Young Mormon men (18 years old) are taught that they have a duty to serve a two-year, volunteer, mission for their church. Young Mormon women (19 years old) are increasingly encouraged to serve eighteen-month missions as well.
Almost all who go on missions, come home reciting the phrase, “they were the best years of my life”. I was most definitely one of them — passionately declaring (sometimes in tears) how wonderful my mission was.
So, if so many former LDS missionaries say it’s so great, how could it possibly be anything but?
Today, I believe that my Mormon mission was as controlling and manipulative as almost any cult. My mission broke me to the point where I did things that would be deemed crazy by almost any outsider. I was willing to do far crazier things if I’d been asked to do them. I adopted unhealthy ways of thinking and behaving that I’m still trying to unravel.
There was actually a lot of good that came out of my Mormon mission, but needless to say, today I believe that its impact upon my life was overwhelmingly negative.
- Social Pressure: For the vast majority of Mormons, going on a mission is mostly a rite of passage. It’s not mandatory for 18-year-old Mormon boys, but it’s pretty close. And those who opt not to go, live with the equivalent of a scarlet letter in Mormon society. I had friends who either didn’t go or didn’t finish and then lived with a very heavy burden in their Mormon world for years. They disappointed just about every Mormon they knew. The struggled with a negative self-image. It was tough for them to find a good Mormon girl who would take the “risk” on them. Not many 18-year-olds I know could have the strength of character to resist that kind of pressure if they wanted to, so there isn’t really much of a choice when it comes to going/not going on a mission.
- New Identity: One of the first things to happen when you arrive on the mission is to receive your name tag. You are never to go anywhere without it. This isn’t just to identify you. It is a new identity. When I was a missionary, it was against the rules to call a missionary by their first names. We were no longer John, or Sarah, or Brad. We were Elder Johnson or Sister Nelson. Since missionaries aren’t likely to see anyone that they knew before their mission, this is truly a fresh start, a clean slate.
- Little Contact With Friends & Family: The website for the Provo Mission Training Center (MTC) says, “Advise your family not to request visits because such visits would distract you and your companion from your training.” After a missionary leaves the MTC he/she cannot have any contact with friends or family without approval by the mission president. Missionaries are allowed to call home only twice a year. The loneliness, homesickness, and fear that I felt was sometimes overwhelming.
- Control Where You Go: Missionaries aren’t allowed to go where they want, or when they want. Each companionship is given distinct and tight geographical boundaries by their mission president. They must receive approval in order to travel outside those boundaries. They are also not allowed to enter many buildings like movie theaters, or some restaurants. When I arrived at the “mission home” my mission president took my passport. So, I couldn’t even decide to bail on the mission and leave the country without his permission. (Read this) shocking, and heart-breaking story of a missionary who tried to go home early. I think it’s representative of what would happen on most missions.)
- Control What You Do: Rules. There are lots of them. Missionaries are never to be alone. They can never go swimming or hiking. In Brazil, we couldn’t drink Coke (weird). Generally, they aren’t allowed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or even to read anything from unapproved sources (anything not produced by the Church). They are even encouraged to avoid “worldly” discussions (anything not related to the “gospel”). This is called avoiding “worldliness”. A Mormon missionary’s schedule is also very strict. Wake up no later than 6:30am. Companionship study between 7am and 8am. Breakfast at 8am. Personal prayer and scripture study between 8:30am and 9:30am. Lunch is to last no longer than an hour.
- Control What You Think: Missionaries are taught with sermons like this one. Keeping yourself from lusting after every girl you see is one thing, avoiding what Mormons call idle thoughts is another. The trouble is that the word idle can and is defined pretty broadly. “Eye single to the glory of God” was another favorite thing to say, which, among other things, meant, keep your thoughts on holy things. I felt guilty even if a rock or reggae song came to my mind.
- Mental, Emotional Exhaustion: This begins on the first day at the MTC. The schedule is challenging — 11 hours a day of study gospel and/or language lessons. You can’t leave. You must be near your companion at all times. You are isolated, controlled, your previous identity has been removed, there’s constant pressure to gain a powerful “testimony” and possibly to learn a language in only two months, etc. These things would exhaust any young mind and break down their barriers. By itself, this pressure wouldn’t be so bad except that the goal is to change your heart and mind. Exhaustion is a cheap trick because it helps weaken your ability to reason and to resist.
- Low Bar for God’s Voice: Mormons believe that God communicates to His children by revelation through His Holy Spirit. But they get fuzzy on the specifics about how to identify God’s voice from regular, human emotion. (As in this chapter in their missionary lesson manual.) So, a tingle, a tickle, peace, warmth, cold, hot, pressure, goosebumps, etc. is God’s voice. Literally, missionaries are taught to tell people that anything even remotely similar to that is God telling them that Mormonism is true and that they need to be Mormon.
- “Say, ‘I Know’” Before You Do: Did you catch that? A Mormon prophet is actually encouraging people to say, “I know the Church is true” before they feel ready to say it. This is another cheap trick, but it’s common in Mormonism. It is very effective. Here’s an example of how it might work:
- You stand up, totally nervous that you’re actually going through with it.
- You feel something when you say it (anything that’s not bad is God’s voice.).
- You’ve been told that what you felt is God speaking to you.
- The thought that the Creator of the world is actually speaking to little ‘ole you at that very moment only intensifies any emotion you feel. It’s easy to believe, “Yes! That must of have been God speaking to me!”
I can say from experience that those emotions are awesome, but are they from God? Would a God really use tricky tactics like this? I don’t think so. There are plenty of people who are fooled into doing things worse than Mormonism using the same steps.
- Emphasize Emotional Euphoria Over Reason: Once you’ve felt God’s voice, it’s supposed to become your guiding light — especially on your mission. So Mormon missionaries are driven by emotion. They are obsessed with these euphoric feelings. They talk about them all the time, pray for them continually, are frustrated when they don’t feel them, and cling to the few moments when they do. Emotions are the trump card for missionaries — not reason, because, again, “Why would you need to consider anything else if you know what God thinks?”
- Guilt: A common side-effect to this fixation on “spiritual” emotion is to feel guilty or unworthy when it’s not there. Not all Mormon missionaries experience this but I certainly did. It wasn’t that I believed that I needed to feel euphoric all the time, but I guess I was really confused and frustrated why I would feel it sometimes and not others. It never occurred to me that this is not a healthy way of thinking/being.
- Selective Memory: You’ve heard the sayings that even a broken clock is right twice a day, or that even blind squirrels find a nut once in a while. This applies perfectly to me following “spiritual impressions” while I was on my mission. I had these impressions, to do this or that, quite frequently. Other people call them thoughts, but I was taught to believe that I was following God’s Spirit. Rarely did anything come of these impressions (which added to my frustration mentioned above) but when something did happen, I pinned it and clung to it as confirmation that God was guiding my steps. I learned to selectively remember things that supported my pre-determined conclusion and conveniently ignore those that didn’t.
- Emotional Decision-Making: Some return Mormon missionaries are paralyzed when faced with important decisions because they’re used to waiting for these euphoric feelings before moving forward. Recently I met someone like this while my business was looking to fill a key role. We offered him the job but he delayed and delayed — asking for another week, and then another, and another. We moved on with our search but didn’t completely eliminate him. Finally, I sat down with him to have a frank discussion about where he stood. He, assuming that I was Mormon too, told me that he had spent the months to fast and pray, and visit the temple about it. He had several options and seemed overwhelmed with ambivalence because God had not yet revealed the path for him to take. This problem is common among Mormons, though not often to the extreme of this man.
- Dissension Not Permitted: Second-guessing or questioning the actions of your church leaders is a sin in the Mormon Church. If anything this is strengthened on most missions. Mission presidents are placed on a pedestal and with rare exception, what they say is interpreted as revelation from God.
- Introduce Occult/Privileged Rituals: Adult Mormons participate in rituals in their temples. They believe these rituals are ancient and sacred. Only those who are “worthy” can perform them. Mormons promise never to tell anyone about the details of those rituals. (The consequences for breaking those promises used to be severe.) These exclusive rituals strengthen the feeling of privilege and that Mormons are a chosen/special people.
- Fasting & Prayer: On my mission, there were times when we were walking up to 10 miles a day in very humid, hot weather. Our leaders taught us that God rewards sacrifice so we would frequently fast (stop eating/drinking for 24 hours) even in that weather… because that’s an even greater sacrifice, right? God is sure to listen even more, right? No. I saw no difference. Except that I got heat exhaustion a few times. It freaks me out to think that I got to that point (more than once).
- Selfish People: To most Mormon missionaries, success means lots of baptisms. Most missionaries I’ve met cared far more about their own success than they did about helping people. Mormon leaders did little to discourage this attitude.
- Overlook Real Needs: On my mission I saw some unbelievably ugly things: child drug slaves, extreme poverty, murder, etc. These people had real, pressing needs. But helping them wasn’t my mission. My mission was to convert them, and that was much more important. So I learned to turn a blind eye to the real needs that these people had.
- Wrong Equation for Success: Mormon missionaries are told that if they do what’s right, they will have success. They then learn to associate piety to good outcomes in their lives. I knew many obedient, hard-working, faithful missionaries who were tormented as to why they weren’t having success. What were they doing wrong? Why wasn’t God favoring them? They were following the equation they’d been given for success. Others who had a lot of success had an over-abundance of confidence about their standing before God, whether they were obedient or not. The truth was that the good missionaries simply tended to be good salespeople. They were personable and knew how to move people along in the process of conversion. Some people just didn’t have that skill, no matter how faithful they were. Misunderstanding true cause-and-effect creates huge problems for many Mormons. It makes them susceptible to spending time and money on MLMs. It causes them pain when they are not healed from illnesses. It fills some with guilt for outcomes in their lives that have nothing to do with their piety. When things go right/wrong they tend to misunderstand the true causes and miss out on learning from successes and mistakes.
- Healing: On my mission we were taught to challenge people to stop smoking and that just like that they could stop. Our quitting program involved lots of prayer, fasting, hands-on-the-head blessings. And when someone would goof we often threw up our hands and assumed they were a lost cause for baptism.
- Judgement: I remember a discussion I had with my in-laws before I came out to them as a non-believer. We talked about our missions as we sat on a porch in the beautiful Utah mountains. They mentioned something about the higher level of thinking that they had on their missions. I countered a little bit by saying I was actually pretty surprised at the crazy things I thought on my mission.
“Well, I remember that after someone would reject our message, I’d sometimes think something like ‘Darn, they’re not going to the Celestial Kingdom (heaven)’. Crazy huh?”
There was a pause until my father-in-law said, “Yeah… but then there were times when I really do think I knew what Kingdom they were going to.” This kind of attitude is common but doesn’t make for nice neighbors.
- They Aren’t Given the All Facts: On my mission a mother and daughter that we had baptized abruptly stopped coming to church, or even answering their door after they had gotten ahold of some “anti-mormon” material. We were frustrated. We couldn’t even get a meeting with them. I don’t know what exact information turned them off to Mormonism but there wouldn’t have to be any lies in there to scare off 95% of all new converts. The sad thing is that the mother and daughter who left probably had more of the truth than I had as a missionary! It’s frustrating that I, a special representative of the Mormon Church, was never told about things like the Kinderhook Plates, Joseph’s Egyptian grammar book, or that Joseph really “translated” the gold plates by looking at a chocolate rock in a hat, or the details of Joseph’s polygamous and polyamorous relationships… but I digress.
- Sick Missionary Is Faithless, Weak, or a Slacker: Read this guy’s story. His isn’t the first like this that I’ve heard.
- “Get ’em When They’re Young”: Mormon missionaries are kids. Their brains won’t be fully developed for another seven years. They are very impressionable. Even most adults wouldn’t be able to deal with the kind of pressure and manipulation that happens on a mission. Mormon missionary-aged-kids are easy pickins.
Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God… cast away your idle thoughts and your excess of laughter far from you
Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.
If the Mormon me had read this years ago, I would have been disgusted. Afterall, there are few things that Mormons hold more sacred than their missions. I would have thought up lots of “yeah, but’s” or “you’re twisting things around” or “it’s been prophesied that the elect would leave the Church and persecute it” or “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil”.
Nevertheless, this section is directed to the formerly-Mormon me.
I’m sorry to say, that in that creepy jungle scenario I’m almost certain I would have “followed the prophet”. I’m willing to bet that most missionaries would do the same. Heck, the Book of Mormon has a story that justifies cold-blooded murder. Could I have even been capable of that? The question frightens me… because I’m not sure I know the answer.
I was primed to do almost anything my leaders told me to do.
My plee to the formerly-Mormon me wouldn’t have changed my mind. I just didn’t think or reason that way at all. I had felt a feeling (from God), so I knew everything was true, so there was no need for further evaluation. Anything contradicting my conclusion was going to make me stronger because it was the refiner’s fire to test my faith.
But I probably would have placed it on my shelf that was pretty bare at that point.
Someone posted this earlier this week on Reddit. He’s right. Missions exist primarily to convert the missionaries and make them devoted members for life.
When I was Mormon, they even told us this by quoting this verse in the D&C:
And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father.
I was told many times that the “one soul” is me — and that the first priority was to convert me. That’s absolutely true. The system is primarily set up in a way to first convert the missionaries.
I’m not saying that the leaders of the LDS Church are cackling together in dark rooms, and wringing their hands about the souls they’re fooling. No. I’m convinced that they believe the Mormon Church is God’s Kingdom on earth. So even if they agree with anything I wrote above, they also believe that it’s for a good cause — the best cause on earth. So no harm done. In fact, they believe they’re doing lots of good.
“So,” you say, “if missions are that messed up, why do all of the missionaries come home saying, ‘they were the best two years (or eighteen months for women) of my life’?”
Certaily I wasn’t lying when I told people they were the best two years of my life, but I had pretty much decided before my mission that they were the best two years of my life… before they even happened.
Just as there is tremendous pressure for Mormon 18-year-olds to go on missions, there is almost as much pressure on missionaries to love their missions. This is why you hear missionaries say over and over again, “I can’t believe it’s going so fast” even though they’ve only been out for two months and they tell you every week. Is it really going fast if you have to remind yourself every day how fast it’s going? Or are you having a difficult time, and trying to convince yourself that you’re enjoying it?
How would Mormon society treat someone who didn’t like being in the service of God for two years? I remember thinking that if I didn’t like my mission, I wouldn’t like Celestial Kingdom.
Eventually, really I did like my mission (in a weird sort of way). I liked speaking Portuguese. I liked Brazilians. And remember that I was truly converted — all-in. I loved the euphoric feeling I got when I believed that God was speaking to me through His Spirit. And I cherished it all the more because of the really rough stuff. That just meant that it was hard-earned.
But overall my mission was a weird, confusing, and gut-wrenching time. There were even two times that my life was in serious danger.
I was stretched (mentally, emotionally, and physically) almost to the breaking point — so much so that there were times when I wondered if I could continue without going crazy. There was a time when I wished I would get sick or get hit by a car so I could just go home.
I decided to do the only thing I thought I could do — throw myself even deeper into the work. I used my anguish as an impetus toward more piety.
This was how my mission broke me — the way a young horse is broken — and I became a deeply converted, devoted, and believing Mormon.
I was broken from a young age
You made me a, you made me a believer, believer
You break me down, you build me up, believer, believer
But I didn’t realize the damage that this had done. I’m still trying to undo all of the unhealthy ways of thinking and behaving that I learned as a Mormon missionary. I’ll probably never get it completely out of my system.
My wife recently told me of a friend she knew from college who was baptized and then went on a mission. She heard that he later ran away from his mission in order to get back home. At the time, I’m sure this news was scandalous. I bet they thought he went crazy.
But today — knowing what I know now — I think that running away from your mission is the sanest thing a Mormon missionary can do.