Monday, 18 May 2015

Reflections On Life In A Cult 1

I was raised in a cult.  My parents joined the Mormons in 1961.  They were previously in a mixed marriage, Church of England and Roman Catholic, not that either were regular churchgoers, but it was those forms of Christian belief that shaped the rituals of their lives.  In order to prevent me being sent to a Roman Catholic school my mother invited in the two young Mormon boys who knocked on the front door one day to talk to her about the religion they felt was so important they had travelled all the way from America to share it.  I'm not sure my father was strong on the belief, but somehow he succumbed and they were both baptised members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the showcase chapel across the road from the Science Museum in London.  I suspect that my mother was the main driver in trying to fix the holes that a mixed marriage caused in a relationship.  Sadly, I was to do the same thing many years later except that the mixture in my marriage was one of different sexual orientations.

I married in the faith, in a Mormon temple to an LDS woman when I was nineteen.  We had been best friends for three years.  At nineteen I should have been one of those young men giving up two years of my life to preach the gospel full time.  Being a missionary requires the young person to be cut off from their loved ones for the duration of their assignment and connected only by a weekly written letter and a phone call home on Christmas Day and Mother's Day.  Any other contact would have to go through the mission president's office.  Nothing is allowed to interfere with the work of the missionary.  Even significant family events like weddings and funerals are never an excuse to take a break from missions.  

Apart from being unable to recognise and acknowledge my sexuality my marriage started with at least one other failure.  I carried a huge extra burden of guilt of having been called up in front of a congregation when I was fourteen years old and pressured publicly into promising to serve a mission once I turned nineteen.  This congregation of several hundred people were being entertained by the *prophet*, Spencer W. Kimball.  During his talk he called on all fourteen year-olds present to stand and come to the front.  He lined us up and asked us what we were going to do when we were nineteen.  The pressure to promise to serve a mission was irresistible.   He gave each of us ten shillings to start saving for our mission funds - the money we would need to sustain us over those two years.  I sometimes wonder how many of us kept our promises.  By the time I reached nineteen I could not face the thought of a mission.  Luckily in those days the system was not as mature in the UK as it was in the USA where resistance really was futile.  I took what would have been seen as the coward's way out and married instead.  If that sounds as though I was not committed to marriage that was not the case.  I loved my best friend dearly and loved being with her - most of the time.  We spent hours on the phone each week and all available waking hours together even though we lived several miles apart.  Fellow congregants oohed and aahed and smiled benignly as they tried to nudge us into engagement and after that into marriage.  Spending so much time together we were at risk of sexual sin and it was far better for us to be married than to risk our eternal salvation.  

Her father was a hard-line authoritarian who was very well-suited to the Mormon ideal of family.  I was desperate to get her away from him and into a place of love and safety.  I have no doubt he loved his children, but his ways of showing his love were not what I had been used to when growing up.  She had a spark of independence that caused the most dramatic firework displays when they were in the same room.  During one argument he threw her out of the house in a fit of righteous temper.  She came to live with us for three months because neither of them would back down.  Somehow my parents became the villains who had lured another man's daughter away.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  They had been placed in an untenable position.  How could they see a teenager put out into the street and not do anything to help?  After we married we went on to have children, something I desperately wanted and had dreamed about many times.  Our children were raised third generation Mormons and some even gave up two years of their lives to serve missions around parts of Europe.  They are the ones upon which the cult has maintained its firmest grasp.

Mormons do not have the vocabulary to entertain the idea that the "restored gospel of Jesus Christ", their "one true religion", is a cult.  They deny it in the strongest terms possible given the newspeak that straitens their language.  I was a good Mormon boy.  I accepted that what I was told by my leaders was the truth.  Mormons are very hot on things being "true"; it is one of the words they have redefined.  "Knowledge" is another.  Mormons are also very hierarchical.  Growing up in the cult means that one will very likely defer to the "elders", and even more especially the "Brethren", without the possibility of a valid, alternative point of view.  Faithful Mormons see nothing wrong with pronouncements such as, "some truths are not very useful" or "when the prophet speaks the discussion is over".  The written word is either "uplifting" (i.e. reinforces loyalty to the cult) or it is "anti" (i.e. inspired by the devil to wean the faithful away from "the truth").  

Mormons are proud of their victim status.  They love tales of the bravery of nineteenth century pioneers who were driven by persecution to travel westward across the United States.  Today they revel in being "a peculiar people" whose ways are not the ways of the world.  They espouse higher moral standards than the rest of us.  Contrarily, while anti-Mormon literature usually has more integrity the Mormon who reads it is on the road to hell.  They put their testimony at risk.  From the cradle Mormons are taught that their testimonies are the most precious things in their lives.  Testimonies are the deep-rooted hopes and beliefs that Mormons call "knowledge".  Only a weak person believes the church to be true.  A faithful member knows it is true.  Some truths, though, do not promote faith and are therefore not very useful to the organisation.  Hapless academics who uncover and report historically verifiable events often find their memberships terminated in so-called "courts of love".  These intimidating kangaroo courts are usually reserved for deciding the fate of those perceived to have sinned.  Sins leading to disfellowship, or the more extreme sanction, excommunication, usually involve sexual activity outside marriage or speaking against the church.  Since the LDS church actively opposes same-sex marriage gays and lesbians in relationships are automatically considered sinners and subject to excommunication if they won't betray their partners and repent.   During what used to be called a "Bishop's Court" the hapless member is pitted against the local high council of up to fifteen elders.  There is no representation and no appeal.  For a faithful Mormon to lose his or her membership the results can be devastating.  A whole network of friends, support, often family, and many of the details of life's infrastructure are suddenly chopped away.  Even those who feel liberated by the experience may suffer symptoms similar to bereavement as they try to rebuild a normal life.  For anyone living in places where LDS membership outweighs the number of non-members one can only imagine the consequences, because it will also affect their employment prospects.  The ex-Mormon is not celebrated as someone with integrity and courage, but rather as someone who has betrayed god, their family and who can no longer be trusted.  Being a Mormon ticks nearly every box for being a member of a cult.

Mormons have constructed an extraordinarily powerful system of holding on to their members.  It is based around reinforcing ideas that they have been chosen to be special, that they can be together with their families for eternity, that blessings will come to them if they carry out their time-consuming duties with the appropriate commitment, are obedient to the commandments, endure persecution, remain faithful to the oaths and covenants they undertake, that they keep paying their tithes and offerings, that they attend the temple regularly, fulfil obligations to keep an eye on their assigned fellow members through regular monthly visits to their homes and so on.  The list of requirements is extensive.  Any deviation from the strait and narrow path causes the guilt to kick in.  This guilt is a powerful motivator.  If you don't see the point of doing something you do it because the brethren require it and if you can't manage that you obviously don't care enough about your family enough to be with them in the afterlife.  Many is the time I have seen adults speaking publicly in tears because their spouse is either a non-member or has become less active.  Mormons are conditioned to believe that, unless the husband and wife have been properly married in the temple and go forward in the faith together, their future together is doomed.  Only members in good standing are permitted to enter temples.  One of the most cherished documents in a faithful Mormon's possession is the *temple recommend* - the annually acquired ticket that affirms that the member is of good standing including being up to date on paying their tithes and offerings.  The temple recommend affirms, after satisfactory interviews with local and regional leaders, that the member is worthy enough to enter the temple and participate in the masonic rituals that take place within - not that any Mormon would or could ever be able to acknowledge the uncanny links between Freemasonry and Mormonism.  Unless the state requires a civil ceremony Mormons get married in their temples only.  This means that only good-enough Mormons of an appropriate age might be considered worthy enough to witness family weddings.  When one of my children married a Utahn only half the family were allowed to attend the wedding ceremony.  The rest of us waited outside.  I was one of the very few adults present and was therefore left babysitting dozens of children of people I'd never met and who didn't know me.  It would cause chaos if Mormons had to submit to Criminal Records Bureau checks before being allowed to be with children.

"Families can be together forever" is an important theme.  Three year-olds sing it on Sundays in Primary and Sunday School.  However, indoctrination begins even before that age.  It begins from birth when families are required to hold weekly family home evenings - a mixture of indoctrination and popcorn for the whole family.  Families that actually manage to hold regular FHEs are admired.  I suspect the failure to hold proper family home evenings regularly is far higher than members dare admit.  Formal indoctrination begins when babies are eighteen months old and taken into "nursery" on Sundays, where they "sing" songs about the prophet and about being good Mormons.  In the meantime older family members are separated from each other and attend "lessons" designed to keep them faithful.  From the age of twelve onwards, boys and girls are taught separately for part of the time and this separation continues into adulthood.  Mormon women do not hold positions in the priesthood.  Their lives are channelled into becoming good wives and mothers.  Men are taught to believe they head  their families and are some sort of intermediary between individual family members and Jesus who, nominally, is the head of the church.

After nearly two hundred years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become a sophisticated organisation with many distinctive beliefs and characteristics.  Faithful members try to live honest, productive lives and many could be wonderful friends ... to their own kind.  Beyond that one is usually useful only as a potential new recruit.  A short step outside the boundaries however is enough to reveal how the church might be seen as a cult.  With its requirements of obedience, an aversion to difficult questions, injunctions not to read beyond approved texts, constant updating of its own stories, the indoctrination of children, reinforcing a sense of being special, encouraging a fear and mistrust of anything outside the church, well-established routines for promoting guilt, insistence that it alone has the answers, interference with (and management of) the most personal lives of its members and its glorification of being persecuted by an unbelieving world beyond, the official Mormon church is a cult.  That's before one even begins to look at the spin-off churches, many of which stick to its more fundamentalist doctrines that the mainstream has found convenient to abandon over the years.  Joseph Smith would not recognise the church he founded were he to come back today.  Not one of the teachings of the second president, Brigham Young, is currently officially recognised as doctrine - thankfully.  Whilst it may no longer officially use extreme measures associated with more infamous cults practising today to encourage loyalty, the one true church of an eternal god who never changes has changed beyond recognition since its inception and is still a cult.



Many stories of the early days of Mormonism have been obscured, suppressed or altered.  I came across the story of a young man called Thomas Lewis in my researches a few years ago in John D Lee's 1877 book, "Mormonism Unveiled".  Although the version I read was not recorded until some twenty years after the events were alleged to have taken place in Manti, Utah in 1857, I found the story compelling and affecting and it wouldn't leave me alone until I had done something about it.  I wrote "The Ballad of Thomas Lewis" to give news of these events a little nudge.  Although I perform to very small audiences I hope that poor Thomas' fate does not disappear into obscurity.  We learn something fundamental about the Mormons in the actions of the polygamous Bishop Warren S. Snow and of the better known polygamist, the so-called prophet Brigham Young who, on hearing from one of his brothers, Joseph, about these events told him that he was "of a mind to sustain" the bishop.  He told Joseph to say no more about the matter and let it die away among the people.  That statement alone was my red rag.  I have taken some liberties in the ballad.  For example, I cannot find any reference to the name of the fiancée of Thomas Lewis, so to help tell the story I have called her, "Mary".  The harvest references are also my fancy.  I think that one day I should annotate the song, because it contains many references the specific meanings of which will only be fully appreciated by people very familiar with concepts and language used among Mormons.  Many present day Mormons will have no idea about some of these concepts and I suspect that most Mormons today will never have even heard the story.  A piece of social history I wanted to reference was the utter callousness shown within many polygamous relationships.  I had certainly never heard of the revered early missionary, Heber C. Kimball, (who was responsible for converting many British people and encouraging them to emigrate to Zion)referring to his wives as his "cattle" until I started to read more widely.  If any of this is true, it is certainly no longer useful.

The Ballad Of Thomas Lewis 
by Marshlander (2010)

1. Manti, in Utah, eighteen fifty-seven.
Frontier thinking tainted by the cult.
The one true faith where brethren hold the aces
Hope, toil and zeal etched in saintly faces.
Young Thomas courted Mary.  So in love
Was he, he swore there’d be no other.  She
To him returned the promise.  They’d be wed
When harvest’s safely home, they said.

2. Bishop Snow “lived his religion”.  Kimball’s
“Cows” – his own herd growing like them.  Humble
Never his demeanour.  Even crueller
His approach.  He was no godly fellow.
The Bishop sought an increase to his herd;
He, too, began to woo young Thomas’s love;
But faithful Mary turned the old man down
The chase became the gossip all round town.

3. Several wives were clearly not enough.  He, 
“Builder of the Kingdom”, here on earth.  While
Shoring up the promise for hereafter.
Only misery; no hint of laughter.
He pursued his prize with gifts and jewels
She was flattered but refused each one.
He told her she would be first resurrected
On the morning of the most elect.

4. Faithful to her sweetheart she refused
Once again his wheedling and his cant.
The old priest swore an oath in tones so chill
That she would be his bride.  It was God’s will.
And when this clumsy pressure failed to change
The young girl’s mind, the Bishop grew more mad.
He told her, if she obstinate remained, 
That God’s will would be done and she be blamed.

5. He told her that young Thomas could be sent 
To serve the Lord in missions far away.
He told her, never would she see him more
If she continued to refuse God’s law.
When she again demurred he took him then
Straightway to see young Thomas in his rage.
He threatened excommunication.  Still
The lad refused to bend before his will.

6. By now the Bishop, thunderous with lust,
Called faithful men to counsel late one night.
When Thomas entered in that meeting hall
He surely never saw what would befall.
When he came in the lamps went out and all
the heavy men piled in; then held him down.
The Bishop, with his knife and n’er a nay,
Fast severed off Tom’s manhood where he lay.

7. He snarled and spat, “I gave you every chance
To let me have young Mary for my own.
As punishment for thwarting of God’s plan
She won’t want you now you’re not a man!”
The butchers left the scene with Thomas still
Left lying on the table in his shame.
But Snow stopped in one final act of gall
To nail the severed trophy to the wall.

8. “Let all men learn obedience to God.
The Lord will not be mocked by any man.
Celestial marriage and eternal life,
My just reward, with Mary as my wife!”
Let the matter drop and say no more about it
He was called of God as a Judge In Israel
Let the matter drop and the people soon will doubt it
Ever came to pass, ever came to pass, ever came to pass ...

"The Ballad of Thomas Lewis" Copyright Marshlander.

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