Chapter 2: Three Causal Factors of Trauma in the Mormon Church

Here is Chapter 1 in case you missed it.

This chapter (chapter 2) does not entail all that is promised in the Review of Related Literature below because I am breaking the publication up into smaller sections. (Remember my thesis is 112 pages.) But I am keeping it true to how it is found in the original thesis. After the overview and a brief explanation of each root, there will be a discussion of the first three causal factors of church trauma within the Mormon Church: Unsustainable Church History, Church Doctrine, and Unsafe Policies. Next week I will address the last five causal factors, followed by chapters addressing the consequences and finally healing help. Please keep in mind that due to page and other limitations, each causal factor of trauma is primarily an overview and not comprehensive.

I also want to express my hesitation in sharing this section of my thesis because it tends to stir a great deal of emotion. Believers often feel offended and attacked and nonbelievers sometimes feel I do not give the problems justice. Further, I could have erroneous information, though I gave this project my best effort in being fair, true, and objective. I would hope that if you read this chapter (and the next one, which will address other traumatic roots), you hold on for the other chapters as well. I do try to come full circle, offering ideas for healing and unity. I am one who craves peace, maybe to a fault, and I tried to make these healing ideas the focus and purpose of my writing.

With that, thank you for your interest. I hope you enjoy and will come back for the rest.

Review of Related Literature

This chapter will review the literature research on church trauma.  It will begin by looking at the roots of some of the main traumatic factors found in the Mormon Church, followed by the consequences of what is found in these root problems.  The discussion will then move into the various paths to healing and posttraumatic growth.

The visual above, which was designed and created by the author of this thesis, is a key component in this research and discussion.  It shows us how trauma often looks for those suffering from church trauma in the Mormon Church. (It needs to be noted that church trauma does not have to happen at church.  Trauma can come in the home, for example, based on the teachings of the Church.  For example, if a man believes that because he has the priesthood, he has authority over his wife and children, much trauma can be inflicted in the home by such a belief system.) 

Causal Factors of Trauma

Regardless of where church trauma occurs, the problems with the Mormon faith start in the roots. Some of these roots include: unsustainable history, church doctrine, unsafe policies, patriarchal structure, organizational behavior, cultural behavior, unrighteous dominion, and discrimination. 

As hard as it may be for many Mormons to accept and digest, these are real issues that many struggle within the Mormon Church.  Further, not everyone who suffers from church trauma in the Mormon Church has suffered from all of these traumatic roots.  Some have just suffered from one root.  Some have many or all.  But we must not dismiss these factors.  They need to be acknowledged and explored to understand what is really going on with those who are hurting as the result of these roots.  We must understand the roots before we can understand the consequences.  Additionally, once we understand both of the causes and the effects, we can begin to focus on healing.  So we will start with the roots:

Unsustainable History

The Mormon Church has a rich and unique history, being a restorationist religion founded in America less than 200 years ago.  Despite its relatively new roots, Mormonism carries with it a difficult history.  Mormon history lacks multi-perspective views, contains instances of repression and deception, and often does not align with the dominant narrative that is found within the Church.  In a study done in 2012, it revealed that 70% of once believing members became disaffected over church history surrounding Joseph Smith, with 65% stating it was also due to problems found in the Book of Mormon (Dehlin). Although not an exhaustive overview, just a few problematic examples follow:

Translation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith claimed that he translated the Book of Mormon using gold plates and sacred seer stones called the Urim and Thummin.  However, faithful Mormon historians and Church leadership have been aware that Smith put a stone into a hat, putting his face into the hat to translate without the plates being used.  In fact, the Church has in their possession the very stone that Smith used (Brodie, 1971).  The problem is that the modern Church rarely discusses the translation process.  Indeed, the Church magazines have historically published images depicting Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon with the gold plates directly in front of him and usually without any seering devices present.  For 185 years up until 2016, the Ensign, the Church’s official magazine, has on only three occasions printed quotes that say that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by placing his face in a hat with a stone.  This was in October 2015, July 1993, and September 1977 (www.mormonthink.com).  In December 2013, the Church quietly made progress in disclosing the truth by releasing short essays in the Topics section of their website that briefly discusses some parts of the actual translation method (www.churchofjesuschrist.org).

Polygamy. Joseph Smith is believed to have practiced polygamy with young women without his wife, Emma, first knowing or approving (Brodie, 1971).  Smith claimed that he was met by an angel with a flaming sword to teach and practice the “new and everlasting covenant of marriage” in which men could be sealed to more than one wife and live with them in the hereafter (Brodie, 1971, p. 298).  The practice of polygamy was not disavowed until 1890 when the United States government informed Brigham Young, the Mormon prophet and Utah governor, that Utah could not become a state otherwise (Beres, 2017).  The Church, however, still continues to believe and practice the “everlasting covenant” in their temple ceremonies (Doctrine & Covenants 132).

The Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham is a book of Mormon scripture that Smith claimed to have translated from a collection of ancient Egyptian papyri. The papyri were believed to have been destroyed until they were rediscovered in 1966.  Since the original papyri have been examined by Egyptologists, it has been clearly indicated that the scrolls are funerary texts that have nothing to do with Abraham or anything mentioned in the scripture.  Thus, it is frequently concluded that the Book of Abraham cannot have been translated from the scrolls as Smith claimed and is therefore a false book of scripture (www.mormonthink.com).

The First Vision. There are multiple accounts of the First Vision but only the 1838 version is canonized in Mormon theology, which has important key differences from the earlier versions (www.churchofjesuschrist.org).  The 1838 version says that 14-year-old Joseph Smith wanted to know which church to join and offered a prayer in “a sacred grove.”  In response, both Heavenly Father and Jesus appeared, telling him that none of the churches were true.  Why Smith prayed and what happened after he prayed are presented with meaningful details (Joseph Smith—History 1).  However, in the earliest account, written in the hand of Smith in 1832, the purpose of his prayer was not “to know which of all the sects was right” but rather to seek personal forgiveness (www.mormonthink.com).  In this version, he also claimed that he had already determined that none of the churches were true prior to entering the Sacred Grove.  The question of which church to join was not even on his mind.  It has been stated that if the 1838 account is accurate, then his mother and several other family members would have surely not joined the Presbyterian Church from 1824 to 1828 if Joseph would have been told in 1820 to not join any church and Joseph certainly would not have entertained the idea of joining the Methodist Church during that time frame either (Grant, 2012).  Further, the story of the First Vision did not even come into play until after the Church was organized in 1830, which offers another contradiction as he stated there was a lot of persecution in Palmyra, New York surrounding his very important vision (JS—H 1); yet there was not one person who could account for this persecution during that time (Grant, 2012).  Thus, we see that his stories and their meanings are not consistent to his claims.

These issues and many more create problematic narratives that do not put Mormons and the Church overall in the best light.  In fact, these problems are causing more millennials to leave the Church at a record number, doubling the departure rate of their parents and grandparents.  Currently, only about half of the people who grew up Mormon are remaining in the faith (Manson, 2019).  However, as will be discussed, the historical issues themselves are not what are motivating members to leave but rather the fact that they are not being taught the truth by their ecclesiastical leaders.

Church Doctrine

 Within the Mormon faith, there are foundational doctrines that are widely accepted even when they are problematic.  For example, if a general authority of the Church makes a statement, it can be construed as doctrine.  The books Mormon Doctrine by apostle Bruce R. McKonkie (1958) and The Miracle of Forgiveness by future prophet Spencer W. Kimball (1969) contain several traumatic and shaming passages that hurt and confused church members.  Chapter Six: Crimes Against Nature in Kimball’s book taught that masturbation was condemned by modern-day, as well as ancient, prophets, as it produced “guilt and shame.”  He qualified that such behavior led to homosexuality, which he said was an “ugly sin, repugnant to those who find no temptation in it, as well as to many past offenders who are seeking a way out of its clutches” (Kimball, 1969, p. 78).

Other problematic doctrines of the Church include polygamy, eternal gender roles, salvific nature of the traditional family, priesthood authority, necessity of tithing, and older doctrines that were taught by church leaders like the Adam-God doctrine, the blood atonement, and the doctrine on blacks.  The Adam-God doctrine taught that Adam is the father of the human family and presides over the spirits of all men, and all that have had the keys of the priesthood must stand before Adam in the grand council of heaven (Smith, 1839). The blood atonement was taught by Brigham Young who said that one had to kill another if they were found violating the commandments of God:

“Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them.  You would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the Kingdom of God.  I would at once do so, in such a case; and under the circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands. . . . There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt.  The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it” (1855). 

The doctrine on blacks stated that those of African descent were less faithful in the pre-mortal life.  This doctrine was then changed to theory without public acknowledgement or apology (Ostlund, 2015).  Due to this doctrine, blacks were denied the priesthood until 1978 (D&C: Official Declaration 2).

There are also more conceptual doctrines like (1) the prosperity gospel which teaches that the faithful shall prosper in the land (1 Nephi 4:14); (2) worthiness teachings unwittingly train members to believe that if they had sex before marriage—even if it was rape—they were like chewed gum (Landsbaum, 2016); (3) leaders are held as infallible and next to God: “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38) and they can get to the point of being past sin by receiving a second anointing in the temple (Mattsson & Mattsson, 2018); (4) teachings of spiritual discernment train members to believe they can know all things by the spirit, by study and also by faith (D&C 88:118); (5) confession doctrine teaches that forgiveness of certain acts can only come through bishops or higher authorities (www.churchofjesuschrist.org); (6) the Word of Wisdom, as taught in Doctrine and Covenants 89, will yield members protection, health, knowledge, and wisdom; and (7) the necessity of obedience is taught as an absolute (D&C 64:34). 

Unsafe Policies

There are many harmful policies within the Mormon Church that have caused a great deal of trauma.  It has been estimated that about 44% of former Mormons were negatively affected by Church policies (Dehlin, 2012).   These policies led them to disbelieve that Mormonism was truly run by men of God—or God himself—as is claimed (D&C 1:38).

One of the more recent unsafe policies that received national news was brought out by a former Mormon bishop, Sam Young.  Young wanted two five-word changes in the Church’s bishop’s interview policy: “No one-on-one interviews” and “No sexually explicit questions, ever.”  Prior to Young’s stance, children were allowed behind closed doors alone with a man in authority and often without the knowledge or the permission of the parents (www.protectldschildren.org).  These men, almost universally, have no comprehensive training.  Such behavior enables grooming practices (Cook, 2005).  Some recent changes have come about since Young’s movement (although he was excommunicated for speaking out) (Walch, 2018a).  These changes include parents being allowed, upon request, to sit in “worthiness” interviews with their children (Curtis, 2018).

Another policy that is of great concern is the instruction for members to keep issues of abuse within the Church (Meier, 2019).  Many stalwart members would challenge this statement and yet in the history of General Conference (a biannual meeting from Church headquarters), only two talks have been directed to victims of sexual abuse (1992 and 1978) (www.churchofjesuschrist.org).  Both of these talks have explicitly stated that victims of abuse should report first to their bishops and then actively discouraged victims from seeking therapy, directing victims to only do so with the permission from and even inclusion of their bishops (www.believing science.blogspot.com). 

This counsel also extends to missionaries who are to report problems almost exclusively to their mission presidents.  As a result, many missionaries suffer from neglect, ecclesiastical abuse, unrighteous dominion, health crisis, sexual assaults, and violent crimes (www.timeforcambio.org).  Maddie Burgener was a victim of sexual abuse while serving a mission in Bolivia from June 2015 to June 2016.  After the assault, she was given priesthood blessings to be able to “continue with the work” and was allowed to stay in the mission home for four days to recover.  Beyond this care, she received no mental health support or guidance on how to handle and overcome this traumatic event (Burgener, 2018). 

Because leaders are not trauma-informed, members at large who experience traumas are not taken seriously or allotted the help they need. Often traumatized members do not even tell anyone for fear of being punished or blamed (www.timeforcambio.org).  Further, leaders are unlikely to arrange help for victims if it would mean ramifications for the Church or prominent members.  Additionally, mandatory Church disciplinary action (and subsequent record documentation) is only required for sexual offenses if the offender is a Church member and (1) holds a “prominent church position,” defined as a bishop or higher, (2) is a relative of the victim, or (3) a “predator,” which has many possible legal definitions but which is most often defined as someone who has been found guilty of sexually exploiting someone, often habitually.  So unless a victim has already reported to police and the offender is found guilty, the offender many not receive Church disciplinary action (www.believingscience.blogspot.com).

Within the last several months, the Church has made a great deal of headway in implementing safer, more ethical policies.  Some of these changes include (1) heterogeneous couples (still no gay marriages) can now marry civilly without having to wait a year to be “sealed” in the temple. (Prior to this change, there was a double standard for members in North America who had to marry in the temple first or wait a year to receive temple sealing.) (www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org); (2) temple ceremonies no longer include women’s promise to hearken to their husbands, as the husbands hearken directly to God.  Changes also include more active roles of Eve who previously had no dialogue after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Riess, 2019a); (3) sister missionaries (usually 19-21 years old) can now wear slacks while proselyting instead of dresses (www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org); (4) the 2015 LGBTQ exclusion policy was reversed which formerly stated that children of parents living in a same-sex relationship cannot obtain a name and a blessing, be baptized and confirmed, or be ordained without specifically disavowing same-sex marriage (Riess, 2019b; www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org); (5) all missionaries, not just elderly couples, can now call home weekly rather than just twice a year on Mother’s Day and Christmas, making family support much for accessible for young missionaries (Stack, 2019; www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org); and (6) reducing Sunday meetings to a two-hour block from a three-hour block (Reiss, 2018a).  This change potentially increases family time and also reduces the burden on those holding callings that hold Sunday responsibilities.  This action appealed to those who felt the Mormon Church was demanding too much from its members (www.sltrib.com).

While these changes are encouraging, the Mormon Church still has a long way to go.  For example, members have been counseled to not talk about the temple ceremony changes (Riess, 2019b).  The Church has had a long-standing stance that members are not to discuss what happens inside the temple outside of the temple.  This policy alone is unethical as there is no informed consent (Monette, Sullivan, & DeJong, 2014) prior to entering the temple.  People really have no idea what they are committing to prior to the initiatory and endowment ceremonies.  This unethical practice is still being strongly encouraged with the current changes as a video of the First Presidency is found at the beginning of the temple endowment asking members to not discuss the fact that changes have been made at all (Riess, 2019b).

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