Leaving the Mormon Church can be a challenging and emotional decision. It can be difficult to step away from an organization that has played such a significant role in your life, beliefs, and values. However, there are several reasons why people choose to leave the Mormon Church.
Polygamy, racism, homophobia, patriarchy, pedophilia—Mormonism has it all. No matter how faithfully you believe in the Mormon Church, certain teachings give pause. Perhaps the first time you went through the temple ordinances you were caught off guard—even shocked—by the outfits, prayer circles, the washing and anointing. For many, doubts arise when reading early Church history; the whitewashed history of the Church comes into clear view.
As good members, we’re asked to “doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” It’s a sly re-framing and re-characterization of what are honest questions. The Church does not advise you to study further or to read primary sources. The Church does not suggest discussing doubts with parents, leaders and friends. There is no encouraging open discourse and thorough research. This quote suggests by even entertaining “doubts,” we are proving how little faith we have in Jesus Christ.
This insidious quote has convinced many, many people asking questions about polygamy, race and the priesthood, and women’s roles in the Church is a sign your faith in Christ is weak. The Church founded by a man who had many doubts and asked many questions now discourages similar truth seeking in its members. But doubts never really go away. You can place the experience in the back of your mind on a shelf, but it’s impossible to fully forget.
Here are some of the most common reasons why people choose to leave the Mormon Church:
Many people leave the Mormon Church because they have doubts about the church's teachings. They may have questions about the church's history, its doctrine, or its practices that go against their personal beliefs and values.
An easy, beginners resource for learning about these aspects of church history is the CES Letter. This is a brief booklet with the most troubling aspects of church history. These facts are not taught in church and many life long members have never grappled with these subjects.
The Book of Mormon is presented as an ancient text discovered by Joseph Smith. It is meant to be a true record of native people living in the Americas before and after the time of Christ. Joseph Smith found this record on gold plates and translated it by the power of God. However, many aspects of The Book of Mormon reveal it was not written by the hands of prophets thousands of years ago.
The Book of Mormon is full of anachronisms. Anachronisms are words or ideas which did not exist in the time the book was meant to be written. The Book of Mormon includes cattle, horses, oxen, sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheat, barley and many other items that did not exist in pre-Columbian America. There were no chariots when The Book of Mormon was meant to be written. However, all of the above are contemporary with Joseph Smith and the early 1800’s.
There is also no archaeological evidence of the peoples deserved in The Book of Mormon. The book includes battles where many thousands died, and the Lamanites and Nephites were massive groups of people. Excavation of the Hill Cumorah did not reveal a huge battlefield, as described by Joseph Smith and detailed in The Book of Mormon. There are no archaeological sites matching those described in The Book of Mormon. The Church recently walked back the claim that the Lamanites were the principal ancestors of the Native Americans. DNA revealed Native American heritage is largely from Asia.
The translation of The Book of Mormon is also much more convoluted than presented in your average Sunday School lesson or Church talk. Growing up in the Church, depictions of Joesph Smith translating from the gold plates filled my home and the walls of the Church building. However, what is depicted is not what actually happened by Joseph’s own account. He would look into a hat at a rock and dictate The Book of Mormon to a scribe nearby.
The rock used by Joseph Smith was also used to search for buried treasure before he began his journey founding the Church. Far from the image of Joseph reading off the plates line for line, the actual image should be Joseph with his face in a hat, the plates nowhere to be seen. The Church did not include this aspect of the translation in any official Church documents till 2013. This is just another aspect of the white washed history the Church has taught its own members for decades.
We are taught “The Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” How can The Book of Mormon be the most true book ever written if everything outlined above is true?
The Church would prefer people “get a good feeling” about The Book of Mormon to prove it’s true rather than learn about its origins and the scientific underpinnings of the book. This is by design. As it says in Preach My Gospel, “People may sometimes intellectually question what you teach, but it is difficult to question a sincere, heartfelt testimony.” It’s easier to convince people they know “truth” because they felt good. Proving truth through facts and history is harder for a Church built on fallible claims and a historically dubious book.
Joseph Smith was certainly an enigmatic figure of the 1800’s. He started a world religion, engaged in polygamy, and ran for president. Growing up in the Church, I learned many stories about Joseph Smith. To me, he was an American hero. I heard the story of how he refused alcohol as a pain treatment for his leg surgery as a child. I learned the rules of stick pull during Church activities, and how it was Joseph Smith’s favorite game. And of course, I learned of the love he had for his wife, Emma. In my mind, Emma and Joseph were the most perfect, loving couple to learn from as a young woman.
When I was leaving the Church, I was often struck by the immense detail I knew about certain stories from Joseph’s life, while I knew almost nothing about other more major aspects of his life. The name Fanny Alger meant nothing to me. I never knew there was more than one account of the first vision. Joseph’s life is too colorful and too off putting for many mainstream Mormons. We learn the same stories about him over and over again, but never discuss some of the most basic facts of his life.
In 2015 I taught ninth grade English in American Fork, Utah for a year. This was the year I decided to leave the Church. One day while students were gathering their backpacks, a group of about six students were arguing about something. As I focused my attention, I heard one of the students was making the claim that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. The other five students disagreed. No, Joseph was only married to Emma. Only Brigham Young had multiple wives. I remember feeling shocked by this ratio—one in six students knew the truth. These 15 year olds had spent their whole lives steeped in Mormonism, like myself at the same age. But only one of them was aware of a truth you could find on the internet with one quick search.
Joseph Smith had thirty four wives, which the Church outlined in an essay from 2014. The first, after Emma, was Fanny Alger, who was sixteen at the time and was working as the Smith’s housekeeper. Eleven of these women were married to other men when Joseph Smith married them. While ploygamy as a whole is something most find offputting or even disgusting, there are some aspects of Joseph Smith’s polygamy which are exceptionally deplorable.
Joseph sent Apostle Orson Hyde on a mission abroad, and while he was gone Joseph secretly married his wife, Marinda Hyde. By both modern and contemporary standards, this was shocking behavior. Out of the thirty four wives, seven of the women Joseph married were teenagers. His youngest wife was Helen Mar Kimball. He married her when she was fourteen and he was thirty seven.
The doctrine behind polygamy was always shrouded in mystery. Some Mormon men qualified for polygamist relationships, others did not. Sometimes Joseph married a mother and her daughter. Other times he married pairs of sisters. He also married some of his own foster children. Emma was not aware of most of these sealings. While some members may say most of these marriages were “sexless,” there is little evidence this was or was not the case. Certainly common sense leads one to believe he was having sex with these women and children. Joseph taught polygamy was expressly for raising up a righteous people.
There are many apologists explanations for all these different facts. Many “historians” can spell out why Joseph Smith was motivated to practice polygamy, or why he chose girls so young, or why it should just be okay he practiced polygamy at all. But these historians are called “apologists” for a reason.
Faithful members will say if you have a testimony of Joseph Smith, none of these facts should matter. Reading the lyrics to “Praise to the Man” will certainly leave you feeling happier than reading about Joseph Smith’s polygamy. You may have once had a testimony of Joseph Smith, but if your testimony was gained before you knew all of this information about him, what good is the testimony? You’re allowed to change your mind when confronted with new information.
The wonderful and intimidating thing about stepping outside of the framework of the Church is you finally have permission to choose for yourself verses always consulting a higher power. Allow yourself to look inward and to research rather than simply relying on feelings you have felt. I know if I put on Chopin I feel calm. If I play Rage Against the Machine I feel angst. When I listen to the music on hold with the utilities office I feel annoyed. Feelings are easy to manipulate. Many people believed Ted Bundy was a nice, normal guy to be around. When I am sick, I never want a doctor who will choose a treatment because he “has a really good feeling” it’s what’s best.
Find me a mormon who feels the Church is true and I will find you a Jew and a Muslim and a Catholic who all say the same. However, all these religions teach different, discordant beliefs. Everyone can’t be right. It’s not enough to choose truth based on a feeling. The spirit is nothing more than a feeling. Allow yourself to consider alternate paths to finding the truth. Allow yourself to rely on your own mind and good sense. What do these facts about Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon, and the LDS Church lead you to believe?
Mormons have long treated Brigham Young with a high level of dismissiveness. Joseph Smith is a proper American hero. Brigham Young is the prophet who makes Mormons throw their hands up in exasperation and say, “well, that was just crazy Brigham Young.” On my mission, missionaries would constantly discuss certain teachings of Brigham Young and try to figure out if he was “speaking as a man, or speaking as a prophet.”
Somehow Brigham Young gets a free pass on a lot of the more egregious teachings from the past. Maybe it’s because he didn’t found the Church or write The Book of Mormon, but I always felt confused by the level to which members didn’t seem to care much about what Brigham Young taught. He was a prophet too. Priesthood keys passed through him. And yet, no Mormon I know cares as much about defending Brigham Young as Joseph Smith.
Brigham Young taught many twisted and vile ideas, but several rise to the top as the most destructive. Blood Atonement is the teaching that there are some sins the atonement cannot cover. If a person commits one of these sins, they should be killed, whether by their own hand or the hand of someone else. The doctrine was later declared false by other prophets. As Jeremy Runnells remarks in the CES Letter, “Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine. Yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.”
Brigham Young also taught the Adam-God theory. This doctrine outlined Adam from the garden of Eden was the same as Heavenly Father, or God. This doctrine is as strange as it is unremarkable, and it was also dismissed by later prophets. One prophet introduces an eternal doctrine, and another prophet calls it “heresy.”
Frustratingly, some early doctrines are absolute and eternal truths while other early doctrines are repugnant. How are members to really know what teachings truly matter and which are repugnant? Is the Church’s stance on gay marriage going to change? Maybe in ten years time a new prophet will stand at general conference and explain a ban on gay marriage was never eternal doctrine, only temporary policy?
Another doctrine heavily embraced by Brigham Young was the principle of polygamy. Brigham Young stated very clearly polygamy was required for one to receive exaltation. He had fifty-five wives by the time of his death in 1877. While Brigham Young vehemently defended and practiced polygamy, Gordon B. Hinkley would later remark to Larry King, “I condemn it (polygamy). Yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal.”
Gordon B. Hinkley made this remark on a TV show, many will say he was “speaking as a man.” The principle of polygamy remains clearly outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Church still preforms sealings of multiple women to one man after death. Women, however, can still only be sealed to one man. The doctrine of polygamy as taught by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young is still very much a part of modern LDS Church doctrine, as much as its members may pretend it remains in the past.
The last repulsive doctrine taught by Brigham Young is his racist belief that Black men should not be eligible to receive the priesthood, or participate in saving temple ordinances. After Brigham Young introduced this doctrine, it was practiced and held in place for 130 years. This doctrine was held by the Church till 1978, well after the Civil Rights era in the United States.
The Church purports itself to be the one true Church of God, but it always seems to drag its feet behind societal norms, not to lead society. The early Church was obviously willing to be persecuted over polygamy, but was happy to concur with the rest of society on terms of racist, backwards, and morally wrong teachings. Somehow these divinely inspired men of God—those considered to be the most righteous men on the planet—are just old racist white men steeped in the culture of their own time.
Doctrines of yesterday were mistakes or were policy or were espoused from prophets speaking as men, not as prophets. However, what the prophet says today is the complete truth, full stop. You cannot go to Church and say “but what if the next prophet will change his mind about gay marriage? What if the next prophet says women can have the priesthood?” We can dismiss the prophets of the past as confused and backwards, but we’re asked to sustain the current prophet with absolute, unyielding faith.
Mormon homophobia weighed heavily on my shelf while I was in the Church. Somehow I always managed to make friends with people who turned out to be gay. Some of my closest friends in high school were gay. Later at BYU, a close male friend from my freshman ward came out as gay.
The idea of “loving the sinner, hating the sin” never landed quite right with me—because when you tell someone you love them, just hate what they do and parts of their identity—it doesn't exactly sound or feel like love.
Despite my private reservations, I always defended the Church and its stance on gay marriage. After all, I was a naive true believer, and a nuanced view of the Church was impossible for me. Once of my first arguments with my husband was about gay marraige. When we were still dating, I casually referenced that marriage should be between a man and a woman. He responded, “why should your religion dictate their lives?” What a shocking idea from a man who had served a faithful mission. I almost felt as if I should end the relationship based on that comment—he clearly wasn’t Mormon enough for me.
Mormon leaders have repeated homophobic comments throughout the years, and despite many ever changing doctrines, this is one topic where the Church’s resolve seems unwavering. As Elder Packer said in a conference talk in 2010, “Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and the unnatural, not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Father.”
The Church discourages its members from even using the word gay—you’ll rarely, if ever, see it written out in a talk. Instead, words like “same sex attraction” are preferable. While being gay or queer is an identity, same sex attraction is a sinful feeling to be dealt with. This language conveniences members that they should be able to pray the gay away. And when the gay doesn’t go away, many members deal with severe mental health and self esteem issues. Some become suicidal. Some are successful.
Where the Church goes doctrinally, Utah follows culturally. And while members often say, “the gospel is perfect, the members are not,” we also learn that “by their fruits you shall know them. The level of bullying and viciousness I observed as a 9th grade teacher was a taste of the “fruits” of the Church’s anti-LGBTQ stance. The slur “fag” and and the phrase “you’re so gay” were used constantly.
I recall a student coming through the doors, straight out of seminary class. He placed his scriptures down on his desk and tapped the student in front of him and said loudly, “what’s up, faggot?” The student he had hit was actually gay, as confirmed to me by his parents.
His parents had also told me that he had tried to commit suicide that school year, and was very behind in his school work due to hospital says. The parents of the student who used the slur barely reacted when I called home to tell them what happened.
In 2015 the Church instituted a policy that banned baptisms of the children of gay parents. This was a time when I was still in the Church, and it dealt a remarkable blow to my faith. The second article of faith ran through my mind, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression.”
How could the Church keep baptism from kids because of someone else’s—their parents—sins? The policy was later rolled back after criticism, but to me, the damage was done. The Church was not welcoming “the sinner” with open arms, it was messaging that being gay was so horrendous, even the kids of gay people weren’t welcome at Church.
In 2020, a whistleblower alleged that the Church manages about $100 billion dollars of assets. This is a staggering sum, and an amount that the whistleblower also claimed was used in for-profit ventures, rather than strictly religious and nonprofit enterprises. These funds are allegedly fully tax exempt.
It’s shocking to remember how I used to go with my family to our local ward to clean the chapel after the Church announced that members would now be entirely responsible for clean up. I recall a young woman's trip to Nauvoo being canceled because there wasn’t enough money. My family and I paid for my mission—also known as the 18 month free labor I provided where I was technically working minimum ten hour days, even on Saturday and Sunday. Missionaries pay the Church for their own free labor.
I recall carefully paying 10% of my gross income (my mom always taught us to pay tithing on gross income rather than net) throughout my life, even when I was in college and barely spending money on food or housing.
Truly, the 10% never deeply hurt me financially, though it always felt like a lot of money. However, the Church is also asking for 10% of the income from members in Nigeria and Madagascar. On my mission, I was heavily discouraged from ever offering any sort of monetary support to anyone I encountered. Single moms, large families, refugees, and disabled people, the answer was always the same: don’t offer financial assistance.
Somehow, a Church with such massively deep pockets cannot be bothered to financially support the most poor and needy. Instead the message to those individuals is always the same: join the Church and pay your tithing. Anyone who has experienced the stinginess of the Church combined with the high cost for entry can’t be that shocked that the Church has amassed $100 billion.
Perhaps the surprise comes from how little good the Church actually does with this fortune. In 2021, the Church reported $906 million in charitable spending. This means that the Church spent less than 1% of its total holdings on charity. A dismal percentage for such a high amount of wealth. Walk around downtown Salt Lake and notice the lovely City Creek Mall and the large numbers of homeless. What would Jesus think of that?
Did you know that the LDS Church has the oldest and largest Women’s organization—known as the Relief Society—on the planet? This is what I used to proudly proclaim as a missionary in Denver. The Church does a deceitfully good job convincing Mormon women they are equal to men in the Church, well, separate but equal. Growing up as a young woman I always felt that I was equal to the young men, even though I didn’t get the priesthood. I knew many young men in my ward who I judementally knew watched R rated movies and did things that were almost sex with their girl friends (oh my!).
It was frustrating to feel “more righteous,” but also not able to hold God’s power like these immature boys around me. This feeling grew worse as I went to college and saw other young men playing video games in basketball shorts and garment tops on a Sunday, having missed Church for sleeping in. It felt wrong. My critical Mormon heart knew I was better than them, but in Relief Society we only ever talked about maintaining our virtue and service, not how to wield the keys to the kingdom of God.
I went through the temple for the first time in preparation for my mission. My muted frustration bubbled up into disbelieving rage when I watched the temple video. Adam and Eve sit before the Father and he instructs Eve to “keep the law of the Lord and hearken unto the counsel of your husband as he hearkens unto the counsel of the Father.”
Shockingly, Adam was absent in making the same promise with Eve. Adam doesn’t promise shit to Eve. He covenants to “obey the law of God and keep his commandments.” His relationship is directly with God. Her relationship with God is through her husband, Adam.
Most Mormon women swear they feel and are equal participants in God’s true Church, but the power inequity is gaping and obvious to most outside of the Church. A glance at the LDS General Authority chart shows the nine women leaders way down at the bottom of the chain, with 110 men, mostly white, above them—both literally on the chart and in the hierarchy of the Church. Anyone arguing that women have an equal voice to men in the Church need merely refer to the leadership chart and try to find a photo of a woman in the top 90% of the photos.
In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” women are reminded, “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” I guess they threw us a bone with that “primarily” nonsense. My young woman's mind tried to fit a lot of dreams into “primarily.” Like trying to convince myself that my college education would matter, even if my husband didn’t die and I had to provide for my own family using my dusty degree.
To examine sexism in the Mormon Church, one must really look back at the history. Polygamy, polyandry, women with no access to birth control trapped by five to ten kids. Child marriage. It’s not surprising that the watered down version of current Church doctrine still oppresses women, albeit in smaller forms.
I have three sisters, but I only got to go to one of their weddings. I was able to see the wedding of the sister who left the Church before me. And even she didn’t have all of us at her wedding because one of my sisters was on her mission. In a Church obsessed with the traditional family, none of the four of us was able to have all their siblings at their own weddings.
Maybe it’s trite to be hurt by this. Many would say that when I left the Church, I knew what I was giving up. But when I went to my two younger sister’s weddings, there was not a word said acknowledging the cruelty of having your sister travel thousands of miles to support you on your wedding, only to sit in the parking lot during the ceremony. No apologies or “I wish you could come in,” only a “will you help set up the cultural hall while the ceremony happens since you won't be doing anything?”
This isn’t the worst type of treatment Mormons face when leaving the Church. Thankfully, I’ve maintained happy relationships with my still Mormon family. My toddler accidentally picked up “God damn it” but thankfully it only sounds like “Cod dane it,” and so he’s not offending anyone yet. Prayers around dinner are awkward. When I got a piercing in my nostril, no one said anything. One of my sisters said she liked my tattoo, which meant a lot.
But in many cases, I am the exception. I’ll take awkward family dinners if it means I still get to hug my mom and dad. Many members aren’t so lucky. Members who identify within the LGBGQ+ community are often completely ostracized and vilified. The gay ninth grader who I taught in American Fork certainly delt with bullying and abuse. Often even if your family still loves you, you lose many friends made at girl’s camp, on the mission, and at BYU. When I left the Church, friends stopped talking to me and unfriended me on Facebook.
Thankfully the Church has caught up on some ground in the last 10 or so years. Conference talks cover loving those who leave, and praying for them to return. When my sister left before me I was convinced that eventually she would come back, and I would lead the way.
Leaving the Church can leave you friendless, and for some, jobless. Those employed by the Church have even more reasons to stay, the Church is paying their salary. And for professors of religion at BYU or seminary teachers, there is nowhere else to go because their work is not peer reviewed or academically accepted. The Church has effectively monopolized their family life, social life, and professional life.
When my close friend vocally disagreed with Church teachings at BYU, the honor code office made it impossible for her to graduate. This meant she wasted years of her life and thousands of dollars on a degree never given to her. A lawyer told her it wasn’t worth pursuing; BYU is a private institution and can do more or less whatever they want.
Leaving the Church, especially for those living in Utah and heavily LDS communities, is even more terrifying. Leaving is harder if you’re gay. Leaving is harder if you’re outspoken. The Church would rather individuals who are leaving slip into obscurity, taking that missionary spirit and burying it deep down inside. As you leave, you better go through the back door. Leaving loudly costs you. For me, leaving loudly was worth it. This book will help you discover how you want to leave the Church—loudly or quietly—you get to decide what is best for you.
Some people choose to leave the Mormon Church because they feel that it is no longer serving their personal growth and development. They may feel that the church is holding them back from exploring their beliefs and values in a more authentic way.
Growing up in the Church means adding an entirely new layer to the fabric of your being. You and Mormon you were so inexorably linked, it was probably difficult for you to ever imagine there was a difference—a you outside of Mormon you. Dissecting that layer from yourself, and figuring out what is you and what is Mormon you and what to keep and what to throw out, is a years long process.
Others may leave the Mormon Church because they feel isolated or unwelcome within the church community. This can be due to differences in beliefs, personality, or lifestyle choices.
Unfortunately, some individuals leave the Mormon Church due to trauma or abuse they have experienced within the church. This can be a difficult decision, as leaving the church can also mean leaving behind a support system.
Leaving the Mormon Church can be a challenging decision that requires a great deal of self-reflection and courage. There are several reasons why people choose to leave the church, including doubts about the church's teachings, discomfort with church policies and practices, personal growth and development, feeling isolated or unwelcome, and trauma or abuse. Whatever the reason may be, it is essential to seek support and guidance during this process and make the decision that is right for you.