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.