Much has been said about the common “exit” (or “deconversion”) narratives of former Mormons, some apologists seeing similarities among the narrative structures as invalidating the narrative itself, as if the “angry exie” adopts the narrative as a form of personal disguise with which to conceal the “real” reasons for departing the faith. Adopting the narrative, the theory goes, creates instant validity for the narrator and firmly establishes him or her within the community of unbelievers.
In his book Language and Self-Transformation (Cambridge UP, 1993) , Peter Stromberg explains that a conversion is not “something that occurred in the past and is now ‘told about’ in the conversion narrative. Rather, the conversion narrative itself is a central element of the conversion.” He suggests that we “abandon the search for the reality beyond the convert’s speech and … look instead at the speech itself, for it is through language that the conversion is now re-lived as the convert tells his tale” (3). Stromberg describes common Evangelical Christian conversion narratives as describing “the dual effect of the conversion, the strengthening of [converts’] faith and the transformation of their lives” (3). But it is the adoption of the symbolism of Christian conversion narratives that is itself transformative. He explains that “symbol use within a particular tradition can give the actor a sense of self-transformation” in much the same way that “self-understanding is constructed within the larger society” through language (4). And, he tells us, “the central task of the believer … is, through his or her interpretation of Scripture, to find a meaningful link between the symbol system (the Bible) and his or her experience” (6).
Thus the conversion narrative adopts the symbols and language of system (here the Bible) in order to contextualize the experience and bring the believer into the community of fellow believers. He goes on to describe “ritual” as consisting of “two sorts of messages”: The “indexical” concerns the “present state of the participants,” whereas the “canonical” concerns “enduring aspects of nature, society, or cosmos, … encoded in apparently invariant aspects of liturgical orders.” Ritual (in this case the conversion narrative) is the attempt to bridge the two levels and place the here and now within the context of the enduring: “Ritual is always a point where God and humanity come into contact” (11).
Most of us have heard Mormon conversion narratives throughout our lives, and many of us have given our own versions of the same. Unlike Evangelical conversion narratives, which Stromberg tells us are rarely shared outside of small groups, Mormons are encouraged as part of their worship to share the personal, the moments in their lives where the present met the transcendent.
Perhaps the most well-known conversion story among Latter-day Saints is that of the boy-prophet Joseph Smith, which is canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. Joseph describes himself as a seeker of truth “in the midst of [a religious] war of words and tumult of opinions” (Joseph Smith–History 1:10). Accordingly, he first reflects seriously on the subject of religion, his “feelings … and often poignant” (1:8).
Having then decided to acquaint himself with the various sects, he finds himself completely at a loss to determine which was true: “I often said to myself, What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (1:10).
In this moment of confusion, Joseph turns to the scriptures, and as we should be familiar with by now, he finds the promise of “wisdom” through prayer in James 1:5 especially powerful: “It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did” (1:12). It is this powerful experience with scripture that leads him to the Sacred Grove, where in his first “attempt to pray vocally,” he has an ecstatic encounter with the divine.
First he is “seized upon by some power” which envelopes him in “thick darkness” and despair (1:15). Just at his lowest point, he is overcome with a vision of the divine. He describes the vision as a “pillar of light” that descended from heaven (1:16-17), and within this light appeared God the Father and Jesus Christ to teach him the truth about religion: “I was answered that I must join none of [the churches], for they were all wrong” (1:19).
This narrative is quite different from traditional Christian narratives, which tend to emphasize the prior, sinful nature of the believer and his or her transformation to a new self, made clean in the blood of Christ. Joseph Smith makes mention of his sins and their subsequent forgiveness in earlier versions of the First Vision narrative, but in the canonized version, the emphasis is on the search for truth and its ultimate reception by divine means. Not surprisingly, it is this narrative of the seeker of truth and wisdom that is most often represented in Mormon conversions. I will take my examples from a web site called, conveniently enough, mormonconverts.com. The converts come from a variety of backgrounds, from Anglicans to atheists, Catholics to Unitarians, but the narratives usually follow the same pattern of seeking and enlightenment that we see in Joseph’s narrative.
Most of the narratives describe a search for truth, for something that is missing. And, like Joseph Smith, they seek the truth in various religions.
“There are times in your life, no matter how old you may be, that you feel you are looking for something. Maybe it is keys, that missing sock or for me, it was a search to fill an empty hole inside me.”
“My desire to marry and my growing disillusionment with the Catholic Church put me on a long path of searching. I realized that I never really had a personal relationship with Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ and I searched long and hard where I might find that relationship. That began a long period of spiritual wandering. I worshipped with Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Pentecostals. I visited Hindu Ashrams and practiced Zen Buddhism.”
“I spent a lot of years looking for a religion. I was raised without one, my mother is an Atheist, and I always felt incomplete when it came to religion. I believed in God, but that was about all I knew. ”
“When I visited all those churches over the years, nothing ever felt right to me. I always felt that there was something missing. I’d go to a church, and just feel…empty and lost. Nothing ever touched my soul.”
“I made the choice to try to find God. I know some people have said in my life that it isn’t hard, you would be surprised. Growing up most of my family and my family’s friends were involved in many different genres of Christian churches. None of it made any sense to me.”
“But there has always been something missing, no matter how I have tried and no matter how I dug I could never really find what I was looking for.”
When the religions leave them confused, many turn to the scriptures:
“I needed God. I knew He was the only one I could trust and the only One who could help. I picked up the scriptures and read the first 4 books of the New Testament.”
“Many years passed when … I would read my scriptures in hopes to hopefully pin point the perfect verse that would sum it all for me.”
“On September 12, 1999 I made the decision to turn my life over to Jesus Christ, and trust in Him. This was the result of being given a free miniature Gideon Bible. Having spent every spare minute reading it, and finding a new sense of happiness in what I found there, I began to believe in the Savior. But just how does a person turn their life over to the Lord?, I wondered, and I prayed to know.”
Having decided that the scriptures alone are not sufficient to “fill the holes” in their lives, they turn to prayer in hopes that God will impart wisdom to them.
“For the first time in many years I prayed on my knees and I knew in the deepest depths of my soul that Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ knew me and loved me. I found my direction home.”
“With tears streaming down my cheeks I knelt by my bed and prayed for probably the first time in my life. Truly prayed to Father in Heaven to show me what He wanted me to do.”
“The first time I got on my knees and spoke to our Heavenly Father I was afraid, but I felt something I had never felt before, that he could hear me and he knew me!”
“My prayers were desperate pleas for something more from my life. …I had no idea how to ask for what I needed, or where to find it. I was dissatisfied, and trapped. I often cried about it, and begged with God for the answer to my problem.”
As with Joseph Smith in the grove, some report opposition from Satan preventing them from acting on their desires to believe.
“When I finished my [baptismal] interview I had an overwhelming feeling come over that could only be caused by one thing, and it wasn’t God. The feeling that I should not do this and that I would be criticized and all the awful doubts that could possible come up did.”
“It hit me. Whoa. They want me to do what. And in the back of my mind my dad’s words echoed again, ‘It’s of the devil.'”
“I was outside the church and I felt that there was a barrier preventing me from going in. The girl I was hoping to date was already inside teaching a Primary class at Sunday School. A friendly policeman (well, he was in civvies at the time) and his fiancée, saw my predicament and asked me what the problem was. Apparently, the barrier I was encountering was Satan’s way of using an earlier innate shyness.”
A vision of light
The narratives usually conclude with an ecstatic, spiritual experience, often mirroring Joseph’s description of light and truth descending.
“[During a showing of a film depicting the First Vision]Then it happened, as Joseph was kneeling in the grove and saw the two separate personages who’s glory defied all description, I had felt it! For the first time my heart burned, chills ran up my spine and tears rolled down my face. The spirit hit me so strong that I didn’t care if I was the only blubbering fool in a theater of about 100 people. I knew that the church was true and that I had to be baptized.”
“As I read my entire being was filled with LIGHT, and I knew that Joseph Smith had seen Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
“Several times the Spirit gave me that warm feeling. And finally I was woken up one morning. I sat straight up in bed with the words: “The Book of Mormon is true! So stop asking me!” ringing in my head.”
“As [the missionaries] began to explain that we lived with our Heavenly Father before birth, I began to remember my conversations with God as a young child. I vividly remembered living with my Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. I remembered walking with my other brother, Lucifer and begging him to listen to Father and not to be so stubborn. I remembered crying when some of my friends were cast out of Heaven.”
“At that moment, a sheet of light dropped down from the doorway, obscuring the two young [missionaries] from her view.”
Do these common narrative structures mean that the conversions themselves are not valid? Not in the least, but they do suggest that as humans we ritualize our experience to weld it to the eternal, as Stromberg argues. It is interesting that Mormon conversion narratives follow such a different structure than traditional Christian and Evangelical conversions. This suggests to me that the conversions are seen in terms of cultural and religious expectation, so the narrative is structured to satisfy the needs of the larger community.