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Ascent into Doubt

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
(1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Joseph Smith was a mystic by every worthwhile definition of mysticism, and Mormonism is a mystic tradition. Mormons seek to receive personal revelation of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. This revelation comes not through intellectual means or empirical evidence, but by the experience of the Holy Spirit. Mormons seek to be made one with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why Christ came into the world, to bring the faithful back into the presence of the Father through His Atonement. Every good Mormon is a mystic whether they know it or not.

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
(John 17:20–23)

When I joined Mormon+Mystic, I hoped that I could apply wisdom from the mystic tradition to the Mormon framework. I got that, and a lot more. There were mystics of all stripes, not just Mormons. I found a marketplace of ideas and stepped into a larger world of thought and discourse. I met people of great intelligence, study, and experience. I never realized how narrow my view of Mormonism had been. The Mormon history and doctrine that I had learned from attending Sunday meetings and from official Church materials was only a small part of the rich spiritual heritage that Mormonism has to offer. It seems that in our rush to gain acceptance by our neighbors, we have jettisoned a lot of peculiar doctrines. In order to let them go, we have intentionally hidden and forgotten our history. In order to bolster our claims to divine authority, we have turned a blind eye to the humanity in our history. We have portrayed ourselves as being of one faith by hiding the diversity of doctrine in our past in order that the institution of the Church would survive the challenges of modernity.

In my mind, this is a tragedy. Mormonism was once alive with a hunger and thirst for the truth. We were once a heterodox people willing to dash to pieces any icon which contradicted the truth. Perhaps I am nostalgic for a time and people that never were, but the early Mormon church was much more like my description than the present Church.

Members of Mormon+Mystic introduced me to three books on Mormon history which opened my eyes: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 by Thomas G. Alexander, and David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright. These books are not anti-Mormon, nor are they faith promoting history. The authors are faithful members of the Church (Bushman is a Stake Patriarch, for example), but the books are impartial history based on the available evidence. They do not draw conclusions about the Mormon church’s claims to divine sanction, but rather present the facts allowing the readers to make their own judgements.

I learned at least two important things from these books. The first truth that I learned was that Mormon church leaders are human. They each have their own leadership style and make human mistakes. They are not infallible, even when acting in their offices. This reminds me of a joke.

Catholics are taught that the Pope is infallible and don’t believe it. Mormons on the other hand are taught that the Prophet is only human, but they don’t really believe it.

This is consonant with my experience in the Church. In my experience in positions of leadership and with other Church leaders, a position in leadership does nothing to help insure that the person will not make mistakes, sometimes dangerous ones. While Mormon leaders (except the Prophet) make no claim of infallibility, I was taught that I should not murmur against my leaders and their perceived failings, that the Lord would bless me for following their leadership regardless of what I thought about their counsel or how bad the counsel was. Murmuring is the first step to apostasy, I was told.

So for years I did all kinds of mental acrobatics to avoid the glaringly obvious: that my leader’s counsel was a mixed bag with some pearls of true wisdom mixed in with the ideas of men. I blamed myself for not following their counsel exactly enough. I explained it away by saying that God was testing me using my leader’s humanity. I assumed that what appeared to be a failure to me was in fact exactly what God wanted. I ignored scriptures like Matthew 7:15–20; D&C 64:37–40; D&C 52:14–19; D&C 121:39–40; and D&C 129 which cautioned me to be discerning about those who would seek to lead me.

Learning this reminded me that I was ultimately responsible for my own salvation. I should exercise caution and discernment before following any counsel, no matter what position of authority my counselor occupied.

The second truth that I learned was that Church doctrine had changed over time. Even as a child, I could see that the Church had evolved throughout its history. It had been one source of doubt at the time. Surely, I figured, God couldn’t be the author of confusion. (1 Corinthians 14:33) A church directed by Him should hold to eternal truths, untossed by the winds of human doctrine. (Ephesians 4:13–15) I sought a church that could give me a foundation to rely on. (Matthew 7:24–27 and James 1:17)

I discovered in these books that my childhood doubts were well founded. The teachings of the Church had changed over time. Each successive generation changed the teachings to suit their tastes and needs. The modern Church has become very different from what I discovered in the historical Church. Central doctrines and practices such as Plural Marriage, the Law of Adoption, women washing and anointing for the healing of the sick, and the Adam-God Theory (no, it was not just a misquotation of a single sermon) have come and gone becoming only obscure historical footnotes to the modern membership. This doctrinal evolution continues to this day.

I rationalized this evolution by believing that what God really wanted most was for me to strictly follow the current leadership of the Church and be willing to relinquish any teaching that became out of favor, no matter how heartfelt my belief in that teaching may have been and no matter how much my powers of reason urged me in other directions. God wanted willing, trusting followers of His representatives on earth, I surmised. I was to do this as a sign of submission to God’s will. Changing doctrines were only a test of faith and loyalty to God and his chosen mouthpieces.

I also believed that God needed to change the emphasis of His teachings to adapt it to the circumstances of His followers. God couldn’t give one wise set of rules to hold for all times and circumstances, so I needed to follow His Spirit and His servants even if it meant changing directions from time-to-time.

I also tried to deny that the doctrines had substantially changed. I sought to harmonize all of the teachings of the Church throughout its history. I wanted to believe that the Mormon gospel was one eternally true whole which grew line upon line. (2 Nephi 28:30)

These histories showed that the teachings of the church do not represent the culmination of a progressive understanding of a single, unified doctrine. Some abandoned doctrines contradict current doctrine or are simply an embarrassment which the Church would rather forget. It became impossible for me to look at the history of Mormon doctrine and find a unity of faith.

To my surprise, this willingness to be unorthodox had been one of the Church’s greatest strengths. It allowed it to innovate and adapt to new challenges as times changed. Nevertheless, I still secretly hoped for a God who could avoid contradicting Himself.

I also saw many valuable truths which had been lost in the Church’s evolution. The loss of the gifts of the Spirit troubled me. Where had speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healings gone? Mormonism used to be much more charismatic than today. I had consoled myself that we didn’t need those outward signs anymore, that the faith of the saints was strong enough that we had outgrown such displays.

I learned instead that, around the turn of the 20th century, the Church underwent a change of culture overseen by Church leaders who were uncomfortable with the wild nature of gifts of the Spirit and the power that they gave to the women in the Church. Relief Society meetings were once havens for spiritual gifts. Some claimed that the sisters of the Church were better healers than the men. The Relief Society didn’t answer to the Church leadership. They were an independent group which was parallel to the Church. The Church leadership slowly discouraged the charismatic culture of the Church and replaced it with exhortations to frequent temple attendance, and subordinated the queens and priestesses of the Relief Society under the leadership of the male priesthood.

This convinced me that the current Church had lost something essential. We had become too worried about following the human leadership of the Church, forgetting to follow the Spirit wherever it may lead. Would I have the courage to leave the Church if the Spirit told me to, like Joseph Smith left the traditional Christian churches of his time?

Hearing children sing the repetitive refrain “Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet…” began to make me wince. (Follow the Prophet, Children’s Songbook, pp. 110–11) If Joseph Smith had sung a similar song as a child, I doubted he would have been independent enough to found the Mormon church. It felt like indoctrination. Rather than creating mature, independent individuals who thought about important matters, held their own convictions based on their own experience and judgment, and chose without coercion to belong to the Church and follow its leadership, this ethic sought to create blind faith. You can’t go wrong following God’s prophet, the thinking goes. The encouragement to repeatedly confess belief at an age before children can form a well reasoned opinion of their own began to disturb me. It made use of the saying-is-believing principle, and the principle of insufficient justification to induce the children’s belief and overcome any cognitive dissonance between what the leadership of the Church said was good and what the individual judged was good as influenced by the Spirit.

Joseph Smith detested religious creeds and confining orthodoxies.

It looks too much like the Methodists, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have a creed which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled.
(Joseph Smith, Documentary History of the Church, Vol. VI, pp. 273–74)

Joseph Smith didn’t leave behind a conscise definition of Mormonism. He never pegged it down enough to create a creed, the Articles of Faith notwithstanding. If personal revelation from God is to be taken seriously, the recipient must be willing follow it where it leads with caution and discernment, even if that means leaving the comfort of a familiar organization which contradicts personal experience of the divine. The Mormon church wouldn’t exist if Joseph had been unwilling to follow his experiences which contradicted the religious leaders of Palmyra, New York.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the Mormon church had become narrow and creed-bound over the course of its history. We had abandoned our dynamic visionary heritage, given up the guidance of revelation in favor of the comfort of the administration of good men. My quest became to find something authentic which had become hidden to me which would help me build a true relationship with God. At this point, I was prepared to follow God wherever He led, inside or outside the Church. If only He would make Himself known.



  1. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 4:35 pm

    Let me say that I know that this is a very critical, perhaps bitter post.
    For those who are used to deferential treatment for the Church and its leadership, this may be one of those uncomfortable subjects that I warned about. I think it accurately reflects the betrayal that I felt at the time. I felt those feelings again as I wrote those words. I can’t be too conciliatory and objective and still be an honest chronicler in this case.

  2. Cliff said,

    February 1, 2007 @ 10:20 pm


    Thanks for this post. I learned 90% of what I know about Church history before joining Mormon-Mystic. And I feel sometimes that I cheated in the learning, because before I found out the unsettling parts of Mormon history, I had already experienced God directly a couple of times.

    And these experiences were within the framework of the Church, believe it or not. So, right from the get-go I was irretrievably biased in favor of the Church.

    Even so, I still reached the point where I had to be willing to investigate honestly for myself; where I had to be willing to give up anything I found to be ‘untrue’. Well. I was willing to give up everything EXCEPT my personal and direct experiences with God. So I was willing, though reluctant, to give up the Church.

    As it turned out, I never felt the need to actually do so. After many years of research and contemplation, I am very happy within the Church. But like I said, sometimes I feel like I ‘cheated’.

    I hope to someday understand why some people have my experience, and others have yours. We all have to deal with what we have, and I have no idea why we get what we’ve got. Pre-earth life? Maybe. I’ve learned to be careful about ‘guessing’.

    I look forward to your continuing posts.


  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 2, 2007 @ 8:55 am

    I was exposed to a lot of negative information about the Church over the years, but it was presented in such a biased package, and I wasn’t really ready to listen. I held tightly to my belief in the Church.

    It wasn’t until the truth became more important to me than my beliefs and the truth was presented in an unbiased way that I had ears to hear.

    I think you hit on a critical point. I think these transcendent experiences are available not only in the Mormon church but in and out of many other traditions. I hypothesize that the context where one first has this transformative experience is critical to how it is interpreted. Having it inside the Mormon context strengthens faith in Mormonism. Likewise experiencing it within a Buddhist context would strengthen your ties to Buddhism.

    I would love to find out if there is some truth that we can extract from these experiences which is independent of context.

  4. Cliff said,

    February 2, 2007 @ 10:43 am

    Yes, it was quite an eye-opener when I actually started to listen and digest what the detractors of the Church were saying.

    It was also a major development in my life when I began to listen to people of other religions (even athiesm) as being sincere and honest.

    Of course not all of them were — my experiences with enemies of the Church had me assuming that they were all wrong, and therefore not worth listening to. Probably because of how many of there were so hateful, bigoted and illogical in their approaches to me.

    When I decided to suspend judgement long enough to really get what they were saying, from within myself, then I began to see.

    I agree with you that spiritual experiences happen to people regardless of whether they are in or out of the Church. And I agree with you that we all interpret the experiences based on our context.

    Zen has a method that is somewhat Socratic, where they try to drop all assumptions, eliminate all ‘contexts’. That’s scary, too.

    Hmmm… Truth that is independent of context. Interesting. I used to think that “I AM” would be that. Now, I’m not sure.

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 2, 2007 @ 11:36 am

    I know what it’s like to stop for a moment and honestly listen to your enemy. Like you said, it turns out that we’re all more sincere than we give each other credit for. Perhaps this is the wisdom behind Jesus’s exhortation to travel the second mile with your oppressor.

    I find it intriguing that Sam Harris, the atheist author of The End of Faith, is also a follower of the Buddha. I never realized how skeptical Buddhism could be. It is fundamentally atheistic, lacking a governing God. I intend to investigate Zen further, especially now that you’ve made the connection for me between Zen and losing context. :)

  6. Sue Bug said,

    February 2, 2007 @ 7:57 pm


    I read this entire thing in one sitting and want you to know I don’t know how hard this is for you, because I would rather not say anything at all to my family. I do know that this is very difficult for some to understand to them I say be open and let him be. I love my sister more then anything and I truly know you would never hurt her and this was not a thought out plan from the beginning. I just want you to know I still wish you both the best and am so grateful to have my beautiful girls and without you I don’t have them, so thank you.


  7. Jonathan Blake said,

    February 3, 2007 @ 9:18 am

    Thank you for your thoughts and support, Carolyn. I’m happy that the girls have a loving, concerned aunt like you. I hope that, through the openess of the blog, we can all understand each other better so that there are fewer barriers of secrecy between us.

  8. Steve Graham said,

    April 19, 2007 @ 12:16 pm


    We share a lot. I, too, was very upset when I found how much had been changed and lost. I am still angry and I know that I need to let it go. I know the early days of the Church had their challenges, but sometimes I feel that I would rather be back then. I love and revel in the doctrines brought forth by Joseph, Brigham and Heber. Today, we get repudiations.

    I have come to believe that we all come here with our own gifts and limitations. The D&C talks of those who have the gift of believing others. Possibly they believe because they have not yet gained a conviction of their own. Some might say this is a very temporary condition. I am no longer quite so sure.

    As others have said, the search for truth is a good thing and I am persuaded that it is not always so easy to be dispassionate enough to let the search take us where it will. Sometimes we get attached to thinks/ideas along the way and letting go is hard.

    My best wishes and prayers to you and yours. While I have not gone through your experiences exactly, I have experienced similar ones and they try one.

    Steve Graham

  9. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 21, 2007 @ 8:40 am

    I think a lot of people, not just in the church, go through life believing what others believe, going with the flow because that’s the easiest path. That was certainly one factor for why I stayed in the church despite my doubts: laziness. At the same time, it was certainly hard work for me to overcome cognitive dissonance. Perhaps my path was just less difficult than the alternative. Perhaps I’m still following the easiest path because it would be very hard for me to believe again, and I don’t really want to.

    Regarding attachment to ideas, I once heard that wisdom is strong opinions which are held weakly. In other words, believe passionately but refuse to be seduced by dogmatism. Always be prepared to change your mind if that’s what the evidence dictates. This may seem wishy-washy to some, but the center of this dictum is a fierce loyalty to truth above all else.

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