CASE REPORTS OF THE
VOLUME 2, 1996
"One Day You Finally Knew"
Vivian D. Ellsworth1
Recently, my husband and I sent a letter to Rodney Davis, our former
It was almost four years ago when we found ourselves having serious
conflict with the Church—conflict, that because of your calling as
stake president found you squarely in the middle of it.
It turned out to be a complex issue and that may help explain why
we weren’t able to handle it gracefully at the time. Given what we
know today about the Church and ourselves the conflict was inevitable.
Although our differences remain unresolved, we are grateful we have
been able to work through the issues enough to reach a peaceful
This letter is to express our sadness at any pain this conflict
caused you and your family. We sincerely hope that you are all okay.
Will and Vivian Ellsworth
This letter brought some closure to three and a half years of turmoil
and stress in our lives, stress that took us away from the Church we had
loved and embraced. We have chosen to share our story because we feel
that the same thing happens to others and that, instead of leaving
quietly, we have a responsibility to explain why in the hope that,
perhaps for others, the same mistakes need not be made again.
I grew up in the Northeast where my parents ran a family business
that took a great deal of their time. I think they felt that their love
was best demonstrated by their hard work and physical care of the
family. I like to describe them by saying that my mom was a professed
atheist and dad was a benign dictator. My religious experience was
limited. My parents had me recite the Lord’s Prayer before going to
bed most nights and sent me to Sunday School at a nearby Congregational
Church. Not only was Will the first Mormon I ever met, but he was also
the first person I knew who believed that God would directly answer a
He relates his early Church experience:
I was six years old in 1950 when my father began his eight-year
calling as branch president. Using materials and land bought by the
Church, he and a few others built with their own hands one of the
first LDS chapels in New England and then bootstrapped a remarkably
complete version of Mormonism into it.
The motivation and the giving of these people cannot be fully
reckoned today. For example, a man who was seriously ill was called to
preside over a neighboring branch. He was carried into sacrament
meeting on a stretcher and sustained. He served a few days and then
As a small boy, I was most comfortable at the perimeter of all this
activity, but I distinctly recall thinking God was somehow involved in
it. My father was at the center, doing the duty, but it wasn’t until
later that I understood how difficult it had been for him. By the time
I was an inactive teenager, he had a stomach ulcer and had difficulty
working. My mother, on the other hand, always enjoyed Church work
immensely and at her peak held thirteen concurrent callings. The
Church provided order and appreciation for service at a time when her
own six children craved mostly rock and roll.
I remember a picture on a manual cover of children happily
listening to their parents read from the scriptures. Inside the manual
were the things a typical LDS child would say and think. My family
didn’t look like that or sound like that. In fact, there was a lot
of evidence around that my brothers didn’t actually measure up as
true Latter-day Saints. I knew I was no saint. However, my Church
experience wasn’t entirely a disaster.
In our tiny branch, the missionaries preached the Joseph Smith
story almost exclusively. Troubled kid gets advice from God. I guess
for me, the idea of asking God for answers to questions and for help
with problems came from hearing the Joseph Smith story over and over
in the early fifties.
Will and I married. The fall of 1962 found us in Salt Lake City with
Will attending the University of Utah and me looking after our new-born
son Dean. The stake missionaries gave me the discussions, and Will
baptized me in the Tabernacle font in December 1962. A year later, after
the birth of our second child, Larry, we were sealed with our babies in
the Salt Lake temple. I remember that, as part of the temple interview,
the bishop asked me if I would accept any and all callings that were
extended to me. Of course, I said, "Yes."
It’s hard to describe how overwhelmed and insecure we felt as young
parents with no income. With three years left to graduate and me about
to deliver our third child, Will left his architecture program in August
1965, and we moved back home to New England to stay with my parents.
Brian was born less than two weeks later. We were struggling, but we
wanted so badly to do everything right. So far, the Church influence had
given us a big family, but we were on our own when it came to providing
We spent a couple of bad years trying to find our way to an income.
Several people helped Will with jobs, but these provided no lasting
direction. Eventually he was able to find his way on his own with the
help of some personal spiritual experience.
Will’s career evolved into typesetter design (he designed the
machine that set the names for the Vietnam War Memorial); and when he
was invited to join a new business venture as its chief mechanical
designer, we were truly in way over our heads. I think this was when the
two of us began asking God directly for specific guidance with enough
trust to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to God and to each other. We
prayed together about whether we should be involved in the new venture,
and the answer was yes. We threw all our meager resources into it. It
was a roller-coaster ride that moved us from the high’s of being
millionaires (on paper) to the low of the company’s near bankruptcy as
our fourth child, Marcia, was born. It was the first experience of many
in the same pattern: our income continued to be hard won and uncertain;
our faith was stretched well beyond anything comfortable; but our family
and our marriage continued to strengthen in a kind of incredible
closeness to each other and to God.
Church involvement has never been casual, but in New England it
seemed all-consuming. We joked that Church leaders had to declare a
Family Night so that members would spend one night a week with their
families. During the 1970s, tithing, building assessments, fast
offerings and support for other Church programs sometimes took 20
percent of our income. Fortunately, we didn’t have anyone on a mission
at that time. The temple is a ten hour drive and members were encouraged
to take two of the drive-through-the-night, stake-sponsored bus trips
each year. Home teaching and visiting teaching could easily put 100
miles on our cars in one outing. Even now, wards are so large
geographically that much of the necessary phone calling is long
distance. We commented that general conference talks seemed to emphasize
families, while talks from our ward leaders all emphasized fulfilling
callings and support of leaders. The tone of these local talks seemed
harsh and strident. But there was no doubt that we loved the Lord and he
loved us, so we gave that love to the Church and just tried to do our
best. It was never good enough. With rare exceptions, Will has never
been a 100 percent home teacher, but he has been a sensitive and
generous home teacher and neighbor—qualities that are harder to
quantify than counting numbers. We accepted all callings during this
There were many, and the Church absorbed whatever resources we had.
For example, we postponed adding on needed bedrooms because the Church
was buying an apple orchard and needed extra money. Our giving was never
enough, but, on some level, we postponed looking squarely at the problem
because we identified our financial well-being with being absorbed into
the economic structure of Zion; we had been taught that we would be
returning to Missouri with our food storage and live the United Order.
We were willing to sacrifice. But we were living on the ragged edge of
our ability and resources with the demands still increasing as our
position in the Church advanced and our family grew to six sons and a
We spent three years in Illinois where the Church seemed to be kinder
and gentler, more encouraging, less demanding. In late 1979 we moved to
New England after praying about a home there. This move was fraught with
concerns about being back in New England and also about Will’s earning
a living. This was when Will started independent consulting. We had
tried to find some other part of the country where the Church experience
would be easier, but our native New England was apparently where we
belonged. Our three oldest children were in high school and our youngest
child was two.
Five months later Will was called to be bishop. During those two and
a half years, I taught home study and early morning seminary. Between us
we have had just about every calling there is—Sunday School president,
Primary and Young Women’s president, ward and stake Relief Society
presidencies, teaching in all the auxiliaries, and, after Will’s
release, the stake high council.
The bishopric experience was difficult for him. He wrote:
Receiving the calling initially meant a lot to me because I had
felt like a second class Mormon with my troubles earning a living and
never having enough time to even begin doing everything expected. I
thought God must at last be about to help me resolve this conflict.
Otherwise how could He expect me to handle it?
When our stake president, Steven T. Mangum, called me as bishop, he
suggested that I go down the checklist of requirements with troubled
people and then forget about them until they had obediently complied.
Instead, I tried to promote the personal revelation method Vivian and
I were using because I thought it was a better way to go. I didn’t
see then that our approach was fundamentally out of step with the
Church and, in fact, was the cause of our conflict not only as members
but also as leaders. I began using the pray-for-an-answer method in
bishopric meetings and also while talking to individuals with
troubles. I feel good about those early days of the calling. However,
I did less and less of this kind of praying in the calling as time
went by because it requires too much energy and it doesn’t fit well
into the organization. Also, I was amazed at how few strategic
decisions a bishopric makes. Except for counseling, it is mostly
implementation of someone else’s agenda. My father and I are a lot
alike, and I will always be impressed that he was able to run a ward
for eight years.
My biggest problem was I had even more difficulty earning a living,
with concern for other people on my mind also. A machine designer’s
brain is continually scanning, looking for solutions to problems, and
I couldn’t block out the Church unless I had been away from it for a
couple of days. I had to move bishopric meetings from Wednesday to
Sunday in order to get anything done. I guess I was operating at 40%
efficiency in my own business.
Fortunately we had some old investments pay off and we received a
nest egg of $74,000. I had moved to New England burned out from all
the massive design projects and hoped to start a small business with
whatever resources we could muster—something I could handle,
hopefully. However, we spent the money during the bishopric years,
1980-1982. After two and a half years we were beginning to spend our
kids’ education money, and I had to ask to be released.
I prayed to know why the calling seemed to be ending badly,
considering the effort I had put into it, and I received the distinct
impression that I had taken Church leaders too seriously. In some way
I guess we had been trying to give equal weight to both personal
revelation and Church guidance. We couldn’t fully process the
meaning of this prayer at the time. When I was released, I sort of
shelved it. But it was comforting later when the time came for our
family to confront this dilemma.
By August of 1991 Will had been working as a consultant for a company
in Hong Kong for several years and I was spending a month there helping
to break up a particularly long trip. We were concerned about our oldest
son, Dean, who at twenty-eight, was finishing his master’s degree in
mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. He and Shelly had three young
children. He had been planning to work on his Ph.D., but enough
difficulties had come up to make him wonder if he should pursue this
goal. He had been doing some part-time work for Brian, whose lucrative
job in England had let him pursue an entrepreneurial dream of starting
up a software company. Will was always looking towards new projects and
we wondered about some possible involvement with Dean in the future, so
when we heard he was thinking of moving back to New England, possibly
Maine, to do consulting, we knelt down in our hotel room in Hong Kong
and prayed about offering him the use of some space in our home office.
We had no specific expectations of what might come of it, but the
decision felt right. Will called Dean in Pennsylvania and presented the
idea. Dean and Shelly prayed about it and felt confirmation; and within
a month, they’d found a house to rent in our ward.
Both Will and I were home by mid-September. Within a few weeks, we
learned that the stake president wanted to interview both of them. They
didn’t say anything, but we knew our bishop had been in for five years
(a long stint for a Fox Valley bishop) and we sensed Dean might have
been called as bishop. We both hoped we were wrong. Despite all we’d
learned from Will’s being bishop, it had been an emotionally and
financially draining experience. His ecclesiastical responsibilities
often consumed forty hours a week. It seemed to take time and a stable
financial income that Dean didn’t have. And their children were so
young to have an absentee father.
It was our premonition, not our hope, that was accurate. Dean was
sustained as bishop on 3 November 1991. Dean told us the night before he
was sustained that he’d been called and assured us that he and Shelly
had prayed about the calling before accepting it. I can’t explain it,
but I had an overwhelming, foreboding dread at the prospect of him
having to shoulder that calling. I realize now that the degree of my
distress was way out of proportion to the event, but I wore my only
black dress to church and Will wore his suit normally reserved for
funerals. I found my depression deepening as person after person
commented, "You must be so proud of Dean!" I didn’t need
Dean to be bishop to feel proud of him. Will was also concerned, but my
being so upset was a big factor.
Several years before, I’d served in a stake Relief Society
presidency with three wonderful women, including Susan Davis, the
president. When Susan’s husband, Rodney Davis, was called to be the
stake president, we were released. I had gotten to know Susan quite
well, and Rodney fairly well. They were prayerful people and impressed
me as being very spiritual. After our presidency was released, we wanted
to continue our friendship so we four met for lunch once a month. The
day Dean was sustained, Susan accompanied Rodney to our ward, and her
support meant a lot to me. They could see that we were upset and Rodney
met with Will and me after the meeting to try to understand our concerns
and help if he could. He gave Will a blessing, and later that day Will
gave me one.
My emotions were out of control and stayed that way for several
weeks. Was the level of distress caused from old memories of when Will
was bishop—things that perhaps I hadn’t dealt with at the time? Was
it concern for Dean and his wonderful family? Bishops haven’t fared
well in our family - perhaps I just didn’t want to watch my family go
through this again? I had never had such a negative reaction to anything
in my life. As it turned out, every foreboding was justified.
Most of the ward members barely knew Dean. When we’d moved to the
Fox Valley Ward twelve years before, he’d been a senior in high
school, about to leave home for college and mission. After he was
sustained, one member of the ward said that when Dean’s name was
announced he thought Will had been called for the second time. Dean told
ward members, "I promise I will not do anything unless I feel it’s
what Heavenly Father wants me to do." Ironically, Dean later told
us that he thought this would make the job fairly simple, but what it
did was get him into an impossible situation.
Two months later in January 1992, President Davis called me to be the
stake Young Women’s president. During the interview, both Will and I
were candid with him about our tight financial situation, the emotional
demands we felt from many sources, and—our greatest concern—"how
little I had to give" to a calling that requires a great deal of
giving. We also expressed our concern that the Church seemed far too
interested in measurable performance rather than in genuine
spirituality. President Davis had always stressed the importance of
prayer in his stake and ward conference talks, so we felt we were on the
same wave-length with him.
I still felt that way when he said in a teasing but kindly way,
"I know you’ll have to pray about this." He knew we were
upset, though, and asked us not too spend too much time. He felt that
Heavenly Father would let us know quickly so we wouldn’t suffer over
the decision. We agreed to pray about it and let him know the next day.
The next morning, he called first and said that he was withdrawing
the calling. I replied, "That’s interesting. Will and I have
prayed about it and felt that I should accept the calling, so now
He replied, " I was withdrawing the calling because I felt a
contentious spirit during our discussion last night and I cannot work
with contention. Ask anyone I work with and they will tell you that when
there’s contention I leave the room. But if you feel that you are
supposed to accept the calling, then fine, just as long as you realize I
can’t work with contention."
Shocked, I said, " We were being honest. I didn’t feel any
contention in the room. "
Our conversation ended with my accepting the calling, but wondering,
for the first time, if I could work with him. I had thought our similar
approaches to prayer made us alike in some fundamental way. But now I
had the feeling that this was his way to get me in line. In essence, I
had been warned. Was he trying to make me feel guilty?
I was resolved to do my best in the calling, yet I felt very
troubled. It seemed to offer yet another opportunity to make some Church
program or project come out okay; and although I was willing to try, I
felt tired. We seemed to have been supporting and accommodating leaders
with our scant resources of time and money for years.
For example, the summer before, President Davis had planned a
wilderness experience as a surprise for the youth. Although we knew
similar events had been carried out in Utah, Will and I were opposed to
it for several reasons—the main one being we didn’t believe in
manufacturing spiritual experiences. The youth from several stakes were
meeting at one of the wards where they would be put into groups called
"families" with two adult "parents." From there they
would be dropped off at the Joseph Smith Memorial where they would hike
in their small "family" groups for a large portion of the
night. Then they would camp with very little gear; and in the morning,
they would all fast and have "bonding" group experiences.
Later they would be given letters previously prepared by their parents
and have some "solo" time to read their letters, pray, and
hopefully have a spiritual experience.
We were concerned about the reaction of our own two teenagers who
were expected to participate. One especially was at an age where he
would not appreciate being jerked around like that. If we wrote letters
for our children, weren’t we giving our consent to this activity? When
we prayed about it, we felt that it was just another gimmick coming down
the pike, not the ultimate, life-changing experience that was being
described to us. We did not feel that our sons would be in actual
danger, but we knew that they would not appreciate being overtired,
hungry, emotionally manipulated—and all without being informed ahead
of time. We strongly felt that Marshall, our youngest son, would be
angry at us for letting it happen.
It was a dilemma for Will and me. We didn’t feel that we could tell
our sons what was planned since it was a secret. We decided to tell both
of them that we had concerns about this little adventure and that our
advice would be not to go. We urged them to think and pray about it.
They both decided to go. Some of the youth had very strong spiritual
experiences that changed their lives; a few ended up in the hospital
with hypothermia. Most were somewhere in between. Our own boys were
okay. They hadn’t had any particular spiritual experiences and were
more interested in heading immediately to the nearest McDonald’s than
in raving about it. Our praying through this dilemma allowed us to
accommodate President Davis and look out for our sons at the same time.
As I served as stake Young Women’s president, I missed having a
direct relationship with the girls but enjoyed working with a great
group of women. When I’d been in the ward Young Women’s program, I
often felt that the stake leaders were telling us how and what we should
be doing with little concern for our lack of resources. Programs seemed
more important than people to them. Our stake ranged from a branch with
one young woman to wards with over thirty girls. My presidency tried to
give leaders lots of support and room for them to use their own
creativity and inspiration. We continually stressed, over and over, that
the most important thing they could give the youth was love and
I had several experiences that made me realize I couldn’t push
Church programs the way others could and did. The Spirit constrained me
to say, "Be prayerful and follow the promptings God gives
you." We had good feedback from our quarterly meetings, and I felt
we had a good working relationship with the ward/branch presidencies.
Girls’ camp seemed to go amazingly well considering the bad feelings
in the stake from previous years’ camps and the loss of our stake camp
director just a month earlier.
Meanwhile, Dean was dealing with the problems of our ward. Fox Valley
Ward has about 400 members spread out over a dozen towns. Although it
has a history of being one of the stronger units in the stake, it also
has a reputation for burning out its priesthood leaders. It has always
had a solid core of dedicated but overextended members. The ward was a
key supporter of massive stake building programs and has traditionally
supplied much of the stake’s leadership personnel. It had been split
twice by the time we arrived in 1979.
Dean’s calling as bishop was the catalyst for our family’s
confrontation with the very essence of Mormonism, and he has let us know
enough about what went on inside the bishopric to give us a general
understanding of what happened. However, he and Shelly have apparently
been given the direction and strength to absorb the conflict themselves
without unnecessarily involving other members of the Church. Their story
is their own, and I can describe only the portions of it that became
part of our experience.
As Dean and his counselors prayed for direction for the ward, they
felt strongly inspired to deemphasize programs and concentrate on
personal spirituality and service to others instead. People were
exhausted. There was nothing new about that, but Dean felt strongly that
this was not what the Church should be doing to people. When Dean and
the bishopric prayed about who should be called to various positions,
they got no answer—no names, no inspiration. When the bishopric prayed
about reducing the programs of the Church, possibly even cutting back to
just holding sacrament meeting for a time, they all felt strongly that
this was the right direction to take. Dean talked over all these ideas
and how they’d evolved with President Davis. President Davis did not
discourage this approach; this and the fact that President Davis
stressed prayer and personal spirituality in his stake conference talks
led Dean to believe that they were basically thinking along the same
Then in November 1992, the company Will had been working for in Hong
Kong for four years had a major upheaval. They owed Will over $80,000,
all of which we lost, and Will lost his only client. The resultant
financial stress and worry taxed our emotional resilience; and it was at
this point that things reached a crisis in our Church experience, also.
We prayerfully decided that I should ask to be released as stake Young
Women president. I called President Davis to make an appointment and he
agreed to meet with me the next Sunday after Church in our ward
meetinghouse, since he was going to be visiting our ward. In the
meeting, I explained our situation and told him I didn’t feel I could
continue in my calling, since we had no money coming in. He released me
on the spot and wished us well. I felt relieved and grateful for his
Later, we learned that Dean had had a very different experience with
President Davis that same day. President Davis met, first with the Fox
Valley bishopric, then alone with Dean. He insisted that the bishopric
aggressively staff all the Churches programs and forget any ideas they
had about cutting back. When he met with Dean alone he said, "You
don’t know what faith is. Lean on me and just follow my counsel."
A man in the ward later told Shelly that he had been waiting for an
interview just as Dean and President Davis went into the office
together. President Davis said to him, " We’re having a
difference of opinion, and we’re going to see who wins." When
they emerged from the room, Dean was crying, and President Davis said to
the man, "I guess you can see who won."
Dean was devastated by these instructions and by President Davis’s
way of dealing with him. We’ve tried never to cram religion down our
children’s throats—or at least, we stopped trying that approach once
our oldest became teenagers. Over the years, we’d developed an
approach that respects their agency and tries to set them a good
example. As a result, our children have basically made their own
decisions about their commitment to the Church. Three of our sons have
chosen to serve missions. Dean is someone who doesn’t set goals
quickly nor relinquish them lightly. He hiked the 2,100 mile Appalachian
Trail, for instance. Now he was facing a real crisis.
Without telling us what was happening, he and Shelly struggled to
sort out what was going on. What did Heavenly Father want them to do in
this situation? Dean believed in sustaining Church leaders, but he kept
returning to the concept that was the foundation of his spiritual life.
He thought that praying for guidance was appropriate—in fact, that
trying to carry out his calling by seeking guidance only from the stake
president would violate his responsibility as a bishop to seek
inspiration and revelation to do what was best for the members of his
ward. Prayer was his anchor. He couldn’t easily back away from direct
inspiration in favor of bureaucratic answers.
He wasn’t defiant to President Davis and tried his best to get
along, but he was very troubled. "I don’t necessarily think my
ideas are the only way to go," he told us, "but they’re a
beginning, a place to start a dialogue from, a way to move
forward." That sounded right to us, too. But he put his ideas on
hold and began to fill the waiting callings. He said he felt almost no
inspiration as he did so, but he did his best to do what he’d been
instructed to do.
In December 1992, President Davis announced to Dean that he was going
to combine the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums in our ward with a high
priest as leader. The leader would then have two counselors from the
high priest group, two from the elders’ quorum plus two secretaries,
and report to Rodney. We’d never heard of an organization like this.
If it was an effort to bypass Dean, we couldn’t understand why Rodney
didn’t just release him. A friend from another stake later told me
that stake presidents are told to work things out with their bishops—that
it’s very hard to get permission to release a bishop who’s been in
less than three years. I wasn’t sure what this new organization was
all about, but it seemed a cumbersome and awkward reorganization that
would give another unit the same power as the bishopric.
President Davis’s appointment to this new combined quorum was Ken
Sands. He had been in several bishoprics and on the high council, had an
obedience-oriented view of the gospel, and liked President Davis’s
approach to things. He’d told Dean that he’d been renewing his
temple recommend with Rodney Davis and had complained about Dean’s
performance as bishop; President Davis, in the same interview, described
the new structure and called him to be the leader. One hundred percent
home teaching had been Ken’s motto for years, and he emphasized
performance and programs over all else. At this time, Will was teaching
the high priests, a calling he had off and on for a decade. His
persistent emphasis was trying to move them towards improved personal
spirituality. He strongly believed in the proverb, "Christ said,
‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘count my sheep.’" This new structure
left Will in an awkward position, with both Ken and Dean as his
In January 1993, President Davis suggested the name of a possible
instructor for this combined quorum to Ken Sands. Ken prayed about it
and, instead, felt that Will should receive the calling. We were amazed
he would do this, since Ken and Will see the world so differently. Maybe
it was really an inspired calling? When issuing the call to Will, Ken
said, "I need someone to teach the basics, not like the high
priests’ group where they are always trying to calculate the distance
to Kolob." Will has never talked about Kolob in a class, but Ken
certainly knew that he was the high priest instructor. Will said he’d
pray about it; and although he felt uneasy, he told Ken he’d give it a
try. It seemed possible this whole reorganization was a way of going
over Dean’s head as bishop. Will hoped that, by having a calling that
required him to work with the new unit’s presidency, perhaps he could
The first meeting of this new priesthood group’s leadership
included Will but not the bishopric. Ken asked Will to teach a brief
lesson about home teaching, giving an overview of the program,
identifying problems, and suggesting solutions. Will stressed greater
emphasis on spirituality and less concern about numbers and reports.
After Will’s presentation, Ken flatly contradicted him and stated that
he was requiring 100 percent home teaching. Nothing less was acceptable.
One of the other officers pointed out that they didn’t even know where
everyone was living; people were on the rolls whom no one had ever been
able to find. Ken insisted that it didn’t matter; they had to be found
and taught. Will came home visibly upset. In retrospect, it seemed clear
that Ken intended to straighten out the entire Ellsworth family.
Shortly before this meeting, Ken had recommended that Will read Drawing
on the Powers of Heaven, by Grant Von Harrison, a structural design
teacher at BYU. Will bought the book and we were reading it. Later, we
found out that this book was emphasized at the Missionary Training
Center while one of our sons was there. The book was extremely
distasteful to us. We saw it as a sort of "let’s use God to
manipulate other people" theory. The opening graphic tells it all.
An arrow trajectory begins with a group of priesthood leaders, picks up
power from God at the apogee and then arcs down into some unsuspecting
soul.2 The book helped us understand where
Ken was coming from. We were upset as we read the types of claims
Harrison said priesthood leaders could make:
You are endowed with the ability to discern ... whether or not a
person is righteous (28).
If in your association with other people you are able to discern
their thoughts and feelings, your ability to know what to say and do
will be greatly enhanced (29).
If we could control our own minds, we could control our children
and our families and the kingdom of God, and see that everything went
right, and with much more ease than we do now (37).
Will was upset. I was upset. Will had been reluctant to be drawn into
the structure of a group basically organized to counter the influence of
his own son, acting as bishop. We not only agreed with Dean’s
prayerful approach to life’s problems but had felt somewhat
responsible for it since it was how we lived and, by example, the way we
tried to teach our children to live. Was this calling a test? Was he
called to help Dean in some way? Was he supposed to support the leaders
as they hammered away at our son? Teaching that lesson on home teaching
was the last straw. During our discussion Will said, "Rodney Davis
is against our families and the way we live the gospel."
When I was alone later that night I realized I could not support
President Davis. Several hours later, Will and I talked. He had
independently come to the same conclusion. Ward conference was coming up
in a few weeks, and we both felt that we should not vote to sustain
President Davis. We talked it over with great concern; this was very
different from our usual approach to problems in the Church.
We prayed explicitly about withdrawing support from President Davis.
Unmistakably and immediately, we felt a strong confirmation of the
Spirit. The sense of peace was amazing. I have never felt such a burden
lifted in my life, a burden I didn’t even know I was carrying! It was
a tremendous relief to feel that we had the right—and God’s approbation!—to say no. We knew we had received our answer, but we
almost didn’t believe it. We were awake almost the entire night,
talking and struggling with what this step meant, but every time we
prayed about it the same answer came. This became a pattern over the
next few months: praying, feeling peaceful and then trying to figure out
how this could possibly work out in some acceptable way. As soon as we
tried to "fix" the problem, we would lose the Spirit and have
to start all over again. We also had the strong impression that night—and
many times after that—that we did not need to subject ourselves to
interviews and questioning about our decision. Doing so would amount to
an attempt to persuade President Davis that we were right in our
decision; we would still, on some level, be seeking permission from him
to do what we were inspired to do, seeking his agreement that what we
were doing was right.
Will called Ken Sands and, speaking calmly but firmly, told him that
he could not teach the class, that he could not support President Davis,
and that we would not talk about it with anyone and would not allow
priesthood representatives in our home.
Within an hour President Davis was on the phone to Dean, whose office
was still in our home, wanting to know what he (President Davis) had
done to cause this problem and what he could do to make it right. Since
we refused to meet or talk with anyone, he wanted to meet with Dean.
Dean agreed, and they met on Tuesday, 19 January 1993. We don’t know
exactly what was discussed, but Dean said that it was helpful to be able
to talk about our feelings because that took him out of the equation and
helped make the meeting less confrontational. We do know that at that
time we were very concerned about the direction and impact of the gospel
on ourselves and on the lives of other members of the Church in New
England. President Davis expressed a desire to do whatever was necessary
to clear up our "situation." Dean had been reading A
Different Drum, by M. Scott Peck and was impressed enough with Peck’s
ideas about being inclusive and accepting of all people to create true
community that he gave President Davis a copy. We have no idea if he
ever read it. President Davis listened but said very little.
The following Sunday, 24 January, was ward conference. We decided not
to attend, and Dean requested that he not be invited to speak. He told
us that President Davis gave a good talk, one that he felt was helpful
to the ward members. But he also told us what President Davis had told
him privately: "Your parents are having business reversals because
of their unrighteousness. They need to repent. Their prayers are being
answered by Satan." I think Dean was frightened for us. God’s
chosen leader in New England had spoken. President Davis offered to give
Dean a blessing. Dean wanted a blessing but asked the first counselor in
the stake presidency to give it to him. This man blessed him with peace
and told him that he was acceptable in God’s eyes. This was a great
comfort to Dean.
I couldn’t believe how blatantly judgmental President Davis was to
our own son, but I also realized how frequently we had accepted similar
judgments in the past, not only from President Davis but from other
leaders, humbly believing that they must know better, that things were
really our fault, and that we needed to try harder to do what they said.
This time we knew he was wrong and saw this "counsel" for what
it was: an open attempt at manipulation.
It was much later when we realized that this pattern was typical for
Rodney Davis. He would meet with you and listen in what appeared to be
an open and nonjudgmental way. The next time you had contact with him,
he would use his position to make you feel unworthy and negative about
yourself. He had done it when he called me to be stake Young Women’s
president: he listened to Will and me make an awkward but sincere
attempt to honestly communicate our concerns about how we fit into the
Church; the very next day, he withdrew the calling and said we were
Will and I were just beginning to realize how much we had been
controlled by guilt and social expectations in the Church. We now
realize that many of our prayers were an attempt to cope with abusive
situations in the context of our religious experience. We had been
unable to stand up for ourselves, so we had deferred the final decision
to God. Hearing those loving answers gave us the strength to do what we
felt unable to do on the basis of our own judgment. We realize that it
takes love, patience, and sacrifice to belong to a congregation, but we
were starting to see that there were some inequalities built into the
fundamental nature of the Church that gave leaders many advantages if
they chose to use them. Will, as bishop, had a distaste for the idea of
manipulating people, which is perhaps one reason why it took us so long
to recognize manipulation when it was turned on us. I guess we thought
of the Church in terms of what we believed it should be, rather than
what it actually was. We realized that if this had happened to just the
two of us we would have dealt with it and worked around it; but because
President Davis did it to our son, it became an attack on our basic
family beliefs. We could not ignore it.
Will and I realized that from the outside perspective our behavior
would seem uncharacteristic, an overreaction perhaps. But we both
expected our decision to be respected because of our years of
unquestioned devotion to the Church. We expected our leaders, who knew
of the sacrifices we had made for the Church, would believe that we had
good reason for our action. Since I had just been released from my
calling as stake Young Women’s president, it meant that neither of us
had callings. I had agreed to teach a stake Relief Society Education Day
seminar, but I called the stake Relief Society president, said that we
had withdrawn our support from President Davis, and that I wouldn’t be
attending. She was obviously curious, but I would not discuss it. We
felt strongly that, if we wouldn’t meet with President Davis, we also
wouldn’t talk about him behind his back. It must have been awkward for
Dean, but at least no one tried to home teach or teach us.
Although we never went into details about our withdrawal of support
for President Davis, as time went by, on several private occasions we
informed friends in the stake that we had withdrawn our support. Several
members shared with us their experiences. When I told a close friend
from another ward that we’d withdrawn support from our stake
president, she said quietly, "I, probably more than anyone else,
understand." Her husband had worked closely with President Davis
and had observed unrighteous dominion inflicted on at least ten people,
and got "a serious dose of it" before he was released. It was
so devastating that he went into counseling to deal with it.
Fortunately, he was doing quite well.
One couple had gone to President Davis with concerns about a
daughter. Rather than offering comfort or counsel, he went down the list
of their children, describing what was wrong with each child and what
these stricken parents had done to "cause" each child’s
problems. They left his office feeling stunned and shamed.
Others quietly reported parallel experiences to us. One brother told
us that President Davis called him in for an interview and rebuked him
sharply for "trying to do my job." He told him that God had
revealed to him "that he was unfit to hold the priesthood."
This man, feeling totally devastated, spent the night in prayer and told
his wife the next morning that he knew he was acceptable to his Heavenly
Father. But he never felt the same about President Davis after that. We
realized from this and other accounts that President Davis, whether
consciously or unconsciously, used guilt and manipulation to get people
to obey him; and we realized why we had received such strong prompting
to refuse to meet with him.
Will experienced considerable anguish when he realized that, a few
months earlier, a long-time friend had haltingly begun to tell him about
a bad experience with President Davis, one in which President Davis
threatened, "I can help you out of the Church if that’s what you
want." Will, who had been pleased with President Davis’s
conference talks, which focused on following the Spirit, didn’t
provide a safe or encouraging environment for his friend to talk. He
wished that he had been a better listener, apologized, and is grateful
for that friend’s forgiveness. The recollection helped us both realize
how easily we become blind to leaders abusing people around them, even
Shortly before we withdrew support for President Davis, I had talked
to Dean for the first time about his feelings. He expressed anger, even
rage, toward President Davis and how devastating it was to feel so
hateful. It was very emotional for both of us. I told him, "You
cannot buck the leaders. They’ll cream you." We wept in each
others’ arms. How quickly that had changed. Now Will and I were
bucking the leaders, however quietly! After ward conference Dean seemed
to be his stable self. He continued to function as bishop, trying to do
what he was asked, and quietly awaiting developments.
On Easter Sunday, 1 April 1993, President Davis called while I was
home alone and said, "I want to understand your position and
resolve the differences between us."
I said, "I think Dean has explained our position to you."
He replied, "I guess I’m stupid because I don’t get it. I
will be glad to meet with you anywhere—the chapel, your home—or you
could call me or write."
I said Will wasn’t home, but that we would discuss it and get back
to him. As we discussed President Davis’s request and prayed about it,
we again felt the strong counsel of the Spirit affirming that we had the
right to draw a protective boundary and stay behind it. It was another
assurance that we were not overreacting. Rodney Davis’s effect on us
was spooky. I wrote in my journal, "Much as I’d like this
resolved, I have no desire to talk to him. I don’t trust him or his
motives. Whatever they are, I don’t believe it’s done out of concern
On the following Sunday, 18 April 1993, Will wrote President Davis a
brief letter. We felt that anything we said might be used against us, so
he was restrained in what he said:
It appears to Vivian and me that the priesthood as an organization
is exerting de facto control over the personal lives of members. We
thought the Church was moving away from this kind of thing, but we
have now concluded that it is not.
We have distanced ourselves from this situation by withdrawing our
support for the priesthood for the time being.
There is no forum for safely discussing this issue, and we would
like to remain silent.
We understood that our membership might be jeopardized if we spoke
publicly. In early May we heard that Elder Richard C. Edgeley, a
counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, was coming to our stake conference
later that month. Will wrote to him:
In January my wife and I withdrew support for Concord New England
Stake president Rodney Davis.
Over the years we have become accustomed to praying our way along,
and we feel that we have gradually become followers of Christ. Any
lasting success we have enjoyed has come from approaching God directly
and allowing Him to lead us along. We are accustomed to acting on the
results of prayer. Our converted lifestyle is reflected in the
writings of C. S. Lewis, M. Scott Peck, and in the life of Lehi, for
example, in the Book of Mormon. Our son is bishop in our ward and is a
lot like us.
President Davis is against our two families, creating a
confrontation between abusive power and the followers of God.
We hope that someday God will ask you to explain what you thought
you were presiding over in New England at this time, and then we hope
you spend your eternity under the close supervision of Rodney S.
After sending our letter to Edgley we had a peaceful experience that
has comforted us ever since. We felt that the Church was the way it was
because the majority of the members wanted it that way. We were no
longer under a moral obligation to try and "fix" things, find
a compromise position, or reconcile our differences. It was all right to
let the differences be, to let the Church be what it wants to be. This
was a huge departure from the "one and only true" concept that
means, "What’s right for me is right for everyone," a
concept that pervades much of LDS thinking. This prayerful experience
brought us a new level of comfort and peace.
Elder Edgley sent word through President Davis and Dean that he
wanted to meet with us after the Saturday night session of conference.
Unbeknownst to us at the time and after much prayer, Dean had sent a
letter to President Davis asking to be released as bishop.
On 22 May 1993, we attended the Saturday night session. Before the
meeting began, Dean told us that, during the leadership meeting that
afternoon, Bishop Edgley had related several stories about young bishops
who had tried to be too aggressive in their callings and how God and
their leaders had cut them down to size. I was so agitated that I couldn’t
concentrate on any of the talks in the evening session.
After the meeting, Will and I met with Elder Edgley alone for an hour
and a half. He was very polite, but he didn’t want to talk about the
issue nor arbitrate our differences. He shared with us some problems he’d
had as a financial officer for the Church and how, on occasion, he’d
had to submit to the authority of those above him. It had been
difficult, but now he was a full "team player." He talked
about how great that feeling was and that he planned someday to give a
talk on "submission." I did show some vulnerability when I
told him, "We have a recently returned missionary attending BYU and
if he finds the girl of his dreams we cannot go to the temple with him
because we aren’t supporting President Davis." He replied,
"Do you think anyone who thinks they’re worthy should be allowed
to attend the temple?"
We tried several times to bring the conversation back to what we felt
was the main point: the importance of personal spirituality, not only
for us but for all members of the Church. He said, "We General
Authorities don’t really know whether a given person actually has a
personal relationship with God or not." The implication was that it
wasn’t a high priority issue. We were blunt about what we felt were
the harmful effects of the "fawning" on leaders, both local
and General Authorities. Bishop Edgley response to this was, "Oh,
we’re just men. You just don’t see enough General Authorities out
here." President Monson had visited our area earlier. During the
next testimony meeting, one woman told how she’d been so excited to
shake his hand that she broke out in hives all over her body. It was
surprising to see Bishop Edgley almost preen when we related this story.
He did end our meeting on a hopeful note, and I felt encouraged when he
said, "I’m very concerned about you. I feel that you are good
people and that President Davis is a good man. I hope you can resolve
this. Will you write to me in six months and tell me how you’re doing?
Keep being prayerful."
We left the meeting with mixed feelings. I felt hopeful for the first
time that there might be a way to resolve this situation. "If he
talked to President Davis the way he talked to us," I remember
saying to Will, "if he said, ‘They’re good people and you are a
good man. You can work this out,’ then maybe there’s a way for us to
talk to Rodney and explain why we feel so judged and manipulated. Maybe
there’s a way to see it from his point of view." Will didn’t
say much, but he was much less optimistic than I. He sensed for the
first time that our differences with the Church might extend all the way
to the top. Bishop Edgley had strongly characterized his world as one of
submission to the priesthood hierarchy. He easily dismissed the issues
related to people praying for their own direction from God. Will also
thought that Bishop Edgley was probably trying to fend off a negative
vote during Sunday’s conference session.
On 23 May 1993, we refrained from voting altogether during the
sustaining of Church officers. We didn’t wish to cause turmoil in the
stake. But we noticed that someone directly in front of us didn’t vote
Bishop Edgley was, of course, the concluding speaker. He ended his
remarks by telling of a conversation he’d had with President Hinckley,
then a counselor in the First Presidency. He said, "President
Hinckley said if the members of the Church would do just four things he
wouldn’t worry about them: take the sacrament, pay their tithes, pray,
and read the scriptures. But, I’d add one more thing: sustain your
leaders." He related one story of a woman who didn’t support her
leaders; she got cancer and died. He added, "And if you support
your leaders you can go to the temple." A second story involved a
man who also started out by not supporting his leaders: he lost his
family, his Church membership, and his business and was last seen
running from the law in Hong Kong. Will, who knew Hong Kong better than
Boston, took this story personally. It didn’t help that a priesthood
leader, one of Ken Sands’s counselors, jumped from his seat when
Bishop Edgley began talking about "sustaining your leaders"
and scanned the audience until he saw us.
I have never felt more publicly humiliated and judged. I could barely
talk about it for months. Even a year later when I shared this story
with a friend, I started to shake. This weekend was shatteringly painful
for me especially, but it was also a turning point. We had always felt
that New England had more than its share of domineering Church leaders,
but we had felt that their errant ways would be corrected if they came
into the light of more general Church standards. We left stake
conference feeling that President Davis was probably exactly what the
General Authorities wanted—or would be if he had been smooth enough
not to stir up resistance. We had the feeling that the General
Authorities were a self-contained society of Church elite with a much
narrower focus than we had previously believed and that the behavior we
had thought bizarre from local Church leaders in the past was not
actually very far out of line with the norms for leaders. Back in the
sixties, when our bishop said from the pulpit that we had all given up
our agency at baptism, we shouldn’t have just shrugged it off,
especially since he had studied the writings of various Church leaders
more closely than anyone else in the ward. Later, after he had called
the entire congregation apostates, he had been able to back it up with
something a General Authority had once said. Bishop Edgley’s
expressions of personal caring for us notwithstanding, he could have
openly called us apostates in his conference address, and it would not
have been out of place in his talk.
Early the following week, President Davis told Dean that he would
release him. We assumed that Elder Edgley had given President Davis
permission to do so and were all pleased to have Dean out of this
difficult situation. Now he could stop trying to keep his personal
integrity and spirituality intact while functioning as President Davis
wanted in a way that continually violated them.
Two weeks later on 6 June 1993, Dean was released as bishop.
President Davis announced it by saying, "The First Presidency has
requested the release of Bishop Ellsworth." This is the only time
in the past three and a half years I have raised my hand to sustain any
priesthood action. For the previous six months we had attended only
sacrament meeting. We did not feel that we could sit through classes
where we had no voice. On 13 June, the new bishop, just before the
sacrament portion of the meeting gave an impassioned and tearful plea
for any ward members feeling contention toward anyone in or out of the
ward to cease their contentions and become fully worthy to partake of
the sacrament. Will leaned over and whispered that the bishop’s
remarks were making him feel contentious. Then I realized how
much I resented being preached to in a public forum, even though that it
was the only way the leaders could talk to us since we refused to meet
with them. We continued to take the sacrament, but I grieved over my
slowly dawning realization that the sense of community I had at Church
for all of my adult life was only pseudo-community, not real community.
We had read about this difference in Peck’s A Different Drum
several years earlier, and I had been struck at the time by how closely
the Church fit his description of organizations that have the appearance
of being a community but are really pseudo-communities because they are
judgmental and offer only conditional acceptance. The experience we were
going through showed us that we were of value to our religious community
only if we didn’t rock the boat. It was amazingly clear that very few
people inside the Church were even remotely interested in us or why we
had taken the action that we did. Probably only half a dozen people have
asked us to tell our story, and most of those weren’t trying to
understand. They were only trying to get us to change.
The summer and fall passed with Will and me attending sacrament
meeting and Dean and Shelly attending all their meetings. Shelly was
teaching Relief Society; Dean taught an occasional class but received no
calling. We continued to struggle with our business ventures. Will sold
an option on his latest design project to a Great Lakes company on 20
October 1993. That check was the first money to come through our door in
fourteen months. The financial strain was horrific. Dean’s and Brian’s
venture was also struggling; Dean’s office was still in our home. On 7
November, Will and I left for the Great Lakes with our youngest son for
a one-year contract with the company interested in his printer design.
Within two weeks, President Davis was released as stake president as he
had accepted a professional position in New Jersey. I think it was a
relief to Dean and Shelly that he was leaving the area. Shelly told me
that when he spoke at stake conference, he said, "I know that I
have done nothing while I was stake president that wasn’t approved by
At no time during this period did we reach any permanent conclusions
about our relationship to the Church. Even though we had been treated
harshly by a stake president and even a General Authority, we didn’t
give up. We didn’t assume that all Church leaders and/or the Church
was of no value. We suffered with the thought that the Church had been
good for us in the past but didn’t seem to be good for us at this
time. We accepted that it was helpful to others and we were very
sensitive not to hurt anyone else’s belief. It was isolating. There
were so few people to talk to. I kept wondering how people have this
type of experience alone. Will and I had been led into this experience
individually but simultaneously and decided to withdraw support
together. That seemed a gift from God, and not one to be taken lightly.
We accepted it as a process of discovery and waited for Heavenly Father
to lead us along.
As we started to attend Church in the Great Lakes we both hoped that
we might be able to find our way back into Church activity, at least on
some level. We recognized that we were wounded and that the last
eighteen months had been trying in three ways: our difficulties with the
Church, our business problems, and the strain of seeing our sons
struggle to get their business off the ground. We attended all of our
new ward’s meetings and tentatively stuck our toes into "ward
A week before Christmas, our bishop in the Great Lakes came to visit.
He had been sustained only eight weeks before and said he was trying to
get acquainted with the ward members. We were pretty candid about the
hard year we’d just endured in New England. We explained the
disillusionment we’d suffered about President Davis and Elder Edgley.
Will told him, "We feel that we’ve got some wounds to heal. We’d
really like to be left alone to give the process time." The bishop
asked me about my testimony, and I told him, "I believe in a lot
less than I believed in before, but what I do believe in is rock
solid." I did feel that he really tried to listen and understand.
In the beginning of January 1994, I was in New England visiting my
ill mother when a member of the stake presidency asked to meet with Will
before sacrament meeting. To his surprise, this man called Will as ward
executive secretary. Will explains:
We had asked to be left alone, so issuing the calling in the first
place showed a lack of respect. He then annoyed me by saying that
rubbing shoulders with the bishopric would be a strength for me. The
Church response was not to engage the issue but to correct my
I was getting angry, but I was not willing to admit that my
feelings had already been dismissed by the local Church leaders, and I
launched into a rather one-sided discussion on the institutional
suppression of personal revelation in favor of unquestioned obedience
to authority. The counselor said he didn’t have any conflict with
obedience to the priesthood hierarchy because he had never been asked
to do anything that was contrary to his own sense of right. I said I
could practically guarantee that something inappropriate for me
personally would come across the pulpit each and every Sunday. He kept
listening and occasionally responding with orthodox wisdom until I
said people ought to feel free to pray about any aspect of their
lives, even about how much tithing they should pay, for example. After
that, I think my presence became rather distasteful to him and he just
wanted to end the interview, but I was still talking when the
bishopric came in after sacrament meeting and needed their office
I said I would pray about the calling and get back to him. In the
coming week I prayed over it but surprisingly got no response one way
or the other. Eventually, I sensed that I needed to decide on my own.
It was hard, but I decided by myself to turn it down. I called the
counselor, and I think he was relieved. I felt peaceful but somewhat
chastised by Heavenly Father—that He expected me to do more of my
own thinking in such matters, not just ask Him what to do.
It was around this time—early 1994—that we had several
conversations with Dean, who was still back in New England. He and his
brother had recently sold the software product they’d been designing
and marketing to a major software company for what we considered to be a
miraculous amount of money. Their money worries were a thing of the past
and that was an enormous relief to us. But Dean was having increasing
problems fitting in the Church picture. The new bishop had asked him to
be the main speaker for the sacrament meeting before Christmas, but Dean
felt uncomfortable about sharing any of his feelings. He had ended up
selecting from the scriptures passages that he felt were guidelines of
how a congregation should interact. It had, he felt, been a positive
experience. Dean shared with us that he was praying about whether to
stay in the Church or not. We just listened. Although this step seemed
rather shocking, we were growing more open to the concept that, when you’re
truly trying to follow God, you’d better fasten your seat belt because
the ride may be rough and rocky.
Shelly told me later that, when Dean started praying about the
possibility of leaving the Church, she was initially quite shaken. She
comes from pioneer stock—a long line of extremely active Mormons. She
had served a mission before their marriage. She decided that, if the
Church was where she should be, then she should be able to pray about it
and receive confirmation of that fact. She felt that she would have to
be willing to accept the answer to that prayer—whatever it was. Those
prayers resulted in their deciding to leave the Church.
They met with the bishop and informed him of their decision. He
questioned their decision and mildly suggested that, since they weren’t
reading the Book of Mormon daily, doing so might take care of their
"problem." They didn’t immediately send in their written
request; in fact, it was several months before they did. Shelly was
about to have their fourth baby, but mainly I think Dean was trying to
put into writing why and how they had reached their decision. He couldn’t
seem to get it down on paper in a way that communicated what he felt.
Eventually, he decided there was no way to explain it and simply sent a
brief letter asking that all their names be removed from the membership
Understandably, Shelly’s family has had an extremely difficult time
with the decision. It was incomprehensible to them that their genuinely
spiritual daughter was leaving the Church. They weren’t aware of the
experience Dean had had as bishop; and by then, Dean and Shelly didn’t
feel it was the reason for their leaving, merely the catalyst.
Back in the Great Lakes, members’ wheels were still turning on how
to "help the Ellsworths." After Will turned down the calling
of executive secretary and I returned from visiting my mother, we
decided to restrict our attendance only to sacrament meeting. That
decision felt good when we prayed about it. A couple of months later, a
counselor in the bishopric wanted to meet with us. He encouraged us to
go on the May temple trip and then called Will as Sunday School
president. We gave our stock answer: We’d pray about it. Even before
praying, we felt that these efforts to involve us were continuing to
violate our expressed wishes and that Will should turn down the calling.
Prayer confirmed these feelings, and Will refused the calling. Next the
stake missionaries in our ward telephoned and told me that they wanted
to reteach the "inactive Brother Ellsworth." Shortly
afterward, the ward executive secretary left messages several Saturday
nights in a row saying that the bishop wanted to talk to Will. Will didn’t
return the calls. He was in the middle of some complicated negotiations
with his company; we weren’t sure we’d even be in the Great Lakes
All of this attention was faintly ridiculous, and I hated the feeling
that we’d become a "project." I don’t discount the honest
concern that these ward officers felt for us, but the bottom line always
seemed to be finding a way to get us to do what "they" knew we
should be doing. The arrogance seemed amazing to us, and we felt quite
humble when we realized that we’d been guilty of the same thought
process in the past. We reminded ourselves that we deserved anything we
were getting because we’d been equally insensitive ourselves. Oh but
it would have been wonderful to have someone to talk with—someone to
listen nonjudgmentally and to ask us clarifying questions. At least we
had each other!
In July we went to New England for a visit and attended testimony
meeting in our home ward, the Fox Valley Ward. I guess we were hoping
for something positive. What we got was a bleak confirmation of our
perceptions. Two former ward members were also visiting that day—Allen
and Dale. When Will was bishop, we had spent a lot of time talking to
Allen and his wife, Serena, both musically talented and interesting
people. It was a great sorrow to us when Allen was excommunicated; later
he and Serena divorced, then she left the Church voluntarily. Now,
fifteen years later, Allen had just been rebaptized by Dale.
Dale was a true Mormon pioneer in New England. He was remarkably
close to Allen and Serena. Not only had he originally baptized them into
the Church but he had even gone on their honeymoon with them. Dale had
served in the stake presidency, greatly influenced most of the people in
the ward, and had had a hand in training most of the current leaders.
His view of Mormonism was strong but, in our opinion, too simple. It
focused on unquestioning faith, unquestioning obedience, and tireless
missionary work. We appreciated that this approach paid off in the
growth of the Church in the area but—again in our opinion—it had
hurt Allen and Serena because it hadn’t allowed them to develop an
understanding of who they really were or encouraged them to grow.
Instead, the orthodox checklist approach to spirituality had trained
Allen to make himself look like a Mormon.
Serena, Will, and I knew that he was covering up some deep-seated
uneasiness and that he was postponing dealing with some important
issues. After Dale retired and moved out of state, Allen’s questions
began to bubble up. They were serious. I know that Will, as bishop, took
the extraordinary step of praying about whether to order Allen to
abandon his own thinking. The answer was no. But the results had been
excommunication, divorce, and Serena’s own separation from the Church—a
lot of pain. Dale had made it known that there would have been no
divorce if he had been around. Maybe he was right.
The sacrament meeting was an agonizing experience for us. Most of the
testimonies were devoted to accolades to Dale and the good old days. We
saw how seductive the Mormon formula was: place your destiny in the
hands of God’s spokesmen and don’t worry about anything—not means,
not ends, not ethics, not growth—except obedience. Sometimes it works.
Unfortunately, Will and I had tried to help a lot of people pick up the
pieces when reality forced them to think for themselves and pray for
themselves, only to discover that, when that time arrived, they had no
experience at dealing with reality and no trust in the process. Will and
I left the meeting despondent. We had been trying to nurse the hope that
the Church was moving away from this model of simple obedience, but
Allen’s rebaptism by Dale told us otherwise—at least symbolically.
We had lost faith in the long-term value of orthodox Mormonism for all
people, and we despaired that there would ever be a place for us
in the Church. It was a pretty painful realization.
Later that month we returned to the Great Lakes and again attended
sacrament meeting. We drove home angry and discouraged. Even the most
sincere statements contained the repeated message to us that nothing was
going to change. We were the ones out of step. It was spiritually
debilitating. When we reached home, even though it was only 10:30 a.m. I
went to bed. When we finally brought ourselves to pray about not
attending church for awhile, we both felt a sense of peace and relief.
A few weeks later, a woman I’d never met telephoned, introduced
herself, and said we’d been assigned as visiting teaching partners. I
thanked her but said I wasn’t accepting a calling as a visiting
teacher. The next week the bishop’s wife, a genuinely sweet woman,
called and said that she was my new visiting teacher. I thanked her and
said I appreciated the offer but I’d have to think about it. After
thinking and praying about it, I wrote her a note in which I tried to
say gently, "We’ve had a bad time. We need time to heal. I won’t
be visiting teaching and therefore don’t want to take up anyone else’s
time visiting me." I knew that she was trying to be helpful, but I
didn’t want help that was packaged in the official forms that now
communicated guilt and manipulation to me.
In November 1994 Will’s contract expired. It had not been a good
year for us financially and we returned to New England with no job and
many debts. We did not return to church. The bishop is a sweet, sincere
man who has respected our wish to be left alone. The new stake
president, someone I had worked as stake Young Women’s president, has
also respected our wish for privacy. We have appreciated their
consideration. Until the summer of 1996, there have been no official
visitors, no attempts to schedule priesthood interviews, no callings.
Friends from Church were initially awkward and uncomfortable, unsure
what to say. Some of them have been able to bridge the gap and keep a
relationship of sorts going; others have not. When people have dropped
by we have tried to be welcoming, but sometimes it’s hard to know if
it’s an "unofficial" visit or not.
One couple stopped by with candy at Christmas and showed up uninvited
for a two-hour visit in April 1995. When the topic of the Church came
up, I said candidly, "I’m sure some people in the Church believe
that this is what we deserve—that we’re apostates because we’re
not going to church." It seemed to be the opening they were looking
for and we were inundated with "fix-it" advice that made me
feel pretty uncomfortable. The low point came when the husband told
Will, "The problem is that you’re too intelligent." Once
again, we were the problem.
After they left Will wondered aloud if it was a home teaching visit.
I looked at the calendar. Hmmm, it was the end of the month and the
visit had certainly been preachy. I may have been oversensitive, but it
made me angry that we were again being treated as a project, not as
We had expected to feel a little lost and uncomfortable on Sunday
mornings after over thirty years of attending every meeting. What we
felt was release, even bliss. It was shocking to realize how often I’d
been angry about any myriad of things at Church. Early on I thought that
this step of withdrawing support for a Church leader was as important
for my spiritual growth as my baptism or temple endowment. Over time I
have come to realize that what I thought was following God was in many
respects a coping mechanism for dealing with authority figures in the
Church. I couldn’t say no to God’s anointed by myself, but praying
about each issue empowered me to make decisions. Now, I trust myself
more. I give myself permission to make mistakes. I no longer feel the
need to be perfect. Our lives have become an on-going and continuous
dialogue with God. Will and I talk endlessly about all we have learned.
We have easily learned more in the last three years than in the previous
So, here it is, September 1996, and where are we? Emotionally, I feel
very "out" of the Church. I have learned that all
organizations are abusive; but when you belong to one that claims to be
"the one and only true Church" and it refuses to empower lay
members to address the resultant abuses, it’s not one I want to
support in any way.
The situation has not been easy for some of our children; four are
essentially uninvolved in the Church and remain onlookers from a safe
distance, but they know it has been a very large issue for us. Dean
seems to have left his negative experience behind, along with his
membership. Shelly and I have spent many hours talking about the Church
and its effects on others as she has grappled with building a new
relationship with her family since leaving the Church. Marshall, a
returned missionary and BYU graduate, is working for Brian. He lived
with us for several months and attended church meetings conscientiously.
On Sundays, he returned from meetings, always saying that people asked
about us and said they missed us. He received no calling. After a few
months, he asked the bishop if he could give a talk, the bishop agreed,
and it seemed to be a positive experience for everyone. Later, he moved
into the same branch that Brian and Gina attend. Marshall has immersed
himself in the issues with an open mind and heart and has been terribly
disappointed at the inability of other active Mormons to be able to do
anything close to it.
Brian has tried very hard to be loving and accepting with us, but it
has been obvious that certain subjects are still really too difficult to
discuss. He and Gina are very involved in their little branch—in fact,
they remind Will and me a lot of the way we were at their age—and we
have felt very supportive; but sometimes we wonder if he thinks we
disapprove. He strongly believes that its not possible to have a
spiritual life without going to Church, and sometimes we get the feeling
that he is saying, "Thank God this hasn’t happened to me. Please,
God, don’t let this happen to me." They are fortunate to be in a
stake presided over by a kindly president.
In the spring of 1996, Will wrote Brian, trying to open some form of
dialogue with him about the Church. Brian stopped by shortly after that,
and we talked for several hours, honestly sharing our thoughts and
feelings about the Church. It was a rewarding experience; but after he
left, Will and I were extremely angry. We realized that the Church still
had the ability to tear our family apart. More recently Brian has
admitted that he doesn’t see tolerance and acceptance within the
Church, even for those who stay within the "necessary"
When Brian’s and Gina’s fourth baby was born in May 1996, Brian
said he wanted Will to participate and asked us to come to church for
the blessing; if that was too painful, he offered, they’d bless the
baby at home. Will and I were touched and pleased with this loving and
accepting invitation. Every family member in the state attended the
blessing—sixteen of us. Will and Marshall participated. Dean, no
longer a member, said it didn’t bother him at all not to participate.
In fact, it didn’t bother any of us. We joked about how much Dean’s
children had forgotten in the two short years they hadn’t been to
church. One of the children wanted to know what was under the cloth up
front (the sacrament trays) and another asked if there wasn’t
"some kind of pool in the building for children about his
age?" (baptismal font) Will and I were surprised and pleased that
this meeting felt wonderfully sweet, an experience in family support.
How long had it been since we had attended a church meeting that hadn’t
left us agitated?
In July 1996 while Will and Marshall were home alone, Elder and
Sister Booker, a newly called couple missionary from Utah, arrived and
explained that they had called to help activate the less-active. Will
After some amiable discussion, I said I wanted to explain our
situation, but Elder Booker said they just wanted to get to know us.
He was especially interested in Marshall, I guess because Marshall was
active, teaching Primary in Brian and Gina’s branch. I insisted that
they needed to know how things were if they were going to work with us
or people like us. He sort of accepted that. He had been a stake
president and was uninvolved in our situation. I didn’t see any
reason why he and his wife couldn’t listen to our story after
traveling a long way to help people here.
I briefly related our experience and the Bookers both offered,
"The leaders aren’t perfect." I began explaining how I
felt about the Church, but I sensed that Elder Booker had stopped
listening. This angered me a bit, but I forged ahead. Sister Booker
responded, "Yes, but, you know, after all, the Church is
I asked, "What do you mean, ‘the Church is true?’"
She thought for a moment and said, "Well, you know. The doctrine
and teachings of the Church are true."
Elder Booker said they needed to get to their next appointment and
We have worked our way through the loneliness. In the beginning, it
was an immensely painful loss. Shelly has said, "I do not know how
Dean and I would have borne this loneliness without you." For her,
choosing to have her name removed from the records of the Church was
like dying to her family. She has gone from being the beloved nearly
perfect daughter to the child they worry about the most. She has mourned
their heartbreak, yet her unconditional love—and that of her family
for her—has bridged the chasm that resulted when she followed,
ironically, not the ways of the world but the promptings of the Spirit.
Will and I have considered removing our names from the Church rolls,
but we have never received a prayerful confirmation to do so. We are
content to leave things as they are for now. The question remains—and
perhaps must be answered by each person individually: What do you do
when your personal revelation conflicts with what a leader does or says?
We would love to be able to meet with other like-minded people, but I
think we also are willing to wait, with the faint hope that someday the
Church will be a safe place for us to worship.
In conclusion, I have several reflections about our experience.
1. Prayer is a conventional practice in the Church. However,
members seem uncomfortable—even unfamiliar—with the expectation of
receiving specific guidance through prayer and then following it.
President Davis spoke often and eloquently about spirituality and
prayer, but he invalidated Dean’s answers to prayer and saw him as a
renegade. The whole conflict would have been avoided if President
Davis had said, "We’re both praying and we’re getting very
different answers. Let’s kneel down and pray together about
this." Investigators are taught to pray about whether to join the
Church; but after that prayer has been answered, the message
seems to be "follow the leaders."
For us, I think prayer was a lifeline. It gave us a higher
authority to cope with the burdens imposed on us by authoritative
expectations about our Church service and our family. Probably we
would not have needed it so much if our financial situation had ever
been less stressful and more stable. Ironically, then, our heaviest
burden thus became our greatest blessing in growing spiritually.
Prayer is still the guiding principle in our relationship with God,
but we feel that Heavenly Father has lovingly taught us to trust
ourselves more. We identify with Oliver Cowdery’s experience in
Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9 of studying it out in his own mind, then
asking for confirmation.
2. All too often leaders lead members to the organization—not to
Christ. They often stand between the member and God. Harold Bloom sums
it up pretty well: "If one employs the Moderate Southern Baptist’s
great metaphor of ‘walking and talking with Jesus,’ then we are
vast differences remote from Mormonism. So extraordinarily intense is
the mediation of the corporately structured LDS Church that Jesus
becomes pragmatically unnecessary in the work of salvation."3
This statement rang so true that we were startled by it. It seems
ironic that the Moderate Southern Baptists are more like Joseph Smith
than Mormons are, by far. On the stake and regional level, many talks
start out on spiritual topics—living by the Spirit, following
Christ, prayer, and faith—but they seem to invariably end up with
"follow the leaders."
We admit that following the leaders is more comfortable than, as
Hugh Nibley puts it, the unpredictableness of revelation and the
uncertainty of reason. But rhetoric—the repetition of accepted
dogma, rules, sayings, traditions, and standards—is safe.4
The Church has no monopoly on this situation. Most organizations must
operate on this level most of the time. But rhetoric replaces religion
when no one can recognize the genuinely interactive dealings with God.
3. The ordinances can be great blessings, but they also provide the
main opportunity for leaders to manipulate members towards greater
conformity to the organization at the expense of personal
spirituality. Again, we realize that this is nothing new in the
Church. Speaking of the endowment, Marvin Hill explains, "The
highest orders of salvation were thus institutionalized and governed
by priesthood authority, setting Mormons apart from Evangelical
Protestants, who valued first one’s personal relationship to
4. The costs of conformity are very high—and so are the costs of
nonconformity. The happy Church News image of a thriving,
growing Church with serving sacrificing members sends a powerful
message to those who may feel exhausted or on the fringes, "It’s
your problem. You’re the only one who feels like this. It’s all
your fault." This message marginalizes the already marginalized.
There’s no place for people like us except on the fringes. We are
tolerated, but mainly because leaders and members hope to
"fix" us. Yes, the Church in New England has grown
enormously. There are approximately 50,000 members where there were
only thirty before World War II. But if you track the life of any
particular individual over the last forty years, it shows stalwart
after stalwart who is burned out and burned up by their Church
experience. There are a number of conventional phrases to explain away
this phenomenon. "They fell away." "He became
offended." "She lost the Spirit." "They became
rebellious." All of these so-called explanations blame the member
but never look at the Church itself and what it might be doing to
contribute to the problem.
5. There seem to be no forums within the Church where discussions
of these issues may take place. Over and over, as we have related, we
found that it has been essentially impossible to discuss our point of
view with anyone holding an orthodox Mormon testimony, because to
entertain the idea that something different might have validity is to
take an ax to the roots of that Mormon faith. Most people have easy
answers and comforting answers about where Will and I went wrong:
"If only they’d been humble..." "If only they’d met
with President Davis," etc. I understand the need to blame the
victim. I understand it, but I no longer buy it.
As I sum up our experience, two feelings are paramount. One is
embarrassment—embarrassment that we allowed anyone to have the control
over our lives that Mormon leaders had. When we withdrew support for
President Davis, we had a most amazing feeling of release and freedom. I
remember taking a walk in the woods with Will, discussing this feeling
of liberation. I could not stop myself from raising my hands high above
my head and shouting, "We’re free! Free at last! Free at
last!!" I didn’t know that, despite the feeling, I was very far
from free—that it would take a lot of reading, thinking, talking
together, prayer, and several years of hard effort to be anything close
The second feeling I have is gratitude. I am grateful to have been
given this experience. In our arrogance, Will and I thought we were
followers of God—prayerful, spiritual people. We have learned that in
fact most of our spiritual energy went into coping with the mechanisms
of control imposed by our religious leaders. We couldn’t have survived
this experience without serious emotional damage if we hadn’t had an
ongoing relationship with God; but in many ways, our spiritual growth
has truly just begun.
A poem that speaks powerfully to my soul is Mary Oliver’s "The
[Webgofer note: The poem is not reproduced here because permission has not
been obtained for use.]
Endnotes: (Click on the Back button to
return to the reference.)
of the names in this story are pseudonyms except for those of General
Authorities. Names of specific towns are also pseudonyms.
Harrison, Drawing on the Powers of Heaven (Orem, Utah: Keepsake
Paperbacks, 1979), 5.
Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster,
Nibley, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book Co., 1994), 494-95.
Hill, Quest for Refuge (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books,
Oliver, "Dream Work," New and Selected Poems (Boston:
Beacon Hills Press, 1992), 114-15. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry