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Tolle Lege

On Mormonism.


It was October 12, 2015—my wife’s birthday, of all days. I still cannot figure out why I told her. It was thoughtless. But it had to come out. “It isn’t true,” I said. “Whatever else Joseph Smith was, he was not a prophet. Whatever else the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, it is not what it claims to be.” Before that moment, I had never said anything to her intimating any doubt about our shared lifelong faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

My wife was shaken. She had never expected me to say this. Some years later, she told me one of her first thoughts was, “We can’t have any more children, not with this.” I had already been saying I was done having children for some time at that point; I was twenty-eight, and we had two boys and two girls. Work, school, ambition, and a mental health episode had overwhelmed me, and I had decided that, as far as I was concerned, our family was complete. For my wife, it was more a matter of sad resignation that our family would now have an irreparable religious rift. In what had to that point been a deeply religious household, more children would only further complicate an increasingly uncertain life as she worked to preserve and pass on to our children a faith that I resolutely rejected. 

Oddly, the documentary history of my life in the daily journals I kept regularly between 2005 and 2015 shows only minimal evidence of doubt. I had been raised to believe—and I did—that sometime in 1829, Peter, James, and John—three of the Holy Apostles—had appeared as resurrected and glorified beings to Joseph Smith on the banks of the Susquehanna River, and that through the laying on of hands, the Apostles had conferred upon him the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” that Peter had received from Christ. This important event restored the authority of the priesthood that had been lost with the death of the Apostles in the first century and enabled the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only true and living church on the face of the earth. This church was directed by Jesus Christ himself through continuous revelation to its president, the successor of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, seer, and revelator. Yet despite having been a lifelong Mormon who was highly dedicated—including paying ten percent of my income to the church without fault, serving as a Mormon missionary for two years in Argentina, marrying in a Mormon temple, having a large family, and serving in various leadership positions, some of which were extremely demanding, I ultimately came to find that those keys resided across the Tiber, with the bishop of Rome. Less than two weeks after an appreciative entry dedicated to the church’s bi-annual General Conference in 2015, I find that I wrote in my journal: “It is hard to put it on paper. But I no longer believe in the Church.”

Following my conversion to the Catholic Church, a church referred to in thinly veiled terms in the Book of Mormon as “the church of the devil,” “the mother of abominations,” and “the whore of all the earth,” I was asked by a number of Mormons in my life, “Did you ever really have a testimony?” The assumption behind this question is, if the answer were yes, then surely I never would have left. This concept and its import, testimony, are likely confusing to outsiders, and I have found it difficult to adequately convey it to those who have never been Mormon. But the concept helps greatly in explaining Mormonism in general and also my journey out of Mormonism and ultimately to the Catholic faith. 

In Mormonism, a “testimony” is supposed to be a spiritual witness directly from the Holy Ghost, telling you that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true and that the church is what it claims to be. Near the end of the Book of Mormon there is a verse known colloquially as “Moroni’s promise,” in which the eponymous ancient American prophet—who would later appear to Smith to reveal to him the location of golden plates containing the record that is the Book of Mormon—challenges his future readers:

Now I, Moroni . . . would exhort you that when ye shall read these things . . . that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

This is the core of Mormonism. This is why it is the way it is, and this is why your Mormon neighbors and friends are the way they are. You can argue until you are blue in the face with a Mormon, but you will make neither heads nor tails of Mormon belief, thought, practice, tradition, or anything else if you fail to understand the importance of “testimony” and the “knowledge” conferred by it within the Mormon paradigm.

Mormon leaders have long described the actual experience of the Holy Ghost communicating to you—this confirmation of the truth—as a feeling in which God “will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” I could fill pages with teachings from Mormon leaders emphasizing that a testimony is something that we feel. This creates a certain unfalsifiable quality to the whole thing. Indeed, church leaders want it to be so, as the current Mormon leader Dallin Oaks has taught: “Anyone can disagree with our personal testimony, but no one can refute it.”

What does this testimony consist of? Arguably, it amounts to the simultaneous convergence of (i) an abstract truth proposition about the Mormon Church (for example, Joseph Smith was a true prophet, the Book of Mormon is the word of God, &c.) and (ii) an overwhelming sense of emotional wellbeing. Occurring simultaneously, these two things (concept and emotion) produce a powerful “aha!” moment.  After being taught as a child and throughout your life that this is what you are on the lookout for, when it happens, it produces an epistemological certainty unlike anything you are likely to encounter elsewhere.  Mormons do not believe their religion is true; they know it is true. And it does not stop there. The church continually reinforces that baptized and confirmed members continually receive “revelation” from God in this manner about their life choices, from choosing a spouse, to buying the right home, to which school to attend, and so forth. Indeed, that is the way the Mormon prophet leads the church day to day.

That experience, or often set of experiences, is so central and so powerful that it holds on to many a Mormon’s heart long after his mind has all but left the faith. It feels nearly impossible to reject the Mormon faith once you have a testimony because in doing so you are rejecting an entire life’s worth of transformative experiences that you know came from God. Losing that testimony is an almost unfathomably disorienting experience that pulls the moral, metaphysical, spiritual, and psychological rug out from under you. To understand the grip of Mormon testimony is, to my mind, to understand Mormonism in toto.

But to be completely honest, as I look back upon it, you have almost undoubtedly “felt” the Holy Ghost in the way Mormonism teaches. Anyone can. When you last watched a movie and someone acted heroically and you suddenly felt that warm flash of emotion, of rightness with that character’s actions, perhaps even moving you to feel choked with tears—that’s it. It is no more nor less than that. Yet within Mormonism, that feeling is used as a means of indicating objectively true things about religion. 

As is probably apparent at this point, such a sandy theological foundation is vulnerable to reality. As an ambitious law student, near the top of my class, serving in a high-demand local Mormon leadership position, that foundation wash away when one of my local Mormon leaders pronounced a blessing over me, and under inspiration (so I believed) uttered a very specific promise that stirred up those same overwhelming feelings, confirming to me the truthfulness of this prophetic promise.  But that promise turned out to be false and had consequences. The experience threw me into one of the darkest periods of my life. I fell into a deep depression and nearly committed suicide.

Amidst the darkness, one day, I let myself honestly ask, “What if it isn’t true? What if the reason for those failed impressions during your life, big and small, is that it was not the Holy Ghost at all? Isn’t it possible that that is the case? And wouldn’t you want to know if that were the case?”  From there, I decided it was time to read and explore whether there was a reasonable case against Mormonism.  And let me tell you, if you think being deep in history is to cease to be Protestant, just wait until you get deep into Mormon history. 

From occult folk-magic origins, to anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, to multiple fabulously failed ancient “translation” projects by Joseph Smith, to radical changes in theology, to polyandry and Joseph Smith’s marriages to fourteen-year-old girls, it was a seemingly bottomless pit of devastating facts that painted a coherent picture of my religion that made more sense than what I had always been taught.  Oh, and that glorious restoration of the priesthood by Peter, James, and John on the banks of the Susquehanna River? Well, as even the faithful Mormon historian Richard Bushman is forced to concede in his massive biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, “the late appearance of these accounts” in the historical record “raises the possibility of later fabrication.” No amount of motivated reasoning or desperate apologetics could make me unsee what I had seen. 

In a moment of searing clarity, I realized that my feelings had led me terribly astray. As Jeremias warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?”

The interim was a dark time. But through a series of events still hardly explicable to me today—except to say that Saint Thomas More and Saint John Henry Newman were most assuredly involved—in mid-2017 I stumbled into the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, that is, the Apostolic Fathers. I was not investigating Catholicism. I was not looking for it. I had never even heard of these men until that time. But I picked up and read, and by Saint Irenaeus it had begun. Indeed, it hardly seems useful to recount what happened next here. “Non-Catholic Reads the Fathers and Is Astounded They Are Catholic” is an old story. So too with my soon-after discovery of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Newman. The religion I had been told all my life was backward, superstitious, ignorant, and intellectually repressive was laid before my mind in all its coherence, all its splendor, all its beauty. 

To move from knowing that we are made in God’s image because we, like Him, have fingers and toes, to believing that it is our intellect that makes us most like Our Creator, is perhaps as good a summation as I can give of what it means to swim from the Susquehanna to the Tiber (a plunge also taken by my wife and what are now our seven children, I am happy to report).

One thousand one hundred nineteen days after that excruciating evening in our bedroom, my anxious, bewildered, pregnant wife stood toward the back of a small group gathered in the baptistry of Saint Rita’s Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Our four children were huddled near her, all of them gawking at the scene: their father, leaning over a font, water being poured over his head, then kneeling before a priest and professing belief in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. Immediately after the baptism, I hurried them to a pew near the front where my otherwise very Mormon family witnessed, for the first time, Holy Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. When the time for Holy Communion came I arose and approached the rail. My mouth was as dry as the Utah deserts.

Jeremy M. Christiansen is the author of From the Susquehanna to the Tiber: A Memoir of Conversion from Mormonism to the Roman Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2022), from which this essay is adapted.

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