, nearly two years later, she broke down crying because she was afraid God wouldn’t let us be together as a family because she didn’t believe. That evening I said something I knew was true: I told her that God would let us be together forever as a family even if she didn’t believe. I told her it would be wrong for God to take us away from her, or her away from us. It would be cruel. I told her that God does not do stuff like that. And I knew I was right. Reading the scriptures became loathsome soon after. One night as we were reading, I realized I would no longer gather my family for that activity in the evenings.
I wondered why God had confirmed the truthfulness of the church to me when I asked as a teenager, but hadn’t spoken to my daughter in a way she could understand. Why was he withholding information from her? Was it my fault? Was it because we hadn’t held family home evening often enough? Was it because I somehow had been ineffective in teaching her? Then I realized none of that should matter. If she wanted to know, God had promised he would tell her. I became angry at God—for not keeping his promises—for helping me find my keys while children starved—for blessing me while cursing others whom I could not help. I was losing my belief in God, but was afraid to even entertain thoughts along those lines.
But I remembered and experiment I had devised decades before: a test in my own mind. If I could formalize the thought in my head, it was something I could consider. After all, what could be the harm in letting myself consider it? I went into my closet one evening, and I thought, “I don’t believe in God.” I expected to feel awful at the mere thought. Instead, I felt relief! I then whispered those words aloud, “I don’t believe in God.” I recognized it then: the same “spirit” that had told me decades ago that the church was true was now telling me I had been wrong. It was just an emotional experience, not a supernatural one, and this was why my daughter’s experience was entirely different from mine. My daughter’s struggle had spurred within me a quest for understanding, and I had arrived at that understanding. The church had manipulated my emotions and my mind—had caused me to fear my own thoughts. Always wondering which of my thoughts were of God, which were of the devil, and which were the thoughts of the “natural man”. No good could come from my own mind in that framework. What a mind game it is!
I had become an atheist. This was something I had feared. It was also something I knew others feared, so I thought about telling no one. I thought about being a “secret Mormon atheist”. This was the Google search that brought me to postmormon.org, where I read and learned about the hidden things. I learned about “the works of [the] brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.” I found discussion, and I found links to primary sources published by the church in the past, and I used my marbles—my brain, not my seer stones—to make the connection.
I was still afraid to tell anyone, even my wife. I didn’t know what she’d think of me, but I could no longer keep it a secret. When I told her I no longer believed, she said she already knew. We gave two weeks’ notice that we would no longer be teaching our primary class. After those two weeks, we went to church once more to see if we wanted to just be social members. It was no good. It wouldn’t work. You can’t take kids there without getting them caught in the mind trap. They will learn to second-guess themselves, to doubt their doubts, and to fear their own thoughts. All their friends are doing it, after all.
We haven’t been to church for over a year now. The weekend is now an unmitigated joy. My daughter is no longer afraid to speak her mind. My little family is happier than we’ve been in a long, long time, and it keeps getting better. I want everyone to know it.