My name is John Hamer. I’m a historian, map-maker, editor, and publisher. I grew up in the LDS Church in the 1970s and 80s in the Midwestern U.S. as a seventh-generation Mormon on my mother’s side. I left the church prior to going on a mission and before “coming out” as a gay man.
After spending the bulk of my adult life “unchurched,” I became acquainted with Community of Christ (the former RLDS Church). I marveled at Community of Christ’s journey as a faith community, its integrity, its inclusiveness, and its spiritual flexibility. I felt called to be a part of the church and I now serve as a Seventy, and as Pastor of the downtown Toronto congregation. For many years, I’ve been a part of the Mormon podcast and blog communities.
What parts of the Mormon experience were most important or useful to you?
My family and I really embraced the Mormon traditions of doing creative projects like Road Shows and doing family history. Producing creative projects has been a life-long component of my being that goes straight back to my Mormon roots.
More recently, I have appreciated the quality of community building at the heart of the Latter Day Saint tradition. While I was still at BYU, there was a wonderful liberal Mormon community centered around the independent newspaper, the Student Review, where I served for a time as publisher. In the 2000s, I became part of the Latter Day Saint historians community and I also began to be involved in communities like Sunstone and various Post-Mormon communities.
What doctrinal or theological parts of Mormonism did you believe that were most important to you?
I felt that, as Mormons, my family and our small cohort of fellow church-members were a special minority, akin to being Jewish, living among the Gentiles. It appealed to me as a child that we had the monopoly on truth and everyone else was in the wrong.
The idea that humans were “gods in embryo” and that the meaning of life was a divine life cycle also appealed to me as a teenager. What kid doesn’t want to become a god and create his or her own world? Having studied philosophy and theology as an adult, I now see that this simple “answer” and the orthodox LDS idea of the “Plan of Salvation” actually fails to address the question of life’s meaning at all.
What spiritual experiences did you have as a Mormon that sealed your orthodox commitment to the church?
I do not remember any spiritual experiences from my childhood. I do remember that people in my ward equated normal human emotional responses with “feeling the Spirit.” I rejected this idea as a teenager, because it was already clear that a person could easily manipulate this system by putting on the right face and speaking the right words. Nominally spiritual people in the ward had no insight into true intentions, because their false definition of “feeling the spirit” was no different from regular surface emotions.
How did you lose your faith in Mormonism?
While I was a youth leader initially — Eagle Scout at 13, deacon’s quorum president, seminary president, etc. — I became a closet doubter, as my individual study of the Book of Abraham and Book of Mormon left me questioning their historicity. In the end, I resolved to leave the church over social justice issues, specifically the LDS Church’s institutional sexism and devaluation of women.
When I moved to Utah to attend BYU, I suddenly was part of an all Mormon society, and my illusion that Mormons somehow constituted a special minority, set apart from all others, was utterly shattered. From that point on, I had no interest in participating in Orthodox Mormonism.
What parts of Mormonism were harmful to you?
Mormonism engrains sexist attitudes in people who grow up within it. No one is immune and it takes a lifetime of active awareness to rewrite foundational neurons.
How do you now explain the spiritual experiences that you had as an Orthodox Mormon?
In general, Orthodox Mormons define normal human emotional responses as “spiritual experiences,” and they can misconstrue coincidences as meaningful. We should be aware of our emotions and experience them as part of ourselves. However, we should be aware that positive emotions such as happiness and joy do not make something “true,” anymore than sadness or grief makes something “false.” Coincidences are not meaningful. Encountering something at a particular moment is not God or the universe telling you to do that thing. Meaning and the spiritual need to be sought at a much deeper level than the superficial definitions common within Orthodox Mormonism.
What was transitioning out of Mormonism like for you? What was most painful about it? What was most healing or joyful about the transition?
Leaving Orthodox Mormonism definitely altered my family relationships. However, it occurred at the same time that I moved away to college, so my family relationships were going to change regardless. The strain on family relationships would have been the most difficult component, but my family largely weathered the transition and remains close-knit as a multi-religious family.
When I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for graduate school, I left my Mormon identity entirely behind and did not include Mormonism in back personal backstory. It was only in the 2000s when I became engaged with the Latter Day Saint historians community and with liberal and Post-Mormon communities like Sunstone that I reengaged with my Latter Day Saint identity.
In what ways did church leaders or members make your transition more difficult?
There was a man in my home ward that took my dad aside an earnestly asked my dad what he’d done wrong in raising his children, so that this man wouldn’t make the same mistake. In general, I didn’t involve church leaders or members in my transition and they did nothing to make it more or less difficult.
Were there church leaders or members who were helpful to you? If so, how?
I hadn’t resigned my membership as of 1997 when I moved to Minneapolis and got together with my partner Michael Karpowicz. The local bishop found out I’d moved into his ward and came to introduce himself. I told him I wasn’t interested in the LDS Church and he asked if I wanted to resign my membership. I had heard it was difficult, but he said it wasn’t and I just needed to write a brief letter, which I did on the spot. The local Stake President was a man who had worked for my dad’s company and he called to confirm. Both leaders were helpful.
What resources were most helpful in your transition out of Mormonism (or Orthodox Mormonism)?
There were essentially no resources available to me at the time, as a teenager in Minnesota in the 1980s, prior to the internet. I determined the Book of Abraham and Book of Mormon were not ancient from personal study, so the scriptures themselves were my primary resource.
What significant mistakes did you make in your transition?
Fortunately, I made the decision to go prior to wasting two years of my life on a mission and before I’d made substantial income that went to tithing. In retrospect, if I’d made the decision earlier, I believe that I would have had a much better university experience in Madison, Wisconsin, than I ended up having in Provo, Utah.
How has your leaving Mormonism affected your family relationships, friendships, job, neighbor relationships, social life, etc.?
The transition happened at the same time as I left for college, so there would have been significant changes in my relationship with my parents and siblings in any event.
How have you navigated communication and relationships with believing family and friends? Any tips to keeping those people in your life?
My family has largely come to terms with the reality that some members of the family are active LDS, some are agnostic, some are atheists, one is now an evangelical Christian, while I am now part of Community of Christ. We don’t spend time attacking each other’s religions or lack thereof. I don’t have an agenda where I want my mom and certain siblings, nephews, and nieces, to leave the LDS Church.
In the past 20 years, I’ve made new friendships with people who are active in the LDS Church through the Latter Day Saint historians and Sunstone communities. I’m open about my own position and beliefs and I’m not engaged in attacking theirs at all.
While I do think the institution of the LDS Church is engaged in great harm and has a net negative existence in the world, and while I do hold its leaders ethically responsible for what they are doing, I have nothing against individual members, nor is it my goal to attack them or their beliefs.
Which (if any) of your former Mormon beliefs/behaviors have you retained after your faith crisis?
I complete many projects. I’m a doer/builder/creator and I trace that to my family, but also to our Mormonism. I don’t think any of my current beliefs have much root in orthodox Mormonism.
In what ways have your beliefs/behaviors changed after your faith crisis?
The time frame is the transition from how I believed and behaved as a teenager, and how I behave now as an adult. Essentially these are entirely different.
Orthodox Mormonism emphasizes legalism and maintaining appearance above all. My own focus in life is a flexible application of principles, such as making responsible choices, as opposed to focusing on rules like avoiding caffeinated soft drinks or shopping on Sunday.
What are your thoughts/beliefs now about God and Jesus?
As humans, we seek meaning and purpose. We would like to be grounded in wisdom, love, and goodness. Historically philosophers and theologians have defined that source of meaning as “God.” While understanding that God is beyond definition, we sometimes use analogies such as the human love we experience to imagine Love itself. This divine Love is what we mean when we say “God.” In no sense is God a limited physical being, nor is God literally your father, as taught in Orthodox Mormonism. The limited being envisioned by Orthodox Mormonism does not exist, and if he did, would be convicted theologically due to the Problem of Evil.
The historical Jesus was a social and religious reformer. The early Christian movement took spiritual experiences (visions of a risen Christ) inspired by the historical figure to create a theology where “Christ” is understood as a second “person” through which to understand the one, ineffable God.
How do you now make sense of death and the afterlife?
Death is a part of life. There’s nothing to be afraid of: while everyone experiences dying, you will never experience “death,” as death is a non-experience. Any time in life spent worrying about death is wasting life. Although Orthodox Mormonism imagines an afterlife that is essentially identical to life, any afterlife that exists will fundamentally be unlike life. There is no reason to imagine temporal conscious experience.
To the extent that you are motivated to love for the sake of love or to do good for goodness’ sake, your being and purpose approaches love and goodness. In that way you participate in the eternal because those purposes endure and are more important than a stone monument with your name on it.
Without the church telling you what is “right” and “wrong,” how do you establish your own sense of morality/right/wrong?
I have established my ideas about morality/right/wrong through extensive study of history, theology, and philosophy. I contemplate how great thinkers of the past have addressed these issues and then I actively share these ideas in my community. By having a community with a diversity of perspectives where ideas can be freely exchanged and challenged, I am able to continually learn, grow, and apply these ideas.
Do you still value “spirituality” in your life (spirituality defined as “connection to something bigger than yourself”), and if so, what are your main sources of spiritual fulfillment?
I feel very spiritually connected with my community, not just now, but in the perspective of everything that has come before and that which is yet to be. The cycle of my life is part of a larger cycle of the institutions and communities that I impact, which in turn are part of all human history.
To what extent have you found healthy and meaningful community to replace the role of the ward/stake in your life?
My local Community of Christ congregation in Toronto provides a spiritual family for me that is central to my life and is a source for healthy relationships, and a forum for the exploration of real meaning in ways that were not remotely conceivable in my LDS ward growing up.
What meaning and purpose does life have to you now that you no longer believe in Mormonism?
My life involves a personal exploration of the questions of meaning and then their application by sharing ideas and activities in community.
How has leaving Mormonism affected your mental health?
I’m very happy that I left Orthodox Mormonism so long ago and at such a young age that I don’t trace any negative mental health issues to my Mormon upbringing.
How has leaving Mormonism affected your sexual health?
I’m very happy that I left Orthodox Mormonism before I became sexually active. Compared to the impact that “coming out” as a gay man in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic has had on my attitudes toward sex, Mormonism’s impact is negligible.
What aspects of your life are better after Mormonism?
I’ve been able to accomplish so much more good in life as a community builder, theologian, spiritual, and religious leader than I could have ever accomplished within the inflexible and intellectually stifling confines of LDS Church.
What is your life still missing? In what ways could your life still be improved without Mormonism?
I don’t have any complaints, wants, or needs that are going unmet.
What final advice would you give folks who are transitioning?
Be cautious as you are transitioning with what you share with spouses and family members who are committed LDS. You are in a unique place in your life, which has led you to the place you are. Your spouse may not be in that place, and the same information that is leading you to conclusions that seem self-evident may seem quite different from their perspective.
Note: This post is part of the THRIVING Beyond Orthodox Mormonism project. See here to browse other profiles. To submit your own THRIVE profile, click this link.