Modesty, Mormon Garments, and Owning My Reality
My Mormon faith transition, and 44 questions about garments
One year and six days ago my shelf broke.
This is Mormon speak for that moment when all of the doubts you have accumulated (and metaphorically put on a shelf) about your faith, finally give way. It is that moment when you actually allow your mind to open, just a tiny crack, and consider for a split second whether the religion that you know is true, and which you have devoted your life to, is possibly false.
Looking back now, I can see some of the build up to this moment.
There was my bewilderment at how BYU, my alma mater, bungled the honor code scandal of 2019 (as documented on Instagram @honorcodestories). There was the insanely strict dress code enforced at summer girls camp last year, which made my teenage daughter and my wife boil with frustration. I found @lifestyle.aftermormonism on Instagram and was more than a little surprised at all of the apparently happy families who had left Mormonism (but I’m sure their happiness is only temporary, right?). And then there were the changes to the Mormon temple ceremony in early 2019. I mean, the ceremony is God-given, just as it had happened in the Garden of Eden, so why would the Church change it now just to appease feminist Mormon women?
To be honest, my shelf started accumulating items long before 2019, but that’s a story for another day.
I didn’t go from 100% believing Mormon to post-Mormon overnight.
But that shelf-cracking moment did send me on a journey. Blind faith alone wasn’t going to be good enough anymore. I wanted answers. I wanted to know the why. Why do we wear garments (sacred Mormon underclothing), why are tea and coffee prohibited, why did we exclude black families from Mormon temples until 1978, why did we as a Church once practice polygamy?
Odd enough, my shelf cracking moment occurred while reading an article on modesty on the Church’s home page. I really couldn’t understand how the article, which was short and intended for teen girls, was promoting any type of healthy relationship between girls’ bodies and their own self-image.
So I started to search.
I searched for definitions of modesty. I searched for faithful Mormon articles that could articulate why modesty was so important and how it is defined. I searched online for secular definitions of modesty, trying to understand how experts and social scientists construct the definition of modesty, and why it is important for society.
What I came up with was not what I was expecting.
I quickly realized that the Mormon church has constantly moved the goal posts over the years on what is considered modest and what is not. I began to see that the idea of modesty is completely dependent upon the society, culture, and time period into which a person is born. There is no universally accepted definition of modest or immodest, even within Mormon literature. Indeed, the original Mormon design for the sacred temple undergarment covered nearly the entire body, ankle to wrist. This design was considered to be revealed by God to Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith and would never change. For Mormons of the nineteenth century, anything more revealing than ankle to wrist coverage would have been immodest.
Come the 20th century though, and the Church began making adjustments to the garment design to accommodate newer clothing styles and the wishes of the church members. Short sleeve versions were offered in the 1930’s (though not allowed to be worn in Mormon temples until the 1970's). Finally, two piece garments were also authorized in the 1970's. What would have been once considered absurdly immodest has now been allowed, with Mormon garments only covering from the knee to the shoulder cap.
So there is no one immutable standard of modesty. It’s subjective.
But what was not sitting well with me were the quotes over the years from Church leaders. Quotes which were absolute, black and white, us vs. them, unapologetically conservative and filled with shame and judgement. If a woman adopts too modern of clothing style or hair style, shows too much skin, or wears too many earrings, then she is courting disaster and encouraging evil thoughts in the minds of men and boys. She is branded a temptress, for simply wearing what she wants.
I also quickly realized, that there is near zero discussion of modesty for boys and men. All of the focus is on women and girls. And all of the messaging is shame inducing.
In my search, I found an informative blog post by a Mormon mother, who explained that the heavy emphasis on modesty and the idea that women and girls must help men control their thoughts was actually causing us as a society to hyper-sexualize our children. Other articles I found spoke to the fact that rape culture thrives when the responsibility for men’s thoughts and actions are placed solely on women and girls.
I began to be very disturbed by my own Church’s teachings on modesty. Could it be that my Church, the literal One-True-Church-on-the-Earth, and its Prophets and Apostles, have no idea what they are talking about? Are they actually pushing harmful, out-dated, and rape culture toned messages onto women and girls?
The rational answer, based on the evidence I’d found, was yes, the Church and its leaders have pushed harmful and destructive messages onto women and girls.
So if the Church and its leaders are wrong about modesty, what else might they be wrong about?
And so begins my yearlong journey of learning, self-discovery, growth, heartache, increased personal authenticity, and the metamorphosis of my soul.
I jumped into researching topics such as the origin and history of Mormon garments and the Mormon temple ceremony, the influence of Masonry on Mormonism, the black exclusion policy, polygamy, LGBTQ issues, the differing versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, religious trauma, the BITE model, and on, and on.
I found the LDS Gospel Topics Essays, which have been produced by the Church to try to explain some of these messier topics. I listened to Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling on audio book. I devoured everything I could find on Mormonism. I lost sleep. I became obsessed.
It is said that those who go through this process experience a “faith crisis”. I think it is more correct to say that the Church is experiencing a “truth crisis”. The information age has brought to our fingertips a staggering amount of information. Society can now easily access world class research without going to a library, communicate with groups of like minded individuals, share information on social networks, and analyze enormous quantities of data.
I don’t know how well the Mormon Church is going to survive the information age.
This age has brought about DNA studies which debunk Book of Mormon assertions on Native American origins, Egyptologists can now definitely state that the Book of Abraham papyri have nothing to do with Abraham (which the Church also admits), and super computers can search databases of digitized books and find plagiarism and similarities between two published works (as is the case with the text of the Book of Mormon and The Late War).
The information age has also brought about the Joseph Smith Papers project, and brought to light the fact that there are at least four different versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision story. Anyone can now read Joseph Smith’s first telling, and only account written by his own hand, of his First Vision.
A century ago, few people would have known about Joseph Smith’s amateur attempt to speak and decode the original language of the first man, Adam. But now that “revelation” about the pure language of Adam is on display for all to see, as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The world can now judge for itself whether Joseph Smith has prophetic translation abilities, or whether “Awmen Angls-men” is just regurgitated English and not actually the translation for the word “angels” in the pure Adamic language.
Having studied these topics now (only a fraction of which I’ve mentioned here), I cannot in good faith continue to be a believing Mormon. I cannot blindly give 10% of my income to the Church. I cannot freely give of my time and energy to an organization that professes to be perfectly true, when I can now clearly see that it is demonstrably false.
I’ve made the decision to step back from the Church.
This is not an easy decision or something I’ve taken lightly. I’ve devoted 42 years of my life to the Church. I served a two-year mission, accepted the call to be a bishop over a congregation, raised my four children in the Church, married my spouse in the Temple, donated countless hours of my unpaid time, and donated 10% of my gross income to the Church since I was a child. At this point, I’m kind of invested in the Church. My entire life and worldview are intertwined with the Church. My social circle is the Church. Walking away is no easy task.
The Church and its leaders will tell you that I’m stepping back from the Church simply because I want to live a lifestyle of sin.
Although I would take issue with that depiction, I also have no problem owning the fact that I am looking forward to shaking off some of the more restrictive, cult-like, and arbitrary rules that exist within Mormonism. Much of what is taught within Mormonism is wholesome and good, but there is also a dark underbelly to it, which Mormons never talk about. That underbelly consists of things like shame, information control, leader worship, blind obedience, an us vs. them mentality, and the giving up of all personal boundaries to the Church.
Take for example the wearing of garments. Mine and my wife’s lives have improved greatly since we stopped wearing garments. There has been no downside. It has been liberating and it has dramatically improved our lives. When your Church can mandate that you only wear their approved underwear, which you must buy from them, then the church starts to feel cult-like. Controlling a person’s underwear is a significant intrusion into their personal boundaries and a trampling of their autonomy and individuality.
Just as I take ownership of where my faith is (or isn’t), I would hope that active Mormons would take ownership of their faith and their beliefs. I am sure that the majority of Mormons have no idea why they wear garments, other than the trite reasons given by the Church. Most Mormons just feel that they are being obedient, and that is all that matters. I know, because I used to be one of them. Sure, Mormons understand that garments are an outward sign of an inner commitment, but on a deeper level, what is the garment all about? So before a believing Mormon shames me for not wearing garments or says that I just want to sin, here are some deeper questions that they should consider about their own beliefs…
- Is the garment simply a symbol of a covenant? Or is it also to enforce modesty?
- If the garment is sacred, why is it worn as underwear, which gets soiled and stained?
- What is the actual commitment to wear it? Did you really make a covenant to wear it?
- What are the words used in the temple when the garment was given?
- Why does the recommend question suggest that you covenanted to wear it 24/7 when there was no such two-way promise made in the temple?
- Do the words “which you should wear throughout your life” mean that you can never take it off?
- Could you say you wear shoes throughout your life? Do you always wear shoes? Do you wear your shoes to bed?
- Where did this idea come from that the garment must be worn 24/7?
- Was Joseph Smith wearing his garments when he was killed in Carthage jail? If not, why?
- What did the original garment design look like?
- Why did Emma Smith feel the need to add a sash and a collar to the design?
- How has the design and pattern of garments changed over the years?
- Is there any recorded revelation for the original design?
- Are there any recorded revelations authorizing subsequent changes to the garment?
- Why don’t garments today reach to the ankles and wrists like they did in the original design?
- Why did past prophets say that the original design was given by God and would never change?
- If the garment is not to enforce modesty, but simply a sacred symbol, isn’t there a better way to remind oneself of that sacred covenant, without having to always wear two layers of clothing?
- Is it cult-like if your church mandates that you only buy your underwear from them?
- Joseph Smith and the early Saints believed in talismans and amulets (sacred objects that could provide healing, good luck, and protection); isn’t the garment just a modern day amulet, which provides the wearer with protection?
- The church has said that the garment is not magical, but that it offers protection and is a shield; in what ways does the garment offer protection and act as a shield?
- Does the garment only protect against spiritual harm? Or does the garment also protect against real physical harm?
- If it is believed that the garment protects against physical harm, is that not the definition of an amulet and believing that the garment has a magical property to protect you physically?
- If the garment only protects from spiritual harm, what are some examples of how people have been protected?
- Is the garment simply just a reminder against sexual sins, and in that way acts as a shield and protection, and that is why it is worn as underwear?
- Could it be that mandating the wearing of the garment 24/7 is a really effective way of homogenizing the church members, ensuring uniformity, and creating a sense of devotion and allegiance?
- Why has the church now allowed other clothing to be worn under the garment? Why hasn’t that change been announced publicly to the members?
- Will we wear garments in the afterlife? If not, why not?
- Where do the symbols on the garments come from?
- Why are some of the symbols on the garment taken from masonry?
- How and why did masonry originate, and where did the masons get those symbols?
- Is masonry of ancient origin? Do the masons themselves claim any ties to ancient religions? Isn’t it curious that Joseph Smith revealed the temple endowment only seven weeks after becoming a mason himself?
- Is it possible that Joseph Smith was impressed with the ritual nature of masonry and invented the garment and the endowment by mixing elements of masonry with the Genesis creation story?
- What would happen to you if you stopped wearing the garment? Would you fear that physical harm would befall you?
- If you took your garments off, would you fear that you’d get in a car crash?
- If you slept without your garments, would you fear that the house would catch fire?
- Are those reasonable fears? Do those fears point to the idea that we believe the garment to be magical?
- Do we believe that God will immediately punish us for taking off the garment? Or that Satan will have uncontrolled access to tempt us if we take them off?
- Would a loving God allow harm or temptation to befall you because you weren’t wearing the requisite underwear?
- If someone only wears the garment occasionally, or only wears it to church, should we judge them for being less devout?
- What does the church handbook say about the wearing of garments? Is the interpretation of “throughout your life” left up to the wearer, or is it mandated?
- If a commandment is not well explained and delivered in vague terms, will God punish us for using our best judgement and intellect to make our own decisions?
- Does the church answer any of these questions above, whether in the temple ceremony, in Sunday school, in church literature, in temple recommend interviews, or in any other format?
- Why does the church not appropriately instruct members about the garment, its origin, its purpose, its history, and its alleged covenant?
- Why would the church ask members to follow such an extreme practice, of only wearing church authorized underwear, 24/7, for the rest of their lives, and yet never provide the background, history, and understanding that should be commensurate with such a request?
Hopefully, believing Mormons will take the time to research these questions and do an honest evaluation of what they believe and how forthright the Church has been about these topics.
These are 44 difficult questions just on the topic of garments. Similar questions could be generated to cover every aspect of Mormonism. The lack of published, detailed information from the Church on these difficult topics is telling. People have noted that the gospel as taught by the Church “is a mile wide and an inch deep”. All you get in Church each week is the same correlated topics over and over. The Church doesn’t want to get into the weeds of the why. Take for instance the Word of Wisdom. Why don’t we have in-depth discussions on the Word of Wisdom? For example, what does mild barley drinks mean? How similar is the Word of Wisdom to the temperance movement of Joseph Smith’s time? What documentation do we have that hot drinks really means tea and coffee? Why did Joseph Smith and Brigham Young continue to drink alcohol long after the Word of Wisdom was given?
I know that the Church wants to cast me as simply “an unruly child”. The Church does not want to recognize that I am an intelligent adult, who has the courage and honesty to step away from an untrue narrative.
I can attest that deconstructing from Mormonism can bring amazing personal growth. It isn’t easy and it isn’t for the faint of heart. The truth is, some marriages might not survive a faith crisis. I would hope that spouses would choose each other over the Church, even if that means living in a mixed-faith marriage.
Personally, my relationship with my wife has blossomed as we’ve gone through this journey together. We feel closer and more connected than ever before. Owning your truth and being authentic is attractive. Our sex life has dramatically changed for the better. My relationship with my children has been strengthened. I see raising children now as an opportunity for me to learn and for them to be my teachers, instead of feeling that I have a mandate to mold them into who I think they should be. I’m less judgmental and realize that I’m no more special than any other human on the planet. In many ways I am a better person now than I was as a believing Mormon. My mental health is in a much better place as I am learning to be honest, authentic, and set appropriate boundaries. As I’ve reclaimed authority over my own life, I feel more confident and better equipped to handle anything that comes at me. I’m no longer hoping that an all powerful God will always save me from any and all discomfort. I feel free to believe in facts, science, and the politics of my choice. I feel free to be my true authentic self, without all of the unspoken rules and endless Mormon checklists.
I still believe in God and I still pray.
I just no longer believe in a capricious God that cares so much about the rules and performances of Mormonism, while He ignores the rest of the human race. I no longer believe that I am inherently an enemy to God and that I need to work to receive God’s conditional love. I believe in a God that cares for all of His creations and that we are worthy just as we are, that diversity should be celebrated, and that we are divine without the need of being saved.
I reject the notion that any one person on the earth knows the mind and will of God and that we should give obeisance to that person. I trust my own intelligence and intuition, to make decisions about my own life, and never want to give any person or organization that level of control over my heart and mind ever again.
This is my new reality and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about it.
Despite all of the warnings to the contrary, I am happier, healthier, and thriving as a post-Mormon, and no, it’s not just temporary.