I don’t remember a time when my parents told me I was a mormon. It was like being American or caucasian. I didn’t choose to be either of those, and being a mormon wasn’t a choice either. My parents were mormon, so I was mormon.
Most of our neighbors in Ogden, Utah were mormon as well. I did have a good friend named Ken whose family wasn’t mormon. I believe they belonged to the Catholic church. In church I was taught that it was best to stick close to people who believed the same things I did. When I was 10-years old Ken invited me to his home to play, and I was surprised when my mother said that was fine. Other than the coffee maker, I thought Ken’s home looked like any other I’d seen.
My parents made it clear at an early age that as long as I lived under their roof I would attend church each week. It was a non-negotiable. As I got into my teens I often used this rule as a way to stay out past my curfew by promising to get up for church the next morning. I got really good at balancing my chin in my hands and falling asleep during sacrament meeting.
I didn’t like attending church very much until I got into my teens. I didn’t understand why we had to hear the same stories over and over. I guess they figured repetition eventually wears down our minds to the point that anything they told us sounded true after a while. Around age 16, I viewed church as a place to socialize and looked forward to attending.
During this time I never gave much thought to whether what I was learning was true or not. The idea of a loving god made sense to me. Jesus sounded like a good guy, although the idea of him dying for my sins made no sense. But god and Christ are almost an afterthought in the mormon church I remember. Most of our lessons centered around the teachings of Joseph Smith, who was told by god in a vision that he shouldn’t join any of the churches in the early 19th century. Eventually Smith was shown the location of a set of golden plates which, once Smith translated, become the Book of Mormon. Every doctrine and truth claim of the mormon church hinges on the Book of Mormon being an authentic translation of the word of god. It’s the lynchpin of the church.
One summer our youth leaders challenged us read the Book of Mormon. Those of us who read it from cover to cover were taken to a fancy dinner in Salt Lake City. I would have been 15 or 16 at the time, and this was the first time I finished a book that wasn’t required for school. My favorite story of the Book of Mormon is when Ammon cuts off the arms of the thieves attempting to steal the king’s horses. I read that story over and over.
My mother was raised in a devout mormon family. My father was not, and became active in the church after meeting my mother in high school. My mother would often ask me what I learned at church which lead to discussions. My mom read from her Book of Mormon each day, as instructed by the church leaders. She seemed to know a lot about the church, although I don’t recall having many doctrinal discussions with her. I had no doubt she believed the church was as its leaders stated: the only true and living church on the face of the earth. I don’t remember my mom ever complaining about church.
While my mother was devout in her beliefs, I felt like my father gravitated to the church because he admired the organization and the structure. I felt the church provided a sense of duty in my father, and it’s one he took seriously. The church is also a patriarchal organization which suited my father well. I’m sure I had conversations about the church with my father, but I don’t recall any details from those conversations.
My parents expected me to take part in the major milestones of the church. I recall my father telling me how he and his friends would break into the church gym to play basketball, which I thought was cool at the time. I think he also talked to me about the church around the time of these milestones. I felt my parents encouraged me to be involved in the church, but never really forced it upon me. I mean, I had to attend church each week, but once I was home I could watch NFL football or whatever other sporting event was on TV. We were not an orthodox mormon family. Two sports I was not allowed to play on Sunday were tennis and swimming. But I could ride my bike or play kick-the-can with the neighbor kids. Once I began mowing lawns for money I would sneak over to McKay Dee hospital and purchase a Coke and Butterfinger.
I believe my parents thought that raising their children in the church would make them better individuals. For much of the time I’ve had children of my own, I could relate to this feeling. Today I have some major issues with the truth claims of the mormon church, but I have no doubt that it provides opportunities to grow and serve.
When I began dating, my parents never told me I had to date girls who were mormon. At church that point was hammered home though. My father was a teacher and coach at my high school from grade 9 thru 12 which made dating awkward at times. But my father was well liked by students, and he gave me space to enjoy that part of my life without any interference.
My parents didn’t put pressure on me to serve a mission when I turned 19, but I knew that not serving would disappoint them. My father didn’t serve a mission so I didn’t grow up hearing mission stories from him, and I commend my parents for allowing me to come to my own decision about serving a mission.
I’ll save details about my mission for tomorrow.