"SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH YOU"
AT BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY
MY EXTENDED FAMILY
ROY LEBARON is a resident of Canada. Individuals are identified with their own names except for Marvin M. Rich, Arnie Shaw, and Jerry, all of which are pseudonyms.
This account of my experiences in the Church has been a hard one for me to write. I value personal privacy greatly and don’t enjoy making aspects of my private life public. I have suppressed many of the feelings attached to these experiences for years. Furthermore, many people will probably be upset that I have chosen to break my silence. However, I made the decision to write this record of my experiences because I found that silence doesn’t solve the problems I have observed in the Church.
My experiences happened many years ago, but I feel they are still more common than many people want to believe. I have tried to be objective and realize that there are others that view these events differently. I also know that filling and holding Church positions are difficult. The majority of Mormons and leaders I have known are sincere, unselfish people. I do not expect them to be perfect. However, I also know many Church members, especially youth and converts, are vulnerable to indoctrination, intimidation, and abuse by unbalanced, ego-centered leaders. Contrary to some people, I feel there is no excuse for it or for the suppressing of these events. I am telling my story because I do not want other people to suffer in the same way that I have from people who claimed to be my spiritual superiors. We could all learn from Goethe’s words of wisdom: "Power perfected becomes grace.
My earliest religious memory occurred in church in Rosemary, Alberta. I was five and a woman told how happy she was to be a member of the only true church. Even as a child, I could tell she felt elevated above other people because she was a Mormon, and I was puzzled by this attitude. I have since met many other Church members with similar attitudes and, the parallel attitude that inevitably accompanies it, that "something is wrong with you if you don’t embrace this attitude as well." When I first read about the phenomenon of elitism, arrogance, or group conceit, I had an instantaneous understanding of the concept from having observed it so often without knowing its name.
When I was a deacon, one leader informed us that "we had more power than the pope in our little finger." Another told us, "When you meet David O. McKay, if you don’t know immediately that he is a prophet of God, something is wrong with you." That phrase captures perhaps my dominant feeling as a youth growing up in the Church. I enjoyed the friendship and the dedication of most of the leaders, but I was uneasy about the pressure never to question anything, always to be obedient, and above all the assumption that, if there was a problem, something was wrong with me. Just having faith and believing in the principles and leaders of the Church wasn’t enough. You were expected to know these things beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I was president of the deacons, teachers, and priests quorum in turn, always did what I was told, and usually knew the answers to the teachers’ questions in classes. Yet I was very anxious, especially as a teenager, because the rhetoric of perfection weighed on me heavily. Like all of the other youth growing up I heard harsh, black-and-white messages: Only a chosen few will make it to the celestial kingdom. Better dead than unclean. Go on a mission. Marry in the temple. Non-tithe payers will be literally burned at the second coming. Choose a career that never requires Sunday work. Any form of recreation on the Sabbath, especially sports, is sinful. Accept every calling. Convert the whole world to Mormonism. Prepare to live the law of consecration.
Even when I was trying very hard to do everything I was supposed to, I felt like an underachiever, stiffnecked and hardhearted. When I experimented with smoking at age ten, I felt extremely guilty for years; but at least then I had actually done something and could repent of it. It was much harder later when I caught myself admiring expensive cars or surreptitiously looking at girls whom I thought were particularly attractive. I was sure that I was worldly, lustful, and un-Christlike; yet I wasn’t sure what to do to repent. I was particularly confused because many adult members of the ward openly pursued wealth, status symbols, and material success, boasted about their acquisitions during testimony meetings and classes, and seemed to feel none of the disparities that cut me so keenly.
I diligently memorized the seventh Article of Faith, which affirms that "we believe in the gifts of ... tongues, ... interpretations of tongues." Twice someone spoke in tongues in a church meeting I attended; yet rather than seeing it as a spiritual experience, the ward leaders were obviously disturbed and each time had the individuals removed from the meeting. I was confused but didn’t dare ask about it.
One Sunday when I was thirteen, I had been waiting for my father to finish a high council meeting and, after the parking lot was completely empty except for our car, went in search of him. It was the first time I had seen the high council room, and I was amazed at the luxury of its furniture and thick plush carpet, especially by contrast with the rest of the building. My father was not there; but as I started to leave, the stake president, N. Eldon Tanner, appeared. He gruffly demanded to know who I was and what I was doing in this room. He sternly rebuked me and warned me that I had no business in this room and never to enter it again. I felt frightened and ashamed, although I wasn’t sure what was wrong about walking through an open door. This experience led me to believe that Church leaders had special privileges and that there was a division between the "haves" and the "have nots’ in the Church.
When I was about seventeen years of age and attending a fireside on choosing marriage partners, I was troubled to hear that one or both partners could be unworthy and deceive the other about temple marriage. Then both would spent the eternities in despair.
All of these leaders were fine people, but these sentiments and experiences made me feel pressured and anxious about conforming. I wanted to be independent and form my own spiritual conclusions. I was never a rebel; but for much of my life I had guilt feelings about not measuring up as a celestial true believer. Very few of my LDS friends questioned anything about the Church; it was a social way of life rather than an intellectual or religious experience, and we enjoyed the activities and each others’ friendship.
In 1964,I received my call to the North Central States Mission. I was unprepared to be a missionary, but I felt real pressure, mainly from Church leaders, to accept the calling. The Mission Home in Salt Lake City presented a letter-perfect image of a mission that I felt I could not measure up to, and I left for the mission field with some misgivings. My mission president was Marvin M. Rich,1a businessman from a western state. The first night in the Minneapolis mission home, an elder asked him whom he favored in an upcoming heavyweight title fight. President Rich answered, with what I interpreted as an attempt at good humor, "I hope the two niggers kill each other." Nobody objected to this racist remark.
We had been instructed in the Missionary Home to always obey the mission president. That was my expectation as I entered the mission field. But I was disturbed by President Rich’s opening speech to this group of incoming missionaries. It was a lecture on two types of elders, using terms he had created himself. The "sanders" were real leaders, sharp elders, positive thinkers. They had grit, determination, the right stuff. In a zone conference he praised by name a physically small elder who punched his larger companion in the face. "He’s a real man, a real sander," he stated. The companion, whom he also named, was a "no-sander." "No-sanders" were despicable, ineffective missionaries. They were useless to him.
He obviously saw himself as a sander—enthusiastic, a positive thinker, a man who saw things as black or white, a tell-it-like-it-is leader. He openly scoffed at those with intellectual interests and liberally passed out professionally printed cards bearing his slogan: "The world has an abundance of educated nincompoops, who spend so much time getting smart that they have no time to learn." I felt he was sincere in his attempt to be a leader, but I had deep misgivings about him from our first meeting.
My first interview with President Rich was very short. I was candid about my insecurity but said I was sincere and would do my best. "Why does Salt Lake City send me no-sanders like you?" he roared. He told me I was a "wild horse," and he was going to "break" me. I was shocked and frightened. I had hoped for some advice and empathy. Instead I felt his contempt and scorn. And I was confused. He didn’t want me in his mission, yet hadn’t I been called by a prophet and assigned to his mission by revelation?
During much of my mission, I felt that I lacked the burning testimony of the "ideal" missionary. My first six or eight months were a time of deep angst for me. I often wondered if President Rich was insane. If he wasn’t, I thought, I must be living a nightmare. I believe that about twenty elders quit or were sent home during my two years; two of those who quit were my companions. A good percentage of missionaries were as troubled as I, but there was no relief except to quit and we were always told that the only honorable way to leave a mission early was "in a pine box." I felt trapped, unable to escape. I knew that no one at home would welcome me. I thought seriously about leaving for some other destination but couldn’t think how to do it. In South Dakota, I was with several missionaries when we passed the airport and I half-jokingly said that I yearned to catch a plane everytime I saw an airport. To my surprise, one of the elders fervently said, "So do I!" He was almost in tears and glanced at me frequently, trying to find some way to continue the conversation. I was determined to endure, and I was not any less a good missionary than the majority. I made friends with many interesting missionaries, members, and nonmembers and spent many long hours studying Church books and meditating about life’s purpose. I was "punished" by being sent to remote rural areas, but these assignments were a great reward. I enjoyed the Great Lakes area and found peace being close to the forests, lakes, and streams. The people in these areas seemed more fulfilled than those living in the large cities. Best of all, except for zone conferences, we never saw President Rich.
New elders were put in a "training school" to learn the lessons. Two district leaders from Utah taught my group. One day, one of them dropped his pants, bent over, opened his garments, and farted. The other was kneeling with a match and ignited the gas into a flame. All of us were new elders, out less than a week. I was dismayed that no one reacted. No one—including me—said a word. It was so clear that they were powerful, united, and successful—good ol’ boys from Utah above anything else—and that we should be impressed by this vulgar display. Already intimidated, I felt my small stock of spiritual conviction shriveling even further. These were the men our mission president was holding up to us as "ideal" or "model" missionaries who were supposed to teach us how to be a good missionaries.
Another experience with this first elder confirmed my distaste for his hypocrisy and vulgar behavior. During that same week, he asked me to go for a drive with him. It was winter, but there had been a thaw that day in Minneapolis. Large pools of water stood on the street. He said, "Watch this," accelerated, veered to the curb where an elderly woman was walking down the sidewalk, and deliberately showered her with cold, dirty water. He laughed loudly as the car sped away. I was disgusted and shocked, but didn’t say anything to him. I was afraid. I had entered the mission feeling unprepared and inadequate, but the behavior of the mission president and the two training elders horrified me beyond words.
President Rich admired elders with a background in military leadership and, on many occasions, also told everyone how thankful he was to have elders in his mission who were closely related to prominent Church leaders. They had the same righteousness and leadership qualities as their General Authority relatives, he stated, because "it’s in the blood." His interviews with these genetic, blue-blood elders often lasted half an hour or more, while everyone waited. I can’t recall any interview I had with him that lasted longer than two or three minutes. At one zone meeting, he leaned forward and glared at me without saying a word for at least twenty seconds. I hadn’t opened my mouth all day. I felt it was an unmotivated attempt at intimidation—and it worked. I believe that he was provoking me to show anger, so that he could "break" me, as he had promised. I got the clear feeling that he had no use for me and for many of the other missionaries.
The fact that I was a LeBaron seemed an automatic strike against me. One zone leader asked me and two other elders to have a public debate with anti-Mormon ministers. I agreed reluctantly, feeling great anxiety about engaging in this kind of public contention. In preparation, I bought five or six anti-Mormon pamphlets to analyze possible arguments and defenses. My companion, a new elder, stood up in zone conference and stated that I had "destroyed" his testimony. He also wrote to Joseph Fielding Smith claiming that he had been mistreated by an "apostate" LeBaron with a "trunk full" of anti-Mormon material. President Rich, who showed me the letter, was furious, blamed me for creating a problem in his mission, and immediately assigned my companion to someone else. Everyone in the mission knew the story; some missionaries started calling me "the prophet" and laughing. It was an embarrassing experience.
But I believe my biggest problem was my lack of desire to pressure converts into the Church. Many of the top baptizers seemed unconcerned about manipulating people into joining the Church. In one branch, a male convert in his middle thirties openly told me that he had erotic fantasies and dreams about male missionaries and that he and a teenage male convert met at the rented meetinghouse a little early each Sunday so that they could have sex before preparing the sacrament. I was repulsed and reported this conversation to the branch president who was obviously embarrassed and stammered something noncommittal. It was clear to me that he knew all about it. The sexual behavior of both converts was so flagrant that I could not imagine anyone overlooking it unless they were desperate for baptism numbers.
In the Missionary Home, the General Authorities told us to use the six discussions word for word. Nothing could be added or subtracted. President Rich told us he had a special introductory first discussion that the Savior had revealed to him called "The Panorama of Mormonism," his version of Church history and doctrine. He felt it was needed to introduce the public to the discussions. He must have sensed disbelief in the audience because he repeated the claim more forcefully than before, this time assuring us that Jesus Christ had delivered it to him in a "face-to-face revelation." I was dismayed. Surely such a revelation would have come to the President of the Church instead? President Rich had us all use the door approach of conducting surveys on people’s religious beliefs, telling them that the results would be used by the ecumenical Council of Churches. In fact, all the questionnaires went into the garbage. It was just a ploy to get in so we could teach discussions. Often missionaries did not even write down the answers. I discussed the ethics of this procedure with several elders, but none of them was concerned about it.
We missionaries had been instructed, before our missions and again in the Missionary Home, to wear white shirts and "dark" clothing. President Rich ordered us to send home any items that were not black. Ties, hats, socks, shoes, and suits all had to be black. Smart uniformity would impress him and the public.
Another of his policies was no proselyting among blacks. If one answers the door, he told us, be polite, hand over a pamphlet, and never return. The blacks with few exceptions warmly welcomed us into their homes while most of the rest of the public was very cool towards us.
President Rich was the most vengeful person I have ever known. He repeatedly threatened us that he had the power to determine our future progress in the Church. The reports he sent to Salt Lake City were "permanent" and "we would never rise above them" if they were negative. He also threatened to send critical letters to our parents just before we went home, "telling it like it is." (In fact, he sent such a letter to my parents when I went home.) When one of my companions decided to quit and go home, President Rich angrily threatened that he (Rich) would "stand as a witness with St. Peter on Judgement Day and condemn him." When I was at BYU later, another elder from my mission said that President Rich was a guest speaker in a ward he was attending. He spotted in the audience a former missionary who had gone home early, and blasted him from the stand, by name, in front of his wife and children and the other members of his home ward, as a "quitter" and a "failure." Toward the end of my mission, I met several members from President Rich’s home town. They were astonished that he had been called as a mission president and described him as mean, obnoxious, foul-mouthed, and abusive to his employees. In a way, it was reassuring because it confirmed that this was the way he really was; but in another way, it intensified my confusion. How could such a man have been called as a mission president? How could he worthily represent the Church? Who could possibly have thought that he was any kind of person to whom to entrust young men and young women as missionaries?
One of my companions, a traveling elder, once reserved a motel room for President Rich in a nice, middle-priced establishment when a conference was scheduled. President Rich was angry and told him in the future to book only "top of the line" rooms. He said he was making great personal sacrifices for the Church and thus had the right to drive a large luxury car and stay in executive rooms regardless of the cost to the Church. He clearly aspired to higher Church callings and beamed when one elder got up at a testimony meeting and said, "I salute the next apostle of the Church."
I was repeatedly taken aback by what struck me as brash, derisive attitudes on the part of President Rich when I had expected humility and encouragement. Yet he was the mission president, chosen by revelation and put in his position by General Authorities. I was very confused, but I could not bring myself to believe that he was right. Yet many of the elders had no problem with President Rich’s approach and tried to emulate his manner. What I saw as swaggering, they saw as forthrightness. What I saw as harshness, they saw as zealousness. Any doubt or critical thought about the mission had to remain private. We were there to obey. I believe that about 30 percent of the missionaries adored him and made him their idol. But for me, my mission was far from the spiritual highlight it is supposed to be. I was tormented for many months with the belief that I must have an attitude problem—but the offensive behavior of some of these prized "sanders" finally convinced me that the fault was not mine.
For example, in South Dakota, our district leader talked frequently about his inordinate sexual desire for women. He seemed quite proud of how "horny" he was. In front of me and two others, he used a felt marker to draw female sex organs on a pair of his garments. One elder I worked with (not my companion but we shared an apartment with him and his companion) openly boasted to me that a married member woman with several children, about fifteen years his senior, was in love with him. I didn’t believe him, but he showed me sexually explicit love letters from her. This same missionary told me that he was meeting an eighteen-year-old woman in the bathroom that everyone on our floor shared. "I told her I’d put something warm between her legs," he boasted. His regular companion was in a real dilemma. President Rich shocked me by telling me brusquely that he had chosen me to spy on this elder and read his personal journal—in fact, that I should read the journals of as many missionaries as I could to get information about them. I objected to being put in this position, but President Rich rebuked me and said I had no choice—unless I wanted to be sent home.
One of the most stunning things to me was the sexual appetite of many of these elders, often the leaders. They enjoyed bragging about their appeal to women, just as they enjoyed bragging about their high school athletic prowess. It was a game to see who could be the most impressive. For the most part, they did not go beyond talking; however, I was aware of a number of cases of sexual transgression. Some were caught and sent home; others were not. This erotic aspect where the Church leaders expected strict chastity dismayed me. These elders were real performers and manipulators. They could play dual roles of being worldly and spiritual.
In retrospect, I now see that the erotic behavior of the elders was a visible acting out of erotic elements in the speech of President Rich. Under guise of giving us "counsel," he said things that, in my opinion, verged on the obscene. In one zone conference, he warned us to "fear women" because "the devil will use them to seduce you and you will be eternally damned for a few minutes of pleasure." He went into graphic detail about the nature of this pleasure. He accused the no-sanders of going to a popular movie of the time, What’s New, Pussy Cat? I have never seen this movie and don’t even know its plot (I also don’t know if elders in our mission really did go to this movie), but he accused them of being lustful and unworthy. "The name should really be Lick ‘em, Pussy," he roared. "How many of you went home and masturbated after you saw it?" In a passionate rage, he denounced elders for calling each other nicknames like "Bizzer," "Flipper," and "Kitus" among others. "Kitus is just another name for coitus," he asserted, working himself up until he was yelling again. "Why don’t you call each other what you really mean—a bunch of sons of bitches?" he yelled.
In public, Sister Rich was totally supportive. "You have no idea of the pain and sacrifice he endures to make you successful on your missions," she would scold us at zone conferences. She said he had been hospitalized several times as a result of the stress. I cannot help wondering about the quality of their marriage.
But I had a difficult time with the behavior of mission leaders in others ways, too. In Minneapolis, my district leader asked me to help baptize an investigator. We picked her up in the mission car. She began smoking immediately and did not stop until we opened the front door at the stake centre. She was baptized. No one objected, including me, although I argued with him about his policies later. He told me I should "be cool" and relax. This woman came to Church several times and then disappeared. This district leader later informed my cousin at BYU that I was a "problem child." A person like him calling me a problem was almost amusing.
I watched several elders stamp their feet on the steps of people who rejected them in tracting, a symbolic cursing for rejecting the gospel message (D&C 24:15; 60:15; 75:20). Others warned people that they had only one chance to accept the Church or face damnation. Others branded people who disagreed with them as having a "dark and evil" countenance." Such judgmentalness troubled me.
President Rich and a traveling elder (then my companion) once discussed some other missionaries in my presence. President Rich was making harsh criticisms of these missionaries’ inability to baptize and lack of leadership qualities. I was astonished at President Rich’s judgements of the "no-sanders who shouldn’t be out here." We had only from four to eight sisters in our mission, and President Rich did not seem to appreciate them. He thought the women couldn’t handle the pressures of the mission very well and that men were much better suited to missionary work. President Rich also once told me he spent hours on end trying to help me be a successful missionary but that I hated my father and was transferring this hatred to him. The "hours" he spent trying to "help" me were definitely not spent with me and I had no idea where he got the idea that I hated my father. I agree that I may have sometimes been a problem and that he may have felt he had to solve the problem. But I didn’t believe his claim. In direct conversation, he manifested very little desire to listen to me; he seldom spent more than two or three consecutive minutes with me. We were like two aliens with nothing in common. Later I came to the conclusion that this relationship was hopeless.
Elder Bernard P. Brockbank toured the mission after I had been there for about a year. After it was over, President Rich was very angry. He said that Elder Brockbank had said his mission was only average. He spent several minutes blasting Elder Brockbank in front of the zone conference, announced that his mission was "the best in the world," and made each missionary present stand up, walk to the front of the room, and say, "This is the best mission in the world." I felt that I was in the army, rather than on a mission. Being forced to chant this "slogan" on command was very degrading to me.
Near the end of the mission, Apostle Howard W. Hunter came to an all-mission conference in Minneapolis. At the conference, President Rich announced that a certain number of missionaries would be selected at random for Elder Hunter to interview so that Elder Hunter would get a totally impartial cross section of the missionaries. The assistant to the president handed out numbered slips, and then President Rich read out the "winning" numbers. It was no secret in the mission who President Rich’s favorites were, and nobody who was not in his good graces was among the number selected to talk to Elder Hunter. All the missionaries I spoke to were suspicious of the outcome of the winning numbers including two of those selected.
At an all-mission testimony meeting, President Rich announced that there were troublemakers disrupting the mission. He ordered every individual present to come up in order, beginning with the front rows, and bear their testimony. We would not go home, he announced, until everyone had done it. There were sometimes long delays, with everyone staring judgmentally at those who resisted this pressure. I was so disillusioned that I walked out before the meeting ended. At my next interview with President Rich, I told him as politely as I could that I disagreed with his style. It was the first time I verbalized my negative feelings about him, and it only confirmed his enmity for me.
When it was time to go home, President Rich’s final speech to my group of five elders (three had left early) included the statement that some would "resent me for your whole lives for my leadership." He looked directly at me when he said it. I thought that this attitude was extremely negative from a self-proclaimed "positive" thinker. He then sneered, "Three of your group went home early, but I see Elder LeBaron is still here despite being handicapped by a personality disorder." I felt humiliated once again. I cannot recall a single conversation with him that was not negative in tone. I can’t recall him even hinting, then or ever, that he might be mistaken about anything. Still, I was not surprised to be attacked even on the eve of my departure. One of his zone leaders, just before leaving the mission, had told me that President Rich reserved his "most bombastic backstabbing" for me.
There are many more troubling experiences I haven’t mentioned. Despite the passage of time, I can still recall many occurrences and many conversations almost word for word. Even now, my mission sometimes casts a shadow in my life. I discovered that the mission field is a "sacred cow" for local leaders, who refuse to admit that someone could suffer as the effect of serving a mission. Yet I know many missionaries from other missions who also had terrible experiences. Often the effects of these experiences are buried in the subconscious.
I learned that there was a code of silence that can’t be broken about missions. During my interview with Elder Brockbank, he asked me where I was from and how everything was going. I was so troubled that I said I wanted to tell him about some things that I felt shouldn’t happen in a mission. I had a half-formed plan of asking him to help me transfer to another mission, but before I’d said more than the single sentence, suddenly, the interview was over and, without any further comment from him, I was walking out the door. I couldn’t believe how abrupt and cold he had suddenly become. I had expected more understanding and tolerance from a General Authority.
When I returned home, I had the usual private interview with my stake president, Arnie Shaw, who had also recently served as a mission president. He asked me about the mission. When I began to tell him that some things had occurred that had been difficult for me to deal with, he would not listen. When I reported my mission to the high council and the stake presidency, President Shaw told me to stand and bear my testimony. I bore a brief testimony of the Savior and sat down. President Shaw told me stand again and "bear a proper testimony." I was humiliated. I was certain that this was a punishment for wanting to speak critically about the mission.
My mission, instead of being an experience that drew us together as a family, became a source of irritation and alienation to my parents. My father, who was a member of Arnie Shaw’s high council and his close friend, was humiliated when President Shaw forced me to bear a "proper" testimony. On my part, I was disappointed that he made no effort to defend me. My mother showed me a vindictive letter from President Rich. It was a burning indictment of my "failures" as a missionary. My mother, who was shocked but was trying to make me feel better, pointed out one sentence saying I had talent which I should "put to good use." I was going to write him a letter evaluating him as a mission president, but I didn’t. Both of my parents worried for many years that I would be the next LeBaron to be expelled from the Church. I think the letter was a last act of malice, a spiteful attempt to provoke me and show his power over me.
Within weeks after my return, my bishop told me there was no limit to my leadership potential in the Church; but this was no comfort to me, since he knew nothing about what had happened on my mission. In fact, it confused me. Here was a bishop who seemed to feel the exact opposite of my mission president. Who could be right?
I went to Brigham Young University after my mission and have many fond memories of the place. I made good friends, but I was not attracted to the conspicuously straight-line thinkers there, and it made me uncomfortable when I received special treatment because I was a returned missionary. I told several women about my mission experiences. In contrast to my priesthood leaders, they listened and they believed me; but they were stunned and felt betrayed by the hypocrisy in the mission. All of them seemed to use it as a reason for moving further away from the Church. I soon stopped talking about it because it seemed to have such explosive effects. Even with close friends, I struggled to say positive things about the Church when asked.
I had hoped that my mission was an aberration in my Church experience—that I could put it behind me and forget it like a bad dream. But I was surprised in 1968 or 1969 to run into my seminary teacher was from Calgary on campus. He told me and a friend that he and Cleon Skousen had been sent by top Church leaders to "purge" BYU of "apostates and communists." He said, "The communists realize the Church is the only roadblock to their domination of the world and they have joined forces with apostate teachers and students to destroy the Church." I was so astonished by this statement that I laughed. I thought it was paranoid ethnocentrism in the extreme. Cleon Skousen was my father’s cousin and the seminary teacher his friend. When I told my father about the conversation later, he confirmed that there was in fact such a group.
I tried to avoid these ultra-conservative "straight arrows," although I could not help observing them. I was repelled by their zealousness, intensity, egotism, and paranoia. The media, apostates, liberals, communists—all were enemies of the Church, America, and them personally. I realize that this political philosophy is not unique to Mormons, but the number of Mormons I found who willingly embraced even its more bizarre aspects was alarming to me, especially since I had to endure many attempts to proselyte. Many of them warned me that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (a liberal, and therefore an anti-Christ) planned to let the Soviets invade America through northern Canada. The fact that he welcomed American draft dodgers into Canada proved that he was betraying America. J. Edgar Hoover, Richard M. Nixon, and George Wallace were among their heroes. Time, fortunately, seems to have corrected these strange fears—or at least turned them into other channels. I was always surprised that these individuals had no concern that I might be offended by their portrayal of Canadians and their oversimplified claims that the United States was God’s country and Utah was Zion.
Wilford Smith of the Sociology Department was the best teacher I had at BYU but also, for some, controversial. At the beginning of each semester, he announced, "An education is the only thing people are prepared to pay for and not receive." He warned us that he was a hard grader. "If you don’t want to think and learn, transfer to another class." He openly discussed the social problems of Mormons, peppering his lectures with statistics about divorce rates, premarital pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, and other deviant behavior. All students were free to talk openly about any subject. He regularly expressed his devotion to the Church but also commented critically on policies or public statements with which he disagreed. He was reported to school officials several times, and he mentioned in class that he had been ordered to stop discussing controversial subjects. Several of my friends who were studying sociology told me he was one of the most respected scholars in his field in North America and could have commanded a much higher salary at many more prestigious universities. In contrast, another sociology teacher was lazy, unprepared, and an easy grader. He had students do much of his work and spent a great deal of class time discussing religious principles. He had not revised his tests for years, and they were easily available to anyone who wanted to cheat. If he was ever reported to the school authorities for his unprofessional conduct and his waste of the students’ time, I never heard even a rumor about it. I admired the courage of a female student who stood up in his class one day and complained that he was spending so much time preaching instead of teaching sociology. "My career is sociology," she said, "and I want a proper education." The teacher replied, "On Judgement day I want to report that I have preached the gospel at every available opportunity."
A cousin and I took a Pearl of Great Price class from Hyrum Andrus. Although the class was large, he often called the roll orally, so we were familiar with each others’ names. A couple of the elders from my mission were also in this class. One day, my attention had wandered briefly but was caught by Brother Andrus emitting a short, loud, bitter tirade on those "evil LeBarons." He felt they were the worst people in the history of the Church. I could feel the tension in the class. What did this have to do with the Pearl of Great Price? I wondered. Many people in the class knew our names. Didn’t our presence in his class, instead of in Mexico, show where we stood on the issue of the schism?
My cousin was deeply wounded. His father was one of the founders of the LeBaron polygamist group in Mexico, but my cousin’s mother had been a legal first wife. She had escaped with her children when my cousin was about thirteen and had come to Utah to live with her parents. Few people could relate to my cousin’s pain and struggle with self-esteem in trying to be a devoted Church member. He had served an honorable mission and was studying to be a seminary or institute teacher. When I told his sister about this event, she asked, "What did you do?" I’m ashamed to say that I did nothing. You couldn’t speak out at BYU without facing serious consequences.
In fairness, I should make it clear that most of the teachers at BYU were dedicated and talented people. One of them, Russel Rich, approached me after class and expressed respect and affection for my cousin, his family, and other relatives.
In 1970, my BYU bishop had me come in for an interview. He had never so much as said "hello" to me before, and his first sentence was an accusatory, "I want you to explain your family history in the Church." My first thought was that the mission president had filed a damning report about me in Salt Lake City and that this bishop had gotten hold of it. Finally, I understood that he was concerned about the LeBaron polygamist group in Mexico. I told him that my dad was a stake patriarch in Canada. This surprised him. His next question was, "Why have you come to BYU?" "To get an education," I answered. He replied, "That’s the wrong answer. You should have said you came here to be with diligent Church members." He then informed me that this semester would be my last at BYU. He gave no reason but implied that I was not worthy of being a student at BYU because I was tainted by the beliefs of some relatives.
I was enraged at the insult about my faithfulness and character. I admitted that I was not a perfect member but I also insisted that I was not a hypocrite. Without mentioning names, I told him that among these "diligent" ward members were two returned missionaries who boasted about their sexual conquests (real or imagined) with a level of detail that made me ill. One, a close friend of this bishop’s, had boasted several times, "I screw ‘em and then dump ‘em before they get pregnant." They put on a "spiritual" performance on Sundays for the bishop and everyone else, but I wasn’t the only one aware of this sideshow.
I knew several athletes on BYU teams, and they told me about the sexual activities of some of the students who were attending BYU on athletic scholarships. Jerry, my friend who was an athlete, told me about regularly cleaning up used condoms that had been thrown from the windows of the Helaman Halls dormitory where many of the athletes lived. One of the athletes was so arrogant that he invited spectators to enter his dorm room at a critical moment to see him and girls performing sex acts. Two girls involved in the sex acts were in my ward. One of them often said, "I’m as conservative as apple pie" and claimed in frequent testimony-bearing to be a diligent Church member. Most of the males in the ward were dazzled by her undeniable good looks, her outgoing personality, and her "spirituality." The individuals were openly violating BYU standards, and many people, including some school officials, were aware of it. None of them was asked to leave BYU. When I angrily told this bishop about this hypocritical double standard, he did not comment, but I think he believed me.
The bishop obviously expected me to simply withdraw from school once he had announced his decision, but I was determined not to submit to such injustice. After several more angry interviews, the bishop announced that he had changed his mind. It may have had something to do with my mentioning that Joseph Taylor Bentley, controller of BYU, was my grandmother’s brother.3 The bishop’s last words to me were yet another accusation: "It’s all your fault. You’re much too reticent about your devotion to the Church."
Other experiences eroded my faith. BYU students were supposed to report viola tions of the Honor Code to university authorities, who seemed, in my experience, all too willing to believe the worst of students. In one off-campus housing unit, I heard one student boast about getting a rival kicked out of school by planting drugs in the rival’s apartment and then "tipping off’ the authorities. Two of my friends left the Church because they were falsely accused of misconduct by informers whom they could not confront or question.
This controversy involving my family had started much earlier, of course. During the l950s, my uncle Paul LeBaron and his family moved from Alberta to Utah with great expectations, both spiritual and economic. Financially, they were soon disappointed when prominent members of the Church took advantage of their trust and cheated them on some business dealings. Ecclesiastically, Uncle Paul became second counselor in his bishopric. The bishop, Ellis Rasmussen, was a member of BYU’s Religion Department. Uncle Paul was a devoted Church worker. He tells of attending nine separate meetings three Sundays out of four, thirteen on the fourth Sunday, and other meetings most of the nights of the week. He had particular responsibility for the ward’s young people and also major responsibility for the ward welfare program. He suffered three bitter blows in the course of his Church service and ended up deprived of Church membership.4
First, he discovered that many young people in the ward were missing Sunday School at 11:00 A.M. because, starved for entertainment, they were staying home to read the comic section in the Deseret News weekend edition, delivered between 9:30 and 10:30 AM. Uncle Paul didn’t subscribe and hadn’t heard of this problem, but he interviewed many teenagers, who confirmed that they preferred the funny papers to Sunday School. Rather than chastising the youth, Uncle Paul wrote to Elder Mark E. Petersen, whose editorial role with the Deseret News was well known, outlined the problem, expressed concern, and suggested that the paper be delivered later. Elder Petersen promptly wrote back, announcing that "statistics showed the present time of delivery was by far the best from a business standpoint and, furthermore, the editorial staff were in no way responsible for the disciplining of children other than their own. If parents wanted their children to attend Sunday School, they should withhold the paper until a later time." Since most of the youngsters the ward was hoping to attract came from homes in which the parents had no apparent interest in the Church, this letter was discouraging to the entire bishopric.
The second incident was a rift between Uncle Paul and the stake president, Philo Edwards. The ward’s welfare project was to harvest and sell the fruit from a cherry orchard that the ward rented from Edwards, who also contracted to buy the fruit. Uncle Paul’s job, during harvest season, was to organize the ward’s youth as cherry pickers, pick them up in his truck at 5:30 A.M., deliver them to the orchard, pick cherries until 7:00 a.m., then take them home so that he could be at his construction job during the day. After work, he would pick the teenagers up again and they would pick fruit until dark. The cash proceeds were donated to the welfare program.
At the first bishopric meeting after picking began, Bishop Rasmussen remarked that President Edwards "had paid us less for our first week’s fruit than other buyers were paying." When Uncle Paul suggested selling to another buyer, Bishop Rasmussen explained that the ward had contracted to sell to Edwards. The following week, Bishop Rasmussen reported that he had talked to President Edwards about the matter but that President Edwards had again paid less than the going rate—"shortchanging" the ward. Uncle Paul suggested giving President Edwards notice that the ward was going to sell to another buyer. This apparently reasonable suggestion earned him a rebuke from Bishop Rasmussen: "Paul, you must not question the things of the Lord." Uncle Paul retorted, "When something stinks, I question it, and I don’t think the Lord is the author of it." Privately, he wondered, "If you are convinced it is of the Lord, then why complain about it?"
Bishop Rasmussen had been edgy anyway, because Paul’s brother Owen was then staying with Uncle Paul and Aunt Joy. A very bright but erratic man, Uncle Owen had become convinced many years earlier that plural marriage was a correct doctrine, had taken a second wife, and been excommunicated.5 He had arrived unexpectedly, asking if he could stay for a few days while he repaired his truck, which had broken down. Bishop Rasmussen had asked Uncle Paul to send Uncle Owen away as an evil influence; but Uncle Paul had respectfully declined to do so. This incident was apparently the third problem.
A few days later, just after Uncle Paul returned from work, a delegation from the stake president arrived, demanding that he, Aunt Joy, and Bryce, then about age sixteen, attend a high council court the next night. Uncle Paul asked if he could bring witnesses and was told that a member of the high council had been appointed for a witness. On that basis, Paul and Joy refused to attend. Bryce also could not come since he was playing in a public concert performed by the school orchestra. Before they left, the leader of the delegation demanded of Bryce, "Do you subscribe to the same beliefs your parents do?" Bryce replied that he did, as far as he knew, and they left. Bryce was obviously confused; the stake leaders most probably meant belief in plural marriage,6 but no one in Paul’s family had ever even toyed with the idea. Two days later, Uncle Paul and his family learned that the decision had been to excommunicate them. Later still he learned that President Edwards, when Owen was staying with Paul and Joy, had telephoned Elder Petersen for advice. Elder Petersen "bluntly" instructed him, "Cut them off." In other words, the Church court was only a formality.
Bitter feelings ran so high against Paul and Joy in the community that they sold or gave away most of their belongings and moved out of the state. Paul was not interested in Owen’s beliefs at all, but it didn’t matter. My father and Paul both believe he was excommunicated because he expected Church leaders to be what they claimed to be and that all members had an equal right to speak out. My father was one of the few family members to retain supportive familial ties with Paul, and most Church leaders were unhappy with him because of that.
I talked briefly with Elder Henry D. Taylor, a Seventy, about this matter several years later. He was a very kind man and sympathetic toward my uncle, but I also sensed his discomfort with the conversation and his carefulness not to say too much. I have talked to many people in Utah about this matter; many were appalled by it, but very few were willing to express support for Uncle Paul.
But the most shocking part of the situation to me is the excommunication of my Aunt Joy and cousin Bryce. I have given up trying to find a reason for it. Bryce was a very talented, sensitive, and devoted Church member; and this experience shattered his life. If fifteen-year-old Bentley had been at home that summer (he was visiting relatives in Canada), Uncle Paul feels that he would have been given the same choice as Bryce, because he held the priesthood. All of the family eventually left the Church individually as a result of the torment they felt.7 When Uncle Paul visited his mother in Alberta, her first words to him were that she wished he was dead rather than excommunicated.8 This sentiment was instilled in her by Church leaders, and I often heard it growing up—always with terror. It seemed to be a weapon that many Church leaders of that generation used to get compliance. I have since concluded that the idea of preferring death to conflict with the Church is very unhealthy and dangerous. Many people I knew were crippled by their fear of being caught in a conflict, since there seemed to be no way to resolve conflicts. There still doesn’t.
It is ironic to me that in this Church, which praises and claims to support families, the Church is itself often used as a wedge between family members and a tool of judgement by well-meaning Churchgoers. Family exaltation is the only exaltation, we are taught. When I was growing up, my closest friends were my cousins. It was the same for them. But my family was ripped apart by the religious schism among all the relatives. A bishop informed me that the Church needed to seek out and excommunicate dissenting family members to set an example for the rest to stay in line. What example was served by excommunicating my two teenage cousins? I can remember, when I was a young boy, the upheaval in our extended family after the excommunications of the polygamous schismatics and of Paul and his family—the very real conflict over the desire to offer support and the fear of also being branded an apostate. One close relative warned everyone, "We have to keep these apostates out of our homes or we will all be excommunicated." Ironically, the man expressing such extreme fear was not even active. Yet the fear was not misplaced. Often devout Church members pinned the polygamy label on all of us. Mystifyingly, many Church members seem to believe that this entire family has some evil charismatic power over people and that any contact will result in enthrallment—like a form of magic or hypnotism. This belief is nonsense. The whole family seldom discussed any of these events. I guess it caused too much grief and disillusionment.
I can still remember the shock I felt when an LDS woman in the early 1980s brought me the biography of President Kimball and read about his meeting with Maude McDonald LeBaron, the sister of his close childhood friend, who had been excommunicated with her husband, Alma Dayer LeBaron, twenty years earlier for polygamy but who now wished to rejoin the Church. Their meeting was interrupted by "her three tall apostate sons" who were "very belligerent, cold, haughty, defiant." Two of them had been on missions at the time of their parents’ excommunication; they had also been excommunicated and sent home. It was easy for me to visualize the double-bind they had been placed in, but President Kimball’s reaction was: "Never before have I come in such close contact with Lucifer and his devils."9 This woman wanted to know the names of the three sons. (They were probably Alma, Jr., Joel, and Ervil; but I refused to tell her anything.) Many of my relatives, including those who virtually worshipped President Kimball as the Church’s prophet, were also wounded by this judgmental condemnation. These three "devils" have families, some of whom are faithful Church members and many others of whom are decent human beings.
I can’t begin to explain the terrible effect that Uncle Paul’s excommunication alone has had on my entire extended family. Yet Uncle Paul and Aunt Joy have always been among the best Christians I know—befriending all types of people, kindheartedly providing shelter and support to social outcasts and troubled relatives whom others have rejected. Once they learned about a neighbor who was alone, feverishly ill, and without food. They immediately went to him, a stranger, and gave him the first food he had eaten in days and, at his request, blessed him. They were interrupted by the missionaries who had taught this man the last pre-baptismal discussion when he was already ill but had done nothing for him. When they recognized my aunt and uncle, they furiously denounced them as "servants of the devil" who had "come to destroy your soul" and ordered the prospective convert to throw them out of the house. When he refused, pointing out that they had "come with food and blessing" though they were strangers, while the missionaries had done nothing for him in his illness, the missionaries, "quivering with hatred" again called my aunt and uncle "devils" and cancelled his baptism plans.
Paul and Joy do not deserve such treatment. I have suffered much over the way they have been treated. There is a huge gulf between the self-proclaimed "good" family members and the "lapsed" ones. I have no sympathy at all with the beliefs or behavior of the schismatic branch of the family, but the behavior of some of the "orthodox" branch has been unequally unappealing. I believe that real family affection endures on some level, but some of my "faithful" relatives strongly feel that the expelled and inactive family members need to repent and rejoin the fold; their interactions are often conducted on that judgmental and patronizing basis. Some feel that their good name has been tarnished by all the bad publicity over the years.
I have often seen the dilemma of being forced to choose between supporting a relative or friend or the Church leaders. Without question, the expectation on every level is that the devoted Church member must obey the leader, right or wrong. From childhood, Church members are conditioned to feel guilt if they do not conform. It has been difficult for me to recognize that many Church leaders, like my mission president, expect, desire, and enjoy this unconditional obedience. My boyhood stake president and my father’s close friend later became a General Authority. Even as a boy, I was amazed by the hero worship and unconditional adulation he not only received but, I believe, encouraged.
My final confrontation with Church leaders came when I was an adult living in Canada. My wife and I had moved recently to a new area. I had heard rumors about an investigation of my membership—that I might even be excommunicated. Our bishop was also a recent arrival and had been so newly appointed that I had never even spoken to him. I made an appointment and asked him about the investigation.
He confirmed that an investigation was underway and that I might be excommunicated. I asked, "Have you ever spoken to me before?" He responded coolly, "No, but I don’t think that’s important because I’m the bishop and I know you’re an unworthy member." He went down a long list of Church commandments and said I just didn’t measure up. I was a returned missionary, but I didn’t "look like one or act like one," according to him. My wife and I had only one child. "There are countless spirits waiting to come to earth to gain a body," he pontificated. "We are commanded to multiply and replenish the earth." Yet he himself had quite a small family. As I listened, in considerable confusion, I gradually realized that he expected me to become a mirror image of himself and that by not fitting the mass-produced mold of the "celestial" Mormon I had committed an unforgivable sin.
I struggled to make him understand my ambiguous feelings of real commitment but real disillusionment. I mentioned several of the negative experiences I had endured as a missionary. He dismissed them impatiently. "I don’t believe any of that," he said. "Those things just couldn’t happen."
He demanded that I confess every intimate moral and spiritual misdeed of my entire life because I was an unrepentant sinner who needed be humbled and it was his duty to punish me. I quietly asked him if I had the right to apply these same judgements against his life. He was outraged: He was the bishop! And I was an insignificant nobody.
Another point on his list of black marks against me was that I defended myself against the accusations—my account of my life was the opposite of the version that "righteous" Church members had reported to him. I asked, again speaking quietly and reasonably, "Have you considered the possibility that Church members might go to a leader with false accusations—that they might use the leader to settle a personal vendetta with a member?" I asked why these Church members hadn’t come to me with their complaints, rather than "murmuring" behind my back. Could it be that they wanted to advance a one-sided story?
The bishop was speechless. It was clear that he had never thought of this possibility. He became visibly nervous as the implications sank in. But then he recovered. "You’re flattering yourself, thinking that."
No matter what I tried, he refused to back down. He ordered me to read The Miracle of Forgiveness and several other books by General Authorities. This was the most mind-numbing, bizarre, disorienting experience I had ever had. I became angry and raised my voice. He had already been speaking forcefully. The combination of self-righteousness, judgmentalness, naivete, stubbornness, blatant unfairness, and sheer incompetence reduced me to a combination of fury and utter despair by the end of our hour-long meeting. This man would never, I’m sure, even drink a Coke, but being fair and reasonable seemed utterly beyond him. His parting words were, "We [the Church leaders] can help you with your problems." My problems? I was outraged and humiliated. Spiritually, it broke my back. It was also the most mortifying and debasing experience of my life. I thought about seeking legal redress as a way of compelling respect.
I finally settled for trying to get support elsewhere. I phoned the stake president and his counselor whom I knew. They told me I had to follow Church protocol and "work it out" with the bishop. They could not intervene.
I phoned my father. He, too, had heard the rumors. I asked him if there was anything at all he could do. He was very discouraged and asked rhetorically, "Why do you think these people are so defensive? They’ve made a mistake and have to cover it up." I asked him about the claims Church leaders made of inspiration, of discernment. He said, "You have to accept the bad with the good in the Church." I disagreed. (I still do.) He then admitted that he’d already tried to intervene; but one of the instigators was someone who had been involved in the witch-hunt of LeBarons twenty years before in southern Alberta who had particularly tried to find evidence against my father. Now this man had a stake position and had a new LeBaron target. My dad warned, "You can’t win in a confrontation with a Church leader. You have to back down."
A short time later, I received a letter from an individual in Utah explaining that he had permission from the First Presidency to intervene. He asked me to tell my side of the story. His letter was charitable and reassuring. He promised me complete confidentiality. I wrote a restrained version of these events, feeling great relief that someone had listened to me. Years later, I received incontrovertible evidence that this man had broken his promise of confidentiality. I felt utterly betrayed. I wrote a long letter asking for an explanation. I never received an answer.
I do not speculate on the motives of the men who have done these things. I recognize that the leaders I have had difficulty with are undoubtedly someone’s cherished relative or friend. The fact that I am inactive makes it easy for other people, including people in my family, to judge me as well and attribute my beliefs to my "bad attitude." In regular self-reflection, I ask if this could be true. I don’t think it is because I’ve seen devout members with similar experiences to mine. When I was misjudged by leaders, I felt I had a right to compare myself to other peers in the Church and also felt that I had a right to evaluate the leaders who were doing the judging. I recognize that this process can easily lead to rivalry and recriminations, and I have no interest in fostering bad feelings. However, I also feel that leaders who unfairly condemn others invite investigation of themselves. I was never allowed to pursue or even express this basic human right. It is a dilemma that I have not been able to solve, and the worst part of these experiences and their aftermath for me is not the experiences themselves but the complete lack of support from leaders and "diligent" members and many relatives.
I understand why many Church members do not want to hear or believe many of these experiences. I was taught as a youth to listen only to affirming information and to avoid any controversial matters. These teachings, however, did not prepare me well for dealing with some painful realities that I encountered in the Church. As an adult, I gained self-confidence and became more assertive about expressing my desire to see unethical behavior corrected both in and out of the Church. Even though this characteristic has brought condemnation and controversy into my life, I have felt clearer spiritually than I did in my youth where, in confusion and grief, I struggled helplessly to find some way to believe that unethical behavior was somehow right because a "leader" did it.
It has been hard for me when my mission president and two bishops condemned me but embraced others who were superficial performers and manipulators. It has been very painful to endure the judgements and rejection leveled against my family by authoritarian leaders and members who espouse authoritarian views. I have struggled to understand their perspective. I believe they see themselves as unqualifiedly righteous (often considering the fact that they have a leadership calling as "proof’ of their righteousness) and therefore as having the duty to scrutinize the lives of others for unrighteousness and direct their lives, not stopping short of manipulation and even coercion if the member is unwilling to obey them in all things. Such an attitude means that they never have to examine their own lives, motives, and behavior. It is a human tendency—but a weakness—to look for scapegoats. It has been very dismaying for me to see members seek the aid of a Church leader in bringing judgment against someone they dislike. The problem isn’t just leaders with vengeful attitudes, but also members who want their leaders to "cull the flock" and "purify the Church" by getting rid of other members whom they see as unworthy. Although I have confined my account to examples of my own family, I am aware of many, many other examples.
These experiences have bothered me a great deal. I thought for a year about writing this account. I have consciously tried to contain my bitterness and let the account speak for itself. But after I finished, I couldn’t sleep for the entire night, and I felt nauseated. I have tried earnestly to reach peace concerning these matters and writing about them, though hard, has helped me gain some perspective. Looking back, I realize that I am not blameless in these conflicts. I felt helpless in not being able to resolve the conflicts and bewildered at the judgements these Church leaders formed about my character. Worst of all, there seemed to be nowhere to go to get help or find a mediator in helping me deal with these problems.
I have written this account because I believe in free speech and free inquiry. I believe all perspectives should be considered. I welcomed the inauguration of Dialogue and Sunstone. I admire and relate to many of their authors. I don’t see them as evil iconoclasts but as candid, frank, open human beings. I don’t agree with all of their ideas, but I am interested in their experiences and their thought. I respect their willingness to describe their experiences and express their thoughts, despite the type of criticism I know they have sometimes received. I believe they set a good example of candid discourse about various religious opinions. Many topics are emotional and controversial, but these writers seem to have succeeded in creating an atmosphere of tolerance in which such discussions can take place.
As a youth and young adult in the Church, I found the pressure to conform a great discomfort. I can’t remember being allowed to make any major decision without pressure from others. As an older adult, I became inactive. From childhood till now, the most disturbing trend I have seen in the Church is the tendency of some Church members to use the Church as a wedge or club to separate themselves from others. I have never felt that any group is the Lord’s chosen and consecrated people. Some relatives and Church members I have known seem to enjoy elevating themselves and degrading others, based on their "worthiness," often related to the ecclesiastical office that they hold. These claims to spiritual superiority (and the inevitable spiritual inferiority of those around them) lead directly to an adulation of higher Church leaders that makes me most uncomfortable.
My experience suggests that these people fear critical self-examination—or examination from others. I see a direct connection between the attitudes of these influential individuals and the institutional problems of silence and denial regarding serious problems in the Church. I do not have unrealistic expectations that either individuals or institutions will be perfect; people who cannot deal realistically with the problems of real life never mature. Many of these problems must simply be adjusted to, while other problems can and should be solved. When problems go unnoticed and unaddressed, we end up living in a fantasy. This is unhealthy, unproductive, and deeply damaging to true spirituality. The Church taught me that I could not progress using another person’s life, but I seldom felt I could express my own. When I went to leaders for counsel, the message seemed clear to me that I would be rewarded if I offered obedience and devotion. Anything else—even a question—was punished as heresy with the heavy-handed message, "Something is wrong with you."
I very seldom have attempted to discuss these issues, since the reaction is nearly always hostility, doubt, and denial. For example, two temple-going women whom I respected had freely criticized their husbands as unworthy and had used me as a sounding board for their own frustrations about the Church. They considered me a "nice" and "witty" person. But when I shared some of my own experiences, I suddenly became an "angry, vindictive, unhappy troublemaker," a "demon trapped in a body." When I reminded them of some of their earlier statements, I was scalded by a hate-filled explosion of profanity and vulgarity that included the "F" word. One woman bore her testimony that her parents had "drilled the gospel into me and I’m doing the same for my children" but that my parents had failed me—that I couldn’t possibly believe in God because I saw injustice in the Church. One of these women has been on anti-depressant medication for years and sees no discrepancy between the parts of her life.
I am used to hearing people say, "You were always (pause) different. You’ve always had a dark side." One priesthood holder called me "the most docile person I have ever known"; but when I related some of my experiences, he accused, "You’re never satisfied with anything—always trying to change things and make waves." I have quietly smarted under the patronage of the spiritually "superior" who have told me, "We’re praying for you." Once again, there is something wrong with me. I believe that these people find my experience threatening and have projected their own insecurities on me, suppressing their own questions and turning their internal fears outward on me.
Some people view zealous and even fanatical Church members with great respect. My observation is that often their performance, rather than expressing strength and conviction, masks doubt and fears. They are not peace-filled, happy people. I do not have to look outside of the extended LeBaron family to see the dangers of extremism. Leaders were quick to correct and excommunicate them because they were dissenters, but I have sat through classes where people have given the location of the lost ten tribes, predicted the end of the world, complete with dates and specific scenarios, and speculated emotionally on their future godhood and the worlds they would rule. Often they have taught susceptible youth. Yet these have been members in good standing.
I am bewildered by the outpouring of resentment and hatred of some "faithful" Church members within my own extended family towards others. I am puzzled when I go to public libraries and see books written about the Church that "faithful" members have defaced and marred because they don’t agree with them.10
The comments scribbled on these books strongly suggest that the members’ religious beliefs are fear based. I would hope that any organization would value members who develop individual values and exercise personal choice. Why does this seem so rarely true of the Church of Jesus Christ?11 I believe that confrontational, divisive Church leaders are like schoolyard bullies. Their attempts to intimidate others often mask personal insecurities. As I reflect on my experiences, I believe that all of these leader-member confrontations were really personality conflicts in which leaders used their Church positions as a weapon. But while the schoolyard bully is easy to see through, it’s harder to label bullying for what it is when the bully claims that he’s speaking for God. I have searched my memory in vain for even one example of a leader who has admitted that he has been mistaken or who has apologized for inflicting harm on a member of the Church. In my experience, the Church leader always wins, is always "right."
I do not deny the good in the Church, the value of a community, the support that members of the Church can and sometimes do offer each other. Participating in Church frequently develops important skills and provides a wonderful opportunity for service. Church history is a legacy containing many ennobling and empowering events. I acknowledge this. My ancestors played an important role in Church history, but I have mixed feelings about them. I know that many Mormons benefit greatly from their membership and are totally satisfied with the Church. But what about those whose experience is different? I think we should all present ourselves as we really are—good and bad. There should be no double standards within the Church, one for members and another for leaders. I wonder about the value of groups that claim to be the road to salvation but permit misdeeds on the part of some and cover up their abuse of members. As an older adult, I deeply regret my silence about the abuses I have seen in the Church. I wish I had spoken out more in protest against the abusers. I wish I had expressed more support for the abused.
I have realized the value of being around understanding and generous people. They have given me strength as I have tried to make better decisions about how to lead a more productive and charitable life. It has been very liberating to me to feel that I don’t have to have (or invent) all the answers. And my reward has been finding spirituality and fulfillment in many places.
1Although I feel that many of the disappointing and disillusioning experiences I had are a direct result of this mission president’s short-sighted policies and lack of Christian motivations, I have assigned him a pseudonym because I have no wish to hold him up to ridicule as an individual or to cause members of his family pain. He is far from being the only mission president with these problems. My quarrel is with the system that apparently has no effective way of identifying men like him before they are called or of correcting them once they are in the field.
2The LeBaron schism has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most violent of the Mormon break-off groups. These LeBarons were relatives of mine. We were descended from Richard Bentley and Elizabeth Price Bentley, whose son, Joseph C. Bentley, had three wives and twenty-one children. His first wife, Margaret ("Maggie") McKean Ivins Bentley had nine children, the oldest of whom was my grandmother, Ellice Marie Bentley LeBaron (1887-1978). Heber J. Grant was her cousin. Anthony W. Ivins, her brother, was the first president of Juarez Stake in Mexico, an apostle, and second counselor of Heber I. Grant.
In contrast to these "mainstream" Mormons were some of her in-laws, particularly four of the twelve children of Dayer and Maude LeBaron: Ben, Ervil, Joel, and Verlan. Dayer, a polygamist who originally belonged to the Musser-Allred group, died in 1951. Ben held up traffic at a Salt Lake City intersection by doing push-ups to prove that he was the "One Mighty and Strong." Joel founded the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times in 1955. William Tucker, a missionary from California and assistant to the president in the French Mission was converted through some literature and influenced other missionaries. About a dozen were excommunicated or went home in September 1958. The linkage of the LeBaron name with this "apostasy" had effects that have still not subsided. Every LeBaron who went on a mission afterwards was closely scrutinized; some Church members became suspicious of every LeBaron they met; I grew accustomed to having new Mormons acquaintances question me because of my name.
In 1970, Ervil LeBaron was dropped from his office as patriarch in the Church of the Firstborn, founded the competing Church of the Lamb of God, and launched a reign of terror that included at least a dozen murders, including Joel’s in 1972 and Rulon Allred’s in 1977. He issued death threats against Mormon General Authorities, and Verlan prudently went into hiding when Ervil ordered his execution. Ervil sired fifty-four children by thirteen wives and died in 1981 in Utah State Prison. Among his sons was Aaron LeBaron, who ordered the executions of three defectors in 1988. They also killed an eight-year-old girl who witnessed the slayings. Aaron was convicted of ordering the murders and, in June 1997, was sentenced to forty-five years in prison.
3Joseph I. Bentley was a forceful personality in his own right. I was visiting him in his office once when he received a phone call from the university president, Ernest L. Wilkinson, demanding that he reverse a particular decision. Joseph vigorously and adamantly refused despite a protracted and heated disagreement. I was surprised when President Wilkinson gave in, since everyone I knew at the school was afraid of him.
4These facts appear in Uncle Paul’s personal history, a moderate and restrained account, since he did not wish to create bad feelings in the extended family; but I have talked with him about these details and added others that he did not include his account.
5He and several others came to Alberta looking for converts. His success (several Mormon families joined his group) triggered what I can describe only as a witch hunt, characterized by grueling interrogations and presumptions of guilt by association. All of the LeBarons were under investigation, along with others. Rumors and outright lies swept the Mormon community. My father and all of my relatives had to defend their testimonies of the gospel and their attachment to the Church in very bitter and hostile confrontations.
6Uncle Paul had talked to several members about buying a large ranch in Idaho together and operating it as a cooperative, something some relatives had done successfully for a time in his youth. He also discussed the United Order with some leaders in the ward—what it was, its history, why it was discontinued, and that it was an everlasting covenant. His opinions certainly did not seem out of line to me, since I remember hearing similar statements about the United Order (including its future restoration) routinely in Sunday School classes and sacrament meeting talks all through my youth and young adulthood.
7Bryce was rebaptized while he was a student at BYU; but a year later, he and Bentley were called before a high council court, charged with apostasy, rebuked, and then given an all-too-familiar ultimatum: they must "swear under oath to renounce all further association or communication with" their parents. They both refused and were excommunicated. Paul and Joy made sincere attempts to be rebaptized but eventually stopped trying.
8In fairness to my grandmother, I should say that she became a much more tolerant and forgiving person as the years passed, even though she remained the most devoted member of the Church I have ever known. She was the one who later introduced me to Dialogue. Her life was torn between loyalty to the Church and loyalty to her family. She was denied a temple recommend for ten years for refusing to publicly (in Church) denounce her two excommunicated sons. Then when the leaders were replaced, she was allowed back into the temple.
9Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr., Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1977), 219.
10For example, John Heinerman’s and Anson Shupe’s critical book, The Mormon Corporate Empire, was studded with angry marginal comments (frequently misspelled) and the biographical information on the jacket flap about Heinerman, a critical Mormon, was labeled "Judas Iscariot." Library officials have confirmed my own impression that books about other faiths suffer relatively little vandalism compared to those about Mormonism.
11The Mormon belief in free agency is a proud part of its theology and an important part of the Church’s message to the world. For instance, the audio-cassette, "Our Heavenly Father’s Plan" (Salt Lake City: Bonneville Media Communications, 1986), stresses that "God gives us freedom to choose." The accompanying leaflet repeats: "A very important part of Heavenly Father’s plan is individual freedom to choose. He knew that without this freedom and the chance to learn from our own experience, the growing process would be virtually impossible." Why, then, are honest expressions of that freedom punished so savagely?