Ex-Mormon and Other Emerging Mormon Identities

It will be 5 years next month that I attended my first (and only thus far) Exmormon Foundation conference in Salt Lake City. At the time I was deeply immersed in studying ex-Mormon narratives as part of my graduate studies and was seeking to meet some of those whose stories and struggles I had read and to experience, first hand, this emerging group whose stated purpose was to provide a community for those who had become disillusioned with Mormonism and were seeking paths forward in a life sans The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The experience was enlightening as I met some incredible people and heard both interesting and heartbreaking stories of those who had left, or were in the process of leaving, the LDS Church.

The end result of my study of ex-Mormon narratives was a paper entitled, Purposeful Strangers, a Study of the Ex-Mormon Narrative. My academic advisor felt the paper was strong but lacked a meaningful conclusion; an assessment with which I fully agree. I reworked the paper and presented shorter variants at Sunstone in 2008. In the edited versions I left out much of the sociological analysis which placed the modern LDS Church into David Bromley’s framework of allegiant, contestant, and subversive organizations. In short, my paper drew the following conclusions:

  • The LDS Church does not fit neatly into Bromley’s organizational construct because its societal positioning is difficult to pinpoint due to the wide range of views held by society about the LDS Church. In general, however, the Church should most often be considered a contestant organization.
  • The stories people tell as they exit the LDS Church are similar in both pattern and purpose to the “captivity narrative” Bromley describes in his extensive work on religious apostasy.
  • Within the broader context of captivity narratives, ex-Mormon narratives followed a general pattern recounting an individual’s Church “heritage” (e.g. convent or multi-generational Mormon), their level of Church activity, a recounting of how and why they discovered difficulties in Mormon history and doctrine, their (often painful) struggle in leaving the Church, and concluded with a statement of the sense of freedom and relief that eventually came by leaving the LDS Church.

My study had several methodological problems that I tried to outline in the text of the paper. First, I studied 130+ narratives the majority of which came from “Recovery From Mormonism.” The rest were taken from various Christian ministries who had posted testimonies of former Mormons online. I found many more narratives from a variety of sources but due to limited time and resources decided to focus on this limited set. I did survey narratives from other sources and found that, in general, they followed a pattern similar to the one I had found in my detailed analysis of narratives from evangelicals and those at Recovery from Mormonism. Bottom line: my conclusions cannnot be applied with any confidence beyond the narratives I studied directly. I do believe the general pattern is/was consistent for other narrative sets but this is mearly my impression based on casual observation and not on a rigorous methodologically sound study.

Since the time of writing “Purposeful Strangers” I have remained an active observer of, and participant in, online Mormonism in its various forms and were I to write the paper again I would evaluate a broader sample of narratives from additional sources. My myopic focus on Recovery from Mormonism most likely skewed my perspective as Recovery from Mormonism tends to attract those with a more hostile or negative view of the LDS Church while other, and perhaps less explicitly organized, message boards and blogs seem to skew more moderate.

Also, I believe it would be more interesting to see if time has a moderating effect on individuals who were once active participants in the ex-Mormon community but have since “moved on”, as it were. My sense is that for some, time tends to mellow once harsh feelings as individuals look back at their LDS Church experience more holistically rather than through a single lens of the Church’s problematic issues of history, doctrine, and culture.

Yet, ex-Mormonism is only one of several Mormon-related identities that have emerged in the past decade. New Order Mormons have sought a “middle way” in which the issues of Mormonism are fully explored but within the context of maintaining Church activity. Liberal Mormons, once confined to the pages of Dialogue and Sunstone, are now more mainstream and more widely accepted, but not without reservation, by the body of the Church. John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories, a project which began as a way for John to explore his own questions and define a new personal path, has morphed into a large community of Latter-day Saints of all stripes who seek to tackle difficult questions head on. This very blog, as part of the larger bloggernacle, represents a community of intellectuals and scholars (even hacks like me) committed to approaching Mormonism academically from a wide range of perspectives.

So, what does the emergence of these disparate groups mean, if anything, about the state of the modern LDS Church? In my view, these groups show that the Mormon faith is maturing. For nearly its entire existence Mormonism has been considered marginal. Yet, the emergence of such diversity of thought being expressed within the Utah-branch of wider Mormonism shows that the LDS Church is growing up. Its doctrines are being thoughtfully considered and the black/white dichotomy, promoted for so long by so many, that the LDS Church is either a fraud or true is being challenged by the lives of those within the community of Saints. Undoubtedly, the institutional Church will adjust in response, just as it has by being far more explicitly open about historical and doctrinal issues in recent years. I don’t expect the LDS Church to go the route of the RLDS by becoming a form of liberal protestantism. Nor do I see the Church abandoning core truth claims. What I do expect is that the Church will continue to become more tolerant of diverse views and reaching out with not only big arms, but also a big tent.


Ex-Mormon and Other Emerging Mormon Identities — 15 Comments

  1. I think the Internet provides a bit of a trap by being so easily accessible. We can find a lot of exit narratives online, so it’s easy for a researcher to focus solely on those.

    The problem is – the study then skews toward people who are likely to post their personal struggles online, or who were mad enough or upset enough to tell everyone their story.

    But is that really the only type of ex-Mormon out there? Is it representative of “most exit-stories?” Are the types of narratives you get on RfM even statistically representative?

  2. Seth, well done. I have also been very interested in the exit journey, being “ex-” myself and counseling many others in that journey over the past 30 years. Alas, your reflections confirm the enduring power of the LDS cultural identity, in that every group you mention is still defined by its relationship to Mormonism. Ex-, New Order, liberal, post-, anti-, etc are all still descriptors modifying the noun “Mormon”. Are there people who have successfully navigated their lives to an identity that is not “______ Mormon”, and how we might find or hear from them?

  3. Seth,

    You make excellent points and I should have been more clear in my post. I was looking specifically at *apostate* narratives as defined by Bromley. Thus, the problem of a focus on only those who are vocal isn’t a huge issue because those who simply leave the Church quietyly would be considered “leave takers” in Bromley’s typology.

    As to your main point, however, I fully agree. Any study drawing primarily or exclusively from material on the internet is inherently problematic.


  4. Seth P,

    With respect to what you have written here:

    Undoubtedly, the institutional Church will adjust in response, just as it has by being far more explicitly open about historical and doctrinal issues in recent years. I don’t expect the LDS Church to go the route of the RLDS by becoming a form of liberal protestantism. Nor do I see the Church abandoning core truth claims. What I do expect is that the Church will continue to become more tolerant of diverse views and reaching out with not only big arms, but also a big tent.

    Do you have any thoughts on what kind of things the institutional church will do in response to become more tolerant of diverse views (other than the previously mentioned “being far more explicitly open about historical and doctrinal issues”)? How does the institutional church, in your opinion, develop a big tent.

    I have some thoughts on this, but I’d rather hear yours first 😉

    Also, I’m not too familiar with Bromley’s typology of leave-takers vs. apostates, but I guess I missed if you stated this: would the emerging identities of folks like New Order Mormons, uncorrelated Mormons, liberal Mormons, etc., fit anywhere in Bromley’s typology, or do these groups also represent one way that the LDS church and Mormonism “does not fit neatly into Bromley’s organizational construct”?

  5. Ross,

    Thank you for commenting and offering up your perspective.

    I have yet to find someone who was once Mormon who doesn’t still identify, at some level, will Mormonism. The one exception being those who were never really part of the community in any substantive way. For example, a ‘baseball baptism” convert or a person who was baptized at 8 but never really attended.

    I, for one, think it’s great that people maintain some connection to their Mormon heritage. Are there missteps and problems in our past and in our present culture? Absolutely. Yet, there is much to be proud of. People may think Mormons are weird but, with the exception of zealous religionists, I have yet to find someone who doesn’t have some level of *respect* for Mormonism.


  6. Andrew,

    Good to hear from you my friend!

    I’ll address your last question first. Leave-takers are those people who we would consider inactive. They simply “drop out” of Mormonism. Interestingly, Albrecht’s study shows that Mormon leave-takers still identify themselves as Mormon for the most part. Also, most Mormon leave-takers will evently return to some level activity — if Albrecht’s study results still remain true.

    I think the biggest the thing the LDS Church will do to accomodate a wider range of belivers is to create more service activities that have nothing to do with theology and belief. There are a lot of service opportunities in the Church where this can happen today but I see these expanding.

    EQP: “Bob, I don’t care if you don’t believe in the historicity of the BoM. Get off yoru @ss and help me move this couch into the van!” 🙂

    Also, the relationshiop between non-traditional Mormons and the institutional Church has to be a give and take. In my case, after attending Church and participating in classes, service projects, etc… for a while I was eventually asked to teach the HPG. Did I end the lessons with my testimony of Joseph’s FV? No. But what I did end with was in what I did believe (love of my fellow man, the teachings of Jesus, etc…). Non-traditional Mormons must respect the orthodox position if they expect the Church to respect their heterodoxy.


  7. re 6

    Seth P (and also Ross re 2),

    I guess one issue is that it’s going to be really difficult to find someone who was once Mormon and who doesn’t identify, on *any* level (including “ex-“, “post”, or “former”) as Mormon…but that’s not necessarily because these folks don’t exist, but because you would not be able to recognize these folks. They would be indistinguishable from the general non-Mormon population — especially if you are discounting “ex-” “post” and “former” Mormons because the word Mormon is still in the descriptor.

    I mean, really, where would you even begin to go to find such a person?

  8. re 7

    haha, Seth, you got another comment in before me…

    I think there are some issues with the leave-taker vs. apostate categorization. (Not saying I disagree with this categorization, but I would say that it’s just kinda…convenient.) One issue I think about the leave-taker vs. apostate categorization is that I think that active members don’t necessarily make that distinction. Someone who stops going to church is going to look the same as anyone else who stops going to church (and I think that’s where stereotypes about those who “left the church” arise…I’m sure people know a lot more “leave-takers” than they do “apostates,” but they conflate the two.)

    ugh ugh ugh that’s not where I want to go with this comment, so I’m going to stop here.

    I think your service explanation is reasonable, although i would love any EQP to tell someone to get off his “@ss” to help. 😉 I think there are problems, however, in that “service” isn’t necessarily theology-agnostic.


    EQP: “Bob, I don’t care if you don’t believe in the historicity of the BoM. Get off your @ss and go on a mission/pay tithing/give fast offerings to the church!”

    where each of these things are seen as “service” by one side, but probably not the other.

  9. Andrew,

    Don’t you think most member see a difference between Nancy who hasn’t been to Church in 2 years and Steve Benson who, after all these years, still posts vitriolic rants on RFM? Some obnoxious members may equate the two but I would hope they are in the minority.

    I agree that service is not necessarily theologically-neutral. However, how many of us who doubt the historicity of the BoM don’t really wish it were true? I mean, what a great story. God, angels, miracles, all converging to provide a comprehensive answer to the grand question of life: what am I doing here? I think hope is a starting point.

    Today, if non-traditional members choose to engage the Church they will either need to have thick skin or a really really open and tolerant ward. Fortunately, I have been in wards who are very open.

    BTW — why are you always trying to darken my rose-colored glasses! 😉


  10. re 10,

    Seth P,

    Most members have no idea what RFM (or the bloggernacle, or WWE, etc.,) is. Therefore, most members do not see either Steve or Nancy as “still post[ing] vitriolic rants” on RFM. What they do see is that neither Steve or Nancy go to church, fulfill their calling, etc., What they see is that Steve and Nancy left because they were offended, or because they wanted to sin, etc.,

    This is especially the case when looking at the narrative that “more institutionally supported” media of the church present. They don’t want members checking out forums. But they do publicize the stereotype of those who are offended, or those who just wanted to sin.

    …but here’s what I’ll say about that. I know a ton of “leave-takers” personally in my life. I know very few (if any) “apostates” outside of the internets, and would maybe say that I have never met one in person *other than connection through the internet*. So, I know I am not representative, but here’s what I am willing to guess based on my own life: 1) perhaps the leave-takers do outnumber the apostates *in the offline context*. and 2) perhaps leave-takers fit some of the stereotypes that I so dislike and do not agree with.

    I mean, I look at my own mother’s case. Yeah, my mother WAS offended and so she “took leave.” She is not the same as a “disaffected Mormon” or an “ex-Mormon,” but any regular old member of the church is going to view both my mom and me as “people who have left the church.”

    This gets to Seth R’s critique about the availability of internet narratives. Things look very different to the average church-going member, who doesn’t look at internet forums, blogs, etc., As someone who DOES see the internet forums, you and I have to be careful not to overexaggerate these media.

    However, how many of us who doubt the historicity of the BoM don’t really wish it were true? I mean, what a great story.

    there are plenty of people who think the BoM and other scriptures are morally abhorrent on a number of levels. The story of the BoM and other scriptures doesn’t match the LIVED experience of many folks who do not fit the white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, middle-class, believer mold. It’s not a “great story” to everyone — it can be terrible and tormenting.

    God, angels, miracles, all converging to provide a comprehensive answer to the grand question of life: what am I doing here?

    For many folks, the “comprehensive answer to the grand question of life” that Mormonism offers is extremely stifling.

    BTW — why are you always trying to darken my rose-colored glasses!

    What you call “rose-colored glasses,” I call “privilege.” And the reason I try to get people to check their privilege is because I see that people in your position (more “moderate” insiders) can serve one of two roles…as enablers (whether willing or otherwise) for the bad, or as instigators/havens for the good.

  11. Seth, this is great. I’ve been following your work as I’m now writing my own dissertation on the subject of modern Mormon identities, with a strong emphasis on narrative strategies such as what you describe here and the ways the internet is problematizing traditional conceptions of what it means to be Mormon. I too see the Church adapting as a result of these heterodoxies, but maybe not in the hopeful way you describe. Also, in re: Ross’s comment, many, many former Mormons no longer identify as “___-Mormon”: those who have replaced Mormonism with a new religious or spiritual community, for example, converts to other Christian groups, or even atheists. (Most converts to other groups aren’t on these online message boards, but among those who are, they often do identify as “ex” or “former” in the context of an internet community specifically for people fitting that demographic, but not in the course of their day-to-day lives.) They might, however, rely on common cultural codes to try to proselyte their LDS friends and family. FWIW, I’m not LDS, but married a man who was raised in the Church and converted to an evangelical church in college. He doesn’t identify as LDS. Some formers like him are even embarrassed to admit their roots. Anyway. Interesting stuff, and I hope to hear more about your work!

  12. Andrew,

    Great points as always. Perhaps what it comes down to is personal experience. When I read the many heart-wrenching narratives my personal response was: “Yep … I can see that happening” or “Wow, I’ve met a few Bishops like that.” However, I could not personally relate to many of the interpersonal problems with priesthood leadership and other members simply because I hadn’t experienced it. I think there are two reasons for this. One, I was extremely lucky to have very Christ-like leaders and fellow congregants (with a few exeptions of course) throughout the years. Second, I was raised in a family where while respect for Church leadership was promoted as a virtue, so also were independence and the courage not to be bowled over by those who would assume the power to control or manipulate me. I distinctly remember as man in my early 20’s year old sitting with a Stake President who started lecturing me about matters clearly outside his stewardship. I politiely interuppted him and said: “President, I appreciate your viewpoint on this issue but would really prefer if we kept our conversation centered on the purpose of this interview.” It’s not surprise he didn’t like my response and there was always tension between us afterwards. He was trying to bully me into accepting his personal interpretations and I resented it.

    So when members try and dismiss the experiences of less active or ex-members as simply “being offended” or “wanting to sin” I cringe and, where appropriate, offer up my view that this is simplistic and problematic.

    As I read the narratives there were many things I absolutely could relate to. Namely, the sense of anger and betrayal that occured when I discovered the correlated manuals weren’t always giving an accurate picture of Church history etc… In other posts here and on my own blog I have described some of this in more detail. There was a period I had absolutely nothing to do with the Church for this very reason and I did seriously consider becoming ex-Mormon at one point. Ultimately I decided to pursue a path within in the Church and find ways to serve. I actually taught a HPG lesson once on my research into ex-Mormon narratives because the group leader wanted the class to learn more about 1) why people may struggle and leave the church and 2) how to avoid being one of those obnoxious and hurtful members who say careless and harmful things to other members. It was a very rewarding experience. This particular group of men had a desire to be good “Christian” members. They didn’t seek to drive people away but a few were very frank and said that they had, in fact, unknowingly done things to drive others away. I firmly believe that the hearts of most members and leaders are in the right place and that the sometimes terrible things that are said and done are a result of ignorance and not malice.

    I’m not sure how to respond to your comment on privilege. Am I privileged in regards the Church? This is something I will need to ponder and I thank you for providing your perspective. If so, then I need to strive to be a force for good.

    Also, one thing that I should mention is that I take absolutely no position on a preferred status (ex-, NOM, liberal, etc..). My hope is simply that people know they have options and that regardless of the path they choose they are treated with respect and love.

    Again, thanks for your great comments and insight. Much appreciated.


  13. Rosemary,

    Thank you so much for commenting! As I read your post my immediate reaction was “Doh! Of course those who convert to other religions and those who pursue atheism drop the Mormon label.”

    Your comments about people being embarrased of their roots is very interesting. I have no personally encountered this type of individual but I have noticed something very interesting when I (proudly) tell people I’m a Mormon: they react as if they expect me to be embarrased. I had this very experience last week. I generally jump into some joke about how my extended family is huge because of polygamy.

    I can absolutely see how some people would be embarrased about their Mormon roots. Especially given some of the funny doctrines and quirks of Mormon culture. I guess I’ve always embrased the “weirdness” of being Mormon.


  14. Seth, your post opens up some very interesting issues that I hope will continue to unfold on this blog. I’m currently working on my own contribution: a personal narrative post about my own identity as a Mormon, something which I struggled with for many years without even recognizing. I agree with Ross (#2) that there is an “enduring power of LDS cultural identity.” That is why “Mormon” is a complex modifier; it names more than just an active member of the Brighamite sect in Salt Lake City.