Leaving Mormonism: A Story

I saw this story by Lynn Wilder and it triggered for me, of course, my studies in conversion theory (Turning to Jesus and, with Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith).

The summer of 2006, my husband and I mustered the courage to drive two hours away from our largely Mormon community in Utah to attend a non-Mormon church on a Saturday night. That way, no Mormon friends or priesthood leaders could possibly see us. We were paranoid, worried that if someone from Brigham Young University saw me at a non-denominational Christian church, I would lose my ecclesiastical clearance and my job as a professor….

Our son had faced similar dangers. He risked everything—faith, family, friends, girlfriend, college scholarship, respect—by stepping out of Mormon belief. This son stood before a roomful of fellow Mormon missionaries in Florida to say he had been reading the Bible and now believed in a God of grace—meaning he no longer needed to perform the “good works” outlined by the Mormon church in order to be saved. That was a remarkable act of courage for a 20-year-old in Mormon culture. He was deemed unworthy to be a missionary and sent home. He had been willing to face the consequences. I didn’t understand how or why. But I began investigating this God he found so compelling.

My husband Michael was guarded. He knew that if we bucked the Mormon church, I’d never work again. My apostasy would be splashed across the pages of the Mormon-owned newspaper and the Mormon-owned TV station in Salt Lake City. Who knows what else they could dredge up to report? Then all those years, all that money, all those skills would go down the drain, and we still had three kids to put through college. But Mike had vowed long ago that whatever we decided spiritually, we would do together.

When we parked at the church that first night, I realized that one of my BYU colleagues lived close enough to recognize my car. Every time we drove the two hours there, we sweated bullets for fear of being discovered….

The cross that symbolized that love was so powerful to me, my husband and I went to the Provo Mall in early December to buy a necklace with a cross on it. The jewelry store employee said since the cross is an offense to the local Mormon population, they did not display them openly in the case. We were ushered into the back room to view the few they carried. On a crisp Christmas day in 2006, I removed the Mormon temple garments—the famous “special underwear”—I had worn for 30 years and replaced them with the cross necklace.

Wearing the cross on the BYU campus would be problematic. The university is a theocracy, not a democracy; if I was caught, I would be called in by my superiors and lose the ecclesiastical clearance I needed to work there. Even though I was tenured, if I left my once-beloved Mormon faith, I would lose my job. So I wore the cross underneath some high-necked clothes and applied for jobs in Florida.

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  • Conversion is a complex and often misunderstood phenomenon. One of the biggest problem “effects” of it I believe to be how powerfully specific theological concepts get wedded to the positive emotions and results of a “conversion”, whatever religion it is into or out of. This is particularly true of adolescent and young adult conversions, which are more common also. We are already other-than-primarily-rational “thinkers”, and conversion tends to compound our thinking errors, though I recognize its often-positive effects as well.

  • Andrew Dowling

    So was this conversion completely about moving to a “grace-based” Christianity and not about discovering how Mormonism’s historical tenets are a complete sham?

  • AHH

    While I am no fan of Mormonism, one aspect of this seems fishy to me.

    The author repeatedly says that leaving Mormonism would cost her tenured faculty position at BYU. Unless something has changed recently, that is not the way things work.
    I have an acquaintance on the science faculty there who is not a Mormon (agnostic, I think). She told me about 10 years ago that there is no issue with non-Mormons being on the faculty — the only restriction is that they have to abide by some behavior rules when they are on the job (so no beer over dinner when attending a scientific conference).

    I suppose they might have different restrictions if she was in the religion department or something. But on the surface, the way this story is written has a whiff of exaggeration about how brave the writer was to leave.

  • Jeremy B.

    From BYU’s official hiring policy: “For NON-LDS applicants, BYU prefers to hire qualified members of the Church in good standing. Interviewing or hiring a NON-LDS applicant requires Vice President approval.”

    That says nothing about how they’d treat an apostate, but it probably wouldn’t be taken very well. She’d be shunned by her community and all Mormon faculty at a minimum, which might as well be a death knell, even if the university didn’t fire her outright.