Reflections of a Seventh-Generation Mormon: Miles Orton

By Miles Orton


Miles Orton

I was born on August 14, 1985, in Provo, Utah. My parents had just received their Masters degrees from Brigham Young University–my mother in library science and my father in organizational behavior. As can be guessed, my parents were then and still are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as are all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents. My grandmother once sat me down when I was little and traced my religious lineage directly back to an ancestor who had converted just three years after the church was started, effectively making me a seventh-generation Mormon.

As the history of the LDS church goes, in 1820 a 14-year-old boy by the name of Joseph Smith went into the woods to pray and ask God which church was the right one. He was visited by Jesus and God, who told him that none of the churches currently in existence was right and that he was destined to found one that was. Several years later, he was divinely guided to the hill Cumorah in upstate New York, where he purportedly dug up gold plates on which were written the history of the people who had lived on the American continent from 100 BC to 421 AD and were visited by Christ after his resurrection. Joseph Smith translated the plates using two magical stone devices called the Urim and Thummim, then published the translated results under the title The Book of Mormon. Then an angel took back the plates as well as the Urim and Thummim, Joseph Smith undertook the task of converting members to the church, and more than a century later it is 11 million strong and still quickly growing.

I, like millions of Mormon children before me, was “raised in the church.” I went to church for three hours every Sunday, had Family Home Evening once a week, prayed at every meal, played with other kids in our ward, and had Mormon babysitters. My mother made a cassette tape, recording my voice when I was a baby and again when I was a toddler. On the latter recording I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” talked about my dad, and gave a prayer, prompted along by my mother. I was two years old.

I didn’t mind being raised in this manner. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely. My Sunday school teachers were very nice, my Mormon friends were no different from my other friends, and I didn’t really have a basis for comparison.

Then, when I was eight years old, my family moved overseas to Versailles, France. My dad, who had received his PhD and taught at several colleges in the United States, was offered a position at Hautes ducation Commerciale, one of the top French business colleges. I was put into a public school and by the end of my first year was fairly fluent in French. Because of this, I was quickly able to explore French culture and soon became interested in Catholicism, the main religion in France. The differences between Catholicism and Mormonism made me examine Mormonism a little more closely.

When I was ten years old, my Sunday school class memorized the 13 Articles of Faith. These articles contained the tenets of the LDS church in a nutshell. After memorizing them and reciting them to my dad, he said, “Great, Miles. Now, next time that you’re sitting at a bench in the park reading the Book of Mormon and someone comes up and asks what you believe as a Mormon, you can just recite your Articles of Faith!”

I was thrilled that he was pleased, but I took a second look at the Articles that I had not only just memorized but was also expected to believe. I found myself wondering if I really believed those things or if I was just going along with everything because it was expected of me. I found myself confused and a little scared, but decided not to say or do anything immediately.

When a Mormon boy turns 12, he is expected to receive the Aaronic priesthood through a blessing and become a deacon. The blessing is held in front of the entire ward during sacrament meeting, and the boy is afterwards welcomed as an official member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The weekend before this occurs, the boy is interviewed by the bishop of the ward to find out if he is ready to accept the priesthood. Just before my twelfth birthday, I decided to try to break the news to my parents that I didn’t share their beliefs.

I asked my dad if we could go for a walk in the park; it was lightly raining outside, but he agreed and we left. When we got to the park we talked about minor things, and then I broached the subject. “Dad, I don’t really think that I believe in God, or Jesus, or Joseph Smith being a prophet, and those things that they teach me at Sunday school.” He looked kind of shocked, then said, “Well, Miles, have you tried praying to ask if it’s true?” I answered that I had, to which he replied that I must not be praying right. We went home and he brought out his bible and Book of Mormon. First he turned to James 1:5 in the New Testament and read, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Next he opened the Book of Mormon, turned to Moroni 10:4, and read, “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Then my dad asked me to really pray in the manner instructed by the bible and Book of Mormon and said we’d talk about it later.

It was at this point that roots of a concept concerning prayer and faith would begin to sink in, develop, and emerge when I was older. Namely, that if an individual prays in this fashion, intensely desiring some sort of confirmation of truth that comes in the form of a feeling, then of course they’re going to get this feeling confirming their desires! It comes from within; it’s self-created but attributed to God. I had never even heard of placebos at this age, but when I did learn about them later on in my development I almost instantly drew a connection. But at the time, I only felt this nagging suspicion that somewhere in the process of finding God there was some form of dishonesty involved, and I didn’t want to take part in that.

At my interview with the bishop, I drew up all the courage that a tiny 11-year-old could, sitting behind a massive desk across from a very powerful man, and told him, “I don’t want to become a deacon.” I was nowhere near brave enough to tell him my thoughts about the existence of God or whether or not the Articles of Faith, bible, or Book of Mormon were true, but I made it clear that I would not become a deacon. He tried to convince me that it was the right thing to do and that everybody in my position receives the Aaronic priesthood at my age, but I refused. Exasperated, he agreed to hold off on the blessing and talk with my parents. Initially they were furious. But thankfully they respected my wishes and the following week my twin brother was ordained a deacon while I just sat with my parents in the congregation.

One of the main strengths of the Mormon Church is how social the organization is. Everybody is very friendly and talkative, they laugh and smile a lot, invite people over for dinner or to play games, and really do live up to the familiarity of calling each other Brother and Sister. But when the collective peer pressure of this entity is turned against a 12-year-old, it’s vastly intimidating. Missionaries would visit our home just to talk to me, my friends all thought that I was crazy, and the adults would ask me if today was the big day when I was going to get set apart as a deacon. The latter event occurred every Sunday for six months. Then I finally caved. I felt terrible and ashamed, but I was set apart as a deacon. It provided a temporary respite. Unknown to me at the time, things were about to get far worse.

When I was 13, my family moved to Orem, Utah. The church that we attended was a block away from our house and there wasn’t a single non-member in our entire neighborhood. It was at this time that I started becoming aware of a much darker side of the church: concealed racism, sexism, and blatant homophobia. When my dad brought a black friend to church one day, instead of the usual smiles, laughter, and friendly greetings, he was practically ignored. This isn’t a reflection on all Mormons by any means; many Mormons aren’t racist at all, my family included, but it is still fairly strong in Utah, the center of the church. I was shocked by this and tried to find the reason for this animosity by looking into Mormon history. Until 1978, black men or males who were “too dark” were not allowed to hold the priesthood, which is purportedly essential for eternal salvation and such. And as for women in the church, though in name they are treated as equals, in reality they are expected to be subservient to the man of the house, and can’t hold any positions of authority in the church; instead they have a private women’s organization called the Relief Society, but the actual Mormon Church is run exclusively by men.

Homophobia was something I encountered more directly when I moved to Las Vegas just before my freshman year of high school. Mormon youth are expected to take Seminary, a religious class offered before or after school during all four years of high school. At the time that I started Seminary, I was only going through the motions to appease my parents. However, I soon found Seminary to be intriguing; studying the Old and New Testament was rather enjoyable and my teachers were very kind and funny. Then one morning the subject of homosexuality came up and the reaction was terrible. My teacher, usually very sweet and compassionate, became disgusted and looked as if she was about to be sick. She pointed to some verses in the bible, denounced homosexual individuals’ “choices” and talked about their sins. I was horrified, but it became even worse when most of the students joined in. One boy from a private school said that he had walked in on two boys kissing in the bathroom; I later found out that he and his family had gotten them expelled from the school. Another girl raised the issue of legalizing gay marriage and talked about how sick it was that “those perverts” wanted to make their “dirty lifestyles” legitimate. Sick to my stomach at their words, I waited until class was over, walked outside, and never attended Seminary again.

It was at about this time that I told my parents that I wanted to officially leave the church, citing racism, sexism, and extreme homophobia as reasons why I couldn’t just go along with it anymore. I emphasized that I did not believe in the existence of any form of deity, so going along in the church would be dishonest to myself and contrary to my ideals. They said that I was just being a rebellious teenager and going through a “phase.”

But I persisted in trying to communicate my views to them, and after much bitter strife and many long arguments they finally accepted my wishes, though with the hope that I might later on find faith.

I explored many different religions and belief systems, but have not found an organized religion that I deem credible or pursuable. However, out of this constant struggle during my early development, I found an intense desire to understand the way people think, behave, feel, and perceive; consequently, I’ve devoted myself to studying these things and am currently pursuing a double major in philosophy and psychology. Through my studies, I hope to find a way to somehow reconcile the differences of opinion between myself and my family, as well as to gain more insight into myself, my family, and the world around me.

Miles Douglas Orton writes: “I was raised in the Mormon Church but did not accept their beliefs. I have completed my freshman year at Claremont McKenna College pursuing a double major in philosophy and psychology. I practice martial arts (shaolin kempo), play chess, read voraciously, and always enjoy drinking peppermit tea and discussing philosophy with friends.”

Miles was awarded $250 in a cash scholarship for his essay.

Freedom From Religion Foundation