Home Lifestyle From polygamy to abstinence, this is why I left the Mormon Church

From polygamy to abstinence, this is why I left the Mormon Church

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Alyssa left the Mormon church at 23 and hasn’t looked back (Picture: Alyssa Grenfell)

‘I think when you are in it, it feels like it has to be the truth. Your parents believe that, every trusted leader believes that… It’s really hard to question the systems you were raised in,’ Alyssa Grenfell tells me on the phone.

The 31-year-old, born in Utah, grew up in a family that was deeply entrenched in the Mormon Church, although those still in the faction prefer calling it ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’.

While her father converted to Mormonism in his late teens, her mother came from a ‘very staunch line’ of believers – the town of Porterville was even named after them.

‘My first relative associated with the church joined one year after Joseph Smith founded the church [in 1830]. So through my mother I have a very strong line of Mormon ancestors, many of whom are polygamous,’ she explains.

Which is what made her decision to leave in 2017 at the age of 23 all the more significant – though her older sister had already done the same a year and a half before.

After leaving the church and the state of Utah with her husband Jackson, now 31, to whom she had been married to for a year and who was also Mormon, Alyssa set up a new life in Brooklyn, New York.

‘I felt like a fish out of water living in New York City. I remember the first time I wore a tank top I felt so guilty, but also so free. Sipping a latte in a coffee shop, I was living a life I had never imagined for myself,’ she says.

As of 2023, the worldwide membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consists of more than 17 million people. But, in 2022, a study found a quarter of American Mormons said they have considered leaving the religion.

For Alyssa, there was a plethora of reasons that motivated her decision to emancipate herself from the religion she had grown up in. But one of the primary factors was how acting on her ‘personal revelations’ made her feel compelled to follow God’s teachings rather than her own instinct.

According to the Mormon faith, ‘personal revelation’ is how the Heavenly Father helps people know Him and His Son, learn and live the gospel, and endure to the end in righteousness.

For example, Alyssa felt God had told her she would serve her Mormon mission in Italy. However, when she later received her mission call, she was sent to the suburbs of Denver, Colorado.

Alyssa (right) pictured with her husband Jackson (far right) and two of her sisters and mother at church (Picture: Alyssa Grenfell)

Another thing that didn’t sit well with Alyssa was the controversial history of the church. ‘I also read a lot more history about the reality of the founding of the church – stuff about polygamy, the racism, the homophobia – and my belief in Joseph Smith and God Himself fell apart,’ she explains.

Since leaving the church, the stay-at-home mum-of-two has reflected on her childhood and the strict teachings around sex and relationships that were taught to her as God’s absolute truth.

Like all Mormon youths, she was handed the sizeable Strength of Youth pamphlet at the age of 12, which details everything that is expected of young followers – and everything that is forbidden.

‘The pamphlet covers everything from dress and appearance, to media consumption, dating, and paying tithing [a monetary contribution]. It’s an entire pamphlet of rules that I spent a lot of time highlighting growing up.

‘Mormons are most most known for the health code. One of the strictest rules is no coffee, but it also includes no drugs, no drinking… caffeine is okay – so long as it’s not coffee.’

Alyssa wasn’t allowed to wear tank tops or strappy tops and short shorts when she was growing up (Picture: Alyssa Grenfell)

She adds: ‘Modesty is a huge thing growing up. No showing your shoulders, you can’t wear tank tops. No short shorts – you’re supposed to have shorts to the knee.’

Alyssa recalls being at a church swimming activity and one member turned up in a bikini, only to be immediately sent home.



Polygamy in the Mormon Church:

‘Active members will say that polygamy started because a lot of a lot of Mormon men died in the Mexican-American war (1846 to 1848),’ Alyssa says.

‘Because of a lot of men had died, women no longer had husbands, but they wanted to marry a priesthood member – there were not enough men to go around. Women couldn’t own land and they needed someone to provide for their children, so they started all marrying the same men.

‘The reality is Joseph Smith started messing around with other women and they didn’t know about it. When he was found out he revealed this doctrine of polygamy and said, “God has commanded me to enter into polygamy”.’

Founder Joseph had up to 40 wives, the youngest was 14 and others were women who were already married.

There are fundamentalist Mormons who still practice polygamy today.

When it came to the world of sex and relationships, things got even stricter.

‘There’s obviously no sex before marriage,’ she says, ‘and there’s a lot of guidelines for dating – you can’t date at all before 16.

‘If I had a crush, I wouldn’t confide it to my family because I knew I was not supposed to be dating or even really having romantic feelings. If I expressed I had a crush, I would be both teased for it mercilessly, and then be chided.’

But once she hit 16, Alyssa states she still felt a lot of reticence and shame around dating, as well as intense anxiety.

‘Mormons say that having premarital sex is literally the sin next to murder. So you if you take that very literally which, of course, I did, it can play on your mind,’ she says.

‘I felt super anxious because it feels like you could potentially accidentally commit a sin next to murder if you “go too far with a boy”.’

Alyssa recalls being shown a Mormon video which likens getting intimate with a boy to ‘floating on a raft next to a waterfall’.

The idea is every time you ‘do something’ with a boy you are getting closer to the edge of the waterfall (a euphemism for sex), which you want to avoid falling over.

‘The rule is only do what you would feel comfortable doing in front of your parents – not just for teens; that goes for adults too,’ she explains.

‘So often when Mormon kids get married, if they’re following the stated rule, they have only had a closed-mouth kiss. They haven’t made out with each other – passionate kissing is discouraged.’

Masturbation is also considered a sin, and Alyssa points out that these teachings set her up for a really unhealthy view of physicality and sexuality.

‘Once you get married, you’re dropped into the deep end of “have babies, make babies, have as much sex as you can, so you can have children.”

‘But, you’re coming from, “don’t even like look at your genitals” territory. “Pretend that there’s nothing down there”. It’s really not setting you up for knowing how your body works or knowing how to help someone else have pleasure.’

You can forget comprehensive sex education, too. She says hers consisted of ‘abstinence education’ – so much so that she snuck a human encyclopedia into her bathroom to look up different words associated with anatomy and sexuality.

‘For the first time, I saw realistic diagrams and read definitions. My curiosity wasn’t anything to do with me having any sexual feelings. I literally didn’t know what a penis looked like or about how women get pregnant from an anatomical perspective,’ she admits.

‘I just wanted to understand what humans were.’

Alyssa (third from the right in the purple skirt) with fellow Mormon members of the church (Picture: Alyssa Grenfell)

When Alyssa got married at 21, the Mormon wedding didn’t follow the typical wedding format us folk outside the church would assume.

In fact, Mormon weddings are ‘very secretive’. She explains: ‘There’s the civil aspect of a wedding, which is the legal marriage. But then in a temple, there’s also a spiritual marriage.’

There were 172 temples in operation or under construction as of the end of 2021, and it’s in these temples where married couples become ‘sealed’.

‘The spiritual marriage is like the seal of a jar, so you’re sealed together for time and all eternity,’ she adds.

‘Mormons want to get married in the temple because they believe with the correct priesthood authority, their marriage lasts into the afterlife, and they will also be sealed to their children.’

‘If you get just a civil wedding, then in the afterlife you are disconnected from your children and disconnected from your spouse – you’re basically just kind of like a wandering spirits that has doesn’t have their loved ones with them.’

In Mormon weddings, you also don’t know the officiant assigned to you, and for Alyssa, this meant her name was mispronounced during her ceremony.

Only one of her three sisters was able to attend her wedding too because of the rule about ‘worthy adult members’ being able to witness it.

‘One of my sisters had already left the church,’ she explains, ‘so she was no longer considered “worthy” to enter. Then my youngest sister didn’t have her temple endowment yet, which is like your initiation ceremony into the temple.

‘Therefore, only one of my sisters was both old enough and worthy enough to come to my wedding ceremony.’

After getting married, Alyssa and Jackson also considered what life would be like for their future kids within the church.

Alyssa and Jackson on their wedding day with the Mormon temple in the background (Picture: CHELSIE STARLEY)

‘Jackson said “what if one of our kids is gay?” Raising kids in the church doesn’t mean you have a straight shot into the “perfect” family,’ she says.

‘It’s only the perfect family if everyone is playing the game. A lot of gay kids are suicidal in the Mormon church; there have been suicide attempts and people have died.

‘It’s a loving religion, but only if you don’t have tattoos, you don’t have piercings, you’re not gay, you don’t swear – you kind of have to check all the boxes.’

Alyssa now posts educational TikToks online and has also written a book called How to Leave the Mormon Church: An Exmormon’s Guide to Rebuilding After Religion, giving people an insight into what life was like pre- and post-leaving.

She gets messages from younger people within the community who are gay and trans, who fear that if they come out to their families they will get kicked out of their house.

While Alyssa didn’t lose contact with her parents after she left the church, it has put a strain on their relationship – more so with her mother than her father.

For the young people who are contacting her though, that’s not necessarily the case.

She says: ‘It’s pretty awful, especially for kids who are still very dependent on their families. They live with them and don’t have a way of making their own money.

‘What I usually say is to find a trusted adult in their life, probably a non-member, maybe a teacher or school counsellor to start building connections with people outside of the religion.

‘Unless you think your parents are going to fully accept you, you should probably just wait till you’re 18 to come out, because it’s not worth risking being homeless.

‘I usually also suggest they start saving money, find a job… like, try to be self-sufficient, so that when they do come out, they can just live the life that they choose.’

Since leaving the church, Alyssa has been at peace with her decision. ‘I do feel very proud of being the one that broke the link in the chain,’ she says. ‘It means that my children will never have to go through this.

‘They’ll never have to give thousands of hours to a false religion. They can have a life free of this cult and it may not be perfect, but I feel really proud of that.’

Metro.co.uk reached out to the Mormon church for comment. While a representative did not provide a statement, they did say that information on the church and its teachings are available on its website (churchofjesuschrist.org) for people to explore.

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