After I publicly shared historian Grant Palmer’s remarkable memorandum on 6th April 2013, detailing his series of discussions with a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, many people understandably wanted to know who I was, and why Grant Palmer had permitted me to break his news on what was at the time an anonymous blog.
Some began to speculate, incorrectly, that the memorandum was a mischievous hoax perpetrated by someone impersonating Mr Palmer. It was soon established that this was not the case, but still there was the question about my identity. I trust that the following account will provide the curious with some missing background.
MY JOURNEY OF “LOYAL DISSENT”.
My name is Christopher Ralph. I am an English convert to the LDS church, and after 40+ years of membership in it, I find myself on what I think of as my journey of loyal dissent. I do not consider myself an “apostate”, although I suppose that will be a term others may wish to apply to me for sharing this story. Apostasy to my mind means one thing only, being in rebellion against truth, and that is precisely what I have striven always not to be, which is why I am now in this situation.
If people wish to think of me as a heretic, that is another matter, and fortunately for me I live at a time and in a place where heresy, (openly disagreeing with the established order), is not a crime. For personal and cultural reasons, I have not resigned my membership, (nor do I intend doing so), and, so far, to the credit of the LDS church I have not been disciplined in any way for exercising my right as a UK citizen to express my thoughts publicly about my religious feelings and affiliations.
My story is unavoidably long, and so I am splitting it into four parts. For my LDS friends, (and I hope that I may still have some genuine ones whose friendship has weathered the storms), I give my assurance that this history is shared without rancour. It is what it is, and nothing more: a narrative woven as closely as possible through the documented facts at my disposal. It is provided for instruction, without intending to hurt feelings or further damage already fragile relationships. It is offered in the hope that lessons may be salvaged from the mistakes of the past, and that we may learn to find some future harmonies within our divergent experiences. I am still very much the person I have been throughout, so I hope nobody will feel alienated simply because I am opening my heart in this way. Perhaps some, when they read this, will reflect and realise that they too are on a similar, unexpected journey. If so, then I hope they will draw some comfort and insight from my story to date, and will find enough confidence to share their concerns.
Part 1: In the beginning…
In order to provide context to my journey which, in recent times has taken me far beyond an orthodox 21st Century Mormon worldview, I need first to explain how I found my way, almost by accident, into the LDS fold back in 1971.
I might easily commence my account by writing “I, Christopher, having been born of goodly parents…”! My mother was maternal, loving, and thoroughly organised in the home, making much of the few worldly goods available to us in austere post-war Britain. My father, who is still alive, (aged almost 90), was always interested in whatever I did, and spent much of his spare time sharing in my hobbies.
Like many others in our local community and extended family, we were nominally Anglican, (Church of England), but not churchgoers. However, my mother had had strong inner religious convictions throughout her life, and shared them with me. My father was reluctantly a self-confessed “agnostic”, simply because he could not quite “believe” in the face of contemporary scientific evidence, although he wanted to. He kept an open mind, hoping he might someday find reason for belief in something bigger and all-embracing.
Having been blessed with such parents, the search for inner truth and authenticity has been a constant driving force. The unspoken maxim was that if something is true it should be followed to the end, but if something is shown not to be, though it might be comforting it is not worth having.
At 17 I was lined up to go to university to study commercial horticulture, but a deep inner urge to find God overtook me, and increasingly preoccupied me, causing me to rethink my plan. Was horticulture my true vocation? Was my life’s great purpose to develop bigger, juicier tomatoes? Or was there something else calling me from within? I sensed that without God I was always going to be empty, and so I searched and I listened and I waited, walking alone night after night on a Somerset hilltop near to where we then lived. Dundry Hill is a very special place for me, my Mount Sinai perhaps, and I will always associate the place with spiritual discovery. As I day-dream and reflect, I often find myself wandering in my thoughts up its slopes. Only very recently, on my 60th birthday, I re-visited it with my son and daughter, and found it to be as special as ever:
I cannot fully describe or explain the steps in the spiritual process I underwent, but suffice it to say that over the course of a few months in the winter and spring of 1971, God met me there, took my concerns from me, filled me with a sense of trust, and gave me heartfelt assurances. I was of course very raw, not quite 18, and without any theology, just a desire to know God, and a belief that he would lead me through life.
In the summer of that year I encountered some evangelists, whose message about Jesus failed to impress me, not so much because of the message itself, but because of the very challenging, almost accusatory way in which it was presented. I rejected them out of hand, and their Christ.
My friends were leaving for university soon afterwards, and I stayed home, without a plan, without a job, and of course without friends of my own age around me to deflect me from more serious reflection. (There was no email, no internet, no mobile phones in those days, and communication was maintained by occasional letter). So I was left to myself in terms of developing the assurances I trusted I had been given by God.
At this juncture, on 5th October 1971, two LDS missionary elders knocked our door. I answered and agreed to read the book they gave me, (The Book of Mormon), and some of their pamphlets, and arranged to meet them the following evening. At the resulting appointment they introduced me to the story of the boy-prophet Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’, and the coming forth of The Book of Mormon; they also showed me photographs of ‘modern-day apostles’, who more closely resembled elderly businessmen in my view than disciples of Jesus. I was frankly unimpressed, and said so. I proposed that in any case Jesus was merely ‘a great teacher’, and not the Son of God. Accordingly, they challenged me to enquire prayerfully then and there about his divine status, which I agreed to do, for to have refused, I felt, would have amounted to conceding the argument. So I found myself praying vocally before two strangers, asking this question, to which I felt I already knew the answer.
To my astonishment, almost immediately I began to pray, I had an electrifying experience which I suppose possibly paralleled that of Saul of Tarsus. Although I was not struck blind, like stepping out of the darkness into daylight, I instantly understood that my previous assumption had been unfounded, and that the person history called Jesus of Nazareth was much more than just ‘a great teacher’. The question “Why continue to deny me?” seemed to flood through me, and there was no justifiable reason I could offer.
This left me speechless and in tears. I walked out into the night-time, and when I had eventually regained my composure after a couple of hours, I returned home a different person, knowing that Jesus was the light I must thereafter try to follow.
Having received such a dramatic answer, seemingly at the LDS missionaries’ behest, I did what seemed entirely logical to me, and the next day submitted myself to their teachings. It became a formality for them to lead me through their beliefs without further protest, and sixteen days later I was baptised.
Many years later I learned from one of them that he had never before or since witnessed such a conversion. It is now clear to me that on that autumn evening in 1971, I experienced the ‘born again’ experience familiar to Christians throughout time, but not a regular component of typical Mormon conversions. I have learnt during my years in the LDS church that only a small minority of the members have ever experienced such a witness as I received that night.
I will now fast-forward in order to keep this manageably brief. On 11th July 1980 Diana, (truly the love of my life), and I were married, and then ‘sealed for eternity’ in the London Temple. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5UFHrN_8t4).
We both found the temple rites spiritually and emotionally challenging, but accepted verbal assurances given to us by others with more experience, that we would one day understand them, and that this was one of God’s mysteries. Looking back on my own experiences in the temple, I always had difficulty in equating the God as portrayed there, with the God who had met me on Dundry Hill, and the Saviour who had witnessed to me in answer to my prayer. However, I learned to put those concerns to one side, until I could develop sufficient spirituality to accept the connection. However, I have to say that for me that equation never really balanced satisfactorily.
In the LDS church, almost imperceptibly ‘faith’ grows to mean faith in the institution, rather than faith in God. Indeed, for many, the institution and God become completely blurred in their thinking, and the church organisation becomes a great Golden Calf to be revered and worshipped. That is the reason, I suspect, that so many who eventually learn the truth about LDS origins, and leave the church, are left either agnostic or atheistic in their beliefs, because their God, to whom they sacrificed all, has been overthrown. I can understand that, and empathise. I think if I had not received the experiences I did when I did, I too would have been in that position when the shocking truths about Mormon claims became evident to me.
Diana and I raised five children in the LDS gospel. In 1987 we were instrumental in converting my parents, whom I personally baptised and confirmed, and later we supported our oldest son financially and in every way we could while he served a successful two-year proselyting mission in the north of England. In other words, we did what was expected of us, followed our leaders, and generally played the part of ‘good soldiers’. For thirty-five years we happily volunteered our time, effort and means in church service, and were considered faithful, knowledgeable and capable members.
I served at various times on bishoprics, as ward mission leader, elders’ quorum president, high priest group leader, and on a stake high council for over six years, among other callings. Diana served as Ward Primary President and YW President, and RS teacher and as Stake Family History Consultant.
Part 2: The unravelling
In 2000 a trusted priesthood leader in another ward, claiming investment credentials, defrauded us and others out of a significant sum of money. When we caught him out in his deception he was initially very apologetic for his “mistake” of using money which was not his to use, which he said had started out as “molehill proportions”, but had got out of hand and had grown into “an Egyptian pyramid”. He said he was prepared to address the matter with our understanding and the help of stake priesthood leaders.
At the time no-one suspected that he had done something seemingly rather similar before, and had emerged from that without a blemish on his character. Unfortunately, that unhappy picture became apparent only later on. When he was interviewed by the Stake President, he told rather a different story than he had confessed to us, and it was one which made him appear to be the victim of the investors’ manipulation. Furthermore, he falsely represented to church leaders that losses had been incurred, not through any deception on his part, but through several failed business ventures. Leaders apparently accepted this defence, and refused to become involved further in the process of working out a fair resolution, as they had initially assured us would be done. On the advice of the Area Presidency I was informed in a telephone call from my Stake President, (on our 20th wedding anniversary, which rather spoiled the day for us), that the losses were due to “business transactions”, and that to expect them to become involved in resolving the issue, as had been previously anticipated, was, as he put it, “off-beam”. He added: “There may not need to be a civil action in order for church discipline to be considered. However, there is a line which first needs to be crossed, and I have not yet received confirmation of that crossing.” I offered to provide evidence that embezzlement had occurred, but clearly, on the basis of whatever advice he had been given, the die was cast, and my offer was declined. The Stake President advised me to pursue “a legal remedy” if I did not agree with him and the Area Presidency.
It became a very unpleasant episode which dragged on eventually for 4 years, and, of course, it significantly impacted church life for a number of families. Inevitably, factions quickly developed in the vacuum created by the refusal of leaders to deal with the situation, and it appeared to some of us that all Stake leadership efforts were being directed at containment and silencing, rather than establishing the truth, no matter how unpalatable, and brokering a working arrangement which would enable a healing process to commence. It was being whispered in some circles that we were unforgiving. However, being prepared to forgive is one thing, but extending an unconditional public pardon to someone who is still bad-mouthing and attempting to shift the burden of blame onto you, is something beyond the capacity of normal human beings to accomplish.
To inflame matters further, the bishop of the ward which the perpetrator and his family attended, was won over by their frequent complaints about the investors, and openly sided with him against his defrauded victims. In his capacity as bishop he denounced one of them, (I’ll call him “K”), to his face as “a man without integrity”, because K continued to make accusations of fraud against the man, and the bishop reportedly also referred to the victims at one point as a pack of wolves. This was hardly sound judgment, and did little to move things in the right direction. I, myself, was in the quite difficult position of being the high councillor assigned to that ward, and was soon barred by the bishop from attending any meetings there. (I should relate that the bishop has since apologised to me for that, and has freely acknowledged that he was deceived in his understanding of the facts, and I fully accept that apology, for he was just another victim of lies).
I felt it necessary to report the deepening crisis to a counsellor in the Stake Presidency, to whom I reported regularly about my stewardship. His response was to ask me why I was trying to “stir up a band of dissidents”, which was a kind of variation on the “pack of wolves” theme I suppose. It made very little sense to me when it was said, but it is now easy to see that the Stake Presidency at this stage was wrong-footed by the stories they had heard from both the perpetrator himself and his bishop.
To my relief my duties on the High Council were soon re-assigned to another ward, where I remained until I was released 12 months later. Meanwhile, after some awkward exchanges, I understand, between the bishop and the Stake Presidency, the bishop informed K, evidently with some reluctance, that a disciplinary council would be held for the accused on a certain date. The numerous victims hoped this might signify the commencement of a resolution, and so we held our breath in anticipation that perhaps common sense might prevail, and a way would be opened up for the re-establishment of peace. On the Sunday before the scheduled disciplinary council however, the bishop, his wife, and the accused and his wife were seen by the entire ward, smiling and embracing one another at the front of the chapel following the conclusion of the services. Later that day K was informed that the scheduled disciplinary council for the following Tuesday evening had been postponed indefinitely. The bishop felt, (quite incorrectly), that the victims were “after blood”, and were trying to determine his agenda for him, so he secretly cancelled the hearing and asked K to withhold that information from the other victims until the scheduled date had passed. However, K, being a man of integrity, (despite once having been told otherwise by his bishop), was not prepared to become an accessory to this misrepresentation, and ignored his request.
News of this attempted connivance finally tipped the scales, and it was reluctantly decided after five very tough months of trying to avoid taking such a precipitous step, that enough was enough, (for we were being toyed with), and the matter needed to be reported to the police. “Short of a miracle,” I wrote on 30th October 2000, “there is no alternative to speaking to the law. It is what we have tried so long to avoid, and yet it is what everything now points to. No other course will help us resolve this matter. It isn’t to be done in anger, but out of a sense of mounting desperation.”
A formal complaint was therefore made on 1st November 2000 by a non-member victim who volunteered for the purpose, and he was supported on the day by K and myself, as between us we had in our possession most of the relevant documentation. It took the officer from the fraud squad a little over five minutes to determine that a crime had been committed, something which church leaders had shown themselves unable to appreciate in five torturous months, mainly because they had refused to examine the evidence in the first place.
After a lengthy police investigation, the accused was eventually brought to justice, and at the end of a three week trial in June 2004, (which, with all the other associated expenditure, we were afterwards informed had cost the British tax payer in the region of £1,250,000), the accused was found guilty of multiple counts of theft and deception and received a 3-year jail sentence. The Wiltshire Times proclaimed on 3rd September 2004: “Priest ‘piled lie on top of lie’ for scam”. The article told of how victims of a Mormon High Priest, who had been jailed for embezzling £80,000, had at last spoken out. It then detailed some of their sufferings, and quoted the judge who had said at sentencing: “The money you took represented the life savings of those who trusted your integrity because of your position in the Mormon church”. It was all very sad.
Four years had been a very long time to wait for justice and vindication. We had had to battle our way through some absurdities along the way. At one point, at Easter 2003, the full Stake Presidency sat down with Diana and myself, at the instigation of the perpetrator-masquerading-as-victim, and urged us to “build bridges” with the man who had defrauded us and others, indicating to us that they had been reliably informed, (only by him, his supporters, and his extended family of course), that the case was never going to get to court. We were dismayed by this attempt to deflect us from our committed purpose. If we, as Crown Prosecution witnesses, had followed their counsel at that point, we would have provided possible grounds for the case to be dismissed. Diana and I told them we would not do as they had requested, and advised them in turn that the accused was in the process of playing them “like a violin”. That was not apparently well received, at least by the first counsellor, who afterwards had a lengthy telephone conversation with me, and told me he thought I was wrong not to accept my priesthood leaders’ inspired counsel. I answered that my priesthood leaders were behaving like blind men who were insisting on helping us across a busy street which we had no need to cross. Additionally he wrote to me in an email: “I sincerely hope and pray that even those who firmly believe that right is on their side, will feel a softening of the heart and feel a desire to extend ‘ the olive branch’, even where there has been much hurt and a sense of betrayal… This Easter would be a perfect time to start this process in a tangible way.”
I lamented in my journal the same day that these sentiments were: “the product of a good man who remains wilfully ignorant of the facts.” Continuing that journal entry I recorded with reference to that email: “… I had to read and re-read it, and then discuss it with Diana, and then B[–], and we all came to the conclusion that the Stake Presidency has taken no heed of the clear warnings they were given by us last week, and are determined to push through their agenda, which is half-baked and foolish. Of course we want to forgive and move on, but that will never be accomplished until the steps of repentance have been followed by [the accused]. So far he has recognised the sin, for he asked me as long ago as June 2000 not to mention it to anyone as he said he could end up in prison over it. But sorrow, confession, and restitution are far-off, and it appears that the Stake Presidency [is] happy to allow him to skip over these, as long as the cracks have been papered over. What a cop-out, and yet Pres. — is preaching Christ to me. It seems to have been forgotten that the Saviour is the Light, and the Truth, as well as the Way.”
Accordingly, a complaint was made to the police by one of the victims, (already mentioned in the above quote from my journal as B), concerning this unwelcome interference in the judicial process, and within hours of B’s complaint the Bristol England Stake Presidency was formally warned by the case officer from the fraud squad to withdraw the counsel that had been given, and to leave witnesses alone, or face an investigation themselves.
I suppose it was this stark exposure of the dangerous fallibility of such men, (men, let me say, whom I loved and otherwise respected and thought of as friends), which caused me and others to start questioning how they could be acting for God when in their capacity as spiritual leaders they were capable of giving such worthless advice. This was, after all, advice which could well have resulted in several of us losing our homes in paying off the defamation lawsuits which, it was rumoured, were being planned if the case collapsed. This was never a questioning of the integrity of the individuals themselves, but of the flawed revelatory process which had failed us so miserably up to that point.
The same member of the stake presidency who had telephoned me at some length on 22nd April 2003, visited me fourteen months later on 16th June 2004, soon after I had finished giving my evidence at the trial, and restrictions on him speaking to me had been lifted. He seemed on that occasion like an altogether different man, apologising without reserve, humbly admitting that he and his colleagues had been out of line in their previous assessment of the situation. After telling me he felt he had failed us, we discussed the most worrying aspect of this mess, in which faithful members had felt thoroughly trampled by their leaders, in the process of fulfilling their legal obligations. He invited me to discuss freely with him the issues which had caused us greatest concern. Quoting from my journal account of that discussion, “I shared only the obvious one about leaders being infallible, which seems to be taught frequently at ward level, and suggested that the only way to sustain a leader who is in material error, is to bring, and if necessary keep bringing that fact to his attention. He agreed, and said that he had given it a great deal of thought in recent times. He is concerned how to deal with it though in case it seems like an invitation to query every decision made by every leader. I emphasised the “material error” component, and said that they had been [in] “material error” on at least two occasions during this saga,  with the statement that theft had been “a business transaction”, and  with the advice given to us to speak directly to the accused in April 2003. He said they must discuss this and determine the way to teach the members correctly, saying it would be addressed. I said I feel the unfortunate result of not teaching the principle correctly, but allowing instead the “pop gospel” idea of blind obedience to prevail, is that those who genuinely attempt to sustain with their whole hearts, and point out the mistakes then become labelled rebels, or apostates.”
That evening we parted on the friendliest of terms, he promising to address my concerns, while assuring me that he would “state publicly if necessary that he would have done what we have done had he been in our position.” Perhaps if those assurances had been kept in mind and acted upon fully, I might still be actively engaged in the LDS church today, for it is possible that the escalation of discontent which followed would not have led my friend, (already referred to as B), to ask further probing questions, which in turn led to my eyes being opened to the way the institutional LDS church has conducted itself throughout its history.
It is an unfortunate aspect of human nature, that most people have a tendency to rewrite history as they go along, and they nearly always do so to suit their present purposes, making them appear to have been wise in their past choices and actions, while skirting over past failures and errors of judgment. I know this because I have kept a written record since 1971, and a regular journal since 1980. These are replete with hopes, fears, false dawns, forgotten conversations, and unexpected opinions, which have either long since ceased to be significant to me, or have otherwise evolved into something now very different. Without these records, I would today have a seriously over-simplified, and alternative recollection of my past.
Real history, as etched into primary sources, is extremely convoluted, incomplete, ragged around the edges, and not without some surprises; it never is found in shades of black and white, but in a full spectrum of colours, and is a whole world apart from the quasi-history of popular fiction which saturates our society. In real history, there are few out-and-out heroes or out-and-out villains, but there are fools nearly everywhere; all of us at some point along the way display weakness and fallibility.
I mention this by way of making excuses for that counsellor, who, at the first legitimate opportunity, had taken time and trouble to visit me and make amends. I am certain he was sincere in all that he said to me on that summer evening in 2004; I appreciated him for it and trusted in what he promised he would try to do. His visit gave me fresh hope.
Before long, however, life changed for him, and with it perhaps some of his perceptions, for he was called as Stake President early the following year. That would probably be enough to unsettle anyone, and in his case it definitely seemed to do so for a time. Only those who have received such a weighty calling will ever fully appreciate what it feels like, but it seems fair to assume that some of the lessons and promises of the previous summer were eroded, changed and perhaps lost in the pressure of that transitional experience, without him even realising it. One Stake officer, who had been a fellow victim, complained to me on 23rd March 2005, a few weeks following the new Stake President’s appointment: “it seems that truth is becoming secondary once more.” It was perhaps a harsh call, but a real pity because, having been left to our own devices for four years to fight for truth and having won that war in court, it was necessary for the sake of all parties for us to continue in a positive, inclusive vain to win a lasting peace, assisted by strong, sensitive and compassionate leadership. This situation had been discussed at some length with the old Stake Presidency following the sentencing, but somehow it never quite happened as it might have done when the time came for a new one to build upon some significant accomplishments following the trial, and it seemed to several of us who had fought in the front line throughout that long ordeal, that a default position of compromise and expediency was once again being adopted. With it an attitude of leadership infallibility was once more apparently creeping in, and we noticed the over frequent reference, by certain stake leaders, to the Bristol England Stake as “this great Stake”, as if to suggest that just being a member of it was a privilege which already half guaranteed exaltation.
This was a form of psychological bravado of course, which is also frequently evident on the sports field, usually when players doubt their own ability. Personally, I found it off-putting, as I thought I was embarked upon the serious business of eternal progression, and did not much enjoy feeling I was instead a member of a struggling football team. B, who had always been a master of the spontaneous humorous quip, on one occasion, having sat through yet another presentation in which that same hackneyed phrase was trotted out, commented that he knew exactly what he would like to do with “this great stake”: he said he would drive it straight through the heart of a certain leader who kept saying it!
Well, perhaps we were not very adept at making our feelings known, or perhaps we made them known too well and in ways which seemed too demanding or threatening. For whatever reason, it proved not to be a climate in which voices were listened to as well as we had once been led to believe they would be. When we raised concerns, we were answered with statements from our SP such as: “there has been quick judgment of leaders for their apparent errors in dealing with a matter and an expectation that these would be freely acknowledged by them, but a reluctance on the part of certain others to accept where they may have been in error in their own approach.” The argument that one perceived wrong excused another, seemed flawed, and did not inspire confidence in leadership. In fact confidence steadily eroded with such responses. I state this as a fact, not a criticism, as due allowance must be made for the vagaries of human nature, but such attitudes were just further obstacles to progress.
On one occasion during this period, B’s wife, in attempting to address her concerns with leaders, was assured by the new SP that the previous Stake Presidency had after all acted in full accordance with the Spirit when they had advised us to “build bridges” with the now convicted man. B was not present in that interview, but upon hearing his wife’s report, he challenged the new counsellor in the Stake Presidency, (who happened to be a member of his own ward), and was told by him that if more faith had been exercised at Easter 2003, things would have worked out anyway, without any harm befalling us. Further enquiry revealed that this had been discussed between members of the Stake Presidency, and was apparently the new official view. It seemed to be a self-justifying retraction of the contrite acknowledgment given me in June 2004 that serious errors had indeed been made, which could have lost us not only the court case, but possibly our homes as well.
On another occasion on 26th February 2006 the SP came and spoke in the ward we attended, and quoted Wilford Woodruff, who had taught that the prophet would never lead the church astray, and if he ever did then he would be removed from office. Then, likening the same statement to himself, he said “when we wear the mantle we are guided by the spirit”, and taught that he as SP would never lead the Bristol England Stake astray, or else would be removed. He added that: “90% of criticisms of leaders, when examined, may be found to be true, but those leaders should still be followed and supported in what they teach.” This seemed to conflict with the claim that wearing the mantle guarantees spiritual guidance, and was another manifestation as far as I could see of the common confusion of holding office with receiving inspiration. I contemplated once more, as I listened to this, the dangerous advice we had been given at Easter 2003. (The Stake Presidency had “worn the mantle” then, but the only worthwhile inspiration they had received on the matter had come in the form of a warning from the fraud squad). I recorded in my journal: “I was far from impressed by the message, and in my mind consigned it to the rubbish bin where I felt it belonged. It neither lifted me nor informed me in any way, but served only to confirm to me that I can never again accept any kind of authority under a system which teaches such stuff.”
Fond as I was of the SP as a man, that talk rang very loud alarm bells in me, as it not only seemed self-aggrandizing and spiritually well out of tune, but was completely at odds with what he had humbly assured me in June 2004 would henceforth be taught. The lesson and the assurance had seemingly been forgotten, and the apology which had been humbly tendered and gratefully received, had lost most of its meaning. Although I knew it would be painful both for him and for me, I accepted I would one day have to challenge him over it, for it was my duty as a friend to do so.
Meanwhile, however, this inconsistent and changeable style of leadership had led B, (who, during this period, was exposed to many more illogical statements than I ever was), to question privately whether arrogance and ineptitude also existed at higher levels within the Mormon hierarchy. He soon began to discover a great deal of information about the church and its history, which he had never been taught in Sunday School, and so, believing that I had a thorough doctrinal and historical grounding, (or certainly one better than many), he confided in me his innermost concerns about certain historical issues. It made me feel very uncomfortable, but B had been a family friend for decades, and so I spent many late nights worrying about him, attempting to find answers for him in Mormon Apologist literature. However, most of the answers I was able to locate, lacked real credibility.
At this point Diana became troubled that I was reading “anti-Mormon” material in my attempts to help B, for she did not appreciate at that time the safety-net role which the apologists were attempting to play. Perhaps I would have been less influenced if I had been looking at known anti-Mormon sites, for the apologists’ arguments were far more revealing to me than any anti-Mormon literature might have been; the more I read of their work, the more it became apparent that many of them were merely employing selective or skewed methods of analysis, deflecting attention from the more worrying issues, and using lies and half-truths to cover up dark institutional deceits, and it was very obvious they did so in order to arrive at pre-determined outcomes. Whatever was going on? All was not well, and the whole edifice of Mormon Apologetics was clearly riddled with the same kind of deception and misrepresentation which we had experienced throughout the four nightmarish years we had battled a professional fraudster, his family, supporters, and at times the local LDS church hierarchy in order to establish the truth.
It all proved deeply unsettling for me of course, and during three years of intensifying cognitive dissonance my identity steadily metamorphosed from “true believing Mormon” to “would-be Mormon apologist” to “post-Mormon realist”. My last bulwark was breached when I scrutinized evidence concerning the origin of the Book of Abraham, and found that there was just no honest defence available, only speculative, weak apologist arguments, which could be dismantled by anyone with average intelligence and access to the internet. Even though I wanted it so much to be authentic ancient scripture revealed through a latter-day prophet, that book, in the form it was bequeathed to us by Joseph Smith, was demonstrably not a sacred text which originated with the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. When all the available facts were weighed, it was sadly apparent that the Book of Abraham was nothing more than the product of Joseph’s fertile imagination, and a propensity to borrow from a variety of other sources in his quest to claim seership. It seemed that everyone knew it too, except the rank and file LDS members, who, like me, had been kept blinkered from such uncomfortable truths.
And if Joseph had fabricated one sacred record, which clearly he had, then how could anything else he claimed to have revealed be properly trusted? It was only then that the scales fell from my eyes, and I finally conceded that one whole side of that old tub “SS Mormonism”, in which I had been sailing since 1971, was completely missing, blasted entirely away by plain reason and cold reality, and I had only a thimble to bail out the water which was relentlessly pouring in. By the middle of 2009, I was able to say with a clear conscience and without flinching for the first time in over thirty-seven years, that I accepted, (albeit with regret), that Joseph Smith had not been God’s appointed mouthpiece as was claimed in Sunday meetings, and that for me to keep on pretending that he had been, was to lie both to myself and to God, which I was not prepared to do.
It afterwards became very challenging to hear LDS friends ignorantly perpetuating what I knew to be historical untruths. At church I constantly faced a painful choice: counter the many false statements and risk causing general upset, or maintain a dishonest silence. It was miserable. When I eventually tried to discuss my concerns with my bishop, I felt sorry for him, for he appeared frightened, and refused point-blank to participate; he told me I was on the brink of apostasy, and urged me to take the latter of those courses, and become, as he put it, “a wise old bird”; one who presumably would just sit on his perch in silent suffering; then he warned me not to speak outside of my family about these matters, upon pain of facing church discipline.
This to me amounted to spiritual insanity. After all, I was just trying to embrace established historical truths, and had I not been taught somewhere along the line that all truth could be circumscribed into one great whole? Then and there I stopped trying to walk the impossible middle road, and soon afterwards quietly withdrew from all participation, as the situation had become intolerable. Pursuit of truth by this time had become much, much more important to me than being part of a group project to whitewash history, and support discredited dogmas. I discovered that love of truth, and humble acceptance of what really is, qualified me for the compassionate consideration of my guiding Light, the carpenter of Galilee. The simple piercing light his example shed upon my mind far outshone all the reflected glory to be had in continuing to pose as a submissive servant of the so-called One True Church, with its ostentatious wealth, worshipful hierarchies, assumed priesthood powers, elitist doctrines, expensive public relations machinery, and its proven track-record of misleading its followers and prospective members for the perceived benefit of the institution, which past leaders have sometimes referred to as “lying for the Lord”.
My eyes were open, but I had mixed emotions, both of sadness and of gratitude at having finally seen through the elaborate façade. There was undeniably a sinking feeling somewhat akin to bereavement, (having, through no desire of my own, lost the faith community which had become the ever-present backdrop to my life), but at the same time it was also instructive to confront the realities of my espoused religion in a way which many never manage to do, and the sense of submitting to truth, (even though that truth was at first unwelcome), buoyed me up sufficiently to avoid sinking into despair. My spiritual understanding had been steadily refined over the months by this painful process, and now, having allowed myself time and space to think, I found myself setting out on an unexpected journey: a journey of loyal dissent.
My loyalty was not to any man, or any church, but to truth alone, and I felt rather like I had done at 17, idealistic, and prepared to go wherever truth led.
I cannot pretend I was not also a little worried. Thirty-eight years of membership in the LDS church had instilled in me a deep fear of dissenting, because of what others might think. In any case, it is definitely not in my nature to relish confrontation or disagreement, but when error is seen being passed off so flagrantly to so many as “the truth”, what real choice remains for a person who values honesty? Self-evidently, commitment to truth will always be a loftier principle than obedience to tribal rules.
At first the journey felt lonely and rather frightening, even though I understood I was only walking in the footsteps of one who had spent his entire ministry being accused of dissent. I knew that some who had once represented themselves as my friends, would misunderstand, shut me out of their lives, shun, and possibly even hate me for choosing the only honest path I could find to walk.
I really should not have feared though, for there was consolation in abundance. Despite all the disappointment of “losing my religion”, (in terms of the outward routines within a church setting, at least), I reflected daily that I had once, long ago as a 17 year old, sincerely opened my heart to God on Dundry Hill, and had been answered there with clear assurances that the Lord would provide. I also knew absolutely that my unexpected, life-changing conversion to Jesus of Nazareth a few months afterwards had been real. He loved me, and I knew now that that love was not conditional upon my performance in any religious organisation. He was the one solid rock I could hold onto; I could trust in his teachings and his example for they offered genuine spiritual hope, whereas the rest of what I found around me was for the most part little more than shifting sand, washed back and forth by the tides of ideological opinion.
Part 3: The Test
We each occupy our own “place in history”, and have a unique role to perform. I sense very much that to be the case.
Perhaps I am persuaded by having kept a written account of each day since a few weeks into our marriage. You see, something rather special happens when a person in earnest decides to keep a journal. As soon as the pen and paper come together, and the first words are formed on the page, the writer, (perhaps subconsciously), imagines an audience. It is inevitable, and the identity of that audience will determine the nature of what is written. In my case I pictured our descendants reading my words a hundred or more years’ hence, appreciating as they did that our story was part of their story too.
The concept of reaching out directly across time to other “selves” touches a mind with deep seriousness. A vision of possibilities begins to open up; then every day lived, every lesson learned, every feeling expressed, through its registering becomes a gift to posterity. To have one’s eyes opened to this reality, is a profound awakening, for out of the ordinary, by the process of time and a little effort each day, something extraordinary comes into being. In fact the more ordinary the origins, the more extraordinary are the potential outcomes.
Both Diana and I had come from relatively humble backgrounds, and our first home together after we married was a very modest, unheated rented bedsit, at the top of 72 stairs in a crumbling Georgian house near the top of a hill in Bath. Nevertheless, despite these unpretentious beginnings, we felt our lives were in effect at God’s disposal, and trusted we would by some means be instruments in doing something of ultimate worth, even though we might well remain anonymous within our own generation.
With these ideas and expectations leading us forwards, Diana and I were blessed in many ways, and brought up our children to know that we all “belonged” to one another, and that whatever might befall us in life, the Lord would provide a way for us. Maybe it was this trusting kind of attitude which led us into areas of endeavour which were considered by some to be unusual, and rendered our family sufficiently interesting to be featured in the LDS church magazine, “The New Era”, in April 1999:
Looking back, I can see clearly that it was trust in God which directed us during our time as believing members of the LDS church, and equally, it was trust in God, not a lack of it, as many assumed, which eventually led me to reject LDS dogma.
When I first confided my concerns about LDS historical claims to my family, most, although they were shocked at my change of direction, were prepared to hear my reasons for turning away, and when they understood, they were supportive.
For the record, we need to be clear here: we did not give up active participation in the LDS church in order to sin. There has been no desire to do that. Nor had we been “offended” by anyone, (surely if we had been going to take offence it would have been over the events of Easter 2003). Nor were we suffering multiple nervous breakdowns, although we felt sick in our hearts at what we had learned. We acted as we did because we could not pretend any more by denying what the facts were telling us.
Bitter experience, when we were defrauded, had taught us that pretending a problem is not there, does not make it go away. Similarly, embracing denial is not demonstrating faith, and never has been, although these two opposing activities are frequently confused by Mormons. So, although many of our LDS brothers and sisters possibly assumed we had become faithless dissolutes, (and a stark warning to believers not to look at any information found outside of church manuals), the reality was very different, for in fact we had become spiritual refugees, driven out of our comfort zones, and placing our entire trust in the call of a greater truth.
It was not long however, before our resolve to follow a life of faith outside of Mormonism was sorely tested. On 28th September 2010, we suffered the unexpected death of our son, Emmanuel, aged 28. It is difficult to imagine a harder test for any parent. If ever there was a time when a neutral observer might have expected us to regret our decision to dissent, and to return to the comfort and security of the LDS fold, it was at that dreadful time.
I must say that many LDS well-wishers were very supportive and caring, and some proved themselves to be genuine friends in our darkest, most grief-filled days. Yet nothing, not even the loss of a much loved son and brother, could undo history, or make us surrender again to a belief system, which careful scrutiny demonstrated had been founded upon a series of false or dubious claims. Truth was still truth, no matter how much our hearts ached, and amazingly from that whole traumatic experience we began to learn a great deal about our son Emmanuel, and also about ourselves, our faith, and God’s tender love for us.
Since we all live under sentence of physical death, every parent hopes and expects to pre-decease all of his/her children. Without question though, we have been enriched by some special personal insights, and sacred encounters, which we know we would not otherwise have had if Emmanuel had not completed his earthly experience at that young age. Accordingly we accept God’s plan for him and for us, for we understand that despite our many regrets because his life was not longer and more fulfilled, this was perhaps on balance the most beneficial overall plan available to him and to us.
Emmanuel, I think he himself would agree, was a challenging child. His name, (meaning “God with us”), was carefully selected from the ancestral ones at our disposal. He was named after his third great grandfather Emmanuel Ralph, a 19th century farm labourer of Fontmell Magna in Dorset. We have for many years referred to him in our discussions about family history as “Old Emmanuel”, whereas our son Emmanuel has been known as Manny from quite a young age.
Manny had an amazing personality, intelligent, passionate about his interests, full of love and at the same time possessing a cutting wit, and on occasions a sharp tongue. He was outspoken, a great observer of others’ eccentricities, and a fine mimic too, a comic genius in fact, which attracted a popular following among some of his peers. He made people either love or despise him in a short time; people seldom remained indifferent to Manny.
He was very much his own person from early on. When aged seven he decided one day he did not want to work anymore at school, so just put his books away, folded his arms, and refused to do anything all day. It was exasperating for his teacher, and of course it was worrying for us as parents. He drove us at times to distraction, because he had so much ability, and yet seemingly so little application, and he possessed a natural disinclination to be part of “the system”, as though he could see straight through the futility of it. His teenage years were accordingly frustrating, not just because of his education, but because of church too. It is practically impossible to fit a persona as large as Manny’s into the restrictive mould of the LDS church youth programme. While he excelled at some youth activities, especially acting, he struggled with most other things the church offered. As true believing LDS parents, we were in despair over him often. Would this boy ever shape up, serve a mission, and marry in the temple?
It is a great regret of mine that I had such a narrow view of things then. I now see that blind acceptance of dogma limited my natural ability to relate as closely as I might have done to my son. Because there was a gaping disparity between Manny, the vibrant human being who found so much excitement and amusement in the world around him, and Manny, who was constantly being taught and prepared to fit into the pre-determined pattern of conformity required of him by “those in authority”, sometimes he and I found it difficult to relate properly. The church laid out for us what fathers and sons ought to be, and I obediently accepted those expectations as reasonable, because they came from a living prophet, who, it was claimed, spoke for the God who had known Manny before he came to us.
I so wish now I had listened directly and more carefully to God, for to have done so would perhaps have enriched our relationship in Manny’s formative years. Instead I kept ploughing the same old sterile “faithful” furrow, repeating the mantra “follow the prophet”, and squandering precious opportunities in the process. However, hindsight is available to us so that we may learn, and is not given to us as a punishment; regret is not the purpose of existence, or my purpose in sharing this story. I am simply reporting the facts.
Diana and I were about to leave for a routine dental appointment when the police car drove into our driveway on 28th September 2010. The police officer, a young man no older than Emmanuel, broke the terrible news to us. Diana fell apart hysterically, disbelieving what we had just been told. I was in deep shock, but felt strangely calm as if I had been prepared for that life-changing moment. Manny’s death was accidental and unexpected, but he had lived on what we considered to be the unsafe edges of society for several years. On 29th April 2010, just five months previously, and two days before Manny’s 28th birthday, I had written in my journal: “I cannot help but think we are going to experience tragedy with Emmanuel, and I seriously wonder if he will see his 30th birthday.”
The days and weeks which followed his death were something of a blur of the most intense feelings. Many people were very kind to us, and we came through those times together, all of us feeling close to one another. Most of his many friends were understanding when we said that we wanted a private funeral, and would, at a later date, put on a memorial service for them to attend. The only way we felt we could handle the funeral was to keep it just for the immediate family. Someone had to conduct it, and as father of the family it fell to me to do so. I decided to treat it in much the same way as “Family Time”, which we used to hold each morning when Manny lived at home with us. I felt he was very much among us, and was part of the occasion. I even assigned him the concluding prayer to his own funeral service, and we sat in silence as he offered it, trying to feel his sentiments. Each of us said or did something in that service, and these words were my offering:
“Twenty-eight years seems nothing at all, particularly to someone who saw you come into this world, and loved and nurtured you and wanted you to succeed in every way possible. But I know God doesn’t measure a lifetime as we do. He doesn’t assess its length, but rather its depth; the worldly accomplishments of men count for little with him. I recall the words of Jesus when he said that he will separate the sheep from the goats, and will say to the sheep; ‘I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me water. I was a stranger and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me.’ And the sheep will ask ‘When did we do these things for you?’ And he will answer ‘inasmuch as you have done these things to the least of these my brethren you have done them unto me’.
Emmanuel, your life has been a success because you did these things freely to others, not on assignment, not out of a sense of guilt or duty, but because you loved people. In this you have been a great example to us, and have taught and led us. At times you almost loved people too much if that is possible. G****, J***** and I went for a walk yesterday on Cold Kitchen Hill and spoke of these things, and concluded that you have lived your life as a sheep in goat’s clothing.”
At one point in the service we all stood together arm in arm, and sang an LDS hymn, “Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?”, which always made Manny laugh, because he said it sounded like a song drunks might sing outside a pub at closing time. We sang it that day, especially the chorus, as Manny used to, with a degree of “turning out time” gusto. Some possibly would have disapproved. We didn’t care. It was very much Manny’s service, and one last “Family Time” spent together. It was deeply, intensely poignant, but also strangely comforting that afternoon, as we kissed our boy’s coffin and four generations of our little family walked out of the crematorium chapel, to the sound of one of Manny’s favourite songs, Ben Harper’s “Blessed to be a Witness”.
A few weeks later we kept our promise to Manny’s friends and held a memorial event for him. Some of the footage shown on that occasion was subsequently uploaded to YouTube, as for example these clips of him interacting with his sister Sophia, little brother Joseph, Diana and also my father: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBP7M0cA4wQ
(TO BE CONTINUED)