My name is Dan, and I’m an ex-Mormon. I was Mormon for many years, and about as stereotypical as one can get. I lived in Utah. I went on a mission to Japan. I went to church every Sunday. I even got married in a Mormon temple. I was in deep.
Today, I’m no longer married. I live in New Jersey and work as a bartender in New York City. As if that’s not ironic enough, my bar happens to be a stone’s throw away from The Book of Mormon on Broadway. (Yes, I’ve seen it. Three times. Oh, how my missionary self would have been horrified.)
When a friend or coworker finds out about my past, they’re usually super curious. They know I’m no longer a practicing member, so they don’t have to worry so much about asking a sensitive question. They know I won’t be offended, and perhaps more importantly, that I won’t try to bring them to church with me. So they let fly! After a few dozen Q&A sessions, it dawned on me: people really are fascinated by this. So I decided to compile the most frequently asked questions together for the internet’s perusing pleasure.
Quick disclaimer: this and any future posts that I write on the subject are purely my own opinions and subjective experiences. I still have plenty of friends who are in varying stages of faithfulness to Mormonism, and I have no desire to ruffle feathers or rile up a religious flame war on this blog. I hold no malice. However I don’t intend to censor my thoughts here either.
OK then, on to the FAQ.
So, Mormons… what ARE they exactly? What’s their deal?
In a nutshell, they believe that the One True Church was on earth long ago but it was lost to apostasy for thousands of years. That all changed one fine day in the early 1800’s, when Jesus teamed up with Joseph Smith (the first Mormon prophet) to bring it back. In more practical day-to-day terms though, Mormons are known as the clean living folks. No alcohol, tobacco, drugs (illegal ones, at least), premarital sex, coffee, and the list goes on. They’re also well known for sending their young’uns off on two-year missions across the globe to preach the gospel of the One True Church. (You’ve seen them before. Pairs of clean-cut youths with white bicycle helmets, black name tags, and Sunday clothes. They probably tried to give you a pamphlet or a book.)
You can just leave Mormonism? I thought it was a lifetime thing.
Some people are confused by this. For example, with Catholicism you could stop going to church for years but still declare yourself Catholic. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re active in church– it could just mean that that’s how you were raised, or that’s what your family believes.
Mormonism is a little different. Claiming to be Mormon comes with a very specific checklist of behaviors (see above), and there’s usually a very big divide between active, practicing Mormons and “inactive members”. There is a huge focus on member participation in the Mormon church, and great efforts are made to bring lost members back into the fold, thus keeping them active. So those who stay inactive are usually doing so very much on purpose. Chances are, they won’t claim Mormonism as their faith any more either.
BUT that doesn’t mean the church doesn’t still count them. I’ve been inactive for at least six years, and yet I have no doubt that they still have me listed among their membership. This is because I haven’t yet sent in a very firmly worded letter demanding that my name be removed from their records. (If you go too soft with the letter they’ll just bat it back to you with an “Are you sure? Do you fully realize everything you’d be giving up?” sort of letter, then it just drags on forever.) Why haven’t I sent this in yet? Because I, like most people, am lazy and hate paperwork. I think that’s what they’re counting on.
Small side note: I had it relatively easy when I quit Mormonism. My parents were converts and my siblings have always been pretty evenly split on the active/inactive spectrum. My parents weren’t thrilled when I shifted my chips to the non-Mormon side of course, but they weren’t about to disown me either. If I had come from a huge Utah family that traced its roots back to Joseph Smith though, it probably would have been a very different story.
Aren’t Mormons polygamist or something?
Not modern, mainstream Mormons. (Although there are still doctrinal nods to polygamy existing in heaven, but that’s for a future post). Joseph Smith and the first Mormon leaders were polygamists, because Joseph said he received a commandment from God. It was practiced for years, especially out in Utah where large polygamist families began to take hold. Eventually it weirded the federal government out– so much so that they made polygamy explicitly illegal, passing acts that targeted Utah and the Church specifically.
When they realized all of their property would be seized and the Church as they knew it would cease to exist, the Mormon leaders essentially came out and said “OK guys, we prayed really hard and God said it’s cool to stop. Sooooo stop now.”
As you might imagine, there were quite a few very big families who were not thrilled at this news. Keep in mind, polygamy was a commandment received directly from God. It was the path to unlocking the highest heaven, getting the greatest postmortem rewards. So when the church said stop, to many it seemed like the True Church was bowing to the Man. They wouldn’t have it. Quite a few polygamist families ran off to join offshoot Mormon sects. Some of these “Mormon Fundamentalist” groups still exist today! They are not recognized by the mainstream church of course– anyone found practicing polygamy in the modern LDS church is excommunicated immediately. As you might imagine, the history of polygamy is one of the touchier subjects within the church. Everyone knows it existed, but most would rather not dwell on it.
How does the whole mission thing work?
All “worthy” young Mormon men are expected to serve two-year missions. They are eligible to go starting when they are 18 years old. Women can also go on missions as “sister missionaries”, but the minimum age is 19, the mission length is 18 months, and they aren’t pressured nearly as much to go. It’s generally considered cool for women to just get married instead.
If you’re an aspiring missionary, you go talk to your bishop (head of your local church) and tell him so. He’ll make sure you can check all the necessary boxes before he passes you up the line. (Some of those boxes being: active participation at church, payment of at least 10% of your income to the church as tithing, regular prayer and scripture study, and no sex or illegal drugs.) If you’re “worthy”, you get to fill out your mission forms and send them into headquarters.
You have no say in where you go. There is a section in the paperwork that asks what language training you have, and while that can sometimes influence the decision (I studied Japanese and I was sent to Japan), it doesn’t always. A fellow missionary in my Japan-bound crew had taken four years of French.
After you receive your “call” telling you your mission area, you report to a Missionary Training Center. You’ll be there for anywhere from 2-10 weeks for intensive language training (if it applies) and plenty of instruction and role play for talking to complete strangers. Then you’re off to the races! Two years of preaching the Good Word, going where the Lord tells you. (Well, where your Mission President tells you). Every hour of your life is scheduled out, and every moment of said life must be spent in the company of an approved “companion” missionary. Companions change over the course of a mission, but while you’re together you are TOGETHER. 24/7. Always within eyesight or earshot. So when you get a companion that you despise, it’s a great object lesson for learning the true nature of hell.
Of course I’m just gleaning the surface for this and all the topics I’ve covered so far– in some upcoming posts, I’d like to go into my specific story with Mormonism and all its ins and outs. Stay tuned! And if I’ve missed any big questions, feel free to send them my way.