Part three Beyond Mormonism: An Elder's Story (abridged)


Margaretta and I had begun to date regularly. My plan to avoid entangling relationships was failing. I was falling in love with her. One day I asked her If she would like to go with me to visit a family Lee and I had met in Mexico.

We crossed the border at Mexicali and drove a hundred miles down the Baja to San Felipe on the Gulf of California. There my friend Antonio earned his living as part of a cooperative that fished for shark. We spent the weekend helping him-riding far out into the Gulf to tend the nets, pulling sharks into the old 15-foot whaleboat, getting sick from the blood and the rolling of the boat in the swells of the warm Gulf water.

In the early evening twilight we walked the beach. Margaretta knew what I was going to ask her.

"I want to take you to the temple."

"I know."

"Well, what do you think?"

"I don't know."

"Yes, but what do you think?"

"I need some time. It's a big decision."

"Would it help if I told you I can't live without you?"

"I'm afraid not."

"O. K., then I won't say that." But before out trip to Mexico was over, she told me she would marry me. We made plans for an October wedding.


Margaretta looked lovely in her long, white gown. We knelt on satin pillows across a white altar. Mirrors on both walls reflected and re-reflected our images into infinity, representing that our marriage was "for time and all eternity."

I felt happier than I ever thought possible.

As a young married man, I moved to an even deeper level of commitment to the Church. The bishop released me from my mission, saying it would not be right for me to spend so much time away from home as a newlywed.

Soon Margaretta was pregnant. Within a year our baby daughter, Erin, was born. I was overwhelmed by the round, pink, trusting bundle, gazing confidently into the eyes of her father, EIder Spencer, Mormon leader, True Believer.



IN 1972 the nation was healing from the wounds of Vietnam and Richard Nixon was about to landslide into his second term. I was working a regular schedule and at last we had enough money. Soon we bought a home. I taught Erin to ride her bike. I played chess one night each week. And both Margaretta and I became active in the Church.

Inwardly, however, I was not satisfied. A nagging sense of emptiness haunted the nooks and crannies of my mind. What was missing?

I knew it was time to search for roots. The summer of 1972 Margaretta and I decided to include in our vacation some of the historic sites of Mormonism. We traveled to Illinois and Missouri where much early Mormon history had been enacted.

We visited Nauvoo, Illinois, the community on the banks of the Mississippi River that Joseph Smith had, by 1844, built into the largest, most thriving city in the state. Joseph had been mayor of Nauvoo as well as commanding general of the militia. He built a beautiful mansion called Nauvoo House. We visited the grave sites of Joseph and his brother Hyrum, who had been murdered by an angry mob while being held in jail in nearby Carthage, Illinois.

One hot July afternoon we pulled our little travel trailer into Independence, Missouri. Latter-day Saints are convinced that Jackson County, Missouri, is the actual site of the Garden of Eden, and that Independence carries strategic importance in God's plan for the Second Coming of Christ.

Margaretta, Erin and I walked through a large, green, vacant field near downtown Independence, selected by Joseph Smith as the site for a large temple. This temple was to mark the point to which Jesus Christ would return at his second advent. Joseph had even laid a cor-nerstone for that temple. Faithful Mormons expect that the eventual construction of this temple will signal the imminent return of Christ.

At an adjacent intersection, on three comers, stood buildings representing three different Mormon organizations, each claiming to be the one True Church.

Across the street stood my own Church's modern visitors' center, the most beautiful and impressive of the structures.

Alongside stood the World Headquarters for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Reorganites have about 250,000 members and claim to be the legal continuation of the church Joseph Smith established.

The Reorganites say that Joseph, in the presence of many witnesses, and upon numerous occasions, designated his son, Joseph Smith III, to succeed him as prophet, seer, and Revelator of the Mormon Church. Court actions in Ohio in 1880 and in Missouri in 1894 had upheld their legal claim to succession.

Across the street from the Reorganized World Headquarters, and at the end of the vacant field, stood a small, unassuming building-the visitors' center of the Church of Christ (Temple Lot). An elderly man inside told Margaretta and me that they had fewer than 3,000 members meeting in about 30 congregations, led by 12 apostles. The most interesting thing about this organization, we learned, is that they own the property upon which the great temple is to be built.

All three groups with holdings in Independence recognize that the temple must be built on the spot dedicated by Joseph Smith. So a stalemate exists: Jesus cannot return until the temple is built; the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) is in no position financially to build the temple; and the two organizations that could build it cannot because they don't have access to the property. Since all three groups claim each of the other groups is apostate, there is little hope they will work out an agreement.

The trip posed a new and interesting question: Where did all these other Mormons fit in? They, like the Utah Church, read and accepted the Book of Mormon. They, too, believed that God had restored his Church through the prophet Joseph Smith. And they, too, believed in the restored priesthood-the power to act for God. So where had they gone wrong?

I had been taught that, after Joseph Smith was killed, the Church had gathered in Nauvoo for a great conference and that "the mantle of the Prophet fell upon Brigham Young." Utah Church historians said that Brigham's face had taken on the appearance of Joseph and that he had begun to speak in Joseph's voice as he addressed the people. Apparently there had been no doubt about how God wanted to continue the Church. All the faithful followed Brigham Young to Utah.

But now I was presented with evidence to the contrary. Gradually it began to dawn on me that all four parts of a typical Mormon testimony could be recited by any one of these groups. All believed Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon was the Word of God, that they belonged to the Restored Church, and that a prophet was the head of the Church today.

So in reality, there was one main question up for discussion: Who was that prophet today? And, working backwards: Who had been the rightful successor to Joseph Smith?


I mentally set my sails to investigate the roots of the Mormon Church, determined to go to the original sources. I was not going to be satisfied with secondhand information. Then I realized I had been unwittingly prepared for this investigation from the earliest days of my association with Mormonism. One of the first purchases I had made as a new believer was a series of books called The Journal of Discourses. The 26-volume set had been on sale in a Deseret bookstore, specially priced at that time at $50.00

The Journal of Discourses was a compilation of most of the important sermons of the Church from Brigham Young's earliest days. I had seldom used the books; they had just gathered dust in my library. But I knew that much of the key to the history of the Church would be found in the sermons of the early leadership.



MARGARETTA and I took our seats in the auditorium. We had just finished attending the 100-member gospel doctrine class I taught. Now we were assembling for Fast and Testimony Meeting, which took place the first Sunday of every month immediately after Sunday school. This Sunday in November 1973 would mark a turning point in my life, though I would not recognize it as such for some time.

To commence the testimonies, an elderly farmer rose to his feet a few rows in front of us. He began to tell how much his affiliation with the Church meant. During the fall harvest, he said, while he had been working 16 hours a day getting in the wheat, his faithful wife had driven out to the combine every night with a hot meal for him. He thanked God he belonged to a Church that taught its people the meaning of proper family relationships.

I looked around the auditorium at nearly 300 people. Most were under 45 and most had several young children, though here and there I spotted a gray head. I knew that all these people were absolutely sincere in what they said and believed. They were genuinely happy to be part of an organization which, in a world of uncertainty and violence, promoted the virtues of decency, honesty, and family togetherness.

The problem was, I could no longer take at face value the vague, emotive statements made by True Believers. Since I had made the agonizing decision to unwrap my mind and look at the Church objectively, I was discovering with sinking heart that there were serious, foundation-level problems in Mormonism. In my investigation, I had chosen to look not only at the roots of Mormonism, but also at the fruits.

Though we prided ourselves in our religious devotion to our families, for example, I had personally witnessed the alienation and emptiness in Mormon family life. For ten years I had tasted the banality and shallow provincialism of the Mormon Church-state. And as I looked objectively at the facts, I was forced to admit that "Happy Valley in the Rockies" was not happy at all. As I listened to men and women sing the praises of Mormonism, I knew the reality behind it: the Church failed to produce lasting marriages and healthy homes.

Another stood to testify-a friend, not close, but someone I talked to from time to time. I knew that he had serious problems at home. He had confided, much to my surprise, that he and his wife nearly had divorced at the beginning of the school year.

What he said did not differ much from what any of the others had said. He began with the customary "My friends, I know that Jesus is the Christ"

When he said that, the same thing happened to me that happened regularly in testimony meetings: the hair stood up on my arms and on the back of my neck. Sometimes I even began to weep at certain statements about Jesus Christ. This time, something clicked: I thought, perhaps there was a bottom-line Something that was real in my experience. Perhaps, in fact, that Something might be Someone. As the points of faith in the Church had begun to crumble away during the past few months, a form was emerging out of the wreckage with increasing clarity. That form was the Person of Jesus.

That morning in Fast and Testimony meeting marked the beginning of a recurring experience I began to call my "tapestry" experience. As I continued my search, whether reading or in a meeting or simply meditating on my spiritual condition, it seemed that I was continually drawn back to think about my relationship with Jesus Christ. He seemed to represent the focus of everything that bore any real importance.

As a Mormon, of course, I recognized Him as the Savior. The name of Jesus Christ was part of the name of my Church, written on the exterior of every Mormon building. We closed each prayer, "In the name of thy beloved Son, Amen." But I was beginning to get the impression that though I talked a lot about Jesus, He was theoretical. I realized that if I were to make any sense out of my religious life, I would have to make contact with Jesus Christ.