It is said, “He who knows only one religion, knows none.” In other words, there are things about your own religion you will learn and understand only by studying someone else’s religion. Exit narratives throw an extra twist into the mix. There are things about leaving your own religion that you will learn only by studying how people leave someone else’s religion. This week’s offering is Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life (Viking, 2019) by Amber Scorah. This is the gripping account of a fully active Jehovah’s Witness who grows up in Vancouver, BC, goes to China as a JW missionary (under the radar, of course), gets a job, recruits “Bible students,” then exits her church, exits her marriage, and moves to New York. Highly recommended for Mormon readers.
What do Mormons think of JWs or TJs? (If you went on a foreign mission, you probably still think of them as “TJs” or Temoins de Jehovah.) Mainstream Christians kind of lump Mormons, TJs, Christian Scientists, and Seventh-Day Adventists into the category “strangely appealing American-born churches” or simply “cults.” Mormons see TJs as direct competitors (who else goes door to door looking for converts?). Mormons also see TJs as rather quaint and strange, with bizarre beliefs and practices, whereas Mormons are a lot more normal. Really?
Who Is Stranger, Mormons or TJs?
You probably think refusing blood transfusions is a strange belief. Stranger than thinking God doesn’t want you to drink coffee? But declining blood transfusions means some TJs, even some TJ children whose parents refuse to allow a blood transfusion for their child, will die as a consequence. That seems needlessly harsh compared to passing on a morning cup of brew. But the ongoing hardline position and rhetoric that Mormons deploy against gays leads to depression, ostracism, and suicide for a small number of gay LDS youth. Leaders and mainstream Mormons say that’s just the price we pay for following God’s truth, and in the end we will be blessed, etc. Guess what? TJs say the same thing about the collateral damage from abstaining from blood transfusions. We’re both in denial. We’re both about equally strange.
How about spirits and resurrection? TJs believe and teach that at death there is no continuous spirit existence. Instead, your spirit goes dormant or sleeps until the resurrection, when good TJs get reformed and reanimated bodies and go to paradise (the rest of us go somewhere else). Mormons are at the exact other end of the spectrum, not only asserting the continued existence of spirits after death in temporary spirit prison/paradise, but extending spirit life backwards into a spirit Pre-existence. Just like TJs, Mormons believe good Mormons eventually get reanimated physical bodies and go to paradise (everyone else goes somewhere else). Both TJ and Mormon spirit beliefs are seen as heresy by orthodox Christians. Both sets of beliefs appeal to a few obscure Bible passages. In the eyes of mainstream Christians, both sets of beliefs are equally strange.
Formal and Informal Shunning
If you read the book, you will see that exiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses is as difficult and traumatic for a TJ as leaving the LDS Church is for a Mormon. Just another disturbing parallel. They even use the term “disfellowshipping.” If you want all the details, you can read a good summary of the whole apparatus at the Wikipedia article “Jehovah’s Witnesses and congregational discipline.” Let’s just talk about shunning.
A TJ is supposed to have no contact with a disfellowshipped member. This includes family members, even when living in the same house. Reading the book shows there are exceptions to the practice, say to encourage the disfellowshipped member to see the light, repent, and return to the fold. And there is local variation in how that discipline is administered, just like what Mormons call bishop roulette. But, on the whole, TJs take very seriously their duty to shun a disfellowshipped member, many of whom do at some point return to the fold and are warmly welcomed when they do.
Do Mormons shun excommunicated members, even family members? Well it certainly happens, although it is an informal practice that varies by family and by particular location. Go and Google “mormon shunning” and you’ll get plenty of examples. The Church denies there is a formal shunning doctrine and denies encouraging the shunning of disfellowshipped or excommunicated members. Practically, it seems like every former Mormon feels shunned and can give a variety of examples. What is tougher to deal with, formal shunning where you can at least say “well, they’re just doing what they are told,” or informal shunning where you know they aren’t *required* to shun you, they just choose to do so nonetheless.
A Bit More About the Book
Of the various non-LDS book-length exit narratives I have read, this was the most engrossing account. I suspect any LDS reader will have the same reaction, no doubt because change a few terms here and there and it could easily be “Leaving the Mormons: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life.” You, a Mormon, can at least read and identify with this exit narrative without the knee-jerk emotional response of either defending or criticizing the Church that accompanies reading an LDS exit narrative.
At one point in the book, the author makes a list of everything she lost: family members, all of her friends, her faith, her certainty, her purpose in life, and so forth. The list of things she still had was pitifully short: personal possessions, the people at work who would at least still talk to her, people who listened to her podcast, and an online friend in California. And her marriage ended. That was just a foregone conclusion. It’s like marriage was just another Church (I mean TJ) program that should be jettisoned along with other practices and programs upon exit. My impression is a mixed-faith TJ marriage is tougher than a mixed-faith Mormon marriage. I’m not speaking from experience, just comparing the accounts I read by Mormons in that situation with what I read in the book.
I’ve had the same contact you have had with TJs knocking at your door. For me, these have been brief but pleasant exchanges, but I don’t really encourage a long conversation. I’m always nice to them, having knocked on a few thousand doors myself as an LDS missionary. I did visit and speak with a couple of elders (local leadership) at my local TJ congregation in connection with a case a few years ago. Nice parking lot. Nice people. We have more windows and better music. They do more bible study and fewer travelogues and thankimonies. I have a couple of books they gave me still on my shelf, two volumes of “Questions that Young People Ask: Answers that Work.” Frankly, they are about five times better than LDS material directed to the youth.
Have you read the book? Have you had TJ friends or neighbors? What do you think of formal versus informal shunning? Does it bother you to think that Mormons are, objectively, just as strange or normal as TJs?