Posts Tagged ‘ conversion ’

My Life as a Mormon

Thomas Poulson Cloward

My great great great great grandpa.

Thinking of Mormonism as a cultural heritage like Judaism, you could say that I am half Mormon. On my Mom’s side, we go back six generations to Thomas Poulson Cloward, a shoemaker who crossed the plains with Brigham Young the first time the Saints made the trek, settled in Payson, UT, married two women named Mary, and was eventually arrested and forced to shave his head for being a polygamist.

On my Dad’s side, there aren’t any Mormons. Not even my Dad. So that’s why I say I’m half Mormon.

My mom went to church most of my childhood, and she took us kids along, but being five generations deep in the church, it was much more of a cultural thing for her than a source of spirituality. We went to church because that was just what we did.

I have no recollection of my baptism; I had to look up the certificate at my Grandma’s house to find out who even baptized me.

I did see a video once of me getting some presents on the day of my baptism. I unwrapped a case for the scriptures and, in my eight-year-old excitement I say, “Oh cool, a bible case!”

When I saw that video I had already returned from my mission and I knew the significance of my calling it a “bible” case instead of a “scripture” case; it means we were pretty inactive in the church and I hadn’t grown up speaking the parlance of my Mormon heritage. It was video evidence of how few ties to the church I had growing up.

Another story that shows how little I knew about the church while being a member growing up: When I received the Aaronic priesthood, a ceremony that involves men who already have the priesthood standing in a circle and placing their hands on the head of the person receiving it. I remember being mad at my father for not being in the circle, but my dad wasn’t even a member, let alone a priesthood holder. I wasn’t mad at him because I knew that he didn’t have the priesthood, but just because I thought he had just refused to stand in the circle.

In other words, I had no conception of what the priesthood was on the day that I received it.

But I had a few good leaders in the church and I knew the church was a good place that felt friendly and welcoming, and that it produced and sustained good men.

Through middle school and high school, I ended up thinking of myself more as an atheist. I remember on the day in math class when we talked about irrational numbers and having an epiphany that, in the same way that man had come up with negative and irrational numbers to explain new problems they discovered as they did more with Math, man had created religion as a way of explaining the problems he encountered in life. I was sure about it. I thought of myself as smarter than the religious people I surrounded myself with. I was about 14 at this point.

But one thing that happened when I was nine or ten was really important and stuck with me. I was in primary class, and the teacher was telling the story of the first vision. When she told us that Joseph Smith felt a dark force trying to stop him from praying, I stopped the teacher and told her, “I know this is true now.” And I truly believe that something inside me changed in that moment. No matter how much I didn’t believe in God, or how far I got from the Church, or even thought of Mormonism as a hoax, I never ever doubted that Joseph Smith was really a prophet.

I have also thought, in all seriousness, that I literally have pioneer blood in me that helps me know it. Even now that I am “educated” and can see why people would see these events as child’s fantasy or imagination, I can’t ever bring myself to doubt the power and importance of that experience.

I grew up with one foot firmly in the church, and one foot firmly out.

Eventually, in high school and with a mission on the horizon, I figured I had better figure out what I really knew about the church and Jesus and God and all that. I was in a typing class my senior year in high school. For this class, we sat at a word processor program and the teacher gave us a sheet of paper, and we were supposed to type “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” or something like that 30 times every day. I eventually started writing other things, and when I figured out that the teacher didn’t care what we typed as long as we filled the page, I started using the time to free write.

It was during this time that I think I really started to understand what prayer is. My free writes were almost always just me getting my thoughts down about deeply meaningful questions and life problems and issues. During those free writes, I decided that religion wasn’t fake, that I should go on a mission, that Christ was a real thing, and a bunch of other stuff. I found so much faith just by writing. Maybe that’s why I am a writing teacher today.

I eventually told my mom and family that I was going to go on a mission, and they were supportive, if surprised. My oldest brother had gone to Guatemala on his mission and was an example for me. My other brother and sister had long since left the Church.

At this point, I knew I believed in Jesus Christ as a savior and as divine, and I had gotten there through the Mormon Church, so I fully embraced it. This was my church. I told my Bishop that I wanted to go on a mission and he asked me all the worthiness questions and told me that I was going to have to wait a year before I could apply to go on a mission. But it didn’t really phase me. I was determined at this point.

At the end of high school, I started to make friends who were non-denominational Christians, and they were in bands and had cool hair and tattoos and their girls were hotter than the Mormon girls I knew. They believed in Jesus, which was my cool new thing. I wanted to find other people who were cool like me and believed in Christ, and they fit the bill. On top of that, my overall impression of Mormons my own age was that they were stiff, boring, stuck-up, and show-offs. Up to this point, my only Mormon friends were, for the most part, my leaders.

I worked hard to spend time with my Christian friends, thinking that we shared the same love for Jesus and rock music and that it would be perfect. I thought I could get all the Jesus without any of the stuffed-shirt, boring Mormonness I didn’t really care for. However, I didn’t fully grasp how deep and divisive doctrinal differences were between Mormonism and Christian churches.

I feel deep deep deep in love with a Christian girl. She left for college and I went out to visit. I was somewhat aware that my being Mormon was a big deal, and that she wasn’t happy with it. But I took my scriptures along with me thinking that I could show her a few of the scriptures that I knew that proved that the Church was true and she would come around and we could just be in love and play rock music together and be happy.

That’s not how it went. After spending an OK weekend together, she eventually brought me in her room and played me a cassette tape of The Godmakers or something like that about how Mormonism is a cult, and ended up breaking up with me minutes before my Mom picked me up to take me home.

This was a pain like I had never ever known, layered with all kinds of cognitive dissonance.

I started studying. I read everything I could, and while this was before the internet, I still got my hands on some really difficult materials to understand. My biggest hangup was the relationship between Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father. In Christian Churches they are the same Being, in Mormonism they are two different People. I don’t know if my unrequited love took me to it, or if I was actually confused, but this was enough to convince me that Mormonism was fake.

I called myself a Christian and believed in salvation by grace and not works like the Mormons, etc. I stopped going to the Mormon church, looked for other churches, grew my hair out, pierced my ears, and maintained chastity like I had never done before.

I figured since I was a Christian now, I would be fully accepted by my Christian friends. But that didn’t happen. They were just as cliquey as everyone else, and I have a feeling that we all knew I was probably using religion to get friends and (possibly) get that girl back.

The whole situation, rather than being everything I had ever hoped for, was just sad.

But I really went for it. I remember being at a party standing in front of a fifth of vodka and telling myself, “It’s ok, I’m saved.” And then drinking and feeling absolutely alone and miserable.

At the time I had a really great bishop, one of the best men I have ever met, and a wonderful young men’s leader, who is still my very good friend. They really encouraged me and saw through my long hair and earrings and stayed my friends throughout the whole thing.

So here I was faced with this terrible question, “How can my bishop and young men’s leader believe in a false church and still be such good people? and Why, if this Christian way of looking at things is the truth, why am I so unhappy, and why don’t I feel settled, and why aren’t my friends who share my faith, well, friendly?”

I went to the pastor of the church that my friends went to and hung out with him to ask him all my difficult doctrinal questions. I pounded him with scripture after scripture from the Book of Mormon and New Testament, and I had him stumped. If I asked him about how salvation worked the best he could come up with was something like, “Well the Baptists believe… and the Lutherans believe…” Then, at the end he pulled out a book called “Cults” and opened up to the Mormonism section. I remember the passage said, “Mormons tend to be much more intelligent than those in other cults…”

The pastor had zero answers where my LDS leaders had most of them. They didn’t have all the answers, but they didn’t squirm around aimlessly when I asked them questions. That experience with the pastor was enough to convince me that the Mormons were not deceived and that I would find my spiritual home in the place I grew up.

The next day was Wednesday, so I went to the young men’s activity and have never turned away from the Church since.

I went back to my bishop at this time, and the year that I needed to wait to go on a mission had lapsed, and I hadn’t done anything that disqualified me from serving, so I started my application process. I went whole-hog Mormon at this point. I read the Book of Mormon everyday, went to every institute class I could, paid back all the tithing I should have been paying the whole time I was away from the church, and felt great about all of it.

I was called to serve in Mexico City, and upon entering the MTC, I was reminded of all the reasons why I never had any Mormon friends growing up. I think I went through more culture shock in my eight weeks at the Missionary Training Center than I did in the first weeks of being in Mexico City.

After a mountain of struggle, I was 100% sold on Mormonism as a religion and as a doctrine, but I had never really been around Mormonism as a culture.

I had a hard time getting along with missionaries my entire mission. I never felt like I fit in. I talked differently, acted differently, had different priorities. What shocked me the most, was the big number of missionaries who had not had the heart-wrenching struggle I had had to get there. There were a few missionaries I met that didn’t even really care about the Church or Christ. I had no idea how that could have been, and I ended up being a jerk to some missionaries because of that, too.

But in spite of that, I had a wonderful, deeply, deeply rewarding experience on my mission. I learned a lot about myself and about life.

One of the main lesson’s I learned on my mission was that who my companion was made all the difference in my life. I needed to get married as soon as possible, because I knew that when I was alone I had the tendency to drive myself insane, and when I had a good companion, life was livable. Plus sex.

I leave the story of meeting my wife for another blog post. But the important thing about this part of my life is that I was at BYU-Idaho and I was completely happy with every moment there. I loved the Church; I loved the people that I surrounded myself with; my testimony was strong; I had friends.

My wife and I had a difficult first year of marriage, but, again, that’s another blog post. We had kids early because we knew we were expected to, and we both wanted to be good parents, and we both had very similar ideas about what a family was for and how one should work. It all made sense and came together.

My wife and I graduated with our Bachelor’s degrees and I went to grad school. This started a new level of spirituality for me.

I started reading philosophy and talking about with people that weren’t Mormon, that didn’t even believe in God, that used the F-word during class.

I had a lot of soul-searching to do during this time. Life without God seemed to make a lot of sense for a lot of people, and life with God made sense for me. I had to rebuild every part of my testimony from the ground up. And I did. I spent every scripture study session defending the Church against unknown assailants for some reason.

I ended up writing my thesis about how I made my Mormonism work with all the ideas I was reading in my grad program. It’s only 66 pages, check it out.

Like I said, after that meeting with the pastor, I have never really had my testimony shaken all that much, no matter what I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot.

However, now that I am settling into the second year of my PhD program, I am starting to feel unsatisfied with my church experience. I know the Church has all kinds of problems, I have read all there is to read. I think because I’ve already been through two or three faith crises already, I’m stable in the Church now in a way that many aren’t. But I still feel more unsettled than I have in a long time.

A good way of putting my current predicament is, “If the Church fulfills me so deeply, why doesn’t it fulfill me shallowly too?”

I find myself in a tough spot. Most of the people that have been through what I have been through have left the church, and some are angry and bitter. There aren’t many like me in the church. And most of the people in the pews with me on Sunday, while I am sure they have all struggled in their own way, don’t seem to have had similar experiences to mine.

I still talk and think very differently than the rest of the congregation, just like I always have since I really started doing it when I was 18.

I’m not a typical Mormon in a lot of ways. And Mormonism, as a culture anyway, seems to be built entirely for typical Mormons.

So, yeah. That’s me.

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