International Series: The ‘All or Nothing’ Mormon
We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.
Today’s post comes from Crystal.
At 16 years of age, I graduated from The Church College of New Zealand* with academic honors and armed with a fairly solid testimony of the gospel. Upon enrolling at my local university and in my first class, I befriended two Catholic girls. The three of us were inseparable from that day onward.
Like most Catholics I knew at the time, and unlike the Mormon friends I’d had previously, these girls loved to drink (substantially) and immersed themselves in a student culture of parties and clubbing from around Wednesday night (student night) through to Saturday night, as finances would permit. Yet more often than not, come Sunday, off they would toddle to their Catholic mass to satisfy their spiritual inclinations, free of any burden of a bad conscience. I held out a good year and a half, before succumbing to the same social ideals and once I had, attending church felt way too hypocritical after participating in the same sinful activities throughout the week.
For many Mormon teenagers in this boat, the alternatives appear to be ‘all or nothing’. ‘All’ meaning full adherence to the ‘strength of youth’ booklet and ‘nothing’ meaning everything to the contrary. With those two options before me, I turned my back on Mormonism and chose ‘nothing’ for the next 10+ years– much to the sadness of my family.
The other notable difference between my Catholic friends and I was that while we all ‘played hard’ together they somehow countered playtime with good study habits and progressed steadily towards academic attainment. I, on the other hand, struggled to adopt this new lifestyle and stay on top of my grades. I failed as often as I passed and eventually dropped out to pursue other endeavors. It seemed my girlfriends were just better equipped to handle that life while maintaining some sensibility towards their commitments as a student.
At 22 I married my husband, who at the time I’d only known long enough to conceive our eldest daughter (cough, cough) but, who was best buds with my older brother after having served in the same mission. He was the first Mormon boy I’d ever dated and although he was borderline “active” when we met (our paths may otherwise not have crossed), I was intrigued and attracted to his strong spiritual presence and as we became familiar, recognized that he not only had an unshakeable faith but was also one of the kindest human beings I’d ever met.
Once married, and realizing I wasn’t going to follow him back to the fold like he had anticipated, he decided to put our compatibility first; thereby he joined me in ceasing church activity. Similarly, he adopted the same ‘all or nothing’ attitude that I’d assumed in my earlier years. At this stage, I had curtailed much of my earlier anti-word-of-wisdom habits.
As I had once initially struggled to balance alcohol and academics as a student, so would my husband now struggle to balance it with marriage as a newlywed. He would overindulge, perhaps in an attempt to neutralize the immense guilt he felt from not being active. Sometimes I wondered if he was trying to make the alternative of a non-Mormon lifestyle as unappealing as he possibly could as if to say ‘you chose this’ and to therefore corner me into submission.
A few difficult years followed. Finally, he made the choice to pull his head in and search for a middle ground between ‘all and nothing’.
A couple more years on, our 6-year-old daughter, began requesting to attend church, as she knew her cousins did. We reluctantly obliged but over the following 18 months gradually returned to full fellowship and expanded our family, adding to it two baby boys in quick succession. After a little while, there came a push from caring members of our family and ward to reap the blessings of the temple. Gently at first but gradually intensifying until, after a few years, I began to feel a little under the gun to attend the temple (mostly from my mother-in-law).
I guess stagnating below the ‘all’ of ‘all or nothing’ just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
I had made an earlier halfhearted attempt to receive confirmation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon but didn’t feel I’d received a definitive answer. And now I had two small children and not a minute spare to devote to this previous quest for a testimony. To the dismay of some, I was not prepared to just ‘go along with it’ and ‘trust in the testimony of my husband’ as one relative had suggested I do.
Recently however, as our youngest child has begun to gain some independence and is able to entertain himself for longer stretches of time, I have indulged my curiosity in relation to the details surrounding the disciplinary action of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, who’s plight was alerted to me via social media. As I had always suspected, their excommunications reaffirmed to me that the church has limited tolerance for fence sitters or people searching for a middle ground.
As a flow on effect, I subsequently delved into the unattractive vortex that is church history. And now as my husband and I navigate our way through the church’s problematic past in an attempt to draw conclusions of its impact on our future within the church, we are again faced with the ‘all or nothing’ notion.
“Each of us has to face the matter-either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.” (Gordon Hinckley, Gen. Conference April 2003).
At this stage, my husband still maintains the status of a ‘believer’. My tenure away from the church has positioned me to view things with more rationale. Ultimately however, I will make an effort to put our compatibility first by trying to align my actions with his beliefs, as he has done for me in the past. There is probably enough grey in between the black and white to support me as believing, but unorthodox in faith (at least in the short term).
I anticipate that raising my children in a religion that demands such strict adherence to its teachings will require some regular deprogramming on my part, to avoid them adopting the same harmful mindset that led me away from the church and God for so many years. With careful intervention I hope that I can launch them into life with a healthy sense of self-love, acceptance of others and diplomacy.
I hope that if any of them one day teeter away from the explicit boundaries of the church, that they don’t ever feel that it’s too late to either stay put or turn back altogether once they’ve stepped in that direction. The domino effect spurred on from guilt is real and has the capacity to change the course of lives.
I hope they never feel uncomfortable attending church services on Sunday or feel alienated from their peers.
I hope my daughter firmly believes that her opinions and dreams are of equal value to her male counterparts with the church.
I hope they never feel unworthy to pray.
And I hope that no matter where they find themselves in the spectrum of ‘all or nothing’ that they are at peace with themselves, their loved ones and with God.
*The LDS Church College of New Zealand operated as a private school within the New Zealand system of education. ‘College’ in New Zealand includes educational years (somewhat similare to US ‘grades”) nine through thirteen, or students between the ages of 13 and up to 18. While in operation there were approximately 700 students and 100 faculty/staff members, until its last year, when the student body was 120 students and 50 staff members. A modest tuition was charged but the school is heavily subsidized by the LDS Church. In 2009, approximately 10% of LDS high school students in New Zealand attended Church College, with some attending the school away from home as a boarding school. The school closed in 2009. More information about the LDS church college can be found in Marjorie Newton’s Tiki and Temple or her more recent book, Mormon and Maori.