July 20, 2016

6: The First Crack

The First Vision story I grew up with is the 1838 account found in Mormon scripture. At one point, my young women's group was asked to memorize this selection: 

"I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me... When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Joseph Smith History 1:16-17) 

I'm not the only Mormon to be told this version. Mormon paintings depicting Joseph Smith kneeling in the woods with two white-robed figures in the air above him are common. The church has put out a number of videos showing the same scene. Mormon missionaries teach this version of the First Vision. Mormon congregations sing hymns like "Joseph Smith's First Prayer" (Hymn #26) that describe when God the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith in a glorious pillar of light. It's a very important part of Mormon theology. The prophet Gordon B. Hinckley even said: 

"Well, it's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world... And that's exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them." (Gordon B. Hinckley, Interview "The Mormons"; PBS Documentary, April 2007)[1] 

I always considered myself lucky to have an understanding of the true nature of the godhead. God is our father, Jesus is his son, and they are two separate beings. I knew from my history classes that there have been times when Christian factions debated the true nature of the godhead (i.e. Nicene Creed). I didn't have to waste my time with that. I knew what the godhead was like. Joseph Smith had seen God and Jesus. They were two separate beings. I knew it was true because the church was true. 

Then one day I was doing some reading. It was probably an article about the Joseph Smith Papers. This set of documents was published by the church in 2008, which meant it was safe to read because it wasn't "anti-Mormon" like the other stuff people could find on the internet. The documents were meant to provide more insight into church history, and I was excited to learn more about the history of my religion. During my reading, I learned for the first time that the 1838 version of the First Vision wasn't the only version. I thought this was very interesting. What did the other versions look like? I decided to look them up. 

I started skimming the different versions. I saw that in some versions, only one personage appeared to Joseph, and in some versions, God and Jesus were both left out altogether. The nature of the godhead changed depending on the version. How was this possible? 

I stopped reading. My head was spinning. I didn't want it to be real. If the godhead was different depending on the version, then how was this any different from the debates leading to the Nicene Creed? As far as I understood, that creed had been decided on because a committee got together and picked the version of the godhead they liked best. Had a committee picked the version of the godhead that would exist in Mormon theology? I didn't want to think about it. 

I quickly tried to throw it all on my mental shelf, to suppress the doubts and bring back faith. But faith in what? The 1838 version? Why not one of the other versions? 

This information was incredibly heavy, and a shelf can only hold so much weight. I would never be able to trust the church version of "history" again. I had found that there were different versions of the founding story of my religion. What if other things I thought were constant, like the godhead, actually had "multiple versions?" I still wanted to have faith, despite the doubts. My shelf was intact. But it was starting to crack.


1. Another quote from Hinckley: "Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. ... Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true." (Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign Mag., Nov. 1998, pp.70-71)
2. Snippets from the different versions:

"I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world"
"I called on the Lord in mighty prayer, a pillar of fire appeared above my head, it presently rested down upon me, and filled me with joy unspeakable, a personage appeard in the midst, of this pillar of flame which was spread all around, and yet nothing consumed, another personage soon appeard like unto the first, he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee, he testifyed unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God; and I saw many angels in this vision"
"[I] gave him a brief relation of my experience while in my juvenile years, say from 6, years old up to the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14, years old"
"I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to 'go not after them,' at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me"
Brigham Young quote: "The Lord did not come with the armies of heaven, in power and great glory, nor send His messengers panoplied with aught else than the truth of heaven, to communicate to the meek, the lowly, the youth of humble origin, the sincere enquirer after the knowledge of God. But He did send His angel to this same obscure person, Joseph Smith jun., who afterwards became a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and informed him that he should not join any of the religious sects of the day, for they were all wrong; that they were following the precepts of men instead of the Lord Jesus; that He had a work for him to perform, inasmuch as he should prove faithful before Him."

July 13, 2016

5: A Shelf Full of Doubts

Mormonism has a language of its own. This can lead to some funny situations, like asking God to "nourish and strengthen our bodies" while praying over a box of doughnuts. At other times, the language is used to manage thoughts and steer doubt toward faith. "I guess we'll find out in the next life" and "it's not important to my salvation" are phrases used in response to questions that don't seem to have answers. If past leaders said things that are disavowed today, then they were "speaking as a man," and if current leaders aren't acting the way they should, then a version of this old adage applies: "The church is perfect, even if the people in it aren't." A new saying that seems to be rising in popularity is "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith." All of this language focuses on turning thoughts away from questions and doubts and towards faith in the church and its leadership.

Another form of thought management in Mormonism is the mental shelf. I didn't think in terms of this analogy while I was a believer, but it's a helpful metaphor often used by former Mormons in explaining their experience in Mormonism.  The idea is that a Mormon takes information or experiences that aren't faith promoting and puts them on a "shelf," which holds the information and doubts that could lead them to question their faith. Using a mental shelf means that the member suppresses whatever information or experience has caused them to doubt something about the church while focusing on increasing their faith with information and memories that are faith promoting. 

I didn't realize it at the time, but I used my mental shelf a lot. The Bible includes plenty of things I doubted were from the God I knew: murders, genocide, incest. I could chalk most of that up to the Bible being mistranslated [1], but Mormons still teach from it. The Book of Mormon also contains disturbing stuff. Nephi beheading Laban? Ammon cutting off people's arms? I put the weird stuff from the scriptures on my shelf, meaning that I focused on the faith promoting parts of the texts and tried to ignore the parts that made me doubt.

Then there was polygamy. When I was a believer, I didn't know that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy or that the church today still allows men to be sealed to multiple spouses in the temple.[2] But I still had questions. Was Brigham Young "speaking as a man?" Why would a loving God allow polygamy to happen? I put polygamy on my shelf and went along with the idea that "we'll find out in the next life."

The older I got, the heavier my shelf got. Scriptures can be mistranslated. Leaders can lead in the wrong direction. My feelings can be interpreted incorrectly. Prayers aren't always answered. Bad things happen to good people. Suppress, suppress, suppress. Have faith despite everything else. 

At some level of cognition, I knew there were problems with Mormonism. I told a friend during high school that I'd be an atheist if I weren't Mormon. I didn't recognize how ridiculous that sentiment sounded because I had compartmentalized my brain very effectively.

I could have been an atheist if I thought about the information on my shelf. But that's why I had a shelf: so that nothing, not even truth, facts, or evidence, could keep me from being faithful.

1. Mormons "believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly" - Article of Faith #8
2. A woman can only be sealed to multiple partners after she has died. Before 1998 women could not be sealed to multiple partners

July 02, 2016

4: Oh Say, What is Truth?

I was born into Mormonism. My parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my great aunts and great uncles, my cousins, my second cousins, my neighbors. All Mormon. I really didn't have a choice in becoming a Mormon. What else was I going to do? Respectfully decline to have my name put on the record when I was a baby? Refuse baptism when I was 8 years old? Of course not. Like all children, I was raised to believe in what my family and community taught me. I was taught that the church is true, and I had no reason to believe that it wasn't.

My parents taught me that I am a child of God. They taught me that my family loves me and that being together as a family is important. I was taught to use the atonement of Jesus Christ to repent of my sins. I was taught that I can feel God's love and find answers to life's questions when I read my scriptures, especially the scriptures revealed by modern prophets like Joseph Smith. I was taught to pray to find peace, and to seek counsel from priesthood leaders. My patriarchal blessing says that trials in my life will be resolved through the gospel of Jesus Christ and tells me twice to listen to "those who preside". I accepted these things as truth. I felt good living in line with the values of my family and my community. The teachings felt true to me. I prayed about the Book of Mormon and felt a confirmation that it was true, and I did find peace when I prayed for help during hard times. "By their fruits, ye shall know them." (Matthew 7:20) I saw all the good things around me as the good fruits of the LDS church.

I believed the church brought happiness to people because the ultimate goal of the religion was to have faith and find truth. I treated my doubts as trials. Did God really ask Abraham to kill his son? Was I supposed to believe that Noah's ark really happened? I followed the directions in my patriarchal blessing and tried to fix my doubts with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the counsel of "those who preside", who counseled me to pray and read my scriptures. I often found myself reading the story of the man who pleads with Jesus, "help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24), and then I would turn to prayer with the same request.

When I needed direction in other areas of my life and felt that I wasn't receiving answers to my prayers, which was fairly often, or that my leaders weren't answering my questions, which was very often, I could turn to my scriptures. My go-to scriptures were the ones that talked about how to make righteous choices:

"For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil" - Moroni 7:16
"If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things" - A of F #13
"The Lord looketh on the heart"  - 1 Samuel 16:7
"It is not meet that I should command in all things" - D&C 58:26
"O be wise; what can I say more?" - Jacob 6:12
"Behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind" - D&C 9:8
"The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth" - D&C 93:36

These scriptures taught me that I am able to know right from wrong for myself, that I can know truth for myself, and that I can trust myself to make righteous choices because my heart is striving for the virtuous, the lovely, the things of good report, and the praiseworthy. They taught me that I can be a good person without being told what to do every step of the way. I gained the confidence to stand up for my decisions and for the truth I found without fear of what other people thought and without fear of asking questions because the truth is never hurt by questions. In fact, the Mormon church exists because a 14-year-old boy asked questions as he was searching for truth. I had faith in the Mormon church, and it felt true. I knew the right thing to do was to keep learning and studying because that's how I would gain more light and truth. Ironically, it was learning and studying that eventually led me to find that not everything in the church is light and truth, and it was my ability to trust my inner moral compass that led me to resign from the church.