What past experiences led you to start Mormon Stories?

John Dehlin Blog, Q&A, Writings 9 Comments

Prior to my LDS mission, I considered myself to be an orthodox, literalistic, believing Mormon.  To give some sense, I was regional scripture chase champion as a Freshman in high school, seminary president as a senior, and to this day have never tried alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc.  Bruce R. McConkie was my favorite church leader as a youth and young adult, and I devoured the Doctrines of Salvation trilogy (by Joseph Fielding Smith) as a missionary.  In short, I considered myself to be a highly devoted “True Believing Mormon” up until my mission experience.

From 1988 to 1990 I served a mission for the LDS Church in Guatemala.  During this time, our mission (Guatemala City North) became the 2nd highest baptizing mission in the world, often baptizing over 700 people a month, with some companionships baptizing over 40 people in a single month.  Over time I learned that many of these missionaries were using what I considered to be highly unethical means to obtain baptisms, including baptizing drunkards, mentally delayed people, and seven year olds.  I also learned of some missionaries organizing large soccer games with impoverished youth, and then baptizing them as a means to “cool off” after the soccer games concluded (with no missionary discussions, church attendance, or parental permission involved).  When I discussed these tactics with my mission president (as a zone leader), I was scolded for insubordination to priesthood authority and ultimately sent home four months early under the guise of a medical release.  I did experience asthma on my mission, but I certainly did not want or need to return home early.

I completed my mission in Tempe, Arizona (I had been offered an honorable release after Guatemala, but declined it), wherein I served as a Zone Leader to the Spanish speaking.  During my time in Arizona I attempted to alert top church leadership as to the activities in Guatemala, but was ultimately informed by my outgoing mission president (Durrell Woolsey) that the church decided not to take any action, reportedly out of a desire to avoid embarrassment.  After returning home from my mission I engaged in a somewhat lengthy dialogue with Elder Dallin H. Oaks about my mission experiences in Guatemala, which you can read about here.

After my mission I started to experience some doubts about the church, encountering Sunstone and the “September 6” while at BYU.  I remained a believer, however, marrying in the temple, and remaining active in the church for most of the past 20 years.

In 2001 while working for Microsoft, I was asked to serve as an early morning seminary teacher for the Church.  During this time I began studying LDS church history in depth, with the intent of becoming a better teacher.  Through my studies I discovered several very troubling aspects of LDS church history that I did not recall learning during my years in the church, including the following:

  • I learned that Joseph Smith provided multiple and varying accounts of his first vision story, and that some of these accounts (e.g., his descriptions of the Godhead) seemed to evolve over time to correspond with his own changing beliefs.
  • Joseph Smith married over 30 women, some as young as 14 years old, many of whom were married to other men at the time he married them (i.e., polyandry).
  • Joseph Smith would frequently approach other men’s wives about being his own plural wives — often while the men were away (sometimes on missions).
  • Joseph Smith publicly lied about his practice of polygamy, and lied to his own wife (Emma) about the practice.
  • When a Nauvoo LDS First Presidency member and his wife (William and Jane Law) refused Joseph Smith’s attempt at making Jane Law a plural wife, Joseph slandered both Jane and William Law, including publicly calling Jane Law a “whore” (if I’m wrong about this, someone please correct me).  When the Laws (along with others) purchased a printing press in an attempt to hold Joseph Smith accountable for his polygamy (which he was denying publicly), Joseph (as Nauvoo Mayor) ordered the destruction of the printing press, which ultimately led to his assassination.
  • As a youth and young adult Joseph Smith engaged in folk magic and treasure digging, promoting himself as one who could help others find buried treasure by placing a magic stone in a hat.  I am unaware of Joseph ever finding any treasure, though it appears as though he was still able to convince many people that he had magical powers.
  • I was disturbed to learn that Joseph Smith used this same stone in the hat (from his folk magic days) to produce the Book of Mormon.  It is also well-documented that this “translation” process did not involve the golden plates (as we continue to be taught as Mormons) — which led me to question why the plates were needed at all?  This, of course, led me to question whether the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient record, as the church continues to teach.
  • The preponderance of archeological evidence appears to suggest that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century work of historical fiction, and not an ancient history of the Native Americans.  This includes the Book of Mormon’s mention of metals (e.g., steel), plants (e.g., wheat, barley), and animals (e.g., horses, cattle, sheep, pigs) that we now know did not exist in the Americas during the alleged time of the Book of Mormon (600 B.C. to 400 A.D.). In addition, DNA evidence currently demonstrates that Native Americans descended from Asia (via the Bering Strait), and not from the Middle East via large wooden ships (as both the Book of Mormon and LDS church leaders have claimed).
  • It was perplexing to me that, according to the Book of Mormon, Native Americans in the New World became Christians centuries before Christ was even born, while Jews in the Old World were left (by God?) to continue believing in traditional Judaism.
  • It made no sense to me that the LDS church claimed that the Book of Mormon was the most correct book on the face of the earth — given how many changes had been made to it (numbering in the thousands), and that the Book of Mormon failed to include any of the most distinctive LDS teachings (e.g., temple endowments, temple marriage, baptism for the dead, theosis, polygamy, three degrees of glory).
  • Joseph Smith clearly borrowed heavily from the Masonic ritual when creating the LDS temple endowment ceremony, considering the remarkable similarities between the two rituals and Joseph’s timely involvement in Masonry during the Nauvoo period.  In addition, many of these Masonic rituals (some very disturbing, such as oaths of vengeance and hand motions mimicking the slitting of one’s own throat, or the disemboweling one’s self) have been removed from the temple ceremony — prompting the question as to whether the LDS temple ceremony was inspired of God to begin with.
  • The Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith claimed to have literally translated from Egyptian papyrus that he purchased in the early 1830s, has been widely demonstrated by modern Egyptologists to be a common funerary text, and in no meaningful way matches what Joseph claimed to have translated.  It is also known that Joseph Smith failed to accurately identify forgeries that were intentionally prepared to test his translation abilities (see Kinderhook plates).
  • I learned that Joseph Smith ordained black men to the LDS priesthood while he was alive, and that it was actually Brigham Young who implemented his restriction of LDS priesthood from black men, and higher-level temple ordinances from all black members.  I also discovered that Brigham Young held and taught extreme racist views during his life, legalized slavery while in Utah, and that he also was guilty of covering up the slaughter of over 100 innocent men, women, and children (i.e., Mountain Meadows Massacre).
  • I began to feel deeply troubled by the racist narrative in the Book of Mormon, which to this day claims that God cursed the Native Americans with dark skin as a result of their wickedness.

For more information about these and other issues, see Letter to a CES Director and/orMormonThink.com.  Both of these sites rely overwhelmingly on LDS Church publications and/or firsthand sources.  For apologetic approaches to these topics, see FAIRMormon.org.

Finally, during our time in Washington, my wife’s favorite cousin came out to us as gay, and informed us that he contemplated suicide due to fear/shame/sadness relating to his sexuality.  This experience caused us to wonder if the LDS church has been wrong on LGBT issues just as it clearly had been wrong regarding polygamy and blacks/priesthood in the church.  All of these experiences caused me to experience a deep faith crisis which lasted several years….and to some extent lasts to this day.

Comments 9

  1. John, is it known for sure that Brigham covered up MMM? I get so confused on the info what is fact and what is speculation. When I read about it it seemed like there wasn’t concrete evidence, but I only read a couple hours on both sides. Also, I think I also read that joseph said the book of abraham was actually translated from those papyri, and said what some of the characters meant, incorrectly. Did my brain make that up? I think its significant to mention.

  2. Dear John,

    There’s a lot to read here and these last days, following what is happening to Kate. I haven’t read much of these questions and answers, yet, but I just read the first point:

    *’I learned that Joseph Smith provided multiple and varying accounts of his first vision story, and that some of these accounts (e.g., his descriptions of the Godhead) seemed to evolve over time to correspond with his own changing beliefs.’

    I would like to share why I don’t have a problem with the various versions of Joseph telling about the Vision.

    People wit Near Death Experiences (NDE), and I am one, are unable to talk about it because of the impact it has and it is such an uncommon experience that it takes years to understand it or maybe you never get to understand it totally. You can read on the following webpages about NDE: http://iands.org/ and http://www.pimvanlommel.nl/home_eng.

    I have had some spiritual experiences during my life time. It was why I became a member of the church at 13, cos here was a young boy like me, who had experiences like that, too !

    There are reasons you don’t talk about your experience because of it’s impact, it’s too delicate and fragile as beautiful as it is. And people won’t understand, so, you keep it for yourself. If you talk about it, it also depends on the listener what you tell of it, what the person can handle.

    You don’t really ask for what shows up in a visions and some parts can be really shocking, or so different from what’s considered normal reality, that it takes years to take the info serious. For instance: a relative from my boyfriend took his life, suicide, and I had allways learned that these people go to hell. Two weeks after his death, he showed himself to me smiling and so happy, that I was convinced that all my experiences were not real because now it is proven: because this is not real, he’s in hell ! Than I got to the bookstore and felt urged to buy a book about someone who had experiences with deceased ones aswell. He wrote that suicide will create a moment of hell at the time you take your life, because of the despair that’s in your mind and it is not right to do. But hell is a state of mind, what you think, there are always angels around you to try to get through to you and help you out. As soon as the suicided will accept this help they will lead him/her to the light. Once in the light, they will be on the path back to God and no longer suffering in hell. This taught me a great lesson. Where my experience with this suicided man was a token that all my experiences were wrong, now it blew me away and taught me they were right, because he showed himself in a way that I didn’t know that could be possible, but he ‘told’ me he was on safe ground and was intensively happy, with his big smile and shining face, cos he had accepted the light !

    (You can learn a lot from the movie ‘What dreams may come’ with Robin Williamshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Dreams_May_Come_(film) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6aqBvedQvE, impression.)

    Sometimes you don’t understand what you see and interpret it wrong and you have to correct that, and such takes time, growing, learning and after a while it starts to get clear, but you keep learning from and about it through the years, because you get wiser and get more insight.

    I can immagine Joseph Smith didn’t tell about his experiences at the first place, who would understand ? He might try a small piece at the beginning. And as he starts getting people around him whom give him convidence and believe what he says (maybe through their own experiences) he’ll tell more about it or even try to get accurate about it, but he might be hesistant about some things he have seen. Like: I did see the Father, too. Boy, no one is going to believe that! I can’t tell that ?. Over a distance of time different parts of the vision are more important than other parts, it is all part of the learning process and that is why visions are so personal. You can talk about it, to make people realise their own visions are important for them, too, but you never can nail someone down on a told vision, because the learning to understand it is a yourney. You keep on looking at your vision from different sides and see new things. Things you first didn’t see because you had no clue of the existence of such idea, but now you are ready to learn about it, it becomes clear and huge into your mind and you learn to see all sides of it. Another thing you thought was unimportant can be suddenly extremely important within a new frame of thoughts. Some pieces of the vision are just to help you as stepping stones to come from one insight to the other.

    A vision is as rich as a painting with thousand colors, one time you notice one color, the next the other and let’s say that each color has it’s own lesson to learn to you ! Still, if you talk about your vision, you still look at the person you’ll tell it to: what can he handle, what can he take serious ? Next, you might tell things not mentioned before, but because it is now relevant or important for you, you understand it better and dare to talk about it !

    As you notice the reactions upon it: saying it is false, because he first told this, next he told that, you know how delicate it is to share such experiences ! I think the most important lesson of the First Vision is that Joseph let us know that recieving an answer from God is okay, something you may expect to happen in your life. That God cares about you, that a vision is a lesson you can get to learn from and it teaches you more insights throughout your lifetime. And sharing his vision he told us some of the things we could know from now on: we have our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in heavenly realms, Whom care about us.

    I learn a lot from visions and NDE from others, it comforts me, reaffirms my own experience and sometimes I understand mine better, because the other person had already learned something that I not yet noticed or interpret wrongly.

    I hope I could make clear that a vision is not a fixed frame. You can have seen the whole thing, but than the learning starts. It depends on how much trust you have in the people you tell it to, what you share, and when you get more confidence you dare to tell more. You can’t blame Joseph for this process. When you have experiences of your own, you recognise this. That is why, still after all these years that I left church and got excommunicated (1989) I still believe Joseph Smith has seen his First Vision. And by him talking about his vision I knew that visions were real and possible, also my own, despite of what others say, are real.

    My visions have been a scource of lessons for me that I am greatly gratefull for and I still am learning from them. I believe everybody can feel God’s love and have their own experiences, everyone in it’s own way. It doesn’t have to be a vision, it can be an insight while reading the scriptures, an aha-experience, a feeling of recognition that you feel you belong and what you learn is important for you. Each insight that teaches us love and empathy is revealed from God, to let us know who we really are: children of God, and it is up to us to dare to take it seriously. To learn to recognise it, and learn our lessons. And here Joseph Smith is saying: trust God’s gift ! I got mine and it guided me to greater understanding during my life ! Dare to learn to trust your communication with God, too.
    I geuss this is his great lesson for us, and if we learn from the items in the vision, too, that will be a bonus for us, mostly he celebrates with us the knowledge that we can communicate with God.

    I hope this might help ?

    Keep it up brother ! Kate got great news yesterday: ‘it is okay to ask!’ and I hope you’ll find comfort, too !

    Peace, Adrie de Jong, The Netherlands

    PS still got to read the rest, be patient with me.

    1. Hi Adrie… I really appreciated what you wrote here and the way you expressed your Near Death Experience. I’ve been an avid student of NDEs ever since reading Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life, in 1977…shortly after requesting excommunication from the Mormon church. I have read literally thousands of NDE accounts and have found them to be far more instructive and expansive in their view of the cosmos and our place within it than any of the pre-fabricated ideologies found in ANY religion.

      My best friend in the world had a truly amazing NDE and has written a book about her experience: Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani. I hope you get the chance to read it because I think you will really enjoy it and the perspective it offers.

      1. Hi Rio,

        I didn’t share my NDE, because my comment was already getting too long and I wanted to focus on explaining that it is a proces to understand and share spiritual experiences as visions. Instead of Joseph having told many different visions, I tried to explain he told in pieces about his First Vision.

        I had my NDE in 1999. I had been working for 2 years with an ill body, but didn’t realize, because the communication between my body and brains was disconnected and I wasn’t aware of in how much pain my body was, except that I got very slow and quickly tired. In oct 1999 I had been attending The Hunger Project annual meeting in New York and was very ill during that weekend and on the way back home. Still I went back to work but had to quit 2 weeks later because I was too tired. I kept sleeping for 1,5 day and during that time I left my body for a short while: I met with a friend whom I knew from the church and whom had died a sudden death during doing a sport Tea Kwon Do back in 1978. We were waiting in a dark place, but there was light in that darkness. It gave me an idea like I was in a womb and could see the light through the skin of the woman’s belly. Like when you hold your fingers against the light and can see the light through the skin of your fingers. I felt very safe, loved and comforted. Here this old friend was standing above me in his own light that beamed around him and we didn’t talk but we both knew telepathic that we were waiting for the answer from Up Above if I could go along with him or if it was not yet my time. It took a short while and than I found my self back in my body again. But something had changed: I didn’t feel the pain before, but now the communication between body and brains were connected again and my whole body felt burning like fire and being torn apart. And untill this day I am still learning from all the lessons I have to learn from living in this body !

        The reason I told about New York is because when I flew back on the plane I was feeling very sick. Sometimes I felt I wouldn’t survive returning back to dutch ground. There was one thing that kept me hopefull. On the Kennedy Airport New York, before going into the plane, I met 3 mormon men: 2 had come to the US to bring back home their little brother after having served a mission. I knew these 2 from young adult camps. When I was feeling very sick on the plane I had a small voice telling me: ‘Hold on. There are 3 ordained men on the plane. If needed they will help you !’ After my NDE I learned that my friend, whom I met during my NDE, had arranged it that way. I think it is so wonderful how Heaven takes care of us, even 10 years after I got excommunicated. As on fMh, episode 114, Julie de Azevedo Hanks says: they can kick you out of church, but can’t take our Heavenly Parents, Jesus and the Gospel away from you ! :o) But also Heaven recognises the Gift of Priesthood given in the church and wants it to be there where it could be needed ! The Lord uses everything entwined ! There could have been aswell 3 ordained women, I hope so in the future ! Love allways serves life !

        One of the most beautiful things why I joined church is The Plan of Salvation. I was convinced that if one knows what is happening in the life hereafter, than you know what is expected from you here on earth. In 1978 Moody’s book was translated in dutch and just like you it is a very important book in my life. It confirmed there was life after life, like the church told so, but also a lot that I had learnded in my spiritual experiences. I learned two things from the book that became basic in my life: the most important thing in life is: Love, caring about each other, and Getting Knowledge, that got me being extremely interested in everything ! Later I learned: I should most of all seek Wisdom !

        I totally agree with you: there is so much to learn and you get so much insights from NDE. I am so glad there is so much accessible on internet, beside all the books ! I immediately recognised Anita Moorjani’s name. I just googled her name and listened to her speach in Sedona that’s shared on You Tube. I recognise so much from what she talks about: Heaven speaks with one mouth ! Thank you so much for mentioning her name ! I have to share it on fMh episode 114, because it is completely in line with what Julie is talking about ! And we can’t hear enough of it !!!!! It’s so great you are friends with her ! I knew her name from Pim van Lommel’s site, you might like his research, but didn’t know about her book. Maybe fMh bookclub is interested, it would fit very well on the list !

        I totally agree with you: if you want to learn truth, read NDE experiences ! And to John Dehlin I would like to say: you said some times: no-one has come back from the other side, but that’s not true. There’s already so much information shared by people whom returned ! It truly will comfort you and affirm your spiritual feelings, read Pim van Lommel’s scientific research !

        Rio, thank you so much for your respons, it’s wonderful to celebrate all the good we learn from NDE’s ! And there is much info on Anita Moorjani on you tube, I’m going to enjoy that now ! Thank you ! :o)

        Peace,
        Adrie de Jong
        The Netherlands

  3. Dear John,

    I am a life-long member of the LDS church who still holds a strong testimony of the gospel, simply because my life experiences, regardless of what I may hear or read or otherwise, have instilled within me not just a belief but a knowledge that there is a god and he cares for us very much.

    I remain an open-minded person, however. I believe that the very god of which I speak has also blessed me with a mind and He encourages and expects me to ask questions. I believe that it is appropriate to operate on pure faith in some situations but in most others, I believe that god expects us to ask questions and find out for ourselves if what we are learning is true.

    The vast majority of the teachings in the LDS church make sense to me and I believe in them whole-heartedly. Like any normal person, however, I have reached points in my life where I have had questions. Most of these questions revolve around what is doctrine and what is policy. I am new to your blog but just read about how you feel it is inappropriate for young girls to have interviews with male bishops which include information about the girls’ potential sexual “impurities.” To me, a 12 year old girl being required to have such a conversation with such a person is policy, not doctrine. That is my opinion. I’m with you there and in many of your other comments.

    This post, however, has caused me to question you a bit. While I admittedly am not a scriptorian or church historian (and therefore cannot confirm or deny any of your church history claims with any kind of evidence) Where you lose me is when you write about the endowment session. You explain the rituals as “some very disturbing, such as oaths of vengeance and hand motions mimicking the slitting of one’s own throat, or the disemboweling one’s self.”

    You may have to enlighten me here. I have attended several temples several times over the past 11 years and to my recollection, I have never done anything that I have felt to be disturbing, never made a hand motion which mimicked slitting my throat or disemboweling myself.” Did I miss something?

    I do hope you can point me in the right direction. I am an academic and honest seeker of the truth myself. I want to believe you and take you seriously but when I read something that seems to be so far from the truth, it is difficult for me to continue. Please, I’d love to hear your response and if I am wrong, I will stand corrected.

    Thank you

    1. Ashley A
      From what I understand, that part of the ceremony was taken out in the 1990, but it was in for all the preceding years. So most of the middle age/older people of the church would have participated in these oaths. You could do a google search, but may come across stuff you don’t want to see. Interestingly enough, this point came up in the Romney election because he would have participated in that part.

  4. What I don’t understand is, if you’ve found so much evidence against the LDS church, to the point of basically not believing in the restoration of the gospel, why do you consider yourself Mormon? To me, it sounds like your beliefs would correspond more with a different Christian denomination, if not non-denominational.
    I don’t say this to be rude, if it sounds that way. I am truly curious.

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