Brian Johnston was desperate. The pressures of raising six children on one accountant salary were crushing, but worse was that he was starting to doubt the entire reason he and his wife had created a big family with a stay-at-home mom in the first place: Their Mormonism.
Johnston's wife had already left the faith after deciding it was a dangerous cult. He didn't want to take it that far, but who could he confide in? Raised in a devout home, Johnston remembered rebellious Mormons who lost the right to be Sunday school teachers or to come to community events such as weddings, or who simply felt shunned at church.
His entire life seemed to hang by a thread.
Then late one night in 2007, while sitting at his computer in his suburban Atlanta, Johnston came across an article by a Mormon academic in Arizona whose wife had also left the church. Johnston, a burly former Army technician, e-mailed the man explaining his situation. I have no idea what to do, he said. There's no one I can talk to.
A response came back almost immediately: Hang in there. I know what you're going through.
Johnston's blue eyes widen when he recalls the relief he felt. "Yes! That's what I thought. I knew, there must be more, but how do I find them?"
Five years later, Johnston, who now lives in Frederick, has become a leader in an online Mormon world full of people just like himself — questioners. And in an extremely orthodox faith, that's not a simple place to be. Even as the country considers electing a Mormon president, this is a faith still strongly shaped by prejudice, where questions are met first with a hand up to protect the face.
The Web has become such an important part of Mormon life that Mormons call their social networks the "bloggernacle" — named after the Tabernacle, a famous gathering place in downtown Salt Lake City. With names such as feministmormonhousewives.org, newordermormon.org and Johnston's stayLDS.com, the sites devoted to questioning provide a safe place for Mormons to grapple with topics such as polygamy, institutional racism and a scripture that teaches that Jesus visited the American continent.
Church officials say the growth of the sites does not point to a corresponding growth in the number of Mormons leaving the church, whose membership has burgeoned to more than 6 million inAmerica. "Those leaving the church are a fraction of 1 percent each year and it is a trend that is decreasing rather than increasing," said Michael Purdy, a church spokesman.
However, said another spokesman, Michael Otterson,"anti-church groups . . . have become more aggressive and outspoken." And the church has acknowledged on other occasions that it has had difficulty retaining young Mormons, in particular, and has generally lagged in dealing with doubt — perhaps the largest challenge not only to Mormonism, but also to modern organized religion as a whole.
The official church historian Marlin Jensen made news last year when he said that the loss of members in the last five or 10 years has been greater than perhaps any period since Mormonism was founded in 1830.
Society's increasing secularism plays a role, Jensen said, but also the Mormon church's failure to openly address questions about church history and doctrine.
'Coming out of adolescence'
To people like Johnston and the visitors to his Web site, this is a period of potential blossoming for Mormonism — a time like that leading up to the Protestant Reformation or the founding of Reform Judaism, times when the questioning of agitators changed accepted ideas about their religions.
Questioning Mormons are "coming out of that adolescence, forming your own view. As some point we have to go from being children of God to adults of God," said Ray DeGraw, a Mormon college administrator who lives in Nevada and helps Johnston answer posts.
Much of that evolution is taking place on the Internet. Every day when Johnston logs into stayLDS.com, a site for people in spiritual crisis, he says he feels he is saving his faith by encouraging the questioning of its adherents.
A regular who refers to himself as "Doug" writes that church leaders' arm's-length discussion of polygamy makes him feel wary of everything. "I think it's valid to ask the question if one can completely trust an organization that historically says one thing and does another."
For Mormons grappling with doubts, the potential spiritual consequences can appear frightening. Mormon scripture teaches that the lowest status in the afterlife, called Outer Darkness, is reserved for people who know Jesus and then become unbelievers. At times, the church can appear to respond harshly as well, tales about which surface on stayLDS.com, which receives about 700 visitors a day.
"Candlelight25" writes about his painful decision to leave his mission overseas rather than spread Mormon beliefs against homosexuality. When he returned home he says he faced a disciplinary hearing, for saying he didn't believe church teachings and for having unrepented-for sex with a man. "If any of you have any advice for me or any comments that may help me now, I would appreciate them more than ever," he writes.
"Cwald" from Oregon comes every day. He said he was initially bothered by the church's leadership and funding of Proposition 8, a measure to ban same-sex marriage in California, but his concern mounted as he found more information on the Internet and people with whom he could vent. "I didn't think I could talk vocally at church, but I didn't even try until after I went online," he said. That's when his world unraveled.
When relatives found out four years ago that he was venting about the church online, they called his church and he was removed from leadership, he says, for expressing doubts about the literal truth of Mormonism. He lost his "temple recommend" — a credential showing you are a good, orthodox Mormon, which means he can't attend weddings and baptisms for the dead, even of relatives or close friends, because those rituals happen in the temple and only Mormons in good standing are allowed in.
He sounds simultaneously heartbroken and seething with anger. "I'm pretty well a second-rate Mormon; I kind of sit in the back," he said.
Terryl Givens, a religion professor at the University of Richmond, a Mormon, said online questioners overstate the danger of raising their views. While the culture is orthodox and has had a "fortress mentality," church leaders have in the past few years started to make public contentious historical documents. The church a couple years ago published an account of a brutal massacre in Utah in 1857 that involved local Mormon leaders. It is also publishing more historical details of Joseph Smith, including that there were multiple, sometimes conflicting accounts of his first vision of God, a core event in Mormon theology.
Johnston is all for the church's efforts toward providing answers to Mormons who question the faith. He counts himself among them.
He says he often feels like an outsider at church. On Mother's Day, with one testimony after another about children and family, his wife and six children are no longer in the pews with him since his wife abandoned the church because she felt oppressed as a Mormon woman.
Few people in his congregation, he believes, know of his work online. They don't know he thinks the Book of Mormon isn't true. Or that getting married young and having children may be a mistake. Or that he doubts that Heavenly Father will come and make things all better if only you believe.
In Bible study class after the service, he listens as one person after another agrees that people who have faith will get forgiveness and joy. Johnston lets his skepticism peek out.
"If you do this, will you always be filled with joy?" A few people giggle, praise the question. The class agrees: If you have faith, your life may not be easy, but you'll be filled with the joy of certitude.
Johnston doesn't have certitude. But he does believe he's Mormon.
"I've put my whole life into this — I did a mission, I taught Sunday school, my family is Mormon, you're going to tell me I'm not part of this? Just watch me."