When the Mormons were expelled from the United States 150 years ago, they escaped into the desert, wandering with their handcarts across its landscape. It was theirs to set up any way they wished, where the men could marry as many women as they fancied and listen to whichever mouth of God pleased them. Today the West teems with Mormons. And although their Utah theocracy failed with the U.S. government, they still have a hold over the West that transcends religion, political boundaries, and natural landscapes. Out there, Mormonism is a very real thing.
Mormonism is very real for me, too. You might even say I’m obsessed. I’m always reading obscure Mormon historical texts and traveling to Mormon historical sites. I have a dozen or so Books of Mormon I’ve picked up at thrift stores and used bookstores. I especially like copies with dedications: ‘John, I couldn’t think of anything that means more to me than this book. Take care of it and learn all you can. Your friend, Russell.’
I’m not Mormon, but my entire extended family is, thanks to my great-aunt Ruth, who married one of my grandfather’s brothers and spread her beliefs within the Pemberton clan. My grandfather, however, held firm to his Quaker roots, and my branch of the family resisted the influence. Indeed, we razzed the whole religion. Mormonism, with its belief that people could get married in the afterlife, provided many jokes. Even my grandmother, an upstanding woman of old-fashioned morals, still makes fun of the way Aunt Ruth seemed almost elated by the death of her husband. ‘Oh, I’m so jealous,’ she told my grandmother at the funeral, ‘Now Wendell gets to see Richard and his family.’ Richard was their son, and he was killed in a sledding accident as a boy. According to my great-aunt, Richard’s glorified body went on to adulthood and he married a glorified-bodied young woman and they had plenty of heavenly children. ‘Oh, brother’ is what my grandmother would always say, rolling her eyes.
But the more we blew them off, the more curious I got. Why did I have to take my own church upbringing so seriously if someone else’s was so laughable? Why would anyone want to be a Mormon?
The books I read about the Church of Latter-day Saints were those my parents or grandparents gave me. They had titles like Mormonism and Other Modern-Day Cults and Secret Rituals of the Mormon Church Revealed. As we understood it, Mormons were only masquerading as Christians, and their God was not the same as ours. So even when they prayed the same prayers, and talked about Jesus, we knew they were still going to hell.
My parents were part of the hippie-Christian movement: devout California beach bums who gave up pot and let Jesus get them high. The first church they attended was a tent on a beach where it was de rigueur to show up barefoot and halter-topped. By the time I was born, the congregation had moved to a high school auditorium. There, my dad played guitar onstage and my mom held me in one arm so she could lift her other one closer to God.
The Mormon faith started with a guy who was a lot like my parents. Joseph Smith was a 14-year-old boy in early-19th-century upstate New York, where all kinds of preachers came through town on a busy revival circuit. Bewildered by the variety of denominations on offer, Smith prayed to God for an answer. It turned out that God had been waiting for Joseph Smith to call out to him, because God spoke back. Smith hadn’t been able to find the right church because there was no right church. God had chosen him to reinstate ‘the true sect.’
Three years later, God sent a messenger to Smith’s bedroom–the angel Moroni. Moroni told Smith to dig up an ancient scripture from the base of a hill less than three miles from the Smith family farm. The scripture was written on golden plates using a language Smith described as ‘reformed Egyptian’ and buried with magic seeing-crystals that Smith could use to translate the text into English. The translation was published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.
And so the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded. The story is bizarre, but the impetus is not. Joseph Smith wanted the truth and he found it. My parents wanted the truth and they found it. No one wants God to be cooped up in a church building. Everyone wants God in their lives, in their homes, in their hearts.
But America wasn’t ready for Mormonism–a loose religion that edited the Bible and adopted a social structure that outsiders found closed off and elitist. Mormons even had special underwear–woolen long johns–designed to protect them from evil. And when Smith started printing his own money and forming a militia, the U.S. government had him hauled off to prison, where he was killed by an angry mob. That’s when the rest of the congregation marched themselves off to Utah, where, after a brief stint as polygamists, they settled down for good as respectable, God-fearing Americans.
My grandfather was obsessed with debunking the religion that tore his family apart: ‘Moronism’ as he called it. And what he hated about the ‘Morons’ was their secrecy–the windowless rooms in their temples and their secret rituals. Nothing infuriated him more than the thought of Mormons baptizing immediate family members after their deaths, undoing whatever baptism they had chosen in life.
When I started going to high school in Spokane, Washington, half my class was Mormon. I almost expected the kids to have horns. In fact, they were just like me: good kids who studied hard, didn’t drink or do drugs or have sex; kids who had something to believe in that kept them out of trouble. There was a group of Mormon boys who buddied up to me and my Christian girlfriends. We went to the prom together, and sometimes we even kissed–the slightest, most platonic of kisses.
As a Christian, I felt it was my duty to share what I knew was truth with those who didn’t. I started wars at the lunch table. When the Mormons said they were children of God, they meant it literally: God the Father slept with God the Mother and created baby spirits, which entered human bodies at conception. ‘Don’t you understand?’ we would scream, ‘We’re not literal children of God; we’re adopted children of God. Haven’t you ever read Romans 8?’ Sometimes we wouldn’t talk for days after a particularly bad fight, and we’d grow afraid that the Mormon boys we had crushes on would go to dances with Mormon girls and eventually marry them and forget about us.
Which is exactly what happened. I ended up going to college at the University of Idaho, and my Mormon peers were shipped off to do mission work in places they couldn’t or wouldn’t or didn’t send postcards from. But while I never heard from any of my high school Mormon friends again, I met plenty of new ones in Idaho. A whole new breed, in fact: Jack-Mormons. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jack-Mormons are Mormon fuck-ups. At 18, after a good Mormon upbringing, they opt out for state school, where they stop going to church, take up drinking, and aggressively make up for lost sexual conquests.
I identified with them because some time during my second year of college, I became a Jack-Christian. My deconversion involved drinking, sex, and a full immersion in Faulkner, Plath, and the Catholic fantasies of Dante. The world became too big for my childhood belief system. What about people who lived on islands in the South Pacific who were clueless about Christ? What about matriarchal societies that couldn’t comprehend the sacrifice of God sending his only son to Earth to die? What if I only have one beer? A glass of wine with dinner? How far is too far? Is it OK if we’re in love? Suddenly, I couldn’t remember how I’d ever expressed myself without the word fuck.
For most, the initial free-for-all wore off. We voted for Nader. We became English majors. We drank a lot of good, dark beer. We listened to Democracy Now! and NPR. We studied the Bible as literature. We understood the Book of Mormon as modern-day myth. We realized that it was more fun to have only questions–questions that no one had answers for. We sat on porches drinking and talking, or we went on late-night walks through the university arboretum, or we had guiltless sex for the first time. God had never seemed so real or so happy for us.
After college, I moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to attend graduate school. It was far from Mormon ground zero–Salt Lake City–and it took me a while to realize that my world was different because it lacked Mormons. I missed their crucifix-less churches, their silver CTR (Choose the Right) rings with the Superman stylings, which Mormon kids wore as a testament to their wholesomeness. When I went to the library to check out some books on Mormon history, the girl working the circulation desk asked, ‘You some kinda Mormon or something?’
‘No, I’m just researching them,’ I answered.
‘Mormons is some weird shit.’
‘You know what my friend said about Mormons?’ she asked. I waited, expecting a clich? about bicycles or multiple wives or holy underwear.
‘She said they go out into the desert and have sex.’
‘I never heard that before,’ I said, genuinely surprised.
‘Mormons is some weird shit,’ she said again, checking out my books.
I went outside, blinking in the Alabama sun, smiling as I thought about a Mormon orgy in the desert: a tangle of woolen undergarments, awkward limbs groping for breasts or cocks, guilt hovering over the sand. God, who wouldn’t want to be one?
Then a strange thing happened. I couldn’t get enough of Mormons. I started thinking about my friends from high school, my Jack-Mormon friends in college, my family and its weird, militant anti-Mormonism. I started dreaming about old Mormons I used to know. Books on Mormon history started outnumbering the magazines and novels on my nightstand. I wanted to know what it was that drew people to this religion. I couldn’t get enough of Joseph Smith and those golden tablets. How did he pull it off? How did an illiterate man in upstate New York cook up this mythic wonder? I found myself wanting to believe. If I could spend the first 18 years of my life worrying about whether or not Adam and Eve had belly buttons–my Christian concerns–why not?
Then, when I was home for the holidays, I learned Aunt Ruth was dying. Incredibly, she wanted to see my grandmother before she passed away, and my grandmother was convinced an act of God had made Ruth call for her in the night. Both of their husbands–brothers whom Mormonism had pulled apart–were dead. Finally, she felt, Ruth was renouncing this silly religion of hers. I offered to accompany my grandmother to the Central Washington farm community of Sunnyside.
When we arrived, Aunt Ruth was on morphine and oxygen in the back bedroom of the farmhouse. My grandmother was escorted back while I waited in the living room. I had spent the past two years researching the history of Mormons. Driving over, I thought I would share all the obscure Mormon history I knew–instead, I talked to my 19-year-old cousin Philip about climbing volcanoes. We compared notes about Utah’s national parks. We gabbed like two kids about river rafting and camping and hiking. I felt like I belonged.
And all the while, I silently prayed that my grandmother, facing her nemesis, would shut up about who was right and who was wrong and let the poor woman die in peace. And I wonder now to what God I was praying.
When my grandmother came out of Aunt Ruth’s room she was crying. Someone offered her some homemade fudge. But she just grabbed her purse and said, ‘I guess we should be going.’ And we left.
Aunt Ruth died a week later. My grandmother was inconsolable–a complete surprise. ‘There’s no relief,’ she said over the phone. ‘We can’t say, ‘She’s with the Lord now.’ I can’t help but think of her burning in hell, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.’
How could I console her? ‘We don’t know that,’ I said. ‘More likely she’s with Wendell and Richard and Grandpa. It’s one big family reunion up there for the Mormons.’ I shouldn’t have included my grandfather in the mix, but she let it slide.
‘I hope you’re right,’ she said, with a laugh.
‘At least if the Mormons are right, we’ll all be safe,’ I said.
We were joking again, irreverent at the most inappropriate times–the only way we knew how to make sense of things.
‘It wouldn’t hurt to invest in a pair of that holy underwear,’ I added. ‘Just in case.’
Excerpted from Maisonneuve (Spring 2007), a Montreal-based magazine of eclectic curiosity. Subscriptions: $36/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3468, Champlain, NY 12919; www.maisonneuve.org.