Because ten is a sacred number to humans, I feel inclined now to look back ten years.
Especially for Youth was an annual experience for some young Latter-day Saints. For me, it came once in a lifetime. After growing up in northern New York as one of five Latter-day Saints at my school, with my district renting a bus to take the youths on road trips to the temple twice a year, and carpooling four hours to dances and youth conferences in Albany where I was astonished that they had two congregations meeting in the same building, a week of activities and devotionals on the campus of BYU-Idaho with thousands of youths who for the most part shared my beliefs was just off the charts. I can't imagine the experience being nearly as special if I'd grown up in Utah or even Idaho and I kind of feel sorry for the majority of attendees who did. I'd already had a solid testimony for years, but this week for me was essentially a born-again moment that magnified it until it seemed it would burst. The Spirit filled me with almost evangelical zeal and such joy that my recurring depression went away for almost a year until I moved to Utah, which is another story.
Of course, it was a feel-good experience for everyone involved, even those who were in a position to take it for granted, and it was meant to be. Every minute of every day was calculated to produce a spiritual environment. And that worked great for me because my testimony was based on two things - the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, which was such a no-brainer for me once I actually took it seriously that I never bothered to pray about it like I was expected to, and feeling the Spirit in various times and places. My parents cautioned my sister and me going into it not to get too caught up in the atmosphere and develop "a testimony of EFY" and be like those people who just cry a lot and think that's being spiritual. Or something like that, I don't remember exactly. Nothing as derisive as I'm probably making it sound. Although they do make fun of the Tabernacle Choir for singing too slowly, so they are apostates in their own way.
The point being it was all quite manufactured, but that's all right. Dr. Patrick Mason opined, "Is religious feeling manufactured? To a large extent, yes — and that’s precisely the point. One of the roots for the word religion is religare, which means to bind together. Religion is communal. And what’s the point of gathering in religious community? I would say that the purpose is twofold: to encounter and worship God, and to form a community of care in which we learn to love one another. So we do all kinds of things in community which enhance our ability to encounter God. Songs, prayers, sermons, rituals, service — of course all those things are meant to manufacture spiritual experience and divine encounter. In a real way, I believe we can and do actually find God and Jesus in the bread and water of the sacrament, or in a Sunday School lesson, or in raking a widow’s leaves. It’s similar to the way that candles, flowers, low lighting, and chocolate are designed to manufacture romantic experience. Can I love my wife without all that stuff? Of course. But does it all help? Yep. And is the experience my wife and I have real, even with the aid of all those romantic accoutrements? Absolutely."
I also learned how to tie a tie. Previously, I had literally Googled how to tie a tie every Sunday before church, but now I had no internet access all week (not that I had a smartphone back then anyway). So I watched another guy real close, did what he did, and remembered it forever.
The last dance of the last dance on the last day was Owl City's "Fireflies", my first time hearing that song, so now that song fills me with soul-shredding nostalgia and wistfulness, but it's so beautiful that I still listen to it for sick masochistic pleasure. I became Facebook friends with most of the people in my group and now I'm not Facebook friends with most of them anymore probably because I showed my true colors on social media.
I got home and before long I had a new issue of Mental Floss magazine and it happened to have a few sample chapters from an upcoming book about influential people or something, and one of them happened to be about Joseph Smith. It got a few details wrong. Mostly little things, but most egregiously it claimed he had practiced polygamy. That was obviously wrong because polygamy started with Brigham Young. I mentioned this to my parents. They were like, "No, that's right, Joseph Smith practiced polygamy," like it was common knowledge and not a big deal at all. I was just a little peeved that they had been aware of this information and neither they nor anyone else had bothered to impart it to me, but I brushed it aside.
The article still had a few inaccuracies and I decided to write a letter to the magazine and correct them. But I wanted to make sure that I had my own facts entirely straight. So I went to Google and typed in "joseph smith". And before I hit enter, an intriguing suggestion popped up: "joseph smith false prophet". It was intriguing, not because I seriously entertained for a moment the possibility that Joseph Smith was, in fact, a false prophet, but because I wondered what hilariously stupid arguments people were coming up with to claim that he was. I imagined they were in a similar vein to "ThE bIbLe SaYs YoU'rE nOt SuPpOsEd To AdD tO iT." So I clicked on the suggestion and clicked on one of the results. What I actually found there was not very funny at all.
Though I've since been exposed to scores of others, I remember the specific claims on this website that disturbed me to my core: that Joseph Smith made several prophesies that failed to come true, that he edited the Doctrine & Covenants to cover some of them up, that he gave several accounts of his First Vision that evolved and grew more elaborate over time, that he was arrested in 1826 for being a con man and pretending he could find buried treasure with a magic rock, that his mother wrote in her autobiography about him entertaining the family with stories about ancient America and then Brigham Young ordered every copy of it destroyed, that DNA evidence proved Native Americans were not descended from Israelites, that archaeological evidence of the peoples in the Book of Mormon was nonexistent, and that the papyri Joseph Smith translated into the Book of Abraham had later been translated by actual Egyptologists into something completely different.
I had experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance prior to this point. I had assumed, and probably been told outright by multiple people, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the fastest-growing religion in the world and that this was proof of its divine origin. So I was a bit startled to learn that its growth had actually been linear since 1989 and that a solid majority of members worldwide not only didn't attend church but didn't even self-identify as Latter-day Saints notwithstanding they remained on the books. I had assumed that because we sustained all prophets and apostles as "prophets, seers and revelators", pretty much everything they said or wrote in any setting was the mind and will of the Lord. So I was a bit startled to learn that the only apostle who agreed with Ezra Taft Benson's political views was Ezra Taft Benson. But I assimilated this information into my fundamentalist worldview with as little adjustment as I could get away with.
I also experienced brief but substantial cognitive dissonance one day in ninth grade when I woke up fully expecting to find myself in my own bed, but instead found myself on a classroom floor with my classmates staring at me and Ms. Conger in my face frantically asking if I was okay. I knew simultaneously that this current state of events was impossible, and that it was nonetheless happening; that it had to be a dream, and that it wasn't. My confusion wasn't resolved until I looked up and saw the test on my desk. My memory came flooding back. We had been taking the test and then had a break to stand up and stretch. With that resolved, I moved on with my life, and when it happened again sometime later in Spanish class my memory came back much faster and it wasn't a big deal. I don't know why Señora Arquiette had to go to the bathroom to cry. The third time, I didn't even lose consciousness as I fell and split my face open on the living room woodstove. (Since I know you're worried, it was orthostatic hypotension and it never happened again as soon as the hospital diagnosed it.)
Now I felt the full force of cognitive dissonance that wouldn't go away so easily. If these claims were true, then the Church couldn't possibly be true, and yet the Spirit had so very recently told me that it was, and yet that didn't make these claims go away and my integrity wouldn't allow me to just pretend they didn't exist. Torn between emotion and intellect and unable to reject either, I knew there had to be a way to reconcile them, but how? And if these claims were nothing to worry about, why had I never ever heard of them from the Church? Why hadn't the Church been honest with me? The cognitive dissonance was tinged with a feeling of betrayal. I didn't have the first idea where to look for help because as far as I was concerned, it was brand new and unknown to almost anyone. It didn't occur to me as a serious possibility that anyone I knew could already be familiar with it. And I didn't want to ruin their testimonies by bringing it up. I had no idea what my future with regard to the Church would look like but I knew right from the start that if it made other people happy I wasn't going to try to ruin that for them.
Except I made an exception for my parents, I guess because they were my parents and I liked arguing with them. The feeling that the Church had lied to me put me in an argumentative mood. They were calm and made it pretty obvious that they weren't at all bothered by the things I showed them. They probably just wanted to strengthen my faith by showing how solid theirs was, but I interpreted it as they just didn't care about inconvenient facts. I don't say this to bash them at all but, because it may be pertinent for those trying to help in similar situations, some of the things they said were not helpful, like:
"Joseph Smith wasn't perfect."
What I thought: I don't care if he was perfect, I care if he was a liar.
"The Church has nothing to hide."
What I thought: Then why is it hiding things?
"How does this stuff make you feel?"
What I thought: I just learned that the religion I grew up in might be a lie. Of course I feel crappy. That doesn't mean the feeling is from Satan.
I asked them why the Church never talked about Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon by sticking his face in a hat, a detail that didn't upset my testimony on its own but which I was quite annoyed to learn at age seventeen from an anti-Mormon website. They straight-up said, "Probably because it's weird." And they didn't see a problem with that.
What did help was the video clip they showed me of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's testimony in the October 2009 General Conference, where he stated in part, "As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest - and last - hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?
"Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be 'houseless, friendless and homeless' and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon."
I couldn't argue with that, so I put my doubts on the proverbial shelf, went on ahead like normal, and got swept up in the excitement of the new "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign that apparently was a major victory for Satan. I never lost sight of my intent to resolve those doubts, but I decided not to let them get in my way in the meantime. A reflection on how the trajectory of my life over the last ten years has stemmed from that decision would probably interest nobody but me so I'll skip it. Suffice to say that this was a hinge point in my life and without the spiritual high of EFY still fresh in my memory I'm sure I wouldn't have made the decision so easily if at all.
I soon felt validated when, during a lull in my teacher's aide work during study hall, I skimmed through the old church magazines that Ms. Conger (yes, this was a couple years after I passed out in her class and yes, she was a church member) had brought in to be cut up for projects and read in the January 1995 Ensign, "Some people say it is best to leave alone materials that claim to 'expose' the Church and its teachings. What counsel has been given on this? How do we respond when a friend comes to us with questions found in such materials?"
The response said in part, "The restored gospel centers on teachings that save, strengthen, uplift, inspire, and bind individuals and families. The Church discourages teachings contrary to such goals. Because of their great concern for the membership, Church leaders have given guidance concerning anti-LDS material and have cautioned against those things designed to destroy belief and cause pain and suffering....
"Such advice must not be interpreted to mean that the Church is against honest scholarship or has anything to fear or hide. Nor does the Church ban literature, but Latter-day Saints should be wise in choosing what to read.
"This cautionary counsel should not be misconstrued to justify laziness on our part in seeking answers, or giving glib, superficial replies when someone sincerely wants to know the truth after being exposed to anti-LDS material. Church critics and enemies should not be permitted to make what Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve has sometimes called 'uncontested slam dunks.'...
"When members lack answers, they should learn what Church leaders and reputable scholars have said and written. There is probably no charge against the Church that has not been adequately refuted by someone. When members can’t find answers on their own, they can turn to home and visiting teachers, quorum leaders, bishops, and stake presidents. If necessary, stake presidents can take questions to area presidencies or other authorities....
"Those willing to take time to research anti-LDS claims can find answers. The Church is true and will continue to grow. Those who would reap great eternal rewards and joy must wisely use their time to study, ponder, love, and work so they can anchor their convictions in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and his Church."
Shortly thereafter I started to find the answers, and more questions and more answers. Some of the things that had bothered me were distortions of the truth and others were entirely true but less worrisome with additional information and context. I learned that none of it was new and that all of it had been addressed well before the website I saw was created, but tens of thousands of people had left the Church over faith crises and feelings of betrayal similar to mine. On the other hand, many current members knew about all of it too and weren't bothered. Some of them were insufferable victim-blamers about it. "I've known about these things my whole life," they would say. "If you didn't, it's your own fault for not paying attention and not spending all your spare time studying church history. Look, the Ensign devoted an entire sentence to Joseph Smith's seer stone the year before you were born." Okay, that's a more honest paraphrase of the kinds of things they actually said. Many of them openly dismissed people who lost their testimonies as "weak", "chaff", "tares", and so on.
(I found myself in this position myself when some people were shocked and outraged a few years ago to learn that General Authorities receive a living stipend. I've known that for as long as I can remember and thought everyone else did too. I also thought it was common sense because they leave their often far more lucrative careers behind and do church work full time. I don't remember who told me about the stipends. I could point out President Gordon B. Hinckley mentioning them in General Conference but I know that's not how I knew about them. In any case, unlike some people, I chose to have empathy and not be a jerk to people who struggled over it.)
I started the original incarnation of my website on the awful hosting service Webs in November 2010, and one of my goals with it was to disseminate the "controversial" information and apologetics to innoculate others against their own faith crises. When I started out I felt like I was openly pushing back against the Church's own sanitized and dumbed-down version of its history. In the decade since, I've watched it make massive strides toward a more transparent, complete, and accurate version, with initiatives like the Joseph Smith Papers project, the Gospel Topics essays and the required institute classes that incorporate them, and the "Saints" book series. Church Historians Marlin K. Jensen and then Steven E. Snow publicly spoke about this change of approach (which was in the works well before my faith crisis, but of course that fact did me no good), while the "I've known about these things my whole life" crowd continued to pretend that there was no change because the Church had been candid about its history all along.
The excuses offered elsewhere for why it was not, in fact, candid about its history all along always rang hollow to me, and the feeling of betrayal lingered for a long time and if not for that I probably would have tried harder to serve a mission. But I'm at peace with it by now because whatever. I think the sanitized and dumbed-down version of its history was driven by two primary factors: simplifying and standardizing the curriculum for a rapidly expanding body of new converts in far-flung locations, and an institutional persecution complex stemming from actual persecution of the institution. Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844 and his great-nephew was President of the Church in 1972, so that memory certainly stayed fresh for a long time. Church leaders felt very defensive against outside criticism, which in the not-too-distant past had fatal consequences for several people, and clung to an older style of history writing that was more preoccupied with explaining why Joseph Smith and his friends were awesome than with being nuanced or balanced. But expectations have changed and the cost of such an approach now far outweighs the benefit.
As I got over my first faith crisis I refused to make any real paradigm shifts. In fact, I doubled down on my fundamentalism as finding answers to my concerns only reinforced my conviction that all criticisms of the Church were nonsense and the people making them were all liars. This was essentially putting a Band-Aid on the problem and left me vulnerable. I would go on to have another faith crisis over the sheer volume of real or perceived issues being thrown in my face by Facebook trolls (aka the "Big List" fallacy), and another faith crisis when I caught feelings for a lesbian and stopped believing that God loved either of us, and another faith crisis when I studied various world religions and found them all just as beautiful and compelling as mine even though logic dictated that they couldn't all be entirely true. Cognitive dissonance became a very familiar feeling as, no matter what the challenge to my testimony, I remained unable to reject my own spiritual experiences and knowledge and thus had to find a solution whether I liked it or not.
More than once I've wondered why I specifically had to put so much work into this faith thing. If God expected that from most people, the Church would be much smaller than it is. But He gave me my own special personalized path, didn't He? How thoughtful of Him.
That in essence is why today I'm a cynical snarky wannabe intellectual in religious matters, too thoughtful to be accepted by "conservative" Saints and too faithful to be accepted by "liberal" Saints. Sometimes I miss my simple, childish faith, but it was less accurate and less fulfilling than this one and it wouldn't be right to go back even if I could. I don't like the person I was back then even if he was sweeter. I want to burn that little zealot at the stake. He thought Obama was the literal anti-Christ, for zark's sake. I just wish the transition hadn't been so needlessly painful. And I wish I could get back some of the humility and the openness to spiritual things that I've lost. The perfect balance, the flawless paradigm, still eludes me.
And I never even finished writing that letter to Mental Floss.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.