CHURCH ON A PEDESTAL—NOT A SAFE PLACE
Thomas S. Perkins1
In the Utah community in which I was raised during the 1960s and l970s, I felt as if .I was in church all the time. Going to school, church, or any other social function was all pretty much the same thing. The same group of people was in charge. The same people were there. The same subjects were discussed. My high school principal was the second counselor in our stake. Several bishops, including the bishop of my ward, taught in our high school. The director of the LDS seminary was the stake president.
Our school dress code was the same as BYU’s. Girls were forbidden to wear pants to school, and their dresses had to reach the top of the knee. The boys’ hair could not touch the collar or the ears. If you did not meet these standards, you could be sent home or even expelled. At a high school reunion, I met a classmate whose picture was excluded from the yearbook because his hair was too long.
At church, boys were not allowed to pass the sacrament unless their hair complied with BYU standards. We heard many stern lectures about the evils of the hippie look. My Aaronic priesthood leaders, members of the bishopric, and my seminary teachers all told me that if Jesus were with us, he would have short hair and be clean shaven. General Authorities had told them this. They said these dress standards were "from the Lord." Although I had questions about whether this could possibly be true, I was very obedient and anxious to comply. I was never a trouble-maker. I earned six personal achievement awards, which were given to youth who attended Church consistently and obeyed the Mormon commandments. Earning the first four also enabled me to earn my Scouting Duty to God award. The LDS Church was the most important part of my life.
I also had a genuine eagerness to learn about the Church, but my questions, though deferential, obviously made people nervous. Both the Manifesto of 1890 and the Second Manifesto of 1904 were included in an appendix in our seminary history texts. I raised my hand and asked my seminary teacher about the Second Manifesto. He said it was "just a formality. Don’t worry about it." To be sure, I raised my hand again and asked him specifically if any polygamous marriages had taken place in the period between the first and second Manifestos. He said, "No." A different seminary teacher told, as an inspirational story, how Joseph Smith "tested" Heber C. Kimball by asking him for his wife, Vilate Kimball. Even at the time, I thought it was interesting that no one ever mentioned how Vilate felt about this. Maybe my teacher believed this. At the time, I believed his statement that Joseph Smith never married an already-married woman. I was stunned and angry when I found out about Joseph’s polyandrous marriages. In my institute class in college, the teacher said that the Nauvoo Expositor was full of lies and slander and that he could understand why Joseph and the other Church leaders became exasperated and ordered its destruction, even though they should not have done so. I raised my hand and asked if he could tell us some of those lies reported by the Expositor. He looked at the floor for a moment, then said he couldn’t remember the details. I asked if he could get a copy so we could examine it. He said he would, then quickly changed the subject. A week or two later, I asked if he’d found a copy. With obvious irritation, he said, "No," and then ignored me for the rest of the class. I didn’t ask him again.
Everyone considered our home to be a typical LDS home. My parents were both active Church members and maintained strict LDS standards with us children. But my father would sometimes lose his temper and become emotionally or physically abusive. I was always afraid of him. I never knew when he was going to explode in rage and slap me, beat me with his fist or a belt, or hit me with whatever he was holding in his hand. It was not something he did all the time, but he did it enough to keep me constantly afraid. My younger brother and older sister were also targets of the same abuse until we left home. When I was a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood, I once begged my mother to protect me. She said she couldn’t. She had promised to obey my father in the temple; and if she intervened, she would be breaking her temple covenant. My father thought he had a license to mistreat us physically or emotionally because he was "the patriarch of the family" and "the boss." Lessons at Primary, Sunday School, and priesthood meetings about honoring and obeying your parents left me feeling guilty and confused. I knew that what was happening was wrong, but all of my teachers seemed to think that parents were always right, children always wrong. I later found out that many of these things which I believed were isolated incidents in my life were actually widespread throughout the Church.
Since I was sympathetic towards the Democratic Party, my friends and some of my Church leaders scoffed at me. It wasn’t just teasing. They made me feel like an outcast. They would tell me, "You can’t be a Democrat and be a good Mormon." The pressure to conform and fit in, in all areas, was constant. I had the feeling that they wanted someone who looked like me but acted like them.
The mission field is where many young Mormon men really find their faith. It was where I lost mine. When I grew up, the Church always portrayed missionary life in an idealistic way. We were always told stories about early Church missionaries in a way that encouraged us to picture ourselves in the same glorious circumstances. Missionary farewells and homecomings promoted the myth that a mission was a splendid quest. I saw numerous missionaries, including myself, enter the field with an idealistic Don Quixote-like image of missionary life. From my perspective now, I believe that it would be more honest for the Church to let prospective missionaries know what it is really like to be an LDS missionary before sending them out.
In my high school seminary classes and in college Institute of Religion classes, Church history was taught as part of the curriculum. Because I admired and respected my Church teachers, I had no reason to believe they were misleading me. I used this information many times during my mission. I remember people asking about polygamy often. I would defend the Church using information I had been taught—particularly that the practice had ceased completely in response to a revelation in 1890 and that a very small number (less than 5 percent) of Mormons ever practiced it. When I later found out about post-Manifesto polygamy and that polygamy was much more widespread than they had told me, I felt betrayed. My sadness and disillusionment were great.
I have learned that a pedestal is not a safe place for anything. I always put the Church on a pedestal. I trusted and believed in the Church completely. The leaders in the Church told me their decisions "were inspired by God." I remember hearing how their decisions were not their own, but "the will of the Lord." I was taught that when these men "spoke by the power of the Holy Ghost, it was the same as if God himself had said it." Because of these teachings, I believed, trusted, and followed my Church leaders. When I learned that they had lied to me, my feelings were hurt and they still are. I knew that they had taken advantage of their special position in my life. When I was interviewed for my mission, the bishop and stake president represented the Church. They asked me deeply personal questions. There was no question in my mind that the Church expected me to be honest. At the same time, the Church was not being honest with me about its own history or theology.
I had been misled about the Nauvoo Expositor, about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages to women who were already married, that the real reason Orson Pratt was excommunicated was his protest when he discovered that Joseph Smith had propositioned his wife while he (Orson) was serving a mission, problems with the Book of Abraham, and the Adam-God doctrine taught by Brigham Young, to name just a few. These were subjects I had asked my Church leaders about, and they had given me false information. I believe that in most cases they were following their own leaders’ instructions when they misled me. In other cases, I believe that they knew they were telling me something that was not true—or not completely true—and simply wanted me to believe it because the realities would be even more troublesome.
During my mission, we were told that the mission rules were not from the mission president, but from God. My first mission president told me this and so did my second. (The mission presidents changed three months into my mission, after my first zone conference.) Yet the second mission president, President Sharp, had rules that were different from those of the first mission president. In addition, my brother, who was serving a mission in the same part of the United States as I was, had a third set of rules which were different from mine. He told me in one of his letters, "These rules came from God." I couldn’t understand how God could give out so many different and conflicting rules. We used to teach our investigators that God is not an author of confusion and that he would not be able to endorse all the different religions because they had so many conflicting teachings. I believe that Church leaders should be more honest and admit that they are doing their best and trying do the right thing. Hiding behind God is dishonest.
If President Sharp found out that a missionary was not following the rules, he would be punished. The punishment ranged from excommunication, a transfer, demotion to junior companion, a strong letter from President Sharp, an angry phone call from President Sharp, or warnings that the Lord was withholding his blessings from you because of your sins.
Although I was very anxious to comply with all of the rules and tried very hard to do so, I became the target of this punishment. One night at about 10:30 P.M., after my companion and I had already gone to bed, the phone rang. I was already asleep, so I was a little fuzzy-headed when my companion gave me the phone. It was President Sharp. I had about two months left to finish my mission and I had never received a phone call from President Sharp. He was extremely upset at me because he said that I had said bad things about him and he was thinking of sending me home early. His tone of voice was angry. I was confused and frightened. My heart started pounding and my mouth became very dry. I could not remember saying anything that would get me into trouble. He did not tell me what I had said, when I said it, or whom I said it to. I apologized over and over, even though I had no idea what I could possibly have done wrong. I was relieved when he seemed mollified. I was still afraid, so just to be on the safe side, I told him he was a great mission president and continued to make flattering statements, hoping this would protect me from his anger. By the time the phone call ended, he had calmed down. But I was a nervous wreck.
It did not occur to me until later that President Sharp may have made his angry night call because someone might have deliberately sent in a false report, either as a joke or out of malice. Yet it was not impossible. President Sharp encouraged us to "help" other missionaries "live the rules" by reporting infractions. Our district and zone leaders often threatened to send in a bad report to the mission home if we didn’t do what they wanted us to. This tactic is demeaning and created mistrust.
Naturally, I worried over this incident for days. I decided that someone in the district must have been offended by something I said and reported me to President Sharp.
I had had an earlier experience with "being reported." During a discussion with some investigators, they had brought up the topic of Ouija boards. I had heard of them but had never seen or had any experience with them. I listened to their comments without response and redirected the conversation back to our missionary discussion which was the reason we were there. After that, I assumed the whole incident was over. However, when we got home, my companion started talking about Ouija boards in a very paranoid way. For some reason, he decided that I used them. Then, he wrote a long letter to President Sharp accusing me of this. President Sharp sent the zone leaders, who talked to both of us for at least an hour. Fortunately, they decided that I was telling the truth. However, the experience made me acutely aware of the fact that, as a missionary, I was living in a glass cage. I was reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, a fantasy of a totally managed world of the future, where "big brother is watching you." I certainly felt constantly watched during my mission.
I also felt that this mission president was not very responsive to missionaries’ needs. This same companion who was convinced that I was using Ouija boards was also physically abusive to me. He would shove me around a lot and threaten to beat me up if he did not get his own way. He loved to tell stories of violent episodes and fights that he was involved in before his mission. Sometimes, to my horror, he told these stories to investigators. Later in his mission, he was involved in several fights with other companions. I was lucky; it could have been worse. I passed word on to President Sharp that I would like a new companion and told him the reason why, but he left me with this elder for six long months. (This missionary never had a companion longer than three months except for me). During this time, I was the district leader in a very small community, fifty miles from the nearest missionaries. We had no transportation except for our bicycles and occasional rides from members.
This elder is now married. He telephones me occasionally and visits once or twice a year. His wife has left him twice—the second time for several months while she contemplated divorce. He called to tell me, complaining with bewilderment that she had accused him—him—of physical and emotional abuse. He couldn’t understand what she was talking about. It was interesting, I thought, that when we were companions, he never thought he was doing anything wrong in our relationship either. If I were thinking of marrying a returned missionary, I would look up all of his or her past companions to see what kind of a person he or she was. They would know. I have also talked to other missionaries who were also physically abused. It happens a lot.
We were forbidden to leave our area without permission. The district leader could travel outside his area as long as he did not leave the district. The zone leaders could travel inside their zone. The assistants to the president could travel throughout the mission under President Sharp’s direction. If you broke these rules, you could be punished. If you left the mission, you could be excommunicated.
Because of these rules, we were isolated from other missionaries except at district or zone conferences. Phone calls were forbidden except for official business and except for brief calls to other elders on preparation day. Ordinary missionaries were not permitted to call the sister missionaries under any circumstances.
We were also forbidden to read anything but the scriptures, books by General Authorities, and official Church publications. We could not watch television, listen to the radio, or listen to music other than the Tabernacle Choir. Our leaders told us that they wanted us thinking about our missionary work all the time, with no distractions. But the intellectual and emotional isolation meant that those aspects of our lives were also controlled by our leaders.
Our mission president, during a zone conference talk, told us about some elders from our mission who decided that they had enough, so they packed their bags and started home on the bus. President Sharp found out and contacted the mission president in another mission, who sent his assistants down to the bus station to intercept the wayward elders. The departing elders were told that they would be excommunicated if they did not go back. To avoid the shame of excommunication, they came back to the mission field. This is an example of how guilt and manipulation were used to control us.
Sometimes the mission leaders would visit our area to see how my companion and I were doing. They would go on exchanges with us—I would go with one zone leader or assistant while my companion went with the other. Usually, we would go tracting. Naturally we welcomed the change from our daily routine, but I always felt very anxious about these visits. Instead of concentrating on tracting, door approaches, or trying to get into people’s homes to present a gospel message, I always felt that they were grilling me, trying to find out if we were breaking any rules, and asking leading questions about my companion. Of course, they reported anything they found out to President Sharp.
After my mission, I took a college class which described the Stanley Milgram research project dealing with obedience to authority. I was disturbed when I realized that most Mormon missionaries would score an abnormally high compliance rate. Most of the missionaries I knew would have obeyed the controller’s order to administer dangerous electric shocks, especially if the orders came from someone they considered to be an authority figure. During my entire mission, we were repeatedly told to obey Church authorities. Obedience was hammered into our heads constantly. There was never any possibility of discussing whether a rule made sense or if an order was appropriate, because all rules came from God. They were inspired instructions. How could we resist God or reject revelation?
I remember one Thanksgiving when the ward mission leader invited me and my companion to his home for dinner. While he was carving the turkey, he cut his hand badly and needed to go to the hospital. He asked me to drive him, but I refused because my companion "correctly" pointed out that it was against the mission rules to drive a member’s car and threatened to report me to the mission home if I broke the rules by helping out. His wife did not want to leave the children alone at home or leave us alone in their house. I have always felt guilty that I did not help these people. Instead, I obeyed mission rules.
President Sharp instituted a "goals" program for us. It consisted of three kingdoms: the celestial, the terrestrial, and the telestial. Inside each kingdom were three separate levels of goals making a total of nine, each consisting of a number of tracting hours, number of hours teaching discussions, and number of baptisms. Because all of these numbers were selected by President Sharp, they were never real "goals"—but rather quotas.
After a few weeks, President Sharp decided that he hadn’t set the quotas high enough, so he sent us new sheets enumerating higher requirements. The first goals had been difficult to reach; I found these new figures virtually impossible. He insisted that this program was inspired. It was what God wanted for my mission. I wanted to be obedient, but what he was doing didn’t seem right, so I felt very depressed and confused. He told us "to prayerfully ask the Lord to help us choose the right goals." Even though we had just gone through this process, he wanted us to do it again, so we did.
When President Sharp issued the first quotas, I had felt concerned because the numbers listed for the lowest level in the telestial kingdom were the mission average. It bothered me that he would group the missionaries in our mission, including me, with the liars and adulterers that the Doctrine and Covenants (76:103) said would inherit this kingdom.
I didn’t see how anyone could reach the goals he set for the celestial levels. No one in the mission was even close to the highest level. Yet almost all the missionaries announced that their goal was the highest level of the celestial kingdom. I believed that setting impossible-to-reach goals would hurt mission morale and make the elders feel guilty. I was not opposed to working hard or to motivational programs designed to encourage hard work. I also believed, then and now, that setting a high goal and working toward it often means that we can surprise ourselves by what we can achieve. However even as a young and inexperienced missionary, I felt that imposing a program on us that most of us could not reach would make us feel like failures. I did not think this was fair to the missionaries. To make matters worse, this program was always a top priority topic during our zone or mission conferences. We were repeatedly told: "Strive to become celestial missionaries. If you are righteous and follow all the mission rules, you will be successful." Most of the missionaries followed the rules and worked hard, yet I never talked to one person in my mission who met his "goals."
I was very troubled about what kind of "goals" I should set for myself. After lots of prayer and thought, I decided to set goals in the telestial level, even though the zone leaders and the mission home criticized me for this. I knew that it was an honest goal and not a fantasy, so I stayed with my goals in spite of the criticism I received. We were required to put our "goals" on a wall above our beds so we would be constantly reminded of what we were supposed to accomplish. Of course, it wasn’t long before everyone was falling short of his "goals," and so I think there was a lot of guilt and lowered self-esteem from this program. President Sharp was always reminding us we would reach our "goals" if we followed the rules and were righteous. Since no one was reaching his goals, the logical conclusion was that we were unrighteous and undeserving.
After the quota program had been in place for several months, I noticed some new disturbing trends in our mission. For example, the pressure to meet the goals was so great that some missionaries were missing meals so they could work harder. We had elders in our district who were eating only one meal a day. Our zone leaders proudly told me they were eating only two meals a day; this "sacrifice" was their way of showing God that they were sincere and really wanted baptisms. They believed that the more that they suffered, the more God would bless them. It got to the point that some elders were going out in the cold without coats and turning their heat down in their apartment as "sacrifices" so that God would give them extra blessings. At first, I thought President Sharp would put a stop to such foolishness. Instead, he praised these elders and described their behavior as "valiant" during zone conference. Other missionaries began reporting false hours and false discussions, because the pressure was so great.
The next step came when the zone leaders and my companion asked me to eat only two meals a day to show my willingness to sacrifice. I felt very anxious, but I knew that taking health risks was counter-productive. I pulled out my missionary handbook and told them I would follow the rules about eating and sleeping that it contained. When they threatened to turn me in to President Sharp, I told them that was okay because I would tell him the same thing. They backed off. I was lucky the missionary handbook was on my side.
Although I had some good experiences with companions, with investigators, and with members, my personal faith in the Church and Church leaders was shattered. A mission is supposed to be a time of strengthened faith, a time to build an unshakable testimony. Instead, my mission was the time when I became completely disillusioned about the Mormon Church.
I hoped I would feel differently after I returned home, but I felt disoriented and more disturbed because people assumed that, as a returned missionary, I had just completed the "best two years" of my life. It was so clear that they didn’t want to hear anything different that I felt paralyzed. When I attended meetings, I found myself watching the clock, anxious to go home. Most of the time, I did not agree with the speaker. After about a month, I decided there was no reason to attend Church under these conditions. All the unanswered questions and emotions of having been emotionally abused, that I had kept bottled up during my mission, began to come out. I no longer wanted to attend church. It was too painful.
My parents and family were very upset and told me often how disappointed they were and that I was committing a serious sin by my inactivity. To this day, they look down on me for it. For the next few years, my brother would call from time to time, inviting me to church. When my daughter was born, my mother offered to buy her a christening dress but only if we had her "blessed at church." My wife and I are sometimes left out of family get-togethers because attendance at Church meetings is part of the activity. My father, to this day, tells me how wrong I am not to be active almost every time I see him. When my children turned eight without being baptized, he told me they needed to be baptized so that "they would not be animals." This statement hurt me a great deal. It seems strange to me that they become strongly offended if I try to explain why I no longer believe in Mormonism or why I do not attend church, yet they see nothing wrong with telling me how wrong I am every time they feel like it. Even though my father is more outspoken than the others, I know from experience that they all feel this way. What bothers me the most is that they clearly feel morally superior to me, look down on me because of my beliefs, and no longer trust me as they once did. I am guilty of trying to do the right thing and follow my conscience. For this, my family sees me as a fallen sinner, a prodigal son. In many ways, some subtle and some overt, they punish me because I will not admit my "mistake" and come back to the Church.
Fortunately, I married a wonderful woman six months after my mission. My wife is very understanding and supportive; our marriage and the love we have for our children are the most important things in my life. Even though we do not attend ward meetings, I am still a fifth-generation Mormon and I still consider myself a Mormon. All of my family are Mormons, and most of my friends are also Mormons. I live a conservative LDS life-style, and our family is close. We could fit into the ward without any trouble, but some of the children in our neighborhood will not play with our children because we are not active. I miss the social support system and the sense of community that the Church gave me. Still, I enjoy associating informally and socially with ward members, and I feel comfortable with regular Church members. It’s the inflexible leaders I don’t care for. Being a Mormon, to me, is a cultural identity not a belief.
However, I do not believe that the Church has any divine authority. After my mission, the more I found out about Church history and Church policy toward those who published accurate information that the Church did not like, the less I respected Church leaders. I can never return to the Church or gain a faith to replace the innocent trust I had when I left on my mission. I have my own moral beliefs based on my philosophy and conscience which I try very hard to follow. I cannot predict the future, but I hope that my children can live their lives without the burden of guilt and manipulation that I suffered from the Mormon Church.
1"Thomas S. Perkins" is a pseudonym, as is "President Sharp."