Last week my husband and I submitted our resignations from the Mormon church. It was the final step in a journey of several years. In 2014 we stopped going to church after Kate Kelly, founder of the Ordain Women movement, was formally excommunicated by the Mormon church leadership. For years I had felt increasingly constricted by my lived experience as a woman in an overtly and overwhelmingly patriarchal church. And that church could not have sent a clearer message to women like me that we were not wanted than by excommunicating Kate Kelly, leader of the movement that sought equality for women within the church. Listening yesterday to this recent podcast interview with Kate Kelly brought it all rushing back to me. For the sake of my self-respect, my mental health, and most of all my 9-year-old daughter and her budding understanding of who she was and what it meant to be a woman, I couldn’t stay.
Still, it was hard to leave. After all, being Mormon was all I’d ever known. I grew up on pioneer stories and primary songs. My parents were (and are) paragons of devotion to their faith. I went to Brigham Young University, and spent a year and a half on a full-time Mormon mission in Chile. Six months after returning home, I was married in a Mormon temple, and a year later I achieved what in the Mormon church is the highest and holiest calling for a woman: motherhood. I loved my faith and my church. I participated in all the expected ways, including spending hours in meetings of various sorts on weekends and evenings, visiting other members, making meals for the sick, and performing every kind of volunteer service from accompanying the congregation on the organ each week to cleaning the church bathrooms.
I was devoted to God and to my church, appreciated the assurance that I would live with my loved ones after I died, and loved my Mormon family and community. So when cracks began to appear in Paradise, and I started to have uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about what I had been taught about the church’s history, doctrine, and practices, I pushed them away. I redoubled my efforts to pray, to be good, to do everything I believed God expected of me. I agonised and prayed over my doubts. I discussed them with my church leaders. I tried to make the increasingly warped pieces fit together through sheer force of will. As I questioned more and more, attending church became increasingly difficult. I felt torn between the faith I loved and my dawning realisation that the uncomplicated things I had always learned did not stand up to any kind of real scrutiny.
When I was a teenager, we were taught a set of specific values meant to guide our lives. I took them seriously, as I took everything I learned at church seriously. One of those values, the one that most caught my adolescent mind, was integrity. I can still repeat by heart the explanation of integrity that I learned twenty-five years ago: “I will have the moral courage to make my actions consistent with my knowledge of right and wrong.” Many years later, and now with children of my own, the more I thought about what was right and wrong, the more I realised that neither the doctrines nor the history nor the practices of the church I had loved since childhood were consistent with my internal moral compass. I tried to stay, I tried to rationalise, I tried to live my faith in a way that accorded with my conscience. I even tried to help change some of the things that felt wrong, participating in the Ordain Women actions and writing thoughtful pieces on a well-known faithful Mormon blog. None of it was enough. Trying to stay Mormon was consuming my life and making me miserable.
I left, finally, when the pain of leaving was less than the pain of staying. I braved the bitter disappointment of my family, the loss of a social community that had sustained me all my life, and the sure knowledge of a beautiful life after death. It was one of the hardest, most terrifying things I have ever done. I hoped, desperately, that I could be at least almost as happy outside the Mormon church as I had been inside. I had always been taught that it was impossible to achieve true joy or happiness without being Mormon. Imagine my surprise when I immediately became happier. It was like a great, dark weight had been suddenly lifted from my life. I no longer had to drag behind me and continually rationalise the hurtful teachings and actions of an institutional church with which I had been morally unaligned for what I now realised was a long time.
I was fortunate that my husband had followed a similar journey to mine, and we were able to leave together. In the four years since we left, we have been happier than ever. Life is good. Wonderful, in fact. I worried about my children initially. Even though a big part of why I left the Mormon church was because it wasn’t an environment I wanted for them, I had always been taught that raising children with good moral values was what the mormon church did well. But I’ve discovered that in many ways it is easier to raise them outside the church. I don’t need to rationalise anything to them, or tell them to put it on a shelf and not worry about it, the way I was taught when I was a child and asked about Mormon polygamy or women’s roles. Instead, I can teach them the values I truly believe and strive to live, without rationalisation or hypocrisy. I don’t need to assert that all the important questions of life are already answered. I don’t need to pretend, as my parents did, that I have never questioned or struggled. Most of all, I don’t need to dictate them down the one narrow life path I was taught. It was a relief to let go of a large part of the parental anxiety I realised I’d always felt. And I couldn’t be prouder of the thoughtful, kind, intelligent people my children are.
For a long time after I “stepped back” from the Mormon church, I didn’t feel the need to formally resign. I have many dear friends and family members who remain active Mormons. My Mormon childhood, youth and young adulthood will always be a part of who I am. I cherish many wonderful memories of my time as a member. As I write this, I am listening to one of my favourite recordings from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And to be quite honest, I couldn’t really be bothered to initiate the paperwork to formally withdraw myself from church records. I am happy with my life, and don’t even think about the Mormon church very often anymore. However, once again I feel that I must have the moral courage to make my actions consistent with my knowledge of right and wrong. I’ve tried to convince myself for a long time that while the Mormon church isn’t for me, it is a good thing for the many people I love who treasure it as a major force in their lives. Which may still be true. But I can no longer ignore the many harms perpetuated by the history, doctrine, structure, culture, and actions of the institutional Mormon church. And I can no longer allow my name to be associated in any way with an organisation so antithetical to my moral beliefs.
The nail in the coffin for me was the recent revelation of sex abuse by a Mormon man in a position of authority and the cynical efforts of church leadership over decades, continuing into the present, to cover up the story and discredit and silence the victim. I have literally dozens of other reasons that would be sufficient for me to resign from the Mormon church. This just happens to be the one that finally pushed me over the edge. I do also admit to a fear that trying to resign would end in missionaries or church leaders being sent to my door to try to bring me back to the fold (since I have several friends who have experienced this). Fortunately, a lawyer in Utah has recently set up a free service to help people who wish to resign from the Mormon church to do so without fearing harassment or hassle from the church.
It was surprisingly easy, and we are now only waiting for confirmation that our names have been removed from the records of the Mormon church. As soon as we clicked the final button to make it official, I felt a familiar, quiet peace in my soul; it’s a feeling I was taught as a Mormon to recognise as confirmation that a decision was right and true. Like I said, there are pieces of my Mormon past that will always belong to me. But if I could go back and tell my young Mormon self one thing, it would be that her life would turn out better than she could ever imagine.
4 thoughts on “A Long-Awaited Goodbye”
This needs to go viral. It is so well-written. I have a feeling many people in other circumstances would strongly relate to this and take comfort in your words.
Sarah, I don’t know you. I think this is the first post of yours I’m reading and I am so impressed with your honesty and intelligence. I’m not a Mormon, but I have struggled and worked through my own religious journey. Having lived as an expat in many countries and been exposed to people with a number of different religions has given me a broader view of religion, of what I understand and believe and why (not). The way we grow up will forever be part of us, but we must question and evaluate everything and not blindly follow “authority” because that is what we are “supposed to” do. Thank you for writing this piece. It would help a lot of other people think about their own situations.
I absolutely love this Sara. It hit so incredibly close to home. You wrote how I feel about the church and why I left so beautifully. I’m asked all the time ‘why’ an it’s hard to explain without an argument back. I’ve been told my ‘job’ is to have children. To stay home. To stay in a miserable marriage (in which I left), to also leave my questions to god, to pretend I’m perfect and happy and so on. All in the name of the church. It took years of counseling to not feel my every choice would send me to hell. It took years to feel I could be me and not put on many faces to be someone I was not. So thank you for your words. They comfort my heart.
You are a very very brave human being, Sarah. I can’t imagine the courage it takes to write a piece like this. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for the ‘moral courage’ you embody in making ‘your actions consistent with your knowledge of what’s right’. We need more people doing that in this world.