By Seth Payne
My interest in ex-Mormonism began in 2006 while I was a graduate student of Religious Studies at Yale Divinity School focusing on theological and political ethics. At the time, I was going through my own faith struggle as I decided to face, head on, the many issues that call LDS Church claims into question. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by fellow LDS students of all stripes: conservative, homosexual, feminist, and theologically liberal. We would often meet as a group to discuss specific issues and questions. These conversations often spanned several hours followed by vigorous and enthusiastic email exchanges. It was during these informal gatherings that I brought up several of the specific issues which were of particular concern to my Mormon faith.
Additionally, I had a supportive academic advisor who allowed me the freedom to explore theological ethics within a Mormon context. As such, I was able to research, in some detail, historical issues, questions of modern Church authority and heresy, as well as the sociology of contemporary Mormonism.
Yet, even in this incredibly open and supportive environment I found that struggling with questions that I had long-held to be solidly answered, was very painful and called into question my view of both the world and my place within it. Eventually, I became interested in the phenomenon of ex-Mormon narratives, the narratives some produce when they make a break with the institutional LDS Church (formally, or informally). For several months I collected, read, and analyzed a total of 137 narratives from various sources, although most were taken from “Recovery from Mormonism” as this site seemed to produce new narratives at a consistent pace. Due to the limited scope of my research I stated:
This study should be considered a preliminary or pilot study. The data presented here represent only the narratives directly considered by the study. Therefore, the data is not meant to be extrapolated to apply to all Ex-Mormon narratives. The sources used in this study were selected neither randomly nor screened for bias.
A total of 137 narratives were collected and analyzed for this study. A corresponding list of narrative elements was created simultaneously to represent the content or themes of each narrative. Ultimately, 145 unique narrative elements were identified. As each narrative was read and analyzed, it was associated with corresponding elements. Thus, there is a one-to-many relationship between narratives and elements.
The results of this pilot study surprised me. Because I had grown up in a supportive, healthy, and vibrant Mormon home surrounded by great Church leaders and members, I had expected to find that issues of the intellect would drive the ex-Mormon narratives I studied. That is, issues which caused significant mental, academic, and research struggle to reconcile one way or another. For example, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the Mark Hoffman affair, or Joseph Smith’s claim to translate Egyptian. In other words, I expected the struggle of others to mirror my own, a struggle very much defined by issues dealt with primarily with the intellect, sans emotion. What I found, however, is that the narratives were driven by feelings of isolation, betrayal, and hurt. In many narratives, former Mormons told heart-wrenching stories of mistreatment by priesthood leaders, fellow members, and believing family members. I do not mean to suggest that issues of the intellect were not of importance to these former Mormons. Most narratives included mention of several specific doctrinal or historical issues. Rather, I am simply pointing out that the exit narratives were driven by feelings of emotional and spiritual isolation and betrayal.
Most narratives also fit into what sociologists have labeled “captivity narratives.” Captivity narratives, in their most general sense, are produced by those who leave sociological “subversive” organizations. The former group member views it as their civic responsibility to “warn” society at-large about the dangers of the subversive group and its “true” nature or intentions. In most cases, captivity narratives describe how the individual was somehow fooled or manipulated into joining the group, subjected to periods of intense conditioning, eventually learned the nefarious intentions of the group, and affected escape from group “captivity.” Invariably, such narratives are concluded with expressions of genuine relief at being “free.”
Mormon-related captivity narratives are nothing new. Mormon “apostates” who left the Brigham Young-led LDS Church in Utah often told stories of abuse and oppression. However, such narratives were produced and distributed when the LDS Church was widely regarded as a socially subversive organization. As such, these narratives were often accepted and perpetuated without question or scrutiny. The modern LDS Church is not widely seen as socially subversive. Rather, most sociologists would class the modern LDS Church as a “contenstant” organization. That is, the LDS Church experiences some level of tension with society and other organizations but is not widely seen as being socially harmful. As a result, many of the ex-Mormon narratives I studied showed the essential characteristics of a captivity narrative but lacked any outlandish claims or accusations. My sense is that narrative writers were constrained by modern perceptions of the LDS Church being mostly neutral or somewhat positive. Not to mention the fact that the narrative authors likely sought to present their stories as honestly and accurately as possible. As captivity narratives, they described how an individual was either born into or drawn into Mormonism, fully embraced the faith, discovered the truth, experienced a difficult period of separation, and ended with an expression of gratitude for newfound freedom separate from the LDS Church.
Since concluding my study I have had many opportunities to form close friendships with ex-Mormons, “New Order Mormons”, “Jack” Mormons, and traditional believers. These relationships have taught me that Mormonism can be a big tent for those who desire to remain connected to it in one way or another. I have spoken or corresponded with dozens of individuals who are looking for ways to remain LDS in the face of significant doubts and struggles. All of this led to my presentation on what I term “pastoral apologetics” at both FAIR and Sunstone this year. My remarks were aimed both at traditional, or conservative LDS believers as well as those who consider themselves theological liberals living in the “borderlands” or Mormonism. It is my contention that Latter-day Saints have a spiritual responsibility to reach out with love and understanding to those who struggle. Latter-day Saints must become pastoral apologists.
Pastoral apologetics may be succinctly defined as a response to doubt that focuses primarily on the spiritual, social, and psychological desire for meaning, purpose, and mysticism. It is an awareness of, and effort to support individuals as they process new information and adjust their existing worldviews.
According to Peter (1 Peter 3), when Christians provide a defense of their faith to those who inquire what is it exactly, they are defending? They are, of course, defending the hope that is in them because of their Christian faith. Peter does not advocate a defense of every last aspect of Christian metaphysics or history (although he isn’t precluding it either). And how is this defense to be given? With gentleness and reverence as a sign of inward Christian hope. Pastoral apologetics, then, based on providing the reasons for faith, as opposed to the rationale for why specific truth-claims are true or plausible, when done with kindness and gentleness, becomes an outward sign of an inner hope, a manifestation of the love characteristic of Christian discipleship. Thus, in order to be a pastoral apologist Latter-day Saints must first understand and be able to articulate as best we can, why they embrace Mormonism. Again, I am not speaking of academic answers. No one is Mormon because of chiasmus or Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. People choose to become or remain Latter-day Saints because Mormonism means something. It matters.
As Latter-day Saints interact with those who doubt and who have rejected key aspects of Mormon-specific truth claims, they can speak of Mormonism is pragmatic terms — explaining why the Book of Mormon, temple worship, or the story of the First Vision are inspiring and provide comfort or encouragement. I do not mean to suggest that studying and seeking answers to questions of history or metaphysics is not important. However, for those looking for reasons to stay as opposed to rock solid solutions to very difficult questions, such issues may be less important as they are likely looking for practical and pragmatic reasons to remain LDS.
As alluded to above, many ex-Mormons tell stories of being ostracized from their families, LDS friends, and others after the eventual expression of doubt or non-belief. Some of this is understandable as the expression of non-belief by a person whom a member has long known as a staunch believer presents a unique challenge to the member’s own faith. Seeing others struggle, especially when one has known them to be staunch and strong serves as a powerful reminder that all are subject to doubt and disbelief.
But regardless of how the expression of doubt affects an individual, Latter-day Saints must never make a doubter feel stupid, unwelcome, unworthy, or unwanted because of their doubts or disbelief. Such behavior is anathema to Christian love and is an attempt at social shaming and coercion. The redemptive value of the Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on the ability of an individual to choose for him or herself. Therefore, even if these attempts at shaming and coercion were effective, they would create reluctant disciples following the rules with an unconverted and defiant heart. It is essential to take doubters at their word and respect their views even in the face of significant disagreement.
The matter of pastoral apologetics is of deep personal interest to me as I have been the beneficiary of such pastoral approaches. In 2007 I had the opportunity to meet both David Bokovoy and Mark Wright at the inaugural Faith and Knowledge Conference series held at Yale Divinity School. David and I discussed the Book of Mormon and its relationship to Hebrew Bible scholarship over lunch or during an extended break in the program. I walked away from that conversation with a deeper appreciation for the Book of Mormon because it was apparent just how much David loved the Book of Mormon and its message while being fully aware of the arguments made against it. His example encouraged me to reengage the Book of Mormon with a new perspective unconcerned with historicity and I can say that since that time my love and appreciation for the book has grown substantially.
At the conclusion of the conference a group of us decided to check out one of the fantastic pizza places in New Haven. I shared a table with Mark Wright. We talked about a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon and Mark answered questions as only an expert in the field could. He acknowledged the difficulty of some specific challenges to placing the Book of Mormon in Central America and then shared his views on how these questions may be resolved. Throughout the conversation it was readily apparent how important both the Book of Mormon and Mormonism were to Mark. At the end of the evening Mark, in a playful and friendly way, stated that it was now his life’s goal to convince me of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. And, while Mark may still have work to do on that front, his willingness to engage difficult issues head on and maintain faith continues to inspire me.
When I returned to activity within in the Church after an 18-month hiatus, I met with my Bishop and was very open an honest about where I stood in relation to certain Church truth-claims. He told me that he hoped that at some point belief would return but made it clear that he was very glad to have me in his ward.
I could offer many more examples but instead I will simply conclude by stating that Mormonism can be a big tent that accommodates divergent views and motivations for fellowship. An appreciation for the difficulty of experiencing a “faith crisis” as well as the adoption of a pastoral approach to apologetics can help individual Latter-day Saints make their wards and stakes a welcoming place for those who question, doubt, our disbelieve.