Born in 1967, I was raised in a very strong LDS family. My dad fulfilled the traditional role of Mormon breadwinner, while my mom did her best to manage 9 kids and help run my father's dental office. In addition to running a busy dental practice, both my father and mother did their best to fulfill their respective church callings. They were very busy people, yet they managed to raise all of their children with love and lots of attention. They really were, and still are, great examples of the "fruits" of Mormonism. In fact, due to their example of Christian service, several people converted to Mormonism in our local ward over the years. My parents are the poster-children the GA's would like to hold up to the world in order to prove the claims of Mormonism. They are currently serving a senior temple mission doing endowment work in Los Angeles temple. Mom and dad were married for time and all eternity in the very same temple. As a young man my dad served a proselyting mission to the desert region of California. He can still tell stories of traveling as a missionary without "purse or script." Both of my parents were raised in strong, multi-generational LDS families themselves.
As the 8th of 9 children I was given a certain latitude to discover truths for myself. I never recall being coerced or overtly pressured to adopt LDS doctrine, it just sort of occurred by osmosis. The best way I can describe this feeling is to explain what happened on Sunday mornings in our household. It was simply assumed that all of the kids would be going to church; to fight for the right to stay home from church was as ridiculous as fighting for the right to travel to the moon...it just wasn't going to happen. All nine of the kids went to the various church functions more or less on a voluntary basis. But to be honest, our family pretty much enjoyed the church community. As a kid there were scout trips, stake dances, MIA activities, road shows and "Santa Maria Style" BBQs. Our lives revolved around the church and the youth activities. I grew up in California at a time when living the LDS lifestyle as a youth was socially acceptable. The local high school had a sufficiently large population of Mormon kids so that the other kids knew who we were, but small enough so that they really didn't care about us as a group. No "persecution" at all. In fact, the most popular religious youth group in my high school was run by the local Baptist church. This Baptist youth group had the type of social activities that Mormon high-school kids must have in Utah and Arizona. They named their group "High-Life" and had after-school parties, movies and other youth activities. These events often ended with a call for those in attendance to commit to Christ and accept Him as their personal savior. It seemed easy for me to judge the Baptist kids as being religiously deceived, but much harder for me to focus my reasoning skills on my own beliefs. I never had a problem ridiculing Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals, etc. for ridiculous religious doctrine...what a hypocrite I was! I went along with the flow, never really internally questioning my parent's religion, but never wholeheartedly embracing it either. By apathy, more than choice, their belief system had become my de facto religion.
Again, it was basically a non-issue to be Mormon in my high school...neither a social positive nor a negative. Sure, a little weird, but nothing too abnormal. Perhaps this lack of pressure prevented me from gaining the head of steam necessary to really investigate my religious beliefs. One step off the expected LDS path was my choice of school friends. Instead of hanging out with the LDS kids, I gravitated to a small group of non-Mormon friends who didn't seem to care one way or the other about religion. If my friends had any type of semi-religious feeling it was probably best summed up by the music of groups like "X" and "The Clash." I remember music being very important to me. My friends had no real desire to drink, smoke pot, or score with girls, so I really had no problem living the expected LDS youth standards. I graduated from high school a very na´ve young man, never having tasted alcohol, marijuana, and still very much a virgin. I don't regret the lack of drugs, chaos and partying during my high school years at all. I'm still grateful for my idyllic youth, and readily admit that the church's influence had a lot to do with it. Despite my happy childhood within the church I had never received a witness from the spirit that the church was true. This bothered me because I was always told that if I was sincere enough, and prayed with true intent, that God would ease my questioning mind with a witness from the Holy Ghost. After an extremely long time of internal struggle and prayer I simply gave up, assuming that I just wasn't a "spiritual person." It was easier to fake the necessary religious devotion than to keep beating my head against the wall.
To make a long story short, I went off to college and started to struggle with the decision of whether or not to go on a mission. With my entire extended family involved in the church it was hard to come to an unbiased, truthful position regarding my impending mission. On one hand, I really wasn't looking forward to being an Elder and doing the things I knew that missionaries did. I was never an overtly religious person, so the idea of proselyting full-time for the church struck me as an unpleasant task. On the other hand, the prospect of disappointing my mother and bringing shame upon the family name was just too much to consider. My older brother had already served an honorable mission to Mexico, and my younger brother was certainly looking to me for clues as to how our family handled responsibility.
Of course, serving a mission is also an important rite of passage for young Mormon men. Another important factor which distinguishes children from adults in Mormon culture is wearing "garments." Wearing garments is pretty much the "tipping point" upon which a boy becomes a man. I wanted to be considered an adult, but in my culture that recognition only came after a man went through the temple and served an honorable mission. I also understood that the girls at BYU wouldn't have anything to do with me unless I went on a mission. Looking back from my adult vantage point I realize that I could have said, "No," but I really felt compelled to preserve my family's honor. We were good, solid LDS people, and good, solid LDS kids go on missions! When I finally made the mental decision to go on a mission I decided to go about it with a positive outlook and hope for the best. I was called to the Germany Hamburg Mission where I served during the years '87-'89. It was my deeply-held hope that if I worked hard enough, and kept the rules well enough, God would finally reward me with a spiritual witness of the church. That hoped-for spiritual witness did not come during my temple endowment ceremony. For me, the temple was surely strange and unsettling to say the least. Mind you, I experienced the pre-1990, penalty-entact, endowment ceremony.
The MTC was basically uneventful for me. Sometimes hellish, sometimes remarkably fun. I endured the long hours of language instruction about as well as anyone else around me seemed to be doing. I do remember one encounter with my MTC language instructor that presaged my eventual exit from the church. During one of the Book of Mormon study hours it occurred to me that the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York was much too far away geographically from the supposed heart of the Nephite-Lamanite action in Central Mexico. How could it be that the golden plates made it all the way to upstate New York? Was upstate New York really where all of those fantastic battles took place? Was it possible that the plates traveled all the way from Mexico to New York? All of a sudden the whole premise of the Book of Mormon seemed ludicrous. It was probably the most lucid moment of my whole mission.
I approached my MTC language instructor privately and asked him my questions. My demeanor was sincere, and I'm sure that my MTC instructor sensed that I wasn't trying to be a smart-alec. I distinctly remember his "deer-frozen- in-the-headlights" look, and his complete inability to answer the question. I also remember his eventual admission that he didn't know the answer. He quickly promised that he would get back to me with the straight answer. Of course the answer never came. He did his best to ignore me and two weeks later I was shipped off to Germany. If I could only relive that moment! Given another chance I would take off the suit, return the black plastic nametags, and run like hell from the MTC gated community. Instead, I went to Germany and did my level-best to convert dyed-in-the-wool German religious skeptics that God and Jesus appeared to Joseph. Talk about a hard sell.
I think that they should teach the Elders in the MTC about the more challenging aspects of defending Mormonism and its creaky doctrines. Why not? I mean they're going to be confronted by it all soon enough anyway. We never talked about difficult doctrinal issues...not once! Why not help these guys defend the faith? I never really felt comfortable or prepared to deal with questions like Freemasonry, polygamy, Jesus was married, gold plates, America-centric thinking, weirdo ward members, Gods in embryo doctrine, Adam-God, and on and on and on. I felt very foolish when an investigator knew more about the hidden church doctrines than I did. It was a relief to get back to the States after my mission was completed. I didn't have to force people to see the world the way I did anymore. During my mission I managed to keep it all together despite disliking most of it, and really did the "work." I managed to compartmentalize my thoughts and became a tracting and street-contacting robot. I was such a trusted robot that the Mission President sent me 5 "greenie" companions to train. Deep in my heart I knew that I hated it and was suffering, but somehow I just kept going on. I have never felt better in my life as I did when I was flying home at the end of my mission. I can't convey that strongly enough: I have never felt better in my life than when I knew that the proselyting obligation was behind me.
If you can manage to break through the "best two years of my life" baloney, you can get most returned missionaries to admit the truth; an LDS mission has more to do with salesmanship and numbers than it does with heart and soul. My mission president, Elijah Cardon was from a well-known, wealthy Arizona family. His family had made a fortune in oil drilling. President Cardon seemed to be a little mentally unbalanced. Most of the missionaries would routinely lampoon him with cruel impressions. Some of them spot-on. His German was terrible. His erratic behavior might have been due to depression, or maybe he was just worn out by baby-sitting his group of 120 children. He seemed consumed with increasing the "numbers" to the point of ignoring the fragile emotional health of the children that served as his proselytizing force. One of his favorite expressions? "You're sucking a hind teat, Elder!" Another memorable quotation from zone conference was this racist missive: "If you find yourself in an apartment complex of Turks, get the hell out!" I guess that President Cardon felt the gospel message was only meant for the German master race. Heil Cardon!!
In any event, I was force-fed a steaming dose of Mormon mission reality. It's not really about finding new converts; that's merely a collateral benefit. The true meaning and essence of the mission is to make a young man go through two years of complete and living hell. The worse the experience is, the more the child believes he has sacrificed, therefore solidifying the investment value of a completed mission. When the elder finally returns to the flock what else is there to do but protect the investment? After all, he paid for it with two years of blood, sweat and tears. He purchased the investment with the currency of youth. You're only 20 once. The idea that the best part of your golden youth was squandered knocking on doors hassling people with religious propaganda is unbearable. Return missionaries are all too willing to adopt the company line, close ranks with other returned missionaries and protect the precious investment. At least this was my experience. When I returned to BYU I took rank and file with the other RM's, projected confidence in church teachings, and assured everyone that my mission experience was meaningful.
As the years passed I recognized the diminishing size of my investment. The pain I had endured on my mission was no longer fresh. As my mission investment diminished, I began to see things with more clarity. It was like a haze clearing from my mind. I began to develop an interest in early church history. As I increased the scope of my reading I began to discover that the church was guilty of revisionist history. Learning more than I perhaps wanted to, I realized that the church's claims were misguided at best, and downright falsehoods at worst. It felt horrible to have my worldview stripped from me so completely. It was one thing to internally question the church as I had done throughout my life, it was quite another to come to the conclusion that the church is built on a foundation of lies.
The breakthrough occurred during graduate school. I was lucky enough to have met several LDS faculty members who directed me to some of the more "controversial" LDS material. I guess it was finally time for me to graduate to the "meat" and put away the "milk." Well, the "meat" made me sick. The book that made the greatest impact was "...By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus" by Charles M. Larson. After reading this book I knew beyond a doubt that I could no longer belong to the church. It took several years, but I finally managed to finalize my decision by having my name removed from the church records. I have read many heart-wrenching stories from members who discovered the truth about Mormonism only after years of temple marriage and church involvement. A good number of these people have experienced divorce and depression. I do count myself lucky to have remained single during my Mormon years. To those stuck in depressing, empty LDS marriages I can only offer support and wish you the solace that comes with possessing the truth.