Why I Am Not a Mormon

Three former Momons talk about what led them to leave the Mormon church.

Nancy Ashment
Nancy Ashment's husband Ed is an Egyptologist and the author of The Book of Abraham Facsimiles: A Reappraisal, and other works scrutinizing the supposedly ancient provenance of Mormon scripture. The "hypocephalus" she refers to below is one of the Egyptian relics from which Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham.

... From the time that I was 14 or 15, I knew that I wanted my whole life to be focused on my church, my faith. It became stronger and stronger. I knew that the church was true. I wanted to go to Brigham Young University. I wanted to marry a person who was very strong in the church himself and raise my children as good Mormons, send them on missions. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, bake my own bread, make my own clothes, the whole nine yards. I love that type of thing. If I had a choice, I'd be at home as a homemaker at this point. ...

We would pray; we would read the Scriptures; we would teach our little boys Bible stories. During the day, we didn't have television -- intentionally -- and as I was working, I would put Bible stories on tape for my little boys to listen to, and they loved it. ... Ed taught religion at Brigham Young for a few years as he was a graduate student; he taught Sunday school and priesthood as he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. So we were always studying and looking toward how we could be better and how we could teach our children. It was our life, our entire life. ...

On our way home from church, Ed told me that he had come to the University of Chicago in order to learn Egyptian hieroglyphics and become very proficient translating them, for the specific purpose of defending the Mormon Church on their Book of Abraham. He said, "We've been here for two years and I haven't even looked at it since I got here. So this afternoon I'm going to spend a few hours translating the hypocephalus and seeing for myself what it says."

So he was busy working in the study, and I was in the kitchen fixing dinner; the boys were napping. And I heard funny sounds coming out of the study, and pretty soon I hear him in there just ranting and raving. I can tell he's very upset and I can't imagine what on earth he's upset about.

So I went in and he had the Book of Abraham open on the desk in front of him and he had papers and he's translating, he's got dictionaries out. And he looks at it and he says: "This is not what they say it is at all. This has nothing to do with Abraham. This is about a little girl who died. I mean, it's a papyrus that was put under her head, and it has nothing to do with Abraham." And we were both devastated. ...

I have never looked at leaving the Mormon church ... as anything but a loss. Trying to look at it on a positive side, I honestly can't think of anything I've gained. But I don't feel that I can go back; there is no going back. I will never believe that it was what I thought it was. And I'm a whole-hog person; either you do something or you don't do it. I cannot participate or go to the Mormon church and not believe. I can't go to the Mormon church and not participate. And I cannot be anything but 100 percent honest. ... There is simply no place in the Mormon Church for someone who wants to be there for the community but does not believe. So I feel like I've given it all up. ...

The loss of my faith in the church totally changed my life because the church was my life. I lost my family to a great extent, which is the most devastating part. When my oldest child was about to turn 8 years old, my mother called me ... and said, "Oh your oldest son is about to be baptized and we're going to come out for that wonderful occasion and want to know what the exact date was." I was stunned. I had withheld any of my feelings from my family because I knew there would be great disapproval; I know if I were in that position, I would feel great disapproval. And so I did not tell her. ...

I just said, "Oh, so happy to see you," you know, "I can't wait." And when I hung up the phone, Ed said, "What did your mom have to say?" "Well, Mother said that they're coming out for Jonathan's baptism. I don't know what to do." And he said, "Well, I'm not going to baptize him for your parents. That's not right. I'm not going to put on a ruse for your parents." And I said, "Please just a little ruse?"...

I felt like I was between two brick walls; I didn't know what to do. I would rather have died than have to tell my parents. ... So at that point, I did try to take my own life by taking a whole handful of pills. Ed was 45 miles away at work in the church office building at that time, and he felt something was wrong, and he came home and I had about half of the handful down and realized what I was doing and he intervened.

From that point on, I had a different attitude about it. I thought, this is not worth losing my life over, and I've got to be here for my children, and I've got to find a way to teach them to be good, honest people without the church. ...

Years ago, my sister was in an accident, and her 19-month-old baby girl was killed. And even though she was totally devastated, she took comfort in the fact that she knew that Annie was with our Heavenly Father and, even more so, that she was special and that Heavenly Father took her early because she did not need to prove herself in life. I don't have those beliefs anymore. So losing a loved one doesn't have the comfort that it would have in the past. ...

It's been 30 years since the day when I heard Ed in the study when he was translating the papyrus. The first 10 years were very bad. I was very emotional about it. If anything about the church came up, I would get very angry and bitter. By 20 years, most of that was over. My parents have passed away now and so the family is my two sisters and my brother. My brother was never active in the Mormon Church after he left our home. He married a Catholic girl, and he just went a different path. He was the "blackest sheep" in the family. ... And then when we left the church, we understood him a little bit better.

Since my mother passed away, he started taking the missionary lessons. His wife died one day from one year from my mother's death, and at that point, he went back to the Mormon Church. I think he felt he needed it as stability to raise his son and so he has gotten very active in the church. His son was baptized a year ago; tomorrow he's going to be made an elder. He will have a mission call by the end of the month. So he and my sisters have become close now. And there have been three or four occasions just recently where they all wound up at a party together, going to Disneyland together. They seemed to have been impromptu, but I was the only one that was not thought of at those times.

So I feel left out. I know I'm not rejected; I just feel left out of that. I know my sisters are in much more contact with my brother because they want to keep encouraging that activity in the church. So I understand how these things happen, but nevertheless, you feel very left out. I feel like I have lost my family. ...

Ed Firmage Jr.
Ed Firmage Jr. is a photographer and writer who has contributed to Sunstone Magazine. His autobiographical essay on his struggles with the historical veracity of the Book of Mormon has been published in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon.

... I grew up as a not entirely conventional, but nonetheless believing Latter-day Saint. My great grandfather was an apostle in the church; my great-great-great grandfather was Brigham Young. ... It wasn't really until I went off to graduate school that things changed for me. ...

It was as sudden and unexpected as Saul's vision on the road to Damascus. ... My first year at [University of California at] Berkeley in graduate school I was studying Near Eastern history, and the Bible in particular. ... I had the good fortune, as I thought, to be asked to teach what we called the Gospel Doctrine class, the Sunday school class for adults. Our subject matter that year was the Book of Mormon. ... So I determined that what I would do this time was to just sit down and read the whole book, cover to cover, in basically one sitting. That's something I'd actually never done before.

And one night as I was reading it, it simply hit me like a ton of bricks that this is not an ancient document. ... Everything I've ever believed -- every notion of the purpose of my being, of where I come from, of where I am, I'm going, of the purpose of life, of my relationship with family, with dead loved ones, with my own passing -- is instantly transformed.

Because for me this wasn't simply a de-conversion vis-à-vis Mormonism; it was a de-conversion vis-à-vis religion. The idea of simply jumping ship and becoming an Episcopalian or a Jew or a Muslim was just not a question, because what hit me there at the same time was the sense that -- and I use the term somewhat tongue in cheek -- it's all a pious fraud. It's all really important, and it's all, at some root level, a game. ...

What happened over the next few months was my attempt to sort of internalize and understand that in context, and the first thing I did was to finish reading the Book of Mormon. And then I pumped out a 100-odd page paper that was a historical, critical study of the Book of Mormon, applying what I had been learning about the Bible to Mormon Scripture. And a much condensed version of that was eventually published in Sunstone magazine. ...

There's still something Mormon about me and always will be, as I think there is probably something religious about everyone who becomes a non-believer. I've read stories from the Jewish tradition, for example, fiction and non-fiction, about ultra-orthodox young men who become non-believers and non-practicers of Jewish law, and I see the same kind of thing, that there remains a kind of fire -- an internal fire, a leftover spark of belief, ... of the passion of belief.

And for me, that passion has been redirected in other ways. Initially it was kind of distracted rather than redirected, but since I began making my living as a photographer I've come back into a newfound appreciation of the Mormon experience, of my own experience, through my connection to the land that my people settled and changed. I've come to a profound appreciation of some core truths of that experience.

Setting aside all of the doctrine, ... I find some huge essential truths remain: truths about the way we relate to other people, about the way we related to the land. Truths that are no less fundamentally in opposition to the American lifestyle that I am part of -- that I am, to some extent, guilty of -- as what my great-great-great-great grandfather would have experienced. ...

I had a wonderful experience one day coming back from Glacier National Park, where I had been photographing, and I decided on the way back to go up to Lemhi Pass, which is the spot where Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide. It's not that spectacular a spot -- historically important, scenically marginal -- but it was a wonderful experience for me because it was kind of a coalescing of the sense that even though in some sense I walk alone, in a lot of senses I don't. I'm retracing the steps of others who've been that way before me -- who've seen that view, who've experienced this landscape, who've helped to shape it -- and they become part of my life as I do that, as I become part of theirs.

Jana Richman
Jana Richman is the author of Riding in the Shadow of Saints: A Woman's Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail.

I'm a sixth-generation Mormon in my family ... at least seven of my great-great grandmothers walked all or part of the Mormon Trail; the eighth came to Utah after the railroad was finished. My great-great grandparents on my mother's side were at Nauvoo with Joseph Smith and left Nauvoo when Brigham Young left. ...

I grew up with a devoutly Mormon mother and a Jack Mormon father -- and by "Jack Mormon," the way I would describe it would be the swearing, drinking kind of Mormon. ... He did not want my mother to go to church. They were originally married in the Mormon temple -- which means for time and all eternity -- but shortly after they were married, he demanded that my mother remove her temple garments, and he did his best to keep her away from church. ...

So the Mormon Church was telling her, "You need to be devoted to this man;" at the same time, this man was telling her, "You need to not be devoted to the church." So she was just pulled between the two of them, trying to figure out what she was supposed to do and where she was supposed to be. ...

She struggled for a long time to continue going to church, but eventually fell away from the church. But I always knew she never lost her faith, and she never lost her devotion to the Mormon Church. I always knew that her love for the Mormon Church was still there, and it created a real sadness in her to be away from it. ...

I had always taken my Mormon background for granted, and during my 20s and 30s, I just kind of shrugged it off. ... But in my 40s, I realized that ... I had to understand really what that meant. And so I needed to understand the church better; I needed to understand my ancestry better and deeper. And that's what prompted my exploration into the church, exploration into my family, and ultimately led to the idea that I wanted to follow the Mormon trail from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City. ...

I didn't do it literally, because I didn't walk the trail. I had to do it in a way that would let me be out there in the weather, out there on the road, out there on the dirt trails. I needed to do it in that way, so I decided to do it by motorcycle. ...

What I was searching for out on the trail was the kind of faith that sent my great-great grandmother, Hannah Middleton Hockey, from England, over the ocean and by train to what was then the edge of the United States, the middle of the country, where she was dumped, expected to build her own handcart ... and then walk with that handcart and her three children across the United States to the Salt Lake Valley. ...

I stopped at Bessemer Bend at the North Platt River, ... that's where she buried her son. That's where he died, and that's where she buried him the snow. And then she said, after she buried him, she just picked up her skirts and plunged into this icy river to cross this river, and then they went on. They didn't stop to change clothes because they didn't have a change of clothes.

By that point in time, she no longer had shoes. She was wrapping her feet in rags; the journals talked about following bloody footprints along the way. ... And when she got back to Salt Lake City, her toes were burst open from the cold; she didn't walk for another year. And when she was asked -- this is one small piece of writing I have from her -- when she was asked: "Are you sorry? Was there any point along the wished that you hadn't made that decision to make that journey?" And she said no, absolutely no point where she doubted that decision. ...

So I really wanted to understand that kind of certainty, that kind of faith that doesn't allow doubt to creep in. ... And there was a point on the trip -- it was at Ash Hollow, where the trail routes were clearly visible; you could see them go down a hill, and start back up a hill -- and I sat up on the top ... of this hill and thought about that. ... I really understood that the difference between the type of faith that my mother practices [and mine], is that hers is based in what she would call knowledge; what I would call belief. ...

She is certain that Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church on earth; she is certain that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God; she is certain that she will follow certain steps and have eternal salvation, eternal bliss. She's guaranteed joy and peace in the afterlife. I could never arrive at that certainty, and I never have, and that's the reason I choose not to practice Mormonism.

I still practice faith, but it's a different kind of faith. I think it's based in uncertainty. My faith is based in not having to define God, not having answers to the large questions in life, ... being comfortable with not knowing about the afterlife, not knowing if there's anything after this life. And that's the kind of faith I have to practice every day. I don't practice the same kind of faith that my Mormon relatives practice. ...

And I sat up there and I had mixed feelings: one of sadness -- knowing that I was not going to find my way back to the Mormon Church -- but also one of peace. Knowing that I really did understand, at that point, my relationship with the church, I could embrace the parts of me that are absolutely Mormon, parts of me that I can't carve out and throw away. And at that place on that hill I could embrace those parts of me and feel at peace with my place in Mormonism, or my place outside of Mormonism. And it's a little bit of both with me. ...

I don't like making my mother sad, and my departure from the Mormon Church brings her probably more sadness than anything else in her life. So there's a part of me that wants to be Mormon for her, but I can't find myself in the Mormon Church as a woman. I understand her choice to be there, and it was partly her choice to be there that made me really start thinking about this, because my mother found her place as a woman, my mother found her liberation, really, by taking a stand and saying, "I'm going back to the Mormon Church. I'm putting my temple garments back on." ...

The fact that that was her source of strength, her source of liberation, was incongruous to me; it felt wrong to me. The Mormon Church, to me, feels sexist and oppressive. So I wanted to understand how these really strong, independent women who came before me -- and my family is full of them -- how they could reconcile that strength and independence with what feels to me to be an oppressive and sexist organization. ...

It seems to me that in the beginning of the Mormon Church, women had a lot more power. Back when they were in Nauvoo, women were blessing the sick; that's strictly done by the priesthood now. When my great-great grandmother, Maria Thompson, finally arrived in Salt Lake City, some of her writings talk about turning Relief Society meetings to suffrage meetings. It doesn't feel to me like that sort of thing, suffrage rallies, could be tolerated in today's church.

I've been gone from the church for a while, but it seems to me as I've looked back, ... you can kind of see that the woman's power in the church has diminished over the years, I think especially during the '60s feminist movement, during the '70s ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] movement. One only has to look from the outside and see who holds the power in the church. How many women in the Quorum of the Seventy? How many women in the church presidency? None. There are no women holding positions of power in the church; even within the women's organization, the Relief Society that still comes under the auspices of the priesthood.

When I've been out there talking to Mormon women and non-Mormon women, I've had a lot of responses to that. Some Mormon women have been offended by my idea and my writing about the church as a sexist organization, and very defensive about it. I think my mother is somewhat offended by it. Others have come up to me and, almost in a whisper, said to me, ... "I wish we could have more open discourse about the place of women in the Mormon church, but I don't feel like I can in my Relief Society and in my ward." ... And that's a lot of why I think I can't kind my place in the Mormon Church. ...