Here’s another exMo lit book review I’m trying to preserve. This one is about a former Mormon BYU professor who leaves the LDS religion and becomes a Christian. It was originally written November 25, 2013 and appears here “as/is”.
If you’ve read many of my book reviews, you may know that I often read what I refer to as “exmo lit”– that is, books written by people who are former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). I became interested in exMormons because my husband is one. He converted to Mormonism with his ex wife, then left the faith a few years after they divorced. Watching the aftermath of that decision has led me to discover a couple of online exMormon communities. I’ve made new friends, many of whom are very interesting and intelligent people and I’ve read lots of books about the “exmo experience”. Of course I’d want to read Lynn K. Wilder’s 2013 book, Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Found Our Way Out of the Mormon Church. I downloaded it to Kindle and finished it over several hours in one sitting.
Who is Lynn K. Wilder and why did she write a book about qutting Mormonism?
Dr. Lynn K. Wilder is currently an associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she teaches courses in education. Prior to her work at Florida Gulf Coast University, Dr. Wilder taught at Mormon owned Brigham Young University and was on track to become a full professor. She and her husband were raised as mainstream Protestants, then converted to Mormonism in 1977. They raised their three sons and daughter in the faith, first in Indiana, then later in Utah, when Wilder was hired to teach at BYU.
In her book, Unveiling Grace, Wilder explains what about Mormonism attracted her husband and her to the faith. Much of it seemed to have to do with coincidental “miracles” that coincided with good and bad events in the Wilders’ lives. Dr. Wilder was a teacher who worked with kids with special educational needs. But she longed for a family. It was challenging for her to sustain a pregnancy; she had at least a half dozen miscarriages at around sixteen weeks before her first two sons, Josh and Matt, were born. Her next son, Micah, and daughter, Katie, rounded out the family. Having the children was difficult and she relied a lot on prayer and good works through the LDS church to win favor with God… or at least that’s what I got from her story. She explains that for thirty years, she attributed her eventual success to Mormonism instead of traditional biblical Christianity.
It was her son, Micah, who facilitated her family’s exit from Mormonism. Micah was always a very devout Mormon and had dutifully applied for a mission when he was about to turn nineteen. He was originally supposed to go to Mexico City, but a medical emergency during his training necessitated a change to Orlando, Florida. While he was in Florida, Micah and his missionary companion tried to convert a black Baptist preacher, who apparently convinced them that Mormonism is a false religion. Micah got in touch with his mother just as he was exiting his mission and very soon, the rest of the family followed Micah out of the church. The entire family, apparently to include the young women who married Wilder’s sons, are now “biblical” Christians.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Unveiling Grace. I am not a particularly religious person myself, so I wasn’t reading this book looking for a faith promoting story. Wilder, like my husband, is an exMormon. Those who have never been exposed to Mormonism may not know that it’s usually a very big deal to leave the LDS church if you have other family members in the faith. Wilder is very fortunate that she and her husband were converts and everyone in their family was willing to leave the church. I know of many people who have lost contact with siblings, parents, and children because they quit Mormonism. My husband is, in part, estranged from his daughters because he’s not LDS anymore. The LDS church can make a very effective alienation tool, since it requires everyone to pray, pay, and obey before everyone gets the promised blessings.
Wilder does a good job illustrating some of the less appealing aspects of being LDS, especially for women who have career aspirations. She writes that she was expected to be involved in several time consuming “callings” within the church. Perhaps the most demanding role she was pressured to take on was presidency of the Relief Society. Every LDS woman over the age of 18 is a member of the Relief Society; it meets every week on Sunday and one evening per week. Being president of the ward’s (congregation’s) Relief Society was a very large commitment and required Wilder to be an example to other women in the church. But Wilder had decided she wanted to pursue her doctorate and, besides taking care of her four kids, was also working outside of the home. Wilder explains that the church’s prophet at the time had asked all the women to quit working outside of the home and be homemakers, tending to their husbands and children. She also explains that her decision to work went against the prophet’s words, which put her at odds with local church leaders.
Wilder repeatedly writes about how prestigious and excellent Brigham Young University is, and yet it’s a university that almost lost its accreditation in its School of Education because there were too few professors working there who had gotten their degrees at universities other than BYU. Another complaint was that the student population was not diverse enough. When BYU did start taking students who were more diverse, some of whom also had disabilities, Wilder claims that some professors openly wondered how some of the students had gotten into “their” program. It seems to me that any university that has that much “group think” and lacks diversity can’t be a real beacon for higher thinking.
Years later, when Wilder was a professor at BYU and determined that she no longer wanted to be LDS, she also realized that if anyone in the church found out about her disbelief, she would lose her job. Her work at BYU required that she be an active Mormon who believed in and promoted “the gospel”. The fact that Wilder’s disbelief in Mormonism seriously threatened her job at BYU is a sign that the school is not as excellent as it is purported to be. If anyone should be at liberty to think freely, it’s a college professor. And yet apparently most professors at Brigham Young University (the ones who are LDS, anyway) are not allowed the freedom to think freely about religion and other subjects. Deviating from Mormonism means losing their livelihood, which to me, seems counterproductive in a university environment.
Dr. Wilder was one of the few education professors at BYU who had been entirely educated at other universities and was also a convert. She writes that she encountered some discrimination in Utah for being a convert and having a career. One would think that Wilder would be more logical, given that she was educated at secular universities outside of Mormonism. However, Wilder seems to rely a lot of feelings and “signs” when she is presented with a dilemma. She presents several instances in which opportunities seemed to “fall out of the sky” and claims that they were signs from Jesus rather than recognizing that they could have come from something else.
Wilder writes one story about wearing a cross and having to hide it under her clothes, since Mormons don’t revere the cross the way other faiths do. She lost the cross while working and went to the lost and found at BYU, where the girl working the desk told her that they wouldn’t have any crosses there. It turned out several had been turned in, though none were the professor’s. As she was walking away, the lost and found girl ran after her and said someone had just turned in Wilder’s cross. Wilder took that as a “sign” from God rather, than considering that she might just have been lucky.
Dr. Wilder writes about how her sons had each gone on missions– all three originally were assigned missions abroad, which supposedly means that they were “more impressive” than other Mormon missionaries. Let me state for the record that I don’t know if the missionaries who go to foreign countries really are better or more impressive than other missionaries are. Wilder mentions that common belief in her book, that those who are called to foreign countries, especially in Europe, are somehow more prestigious than those who end up in the United States. She is obviously very proud that her sons got called to Russia, Denmark, and Mexico (then Florida, but only because of the medical issues). And yet, it doesn’t seem to occur to her that all three young men, who each served “honorably”, were out spreading what she later calls a “false religion” to innocent people around the world. In fact, her youngest son, was actually led astray by someone he was trying to lead to Mormonism. I’m not disappointed that Wilder’s son’s beliefs changed, though I don’t think that his mother is as “recovered” from Mormonism as she seems to think she is.
This book also rambles a bit, which makes it hard to follow sometimes. Wilder starts in the recent present, introducing readers to her family and explaining how her sons were all different, yet amazing people. In 2006, her third son, Micah, had an epiphany that changed everything. Then she abruptly goes back to 1977, when she and her husband decided to convert. From there, the book skips around somewhat, rather than progressing in one direction. If you aren’t paying close attention, it’s easy to get lost.
I think this may be good reading for Christians, especially those who are former Mormons. Many parts of Unveiling Grace are interesting and it’s basically a well-written book. Wilder does bring up several aspects of Mormonism which can be problematic for those who can’t entirely buy into the belief system.
On the other hand, I get the feeling that Wilder still has some recovery to do. Some of her faith promoting thoughts seem to be the same kind of thoughts Mormons have, only rebranded as evangelical Christian. She seems to rely a lot on feelings and “signs” as to what’s right, rather than rational thinking and logic. Given that she’s a college professor, I find that a little troubling.
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