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.all or nothing


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.


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16 Responses

  1. Em says:

    You raise some really good issues. I think it is interesting that it is specific actions that keep people from attending — chastity, word of wisdom seem to be high on the list. I’ve never heard of someone who felt so bad for being judgmental, or gossiping, or bullying that they didn’t want to go to church.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts (or anyone else’s) about what church members could do to make congregations more genuinely and consistently welcoming. One thought I had would be to be more mindful about what sins we use as the “safe” example. It seems like when we talk about repentance, or obedience, or sin, we want to use the example we think few people in the room have a problem with, to minimize offense. Or possibly to minimize our own feelings of guilt at not measuring up — I noticed my young women brought up modesty over and over even though I didn’t, in part because it is obvious and clear cut and not a problem most of them had, but they never talked about some of the tricky things they were actually struggling with.

    Talking dismissively about the Word of Wisdom as though no one in the room had a current problem with it would automatically alienate anyone who did, and discourage them from sharing struggles honestly and receiving love and support. That was just one thought.

    I figure we can’t control what the GAs will say in conference, or how “all-or-nothing” they make the Gospel sound. We can only work to change the tenor in our own wards to try to be welcoming, accepting, and loving of all levels of interest, commitment and testimony. But I’m not sure what I could be doing differently in a specific way. Thoughts?

    • Ziff says:

      I’m having a hard time coming up with a good concrete suggestion in answer to your question, Em, but I did want to say that I *love* your example. I’ve never heard the point you made analyzed in remotely that way, but I think you’re precisely spot on. We do talk about sin examples that we think are safe, but by doing this, we are implicitly (or explicitly) drawing a line and saying that people who participate in this behavior are on the outside.

      I also love your point about how nobody ever feels so guilty for being judgmental that they don’t go to church. Probably because we don’t hammer too hard on being judgmental at church. We’re too busy *practicing* it while hammering on stuff like the WoW.

    • Beatrice says:

      Maybe we can try to shift the overall message from, “we are all good Mormons and rarely sin” to “we are all sinners who are trying to do better.” I realize that both of these messages are conveyed at church sometimes, but maybe starting out with the assumption that anytime we talk about any sin, there are going to be people in the room who have sinned in that way, and recognizing that we have all sinned would help.

      Somewhat related, when I was applying for life insurance the insurance agent that I was meeting with was talking about different things that could affect what policy I would be eligible for. He mentioned a couple of times, in a very passing dismissive way, “Well some people can’t get this policy if they have a history of mental illness such as postpartum depression.” However, the intention was clear that that wasn’t something that *we* needed to worry about. Yet, there I was, a woman who has struggled with mental illness and postpartum depression, trying to figure out how to get the best policy that I could. I think we are often too quick to assume that when we talk about abuse, or divorce, or single parent families or anything else challenging that people in the audience actually haven’t been through that, when the opposite is more likely to be true.

      • Em says:

        I love both of these comments. I do think we need to shift our conversation and feel more comfortable self-identifying as sinners. Not as a way to feel still more guilt, but because it breaks down barriers between us. I loved it when Elder Uchtdorf quoted the bumper sticker saying “don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” Is my sloth better than your lust? Is your wrath better than my gluttony? I think we’re on pretty dangerous ground when we create a hierarchy of sins. Any sin, no matter how tiny, moves us away from God just the same as great sins do. Since that is true, there isn’t much point in feeling smug or complacent about our own sin roster.

  2. April says:

    I have thought a lot about whether the church must be all or nothing. I know sone people manage to take what is good in the church and leave out the bad, but there is a lot of pressure to conform even when complying isn’t spiritually uplifting for you.

  3. spunky says:

    “I hope they never feel uncomfortable attending church.”

    I love this hope, and this post. I admit that I feel uncomfortable almost every time I attend church. In the pccassions when I don’t feel that way, it seems like I am just apathetic rather than comfortable.

    Thank you for brining up some very real points. I do wonder…. If you could “do it all over” what would you change, if anything? Would you have learned about the strange parts of church history earlier, so they didn’t feel ‘hidden’? Or would you have chosen to not drink so you did better in your studies at the time? Or are you, like many of us, grateful for the lessons we’ve learned through our imperfect or challenging choices (because we’ve all made them, for better or worse).

    Thank you for this post. It resonates powerfully with me.

  4. Rachel says:

    Thank you for sharing parts of your journey with us, and highlighting some of the troubles that can come with the (I believe) mistaken “all or nothing” attitude.

  5. Liz says:

    I love this post, Crystal. I really don’t know if it has to be “all or nothing,” but I surely wish it didn’t. Sometimes I think that if we all did a little better about lowering our guard and showing our inadequacies, struggles, and vulnerabilities, we would realize that nobody is “all” there, and thus there wouldn’t be so much pressure. But our emphasis on commandment-keeping and perfection rather than grace and repentance makes that difficult, I think.

  6. Martin Holden says:

    I am not commenting on this post but on the series. I find the title somewhat misleading – out of the nine or so posts the majority have been by Americans talking about their experience of the church outside America while living abroad. Would not a better title for the series be the American experience of the international church with the odd post by non-americans or if we want to be very accurate the experience of highly educated Americans in the international church. I have really enjoyed a couple of the posts which have explained the challenges or benefits of church membership in the particular area described but I am concerned that this series is not reflective of how most sisters outside the us would feel about the church or about the challenges that they face in their daily lives or why they chose to join the church

    • spunky says:

      You bring up some interesting series titles, Martin Holden. I agree and seek all contributions from lds women, regarding testimony, how they came to the church, how the church operates for them and otherwise. We are diligently seeking these kinds of contributions, insomuch thay we have begun to have our lesson plans translated into French and Spanish, leaving open invitations for others to participate. Please spread the word and have others send us posts!

      However, I disagree that the series should exclude or define its contributors based on nationality. It has only been since 1958 that the church globally allowed local stakes to operate under local leadership (rather than missions, most often run by American mission presidents). This American entrenchment runs deeps, and because it does (for good or for ill) ,there is an important place for expat Americans to share their experiences in this international series.

      Either way, we want more. I think you do, too.

    • Em says:

      There is truth in what you’re saying. The big issue is that we are limited for posts by people who knew about the series and were willing to contribute a post. My personal hope is that this will be the first step toward a broadening of the scope of the blog in general. By translating some posts and featuring voices talking about concerns outside the United States I’m hoping that we broaden our readership, and from there we can broaden who the bloggers are and what topics they’re working on.

      If you know women in other countries who would like to contribute and have something to say, we’d certainly love to hear from them and feature more voices.

  7. EFH says:

    What a fantastic post. Thank you!

    I have a lot of friends who have stopped going to church many years ago because they found other ways of finding happiness and even though they still like the gospel, they do not feel there is room for them. I also have felt that there is not room for me because I am a “middle ground” type of person.

    This “all or nothing” mentality creates militancy attitude in many religions – look at Islam, Judaism, Christianity and even Hinduism. All religions have extreme people that think they raise the bar of holiness by believing in all or nothing and this leads them to a degraded humanity as a state of mind and heart. However, it is interesting that our Mormon God doesn’t believe in a hell vs paradise (all or nothing) but he has different places for different people. It seems to me that he is a God who knows gray too well.

  8. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Crystal. It’s sad that the “all or nothing” rhetoric in the Church comes from the very top. I’m glad to hear you’ve found a gray in-between place that’s working for you, at least for now.

  9. MargaretOH says:

    My parents are liberal feminist devout Mormons and raised their children to believe that none of that was inconsistent. However, my two youngest siblings grew up mostly in Utah County and they seem to have internalized the “all-or-nothing” model, with opposite effects. One is super conservative and believes the rest of us are not real Mormons. The other left yhe church entirely. Of course there were many factors involved, but I believe the push to conform to a single way of being a “good Mormon” had a big effect on them.

  1. September 10, 2014

    […] 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’ …read more […]

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