Carrying U.S. flags and signs boasting "Finally ExMormon," "Research the church" and "Transcend Mormonism," a crowd hiked Ensign Peak on Saturday and chanted "freedom" to the valley below.
Minutes earlier, many of them had signed a "Declaration of Independence from Mormonism" and addressed formal "letters of resignation" to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to remove their names from LDS records.
"Life is so much better. There is peace and so much happiness" after leaving, John Larsen, co-organizer of the mass resignation event, promised the crowd of about 120 before the hike.
The group chose Ensign Peak to mirror what LDS Church leader Brigham Young did in 1847 when, days after the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, he hiked the hill to plot out the city.
The goal of Saturday’s trek wasn’t to "conquer" the church, Larsen said, but "to say we’re here."
For some like Michelle Hobbs, deciding to resign was not easy. The 40-year-old Salt Lake City resident said she had been "very faithful" her whole life. As she was doing research on the church to help her questioning family members, she said she decided the timeline of events laid out in the Book of Mormon didn’t make sense.
Her voice cracking, she described the revelation as "very heartbreaking."
"It’s just all man-made. It’s very disappointing."
Alicia Pierson, 27, did not struggle to leave the church. The Salt Lake City woman said she never agreed with the teachings as a child. When she came out as gay seven years ago, she knew she couldn’t remain. While the LDS Church says gays and lesbians can remain in the church, they cannot act upon their "inclinations" or risk church discipline.
"Why would I want to be part of an organization that suppresses who I truly want to be?" Pierson asked after submitting her resignation letter. While leaving is easy for some, Zilpha Larsen said she and her husband, John, organized the event to help those who struggle to celebrate their decision. She sent her resignation letter Friday, though she stopped attending church seven years ago after going on a "treasure hunt" to learn more about Mormon founder Joseph Smith.
"I could see clearly how the church had suppressed information from us as members. With what I learned, it [the church] wasn’t true," said Larsen, who hosts a podcast called "Mormon Expression."
In a statement, LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy said: "We love and respect every member of the church. People make their own decisions about the direction they will follow in life. While there are very few who take this action, it is sad to see someone choose to leave. We wish them well."
To remove their names from membership rolls, Mormons must write letters and are informed of the "consequences" by their bishop, including that it cancels the effects of baptism and confirmation.
Still, the church knows it has a problem as some members encounter crises of faith while researching their religion’s past. Last year, Deseret Book published No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues to tackle some of the Mormon history and doctrine cited by people who have resigned — such as the veracity of Smith’s visions and his multiple marriages, including to women who already had husbands.
Michael Carpenter said he stopped believing in Mormonism in the 1980s after church leaders erroneously thought documents forged by Mark Hofmann could have been true. Saturday’s event — he traveled from Boise to attend — spurred him to make his distance official.
The 52-year-old, who said he had continued to serve the church for years, wore a black T-shirt asking, "What would Jesus build?" referring to the LDS Church’s recently opened City Creek Center mall and condos in downtown Salt Lake City.
"A soup kitchen might have been better than a mall," he said.
Joseph Baxter, a 24-year-old who also traveled from Idaho, said he wants people to know that ex-Mormons don’t leave so they can drink alcohol or smoke — two activities barred by the church. "It’s not that we’re wicked. We just see the church as a dysfunctional, manipulative organization. We don’t want to be a part of it anymore."
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