Chapter 4
Home Up

VOLUME 2, 1996

Chapter 4
"One Day You Finally Knew"

Vivian D. Ellsworth1


Recently, my husband and I sent a letter to Rodney Davis, our former stake president:

September, 1996

Dear Rodney,

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 understanding.

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 prayer.

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 died.

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 for them.

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 period.

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 daughter.

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 what?"

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 acceptance.

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 lines.

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 understanding.

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 priesthood leaders.

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 moderate things.

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 contentious.

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 friends.

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 for us."

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. Davis.

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 either.

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 the Lord."

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 waters."

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 weakness.

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 back.

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 records.

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 much longer.

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 friends.

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 thirty!

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" boundaries.

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 relates:

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 true."

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 they left.

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 God."5

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 to free.

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 Journey."6

[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.)

1All of the names in this story are pseudonyms except for those of General Authorities. Names of specific towns are also pseudonyms.

2Grant Von Harrison, Drawing on the Powers of Heaven (Orem, Utah: Keepsake Paperbacks, 1979), 5.

3Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 123.

4Hugh Nibley, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1994), 494-95.

5Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1989), 77.

6Mary Oliver, "Dream Work," New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Hills Press, 1992), 114-15. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.