As an adolescent, I scrutinised the eternal state of my soul multiple times a day.
Every Sunday morning was a battle of wills.
Mom: coaxing me out of bed with gentle sunlight and the promise of breakfast.
Me: dreamily and falsely assuring her I was awake, anticipating the inevitable result: pandemonium.
Dad: [recruited by Mom for his militaristic methods] chucking a cup of water straight into my face, pulling me onto the floor, all the while the dog barked like I was under attack.
More often than not this ended with me sitting sour-faced in the car on the way to church.
Born into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or LDS, though to non-members more commonly known as ‘Mormonism’), this is how my Sundays went for the best part of my first 18 years. You might be familiar with cult-like, old-fashioned LDS communities as seen on American TV documentaries, but my life wasn’t quite like this. I grew up in South Africa and my first church was a small branch in Fish Hoek, Cape Town. Compared to the US state of Utah where over 60% of the population are LDS members, representation in South Africa is miniscule. An LDS upbringing has affected my life in huge and subtle ways. As a child I thought of ordinary tea as “poisonous”. As an adolescent, I scrutinised the eternal state of my soul multiple times a day. The way of the LDS Church was the only one I knew for so long, but my outlook gradually changed. If you met me now, aged 27 and studying as a mature student in Bristol, you would never guess I had a Mormon background.
My parents were baptised into the LDS church after meeting missionaries; already having had four children. Of six, only my sister and I were born into the LDS faith. My Dad and brothers fell away and today, only my Mom and two sisters remain strong members. My Mom hoped I would be the shining example to my brothers, destined for LDS greatness.
We moved a lot during my childhood; but in three different schools across the country, the only LDS schoolkids I ever encountered were my own family. Unsurprising, as there are just two LDS temples across the whole of South Africa. Perhaps predictably, my relationship with the LDS faith became an increasingly isolating experience as I grew up.
Teachings from Birth
The Church conducts an intense schooling of its own. Public speaking and sharing personal feelings related to the Gospel, were highly encouraged. From the age of five I was delivering talks to children up to the age of eleven, focusing on simple messages from the Book of Mormon – an up-to-date supplement to Bible teachings.
Mormon was a man and is not himself a subject of LDS worship. He collated histories of ancient people who left for the American continent circa 600BC and etched them onto golden plates. The location of these plates was eventually revealed to a young Joseph Smith who, in 1827, translated them through the power of the Holy Spirit and became the first modern-day LDS Prophet. Joseph Smith spread this new Gospel after witnessing both Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ: dispelling the mainstream Christian belief of God as one eternal essence encompassing the Holy Trinity.
Aged eight, I was baptised. This is the point at which you receive the Holy Spirit as a guide to help you choose the “right” (an LDS phrase) when faced with everyday trials. It is also the point at which you become responsible for those choices, bestowing young members with the burden of moral righteousness ten years before they are legally culpable. A particularly important talk I gave was to a large portion of the congregation about my experience of baptism.
Plan of Salvation
The LDS Plan of Salvation affirms that only those who are baptised can reach the Celestial Kingdom of Heaven and live with Heavenly Father eternally. There are two other kingdoms of Heaven, resembling Earth, where all those who did not live a righteous life will reside – this includes traditional sinners and the like. Instead of Hell, there is Outer Darkness reserved for the truly extreme cases.
Earth is a trial period after which our choices will be judged. Every LDS member wants to ensure their family reaches the Celestial Kingdom. LDS teachings assert the importance of a traditional family set-up. While boys prepare to receive the Priesthood and act as heads of the home, girls receive lessons on how to prepare for a family and teach good values to children; only after leaving the LDS community did I realise this is quite old-fashioned and sexist.
At the age of twelve, boys receive the Priesthood: a spiritual link to sway the hearts of those you teach as well as to heal the sick and weary. Through it, I blessed and administered Sunday Sacrament and even baptised my own nephew – but in all cases, users are merely vessels for Heavenly Father to perform ordinances.
After receiving the Priesthood and moving into my teenage years, I slowly began to feel the weight of expectation every time somebody told me, “You will make a good missionary!” or “I know you will never fall away from the Church”.
These sorts of comments eventually stopped having a positive effect on me. Instead, I felt guilty at not wanting to fulfil my “true” potential. Being a teenager is likely one of the most confusing and exhausting times for anybody as we try to find our place in the world. I would see my school peers getting stuck into usual teenage experiences effortlessly. But my idea of right and wrong was completely dominated by LDS doctrine. So instead of freely embracing new experiences, I was overcome by mind-bending guilt every time I had a wayward thought.
This is how my teenage brain worked:
“That. I want to do that.”
“Oh, wait I’m forbidden from doing that…”
“But maybe I will try it just once?”
“Oh, great now I feel like a horrendous failure.”
[Insert period of mental anguish and possible attempt at repentance]
“That was fun though… so yup I am definitely doing that again.”
The Plan of Salvation provides hope in the form of repentance but requires the earnest desire to improve and not make the same mistake. I tried repenting a lot. But as I was becoming something of a repeat-offender, I began to imagine that my attempts were losing their value.
The Youth Programme
Around the age of sixteen, the Youth Programme ramps up a few gears as boys prepare for their fabled two-year missionary service. My mission was on the cards from the moment I was born. Early on, I was excited for the opportunity, even wearing my brother’s missionary name-tag that he never fully utilised. Women of any age can choose to serve a mission but it is not expected of them. The Youth Programme aims to immerse girls and boys into public service, going out with current missionaries to teach non-members and visiting the Temple. These heightened spiritual experiences are expected to stave off the rise in temptations that engulf most teenagers.
I enjoyed service projects, usually involving a large number of LDS members fixing and cleaning up community buildings and spaces. Going out with missionaries gave me insight into how less advantaged people than myself live, as we would visit some of the poorest areas of southern South Africa. I recognised how hearing about a loving Heavenly Father was a message that brought happiness to many people who seemed to need it.
The Temple is the LDS’ most sacred place of worship where holy ordinances beyond Sunday sacrament are performed. It was here, aged sixteen, that I was baptised as a proxy for deceased non-members; their names are found through genealogical searches. The purpose of this was to give everyone in the afterlife a chance to accept the Gospel and thus gain the possibility of entering the Celestial Kingdom.
The LDS emphasis on altruism, teaching and progression has stuck with me more than Gospel doctrine. I was realising that the interactions I was having with people and the worldly knowledge I was acquiring were eroding my relationship with Heavenly Father. Advice I was given included personal prayer and scripture study. But for me, that was all I had been doing my whole life.
By seventeen I had already sat through a few Sunday meetings while severely hungover. Luckily, my sickly demeanour and drowsy expression in lessons were nothing new, so I was never called out. Only one time did I fail to make it to Church due to alcohol-induced illness. On that occasion, I got some harsh words from my Dad who then enlisted me into potato peeling for the Sunday stew. This was a more than a fair arrangement.
At this point my Dad, a less-than-active member himself, was saying that I had to stick with the LDS lifestyle until I was eighteen to keep my Mom happy. I, too, wanted to keep my Mom happy, so I bided my time until I could finally choose for myself.
I entered my final year at school knowing that my Mom could tell that my time in the Church was most likely coming to an end. In South Africa, we have a final year trip akin to Spring Break. Woohoo! This was possibly the first time in my life I felt free from the guilt of being drunk. I was liberated and had a great time. However, upon returning home I found a letter on my bed. Fruity smells from my bedroom had prompted my sisters to find a cricket bag filled with the home-made bongs that I had brazenly “hidden” in my cupboard. To this day, that cricket bag is infamous and my Mom wrinkles her nose at any mention of the sport.
This was a major turning point. Suddenly, my Mom knew what I was choosing without me having to say it. We did eventually have a tearful conversation and although I would have loved to keep her happy, I couldn’t let her religion dictate my life. I told her that although I had participated in all of the Church programmes until then, it was more for her than for any personal belief in a higher power.
So, I finished school, spent one last Christmas at home and moved to London – sin city. I wanted independence and as a young eighteen-year-old LDS lad, I quickly discovered I had been left behind in many ways.
My dating life at this point was literally non-existent. I was too rebellious for LDS girls and too innocent for the worldly women I was encountering. It was a bit of libido-limbo as I wanted to experience sex but had spent my whole life believing that it was reserved for marriage. Eventually at 21 I did get my chance… well, sort of. It was a spectacular failure as it was too much pressure for my LDS mind to endure. Sex is still not something that I am particularly au fait with.
It is strange to think about the impact of my LDS upbringing as everyone is born into a structure they can’t control. My childhood was dominated by duality; being taught one way but seeing people around me doing the opposite. For me, being Mormon became a glass box, built for protection but limiting my experience of life. I have seen how rewarding it can be and for a long time I trusted my Mom’s choice, but eventually decided on my own.
If today I met my younger self, it’s fair to say he wouldn’t recognise me at first. But he was a friendly and inquisitive little tyke, so he would ask me about my life. He would hopefully agree I have done some pretty great things. And he was/is very impressionable so I might even set him off down the exact same road. In the end I would just say, “make your own choices Tommy-boy!”
Even in writing this I feel like I’m betraying the sacrifices my Mom made in her own life to raise me in the way she truly believes will bring ultimate happiness. It would have been easy for her to fall away and lose hope when so many of her family did. But she is focused on eternity and it is a testament to the power an LDS faith can have that my Mom stands firm today - waiting for my return. It is no wonder she tried so hard to get me out of bed every Sunday.
Thanks to Tom for such a powerful, honest and brave account. Do you have a similar experience? Do you think religion is important in bringing meaning to our lives? Email us: email@example.com