“Tell me about your testimony.”
I was 24 years old when my bishop asked me this question and I thought back to the origins of my testimony.
My parents were and are as faithful Mormons as ever you'll meet. They had raised me and my ten siblings in the Church. We went to church every week and read scriptures every day. When I was 14 years old, I decided that I wanted to know for myself that the Church was true instead of just believing. I decided to test the promise of the prophet Moroni, found in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10: 4-5).
I spent a weekend and shut myself up in my room and read all 531 pages of the Book of Mormon. I fasted during this time, interrupting my reading only to attend church Sunday morning. I finished the book late Sunday night and knelt beside my bed, giddy with anticipation for the testimony I was sure God would give me. “Father in Heaven,” I prayed, “Is the Book of Mormon true?”
I waited. Nothing happened.
I looked at the verses again, scouring the instructions like a recipe; perhaps I’d forgotten an ingredient. Hmm, well, it says to ask if these things are not true. So I asked again, “Is the Book or Mormon not true?” Silence.
Again and again, I reread those verses and prayed, asking myself, Do I not have enough real intent? Enough faith in Christ? Is my heart not sincere enough? But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t make any kind of revelation come.
I walked through the dark house to break my fast and wept alone in the kitchen, eating a peach.
When the Church’s semi-annual General Conference convened a few weeks later, apostle Robert D. Hales related the story of how David O. McKay, the ninth president of the church, as a boy had wanted to know for himself regarding the truthfulness of the Gospel, and decided to pray about the matter:
“I dismounted, threw my reins over my horse’s head, and there under a serviceberry bush I prayed that God would declare to me the truth of his revelation to Joseph Smith” (New Era, Jan. 1972, p. 56).
He prayed fervently and sincerely with as much faith as he could find within him. When he finished his prayer, he waited for an answer. Nothing seemed to happen. Disappointed, he rode slowly on, saying to himself at the time, “No spiritual manifestation has come to me. If I am true to myself, I must say I am just the same ‘old boy’ that I was before I prayed” (ibid.).
A direct answer to this prayer was many years in coming. While serving a mission in Scotland, Elder McKay received a powerful spiritual manifestation. He later commented, “Never before had I experienced such an emotion. … It was a manifestation for which as a doubting youth I had secretly prayed most earnestly on hillside and in meadow. It was an assurance to me that sincere prayer is answered ‘sometime, somewhere.’ ” (Francis M. Gibbons, David O. McKay, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986, p. 50) (Hales, lds.org).
This story comforted me. If even a man who had gone on to become the prophet hadn’t received a testimony the first time he had asked, then maybe there was hope for me too. I would have faith and patience and trust that God would show me the truth in His own time and in His own way.
When I was 18, I was hanging out in a Religion and Philosophy chat room when a user asked if there were any Mormons online. I responded that I was Mormon and he began sending me private messages, asking for help in clarifying some doubts he had. Although I hadn’t had any dramatic spiritual experiences, I now felt that I had a testimony. As I put it in an email message that I composed to this stranger, “I know because of the sweet peace I feel when I read the Book of Mormon. I know because of the happiness that enters my life when I abide by the Church’s commandments and the sadness that enters when I don’t. I know what it is to have doubts and to study and to seek and to ask God and have him show me answers that wiped all doubt from my mind. I know the joy and love and conviction that swells up in my soul every time I sing, ‘Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!’” (Hymns #27)
I repeated analogies I’d heard over the years. “The Gospel is like a jigsaw puzzle. When you’re working a puzzle and you can’t fit in all the sky pieces right away, you don’t toss out the puzzle and declare, ‘This puzzle isn’t true!’ Everything has to come in the right sequence and sometimes you can’t fit certain pieces in until you fit others in first.” Or, “I don’t have the slightest idea how a computer works, but that doesn’t change the fact that it does work.”
I ended my message to this man with: “Don’t feel alone in your doubts. They come to everyone but if you study and ask Heavenly Father he will give you answers as he’s given to me and millions of others. I know this Church is true and it will prosper and conquer any man or devil that attempts to hinder its progression. The Gospel of Jesus Christ will roll forth and fill the earth whether you go with it or not. I hope you will, because you’ll be happy. And I’ve yet to meet or hear of a happy apostate.” Our leaders taught that anyone who left the Church did so under the influence of Satan and that they spent the rest of their lives miserable, angry and tormented, and I believed it.
Ironically, even as I testified about the Church’s power to bring happiness, I was myself being treated for clinical depression. But I attributed my depression to one of the trials of mortality, part of the Refiner’s fire that would help me grow stronger, or because I was allowing the influence of Satan into my life, whose sole aim was to “[seek] that all men might be miserable like unto himself ” (2 Nephi 2:27).
I began college and remained faithful to the teachings of the Church. I attended services every week; abstained from coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco; took classes at the Church’s Institute of Religion and dutifully handed out Books of Mormon to my non-member friends. I was even preparing to serve as a missionary.
That all changed when I was excommunicated at the age of 22. My sin? I gave my virginity to the man who would become my husband three months before our wedding.
I loved the Church and had devoted my life to its teachings. To be stripped of my membership because of one mistake was devastating. D. Michael Quinn describes excommunication this way: "For a believing Mormon, one who sees Mormonism as the true church and believes in the priesthood and the revelations that have been published, Mormonism is their whole life. All their hope, all of their anticipation is connected with that. Now, to be deprived of membership in the LDS Church is to lose all of that. And for a Mormon who is an ardent believer, that is a kind of death."
Yet even with the underlying trauma, the year following my excommunication was actually fairly happy. The letter from the Church informing me of the bishop’s decision to excommunicate me had said that it was the will of our Father in Heaven to release me from my covenants.
All my life, I’d lived with the pressure that I must be a good example to those around me. Along with this wonderful blessing of the fulness of the Gospel came the responsibility to be a light to the world. If I slipped up, others might judge the whole Church based on my actions. Now I was no longer a member and no longer under covenant. I took the opportunity to see what it might be like to just be like everyone else. My foray into Babylon included taking a job that required me to work on Sundays and wearing tank tops on hot days. I didn’t look for ways to work God into conversations, hoping it would segue into an opportunity to share the Gospel. I rented R-rated Erin Brokavich and let cuss words slip.
One morning, I was sitting in the hall waiting for my French class to start, shooting the breeze with my classmates and I smiled as I thought, I’m not the weird one anymore.
My first year away from the Church was also my first year of marriage. Creating a bond with my best friend wove a security and contentment like nothing I’d ever experienced before. When I got married, I went off my anti-depressant medication by default; I couldn’t afford it now that I was no longer under my parents’ health insurance, but somehow I wasn’t experiencing depression anymore.
I recognized that I was happier outside of the Church, but deep down I still believed that it was true. What else could account for the peaceful feelings I had when I read scripture, or the happiness I felt when I sang at church, or the synchronicities that sometimes followed prayer?
When I became pregnant with our first child, the question of what to do about God and the Church weighed more heavily. I believed that I’d be held accountable in the next life if I chose to ignore what I knew, and doubly accountable if I didn’t teach my son what I knew. I wished I could honestly say that I didn’t believe it so that I could be at peace about turning my back and walking away, but years of indoctrination ran deep, and no matter how much I wanted to uproot my testimony, I couldn’t.
So when the bishop asked me to tell him about my testimony, just weeks after my son’s birth, I replied, “I’ve had a testimony for years. I’ve tried to forget. I’ve tried to explain it all away and convince myself that it’s not true, but I can’t. I know it’s true.”
“That’s a pretty strong testimony,” he said approvingly.
I told him that I struggled to understand why excommunicating me had been necessary.
“Does that seem harsh to you?” he asked.
“Yeah, honestly, it does,” I said.
To my surprise, he said that he agreed with me. After reading through the proceedings of the disciplinary council, he couldn’t understand why my previous bishop had come to the conclusion that I must be excommunicated. Furthermore, he could see no reason for me to remain outside the Church any longer and he wanted to see me re-baptized as soon as possible.
It didn’t quite make sense. If it was going to be so easy to come back, why the violence of excommunication? So far as I could tell, the only penance I’d done was to start showing up at church again. Well, that and Ray and I had gone to the county offices and gotten a piece of paper, and this document somehow magically turned sex into a beautiful gift from God instead of an abominable sin. But I’d just had the biggest scare of my life. During labor, my baby had gone into distress and had to be born via an emergency c-section. That was all the wake-up call I needed. God had wrought a miracle and brought me and my baby both through that ordeal healthy, and as a token of my gratitude, I would follow the counsel of His appointed representative, take it on faith and try.
The morning after my re-baptism, I wrote in my journal, “I actually don’t feel very different. I’m disappointed because even though I’ve been given the gift of the Holy Ghost, I still don’t feel him and I thought I would.” But, I reminded myself, “I didn’t feel any different when I was baptized and confirmed at age eight, but I certainly did feel the Spirit during my life. I didn’t lose the Spirit all at once so I shouldn’t expect to regain it all at once.” The Book of Mormon teaches that faith is like a little seed. It takes time and nourishment to grow (Alma ch. 32).
So I kept going to church and started reading my scriptures again, though it reminded me of exercising or eating vegetables, something you do not so much because you want to, but because you believe that it’s good for you. Had church always been this excruciatingly boring? I hoped that if I kept going through the outward motions, eventually the inward emotions would return.
Every now and then, I did feel a familiar flicker inside, but my new awareness of all the flaws within the Church smothered any sparks of a re-burgeoning testimony. My two-year absence gave me my first opportunity to look at my religion from an objective standpoint. My beloved Garden of Eden was overgrown with thorns, and I wondered, Have these thorns always been here?
Every week the gender gap glared at me. I’d always known that women were expected to be mothers and homemakers and that they couldn’t hold the priesthood, but motherhood also held such a special place of reverence as the most holy calling of all. Men and women had different roles, but they were both equally valued. At least, that was the party line. I realized that the bishop or one of his councilors would sometimes sit in on the women’s Relief Society meeting, checking in and presiding, but knew that it would be unheard of for the Relief Society president to visit the men’s Elders Quorum meeting. Women were only allowed to preside over other women or children. The bishops, stake presidents, apostles and prophets--all of the positions that had any real authority--all had to hold the priesthood, and therefore all had to be men.
All my life, I’d been tom-boyish because I knew no women whom I wanted to emulate. Most women at church acted unintelligent, incapable and dependent, and it made me angry. A female religious instructor that I had admired and loved was an exception. The Church allowed her employment only because she wasn’t married and didn’t have a family. She was intelligent and charismatic, fit and attractive. Seemed any man with half a brain would have snatched her up, but she was in her early forties and still single, and I suspected that it was because she was too independent and confident. Most Mormon men want a wife who is more submissive and less questioning.
One incident in Relief Society particularly troubled me. A woman--I’ll call her Sister Jones--announced that her son and daughter-in-law were moving to the ward soon and she hoped we would be welcoming to them. “Now,” she said, with a smirk, “Susan’s last name is Bennett, not Jones, and she’s very particular about that, but if you can just get past that--” she threw her hands up in the air and rolled her eyes, as if to say, What can you do? “--she’s very nice.” Laughter erupted all around the room, and I felt sick at the derision for this woman who had the courage to keep her name. The middle-aged woman sitting next to me muttered with contempt out the side of her mouth, “She didn’t take his name?” What kind of sisterhood was this?
Talks and lessons about homosexuality now troubled me. I had believed it when I’d been taught that homosexuality was a perversion and a gross sin, but my younger brother had since come out. This person that I knew and loved did not fit the Church’s picture of a subversive deviant. My brother was one of the sweetest and gentlest people I knew. How was I to believe that he was among the vilest of sinners?
The issue of same-sex marriage was just gaining steam in the media. I never dared say so at church, but I couldn’t oppose gay marriage. Even though our priesthood leaders--the appointed mouthpieces of God Himself--preached that gay marriage threatened the nuclear family and the very fabric of our society, I couldn’t see how allowing gays to marry would interfere with my right to be married to a man and to raise my children in a traditional family.
Ray and I are both intensely introverted, and we did not fit the Church’s social expectations. Mormons equate being friendly and outgoing with being Christlike, and becoming like Christ is the ultimate goal of our existence. Having to go to church and make meaningless small talk every week was torture. I knew the adage: “The members may not be perfect, but the Church is,” and so I tried to smile and be nice, but my tolerance for annoying people evaporated faster than rubbing alcohol without the warm, fuzzy “feeling the Spirit” experience that I’d had before my excommunication.
My depression returned. Others brushed it off as a postpartum symptom, but I recognized it as the all-too-familiar despair of knowing that no matter how hard I tried I would never measure up. I hadn’t realized how much the Church bulldozed me until I’d been out from underneath it for a while.
For almost as long as I could remember, I’d been aware of certain gaps in Church doctrine or history, but I wasn’t going to let the pieces of the puzzle that didn’t fit bother me. I had a testimony from the Holy Ghost and I had faith that one day, everything would be clear. For eight months now, we had been going to church and trying to do everything right, trying to have faith, and the pleasant, peaceful feelings on which I had previously based my testimony still would not return.
I made a decision: If I was going to devote the rest of my life to an institution that made me miserable, it had damn well better be true. So I began to write. Despite my current doubts, I knew that I had “known” it was all true before. I figured all I had to do was get it all out on paper so I could sort it all out and then everything would be okay.
But that’s not what happened. The more I wrote, the more questions I had and the less any of it made sense.
I remembered bits of doubt that had crept in since I had been excommunicated. One evening, I had watched a documentary called The Journey of Man. Geneticist Spencer Wells presented DNA evidence that proved that the native peoples of North and South America descended from a group that came over from northeast Russia about 10,000 years ago, not from the Middle East in 600 B.C., as claimed by the Book of Mormon. My seminary teacher had accounted for the lack of archaeological evidence by explaining that the Book of Mormon was not a history of all of ancient America, but rather the proceedings of the lineage of one family, but this DNA evidence troubled me. Right there in the book’s Introduction--written by the prophets of the Church, whose words are considered scripture--it stated that the Lamanites who remained at the end of the Book of Mormon were “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” (1981 ed.) (Though, interestingly, in the 2006 edition, this was altered to say that they were “among” the ancestors of the American Indians.)
The story of Adam and Eve is taken very literally in Mormonism and plays an integral part of the temple ordinances that they believe are necessary for salvation. Church doctrine teaches that the Fall occurred about 6000 years ago, and no human beings were on our world before then. I had heard of evolution, but we didn’t believe in it. I didn’t worry about all the fossil records because my mother explained that carbon dating was flawed and geologists and paleontologists had their dates wrong. Why wouldn’t I believe her? My mother is a very intelligent woman, and scientists get stuff wrong all the time. They’re mere men who used to think the world was flat, for crying out loud. Our prophets, on the other hand, were talking directly to God. What more reliable source could there be than that?
About a year after my excommunication I took an art history class. The paleolithic cave paintings didn’t faze me because I knew those were all misdated. But then a slide came on the screen of a human skull with restored plaster features found in the city of Jericho. It was a ghostly image, but it haunted me because of its date: about 6000 B.C. The next slide was of the Turkish city of Çatal Hüyük, dated between 6000-5900 B.C. I didn’t have any qualms dismissing dates that were too far removed, but it seemed less likely to me that a date that recent could be so far off. It didn’t fit with the Church’s official history, that everything had started with two people only six thousand years ago. Furthermore, Joseph Smith placed the Garden of Eden in present day Missouri. Here was an entire civilization on the other side of the world two thousand years before their first parents had supposedly walked the earth.
I put it in my notes: Çatal Hüyük, Jericho skulls, 6000 B.C., and I felt like I was driving a straight pin into a dam.
Later in the semester, we studied the ancient Greeks. I saw sculptures of Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Athena. I saw the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, temples to Hera, Artemis, Demeter and other deities. I had always thought of Greek mythology as just that: mythology. But I couldn’t imagine that the Greeks were building these structures just for fun. I realized that they must have believed in their religion then just as fervently as we believe in ours now.
I remembered further back to my first day of classes as a music major, just four months after I’d been excommunicated. In choir, we rehearsed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the same arrangement that made the Mormon Tabernacle Choir famous. It was the sopranos’ turn to come in with the “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” but tears welled up in my eyes my voice failed me. I hadn’t attended church for about three months, the longest absence in my life at that point. Nothing communicated the love of God to my soul the way music did. Never did I feel the Spirit more strongly than when I was singing. I loved singing sacred music and I missed it. “If anything can bring me back to the Gospel,” I wrote in my journal that night, “music can.”
And yet, at the back of my mind crept the thought, The ancient Greeks must have had hymns to their gods, too, that were no less powerful and moving to them. Maybe I didn’t love music because of God. Maybe I just loved music because of music.
I thought about what my current bishop had said about how he felt my previous bishop had made a mistake in excommunicating me. In a way, it had been a comfort, but it raised a disconcerting question: Is everything the bishop does subject to second guessing? If these bishops disagreed, they couldn’t both be right. Supposedly our priesthood leaders were all working under divine inspiration to carry out God’s will, but if that were so, how could my bishop have made such a big mistake? And if he could make a mistake, what made him any more special than any other man?
If you believe in Christ--and I did--then the premise of Mormonism that the true Church that Christ established when he was on the earth was lost and corrupted through the ages and needed to be restored makes sense. But I looked at the Mormon Church and thought, Can that really be it? Look at how they treat gays. Look at how they treat women. Is that really the way Jesus would have wanted things?
Nowadays, we think the Greek beliefs are absurd, but if I thought about it, were mine any more plausible? Even if I took Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates and the Lamanites out of the equation and just looked at the Christian story: A virgin conceived a child, who was God, and somehow when this child grew to adulthood and underwent a form of execution that was fairly common at the time, this act somehow saved all of humanity from...
Saved from what?
What about neanderthals? They were a separate species from humans, but still intelligent. Were they intelligent enough to be capable of sin? Were they among the children of God that Christ died to save, or mere animals?
The theory had too many flaws to any longer hold validity. I couldn’t justify the risk of a leap of faith across this ever-widening chasm. I couldn’t believe it anymore, and it was like I had taken off a corset and suddenly I could breathe.