My name is Christine Cluff Webber. I am a seventh-generation Mormon. And I am no longer Mormon. I was the seventh in a family of nine children, which was not uncommonly large in this family. My dad was born in the Mexican polygamous colonies, and my family line is cluttered with polygamous wives and lots of children.
I was recently going through some family journals. They told the stories of Mother Cluff, of how she gave birth to 14 children unassisted, and raised them while Father Cluff was off on a mission for the LDS church. They spoke of her struggles in raising not only her own children, but a child of one of Father Cluff’s polygamous wives as well. When she was living in Nauvoo, Mother Cluff fended off the militia in order to keep her last half-barrel of flour to feed her children. These were stories of bravery, of amazing strength, and of amazing faith.
My family journals are littered with such accounts. As I read these journals, I began to wonder where my story was. The first thing I felt when I mentally and emotionally separated from the Mormon Church was a sense of liberation, followed shortly by inner conflict caused by my desire to stay on good terms with my comfortable cultural and familial world. Who was I now? How was I to define myself outside of Mormonism? And how was I to extricate myself in a graceful manner? My entire identity, my ego, had been so intertwined with the Mormon sense of self and purpose in life. And most importantly, was my story important enough to add to the family library or would it be discarded by my family because it wasn’t faith promoting?
I decided that it is my responsibility to tell my story. I am not ashamed of it. I feel my decision to leave the church has been one of bravery and strength--just as much as was that of my pioneer family of old. I am a modern-day pioneer in this very old family tradition as I am choosing to follow my heart and where my own spirituality leads me.
I was born of goodly parents. I was raised in a strict, conservative, Mormon home. We did not have a television while I was growing up, and the books we read were very carefully selected by my mother. She was loving, caring, and very militant in her faith. We got up early—as early as 4:30 am when she was teaching early morning seminary—for family scripture reading and prayer. There was never a day off from our religion. We had Family Home Evening every week like clockwork; attended church every week; attended all other necessary meetings. Our friendships were controlled, as mom was very actively involved in making sure we were not being exposed to any negative or evil outside influences. By the time I rolled along, the family rules and structure were well worn and had proven effective. There was no disputing or questioning of how things were run. Every single one of my older siblings were honors students, returned missionaries, and temple-married.
I was an inquisitive child and naturally curious about the world around me. This personality trait served me well in school. The first book I ever read was the Book of Mormon. I knew I was going to be able to make my own world someday, so in fifth grade I decided I would need to emphasize the sciences and mathematics so I would make the best world possible when I reached the Celestial Kingdom. When I started seminary, I pored over the religious books, absorbing as much as I possibly could and posing about a million questions to my seminary teachers. I am certain I drove these teachers almost to distraction. I wanted to know if Jesus really had to be transfigured to speak to God since he was “half-God” himself. I wanted the mechanics of it. When my mother became my seminary teacher, I used to discuss how prayer worked from a scientific standpoint. I wanted to know how revelation from God was filtered through our brains and through our senses in such a way as to remain pure.
Needless to say, most of these discussions ended with more questions than answers. I craved real answers, not platitudes or trite explanations that made little sense.
I graduated from high school and immediately moved on to BYU. I felt like a child in a candy store, with access to unlimited books and a vast array of class choices. One of the first classes I took was a religion class covering the Doctrine and Covenants. I aced it and then decided to be bold and take a philosophy course. A guy I was interested in (and who is now my husband) was a philosophy minor, so I took a leap into a second-level philosophy class, just so we would be sharing a class. I had found a husband. And I also had found nirvana. This class was nonstop light bulbs going on in my head. We studied absolute and individual truths. When we started delving more deeply into existentialism, I was hooked. All the previous inconsistencies and gaps in my religious and spiritual training were laid bare. I didn’t know so much about God, but whatever God might actually be, I could certainly see that humans were projecting their own perceptions onto the idea of God. I was relieved to have found information that helped me put the pieces together. It explained for me why there were so many religions and why so many of these religions had conflicting dogma. I could never figure out why God would deliberately create such a confusing method to return to Him. God was preserved for me in the meantime, as I shifted Him from an interactive God to a less contradictory, deistic one.
Meantime, I had married my wonderful returned missionary in the Los Angeles temple. I was glad that I followed my hunches. I did not pray about the decision. I always had problems with prayer because in my whole life I had never received an answer. Or I didn’t trust that the answer came from a God. I always suspected that any answer to a prayer originated from inside the pray-er’s mind. There was a reason why I was obsessed about the mechanics of prayer.
Within one month of being married I was pregnant—not on purpose, mind you—and I didn’t realize I was pregnant because I was taking birth control pills at the time. Four months later I miscarried. It was a faux pregnancy with a mass instead of a fetus. I was very sick during this time, and my new marriage was full of nausea and vomiting. I'd become very weak by the time I miscarried.
My doctor told me to take it easy and wait a few months before trying to get pregnant again. I informed him I hadn’t tried the first time. This miscarriage was the gateway into the most miserable years of my entire life. Within three months I was pregnant again, while using another form of birth control. In nine months I gave birth. Thirteen months later I gave birth again. And again, sixteen months later. All this time I had been using birth control. My sheer frustration at my seemingly total loss of control over my body soon dimmed to the overwhelming exhaustion of having to be sick, pregnant, and nursing for four years straight.
Occasionally, out of the endless depression caused by sleep deprivation and fatigue, my old, spirited self would emerge in anger. I didn’t know much, but I did know that I really didn’t like this lifestyle. I had a recurring nightmare over the space of three months after the birth of my third child. In it there was a gymnasium-sized nursery like those you see in a hospital. There were endless rows of bassinets full of babies. The first baby I came to began crying, so I picked it up to comfort it. The baby calmed and fell back to sleep, just as another one nearby woke up and began crying. I spent night after night going from baby to baby in this dream. So on top of doing this very same thing during the day, I was now spending my nights doing it. It became crystal clear to me that, however much I wanted to tangibly build my own world in the afterlife, there was no way anyone was going to get me to agree to populate it. I figured that if eternal increase was the pinnacle of Mormon eternal existence, God was going to have to change the carrot (or was it the stick?) for this particular woman. There was no way on earth I wanted to spend eternity in this perpetual despair of birthing and caring for babies without seeming end. I was depressed. For the first time in my life I really began to pray. Nothing came. Nothing! I determined, as I had been taught, that if I was depressed and feeling cut off from the spirit, I was doing something wrong that I needed to fix in order for my depression to be righted. After trying to figure out what I was doing wrong and coming up empty, I decided that my whole philosophy about Mormonism, about religion, was flawed. I was fairly entrenched at this time, serving as Young Women’s president, which was a very demanding job that contributed to my sense of being overwhelmed.
In a bold move one day, I figuratively tossed my religion out the door and decided to start anew. Apparently my foundation had been unstable and had produced the wrong fruit, so I was going to start from the bottom up. I sat down with three books. Lectures on Faith by Joseph Smith, the standard works of the church, and Jesus the Christ, by Talmage. By this time in my life I had read and cross-referenced the Book of Mormon over 25 times, the Bible four times, and Jesus the Christ twice. But I figured that Joseph Smith had started with the basics, so I was going to follow his route.
By the time I read Lectures on Faith, my spiritual transformation was complete. Based on my natural penchant towards existentialism, combined with my study of the step-by-step mental processes Joseph had used to arrive at the theology of Mormonism, I knew that this religion had been manmade. Joseph was bright—I will give him that—but Mormonism came from him. He was kind enough to reveal the mental clicks that had helped him decide how to proceed with this new church.
But no matter: I still had three, almost four, young toddlers to care for (having had another miscarriage before getting pregnant for the final time), and two busy callings in the church. I decided that Mormonism was my culture, my heritage, and an overall good place to be, so I continued on with my life. By this time I was fairly agnostic. I was also still working and functioning as the Young Women’s president of the ward. I continued my studies of Mormonism and early church history. I also continued reading the scriptures with my eyes wide open.
I can remember confessing to my husband that I thought I was agnostic, and he said “I’m sorry to hear that.” Looking back, it was a remarkably calm reaction on his part. I had grown up simply assuming the existence of God. There is a certain strange irony that I lost my belief in God before I ever lost my belief in Mormonism. Some time a few years later I can remember having a discussion with my now-frustrated husband about my scripture reading tendencies. He said “You don’t read them to learn them; you read them to pick them apart and criticize them.” He had me there. When I had read the Book of Mormon for the thirtieth time, I decided that scripture reading was more faith-harming to me than faith-promoting, and I gave myself permission to stop.
Being agnostic and holding very active leadership callings was an emotionally tiring exercise. I refused to bear my testimony to something I didn’t believe, but I wanted to teach my classes something that would improve their spirituality, so I spent my time finding middle-ground content that was uplifting but not necessarily Mormon faith promoting. My classes were well attended, and I was a popular teacher. I would often inject eastern philosophies such as Buddhism into the stream of the lesson to further educate the class on spirituality as a whole rather than just Mormon spirituality.
Meanwhile, things at home were a little tenuous. I was lenient in having the children read scriptures, pray, and attend church. It frustrated my husband, and we would often have arguments about my approach towards the church. I often felt alone and wondered where, when, and how this situation would be forced to resolve itself. When our children reached the teen years, I was suddenly very keen on not having my daughters go to young women’s meetings, where I knew they would begin feeling the pressure to be molded into future LDS wives and mothers. I wanted more for them. My concern increased when my oldest daughter started rebelling, and I felt torn between either hand-dragging her into the church or gracefully letting her decide how to spiritually approach life on her own. We moved in an effort to surround our daughter with more positive influences.
I took the move as an opportunity to go completely inactive. I was exhausted in every possible way. I spoke to my very dear new bishop and explained to him that I had just left behind four church callings because the inactivity rate in our Salt Lake City ward was so high that only a few active couples were keeping the ward above water. Four callings: at the time we left I was education counselor in the Relief Society, Stake Primary music coordinator, ward organist, and visiting teacher. My new bishop shook his head and said, “Some wards find their workhorses and work them to death.” He told me he would not offer a calling to me until I was good and ready.
I never returned. After describing to him the years I had put in my time, fulfilled my callings, and done everything I possibly could to follow the checklist of the gospel, I still felt that going to church every week was a burden. I felt as if I had been filling the spiritual baskets of everyone else around me, while mine had turned into a black hole. I simply did not see church as a way for me to feel spiritually renewed. It had sucked the life right out of me.
I began going up into the mountains every weekend. I began taking walks along the river. The pantheist in me was given permission to roam. The farther I got away from that figuratively rigid pew and that early Sunday morning rush to get everything prepared for church, the more calm and relaxed I felt. It was such a relief to lose the constant feeling that something more needed to be done and that I was always to be anxiously engaged in a good cause. It is funny that with my perfectionist tendencies, I gleaned the parts of the gospel that I could measure to determine progress. I couldn’t tell you God had given me comfort, but I certainly could tell you that I was reading my scriptures and writing in my journal every day, attending church regularly, having home evenings every week, and taking cookies to my visiting teaching ladies every month. Looking back, it really was a very unfair thing to do to a perfectionist, placing me in a belief system that teaches that perfection is actually attainable.
Then a crisis happened. Our oldest daughter began seeing a bright Mormon boy who had just turned eighteen. She was just nearing her sixteenth year. He committed suicide and sent my daughter down an emotional spiral that culminated in her own suicide attempt. Darkness does not begin to adequately describe what we were all feeling. I sat and cried as the bishop came to the hospital room with our home teacher and gave her a blessing. My husband felt impotent. I did not believe in a God. I didn’t believe they were accessing God, but didn’t want to deprive them of their desire to help in the only way they knew how. In our state of desperation and sadness, completely deprived of support from extended family, my husband and I felt that we needed to make a decision. We could go back into the church and try to provide our daughter an environment to help her to heal, but we would ultimately have to coerce her, as she was a very liberal thinker by this point. Or we could just abandon any pretense of the Mormon way of life and love her back to health on our own terms. This one event was a pivotal one for my husband and me. We felt that our decision would make the difference between losing or keeping our daughter.
Not long after, my husband became completely inactive in the church. Through this whole period of time when I had been agnostic, I tried not to discuss religion too much, as it was always a divisive topic. My entire goal had been to love him the best I could, regardless of our differences. My husband, with his minor in philosophy, and I would spend entire nights at times discussing philosophy and religion. He was open-minded enough to explore the tenets of philosophy that had made such an impact on my religious and spiritual decisions.
Two years ago, a full seven years after I had decided I was agnostic, my husband decided that he too was done with Mormonism. He had done enough studying on his own, with next to no guidance or influence from me, to realize that Mormonism was not what it purported to be. Last year we discussed with our children our decision to have our names removed from the church. They wanted to have theirs removed as well so we sent in resignation request letters, as a family, to the church headquarters. Our decision to completely remove our names from the church was two-fold: my oldest son was nearing missionary age and I wanted to let my family know he was not going on a mission because we were out of the church (and not because he was a slacker); and I wanted my extended family to know we had left in the event I had siblings or nieces or nephews who were quietly questioning. I wanted them to know they were not alone.
I consider myself lucky. I have been able to pass through the perilous minefield of leaving Mormonism with my friends and my family intact. I have my own faith-promoting story now. I decided that my heart was good and worthy of following. Not evil. Not unenlightened. Not in need of being fixed. My blend of spirituality has not evolved much since that fateful philosophy class at BYU. Whenever I take spirituality tests, I score highest in Unitarian Universalism, followed closely by Buddhism, secular Humanism, and Taoism. I want my children and any future generations of children to be aware that I am a pioneer. I followed my heart in such a way that required bravery and strength on my part. I want them to know that it is okay—perhaps even essential—to begin their own quest for personal spiritual truths. Genuine spiritual quests are a journey inward. And strength is both found and expressed in living a life consistent with the inner truths one discovers on that inward journey
"Mormon culture is a combination of well-intentioned naïveté, the Stepford Wives, and the Holy Inquisition." ~Dr.Todd Ormsbee