Why I Left the Mormon Church
I left the Mormon church in 1958, when I was 25 years old.
That was a long time ago: David O. McKay was the prophet, seer and revelator. There were only eight temples, and none of them owned a movie projector. Every ward had its own meeting house, Sunday school was at 10:30 a.m, and sacrament meeting was at 7:00 p.m. There were no black people in the church (at least none were visible). Garments were in a single piece. The temple endowment ceremony still had the death penalties, the minister, the five points of fellowship. The Book of Abraham papyrus scrolls were still missing. New missionaries learned the language of the country they were assigned to by arriving there two weeks early.
Why, after all these years, would I still be concerned, then, about Mormonism? Why have I not yet come to terms with that distant part of my past and left it behind?
There are several reasons:
First, I am descended from a long line of faithful Mormons. All of my ancestors in every branch of my family, for four, five and six generations,were Mormons. The Mormons and their history are my heritage. It is my only heritage. It is where I come from. None of my Mormon ancestors were great or famous, but I have read their stories, and they were good people. They were faithful, hard working, and deserving of my respect. The history of my family is inevitably intertwined with the history of the Mormons, their migration to Utah and the settlement of the mountain West. I cannot ignore Mormonism and Mormon history without forgetting my past.
Second, my family are still faithful Mormons, almost all, including my parents, my brothers and sisters, my older children, my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews. Their lives are permeated by their Mormon beliefs. Their day-to-day existence is intertwined with the activities of the busy work-making church, their friends are all Mormons, their hopes and fears are Mormon hopes and fears. I cannot ignore Mormonism without ignoring the lives of those I love.
Third, the Mormon church is becoming more prominent and more powerful in our society. In my state (which, unlike Utah, is not thought of as a “Mormon”state) it is now the second-largest religious denomination. Our present U.S.Senator is a devout Mormon. Mormons are occupying influential positions in our state and national governments far out of proportion to their population in the United States. The church has become a mega-wealthy financial enterprise, with billions of dollars worth of money-making businesses and property all over the country – a fact of which most non-Mormons are unaware -with wide-ranging (and usually unseen) influence on many aspects of American life. Its income has been reliably estimated to be millions of dollars per day, not only from its thousands of businesses but also from its faithful members, who are required to donate a minimum of ten percent of their entire income to the church.
The Mormon church boasts of its rapid growth. This growth, in addition to its stance in favor of large families, is because it maintains a large voluntary corps of full-time missionaries who are a well-trained and thoroughly indoctrinated sales force whose sole purpose is to bring more people into the church. Their goal is not to convert, but to enroll, not to enrich lives, but to baptize, not to save sinners’ souls, but to enlarge membership rolls. This missionary force is not directed by caring clergymen,but by successful businessmen, because the Mormon missionary effort is a business, and a very successful business, when judged by business standards.
But the ultimate goal of the church, as stated publicly by its early leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (but not mentioned so publicly by more recent Mormon leaders), is to establish the Mormon Kingdom of God in America,and to govern the world as God’s appointed representatives. The church is already influential in the making of secular policy, as was proven not so long ago when the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated with decisive help from the Mormon church.
To me, the possibility that the Mormon church might control America is a frightening prospect.
Those are some of the more important reasons why I am still vitally interested in Mormonism and the LDS church.
Mormons will tell you that Mormonism is a wonderful way of life,bringing happiness in this mortal existence and, if we earn it by our faith and obedience, ultimate joy (and “power and dominion”) in the next. The promises and hopes it gives to its believers are very attractive and inspiring. Why, then, did I reject that? Here is the story of my own particular journey through (and, eventually, out of) Mormonism.
My Mormon childhood was very happy, with loving and nurturing parents and family. We were “special” because we had the “Gospel,” meaning Mormonism. In my small town in southern Idaho we Mormons easily were the dominant social and political group. We felt sorry for those not so fortunate, for whatever reason, that they were not blessed with the gospel. Our lives centered around the church. We had perfect attendance records at all our meetings. We studied our lesson manuals. It was a wonderful life. Wonderful because we had the Gospel, for which we thanked God several times a day, in every prayer and every blessing pronounced over our food.
We Mormon teenagers participated in school activities, of course, with non-Mormons, but we also had our own church-sponsored events, which were just as good, or better. Really good Mormon teenagers did not date non-Mormons,because of the danger of “getting involved seriously” with a non-Mormon, which would lead to the tragedy of a “mixed marriage” which could not be solemnized in the temple, and which would thus ultimately mean the eternal loss of the possibility of entering the highest degree of heaven, the celestial kingdom. None of us dared to risk that.
So my high school sweetheart was a good and faithful Mormon girl. We fell deeply in love and were devoted to each other without risking any immoral physical activity beyond long kisses and hugs (no touching of body skin or of any area below the waist or around her breasts, etc.). When she graduated from high school and I was in my third year at Brigham Young University, we two virgins got married in a beautiful ceremony in the Idaho Falls temple, and started to have babies. We were the ideal young Mormon couple.
I enjoyed my four years at BYU, being surrounded by devout fellow-students and being taught by devout and educated teachers. One professor of geology was also a member of our ward. I was just learning about the age of the earth as most geologists taught it. I asked him one Sunday at church how he reconciled the teachings of his science with the teachings of the church(which said that the earth was created about 6000 years ago). He replied that he had two compartments in his brain: one for geology and one for the gospel. They were entirely separate, and he did not let the one influence the other. This bothered me, but I didn’t think more about it.
After my graduation from Brigham Young University I was offered a scholarship at Northwestern University to work on a master’s degree. So my young wife and I with our two (at that time) babies moved to Evanston,Illinois, and for the first time in my life I was surrounded by non-Mormons. I was the only Mormon in my university program. This did not intimidate me in the least. I felt that I was intelligent enough, knowledgeable enough about religion, and skillful enough in debating skills (I had been a champion debater in high school) to discuss, defend and promote my religion with anybody. I soon found takers. Since it was no secret that I had graduated from BYU, many of my fellow graduate students had questions about Mormonism. They were friendly questions, but challenging. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to spread the gospel. It was exhilarating. We had some wonderful discussions. Even my professors were willing to listen, and so I educated my linguistics professor about the Deseret Alphabet and my German literature professor about the similarities between Goethe’s worldview and Joseph Smith’s.
Some of my fellow students, however, had tracts and other literature about the Mormons which they had obtained from their own churches. They asked me questions that I was unable to answer satisfactorily because they were based on facts I was unfamiliar with. I had never heard about the Danite enforcer gangs, about the Blood Atonement Doctrine or the Adam-God Doctrine. Where did these horrible allegations come from?
I realized that in order for me to defend Mormonism I would have to know what its enemies were saying about it, so that I could be prepared with the proper facts. I had never been an avid student of the history of the church,although I had earned the highest grades in the third year high-school seminary course in church history. I mean, what was there important to know about church history, beyond the story of how Joseph had his visions, got the plates, translated them, and how Satan had persecuted the Saints until they got to Utah? I was more interested in doctrine: the Truth, as taught by the prophets. The Truth, eternal and unchanging.
But now I began to read church history, both the authentic histories published by the church and the awful lies and distortions published by its enemies. How different they were! It was almost as if the authors in each camp were writing about different events. And the university library, where I spent a good deal of time, seemed to have more of the latter than the former.
After one year I got my master’s degree in German and accepted a teaching job in Ogden, Utah. We returned to Zion and had our third child.
In Ogden I encountered for the first time the writings of the Mormon fundamentalists, who believe that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were true prophets, but that the church since then – especially since the abandonment of the practice of polygamy – is in apostasy. At the time I was studying the doctrines and history of the church extensively, and it seemed that the fundamentalists had a lot of historical information that was not otherwise available. For instance, they relied heavily on the Journal of Discourses, a multi-volume work containing practically all the sermons preached by the church leaders in the first thirty or forty years after coming to Utah. Many years ago, I learned, every Mormon home had a copy of this work. But then the church leaders decided that it wasn’t necessary for the members to have it,and ordered all copies to be turned in. It became a rarity. Why? Every anti-Mormon work I had read relied heavily on quotations from the sermons in the Journal of Discourses. But the present-day church leaders almost never referred to it. Why? It bothered me, but I put the thought aside.
While I was living in Ogden, a fundamentalist publisher brought out a photographic reprint of the entire Journal of Discourses, in hard binding, for$250. If I had not been a poor schoolteacher I would have bought it, because I yearned to be able to read the wise words of the early leaders. But the question of why this work was suppressed by the church still bothered me. I put the thought aside.
One of the accusations made by anti-Mormon works I had read was that Brigham Young had taught that God had revealed to him that Adam was, in fact,God the Father. To substantiate this, they quoted Brigham’s sermons in the Journal of Discourses. If only I could check for myself! I was reminded of a strange comment made after class one day by Sidney B. Sperry, the BYU professor and authority on Book of Mormon and Bible studies. I had taken a Book of Mormon class from him, and admired him greatly. One day he said mysteriously to a small group of students who had stayed after class, “I think, when you get to the Celestial Kingdom, you may be greatly surprised to find out who God really is!” Wow! That implied that Dr. Sperry knew some secret that not many people knew; that we students didn’t really know all there was to be known about this; that the prophets had not told all. What could that secret be?
As I researched this more, and found again and again the same words quoted from Brigham Young’s Journal of Discourses sermons, it began to fit together: Adam was really God!
After two years teaching high school in Zion, I was offered a scholarship to continue my graduate studies in Baltimore. We accepted. Again we were surrounded by Gentiles, and again I had a large research library available.
Certain events in church history really began to bother me. Why had Zion’s Camp failed? Why had the Kirtland Bank failed? Both of these enterprises were organized for the benefit of the church by God’s prophet, who promised that they would succeed. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that God was not doing much to direct the affairs of his church. And, as I thought about it, the same could be said for the experiments in the United Order (holding all property in common), plural marriage, the Deseret Alphabet- all projects begun with great promise, directed by God’s anointed leaders,and all of which failed and were soon abandoned. It bothered me, but I put the thought aside.
What began to bother me most was that the church did not seem to be telling the entire truth about many events in its past. The evidence I read seemed to leave no doubt that the church had encouraged, if not organized, the enforcer gangs called the Danites or the Avenging Angels. Too many independent and primary sources testified of their activities. At that time in my researches the true story of the Mountain Meadows massacre was becoming known, an atrocity which the official church history passed off as the work of Indians, whereas it was becoming clear that the primary blame was on the church. The massacre itself was bad enough, but to me the subsequent whitewash by the church was worse, so far as the divine nature of the church was concerned. It bothered me, but I put the thought aside.
Among the papers of my grandfather, who had served a mission to England in 1910, I found a number of tracts and pamphlets that he had used on his mission. One was the transcript of a debate in 1850 between John Taylor (then an apostle, and on a mission in England) and a Methodist minister. Among the topics discussed in the debate was the rumor, common at the time, that the Mormons were practicing plural marriage. Taylor vigorously denied the rumors as a vicious lie, and firmly asserted on his honor that Mormons were good monogamists. At that very time, however, Taylor himself was married to twelve living wives. All of the top men in the church also had multiple wives at that time. How could a prophet of God lie so blatantly? It bothered me, but I tried to put the thought aside.
The Adam-God problem continued to occupy my mind. I finally decided to try to settle the matter. If the doctrine were true, I was willing, as a faithful member of the church, to accept it. If it were not true, I needed some explanation about the apparent fact that Brigham Young (and other church authorities of his time) vigorously taught it. So I composed a letter to Joseph Fielding Smith, whom I respected very much, and who at the time was the Church Historian and the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. If he would only answer my letter! I spelled out to President Smith my dilemma: the evidence seemed to be clear and uncontroverted that Brigham Young had taught that Adam is God the Father. But the present church does not teach this. What is the truth?
I secretly thought (and perhaps hoped) that President Smith would write back and say something like: “Dear Brother, your diligence and faith in searching for the truth has led you to a precious secret, not known to many;yes, you can be assured that President Young taught the truth: Adam is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to deal. The church does not proclaim this precious truth because we do not wish to expose the mysteries of God to the mockery of the world. Preserve this secret truth as you do the secrets of your temple endowment.”
I received a short and clear answer to my letter from President Smith. It was quite different from what I had expected. He wrote that such an idea was unscriptural and untrue, and completely false. He did not deal with the evidence that Brigham Young had taught it. He ignored the whole problem as if it didn’t exist. It bothered me, but I tried to put it out of my mind.
At the time I was auditing a class at the university in the history of philosophy. It was fascinating. I had no idea that ordinary human beings had given such thought to some of these questions. It occurred to me that my religion had plenty of answers and explanations, but it provided those answers without even really realizing what the questions were. The answers my church gave seemed rather flimsy and superficial, not even dealing with the really basic problems. I was introduced to the study of ethics, and was surprised to find the same thing: my religion, which claimed to be the ultimate, final and complete answer, was not even an introductory primer to the great ethical problems with which great thinkers had been dealing for hundreds of years.
However, I remained a faithful member of the church, fulfilling all my church obligations, attending meetings, observing the Word of Wisdom, wearing my temple garments. But I was struggling mightily to reconcile the church’s inconsistencies, lies, and dubious past with my faith in its divinity.
It was at a single moment one day in the university library when I was pondering this problem. I was suddenly struck with the thought, “All of these problems disappear as soon as you realize that the Mormon church is just another man-made institution. Everything then is easily explained.” It was like a revelation. The weight suddenly lifted from me and I was filled with a feeling of joy and exhilaration. Of course! Why hadn’t I seen it before?
I rushed home to share with my wife the great discovery I had made. I told her what I had learned: the church isn’t true!
She turned away and stomped up the stairs. She refused to accept anything I said critical about the church. It was the beginning of the end of our marriage.
I tried to continue my church responsibilities, primarily as ward organist. But I found it more and more difficult to sound sincere in public speaking, public prayer, or participation in class discussions. During the next summer my wife took the children back to Utah for a visit, and I felt it was silly for me to continue to wear the temple garments. And why shouldn’t I have a cup of coffee with the other students, or have a glass of wine at a party? I had never tasted coffee or alcohol in my life, but there was no reason now, I felt, to deprive myself of those pleasant things. The next year was an armed truce in my marriage.
My wife left me suddenly, with no warning, taking the children. Her friends at church helped her escape, and she returned to Zion and divorced me. A last-ditch attempt at reconciliation failed when she said that her return would be conditioned upon my returning to the faith. I realized that I could not do it, however much I wanted to keep my family. Of course she got custody of the children. She remarried four years later, her new husband a faithful priesthood holder whose wife had left the church. (How ironic, that a church which places such a high value on family ties actually destroys the very thing it claims to promote!)
In the years since leaving the church I have never regretted my decision for a moment (other than the fact that it caused me to lose my wife and children). Subsequent study has given me a hundred times as much damning information about the church and its history as I had at the time of my original decision to leave it. Many Mormon friends and family members have tried to convince me that I made a mistake, but when I insist that they also listen to what I have to say about my reasons for believing the church to be false, they soon abandon the attempt, even though I assure them that my mind is open to any evidence or reasoning I may have overlooked. They are convinced that I apostatized because of sin, lack of faith, stubbornness,pride, hurt feelings, lack of knowledge or understanding, depravity, desire to do evil or live a life of debauchery. None of those reasons is correct. I left for one reason, and one reason only: the Mormon church is not led by God, and it never has been. It is a religion of 100% human origin.
My wife believed, I think, that since the church had taught me to be honest, loving, faithful, hard-working and a good husband, my leaving the church would mean I would soon become just the opposite. She was probably not alone in believing that I would soon be a shiftless, godless, miserable bum,dead at an early age of syphilis and alcoholism.
However, my life since leaving the church has been a rich and rewarding one. I have been successful in my profession. I married a lovely girl with beliefs similar to mine, and we now have two fine adult sons whom we raised with no religious training whatsoever, and who are as admirable human beings as one could ever want their children to be. We have prospered materially(probably more than most of my good Mormon relatives), and our life has been rich in many other ways as well, rich in good friends, in appreciation of the beauty to be found our world. We have explored all the intellectual and spiritual riches of our human heritage and profited from it all.
And as I am getting older I also realize that I have no fear of death,even though I have no idea what to expect when it comes. In that regard I find I am unlike many Mormons, who are desperately worried that they have not been sufficiently “valiant” in their devotion to the church to qualify for the Celestial Kingdom. Again, how ironic it is that a church which begins by promising its members such joy and happiness actually causes them such worry and despair!
I am still proud of my Mormon heritage. I still enjoy doing genealogy work (I have more complete records than most of my Mormon family members). I still love to play and sing some of the stirring old Mormon hymns. I still keep a good supply of food on hand. And I still believe in eternal progression: things just keep getting better and better.
As a postscript: Apostle Bruce R. McConkie admitted that Brigham Young did teach that Adam was God, and that the church has indeed lied about its own history. (read his letter here) He says that Brigham Young was wrong, but he has gone to the Celestial Kingdom; but if you believe what Brigham Young taught about that, you will go to hell. The fact that the church can put a “positive spin”on these admissions is truly mind-boggling.
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“Why I Left the Mormon Church” is copyright © 1998 by Richard Packham. All rights reserved. Reprinted electronically with the permission of Richard Packham.