As I was wrapping up my final terms at Brigham Young University I received word that I had been accepted to Yale Divinity School where I was to pursue the academic study of religion within an environment that both valued and promoted Christian worship, commitment and virtue. At the time my primary interests were centered on the interplay between theology, religious practice, and the ethics within political society. The timing of my entry to YDS was fortuitous as it coincided with an emerging personal angst related to my own religious tradition: Mormonism. In the 2-3 years leading up to beginning my studies at YDS I had been exposed to several alternative views on Mormon history, doctrine, leadership, and theology and found myself in a position with questions not only in regard to Mormonism itself, but also, my own place within the Mormon cultural milieu.
During my time at YDS I went through a significant spiritual transformation. I recall when I turned in my first paper related to Mormonism for a class on covenant and social ethics within the Hebrew Bible. I had written on how Mormons consider themselves, in a sense, to be God’s “new Israel”; the reestablishment or restoration of the ancient covenant God made with the Patriarchs. After returning the graded paper to me, my academic advisor said something along the lines of: “I get the feeling you are holding back; hesitant to explicitly ask questions that challenge your own views, as well as the theological claims made by your Mormon tradition.” He was right, of course. I had discussed several issues up to the point where serious probing questions could, and should, have been asked. But at the time I was, perhaps this isn’t the best way to describe it, afraid to ask certain probing questions. At that time I had absolutely no desire to be critical of the Church institution or its leadership and this hesitancy made itself clearly manifest in my writing. My professor had challenged me — not to be critical of my own tradition, its theology, and its leadership just for the sake of being critical — but rather to ask critical and probing questions in an effort to increase understanding. I decided to take the plunge and see if I could write critically about my own tradition without undermining the tradition itself.
In my next paper I took on race issues within Mormonism as they related to pre-1978 priesthood ordination policies. In this paper I decided to “take the gloves off”, as it were, and really probe and question without fear of where such questions would lead me. Such criticism was not completely foreign to me, of course. I have written elsewhere of how actions of some Church leaders caused me to begin questioning claims of absolute and unquestioned authority as early as 2001, but this was the first time I had both the opportunity and willingness to tackle a difficult issue purely academically, ask critical questions, and draw conclusions even if such conclusions seemed to be at odds with a more traditional understanding of Mormon culture, theology, and practice. Such an endeavor was an extension of a journey begun many years before.
In the summer of 2007 I had reached a point where some core LDS truth-claims regarding the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, as well as issues related to the idea that Mormon faithfulness = willingness to obey Church leadership had caused me to question my faith in ways I had previously thought impossible. During this time I gave serious consideration to resigning from the LDS Church but every time I sat down to write a resignation letter I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not because I thought that problems of Book of Mormon historicity etc. could be resolved if I simply studied/prayed harder and more intently. Quite the opposite. I realized that while resigning from the LDS Church was an important part of the exit process for many, it just wasn’t the right choice for me.
I had a strong desire to stay connected to both my Mormon heritage and community, regardless of my emerging theological liberal views. I came to recognize that for me, community, service , and simply the opportunity to worship with others who understood me and whom I understood, sat at the center of my spiritual life — just as it always had. Some details had chanced, certainly, but my desire to fellowship with my fellow Saints remained (although it took me a good 2 years to realize this).
Because of my own questions and challenges I became keenly interested in the reasons why people resigned from the LDS Church. In particular, why some felt the need not just to leave the Church but to join “oppositional coalitions” working to counter the activities of the LDS Church. Eventually I became aware of the work of sociologist David Bromley and was inspired by his work on “new religious movements” to explore the specific phenomenon of the creation of exit or “captivity narratives” by those who left religious groups broadly considered “subversive.”
The details of my research in this area can be found in my recently-published paper: “Ex-Mormon Narratives and Pastoral Apologetics” Sociologist Ryan Cragun offers up an interesting critique of my paper, “Apostates,” “Anti-Mormons,”, And Other Problems in Seth Payne’s “Ex-Mormon Narratives and Pastoral Apologetics”, which can be found either here or here. My response to Cragun can be found here.
Looking back I can say that my transition from being a fairly theologically conservative Mormon recognizing the unfettered authority of Church leadership to one who rejects most aspects of literalism and eschews any claim of authority by leadership over the spiritual life of adherents, was a very difficult one. I am grateful that I had an academic outlet to explore and express my questions and views. For me, the critical academic study of religion has produced unexpected results. Rather than reject faith, I embrace and defend it enthusiastically. Rather than leave the LDS Church, I have been inspired to remain in fellowship with the Saints because regardless of any theological difference of opinion, I find myself being constantly overwhelmed by expressions of love, charity, and compassion and in turn, seek out opportunities to become a conduit of that love and compassion myself.