(The following Exit Story was written together by Erik and Shaunalei Andersen)
I have joked with my wife the past few years that I must be a genetic freak since I was apparently born without a ‘feeling the spirit’ gene. I’m not sure what everybody else feels, but I never feel ‘it.’
I prayed. I fasted. I paid my tithing. I did my home teaching. I attended my meetings faithfully. We had family home evening, daily scripture study with the family, the works. On a number of occasions, I had repented for every sin I could remember. I had gone into the mountains to kneel down before the lord and weepingly offered to give up all my sins to know him. I had quoted to the lord all the scriptures promising he will answer his children. I had poured out my whole heart to God, pleading with every feeling in my heart that he would answer me. Again, and again, and again. The LDS church claims Joseph Smith was wrong to keep pestering the Lord to give Martin Harris the 116 lost pages of the Book of Mormon, yet we expect investigators and members to keep going to the Lord endlessly asking him to confirm the truth of the LDS church – rejecting every doubting thought or feeling while embracing every good feeling as the Spirit of the Lord manifesting the truth of the gospel. I finally decided I was defective and would never get an answer. I continued to hope and act as if I knew the church were true (accepting callings, giving priesthood blessings, etc.), even without the reassurance I’d longed for. Once married, I withheld my lack of spiritual answers from my wife.
My beloved wife, Shaunalei, felt the spirit all the time – she was the most obedient member of the LDS church I had ever known. She fell in love and married me, but came to sometimes lament the fact that I was not the spiritual giant she wished I would be. I didn’t do anything bad. But I lost enthusiasm for personal prayer, personal scripture study, and bearing testimony—though I would participate when she organized it. I suppose I was afraid she would reject me. But there finally came a time, back in the summer of 2006, when I finally lay in my wife’s arms weeping, explaining how God had never answered any of my prayers and THAT was why I was not and could not be the spiritual giant she wished for. It was frightening, but it was the truth, and it felt good to not be hiding things from her. She could tell I was sincere and wanted more than anything for me to have a sure testimony; to be able to be the man she wished I could be, to be able to testify to our children that I knew.
We vowed to begin a journey together to study about the church and discover what my problem was and why I was so broken that I couldn’t hear God talking to me. A month or so later, we were at Deseret Book picking up something or other, and my wife noticed a new biography on Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, which she suggested we buy to help firm up my testimony. Several months later, while my wife and kids were out camping for a few days, and I was supposed to be doing some contract work, I finally picked up Rough Stone Rolling and began reading… I have a pretty good memory, and I had read many church books in the past, which made it disconcerting to hear many details of Joseph Smith’s life that were new and were different than I remembered. I began reading the footnotes carefully, and I drove over to the public library and picked up several of the books that were used as references. I began reading book after book, and taking notes. I soon felt like my mind was on fire. I couldn’t sleep. I would stop just long enough to eat. Within 24 hours of near constant study, I found I could no longer believe in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I felt a confusing rush of emotions: elevated, confused, angry, cheated, free, trapped, happy, dreadful, and just about every other feeling. I pulled out my cell phone and gave Shaunalei a call – “We need to talk” I said.
Even though I was persuaded that the church wasn’t what I thought it was, I still spent a lot of time digging and reading… I didn’t want to have been mistaken about the evidence. I didn’t think I was, but I needed to be absolutely sure with evidence from many different angles. So I searched out and read many of the very early first hand sources about church history, to be sure of what all the credible early sources, both friendly and antagonistic, had to say for what happened and how things got started. I found a hundred reasons why believing did not seem justified by the evidence. But maybe there was something I had missed? How much evidence did I need to be certain where the overwhelming preponderance of evidence was pointing?
But even as I dredged up all these other problems and read all these books and biographies and histories, etc. For me the most compelling evidence remained the original piece of evidence that had started me down this path – a story I first found in passing in Rough Stone Rolling, then read in greater detail by following the author’s footnotes—namely, the story of Zina and Henry Jacobs. This young couple had loved each other dearly, married, and born children together but were ultimately driven apart by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as each successively demanded Zina’s hand in secret plural polyandrous marriage. Reading Henry’s pain-filled letters to Zina and his children, after Henry had been ordered to give Zina over entirely to Brigham — I just knew . . . God would not do that to people, or to families. My overwhelming sense of shock, horror, disgust, anger, and outrage, was my heart’s way of telling me everything I really needed to know. It took a couple of years for the facts stuffed into my brain to catch up with the certainty I already felt in my heart.
Back to our story… When Shaunalei got home, I was so excited to tell her everything I had learned. I somehow thought she would be excited to hear about all the things I’d discovered in my readings. She was in fact, NOT excited. She has horrified. And angry. Over the course of many painful discussions and several very painful months, I learned to shut up, to not try and push my thoughts on her. We found ways to compromise. We realized that even if if we got divorced over church differences, we’d still be taking turns with the kids on the weekends, where church issues would remain an ongoing battle–forcing the kids to always choose sides (mom vs dad), which we didn’t want. Since we really loved each other, and since we knew we would have to compromise anyway, we decided we might as well stay together and find our own middle road. There were several months where I wasn’t certain our marriage would survive. But I realized, since it wasn’t over yet, I would just try to be the best husband I could be—respectful of her feelings, loving, helpful—so that she wouldn’t feel the need to leave me. If she later chose to divorce me, I would at least be able to live without regret. Shaunalei soon realized that, while I was serious about not believing in the church anymore, I was still committed to our marriage. I was still a good person. And we both needed support.
Shaunalei, understandably, wished to have the entire family continue attending the LDS church. I, on the other hand, did not. I wanted to explore other denominations, to see if I could “feel God” there. This concerned her, since she continued to hope I would find my testimony of the LDS church before long. We didn’t want our kids (ages 10, 7, 5, and 3 at the time) to have to pick sides. So as a compromise, we decided I would continue to attend our LDS ward meetings with her and the children every other week, and she and the children would attend another denomination with me on the off weeks. During this time (18 months), we ended up having theological discussions nearly every Sunday afternoon after coming home from church meetings–discussing what was preached in the sermon or shared in Sunday School or sacrament meeting. We explored many, many issues of faith–what beliefs made sense, which did not; what we (individually) could believe, what we could not, etc. We had many conversations that would almost certainly not have happened if I had simply ditched church entirely. Rather than alienation and marital division–with the children having to choose sides–we became a more unified team, pulling together for the good of the family and out of love for each other, with our butts planted next to each other on a church pew every Sunday morning. We grew to love talking about the meaning of life, faith vs works, the possible nature of and evidences for/against God, the problem of pain, the problematic patterns we would see in the lives of charismatic prophets and cult leaders, the problematic process of picking the “right” prophet, the diversity of religion, the conditions of salvation, etc, etc. There was no pressure, because we were both just exploring these ideas together.
I knew my dear wife would never leave the LDS church: she had had too many witnesses and experiences for me to entertain hope. Yet in time, her first doubts surfaced. Following the government raid of the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas, we both became fascinated by the news reports of the FLDS church, their leader Warren Jeffs, and the people who remained loyal despite his in-prison confessions denying that he was ever a prophet. Shaunalei devoured the book Escape by former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop–which describes many problems inherent in polygamy (jealousy, competition, neglect, power struggles among the sister wives, loss of individuality, etc.)–and eventually came to the conclusion that polygamy was not an inspired principle. Her conclusion that “Joseph Smith must have been wrong about polygamy” was her first step in her own journey away from a sure testimony of the church. Shaunalei eventually began to ask questions, and study on her own, and found serious problems (in particular the evolving priesthood restoration story) that began to erode her testimony.
But, given all her earlier spiritual witnesses, she had to understand what her former spiritual witnesses were, and if Heavenly Father was okay with her new perspective on life and faith before she was willing to walk away from solemn baptismal and temple covenants. She prayed, asked for guidance, and took note of the many and varying gentle reassurances, epiphanies, and revelations that came to her — and then compared these with her earlier “witnesses.” She came to conclude that the revelatory process the church claims as evidence of our sure Knowledge of Truth, was not evidence at all—but rather, exploration, meaning-making, and peace-finding. She began to see problems in the Prophet model of revelation, where a prophet tells church members what God wants them to know, and where it is each church member’s duty to obey. This approach makes people subject to charismatic or manipulative or delusional personalities (such as Warren Jeffs), and makes people dependent on other people’s assurance that they are true spokesmen for the Divine.
Two long years after my own loss of faith, my dear wife Shaunalei was ready to leave the church. She had come to fully doubt the validity and importance of the church, and the truthfulness of its foundational claims. We resigned from the church together, with our whole family intact, on July 4, 2009.
We are the Andersen family, and we are Ex Mormons.
Recommended resources and links:
Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman
Insider’s View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer
In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton
“An Address to All Believers in Christ” by David Whitmer
“Sidney Rigdon: Creating the Book of Mormon” by Craig Criddle
Losing a Lost Tribe by Simon G. Southerton
By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus by Charles M. Larson (Active LDS can receive a free copy of this book here)
Escape by ex-FLDS Carolyn Jessop
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
A Mormon Mother by Annie Clark Tanner
An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (especially the 1940-1944 entries)
Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue (Book 1) by Neale Donald Walsch
Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities by Len Oakes
God Without Religion: Questioning Centuries of Accepted Truths by Sankara Saranam
Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels
The Bile Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond