Welcome back to another episode of Oh My Heck! There are a lot of podcasts out there, so I appreciate you listening to mine.
I’m going to assume that most of you listening in right now aren’t family members, as most of them are still very Mormon and usually cringe at the very hint of anything not 100 percent in support of the church.
And this is as good a time as any to state that while I am critical of the church, and I have good reason to be, I’m not going to go off on angry screeds. I’ll talk honestly about doctrine and aspects of Mormon culture, but critical discussion isn’t bashing. I do try to be respectful of the fact that there are good people still living as Mormons. Like my parents, for example.
Let me back up and explain what the heck.
My family is filled with lovely, funny, relatively smart people. Well, you dilute the gene pool with as many offspring as we’ve done and the law of averages are bound to take over. I have 14 aunts and uncles, not including their spouses, 63 first cousins, 130 second cousins, and before my grandfather died at the age of 99, we had celebrated the birth of the first great-great-grandchild and now we have over 50.
Family get-togethers are a year-long planning event and we usually have to rent out an entire campground. I couldn’t pick half of them out of a lineup at this point. We’re still at that stage where we rely on the surviving children of my grandparents to keep us all updated on the big happenings. We’re a family of ranchers, farmers, nurses, coal miners, we have an ex-con, small businessmen and women, and some charlatans are in there, too. If you’re from Utah, you might remember the 49th Street Galleria, the glittering fun palace with games, a bowling alley, and an old-timey malt shop. Yeah, that was my cousin’s. An uncle gave Franklin Covey their investment principle, a cousin is a General Authority in the church, and the family from that TV show Sister Wives? Their house in season one was on my grandma’s back pasture, sold after her death to a home builder.
I may not have always lived in Utah, but Utah is in my blood. My family came into Mormonism during the first wave of missionary-work in England during the 1840s. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Featherstone, was a servant for a British Lord. Thomas converted at the age of 19 and then promptly made a fool of himself by interrupting his boss at dinner to ask him if he had ever heard of the Book of Mormon. He did this during cigars and glasses of port, when the guy was doing his taxes, as he gathered up his guns for a bit of pheasant hunting… just constantly trying to proselytize to his boss at the worst times. I’m going to call this type of behavior Mormon-splaining. This British gentleman was a highly educated man, according to Thomas, who just couldn’t understand why his boss—so learned!—couldn’t appreciate the word of God being delivered through a man in the States who peeped into his hat at a rock and translated a bunch of mysterious golden plates no one ever actually laid eyes on.
Thomas was lucky he didn’t get flogged. Instead, this British gentleman simply relieved him of his duty, which is a nice way of saying Thomas got the sack. “Well, FINE, THEN. I’ll see you in hell! Except I won’t, because Mormons don’t believe in hell!” I like to imagine him saying, while straightening his waistcoat and going back home to Nottingham. He immediately married a woman—also a convert—and packed up his meager belongings and moved to St. Louey——St. Louis that is. Path to Zion.
We actually have copies of his journal where he details all of this. They boarded the clipper ship Germanicus and set sail for America in March of 1856, arriving in Salt Lake in September 1857. Long journey, eh? It’s fascinating to read his journal. Daily reports on the weather, the passengers, how fast or slow they traveled, whale and porpoise spotting… He’s so British that anytime they passed another ship, he would rhapsodize about their speed, their sails, their ships’ colors. I love old letters and journals so much.
Here’s an entry from his journal, and it’s actually online at BYU in their Mormon Migration collection, if you want to read more. Warning though, he’s a product of his time and there’s some horrible casual racism as they rounded the Caribbean. Gross. HOWEVER. This entry is from May, so they’ve been sailing for two months.
“Saturday 13th. Fine morning. Sun intensely hot. Going 8 knots. 3 ships in sight. We are blessed with another of our Heavenly Father’s lovely days: clear, soft and pleasant without a cloud to mar the beauty of a lovely blue sky and smooth sea with a light wind so pure as not scarcely to be felt on the cheek of one of our pretty Mormon ladies. We passed the Island of Puerto Rico last night and plainly saw vivid flashes of lightning playing over its summit. Lightning in southern latitudes is very common at nightfall and indeed it sometimes continues all night long. Oh, how gaily are we faring along towards our distant homes in the West. About 3 o’clock p.m. Mrs. Warren from London was delivered of a fine son, Native American by birth. The lady is doing well and the little hurricane stranger is doing what the Yankees call first-rate. He weighs 11 pounds and in honor of the ship is to be called Germanicus.”
First, GOOD LORD, the thought of delivering an 11 pound baby is bad enough, but to do it in the tropics on a ship is horrific. Mrs Warren from London died nine days later, in fact. A month after that, the baby died as well. She was buried on shore in the Caribbean, and the baby was buried in the forest outside New Orleans.
This group of pilgrims sailed from London down the coast of the United States to New Orleans, where they boarded a river steamer, and traveled north to St. Louis so they could meet the other Mormons headed to Salt Lake City. Thomas contracted typhoid in St. Louis—apparently it was a “cholera year” and dear sweet little 11 pound Germanicus, please vaccinate your children—so Thomas and his wife had to stay in St. Louis for several months. He worked for $2 a day to keep a roof over his wife’s head. They didn’t arrive in SLC until September of 1857, a year and a half after they set out.
They got right to work upon arrival, too. Thomas was quickly called to polygamy directly from Brigham Young, the president of the church, and funny enough, Thomas’s first wife’s name was Emma Smith. His second was Martha. All in all, he had twelve wives, but only two were buried with him. (Of those 12, 9 had already been dead for a while when he married them. Oh, we’ll talk about that stuff, don’t worry.)
He was buried in American Fork with the first two wives—no one in the family talks about the third, which leaves me to believe she scarpered off with someone else—and he, Emma and Martha all share a single grave marker.
His son, my great-grandfather, believed in making his own way and hopefully leaving the family business of sheep herding and masonry behind. He rode a bike from house to house—not like a penny-farthing, but a proper fixie. He rode all over the Salt Lake Valley, tuning pianos to keep his family fed, sometimes riding a horse from Idaho to St. George, which is about 640 miles of unpaved road, and tuned pianos at three bucks a piece. Hard workers, my family. A little loony tunes at times, but all hard workers.
There’s this idea among Mormons, and it’s the motto of the state of Utah in fact, that you need to be busy little worker bees with your spiritual eye fixed on the prize. Don’t look away at anything not created and endorsed by the church. Stay busy with all the duties of Mormonism. Your hands should never be idle. Go go go! Only stop to give thanks to god—who Mormons address as Heavenly Father. We don’t say “god”. That’s taking the lord’s name in vain.
But back to busyness. On the surface, that seems like an honorable, decent, Christian mindset (or, for those who know their classics, a heck of a lot like the Aeneid and the use of beehives to symbolize the state.). But with the Mormons this is really a way to keep everyone so busy, they don’t examine things too closely. Because if they ever did, there might not be too many Mormons left.
I want to make something clear before I continue: most Mormons are decent, hard working, family-loving folks who honestly believe they are living the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, who firmly believe their religion is Christian, who just want to love their families, pay their bills, and be honest in all their doings. The vast majority of my sprawling family is still devoutly active in the Mormon church. They hold leadership positions, write the Church’s hymns, train their youth, and are well-respected. It’s the purpose they serve, the actual religious organization that I want to talk about and to be honest, expose. They’re shrouded in secrecy, which Mormons would argue by saying they believe things are “sacred” not secret. Potayto, poTAHto.
So here’s the top piece of bread in my “compliment sandwich”: no one in the US, and I mean no one gives more to the service of their fellow man with a glad heart (no, really) than the Mormons. Find me an organized religion that can match the numbers of church members that weekly perform acts of charity in the epic proportions that the Mormons do. For goodness sake, they beat FEMA to Katrina. They were there with 18-wheelers converted into showers, laundry facilities, new clothes, food, and shelter 24 hours after Katrina hit. It took the government a week.
They’ve been vocally opposed to the current Muslim ban and even produced a video comparing themselves to Muslims, which, oh my gosh, come on, but still. The thought was nice.
They have an internal welfare system that keeps families together, fed and sheltered. That welfare system includes things like budget planning, job interview prep, and daycare. All volunteer-based. Yes, other churches have a form of this, but the scale of the Mormons’ operation is massive and runs like clockwork. They are really good at this stuff. But we’re here to talk about the honestly bizarre concepts in which they believe, and in the name of full disclosure, I believed in, too. Wholeheartedly.
I grew up a devout member, ready to serve on a mission and convert the multitudes, ready to meet and marry for eternity a worthy Mormon boy, to beam at the painting of Joseph Smith that would inevitably hang over our fireplace, right next to the family portrait where all six of our children would be dressed in white shirts and jeans, scattered around my square-jawed and strong-spirited husband and myself. (We would also be in white shirts and jeans) My amazingly spiritually-strong Mormon family would be perched on a picturesque rock – so symbolic! That’s the common way to have a family picture taken in Utah. Maybe swap out the jeans with khakis. It’s the color-coordination and giant rock that’s so crucial to nailing this.
I can tell you with one peek in someone’s house if they’re Mormon: in the hallway or on the side of the fridge is a poster of all the prophets (leaders of their church), a picture meant to resemble an oil painting of a red-robed, blue-eyed, light-brown-haired Jesus in the family room. (I assume God made his Only Son look caucasian so the Hebrews could more easily identify him in a crowd.) Somewhere is a stack of Ensign magazines and leather-bound quadruples—what they call all four LDS scriptures in one binding—and there is at least one church cookbook with both “Scripture cake” and a “better than sex” cake recipe in it. Ladies? No, it isn’t. Also, the first time you try to make me 7-Up pancakes is the last time I break bread with you. You guys have GOT to get over your weird sugar addictions. I say this because I care. Both for you and for my vital organs.
I grew up in the “mission field” which is what anything not in Utah is referred to. I moved to the Mother Land in college, stayed for about a decade, and now live in Texas once again. I figured out in two seconds that my new dentist here in Texas was a Utah transplant: there was a family portrait hanging in the waiting room. There was my dentist and her husband with their four square-jawed boys, all in white shirts and jeans. The parents were sitting on, you guessed it, a big, picturesque rock. She greeted my kids with, “Oh my heck, look at these cuties!” Yeah, you ain’t from around here, are ya?
The “heck” thing. Mormons don’t believe in swearing. It leaves you all dirty and open to the devil. One of the prophets, Spencer W. Kimball, arguably one of the worst, most hateful leaders in Church history, who has a depressing book that details every possible thing that could be a sin, and was a noted racist, coined the phrase: “Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to speak forcibly.”
So, because swearing is unacceptable, they often make up words to replace swearing. I had these two guy friends in St. George who made up swear words for the mildest of cuss words. Like “dill” for “dick.” What a dill-head, they would say. Which… first, it’s not even funny. It would have been funnier to substitute dick with “Richard”. It’s cumbersome and preposterous, adding to the comedy factor. Plus, if you know what the word represents, isn’t that just like making up new swear words, or you know… swearing? If I say ‘eff-word” you know I mean the eff-word. You just thought of the actual word and as a man thinketh…..
That’s the logic we’re dealing with. As such, something like “Oh my God” becomes “Oh my heck,” a phrase you will only hear Mormons use. Because let’s face it: it’s totally stupid. What’s funnier is when you hear “rebel” Utahns say “Oh my hell.” Aww yeah, being naughty and cussing! But you know, not really, because I don’t want to disrespect my Heavenly Father by taking his name in vain.
I didn’t grow up in Utah full-time, which is probably how I’m able to look at the religion and not apologize for it any more, or worse, try and get everyone to see how wonderful and perfect it is. I grew up in Texas where there just weren’t many Mormons. (My dad left Utah after marrying my mother, who was from Texas.) There were Baptists in droves. My neighborhood was lousy with Methodists and Catholics. Mormons? Not so much. Hardly a day went by in junior high and high school where a well-meaning Baptist friend didn’t let me know that they were praying for my damned soul. Bless their hearts; they didn’t realize that I was thinking the same of them. Aside from my sister, who rebelled against religion in her teen years, there were only four other Mormons in my high school class of almost 800 students. I think it’s safe to say that I was the most actively Mormon girl, as well, no offense Lisa, if you’re listening. Boy, did everyone know that I did not drink, or do anything else even remotely salacious. I was the sober kid who could drive everyone home; I was the virgin who was a waste of time to date if the guy was looking for a little touch.
Because of that feeling of being on the outside, I was more fervent in my beliefs. Nothing like being an outsider to bolster your belief in something, which is a continuing theme for the LDS church. Gosh, they love their persecution complex. You remember me pointing out how they compared themselves to Muslims and Islamophobia? And that idea is how the original Mormon members’ faith was able to grow so strongly.
The original Saints moved from place to place before settling in Salt Lake. I say “moved” but it was more like being driven out. They would move to, say Nauvoo, Illinois and set up shop, thousands of folks all at once. They’d vote in a block, exactly as the Prophet Joseph Smith told them to do. They’d increase their numbers quickly and soon would take “control” over a region. Add in Joseph Smith destroying a printing press and…
Wait, no this is significant. The Mormons had control over Nauvoo. Joseph Smith declared himself the General of God’s army and was already the prophet of God’s church, right? While huge numbers of people were joining the church, a lot of people were leaving, too. They didn’t like how Joseph was running things, they didn’t believe him, or they were seriously grossed out by polygamy, something super-hush-hush at the time. That was all rumor—based on fact!—but was just rumor. It wasn’t until Salt Lake that polygamy was really out there for everyone to know about. Joseph totally presented to the public a face of “Polygamy is gross and wrong! No!” even though he had over 30 wives at the time of his death, and even more people sealed to him, like my grandfather Thomas with the 9 dead British women.
So a group of particular exMormons printed a newspaper, this being America and all and Freedom of the Press, and it was called the Nauvoo Expositor. It had exactly one issue. They slammed Joseph for the hypocrisy of telling the public that polygamy was wrong while practicing it in secret. And they all spoke from a position of authority, because they all had been “called” to polygamy in secret by Joseph himself. They were willing to testify in a court of law. Joseph essentially had the town marshal destroy the press, and in America at the time, ahem, that was a no-no. You don’t attack Freedom of Speech. The outrage caused by Smith destroying this newspaper is what led to his assassination.
Growing up, I heard a very different account of these events. This was in the time before the internet. Any facts about the church that I needed, well, they came from the Church. I even took a youth group trip to Nauvoo, to the jails where Joseph was held and later killed by a mob. The slant from the church is that the newspaper was libelous. “Fake news.” Yuge mistake. Bigly. (Also, the church never really talks about the polygamy stuff. They’ve distanced themselves from it to the point where new converts don’t really know that it’s STILL A PRINCIPLE. They still believe God wants them to be polygamous, they just can’t right now because of the Law of the land. We’ll have an entire podcast about polygamy next, by the way.)
I grew up being taught that anything that contradicted what the church told me was essentially Fake News. You know, information from historians and scientists, FAKE. Fake news. Or worse, evil. That news was crafted by Satan to lure me away from the Truth. I was supposed to stand against the evil fake news by making sure everyone I came in contact with heard the REAL TRUTH. After all, the mormon church is first and foremost a missionary church.
I think about Thomas, an uneducated servant polishing candlesticks for a man who went to the best schools, who evidently had a library that could rival most, who loved to read and debate with his peers, and here comes my 19 year old relative, ready to Mormon-splain all the things this man of letters didn’t really understand about religion and mankind.
That was me as a teenager and young adult. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Thomas and his wife left England for Utah, ready to be a part of a society that marched lock-step with their leader, where all the answers to life’s tricky questions were readily available, and where they didn’t have to think too hard. They just had to do what they were told. Be busy little bees.
The early Mormons took pride in themselves for being “in the world, but not of it.” Mormons still refer to themselves as a “peculiar people.” With pride! Growing up, I identified so much with those early pioneers of which my family was a part. I felt so strongly that I was clearly doing the right thing, avoiding Satan in the guise of all the hot boys at my school, eschewing sleeveless tops, caffeine, avoiding the fun and wild parties that seemed to happen every weekend, and of course, no alcohol.
Man, did I waste those years.
It’s funny, because I was just like those early pioneers, peculiar and an outsider. Even among Mormons I just couldn’t break into a rhythm. There was always something slightly wrong in how I approached being a Mormon. I believed, but I had questions. I accepted the gospel, but what about this scripture and how it contradicts this? I followed the prescribed path of salvation, but no seriously, why don’t we ever talk about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and how he said God told his wife God would “smite” her if she got mad one more time about him taking another wife, and how the Book of Mormon, the “most correct book on earth”, specifically denounces polygamy? no? We’re not gonna…? Okie doke!
It was the questioning that was peculiar. I was supposed to swallow it all, keep my head down, and stay busy. The problem with me is that the busier I am, the more I’m left to my own thoughts. I’ve been asked several times what was it that made me finally leave? It wasn’t one thing. It’s more of a death from a thousand paper cuts type situation. Too many fallacies, too many “just believe and you’ll know one day” replies from leaders, too much shaming for things I didn’t deserve to feel shame over.
It should be a red flag for anyone when leaders of an organization tell you outside information—with no agenda other than dissemination of facts—are at best misguided and at worst, EVIL. It should be a red flag when you’re taught not to believe historians and printed documents detailing Joseph Smith’s arrests for treasure seeking, say. And it should be a GIANT red flag when you learn your religion’s founder bald-face lied to his own followers about what the church actually believed and practiced, all while doing the opposite in private.
And well, maybe that was it. Maybe it was realizing that the symbolic foundational rock for which I wanted to base my future was really shifting sands. Guess they shouldn’t have taught me the song about the wise man building his house upon the rock, because that’s what I did. I left.
it’s cost me a lot of my family and dear friends. They won’t communicate with me, they won’t come to my house or let me in theirs. I am persona non grata. i won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. It’s my family, after all. Friends who have been with me since childhood, graduations, marriages, births of children… Gone.
I may not have ended up with my white shirt and blue-jeans clad family on a fake oil painting, but my three LGBT kids and I—no square-jawed, strong-spirited husband now, either—are on our own rock. Our foundation is truth and love for others, and it turns out, that’s pretty solid.
Be sure to tune in every week to Mormon Mondays, found on my home site, laura-stone.com, on Soundcloud and now iTunes! Next week we’ll discuss polygamy and just what the heck Mormons are doing with dead people in the temples. Whaaat?? Remember: Every share, reblog and tweet means an angel gets its wings and a puppy gets a nose boop, so don’t be a monster! Have a question or story request for me? Leave a comment on the website! Until next time, thanks for listening to Oh My Heck!