About a year ago, I responded to an invitation to participate in a research study with Dr. Jana Riess in regards to former Mormons. You can read about it here. Jana Riess is the author of “The Next Mormons” and several other publications including one of my favorites, “Mormonism for Dummies.” I was surprised to receive an invitation to further participate in an oral interview with Dr. Riess, scheduled to be conducted this Friday.
When I inquired about the topics to be discussed, I received this: “The interview is audio only done by phone. You will receive a phone call, and it’s not possible to get the questions in advance. The interview covers childhood, and adolescent religious experiences, religious beliefs and how those have changed over time, why you decided to leave Mormonism, how that decision affected your core relationships, and what you believe and practice now, if anything.” The interview is scheduled for sixty to ninety minutes.
I got to thinking about the first part of what will be covered in the interview and decided to spend some time reviewing my Book of Remembrance. I spent several pleasant hours going down memory lane, remembering my life as a Mormon growing up in Southern California in the 1960’s and 1970’s. As I reviewed these experiences, I felt impressed to record them as part of my preparation for the upcoming interview this week.
We may only spend a few moments covering these events. The interview will be recorded and I’ve been told will be provided to me for review before it is published. Since I doubt most of this early life material will be in the final interview (it really is just background), I thought I would place it in my blog to refer to later when my memory isn’t so good. Most of it is typical for LDS families. At the end I share two very subjective religious experiences.
I was a Presbyterian First
We went to church every Sunday, all of us except dad, who worked most Sundays. We went as a family, my four sisters, me, and my older brother with mom leading the way. At first, it was in the Presbyterian church. Mother taught Sunday School and dad was an Elder, although that doesn’t mean the same thing it does in the LDS Church. My mother was always a teacher, as was her mother before her.
Dad had been raised a Baptist and only joined the Presbyterian church when he married my mother. He smoked cigars for twenty years from the time he joined the navy at age 21 until he became LDS at age 41. Mother definitely lead the way in our home in regard to religious matters. Dad was happy with whatever mother said when it came to what we believed and what we practiced in our home.
Mother was very devout. She was a firm believer in Christ. She knew the Bible and taught from it in her public-school career as well as at Church and in our home. She could tell fascinating bible stories. I grew up learning to read from the Book of Mormon. I read it aloud to my mother at age 5-6. It was her first time reading it in 1963. We read it aloud as a family each night. We prayed together as a family.
I remember going to the Presbyterian church with my sisters when I was little. There was a lot of standing up, kneeling, then sitting back down. I enjoyed the singing from the choir. Mother would take us to the Hollywood Bowl on Easter Sunday sunrise service because she loved the music and commemorating the resurrection of the Lord with tens of thousands of other devout Christians.
The Culture of a Christian Home
We grew up with reproductions of famous paintings of scenes from the life of Christ. I remember Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hoffman, Jesus Teaching from the Boat, Jesus Calling the Fishermen, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, Christ Teaching in the Temple at Twelve, Madonna Holding the Christ Child by Raphael Sanzio and probably a half dozen other such religious paintings.
Mother loved good music of all kinds and made sure we heard it in our home. She played popular musicals from Broadway most evenings and, after we joined the church, just about every album ever produced from the Tabernacle Choir. I clearly remember being rocked to sleep many times with the Finlandia album (1960) from The Philadelphia Orchestra with their guests the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
After we joined the church, I remember attending primary classes on weekdays. I remember my Sunday School and Primary teachers, some of whom were the mothers of my new friends in the church. I remember Junior Sunday school. I remember meeting for Sunday School on Sunday mornings and then meeting again in the evenings. We partook of the Sacrament in both of the meetings.
Dad didn’t always make the morning session because of work. I remember when my brother was ordained to the priesthood and then watching as he passed the sacrament, wishing I could do that. My dad couldn’t baptize me because of work, but he confirmed me the next day. I remember he had to get someone to take his place at work so he could come to church in the morning to do the confirmation.
The Formalities of Religious Worship
Dad was uncomfortable with the formalities of religious worship. Participating in ordinances was not something he grew up with. He was not very expressive and had a hard time finding words to say what he meant. He was a quiet man who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma with nine other brothers and sisters. He did not pray eloquently and usually deferred to mother to teach us and lead us in prayer.
We had a plethora of Bibles in our home. Each child had their own copy of the Bible and later, the Book of Mormon or Triple Combination. I first read the Book of Mormon from the brown paperback copy that was common in the early 60’s. I must have gone through a half dozen sets of scriptures from my early childhood until I married, a tradition that has continued. We still have dozens of sets today.
We prayed together at dinnertime each night. Since he was a cook in the Navy, Dad cooked the meals in our home. Dad was often asked to help out with the ward socials. He was a great cook and loved to cook for large crowds. I have many happy memories of ward socials, white elephant bazars, Pioneer Day Celebrations and even working on the ward building to repair it after it suffered fire damage.
With my mother’s help, I learned to prepare and give talks in church. I have a copy of my first 2 ½ minute talk from Jr Sunday School when I was five. I loved listening to the speakers in church from the time I was little, especially the High Councilors. Later in life, when I became one, I thought back on my mothers’ wise counsel to always be prepared and never be boring – “Know you stuff,” she said.
Family History Research and the Temple
I had 100% attendance in Primary and Sunday school. I know because they used to give out awards in those days and I kept them in my Book of Remembrance. We had a family photo taken soon after we joined. The ward was putting together a ward directory and album. We all looked so serious. Didn’t know what to expect as new members, I guess. But we had each other, and we were happy to be there.
My Book of Remembrance is filled with programs, certificates of achievement and of advancement. Apparently, my mother kept everything and then gave it to each of the children as we started our own Book of Remembrance, which I did when I was twelve years old. My mother was an avid genealogist and gave us the bug early. I loved doing family history research with her and still do it every day now.
I have a copy of a family letter my mother wrote less than a year after we joined the church. It is filled with a glowing report of all the activities of the church we were involved in including Primary, Sunday School, Priesthood, Sacrament, and for my older sisters, Seminary. Mother writes she took her retirement fund to get out of debt and buy a year’s supply of food. She also sent out family group sheets.
A happy memory for me was the day we all went to the Los Angeles Temple to be sealed as a family a year after we were baptized. I am smiling in the pictures and have distinct memories of being in the sealing room with my family. I have been back to that same room many times and have basked in the glow of that happy day when my parents were first endowed, and I began to learn about the temple.
Baptism, Priesthood and More Family History
I was baptized at age eight, received the Aaronic Priesthood at age twelve, passed the Sacrament every Sunday, was ordained a Teacher at age fourteen and a Priest at age sixteen. My father ordained me each time. I went to Church every Sunday, partook of the Sacrament, listened to the talks and to my teachers, participated in service projects, baptisms for the dead and Boy Scout activities in MIA or Mutual.
When we went on summer vacations, we visited temples and did research in old courthouses where my ancestors lived and died. I have pictures of me unearthing old headstones, marking them with chalk to read the dates. I distinctly remember my mother’s joyous response when I found an ancestor on microfilm in the Los Angeles City Library, before we had family history centers in our own buildings.
It seems our life centered around the LDS Church and the temple from an early age. My mother loved the temple. In one year, when my dad was not working due to a disability, they literally performed over 500 endowments for some of the names my mother researched. At the time she passed, my mother had completed the work for close to 30,000 of our ancestors and kinfolk. I inherited her legacy.
My two oldest sisters graduated from BYU. My oldest sister worked for the LDS Church for most of her adult life. She served as Elder Perry’s secretary for many years and retired shortly after he passed away. She had previously worked in the missionary department and the temple department, assisting in the process of clearing names for the First Presidency for the restoration of temple blessings.
Patriarchal Blessing, Seminary, Gospel Study
My Primary teacher gave me a plaque with a picture of Jesus on it the day I was baptized. I still have that little memento. It reminds me of a happy time in my life when things were simple, and life was easy. She also gave me another copy of the Book of Mormon and of the New Testament. I loved my Primary teachers and mourned when I learned later in life they had passed away. They taught me well.
I received my Patriarchal blessing at age 15 and a half. My sister and I both visited the Patriarch the same day, with my mother in attendance. The bishop had asked us to fast and I did so, perhaps for the first time with real intent. I still believe the Patriarch was inspired in the words he used that day. I still find them uplifting. The blessing is filled with many promises that have been fulfilled in many ways.
I enjoyed Seminary, although I only attended the first three years. I appreciated my seminary teachers, who I know sacrificed to prepare each day and to get up early to teach us the gospel. I knew they loved the Lord and felt confident in their expressions of love for us as students. I went to CES area devotionals to hear the President of the Church when he came to Southern California to speak to us.
I benefited much from this daily study of the scriptures because by this time in my life, my own family no longer read from them together each day. I appreciated my seminary teachers even more in my life, when, years later, I taught early-morning seminary for a couple of years. I learned first-hand how very hard it really was. I learned to rely on the Lord for inspiration and especially motivation to keep going.
Love of Learning & Early Testimony
My mother taught me to love learning. I love to read. We grew up without a television in our home, but had a huge library, including hundreds of LDS Church books. My mother was a reading specialist in the public-school system and later opened her own LDS Bookstore, which failed miserably because she thought everyone loved to read as much as she did. But we benefited from the books.
I remember reading much of the seven-volume set of the history of the Church before my mission. We also had the Comprehensive History by BH Roberts and the entire Journal of Discourses. I also read Jesus the Christ, and the Articles of Faith (both by Talmadge), Bruce R McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, The Doctrine & Covenants Commentary by Hyrum M Smith, and many more early LDS classics.
I was a little shocked when I was called to teach Sunday School just before my mission. The bishop asked me to teach the kids just a few years younger than me. I couldn’t understand their lack of enthusiasm when I told them how much I loved the doctrine and history of the church. Maybe it was just the age group, but they couldn’t have been less interested and let me know clearly, I was a little weird.
I had a similar rude awakening on my mission. I thought all the missionaries loved the gospel as much as I did. The mission president assigned me a new companion who was struggling with his testimony. He had only come on his mission because his father had promised him a new pickup truck if he endured to the end. He let me know I was weird because I believed and taught with such passion each day.
Receiving Priesthood & Endowment
I loved my first temple experience. I was endowed at age nineteen just before I went on my mission. My mother gave me two talks to read as we traveled to the temple that morning. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had already read them, but it helped to facilitate our discussion of the ceremony both before and after. We went through two sessions that day and the next. I was not surprised at all.
By that I mean, I had read much about the temple. My parents had been going to the temple all my life, especially the few years previous to my being endowed. They had gone on a world vacation my Senior year in High School with the goal of visiting every temple in operation at that time. I think they almost did. There were only sixteen at the time. They only missed the Swiss temple if I remember right.
I also recall being ordained an Elder earlier that year by my Dad. It was a big deal to me. I felt strongly that my dad held the priesthood and that he had received it in an unbroken line from at least John the Baptist, if not Peter, James and John. I have some doubts about the higher priesthood. I’m not sure I now believe that it can be transferred from one man to another, but I am confident of the Aaronic.
I participated in dance festivals, LDS-sponsored Boy Scout activities, stake-wide priesthood meetings, general conference every six months and numerous other LDS cultural events, some of which are no longer practiced. I was not into sports, so I did not play on church basketball teams, but I did play softball with our local young adult group and went to all the church-sponsored dances in my teens.
Missionary Work and College
I attended Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) for a year before my mission but did not graduate. I left after a year to work and study in preparation for my mission. For a year before my mission I went out with the missionaries almost every day to become familiar with the work and prepare for this all-important rite of passage in the LDS Church. I believe I was a successful missionary with some 78 baptisms.
And I think that pretty well sums up most of my early childhood and adolescent religious experiences. I had a happy childhood, was taught the gospel by loving parents who were careful to instill a desire for the truth deep within my soul. I was not born into the church but feel as if I grew up in the church. It has been a part of my life since I was little. I have happy memories of growing up Mormon.
Subjective Religious Experience – Negative Example
However, if you define religious experience as a subjective experience in which an individual reports contact with a transcendent reality, an encounter or union with the divine, then I have more to share, specifically from my adolescent youth. I could share two in particular that took place in 1974, one when I was sixteen at the beginning of the year and one at age seventeen, toward the end of the year.
The first subjective religious experience I will share occurred in January 1974 just before my seventeenth birthday. My parents had gone out of town on a world cruise visiting all the temples. They were gone for weeks. They left me and my sister home alone. The first weekend they were gone I mentioned to a friend that I had the house available to myself and maybe we could invite a few friends over.
Big mistake. He told a friend, who told a friend and before I knew it, there were hundreds of young people hanging out in and around the house. They filled the entire end of the cul-de-sac in which we lived. My second big mistake was in accepting his invitation to take a drug into my body which was known to have mind-altering properties. It was my first and only experience with this drug.
You can say that what I am about to relate is nonsense and can be discounted because I was under the influence of a drug. Nevertheless, to me it was an encounter with unknown beings from an unseen world. It was not a good experience. It was a cold January night. I lay down in the back yard of our California home to get away from all the noise and commotion of the party.
Entering Another World
My heart slowed. Sounds became distorted. I felt paralyzed. Out of the shadows I saw creatures emerge and advance toward me. I knew their intent. It was not good. They wanted to drag me into the shadows and in fact, to drag me down to hell. Up until this time I had never taken seriously the idea of a devil or his angels. I had been taught this was a doctrine we believed, but I had no knowledge of it.
This was not an imaginary destruction, but as real as anything I had ever felt or experienced. More so, in fact. You can say it was all in my mind, and perhaps it was, but the fear it engendered was real. I felt helpless. I could not believe the feelings of animosity I felt toward me. These beings wanted to destroy me. I could not understand why. What had I done to deserve such evil intent and design?
Just at the moment of my greatest despair, concluding I was about to be dragged away down to hell to suffer some never-ending torment, I cried out in my mind to the Lord to have mercy on my soul. Immediately, I sensed a being of light standing at my head behind me. In my mind’s eye I saw he had a drawn sword which shone brightly and resolutely. The beings of darkness slunk away back into the shadows.
The experience frightened me like nothing I had ever before undergone. Life flowed back into me. I felt as if I had been dead and come back from the world of the dead. I jumped up, my heart beating wildly, and rejoined my friend. “You look like you have seen a ghost,” he said. I replied, “I feel like I just died.” I wandered off in search of an escape from this terrible party, which finally came hours later.
Learning From Opposition
Ever since this event, some 46 years ago, I have felt an undesired sensitivity to the presence of evil spirits. At one time orthodox Mormon doctrine dictated a belief in the reality of evil spirits. In 2001, the Barna Research Group reported in the Deseret News that less than 60% of members of the LDS Church believed in the reality of a devil or an unclean spirit. Today, that belief is certainly much lower.
I have invested hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours in trying to understand how my experience could be explained and understood in light of scripture, teachings of the prophet Joseph and other early LDS leaders, psychologists and other doctors and especially through prayer and personal time studying this out with the help of the Holy Ghost. It’s a real thing, but so few people now believe it.
I have taken courses on how to discover and heal from the effects of encounters with unwanted evil spirits in all their forms, both direct and indirect. I thought about getting certified in some of the techniques used by those who dedicate their lives to healing others who have been afflicted by these encounters. Sadly, most of these individuals have been rejected by today’s orthodox LDS thinkers.
I have interviewed many of these individuals who seek to help and to heal. Some have been cast out of the LDS Church, accused of priestcraft, others have been brought up in disciplinary councils and told to stop what they are doing. I am convinced it is because their work helps more people to come unto Christ and to heal from spiritual abuse than anything the sophisticated world of science offers.
Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy
This one subjective spiritual experience changed my life forever. It led me on a path of discovery and healing that is real, tangible, and filled with light. I am the kind of person, apparently, who learns best from negative experiences from which I want to forever move away. I believe because of this negative experience early in my life I have drawn closer to the light and truth than in any other way.
However, because it is viewed by orthodox LDS mainstream Mormonism as something that could never produce anything good and something to be both shunned and never discussed, I encounter tremendous opposition whenever I write about it or attempt to explain the good that has come out of it. In short, my views on overcoming the effects of evil are rejected by most LDS people I know.
If you want to know more, I refer you to a separate series of blog posts I put up years ago: Holistic Research – http://holisticresearch.blogspot.com/ – which is dedicated to my discovery and journey through the process of learning how to detect and remove negative energy from within my own soul. I’ve tried to share it in a wholesome and reasonable manner that hopefully does not frighten people.
Subjective Religious Experience – Positive Example
The problem with subjective spiritual experiences is that they can’t be verified. Or can they? I’ll share an experience that is more in line with the standard orthodox LDS narrative about what we can expect to receive from God if we seek Him with faith and real intent. Again, this is from my youth. It provides evidence to me that God answers our prayers in ways that each of us can understand and appreciate.
In the fall of 1974, at the age of 17, I enrolled at Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho. This was obviously before my mission. I had barely graduated from high school, so I was somewhat amazed I got in. Even after three and a half years of high school, I had not yet learned how to study, how to discipline myself to do the work or how to see beyond the moment and envision myself as being a successful student.
I was struggling and I knew it. I had experienced some wonderful feelings in prayer over the summer as I recovered from my encounter with the adversary at the beginning of the year. I had prayed and asked the Lord to show me who I was, who I could be and what I needed to do to get to be that person. However, I still struggled with self-doubt. I had been damaged by my earlier negative encounter.
I felt the need to repent, to be cleansed and to be healed. I was impressed with the confidence and strength I saw in the teachers of my religion classes. I attended the weekly devotional faithfully even though many of my friends and fellow students did not. I was especially impressed in one such devotional as LeGrand Richards spoke sometime in October or November of that year.
The Spirit Works Upon Me
Interestingly, you won’t find his devotional address in the official archives. Elder Richards was a wonderful extemporaneous speaker. I remember where I sat as I listened intently to his words. I believe I had offered a prayer before I attended the devotional asking Heavenly Father to answer my prayer about obtaining spiritual power, something I felt I was lacking. I felt unworthy and a bit unloved.
As I listened to Elder Richards speak, I became aware of something happening within me. I looked around to see if others were responding in any way. Of course, it’s all but impossible to see how someone’s words are affecting others unless they start crying or bow their heads or look upward. Nobody seemed to be affected in any way that I could tell. They all seemed to be listening politely.
On the other hand, I felt my spirit become more and more animated as I listened. Elder Richards was bearing his testimony of his time as a Mission President in the Southern States. He essentially encapsulated A Marvelous Work and a Wonder in about thirty-five minutes. I don’t think I had read the book yet but did shortly thereafter. I was enthralled. I was fascinated. I was captivated. I was moved.
That night in my prayer I thanked the Lord for what I had felt that day. I knew I had been moved upon by the spirit. As I prayed, I felt in my heart that I needed to make a formal attempt to fast and pray with deeper intent and purpose. The next night I went out into the fields near the edge of the campus above my dorm and prayed for what may have been my longest prayer up to that time in my life.
A Mighty Change of Heart
Still not satisfied that I had communed with the Lord like I desired, I decided to fast the next day and make another attempt. My roommate announced he was going to a dance that evening and didn’t expect to be back for many hours. It was the perfect opportunity. Still fasting, I began my prayer about 7pm that night. For the next three hours I struggled to open the heavens, to reach unto the Lord.
I have recorded and shared the event elsewhere but will summarize it by saying that at the end of my three hours on my knees I arose a changed man. My prayer had been answered. I knew who I was. I knew who the Lord was. I knew that He loved me. I knew what He wanted from me. I had seen much of my future life in my mind’s eye. I knew what course I needed to take to be successful in my life.
I had experienced a mighty change of heart. I believe I had been born again on that occasion. I knew the Lord lived. He had spoken to me. I heard his voice. It was not audible. I felt it in my heart and in my mind. He quoted scripture. He directed me to search the scriptures. He invited me to become more knowledgeable of the things of eternity. I felt his overflowing love burning from head to toe. It was real.
But of course, it was a totally subjective religious experience, wasn’t it? I could no more share it with you than you could share with me what it feels like to give birth. Nevertheless, it was real to me. It has influenced my life more than any other prayer event. I still reflect upon it over and over even though it happened almost 46 years ago. The moment is etched in my mind and burned in my heart.