I was a fifth-generation member of the RLDS faction of Mormonism (now called Community of Christ). Every childhood memory was formed in a home-life of deep commitment to the teachings of the Book of Mormon. My great-great-grandfather was converted to the church in the latter half of the 19th century and later rose to the office of Apostle. Leaving the group was a traumatic choice. It left me deeply confused about God and what had happened to my life and family. For a time, it was even too painful to read from the Scriptures. Finally, the Lord touched the confusion of my mind, healed me and opened my eyes to see what he’d intended for me all along.
An Eastern proverb states that “Devastation Exfoliates Providential Efficacy.” It was likewise, through devastation, that I found the humility and sheer confusion sufficient to shake me loose from the grip of doctrinal perception I’d known my whole life. My view of God and His grace had been formed by the doctrines of Mormonism.
I was a fifth generation member of the RLDS faction of Mormonism (now called Community of Christ). Every childhood memory was formed in a home life of deep commitment to the teachings of the Book of Mormon. My great-great-grandfather was converted to the church in the latter half of the 19th century and later rose to the office of Apostle. I therefore grew up with the experiences of a family history that validated and reinforced my faith.
One night, at the age of fourteen while attending a Wednesday night prayer service, I felt a profound sense of the Lord’s love and His call for my life. Through the years that followed, I endured the temptations and vacillations of commitment that young teenagers often endure. Nevertheless, God remained a deeply important part of my life throughout.
Following the footsteps of four generations before me, I embraced the doctrines of Mormonism as the inspired word of God. The Book of Mormon became my preference as I sought God’s purpose for my life. As an adult, I took my place in the priesthood, preached sermons and taught an adult Sunday School class. My wife and I were in charge of the youth group of our congregation, and even did the weekly cleaning of the church building. I was a devoted husband and the father of two very precious children.
I challenge the idea that anyone “joins” a cult – it suggests a cognizant compliance with the group’s goals and principles. If they’re already formed, these goals and principles will be hidden by the façade of indoctrinating techniques. Yet, in small group settings, they tend to grow and develop as the cult leader gains greater control over his followers. The power derived from his follower’s devotion is intoxicating and leads to an ever-changing agenda, as he seeks to maintain control. This was the type of setting in which I became involved.
Space won’t allow an explanation of how that came to be. To some degree, I feel that I’d been part of a cult my whole life, due to the doctrines I was raised with and had come to embrace as true. Yet, my ignorance and overzealous fervor to serve God led me into the extreme. God’s grace was a grace of works, and firm mandates were in place which required evidence of one’s faith. The Bible speaks of evidence too, but unlike the Bible, Mormonism redefines the criteria for one’s salvation and ties it effectively (once one really understands the book) with the fulfillment of Book of Mormon prophecy. As a true believer, I sought the realization of these fulfillments and my fervency led me into this small cult setting.
While in the group, devotion was intensified, and all personal property was relinquished to the leader. The increase in control led to an increase in abuse. Abuse eventually led to murder by the leader, and murder carried us beyond the point of no return. Families then dissolved into the greater “household” of the cult leader, and other abuses evolved.
Like a furious storm which had run its course, the power that once held us together as a group seemed to dissipate. Unavoidable circumstances hindered the leader’s control and the group disbanded. Leaving the group was a traumatic choice. It left me deeply confused about God and what had happened to my life and family. My career was gone, and we were devoid of any material possessions. Then came the arrests for the killings that had occurred.
My entire view of the Bible message suddenly changed in an isolation cell of the Lake County Jail, in Ohio. All my life, I’d thought I truly loved the Lord, yet there I sat, unable to understand what had gone wrong and how my desire to serve God had taken me so far astray. For a time, it was even too painful to read from the Scriptures. My mind kept seeing the aberrant teachings of the cult and reflected back through all the horror they’d produced.
The “Law of Moses” had been redefined within the group. Everything we’d done and endured had been performed in obedience to this “law.” When I felt ready to study again, I was still unable to use my own books, due to the markings and notes compiled through the thousands of hours worth of class-time in the group. The jail chaplain brought me a paperback Good News Bible, which gave me the feeling of a clean slate — a new beginning.
Like a distant memory in the back of my mind, I recalled the simple truth, that the law is fulfilled in Christ Jesus. A new desire began to grow in my heart, in the form of a question. The thought kept entering my mind. “What is that law, which Christ fulfilled?” I took everything I had ever thought I knew about God and placed it off to the side. Using only the Bible, with no influence of the Book of Mormon or other doctrines, I sought the answer to this question.
During the following months that I remained in that cell, I read through the Bible, twice. My little world had come to an end, yet the refreshing waters of God’s word restored my soul. I began to see the distinct differences between the Book of Mormon and the genuine Bible message. It was a message I hadn’t really known before.
I began writing poetry as a means for expressing this newfound view of God’s word. The jail Chaplain and his wife took special interest in me and in others of the group who were also there. When the Bible he’d given to me at the beginning became worn out, he bought me a sturdy parallel Bible that I used for the next 15 years. Luke 24: 44-45 took on new meaning for me, as my mind seemed to absorb the intricate consistency of the newfound Bible message. The Lord touched the confusion of my mind, healed me and opened my eyes to see what he’d intended for me all along. I finally saw the fulfilling beauty of His Grace. At last, I saw not a “great and marvelous work” yet to be performed; but rather, what is already accomplished in our risen Lord.
In the years that have passed since the Lord renewed my mind, my wife has left me and the relationship with my children has been severed. Oddly enough, imprisonment wasn’t the source of these painful losses, but rather my rejection of Mormon doctrine. I’ve endured times when hope and purpose in life seemed nowhere to be found — times when God felt very distant and the ache in my heart was overwhelming. Yet, that precious truth I came to know in the County Jail still abides with me today.
As a fourteen-year-old boy, I felt God’s love toward me. And through my life, there had been people who I believe were placed in my path for the purpose of sharing a clearer view of His grace. However, my mind was locked upon the view provided through the doctrines of my youth. I’m deeply ashamed that it took so much devastation in order to see what had plainly been there all along. And yet, I am eternally thankful for what I now see, because I’m no longer blinded by some grand mandate yet to be fulfilled. Instead, I hold fast to the peaceful assurance that “it is done.” (Rev. 21:6)
At present, I’ve been incarcerated for over 18 years. In that time, I’ve earned a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies and plan to pursue a doctorate. I write a column in The Open Door, a periodical for Watchmen Ministries, in Minnesota. My book Faith Gone Astray (originally under the title Why?) goes into more detail about the cult of which I was a part and how it came to form.
I enjoy ministering within the sphere afforded me in the prison environment. Life contains its share of bitter with the sweet, and throughout both, I’ve been graced with the company of He who left the empty tomb. He’s not an abstract theory, or an angry mountain of works and obligation. He’s Jesus Christ—my Savior, Lord, and a truly faithful friend.