I'll never forget the moment of first hearing the voice of my own reason after 17 years of complete immersion in Mormonism. My divorce was almost final and I had become increasingly angry at the treatment I had received at the hands of local "priesthood" leaders, since having the temerity to leave my abusive husband against their counsel. Mormon women are assigned to go to each other's homes every month to give a "spiritual" lesson and to make sure that their "sisters" are staying strong in the faith. I had been asked to give the lesson that month, as my partner had not had the time to prepare. (In reality, I was probably asked to teach the lesson as a way of forcing me to read it myself, in hopes of reining in my recent rebelliousness.)
The lesson was a typical Mormon church history story. The author had crossed the plains with her family in the 1840s. She had come from a prosperous family that was able to make preparations to leave early in the season so as to arrive in Salt Lake City before winter. Her father was told by a church leader to wait and leave later with some of the poorer members. As a result of the delay, her family suffered great distress, with the mother and several children dying during the trip.
The woman who wrote the story had been forced to cross an icy creek whose waters froze her feet, necessitating the amputation of both legs. At the end of the story the woman "bore her testimony" and mentioned how thankful she was that her family had been called upon to make such a sacrifice for "the Lord and His Church." She talked about how glad she was that they had waited and of the many blessings that would be due to them when they were all reunited in the "celestial kingdom" where they would be together forever as a reward for their faithfulness in following the Prophet.
While reading this story I had a sudden moment of clarity. I shook my head and internally screamed, "NO! No more sacrificing my children to follow the words of some man who promises an eternal reward! No more!" A story that would have moved me to tears a few years earlier now filled me with complete horror as I thought of a woman feeling gratitude that members of her family died in the name of religion.
I joined the Mormon church at 18, after being exposed to its teachings by friends a year earlier. My mother, who has had the sense to stay away from organized religion for most of her adult life, would not give her permission for me to be baptized, hoping that this was a passing phase that I'd soon outgrow. Unfortunately, I didn't outgrow it until I began to think for myself so many years and heartbreaks later.
Why did I join? The church doctrines satisfied a deep need that I had to feel bad about myself. I grew up with the deep conviction that I was truly a person who needed redemption. I had read a lot of the bible, and if there was an all-powerful god out there, then I wanted to do whatever I needed to make sure that I didn't get whacked over the head the next time the hammer might fall. The more requirements the religion had, the more likely I could please the all-powerful god with the hammer.
Another powerful attraction that the church had for me was the answers. I didn't have to make any decisions for myself, and more importantly, I didn't have to be responsible for any of the outcomes. It was all in "God's" hands. I didn't need to decide when or whom to date, or even an appropriate time to return from a date. When the time came, I didn't even need to choose a husband--only remain righteous enough for the right man to find me. As one of a group of college coeds at Brigham Young University, I was counseled not to worry, for when the appropriate time came, God would give me to a righteous man. Once given, I needn't worry, for as long as I followed my husband, he would take care of everything. I shudder that I was not offended by those words--only happily complacent that that my future was taken care of. All I had to do was be obedient.
And obedient I was--quitting school as soon as I married so as to concentrate on being a wife and mother. I gave birth to four children over the next eight years and supported my husband as he lost job after job. I learned how to bake bread and grind wheat and make do on too little money, all the while praying and reading and trying to understand why God was punishing me by not making my life easier with all this obedience!
As the years rolled on I continued to apply the formula I had been given by the missionaries: prayer, scripture study and following the words of the Mormon prophets. I became more and more depressed with the pressure of each addition to the family and each added responsibility. My returned missionary husband was not financially responsible, leaving much of the burden of how to pay the bills on my shoulders. He lied to me frequently, often hiding bills and at one point even having a second post office box for bills to keep me unaware of our financial status. I was not allowed access to the checkbook and often went without needed food and clothing while my husband spent money whenever and wherever he wanted. When I would turn to my church leaders for help, I was told to pray harder, study more and "love him more." I was constantly reminded of the New Testament scripture that God would not give us any burden we were unable to bear. Divorce was not an option for me--after all, we had been married in the Mormon temple for "time and all eternity."
After 17 years I gradually became aware that my life was not improving. I decided to get off my knees and start taking care of myself. I went back to school to finish my nursing degree. I told my husband that he had until I finished school to decide if he wanted to become more responsible and continue the marriage. When things didn't improve I found an attorney and obtained a divorce. When he quit his job as an accountant and started working as a Pizza Hut delivery boy to avoid paying child support, I went back to school again. I posted this quote on my bedroom mirror: First do the necessary, next do the possible; soon you will find yourself doing the impossible. The more responsibility I took for myself, the more my life and the lives of my children improved.
I found my new life incompatible with the teachings of the Mormon church. Was I the only one? While searching the internet I found www.exmormon.org, a website that contains the stories of more than 100 former Mormons. I read with fascination the stories of people who sounded just like me. There is an email newsgroup associated with the site and there I found the support that I needed to disentangle my life from the church.
How different the ceremony was when I married David Kent almost two years ago. We were married in a candlelight ceremony by a justice of the peace with only our children and closest friends present. There were no words of obedience spoken. When we chose to spend the rest of our lives together it was with the precious knowledge that this life is all we have--no promise or pretenses of eternity.
A woman I work with asked me my story one night. When I told her of the years of unhappiness in my former marriage, she said to me, "Wow, you have had such a hard life--it just isn't fair!" I was quick to correct her. I told her that there wasn't anything unfair about it--I had made the choices that led to the life that I had then. Now I make different choices.
About the author: Valerie Kent is a registered nurse and graduate student in Gonzaga University's family nurse practitioner program. She is also the mother of four wonderful freethinking children.