By Eric T. Hansen

I met death for the first time in Krefeld.

Krefeld is a beautiful, clean little German town between the Rhine and the Dutch border. I had come here on a two-year mission for the Mormon church, in which I was raised and in which I believed. My job was to knock on doors and hand out pamphlets to strangers in an attempt to get them interested in the faith I loved so much that I was willing to sacrifice two years of my life in a foreign country to share it with the world. It was the early eighties, I was nineteen and this was the first time I had been away from home for an extended period.

The man who taught me about death seemed like a nice guy at first. Young, thin, well groomed, intelligent, probing eyes. We met on the street. My missionary companion and I offered him a pamphlet about the church and we talked a while. He said he wanted to hear more. He invited us to come to his apartment a week later. He said he wanted to read up a little first.

When we arrived, he was prepared. He sat us down on his couch and started talking. We had expected to do the talking. He had spent the week reading up on everything he could find about the Mormons, and for two hours he explained to us in excruciating detail everything that was wrong with Mormonism. He started with Joseph Smith, the 19th century church founder, and his many sins, mainly his multiple wives, some of whom were underage when he used his authority as self-proclaimed “prophet” to pressure them into marrying him; some were already wives of other men at the time. He went on to the bloody Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormons slaughtered over a hundred unarmed men, women and children. He explained why the Book of Mormon was a fraud, how the rites of the Mormon temple were stolen from the Freemasons, and more. Much more.

For the first half hour or so, I took it. When you believe in something like I believed in the church, you can accept a lot of contradictions without wincing. Think of the Catholics and the virgin birth. Catholics aren’t dumb. They know there is no such thing, but it doesn’t contradict their faith because faith stands above mundane biology.

For me, it was the theory of evolution. I was raised to take science seriously. It was never questioned in our household. For many people, evolution contradicts God, for us it didn’t. On the contrary, we often speculated on how God must have used evolution to create life on earth. Surely, God too has to utilize the laws of nature to do what he does. It was easy for me to get past the theory of evolution and still believe.

It should have been easy for me to get past what this man was telling us, too. Okay, Joseph Smith lied about having more than one wife. So what? Mormons killed innocent civilians in the heat and confusion of the mid-19th century Mormon Wars. Do you know how many deaths the Catholic Church directly and indirectly caused in its history? These are horrible things, but they don’t disprove faith.

What I couldn’t get past was the sheer volume of his arguments. And this man presented them in bulk. It was endless. He made the church seem like it was invented by the Devil himself. After an hour or so of fighting off his attack, we just sat there, dumbfounded, and took the battering he gave us. Nothing in the world was as bad as the Mormons. By comparison, the witch hunts, the Inquisition and the Crusades were almost positive. After all, the Inquisition and the Crusades had ended, but the perpetration of the delusions upon millions of people all over the world by the Mormon church continues to this day.

The blast of hatred was too strong; the doubts he awoke in us came too fast and were too many for us to beat back. In the end, he was victorious.

I remember shaking his hand, thanking him politely for the pleasant talk, assuring him that there are answers to all the questions he posed, walking out of that apartment, down the street and crossing a large parking lot behind the open-roofed shopping mall the Germans call a Fussgängerzone, or “pedestrian zone.”

That’s when it hit me. I had to stop. I felt weak. For the first time in my life I seriously considered the idea that the church might be a fraud: If even half — no, if even a third of his claims were true, how could I stay in this church? But it was even more than that: If this church was not true in all it pretended to be, then no church was true, no religion was true, and ultimately God did not exist.

I understood the final consequence immediately: If my faith was a lie, then death was not a step into a new stage of life, but a step into nothingness.

In that moment the parking lot seemed to open up beneath me into a bottomless pit, and I saw what I had never seen before: Without the church, without God, without faith, death is an endless black hole from which nothing can escape, not life, not love, not humanity, not meaning. And certainly not I.

I have never felt so alone, before or since. I have never felt so vulnerable. I have never been so overwhelmed by raw meaninglessness. The sun seemed to turn black in the sky, it felt like I was walking home in darkness in the middle of the day.

I never did recover, not fully.

In a few days I got back to the point where I could function. I was eventually able to recognize that the young man had wanted to hurt us. He simply loved destroying things that were important to other people. There is a part of our culture that celebrates what Germans call Rechthaberei — being right. If you can prove someone else wrong, you are superior. That’s all he was doing.

But I had already seen the black pit. I could not unsee it. That vision would never go away. I still see it today.

I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end of my faith.

 

I count three great prayers in my life: Three major prayers I still think about today, three prayers that shaped who I am.

My first great prayer took place when I was eight, my last when I was thirty. In the first two, I expected an answer from God and received one. In the last prayer, I did not.

I remember that first prayer well.

It was in Hawaii, where I had moved with my parents and five brothers and sisters two years before. We were Mormons all. It was normal for me to go to church every Sunday, I had never thought twice about it, but the closer my eighth birthday approached, the more I realized that baptism was a serious decision.

Mormons don’t baptize infants. Children are baptized at eight, earliest. Again and again my parents and my Sunday school teacher made it clear to me that I would soon be expected to decide whether to get baptized or not. They stressed that it was my decision and mine alone. Especially my father made sure I understood that.

I didn’t know what to do. I thought about it day and night. There must have been a right answer, but there was no one there to give it to me. For the first time in my life, I was left alone with a major decision. That doesn’t often happen to an eight-year old.

So I did what all Mormons do when they face an important decision they cannot make alone: I prayed.

On several nights, one after the other, alone in my room, I kneeled at my bedside and asked God if the church was true.

When Mormons talk about the church being “true,” they are saying a lot: that God himself created the church and leads it today, that he accepts no other church, that he appeared to Joseph Smith and gave him the “golden plates;” that he speaks to the prophets — the leaders of the church — and more. All that is embodied in the typically Mormon sentence, “I know the church is true.”

But they don’t arrive at that conviction by arguing the pros and cons of Mormonism. They get there by putting the question to God in prayer, and by expecting God to answer. I wasn’t asking God whether I should join the church or not — that was not the question. I wanted to know if it was true. If it was, I had no choice but to be baptized. If not, I was free to do as I wished.

After two or three nights of feeling vaguely silly, I knew the only way I would get an answer was to force God to give me one. That night I stayed on my knees until the answer came.

It took a while. Probably not an hour, but close. At some point I noticed something. It was just there, as if it had always been there, but I’d only just now noticed it: a warm glow. My heart beat faster. At first I wondered: Is this God talking to me? Then that melodrama faded and was replaced with a firm confidence. It was a feeling, much like love is a feeling. It’s just there, deep inside you, you can’t do anything about it. I had no choice: I believed that the church was true whether I liked it or not.

I didn’t tell my parents. They didn’t ask.

Next Sunday after services I had an appointment with the bishop — the head of our little “ward” or congregation in Kailua, where we lived, a nice family father everyone liked. He asked me to step into his office. I sat before his desk while my parents waited outside. He explained to me what baptism meant: I would be entering into a commitment with God, a “covenant” to honor him and his son Jesus Christ, to serve and obey him, to always behave in life in a way that would please God. He explained that when I die and stand before God, he would expect more of me than of others who did not enter into this covenant. He made me understand the decision I faced now was nothing less than how I would lead my entire future life.

Then he asked if I wanted to be baptized. I said, “Yes.”

He congratulated me, we shook hands, and I stepped out of his office and into the nearly empty parking lot where my parents and my brothers and sisters were waiting in the car, and I told them my decision.

“Good,” said my father. “Now let’s go have lunch.”

The baptism itself wasn’t in Kailua, but in the “stake center,” the central church building responsible for the administration of the various other wards on the island. Early Sunday morning our parents loaded us into our best clothes and then into the station wagon, and we drove over the Pali ridge that cut the island of Oahu in half and on to Honolulu on the other side.

I can’t say what the little suit I wore looked like, I only know it was scratchy and stiff. I know I had short hair — a crew cut, as my father cut the boys hair himself, and he worked for the army.

After the church meetings, my father led me down some stairs into a basement I hadn’t known was there before and into a locker room, where we dressed in white. Then we entered a small room with a low ceiling where my mother and my brothers and sisters and a few others waited on folding chairs.

In the middle of the room a large, round basin was set into the floor. My father and I walked down the steps into the lukewarm water. It came up to my waist. He positioned me a little toward the front and stood beside me. He raised his right hand above his head as in a vow and spoke a prayer that ended with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

Then he said, “Hold your nose and bend your knees.” He laid one hand on the small of my back and with the other on my chest, he pushed me down into the water — all the way under, not a single hair was allowed to float above the surface, otherwise we’d have to repeat the process. After a worryingly long moment, he pulled me back up a baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I saw no light shining down from heaven. I heard no voices. My heart was not suddenly filled with joy. My thoughts during the baptism were mostly practical — I worried that my feet might slip out from under me and float above the surface — I’d been warned about that — or that I couldn’t hold my breath long enough. Nervous. During the baptism I was mainly nervous.

What’s burned into my memory is the ride back home from Honolulu.

My little sister and I sat in the very back of the station wagon, our knees up to our chins. I was quiet. I was thinking.

I had just made the most important decision of my life. I’m sure the bishop, in our little talk together, had even used that phrase, “the most important decision of your life.” I was aware of my entire future stretching out before me like a road. I had just chosen which road I was going to take. It was my own decision, it was my road. No one’s but mine. Suddenly, I could see all along it right up to the end.

When I tell non-Mormons today about my baptism, they act vaguely irritated. “A kid that young is not old enough to make independent decisions,” they say.

They are not entirely wrong, of course. If you get baptized in the faith of your parents when you are eight, you might imagine you’re making your own decision, but a large part of it is simply fulfilling the expectations of Mom and Dad. I thought long and hard about taking this step, but my parents knew all along what I was going to do.

But I didn’t know.

For me, it was an independent decision. And it changed the way I looked at my life. From then on, my life was mine.

If you grow up outside a church, you most likely make your first significant decision after puberty, when you decide on a profession or whether to go to college or not. Mormon children make their first life-changing decision at eight. They learn that early that the responsibility for their lives lies wholly in their own hands. When I think about Mormonism, the good and the bad, this is one of the things I admire.

Some say that the idea of the individual is a modern invention. Some even say that the individual as we think of it today is an American invention. What is certainly true is that the idea of the individual has a special place in the American mentality — the individual as captain of his fate, the self-reliant human being responsible for himself and possessing the God-given right to his life according to his own will. For Mormons, this deeply American conviction is not just a vague concept, it is anchored in the theology, and Mormon kids internalize the idea from the very beginning.

On that drive back from Honolulu, as I sat in the back with my little sister and thought about my life spreading out before me, I smiled.



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