This week we have a story about a big group of people with the same questions. Difficult, complicated, heartbreaking ones. These people all have one thing in common — they’re Mormons. Reporter Karen Duffin tells their story.
PJ VOGT: At thebarnjournal.org, the website with general information about barns and traditional farm architecture, there’s only one Frequently Asked Questioned listed: “Why are barns red?” North Korea’s propaganda webpage at one point had an FAQ aimed at people in the West. Question 24: “Is it true that all citizens of the DPRK work for the government?” Answer: “Government and people are one. There is no distinction of them.” It also answered the question, can I travel to North Korea as a backpacker? The answer is: “No.”
Frito-Lay’s FAQs are filled with longing and loss. “Where can I find a Frito Lay snack?” “Why was my favorite snack discontinued?”
I think that the reason that I love Frequently Asked Questions so much is that unlike most pieces of writing–which tend to tell you a lot about the writer–FAQs tell you a lot about the readers. Reading them you can imagine this enormous mob of people. Maybe they know each other. Maybe they don’t. Bu they’re all united because they have seen the same thing and together they have not understood it.
This week we have a story about a big group of people with the same questions–difficult, complicated, heartbreaking ones. And these people have one other thing in common — they’re all Mormon. So we asked our friend Karen Duffin to look into this.
In addition to being a brilliant reporter, she also has the best Mormon credentials of anybody I know. She’s no longer in the church, but she grew up Mormon. She was the student body vice president of Brigham University and she’s a direct descendant of the bodyguard of Joseph Smith himself. Karen, hello.
KAREN DUFFIN: Hi, PJ. Hi, Alex
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hey, Karen. So we heard that there was this huge crisis in the Mormon church that has something to do with the internet, so we got in touch with you because you are way more equipped to tell the story than we are.
KAREN: Yeah, so I looked into it and I called several people at the Mormon church and none of them would talk to me. But we were able to gather a lot of emails and documents and talk to lots of people on and off the record. And what I found was super fascinating, but it’ll really only make sense if I give you a blazing fast Mormon 101.
PJ: Okay. Let’s do it.
KAREN: The premise of the Mormon church is that when Jesus died and left us, his church, like, everybody went into apostasy and went astray, and there was this guy named Joseph Smith who was living in New York. He’s 14 years old and he’s like, “I don’t know what church to join.” So the story is that he went into the woods and he said, “God, what’s the true church cuz I don’t think there is one.” And Jesus and Heavenly Father, God, appear to him and say, “There’s no true church, like, you get to start Jesus’s new church.”
ALEX: Is the reason that it’s called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because the saints are relatively recent?
KAREN: They’re actually latter-day saints.
PJ: It’s a lot like Saved By the Bell: The New Class.
KAREN: It’s a lot like Saved By the Bell: The New Class. But actually that’s kind of true. I mean, that’s what’s at the heart of this story. Because that moment when Joseph walked into the woods? That was less than 200 years ago. It was 1820.
ALEX: Wow. That’s. . .super young church
PJ: That’s Abraham Lincoln times.
KAREN: Yeah, and the fact that it’s young, it means that all of the miracles, Joseph Smith’s story. Like, a lot of this is fact checkable.
ALEX: Right I guess if there is like, government documents and things like that. . .
PJ: Daguerreotypes! There’s probably daguerreotypes!
ALEX: Yeah. Sure. Daguerreotypes.
KAREN: Right. Right. And these documents that the church is built on, they still exist. So, you know, there’s birth certificates and diaries. There’s the actual, original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.
PJ: So if you’re Mormon, can you just like go look at them?
KAREN: Well that’s the part that’s a little bit complicated. And I’m going to get to that. But first I want to introduce you to this guy I met named John Dehlin. He lives in this small town northern Utah. He grew up normal, faithful, happy Mormon.
JOHN DEHLIN: You know, I graduated from high school never trying alcohol, never having anything close to sex, never trying tobacco, never trying drugs, and served an LDS mission in Guatemala, and ended up at BYU, Brigham Young University. it was like I lived the Mormon dream.
KAREN: I have to say, as a former Mormon, that a lot of times when people hear that kind of a list they think it sounds oppressive. But what they don’t realize is that this life he’s describing, it can actually kinda great. Like, I loved it. It just, it creates this really tight community because you’re all living this really different lifestyle together. And that’s how John felt about it. Until one day in the early 2000’s, John is preparing for a church lesson and he finds this book in the library. It’s a biography of Joseph Smith and it has all of these historical documents and it’s telling him things that are not in the standard church story.
JOHN: I started to learn things that were deeply troubling and more importantly things that in 30, 31 years of being an active, devout Mormon I had never known before.
KAREN: OK, so one thing was about the Book of Mormon. It’s supposed to be this literal history of Israelites who came to America and they found this huge civilization a couple thousand years ago. And there’s hundreds of thousands of people, but then the civilization collapses. So if that’s literally true, then there should be bones everywhere. There should be archaeological remains. There should be DNA evidence.
PJ: Oh, right. That is so checkable.
KAREN: Right. And another thing that John ran into is polygamy. Joseph Smith is supposed, like, the most sacred person to ever live, besides Jesus. And John is now reading stuff that says that Joseph was a polygamist which, you know, people basically know but now he’s reading details like Joseph Smith married teenagers and and he married other people’s wives.
KAREN: These are not details that the Mormon church talks about.
KAREN: And you can fact check this stuff because there’s birth certificates and marriage certificates. So John is holding this book that he feels basically rewrites the Mormon history that he was taught.
JOHN: Yeah, I just remember sitting there with that book cracked open, getting towards the end, staring at the wall and just sort of realizing I’m gonna have to tell my wife.
KAREN: And he’s scared.
JOHN: The thought of publicly disagreeing or doubting the church is almost incomprehensible. The threat of having your spouse divorce you and take the children. The risk of having your entire community now view you not just as someone who no longer stands with them. They will view you as a danger and as a threat.
KAREN: Doubt is treated like as seriously as a disease. So your friends kind of keep tabs on you. There’s a regular check up with your bishop. And to fully belong, you kinda have to believe. And John really wants to belong. But, then he just thinks, “Does it have to be this literal?”
JOHN: After all we have reformed Judaism. You can be a reformed Jew and not believe in God. So I’m thinking, well, Mormonism can abide that sort of transformation. And so I set off on a quest to carve that pathway for myself and maybe for others.
KAREN: And then he keeps thinking about this song. It’s this Mormon song from when he was a kids.
CHILDREN: [singing] Dare to do right! Dare to be true! You have a work that no other can do. . .
JOHN: [singing] Do it so bravely, so kindly, so well, Angels will hasten the story to tell.
JOHN: We need to stop hiding in the dark acting like we can’t talk about this. Mold and disease grows in the dark. We need sunlight.
KAREN: So it’s 2005. He logs on eBay. He buys a microphone and he goes down to his basemenT and he records his story about when his doubts began.
JOHN: I just remember sitting there with my finger on the mouse ready to publish thinking what is gonna happen? Like, will I get killed? Will I get excommunicated? Will this change Mormonism forever? Like any of those things literally seemed possible
KAREN: And then he hits publish.
PJ: What does he call the podcast?
KAREN: The podcast is called Mormon Stories. And it’s just like him and different guests talking about Mormon policies or beliefs.
JOHN on PODCAST: Hello and welcome to the inaugural Mormon Stories podcast.
KAREN: And it’s interesting, because even though I left the church like seven years ago I’m hearing him say these things and I’m like, “You can’t say that!”
KAREN: Yeah! He’s like, the third podcast that he does in his series is with an anti-Mormon.
MAN on PODCAST: And it’s not like I want to lead everyone away from from Mormonism. Please understand that I know that it’s a cult, but. . .
KAREN: And like that would be like inviting Satan to be on Reply All.
PJ: Wait, but that wouldn’t even be that bad. We would. . .
KAREN: You guys would love to have Satan on Reply All.
ALEX: Seriously i keep emailing him, he’s just not getting back to me.
KAREN: He’s a bad emailer. Anyway, so as soon as John hits published he starts getting flooded with all these emails and phone calls and dozens actually drive up to northern Utah just to see him and really to thank him.
KAREN to JOHN: What had you tapped into?
JOHN: I’d tapped into a huge reservoir of pain. It was just like this huge waterballoon of pain in the sky and as soon as you puncture it all the water starts gushing to the ground.
KAREN: And his audience–these people who were previously silent–these are people just like me. This is me who sat in my congregation and didn’t even tell my twin sister who is queer and wasn’t Mormon at the time that i had doubts because I was so afraid.
PJ: Did all of those “yous” not know how legion they were?
KAREN: Yeah, you like, you actually think you’re alone! And you think you’re crazy.
PJ: But what does the church do?
KAREN: Well, so John gets called in his Bishop’s office and his bishop says, you know, “What are you doing here? Are you trying to take down the church?” And he says, “No no no no, I promise I’m actually trying to help.” And so he goes onto his blog and he says to his listeners, “If I’ve helped any of you stay Mormon, will you please send me a letter.” And he says he gets hundreds of letters back and his bishop looks at a couple of these and he says, “Okay. All right. You’re okay.”
ALEX: So he continues to make the podcast?
KAREN: Yeah so he continues to make the podcast.
VOICE 1 from PODCAST: Wasn’t second wave feminism really coming into its own?
VOICE 2 from PODCAST: It was and it’s funny becuase certainly. . .
VOICE 3 from PODCAST: The hardest, the thing I had ever done the most difficult decision. . .
KAREN: And so John’s audience is growing. It’s thousands and then tens of thousands. And it’s not just him, actually. At the same time there’s all these other Mormons around the world making podcasts and websites. And so at this point it’s not just like your weird Joseph Smith truther uncle that’s talking about this stuff. It’s like it’s ordinary, mainstream Mormons. And eventually church leaders start hearing about this groundswell. People like this guy.
HANS HERBERT JONNY MATTSSON: My name is Hans Herbert Jonny Mattsson. Hans is the name they call me. And I come from Gothenburg, Sweden.
KAREN: For years, Hans was one of the highest ranking church leaders in Europe. I met Hans and, like, think of Santa Claus. Hans is this big guy with white hair. He’s jovial. He’s like probably gonna give you a bear hug and you’re gonna love him.
PJ: Beard or no beard
KAREN: No beard
PJ: Okay. Off-season Santa Claus.
KAREN: Off-season Santa Claus. Like the sweetest guy that you’ve ever met and the people in Europe just adore him. And so they’re coming to him and they’re like, “Hans can you help us because we found this stuff online?”
HANS: What is this polygamy, polyandry? Joseph Smith married teenagers? Joseph Smith married other man’s wife?
KAREN: So the Mormons in Sweden are starting to have the same questions that John and his listeners have had. And when they come to Hans with these questions, he goes to church leaders for an answer and he says they told him, “Stop asking these questions.” And so he’s like, “I guess I’ll just Google this.” But when he does that he finds the same documents and contradictions that everybody else has. And so now Hans is freaking out.
HANS: I was so thirsty and hungry after the truth. My whole body aching for answers. Not to prove the church wrong. The only reason I was seeking was to prove the church right.
KAREN: And so he goes back to church headquarters and says, “You guys have to answer these questions because people are leaving.” And, you know, usually the response from church is just, “Trust us.” So that’s why what they do instead this time is crazy. Which is they send the church historian to Sweden to have an open conversation about these questions.
PJ: is that like their best guy? Is that the guy who extinguishes doubts?
KD: Ye. . so, the church has this giant archive of historical documents. They’re actually kind of obsessive about record keeping, so this archive has meeting minutes, Joseph Smith’s diary, like, everything about the founding of the church. And some of these files are restricted. So, some of these are things that only a handful of people have seen. And Marlin Jensen, the church historian — he’s one of them.
HANS: The Church historian this is the guy who knows everything you know and we were so excited to ask those questions.
KAREN: So it’s November 2010 and the church sends Marlin to Sweden with another historian. Which is basically like the church giving Hans and the Swedes like a day pass to the restricted archives. But Hans says the church had one condition.
HANS: This is a secret meeting. No one else will know about it.
KAREN: So, we’ll answer your questions, but the answers can’t leave the room. But the thing is, somebody in the audience secretly recorded the meeting.
PJ: After the break, we get to hear tapes from a secretly recorded secret meeting. Stick around.
PJ: Welcome back to the show. We were at a secret meeting. Karen has the tape. I’ll let her tell it.
KAREN: And so it’s a Sunday night and the church like opens up when nobody else is there and everybody files into the chapel which is where they usually have church and, you know, they sit down
PJ: And what’s the mood in the room? g is it, are people like please, just talk me back into this? Are people like you’re gonna answer for this? Like, what does the room want from this person.
KAREN: This is a group of people who just want nothing more than the church to be able to explain this so they can stay. These people don’t want to leave, they love this church. So in walks the church historian, Marlin Jensen. He looks like a professor, like, gray hair, wire-rim glasses.
MARLIN JENSEN: And i want to say how grateful brother Turley and i are to be invited here to be sent here, actually.
KAREN: And by all accounts, Marlin is someone who welcomed these questions, he wanted the church to be open.
MARLIN: I feel like we’re among friends brothers and sisters i don’t feel like this is a meeting of adversaries. We’re all Latter-day Saints.
KAREN: But he also says, “You need to remember what’s at stake here.” And he walks up to the whiteboard and he draws a line in the middle. And what he essentially says is on one side there’s Jesus and God and the church. And then on the other side there’s Satan and it’s evil and it’s the world. And we’ll answer all your questions but when you’re done you have to pick a side.
KAREN: Yeah. Yeah. And so then the Swedes start asking their questions.
MEMBER asking question: You didn’t say why you present these views. Why does the church present the view? Why doesn’t the church say about [indistinct]
RICHARD TURLEY: In the early days of the church they talked about it often. You get to a second generation, they present it the way that they tell the story. . .
KAREN: And i have to say that like in all my 30-something years of being a Mormon I have never head a conversation like this. You know, they’re asking all the hard questions and he historians aren’t just saying, you know, “Just trust us because the prophet said so, you know. They’re actually answering these questions in detail. Like the one about polygamy.
RICHARD: Did Joseph Smith practice polyandry? The answer is yes. Joseph Smith did practice polyandry.
KAREN: So, he’s saying directly, “Yes, he did marry other people’s wives.” And then there’s that big question about the Book of Mormon.
ANOTHER MEMBER asking question: So I guess there should be some traces somewhere in the whole of Americas if they ever existed.
KAREN: if there really was an ancient civilization in America, shouldn’t there be not just archaeological remains, but also DNA evidence?
RICHARD: We know some but not all of the answers here. We’re continuing to learn over time. The body of types of DNA for these people is growing.For this one we have no way of knowing the answer.
KAREN: What he’s saying is The Book of Mormon is true but we might not have scientific proof. And then he explains some of the discrepancies.
MARLIN: Where for a long time we were a persecuted minority in America and our hope was to present our best face to the world. And our history was often written in what was called apologetic style. We were defending the faith. And in doing that we were being selective. We were saying the best things about the church. It was a very natural thing, I think, for us to do in those years. But in many ways, we’ve come of age as a church.
KAREN: He’s saying, “Yeah, in the past we did act a little defensively to protect ourselves, but we get it and we know we have to evolve and I promise we are. We’re working on things. But Hans, he’d come into this meeting with a list of questions and what he’d been hoping was that he’d be told, “No, don’t worry about it. There’s nothing to your doubts.” But instead, most of his doubts were confirmed.
KAREN to Hans: How did that feel to have them be like, “Yes”?
HANS: In a way sad because I would like to hear that we were wrong. I tell you a story. Two years ago we went to Orlando and we went to Disneyland and as we went to something called Space Mountain.You go in with a little car there and you go up and down. It’s dark and you only see stars and things. You don’t know what happened. It’s so fun. And suddenly, someone put on the light. And suddenly I can see all this fake things! There were no stars, there were just some lights behind some things, you know. They create all this environment you know. And this is how i felt about the church. Someone turned on the light.
KAREN: So Hans says that within a week everyone who was in that meeting was called into their bishop’s office and told, “OK, we were open with you, now you have to decide whether you’re in or you’re out. And if you’re in, you have to be silent because that meeting never happened. We never said those things and if you speak them out loud you’re trouble.” But when they get to Hans and say are you in or are you out Hans says, “Neither.”
PJ: He’s like looking at the line on the whiteboard and he’s like, “No i want to live in the line.”
KAREN: Yeah. What he doesn’t want is for doubt doubt to be on Satan’s side.
KAREN: So Hans leaves this meeting, he say, “Neither, I want to explore this new option and I think I know someone who can help.”
JOHN: In around 20. . .let’s just say 2011 timeframe a really high level leader in the church named Hans Mattsson from Sweden reached out to me. That was sort of the canary in the coal mine.
KAREN: So Hans contacts John Dehlin, that podcaster and tells him about this secret meeting. And John is blown away. He knows that there’s just tons of Mormons who are in so much pain. You know, some of them their families are falling apart. All because they’re asking these taboo questions. So he’s thinking, “How can we just get the church to remove the taboo by just saying publicly what they just said in Sweden?” And you know, you think of reformers like thousands of years ago they’re like tacking up things on the church wall and being like, “This is our reforms.” But instead like this is a church that loves its data so the way they figure they’re gonna reform the church is by doing a survey.
PJ: Like a quiz of people survey?
KAREN: It’s it’s basically like. . . so, you know, John’s idea was like the reason the church won’t let doubters in is because they think doubters are bad people. So we’re going to bring doubters to life. Like, we’re going to do a survey of people who’ve doubted or left. So they make the survey, over 3000 people respond.
JOHN: One of the major findings from our study for the people who had left the church was that they had felt lied to. They had felt like the church was hiding things from them and that, you know, just like with Nixon and Watergate, it was never the break in that really sunk Nixon, it was the cover-up, right?
KAREN: These results, to John and Hans, they’re just proof that talking about the problems isn’t going to hurt the church it might actually save it. So they try and they try, but the top leaders of the church will not look at the data. And finally Hans says, “Enough. I they won’t talk about it publicly, I will.” So he does an interview with the New York Times, and they write a huge article about all this turmoil that’s been happening inside the church
HANS: This was published on the first page in the New York Time and the whole world exploded you know.
KAREN: This article is like a bomb. Like, members are passing it. I imagine the church was freaking out. And then a couple of months after this New York Times article one of the top three leaders of the church says publically, “We have made mistakes and, look, doubters are not sinful, lazy people. Like, doubters are good people so stop persecuting them.”
DIETER UCHTDORF: One might ask if the gospel is so wonderful why would anyone leave?
KAREN: This is Dieter Uchtdorf, the church leader, talking at major church conference.
UCHTDORF: Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or are sinful. Actually, it is not that simple.
KAREN: And this thing, it sounds so tame, but the doubters hear this and they’re like, “Yes, I told you, Mom, sister, Bishop… this stuff is real. I’m not Satan.”
PJ: That’s crazy.
KD: It is crazy and it gets crazier. Because a few months later those things they’d said in secret in Sweden, they do start saying them publicly. In fact they start publishing them on their website.
NEWSCASTER 1: Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time. . .
NEWSCASTER 2: For the first time acknowledged that Joseph Smith himself had many wives. . .
NEWSCASTER 3: Joseph Smith was spiking on Twitter.
NEWSCASTER 4: Who’s that?
NEWSCASTER 3: The founder of the Mormon church.
PJ: Can you actually show it to us?
KAREN: So when you come to the website there’s a long list of like gospel topics but they have created special corner of the website generically called, “Gospel Topics Essays.”
PJ: Right. And this is like the part for doubters. It says:
“Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics.”
KAREN: Right. So if you click on that, this is basically a collection of essays about the things the Swedes were asking about. And now, it lives on the LDS church website.
JOHN: There was just a lot of signals that the church was changing and moving in the right direction.
KAREN: So John is totally psyched. It feels like this moment of like movement and opening in the church.
JOHN: Call it glasnost or perestroika. I don’t know the right word. This sort of cultural revolution. A new day in the church.
KAREN: And he wants to seize this momentum to get even more change. Like, ordainment for women. He wants gay members to be able to be in relationships. And he’s calling for it on his podcast, and then on national media.
JOHN giving TED talk: I believe I was asked to give this TED talk to help explain how a Mormon can become an LGBT ally.
KAREN: And the more he pushes for this the angrier he gets, because these are more human and personal issues. And he even starts saying things like that he thinks The Book of Mormon is a work of fiction. And at a certain point the church decides they’ve had enough and they excommunicate him.
KAREN: Yeah. The church says to John in his excommunication letter. Look, this isn’t because of your doubts. This is because of their “wide dissemination via your Internet presence, which has led others away from the church.”
ALEX: It feels sort of like one step forward two steps back.
KAREN: Yeah, yeah and that’s what continues to happen. Like, just a couple [months] ago the church issued this policy that said gay couples who are married are automatically apostates. And it also said that children of gay couples can’t be members until they’re 18 and then they have to leave their parents’ house and disavow their parents’ relationship.
PJ: Oh my god that is cruel!
KD: Yeah. But the thing that was so crazy to me was how the members responded. The people that I would have never imagined pushing back against the church did exactly that.
VOICE 1: Okay, here I go, I’m ready to submit in my resignation paper here.
KAREN: Within a week there’s a mass resignation at church headquarters. It might be the single biggest mass resignation in Mormon history. Two thousand people show up.
VOICE 2: This is the line to get your name off the church records. Right here. Still a lot of people coming.
VOICE 3: Dare to do right. Dare to seek truth. And that’s how. . .
KAREN: In fact, that voice you just heard, that’s my best friend turning in her letter. For her, this policy was the final straw.
VOICE 4: We wanted to be honest, the organization it doesn’t define us. We’re different people now. . .
KAREN: And even for the people who have decided to stay in the church. I think they feel like they can have a more open conversation about this. Just even just based on what I see coming across my Facebook feed from my Mormon friends. It just seems like you can talk about more openly about these things in a way that 10 years ago when I was Mormon, I just never would have done
ALEX: When you look at the church now do you see something that you might be willing to interface with, again? Interface is a terrible. . .do you, when look. . .
PJ: Protocol with.
PJ: Like, would you start a programs in their mainframe. . .
ALEX: Would you, would you say /run Mormonism, enter?
PJ: You are. . .
KAREN: Would I control alt delete it?
ALEX: Oh, my fucking God.
PJ: We all know what the circuit board of us is.
ALEX: Do you see a church that you might be willing to have some relationship with again?
KAREN: You know, no. I just, I don’t think I want formal religion any more. But the thing that did surprise me as I looked at this and as I sort of learned about John’s community is that I felt really sad. Like, I just felt like, “Where were you seven years ago?” Which, he was online but I wasn’t. You know, where were you when I had no one to talk to and I had nowhere to go and I thought I was alone and I thought my life was never going to be good again. I really did and for years I was devastated and lonely and lonely and scared and sad. And it didn’t have to be that way, you know?
KAREn: And so seeing these people congregating online now, it just makes me really happy. Like, they have somewhere to go now.
PJ: You said people congregating. Like, do you see it as a kind of church?
KAREN: I think they’re trying to figure out what it is. I mean because this is a, this a, this is a group of people that never made up their own rules. So, so it’s kind of a bunch of people sitting in a room being like, “What do I think?” that’s a question no one asked me before.
PJ: Huh. Is Hans still in the church?
KAREN: Yeah, he he hasn’t formally resigned, but he doesn’t go to church anymore.
HANS: It’s a big step. i mean you’ve been indoctrinated and that’s so deep. It’s so deep you can’t even, I’m still wondering myself. How deep is this, you know, before we can leave it and I can’t go back to something else because I don’t have anything else. I don’t know how to live another life. So if you think where do we stand now, though? Well, I think a very good word is we are lost. But I don’t mean it in a negative way I mean we are lost in a way that we we, we are free to find things, you know. We we are lost in the world that has so many opportunities. And my dear wife she used to, she find a very good quote it says, “Only when you are lost you can be found.”
PJ: Reporter Karen Duffin. She’s a producer for the podcast Invisibilia.
Reply All is me PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Our editor is Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Mervyn Degaños. We were mixed by David Herman. Matt Lieber is a word you finally remember. Special thanks to Kendall Wilcox, Derrick Clements, and Greg Prince. Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find us at our website, replyall.ninja, or on itunes at itunes.com/replyall.
Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.