In part three of my preparation for an oral interview with Dr. Jana Riess, I answer the question “How have your religious beliefs changed over time?” That’s both easy and difficult to answer. Belief is something that grows based on life experiences. We study, pray and make decisions, then observe the effects of our choices. Some are obvious because they involve outward behavior.
Others are more subtle. For example, what you believe about events you expect to witness in the future may not manifest themselves in your everyday behavior. They are latent beliefs that await some stimulus to trigger action. One such belief is the idea of fleeing to Zion to safety. Knowing where to go and when can become a matter of life and personal safety. Such a belief may be tested soon.
Definition of Church
The greatest area in which my religious beliefs have changed over time is in the definition of what is a church and especially what is the role of the LDS Church in my life. A church is a body of believers, a group of saints or followers of Christ. It is not an institution, especially one that has become as large and unwieldy as the LDS Church. I still attend church each Sunday with a small local group of saints.
I used to be immensely impressed with the hierarchical structure of the LDS Church. I studied it in great detail in my youth. I conducted firsthand research in the State of Utah Division of Corporations into the beginnings of hundreds of corporations started and managed by the LDS Church. I used to say the LDS Church was the greatest example of hierarchical government I had ever seen.
After all, my sister worked in the highest offices of the LDS Church. I would go to the Church Office Building and take pictures of the department listings next to the elevators. I would study the descriptions of each department included in the Deseret News Church Almanac. I would devour each news report that came out with a new study of the wealth of the church. I was more interested in structure.
I am still duly impressed with the corporate organization of the LDS Church. It is a well-run, well-oiled machine. But the stuff that goes on in the administration and the office buildings in Salt Lake are a far cry from what takes place in the lowly wards and stakes across the globe. I love the saints in my local wards and stakes. I have great compassion for the local leaders. I used to be one for many years.
However, I do not believe in the culture that has sprung up around the idea of the “Brethren” and their infallibility. The church teaches this is not the case, but the people believe it and teach it locally. “Follow the Brethren” bothers me when I hear it. “Follow the Prophet” has such a negative connotation in my mind that I immediately discredit anything that follows it by way of explanation or teaching.
Polygamy – Plural Marriage
Another big change for me is that I no longer believe something I was taught all my life about Joseph Smith and polygamy. I believe polygamy is adultery. I do not believe Joseph Smith was an adulterer. I do not believe Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. I believe it started with Brigham Young and other early leaders there in Nauvoo, but not with Joseph. He spoke out against polygamy on many occasions.
Perhaps as a direct result of my research into the early beginnings of polygamy in Nauvoo, I do not accept Brigham Young as a prophet of God, nor do I accept any of the presidents of the LDS Church that succeeded him as prophets. I have come to understand the word prophet differently. A prophet is someone sent from God with a message. I do not believe LDS Church leaders are speaking for God today.
I have written several posts over the years on the subject of polygamy. At first, I echoed the same narrative I had heard growing up, that Joseph was commanded to enter into plural marriage at the point of a sword of an angel. I also accepted and parroted the story line about Emma I had read and heard taught any time the subject of polygamy came up, that she was damned because she opposed it.
That never felt right to me. Why would God curse one of his choicest daughters, an elect lady, for her virtue and condemnation of adultery, alongside Joseph? I did not accept the idea that Joseph said one thing in public and another in private about the practice. I came to learn that just as he had been betrayed in Far West, he had been betrayed in Nauvoo by those closest to him in church leadership.
I also came to understand better what Joseph was trying to do with the sealing ordinance. I was especially gratified when my feelings that Joseph could not possibly be a prophet and an adulterer were vindicated by what I learned as I read Whitney N. Horning’s May 2019 book about Joseph Smith entitled “Joseph Smith Revealed: A Faithful Telling – Exploring an Alternate Polygamy Narrative.”
As I wrote in the post above, “Celestial Marriage is NOT polygamy. It is a marriage covenant between one man and one woman and God. It is necessary to enter into while in this life in order to inherit Eternal Life. Celestial Marriage is monogamous, it is never polygamous. Joseph was doing something he called sealings. These were NOT plural marriages and did not give him or anyone else rights to illicit sexual relations. Unfortunately, they were not understood by the people.”
“Brigham Young and Lorenzo Snow had become convinced through their own beliefs, which were contradictory to Joseph’s teachings, that polygamy was a higher, more correct form of marriage. This is NOT what Joseph taught. At the time of Joseph’s death on June 27, 1844, Brigham was publicly married to Mary Angell, and secretly married to Lucy Decker, Augusta Adams, Harriet Cook, and Clarissa Decker. Joseph did not teach or encourage these secret marriages.”
Brigham was an adulterer. Joseph was not. He did not engage in illicit sexual relations with anyone. He was true and faithful to Emma. The sealings found on the LDS Church website were simply that, Joseph’s efforts to build families in the eternities. Anyone who construes these sealings into something of a sexual nature needs to repent. I want it to be known I am raising my voice in defense of Joseph.
Zion – Where and How
Another belief that has changed profoundly for me is the idea of where Zion is to be established in the last days. I remember the first time a reader asked me some very pointed questions about Zion after I had written a post on the subject in which I repeated what I had heard growing up, that someday, we would all be walking back to Zion, which of course, was located in Independence Missouri.
My wife served her mission in Independence. I have been there and walked the historical sites of Adam-Ondi-Ahman, Far West and Liberty Jail. I have no doubt it is a land of promise, a location where a millennial temple complex will one day be built. But that day is after the Lord returns. The scriptures refer to Zion flourishing in the tops of the mountains. There are no mountains in Independence Missouri.
I used to be very careful to ensure I was on the right side of every question, in the right place at the right time and that when I taught, I made sure what I taught was very much in line with what I knew the Brethren taught. I studied their words just as much as I studied the scriptures, perhaps even more so. I wanted to make sure everyone knew I could be trusted to represent the Brethren well, no matter what.
I still carry much of that respect within me for those who lead the church, or at least at the local level. After all, I served in the local leadership from the time I was a returned missionary until I resigned in 2014. I was either a teacher, a secretary, a counselor, a clerk or in some way provided support to the local lay leadership, men whom I loved and respected, and still admire to this day.
When I served on the High Council I made sure I fulfilled my assignments with as much faith as I could muster, meaning that when I spoke from the pulpit, I did all within my power to inspire, motivate and otherwise encourage the Saints to live the gospel and to come unto Christ. When I sat in disciplinary councils I fasted and prayed that I would have the spirit of discernment to say what the Lord wanted.
Trying to Make a Difference
I was convinced at the start of my blogging activities in 2007 that I was providing a much-needed service to the Church and to the Lord. I felt I was answering a call to raise my voice through my keyboard to testify of the truths of the gospel to a much wider audience than my local ward or stake. I had resisted the impression for years that I should start a blog. I still feel I delayed for a few years too many.
Since I work in technology and have always been interested in how technology can be used to further the work of the Lord, I watched closely what the Church was doing with that technology. I felt they were more than a little behind in taking full advantage of the Internet, especially in refuting all the negativity about the Church that was popping up. Why weren’t they responding? Well, I could.
And I did. For years, I wrote uplifting articles espousing the Church’s position on just about every topic that was causing concern for those who were searching for the truth. I remember one caustic response from a reader in which he gave me my next fifteen or twenty posts because he raised very detailed objections that I felt needed to be addressed. I thought I could be like the FAIRMormon website.
Opposition in All Things
Obviously, in order to become knowledgeable about things that some people found troubling, I had to read those opposing viewpoints. I had to understand what the objections were. I love to read. I read all day, every day, all the time. My work consists of reading and then explaining to others, so they don’t have to read. Yes, I get paid to be a walking encyclopedia, at least on certain technology.
Most of the stuff I read online that some members found troubling I had read before in non-electronic form. I had a huge LDS library and a substantial collection of books that some might consider to be anti-Mormon, although I didn’t see them that way. Most of the stuff young people were discovering in anti-Mormon sites on the Internet I had already debunked after reading The Maze of Mormonism.
I was a little dismayed at the responses I read on the websites that popped up where young folks gathered to discuss their questions that they could not ever discuss in a Sunday School class or in a Priesthood or Relief Society lesson. I was frankly shocked at some of the things they were saying, how angry they seemed and did my best to encourage them to stay faithful and to not leave the Church.
It saddened me to see intelligent people come to conclusions that required them to reject their testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. It still does. I believe things about Joseph that most Mormons do not, especially in the area of polygamy (he was not a polygamist). I love the Book or Mormon. I never tire of it. I am so glad the Church continues to encourage us to read and study it each day.
After four years of blogging I felt I had a fairly good handle on who the movers and shakers were in the LDS blogging world, in both the group and the solo blogs. I knew many folks in my own stake were reading what I wrote. I had many, many readers in Utah and felt very connected to how the Church was being perceived in the influential online world. I felt I was an integral part of that faithful movement.
That all changed one night at the temple in 2012. In casual conversation in the Celestial room after a stake endowment session I was asked by one who read my blog what I thought of Denver Snuffer. “Denver Who? Never heard of him,” I said. That was all that was said. I couldn’t even remember his full name, but something kept bugging me for weeks until I looked it up on the Internet and bought a book.
Re-baptism is not Orthodox
I shared in private email dialog with some of my close blogging buddies that I had ordered and was going to read and write about “Passing the Heavenly Gift.” The response was immediate and frankly, a little overwhelming. Some assured me I was about to embark on a journey of discovery that would take me out of this world. Others warned me in very strong language I needed to be very careful.
I think most people are familiar with my story, so I don’t need to repeat it here. It starts with my first post in February of 2012 and culminates in my September 2014 posts announcing my resignation and re-baptism. For two and a half years I read, studied, prayed, wrote and investigated with first-hand interviews and visits to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I don’t regret a minute of that time.
Along the way, it became obvious I was no longer the orthodox Mormon I had grown up to be. I think I perplexed many readers. They told me they could not understand how I could continue to claim to be a faithful member of the LDS Church and write as I did about the teachings of a man who was on the road to being excommunicated, and after he was, that I was on that very same path.
Group Worship is a Little Different
I agreed. I made it a matter of deep prayer and meditation over many days. I knew what I needed to do. I had heard a message that I felt was from God. I had to act on it. I could either reject it and strive to go back to the way I was, or I could accept it and trust that the Lord would bless me for my decision. I took a leap of faith and acted upon what I had heard. I decided to get baptized as a sign to God.
In many ways, I still feel like a regular old member of the LDS Church. We still participate with our ward as best we can under the current restrictions. We still have the same friends in the ward and stake. Up until six months ago we still socialized with them at ward and stake functions, weddings, funerals and such. But it’s obvious I can’t be treated the same since I am no longer so orthodox.
I am grateful our home teacher still calls on me to pray when we meet. Former members usually cannot participate in any way. But since we meet in private homes, things are a little different. As I wrote previously, I miss singing in the choir. That was one area I enjoyed and in which I was still allowed to participate. I hope the days come again where we can join our faith together in large groups, to sing and to raise our voices in worship of the Lord.