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Janis Hutchinson: Escape from Fundamental Mormonism

I’d like you all to meet Janis Hutchinson: blogger, author, and former Mormon. Janis hails from Southern California (like me!) and comes out of the mainstream LDS Church as well as a branch of fundamentalist Mormonism. Janis has kindly agreed to share her diverse experience in the Mormon Church with us to show was what the deal really is. You can read Janis’ full, harrowing tale of escape here and also check out her blog and books. And feel free to follow her on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a wealth of information. Be sure to stay tuned for Part II which will be posted in a couple days! Enjoy!

DMM: How long were you in the Mormon faith, overall? Did you have family ties to the church?

JH: I was a member of the mainline LDS Church for 35 years, during which time I served two Stake missions, married in the temple, and was active in all the organizations, mainly teaching the Gospel Doctrine class. I also had articles published in the church’s magazine, excerpts of which were used in their radio programs to promote the family. I had no family ties in the church prior to joining.

By the way, I consider Fundamentalist groups “cults”; the LDS Church a “sect” or “fringe religion.” I don’t like to call the LDS Church a cult because it conjures up images of a Jim Jones type of destructive cult.

DMM: Why did you decide to join the LDS Church?

JH: I didn’t make a decision to join. My mother was looking for a church with a good youth program and seeing the excellence of the LDS Church’s [programs], joined and had my sister and I baptized. I was 14 at the time. By the age of 19, I became thoroughly converted to its theology through its genealogy program and temple work for the dead.

DMM: What were the positives of your LDS experience?

JH: The church’s programs and activities helped to bring me out of my shell. I gained confidence in myself, learned how to speak before congregations, and teach classes. Also, ethics and high moral standards were taught directly from the pulpit, something I miss in today’s Christian churches. Actually, I can think of nothing negative to say about the church as far as its programs, the Ward community, and taking care of one another. Its theology, however, is another matter. For someone who was as happy as I to leave the LDS Church, definitely suggests there had to be a good reason.

DMM: What were some key differences between the LDS and Christian faiths that you personally observed?

JH: When I was a Mormon, I didn’t even pay attention to Christian faiths, except for my grandmother’s. She was not LDS and all I knew was she was a good woman and loved her Bible. The reason I didn’t pay attention to other religions was that we were taught that Christians who only believed in the Bible were on a kindergarten level, whereas we had more advanced knowledge. In my mind, I thought, “Why would I want to demote myself to something lesser?” I had no problem believing we had more, as I was hooked on the writings of an early church leader, Orson Pratt, who deeply expounded on creation, the world of spirit that existed before the physical creation, the transmigration of particles and other applicable scientific data, an explanation of the original God, who was the First Great Cause and how He came to be, as well as detail about the hereafter. Pratt’s scientific approach validating doctrines appealed to me because it was so deep; therefore, I knew we had more than Christians had.

DMM: What were some feelings you personally experienced while being in the LDS Church?

JH: My personal experience in the church was positive until, very slowly, I began recognizing incorrect principles being taught by church leaders. My blinders began to lift and I became aware of the requirement of “blind” obedience when the church’s magazine came out with a message from headquarters:

“Brethren, keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he tells you to do something and it’s wrong, the Lord will bless you for it.”  

Whoa! Houston, we have a problem here! Since when does God bless someone for doing something wrong just because someone else tells them to do it? Generally speaking, obedience to leaders is fine; but should not be “blind.” I recall saying to a few members, “Don’t you think you ought to pray about such and such.” Their answer?  “Oh, we don’t need to pray, we know the leaders speak for God and won’t lead us astray.”

A few Guidepost Magazines fell into my hands, via my grandmother, and I read about individuals in other religions having prayers answered. Latter-day Saints claimed only they received answers to prayer because they belonged to the only true church. I began to suspect differently and dared to make the comment in my adult Sunday school class that Baptists also had their prayers answered. Some immediately got up and walked out of class, and the looks from others was like I should be stoned.

Another wake-up call regarded the Bible. I had been taught that it was full of error because of faulty translations and therefore, untrustworthy. Later, when I taught a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls, I saw that scholars had compared the Bible’s Masoretic text with the Isaiah text in the scrolls and they were word-for-word identical in more than 95 percent of the text. The other five percent of variation consisted primarily of obvious slips of the pen and spelling alterations. It left me with the thought: “If my leaders are wrong about the Bible’s unreliability, could they be wrong about other things?”

DMM: What led you to try out fundamental Mormonism?

JH: Mormon Fundamentalist groups are apostate offshoots of the mainline LDS Church who pride themselves on practicing doctrines of the early church that the mainline LDS Church no longer teaches. Many of those doctrines were difficult to live, requiring much self-sacrifice. Spurred on by the LDS Church’s teaching to strive for perfection, and hungry for an additional opportunity to draw closer to God, I thought that by perfecting myself I would achieve that. Knowing in earlier times the mainline LDS church under Brigham Young practiced United Orders—living communally and having all things in common, I thought if I could live that kind of life it would be a good test to see if I could unselfishly share everything I had with others and purge out any hidden selfishness I might have and thus become perfect and closer to God. Since the New Testament saints had tried it in the Book of Acts, I believed it was a heavenly principle and that God had restored it through Joseph Smith. It seemed like an answer to my prayer and I began attending a Fundamentalist group’s secret meetings in Salt Lake City. I learned about comparable "United Effort" groups that shared goods and finances, operating on a smaller scale.

The group I investigated was not the FLDS Church that has received notoriety in the news. There are many Fundamentalist groups, some large and very well organized; but also some called “Independents” consisting of those who once belonged to a large, organized group but left to form their own group on a smaller scale.

DMM: Can you tell us a bit about your experience at the Order?

JH: In 1978, I was very excited to secretly join an independent group in Montana and gain a new communal “Christian” experience. At first I was given the royal treatment and showered at every turn. This, I later learned, is called the “honeymoon period”; only it didn’t last. It was not paradise and they did not love each other with the love of Christ as I supposed. Typical of cults, things gradually changed.

Amidst the strife, jealousy, and contention, the Order grew progressively worse. Stricter rules were added and robot obedience to the leader's priesthood authority was demanded. Individual interests and opinions were absolutely prohibited. The joy I experienced at first was gone—I felt desolate. I never heard anything about Jesus.

But despite the strict atmosphere of control, my one freedom was driving up to Flathead Lake on Sunday mornings to pray and meditate. This was allowed since the Order’s services were held in the afternoon. (This was sort of a lie.) What I really needed was to get away from what seemed like a dark cloud God showed me was hovering over the farm.

At the lake, I would pray asking God to lift my depression and also to give me humility for submission and also charity to withstand the leader’s wife’s verbal abuse that always left me in tears. I had my car but I never considered fleeing. I had covenanted before God to share my belongings and felt sincerely obligated to keep it.

Once Winter set in, I was no longer able to drive to the lake, so I drove aimlessly over the barren plains. On one such day, in the middle of nowhere, I happened upon The Little Brown Church. I decided to go in, realizing that I would have to keep it a secret, and quietly slipped into the back row.

The peaceful, loving atmosphere was a sharp contrast to life in the Order and my spirits immediately lifted. The leaders were loving and kind and I began to gain a clearer perspective of how wrong things were. But I still felt bound to stay and keep my covenant with God.

In a short period of time, The Little Brown Church taught me about grace—something the LDS Church never expounded on in my day. I also learned works would never get me into heaven. My head was in a confused whirl. Calvary and reconciliation were explained. And contrary to Mormon teaching, I learned Adam's sin definitely applied to me. Inherently, I was a sinner—not a basically good person who was a literal, divine, spiritual offspring of God! That was a tough pill to swallow.

Nevertheless, I began to gain a new understanding of what Jesus did for me on the cross. But I still only thought of simply incorporated these new concepts into my Mormon thinking.

But soon, my worst fears were realized—I was followed!

One afternoon upon returning to the farm, the leader confronted me yelling, "Have you been attending that Little Brown Church?”

I admitted that I had and tried to tell him about Jesus, but he cut me off. I’d seen individuals lose their temper before, but never rage. All hell literally broke loose!

They accused me of spiritual adultery and “worshiping at the Altar of Baal.” I was confused because I thought we all believed in Jesus. My leader’s response?

"Of course...but you found him in a Christian church instead of through me! I'm your spiritual head! You learn through me!"

They demanded my car keys, which I dutifully handed over, and confined me to the unfinished building at the back of the farm in an 8x10 room that was only sheet rocked. There was a bed, a dresser, and a small window. A bare light bulb hung from a hole in the ceiling, and there was no running water or toilet facilities—only a thunder bucket.

I was expected to remain in isolation until I repented. Everyone was forbidden to interact with me in any way. I could only be reinstated in fellowship once I came into their Sunday Sacrament service and publicly repent of my sin—and denounced the Christian Jesus—at the Sunday Sacrament meeting. My refusal came automatically and naturally from my heart and spirit.

I was held prisoner for nine months. The leader periodically came into my room to rail and revile me yelling, "Repent!" But I kept refusing. I wouldn’t renounce the Christian Jesus even if they killed me.

Meanwhile, my health deteriorated. I grew dangerously thin and my thinking processes became sluggish, no doubt the combination of poor food, poor living conditions, and abuse. My thinking varied between extremes, at times it was difficult to even think. Other times, I found myself going through mental gymnastics in a feeble attempt to rationalize my circumstances. I soon began to believe that I deserved my situation (common among cult prisoners).

I slipped in and out of deep depression—even to the verge of suicide. Yet even in all this, I never entertained thoughts of escape. Why? Because I was still concerned about my commitment to the Order and covenant with God. I didn’t want to break my promise, even if it meant dying. Plus, the leader's brainwashing words "God doesn't like a covenant breaker" were pounded into my head.

My health grew worse and I lost all incentive to live.

When I would ask my leader "Why don't you let me die?" his response was always the same. "You're staying alive—you’re not going to bring law down on me!" He felt that if I died and the police came in, he might face a murder charge. I began to wonder how long it would take to actually die—my answer came sooner than I anticipated. One of the children snuck into the building to visit me and found me on the floor, unconscious, and ran to the leader. He and his cohorts put me on my bed and prayed (I was told later) I would not die—for the sake of their leader.

While I couldn’t measure the length of time I was in that state, my body felt so horribly weak and my skin was grotesquely discolored: a solid fusion of black, gray, and purple. (After my escape, I was told by an RN that I had actually died.)

During the next two months, I slowly regained a degree of strength because the leader ordered his wife to bring me better food. Still, my health progressively worsened. The worst were the crippling spasms that felt like electric shocks through my neck and back and struck without warning. After I escaped, I was in bad shape with a host of health problems.

One day something strange but marvelous happened. I knelt by my bed praying aloud, entertaining no thoughts of escape, when I was totally interrupted with these words:

"I shall deliver you."

Wow! I thought. God evidently approved of my leaving! Which meant he wouldn’t consider me a covenant-breaker. It was all I needed. Although extremely thin and still suffering from serious physical problems, I became excited about leaving and planned my escape, which can be read here.  

When I finally arrived home in Northern California it was over—or so I thought. I was unaware of the length of time it would take to overcome all the physical and emotional aftereffects. I experienced three to eight years of flashbacks, conflicting emotions, nightmares, as well as grappled with disorientation and an inability to speak and relate to people from 9 months of isolation.

I also had anxiety attacks, fearing the cult leader would find me and either force me back to the cult, or carry out the doctrine of "Blood Atonement" on me. I was afraid to walk by any window at night, for fear of being shot, knowing in the cult's eyes I had apostatized from God, and Jesus' blood couldn't cover something that terrible. The only way I would inherit some degree of salvation in heaven was if my own blood were spilt—and it was their responsibility to see it done.

In 1980, I requested my excommunication from the LDS Church and entered Christianity with my whole heart. 

DMM: Wow! That eerily reminds me of an old Walker, Texas Ranger episode where the Assistant D.A., Alex Cahill, was kept in a similar room as you and experienced similar abuses. I know law enforcement shows often try to mimic or borrow from real-life situations. Do you find that your experience was singular or have you met or heard of others who had similar experiences to yours?

JH: I’m unfamiliar with the episode of Walker, Texas Ranger so unable to comment on that. However, I have heard stories that trickled down from other Fundamentalist groups about physical and emotional abuse, but have never personally talked with anyone who had the same experience as I. I’m sure there are plenty. A TV documentary interviewed one former member who had been locked in a closet.

DMM: Tell us about your book Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and Encouraging Ex-Cultists.  

JH: Based upon my 35 years of experience of coming out of Mormonism and including former members from the Mormon Church, Unification Church, Hare Krishna, and others, the book presents the difficulties former members of tightly structured fringe religions face in leaving their tightly structured religious community with its unique doctrines when they try to enter an orthodox Christian church. It explains the emotional trauma and the difficult questions they face that Christians can’t always answer, offering practical, non-technical suggestions for pastors, counselors, and friends on how to understand and encourage ex-cultists through the difficult times of post-conversion stress.

It is the only book on the Christian market to describe, in extensive detail, these traumatic difficulties. The book is also designed for new converts to Christ to read who will see, probably for the first time, why they are having such severe problems. Many have told me this book “saved their life.”

DMM: In your opinion, how does the experience of those leaving the Mormon Church (any sect) differ from those who leave other cults?

JH: I see no difference, which is why I included former members of other false religions in my book, Out of the Cults and Into the Church. For example, when the World Wide Church of God rejected the teachings of its founder, Herbert J. Armstrong, and shifted to orthodox Christianity, there was such a traumatic shock among its members that for a while the church gave my book to its ministers to help members through the transition. I have had former members of other fringe religions tell me my book also applied to them.

Stay tuned for Part II!

SEE ALSO:

  1. Pride and Prejudice: Racism in the Mormon Church
  2. Ex-Mormon Shares Testimony: 'Jesus Was All I Needed'
  3.  13 Shocking Similarities between Islam & Mormonism
  4. Salvation is a FREE GIFT: An Ex-Mormon Missionary's Testimony of Freedom
  5. Are Mormons Christians? Part I
  6. Are Mormons Christians? Part II
  7. Are Mormons Christians? Part III