What Mormonism Did You Grow Up In?

I’ll never forget a Sunday School lesson I had growing up. The teacher drew a straight line across the length of the chalk board, representing eternity. Then, somewhere on the line, he put a tiny dot, invisible unless you put your eye up to it and squinted to see it. This, he explained, represented earth life. Why, he asked us for most of the lesson, would we want to jeopardize all of eternity, which goes on forever, by screwing up in this tiny amount of time that is life on earth. We needed to be good, otherwise that dot could destroy that whole line of eternity.

Last night, my wife spoke with a friend she hadn’t seen for a few years. This friend was president of seminary growing up; you know the type, the walking epitome of a good Mormon girl. Last night my wife learned she no longer believes in Church, or in God. Her parents, understandably, were devastated and upset. These parents, good, decent people, raised their children to believe in the Church — otherwise, they wouldn’t go to heaven and be with their family.

I’ve come to realize that so much of where we end up depends on the Mormonism that was presented to us as children. In my youth, the positive side wasn’t emphasized, but rather was taken for granted. I had no idea of the uniqueness of Mormon doctrine or of what other faiths believed. All I knew is that if I drank or had sex (even if I was all alone!) it was off to hell for me.

I spent a great deal of my youth feeling guilty; I’d sit in meetings and pretend hard to look normal. Could they see it on my face, I wondered? As the bishop lectured us on chastity and morality in the combined youth meeting, did the spirit tell him that the gangly, awkward fifteen-year old toward the back watched a naughty movie on cable the night before? When they interviewed me for my temple recommend for baptisms for the dead, was I supposed to tell them sometimes I wasn’t sure if God was there? Maybe, I thought, but the shame (shame was a big part of my youth, too) of confessing it was too great. I couldn’t bear it if my mom found out (would they tell her?!?), or if word leaked out that the Hatch boy wasn’t going to the temple because he flunked the interview.

As I’ve spoken with others, it was almost a surprise to learn that they didn’t grow up with the same feelings. I figured everyone went through the same thing as part of being Mormon. But for so many others growing up, Church was a safe-haven, a place of peace and comfort, where they knew they’d be taken care of because of the love of God and of Jesus the Christ.

Two questions then: First, what Mormonism did you grow up in? Second, should feelings of guilt and fear and of a God ready to strike one down for the slightest infraction be blamed on the Church, or are they the makeup of the individual, inherent to their personality?


  1. The first kinda informs the second, neh?

    Because of this I tend to think that it’s obvious that positives are taken for granted, not just in the Gospel but in all of life. I didn’t spend much time thinking about how much better off I was than those in Africa, but spent most of my time wishing I had one of those O.P. tee-shirts. Equally, I didn’t think too much about how amazing of a doctrine it is to have another testament of Jesus Christ, but I sure whined a lot about not being able to play with friends on Sunday.

    To answer your second question I’d have to say the ideal would be “depends on the kid”, right? Some kids at some times are motivated by fear, some are more motivated by positive reinforcement. I imagine that’s the formula that Christ used when teaching. He had the distinct advantage of knowing his audience, he knew what information would be most beneficial and knew the delivery in which to communicate it.

  2. I also grew up with a lot of shame. I don’t really blame it on the Church, because I no longer feel shame the way I used to but am still an active, devout member of the Church, indicating that the Church is not necessarily a shame-perpetuating organization.

    I do think, though, that there are very specific reasons why I felt shame and guilt. I think it’s because my parents never talked to me about sex or my body or anything. They never really openly encouraged me to question and develop my own testimony. They seemed to have a lot of trust that us kids would just figure it out. And it seems like most of us did (all 8 of us are still active). They just lived as very devout Mormons and it rubbed off. We talked a lot about the Gospel, always in a very positive sense, never disagreeing with each other on points of doctrine. We were very into consensus. Because of this, when I had questions about the Church, I did not voice them because it would not have fit in the positive consensus. There was one point on which I think my parents were worried: they could tell I was the “smart one” and though they encouraged that there was always an implicit disapproval of becoming “an intellectual” (I was also a young teenager in downtown SLC in the early 90s; at least one September Sixer was in my stake, I believe). So when I inevitably became a bit of an intellectual, I felt some shame at that. And I still don’t talk to my parents about the somewhat unorthodox views I have.

    I think also that I read the Old Testament at too young an age to understand it and it gave me a very frightening picture of God. If my parents had been a little bit more into guidance, perhaps they would have suggested that I wait to read the OT or would have helped me through my questions.

    So I guess I would say the Mormonism I grew up in was the unreflective, practical sort. It was wonderful in many ways, but I have had to shift away from it a bit in order to develop my own relationship with God.

  3. One more thing…I worry sometimes that I won’t know how to raise my kids to be active members of the Church if I’m not devout in the same way my parents were. That may sound odd, but I just don’t feel like I have a model of raising faithful children as a slightly unorthodox parent. Does anyone else worry about this?

  4. Nice post again, John.

    My parents were converts and when you combine that with several other major distractions going on for them at the time they didn’t really catch on to these traditional rules like “don’t let your 14-yr-old get a steady girlfriend” or “stay awake to notice if your son isn’t home by 3 AM”, etc. It was a bit of a free for all for me. Needless to say, I ended up in some less than spiritually desirable situations. So I learned by trial and a little bit of error that those rules the other kids at Church (in SoCal) were forced to live by actually helped them. I voluntarily adopted those rules for myself and became a huge advocate of them to my friends… So I guess that put me in the camp of seeing church as a safehaven. Life just felt better that way.

    All that striplining ended up hooking this fish. With some of my younger siblings it backfired though.

  5. Also, John, it’s funny you use the example of the line on the chalkboard because my dad taught almost the exact opposite principle (or speculated it to us at least) that this life is like a piece of cardboard in the path of a bullet. In other words, we have been developing ourselves for eternities (or years or whatever) and this earthlife isn’t going to change that too much.

  6. I agree with your Dad’s version Rusty. But there is no shortage of people who will argue against that and for the model John mentioned.

  7. Great post, John.

    I’m a convert from my late teen years, so I have no real experience “growing up” in the Church. A year and a half after I was baptized, I was on my own at college.

    I am often amazed at the rich variety of Mormon growing up experiences my friends had. I knew plenty of LDS youth who spent a lot of time dealing with shame and guilt. My wife, on the other hand, came from a family that consistently emphasized the positive and that was remarkably open minded about the importance of a variety of life experiences.

    I have no intention of raising my children in a shame-and-guilt home. And to the extent they get that at church, I hope to be able to counter it at home.

  8. I grew up in the “dayplanner goal” Church. If you wrote all the things you should do in your dayplanner — such as read scriptures, pay tithing, pray, go to Church, go to the temple, go on a mission, live the law of chastity — then you would get the desired result — strong testimony, peace of mind, celestial companion, children.

    That leaves you open to major confusion when you do everything you’re supposed to, and then the desired result doesn’t happen. Life would be easier if the Church hadn’t taught me any expectations. But then, maybe it was my own personality that created the expectations.

    I didn’t have issues with shame and guilt, because I knew I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing. It was all in my dayplanner and checked off. Now that I’ve thrown out the dayplanner, I’m looking for a different way to be a Mormon.


  9. My parents were convert. When I went on my mission, I realised that I knew very little about the gospel. What I did know, most of it was picked up from teaching Primary for the year previous to leaving.

    We had very few FHE and very rarely had family scripture study.

    Looking back, more of my memories regarding the gospel were regarding thing I should do rather than things I should believe. actually, if I hadn’t had my post-high school girlfriend (who was a recent convert and lit afire with the gospel), I doubt I would have ever served a mission.

  10. Christina says:

    I was raised in a (hyper-)active LDS family. My parents lived the gospel because they believed in it, and they taught us those principles and expected us to live by them unapologetically. Yet, fortunately both my parents were also quite open to discussion and thinking about religion and they never forced the religion on any of us. All of us kids are active today. It’s funny, though, I didn’t even know Sunstone and Dialogue weren’t church publications; until I went to college I wouldn’t have distinguished between them and the Ensign.

    Growing up I always chafed much more against the way the gospel was taught at church (in absolutes, and in favor of my being a housewife rather than a professional) than the way it was presented at home.

  11. I was a terrible kid. I got thrown out of every school/church event I attended, while my two older brothers are Eagle Scouts. Leaders (at church and at school) always tried to convince me that I’d become an evil rogue or a failure if I didn’t become more like them. Because they were usually assholes, I naturally opted to for the path that lead to wickedness and failure. I was ready to face my wickedness and failure with courage and aplomb, so imagine my disappointment when I realized that the paths I had chosen led somewhere else entirely. (Ok, not entirely. I am still wicked.)

    I think that fear and guilt depend almost entirely up to the person and how he reacts to authority. Some people live in fear of authority, some people have a healthy respect for it, some people hold it in contempt, and some people just ignore it. If you live in fear of authority or hold it in contempt, you’re probably going to feel shame and guilt no matter where you are.

  12. Dan Sims says:

    My growing up experience in the church was that of a Less Active Family. Parents who sent me to Church (It is good to expose the boy to religion). I had all of the major Ordinances done by another member of the Church (usually a Bishop or Home teacher) As a result my home upbringing and church upbringing were diametrically opposed.

    Many of the parents of my friends frowned on our association, because of my ties to the smoking and rebellious family. Despite their concerns I turned out pretty good. My conversion to the gospel came about by good friends, leaders and the feelings that “Choosing the Right “ brought it to my life, not by any sense of eternal damnation.

    Today I look at life a little differently then some. I can tune out a lot of the doom, gloom and talks of eternal punishment. I constantly compare myself to what I was and what I am today. I realize the farther I go down the path, the better I become.

  13. AT,

    Dude, I don’t know how you hold a job–but you are one funny guy.

    I had an idyllic childhood and the church was a big part of that. I felt pretty crummy when I was an adolescent thanks to lots of self-imposed guilty, a by-product of a conscientious nature. When I was a little older I became less conscientious and, more importantly, my understanding of the gospel changed. I like to think it matured. I now enjoy believing I’ve got a better than average shot at being saved and skiing.

  14. iggy: Dude, I don’t know how you hold a job–but you are one funny guy.

    LOL. I assure you: It has more to do with the economy than anything I’ve done.

  15. My MTC experience relates to this post. At least I think so. I hope that I am not veering off topic. In any case, I was a good Mormon kid. I never did anything growing up to be ashamed of. I didn’t dread interviews with the bishop which seemed like friendly chats more than anything. I arrived in the MTC and we had twice a week interviews for nine weeks in which it was assumed that we had sins we needed to confess. The people interviewing me didn’t know me from Adam so the interviews were not the friendly chats I was used to. I didn’t feel guilt or shame though, just frustration that there was no way to communicate to these people that I was probably closer to what they hoped I’d be rather than what they seemed to think I was. Others in the group had very different experiences and felt that the constant guilt trips were overwhelming. The talks offered by GA’s and instructors also focused over and over on the need to repent, which I really didn’t feel. Maybe it was pride on my part.

    As for the chalkboard analogy, a bullet might go right through a chalkboard, but it might not be flying in exactly the same direction afterwards and over time that slight deflection can make all the difference in whether you hit the target or not.

  16. (warning: long post by a non-regular follows)

    I had a somewhat different experience growing up in the church, and from my handle, you’ll see I’m not practicing these days.

    My father was not a member; he was a scientist and an atheist. My mother, on the other hand, had the maiden name of Smith. But because the religion and culture went so far back, was so deeply entwined with her family identity, she wasn’t particularly interested in theological problems or exact obedience.

    We went to the ward my mom had attended for decades, in the town she grew up in. It was a small ward in a mostly secular university town. My father characterized the congregation as the “newly wed and nearly dead.” Most of my Sunday School teachers were graduate students. My teachers emphasized that the terrestrial kingdom was like earth and that the only punishment for these sinners was to be far from God; one year was marked theologically by two lesson plans, one on Milton as proto-Mormon, and one on the old paradox of “If God is good, and God is all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?” One of my teachers got me a subscription to Sunstone when I was about 14, warning me that it might not be a great idea to talk about reading the magazine. At the time I had no idea what the problem might be because my church was harmless to the point of inanity, the members uninsisting to the point of grandmotherliness.

    When I went to summer camp, however, I mixed with Mormons from other wards and found a very different culture. Initially, I was jealous: these other young people attended wards with lots of other young people! (My average Sunday School class had about three students on average.) Over the years of attending these (admittedly short) summer camps, I began to realize that what I experienced there was more typical of the Mormon experience–and I didn’t like what I saw there. Tearful exhortations against abortion (whereas I had never considered having sex before marriage), whispered late-night conversations about spirit-possession, in general, a much gloomier version of the religion I had grown up with as a cultural given.

    I don’t want to give the impression that Mormon summer camp was the factor the clinched my decision to move away from the church, but it was my most important exposure to the broader culture of the church when I was growing up. My rather insular ward was very inclusive, nurturing, and scholarly; the broader church structure I encountered in my teens seemed more prohibitionary and anti-intellectual.

    Anyway, there’s a data point for you.

  17. “If you live in fear of authority or hold it in contempt, you’re probably going to feel shame and guilt no matter where you are.”

    Holy crap, Arturo. That’s like the best comment I’ve heard in the ‘nacle in a long time. I think that’s what I was thinking but didn’t know how to say it.

    When we hold authority in contempt, it makes us angry, shamed, and guilt-stricken when they correct us. Further still, it makes us angry that they made us feel that way, and contempt for the authority quickly magnifies.

    Do we respond in the same way when we respect the authority? I think that, when we do have respect for them, we’re less likely to sour in guilt, but rather quickly admit that we were wrong and resolve to change.

    It does appear that the greatest weight in our experiences is not in the way that we are treated, but the way in which we respond to others.

  18. 1.) I’m not really sure what kind of Mormonism I grew up in, since I remember instances of leaders and relatives exhibiting all kinds of attitudes towards the teachings of the church. With a few notable exceptions that I didn’t take very seriously, the people around me did an excellent job of presenting a fair and loving God who just really, really wanted me to behave in a certain way. I guess if I had to define it, I’d call the Mormonism I grew up in “relaxed orthodox”–which, of course, isn’t much of a definition at all. I do know that I felt the same inability to confess things to the bishop that you did, John. I’m sure that the “sins” I had to confess were so minor that the bishop would have let me do baptisms for the dead anyway, but I was paralysed with fear at the thought that he wouldn’t. (I do remember a time that I admitted to a bishop I wasn’t entirely sure that the church was true, and–bless his heart–he made a very reassuring little speech to me about the nature of testimonies. That buoyed me up spiritually for at least a few years.)

    2.) When I finally realized that I had absolutely zero testimony despite years of effort at obtaining one, I felt, figuratively speaking, a ton of guilt lift off my soul. Naturally, a respectable amount of guilt for not believing in what my family believed arrived, but it was no match for what went away. The guilt that I lost wasn’t over anything “serious”–it was about things like having watched TEN R-rated movies in my life, wearing tank tops sometimes, occasionally using bad words, and not writing in my journal on a regular basis. Essentially, it was guilt I might well have lost as I gained a more mature understanding of the Mormon religion. Now, I don’t think I was presented with a particularly gloom-and-doom picture of the gospel, and I *am* a perfectionist. So those parts of my experience agree that guilt is just a matter of personality. But at the same time, there were definitely things in my understanding of Mormonism that caused me to feel far more useless guilt than I do now. Is that all my fault? I can’t help but think not. :)

    (Btw, I never, EVER feared that there was a god who would strike me down for the slightest infraction.)

  19. IMO. Mormonism is becoming less “peculiar” and more “streamlined” because of (1) changed temple ordinances and (2) the Internet.

    The Mormonism of my parents’ day was fraught with secrets/sacredness and fear (yes, fear) that they would lose blessings or, worse–suffer their lives…–if they broke their covenants. This was a Mormonism where women couldn’t get their endowments if they were married to non-members, women couldn’t pray in Sacrament meeting or speak in General Conference. Women were encouraged to marry young, stay home and raise kids, not use birth control, etc.

    So the Mormonism I grew up in has, thankfully, very little to today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  20. Nate Oman says:

    John H.: Great post. I think that you are right about how strongly we tend to generalize our own church experience, especially as kids.

    What is interesting to me is that my most powerful spiritual, Mormon experiences growing up were actually not in a Church context. They came mainly in the form of theological discussions with my dad, reading the scriptures, or experiencing the material culture and history of Mormonism, e.g. handling Joseph Smith’s pistols, visiting Pipe Springs or Cove Fort, etc. etc. From a very early age, I have basically operated with the assumption that the people in Church (Sunday School Teachers, seminary teachers, YM leaders, etc.) are good folks who don’t know a great deal about Mormon history or theology and hence should not be taken as authorities on these subjects.

    I don’t remember being overwhelmed by guilt, although I do remember periods of doubt or axiety about God, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, etc.

  21. Funny thing is, I always thought that my parents were the straightest of laced mormons growing up, never realizing that there attitudes were slightly unorthodox. I too took the sunstone to be a church publication. My father was the bishop that got called into the stake presidents office for inadvertantly qouting something from the sunstone over the pulpit, and using a scene from schindler’s list as an example of the importance of missionary and temple work (not realizing it’s scandalous rating at the moment).

    Although I at times found their rules to be overbearing (which they so werent), they taught us the importance of expanding our circle of friends to those outside our religion. The are the greatest examples of chrisitanity in my life. Imperfect, but constantly looking past their own needs in order to help those too easily judged and discarded by the general membership of our wards.

    They taught us to think for ourselves, but to use the Holy Ghost as our discerning guide. I see little that they could have done better. Their examples have taught us to love the Lord, and subsequently all four of their illustrious (my fathers word) daughters gained very personal testimonies of His gospel. Great examples that I will be hard pressed to improve upon. When given the chance that is.

  22. Seth Rogers says:

    I grew up with a lot of adolescent guilt. But you know what? I deserved it. I really was messing up. There are occasions when guilt is actually the appropriate response believe it or not.

    I think the reason I’m still active is that I actually had some grounding in the theology. By the time I went to the MTC I’d read the Book of Mormon about 8 times, the D&C 5 times, the New Testament 6 times, and The Pearl of Great Price had been read through quite a bit as well (I was an obsessive reader). So to me, religion was a LOT more than talks on sex and modesty.

    Becuase I had a larger theological framework, I was able to place my own guilt in perspective.

  23. “They came mainly in the form of theological discussions with my dad, reading the scriptures, or experiencing the material culture and history of Mormonism, e.g. handling Joseph Smith’s pistols, visiting Pipe Springs or Cove Fort, etc. etc.”

    I imagine if I had this kind of experience, my perspective would be very different. I can’t emphasize how ignorant I was of the place of Mormonism in the larger world. I remember being stunned when my mom told me that people came here, to Salt Lake from all over the world to see conference and visit the temple. I thought most everyone was Mormon and couldn’t imagine that Utah was the capital of it all.

    To give you just a glimpse of how naive and uninformed I was, I couldn’t believe it when a friend told me there hadn’t been a Mormon President (of the U.S.) and I responded that must be impossible – George Washington surely was Mormon! (Pick out how many ways that’s screwed up, and you win a prize.) I knew nothing about the difference between the Book of Mormon and the Bible – scriptures were scriptures. If you’d of asked me the difference between Jonah and Nephi, I might be able to tell you a tiny bit about the stories, but wouldn’t have been able to tell which was in the Book of Mormon and which was in the Bible. I guess my parents assumed I knew or would learn this kind of stuff – but I never put two and two together and made the connections.

  24. Thank you all for your informative posts here. It has only been recently that I have begun to look at my life in retrospect and try to determine where some of my beliefs originate, and of course I have focused on my childhood as the primary source of who I am, and what I believe.

    I come from a devout Mormon family. Both of my parents are converts to the church. My father works for the Church Education System, and as such my childhood was filled with religious instruction. I never realized growing up how much “extra” instruction I was getting until I went on my mission, and things that I thought were common knowledge were new to many of those around me. Everything to do with the Church was black or white when I was growing up, there was no grey area, and there were multiple scriptural referrences to back it up if there were any lingering doubts.

    I look back on my childhood with fondness, but am now starting to recognize the shame and guilt that I have dealt with for much of my life. Much of what I believe/practice has more to do with not wanting to disapoint my parents, and by extension God, than with a firm testimony.

    Thats not to say that I don’t have a testimony, I do. I believe in the Gospel, the book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith, etc. But to me the Gospel and the Church are two very different things. I now realize that the gap between trying to live up to the expectations of the Gospel, and the expectations of the Church is where my guilt/shame lies.

    I laughed when I read some of the posts about feeling scared in the Bishops office as a 12 year old and being to afraid to confess anything to the Bishop, and then feeling extreme guilt afterwards. The Temple is built up as this wonderful place where the spirit of the Lord dwells, and at the same time you are expressly told that if you screw up after going there you will burn in hell for ever!

    With my dad on the High Council and my mom in the Relief Society, it just wouldn’t do not to pass the test and be denied access, better just to keep my mouth shut and take the burning later.

    I have a problem with much of what I call “Church Culture”. To me it is inconsistent with the Gospel, but has taken a prominent place alongside it among church members.

    Church Culture for me includes marrying young, regardless of financial stability or maturity; young women puting no other qualification on a potential husband other than having to be a returned missionary; starting families because you are physically able, not because you particularly want kids or have the means to care for them; qualifying our association with others based on whether they are “good” or not (ie if they drink, smoke, have sex outside marriage they are not “good” and our standards on these issues would crumble if we were to associate with them); etc, etc, etc.

    After much introspection I have come to terms with my guilt/shame and have concluded that much of it has to do with thinking/believing differently on certain issues than my parents, rather than fundamental points of doctrine, and realizing that that is ok has made a huge difference in my life. I now have a comfort level with the Church, and that has brought me happiness.

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