You can consider the following canon on the life of Jaxon Washburn, hopefully this doesn’t become too much of a novel.
I was born 18 years ago in Utah near Salt Lake City. My parents both hail from Latter-day Saint families making me a sixth-generation Mormon with pioneer heritage. I am apathetic to how this may be held against me; I am proud of my ancestry and the sacrifices that they made for their faith. I understand though what the stereotypes might be for one born in the Mecca of Mormonism. I seek to prove the positive ones correct and the negative false in whatever form this might take. Our family shortly moved to Arizona and there we have stayed for the past 16 or so years. The East Valley and more specifically Gilbert has been described by some to be a regular “Little Utah” and I would not find this inaccurate. My city has provided a nice balance between diversity and native community that I have always appreciated.
Skipping past all the trivial and typical minutiae of childhood, any key information remains my unbroken love of reading since kindergarten, my baptism and subsequent confirmation into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age eight, and my ordination into the Aaronic Priesthood at age twelve. Anything beyond this composites the years until present time where I began a lifetime search to think for myself, to establish my individuality and to seek after truth. While occurrences such as these are not uncommon upon entering and during one’s teenage years, I would place greater attribution to a more specific event that spurred this process along tenfold; that being the sudden and swift appearance of a new worldview into my life.
I will interrupt my personal canon here as due to the following I can no longer speak authoritatively, the subject ceasing to be myself. Instead my mother who I love dearly shall enter the picture. Her story is her own and I have no place in speaking on her behalf. My own recollection of the specifics are hazy and have the potential to be inaccurate. Nevertheless the introduction of a new worldview in my life came with the direct abandonment of the one of which she was raised. While I was around age 12 my mother ultimately decided to no longer adhere to or identify with Mormonism or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As with anyone disassociating with the religion and much less the culture they were raised in and practiced for more than three decades, the process of leaving was understandably both painful and freeing. I refuse to speculate or attempt to pinpoint any one catalyst or reason for leaving as only she has the right at explaining that portion of her life. At times I have seen members use or offer a handful of common “explanations” so as to identify specific causes that lead individuals out of “The Church”. (side note: I will be using such in short for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a regular basis)
Often these causes come in the form of being offended by certain person(s), not having a solid testimony or belief in The Church to begin with, individual sinful behavior and/or unwillingness to change and most often contact with materials and media deemed “Anti-Mormon” by those in the faith. Prescriptions in response to these are often seen in suggestions to “just have faith, keep reading your scriptures, keep praying and to understand that this is merely a phase.” At times certain individual church members then become unfairly judgmental, condemning or even distant towards their friends or family in question which only further adds insult to injury. Of course this is not always the case, I am only speaking in a manner consistent with the experiences of many who leave and remain openly vocal/critical of The Church. Likewise there are many instances in which the opposite holds true, I have seen such occur within my own life. This would definitely be consistent with actual Church teachings and doctrine in my opinion; true disciples of Christ thus responding in truly Christ-like manner, that of compassion, understanding, respect and unconditional love. Every instance and individual is unique and I will not err in speaking on anyone’s behalf.
In respect to my mother’s situation I again lack the ability and much less the full understanding to identify in full the reasons behind the course of her leaving. I can say with full confidence that materials and information (both critical and neutral) towards Mormonism did play their role in solidifying her ultimate disbelief in the religion. This remains the only contribution that I can label with any full assurance, anything else is mere speculation. Several issues that were brought to light through her research that she had there until remained ignorant to throughout the course of her upbringing consisted of the historical and divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon/ Book of Abraham, the personal character and conduct of the Prophet Joseph Smith, several Church practices such as plural marriage and temple ordinances, the Priesthood; in particular its restrictions towards those of African descent (lifted in October of 1978) and women (practiced currently), church history i.e. Mountain Meadows Massacre and/or other events and finally Mormonism’s supposed incompatibility with true Christianity and the authentic teachings of the Bible.
She was not the first among her siblings to leave, although her’s did carry the latter aspect of an Evangelical/Mainline Protestant approach to theology and scriptural exegesis. Likewise she reported a lack of spiritual confirmation within the LDS Church; a gap that was filled in full to her by the non-denominational Christian church that she eventually settled upon. All in all, her experience with Mormonism didn’t work for her, she tried in her way to make it do so and she afterwards felt more comfort and spiritual satisfaction within non-denominational Christianity. It’s not my responsibility (much less my desire) to convince her otherwise, to unfairly judge her, to distance myself from her or to worry myself to pieces as to her “ultimate salvation”. I respect her decision to follow her heart, rationality, and spirituality (in fact I hold it essential for anyone and everyone to do so), I love her all the same and I don’t allow differences in belief or religion to separate us (though I do recognize fundamental disagreements underlying such circumstances). I focus more on myself for such matters and give all individuals the liberty to the same.
Back to the canonized narrative, when she officially stopped attending the LDS Church, us children officially began to attend her’s half of the time, a local non-denominational Christian church named Sun Valley Community Church. At this age I would have been twelve and initially our family handled the new situation by having myself and my siblings switch off churches between parents each week. Sun Valley. LDS Church. Sun Valley. LDS Church. You get the picture. After a year or so I chose to attend both every Sunday (as long as times didn’t conflict), but I was the only one from among my siblings to do so. Throughout this time I had full participation in each church -minus the time devoted to its alternative- and stayed fairly busy. I was a Boy Scout and met up with kids my age Wednesday nights for scouting activities (otherwise known as “mutual”), I was present during all three hours of church on Sunday where I helped pass the Sacrament (Mormon terminology for Communion/Eucharist) as a deacon, I fulfilled all my Priesthood duties such as Fast Offerings (a monetary contribution worth the price of the meals one gives up during fasts which goes towards those in need) and all kinds of other activities and camps. Likewise at Sun Valley I attended the teen worship service on Sundays which lasted for an hour, I went to a small group Bible study every other Wednesday or on nights where there was no time conflict, and I even had the opportunity to travel with youth my age to San Diego to attend Lake Hume SD, a Christian summer camp at Point Loma Nazarene University. In all I devoted many hours to both churches.
This pattern of back and forth worked for a time but as I mentioned previously, upon entering that span of years where individuality begins to develop more fully and rationality matures to the point of informed decision making and critical analysis, I soon began to thirst after coming to my own conclusions to truth. As a 7th grader I had recently read Plato’s Republic– yes I am aware that those two subjects rarely appear in the same sentence but to be fair I had attempted the book two years previously and found it enigmatic. It was suggested by a teacher of mine named Mr. David Whitlock. He was an aging conservative teacher with an even more aging WWII vet for a father. In his room were books, wooden sailing ships, patriotic memorabilia and even a piece of the Berlin Wall. The man spoke with an air of authority on whatever matters we brought to his attention. He asked us boys to always stand when a woman walked in the room and often dotted his language with “Obama this…” or “Liberals that…”. I was attending a conservative charter school by the name of American Leadership Academy at the time during its early years of creation. The student body was almost completely homogeneous with a high Mormon population whose parents most likely held similar red values; thus nobody objected when politics entered the classroom. My point is that the entirety of the class held his word to be gospel and in speaking for myself, would later regurgitate what was said in full in order to feign participation in elevated conversation. Nonetheless as I would speak and question him about various issues he mentioned to me that I should read the Republic with special attention to Book VII. There in resides the famous “Allegory of the Cave”, a dialogue held between Socrates and his pupil Glaucon which touches on themes of ignorance, education and ultimate enlightenment. As my teacher directed I acted and soon found myself touched upon the notion of personal enlightenment. “You can remain content in the dark among the truth-shadows,” I remember him saying, “or you can spend your life in search of the sun and all its brilliance.”
Enlightenment. This goal, this notion would remain a focal point throughout the rest of my life. I had officially sparked my own Age of Enlightenment and much like its historical parallel, religious belief would play a key role in it. So as months passed I gradually changed my schedule of a weekly church hopping between parents and instead began to attend both on Sundays when time would permit, in this way I increased my participation simultaneously. I would listen more intently to the words of the various speakers, I began to spot differences in their messages and interpretations. Before this I had indeed been aware that the two differed in means of doctrine and practice but remained aloof to any effect that that those very differences might have on me. Now I began to ask questions, now I began to consider the implications their veracity might have upon me. From age twelve to fourteen this was very much the approach I undertook. I can’t say that I made much progress on any matters of truth other than building upon a base of experiential personal data to draw upon. I wasn’t until from fourteen onward that I seriously began contemplating the claims at hand; the claims at the present being whether or not that with which I was raised was actually true. Did Joseph Smith see God the Father and Jesus Christ at the age of fourteen? Was the Book of Mormon a historically authentic record translated by divine means and not the product of Smith’s imagination? Was Joseph Smith a virtuous man called by God to restore the original Church of Christ and not a charlatan, a madman or a fraud as many say? In regards to Mormonism these questions stand as imperative pillars to which the religion stands or falls and I was on a quest to discover those answers for myself.
As is common in some circles of Evangelical Christianity (which often encompasses churches to be non-denominational), attitudes towards other religions and faiths varies in respect to factors such as their similarity in beliefs, their number of adherents and their visibility on the religious spectrum. Mormonism, somewhat misfortunately, often falls beneath the line of respect: thus landing itself in a category quickly labeled cults. Of course this is not always the case, I have seen a wide swath of personal viewpoints regarding The Church but in most cases Mormonism is often said to be not truly Christian as it believes in a different Jesus, not compatible with real Christianity and foundationally different from what Holy Scripture (i.e. the Bible) prescribes. More labels or accusations often follow in a style taken to Mormons as a type of polemical ad hominem. The fact of my experience in both churches is that I never heard preaching from the pulpit regarding Evangelical views at my time in the LDS Church, I never heard it described as a unbiblical falsity to watch out for, I never had any of my church or youth leaders ever consider my time spent at both parents churches as negative in any way. Any Latter-day Saints who knew of my situation considered it a perfect opportunity to find personal revelation in matters of truth; an integral part of the faith. On the contrary many attendees of Sun Valley were quick to try to dissuade me from my ties with Mormonism. I was not alone, in fact sometimes entire sermons and theme weeks were devoted to speaking on other religions, the most commonly mentioned being Mormonism. As a thirteen to fourteen year old seeing this was highly confusing upon my mind.
I would find descriptions or narratives about faith with which I was raised to never be openly vitriolic or antagonistic but at times misrepresentative and oppositional. I did not know if Mormonism was true but I surely disagreed with the darker light in which it was cast. The pastors there knew of my predicament as I often sought them out to discuss and have them elaborate upon their meanings behind what they said at their sermons. At times this led to very positive interactions and gained understanding; at others I left hurt and more confused as the misrepresentations (whether intentional or not) came out once more. Absolute statements such as “One cannot pray to God to know what church is true”, “Satan appeared as an angel of light to Joseph Smith and gave him a false gospel”, “There is absolutely no shred of historical evidence supporting the Book of Mormon” and “Mormons are being deceived en masse by false prophets who preach a false Christ.” all led to greater confusion. Understandably around this time I likewise wished to come to terms with why my mother had left the Church. Religion remained a sensitive subject at home and was often not brought up or minimized in discussion. As I noticed my mother reading materials critical to Mormonism I followed in suit; wanting to discover and discuss with her what laid inside. Books like Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints, Judy Robertson’s Out of Mormonism and excerpts from Walter Martin’s infamous Kingdom of the Cults; all these on top of all the internet material I could process. The information and narratives I found presented there were personally shocking and spiritually distressing. My perception of the LDS Church changed quickly from one of comfort and positivity to doubt and uncertainty. Was I really being brainwashed this whole time? Had past church leaders and General Authorities whitewashed the more questionable parts of the faith’s history and did the church oppose transparency? Was it all just based on the tall-tales and musings of a charismatic Jacksonian-America farm boy? Answers to all the questions posed in the above paragraphs would be essential to my eventual relationship with the faith that I was brought up in.
So, at the age of fourteen I was faced with starkly different viewpoints of the Restoration. On the one side it was the Church of Christ with the fullness of the Gospel on earth, and on the other another man-made (or sinisterly inspired) institution that lacked any real authority in terms of ultimate salvation and truth. The perspectives regarding the character and person of the Prophet Joseph Smith were no less controversial. He was held in high or antagonistically low esteem depending on the narrative. His motives were varied, his personality skewed and his conduct either reflected a true disciple and witness of Christ or a power-hungry and lascivious charlatan. As much as I felt uncomfortable with the thought of Joseph Smith I could not help but to relate or agree with several of his statements, initially that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.” (Joseph Smith-History 1:33). I was young, I was confused and I was desperately concerned what the final result of the circumstances would lead me. Yet then I remembered that one ultimate pursuit that I had forgotten about; enlightenment. Regardless of my confusion or what I had been told by both believers and critics of the LDS Church, I had thus far only seen what Plato described as “shadow figures”. My reality was not composed of my own experience, my own self-achieved knowledge; it was all merely based on the subjective accounts of others. I lacked objective comprehension as of yet. The chains had been loosened and now I decided to take them off and ascend to see the lighted world of truth that lay above.
To do so, I decided upon a framework to ensure my personal confusion was kept to a minimum. Firstly I realized that in general terms all those born into a certain system of belief more or less see themselves as correct in their beliefs. I belonged to a church of 15 million members in a world of 7 billion people, a church that was first organized April 6th, 1830 nonetheless. Simply: the act of being born into a worldview does not necessarily hold a relationship with that said worldview’s veracity. If such was the case then all beliefs that had ever existed in the whole of humanity would hold semi-equal truth status as they all held and reared adherents at one point. Thus I discarded the egotistical notion that perpetuates the thought processes of many persons in the world today; that because they were raised a certain way, they are inherently right. Second I knew that an Ultimate Truth had to exist in some form or another as the statement itself that “There is no Ultimate Truth” would hold in itself to be an impossibility as it is an ultimate statement. I would not have described myself as Atheist or Agnostic at this point. I knew that a higher power existed (I had experienced it firsthand throughout the course of my life) I just knew not the exact form it took. For the sake of trying to be as explicitly objective as possible I put aside almost the entirety of what I had been raised or taught and began with as blank a slate as I could.
Before this point, my confusion and spiritual distress had reached levels where it had but completely consumed all my thoughts. So many different opinions, so many varied views and where was I (or Truth) in the midst of it? Again this was an area where even though I was unsure and uncomfortable with Joseph Smith I could not but help to feel a certain similarity between himself and I. I remembered his very words at the age of fifteen (around the same age as myself) cited below from Joseph Smith-History 1:8-10.
“8 During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
9 My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?”
How shall I know it? That was indeed the question. But, now armed with the final process I had decided upon utilizing in order to find truth, I was confident in the answers that I would obtain as I could see no better way. The process consisted of establishing truth on terms both rational and spiritual. By balancing the two that I had since till used to discover truths in my life, I was disavowing myself from the superstition and wives-tales that follows religious belief with no rational basing just as much as the cold, hard dearth of spirituality that lay in just mere reason. To myself, reason and spirituality were and are an inherent part of my being. There are miraculous events, unexplainable feelings and lone instances that I have experienced that lay outside of my ability to rationally describe. To do so would be paramount to describing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with words alone- no amount of pages and paragraphs could ever produce the same result that the music conveys. I did not have to betray my spirituality to think and act rationally any less than I felt my rationality sacrificed on the altar of religion. The two are wholly necessary, interdependent and inseparable in epistemological terms at least in my experience (all are free to decide this for themselves). And as such I moved forward in my journey of the self towards truth.
My mother purchased a small book from Barnes and Nobles that overviewed the religions of the world, spending as many as a few pages to a few paragraphs on each, accompanied by high quality images. While this was by no means an extensive analysis of any beliefs, it offered enough introductory information so as to rid myself of any preconceived opinions and provide a sound basic understanding. I quickly came to appreciate and understand the superficial similarities and differences between systems of belief, thus only sparking my interest further. I purchased more and more books all on the topics of faith, religion, spirituality and philosophy. I read intently and drank from the vast reserves of knowledge now made available. I understood that merely reading could never trump experiencing and so I began to likewise attend as many of the said places of worship that I could, speaking to both their local faith leaders and their practitioners. An example that does well at showing the extent of my search was in my 2014 trip to the city of Portland, Maine where my father was interviewing at a dental school he had been accepted into. On that particular Sunday, after receiving permission from my parents, I visited in total 6 churches and 1 cathedral as I spent the entire day traversing the city on foot. The following Monday I topped it off with a visit to a local synagogue for a Jewish minyan. This exploration was all done apart from my family who were in the meantime treating it like an actual vacation. All was well though and I couldn’t be happier. Such was the extent of my fixation and love for visiting other places of worship and learning more about their faiths and it was not uncommon on some days for me to visit upwards of five churches after attending church with one of my parents.
In sophomore year of my high school experience I was attending Arizona College Prep in Chandler, Arizona. Though a public school, one had to undergo a somewhat selective admissions process in order to attend. I was fortunate to call the campus home from 8th grade to most of sophomore year. The school was probably as diverse as one could find in Arizona, attracting crowds of students from all ethnic and racial groups. I came across more diversity and pluralism there than ever before, having previously come from American Leadership Academy (a Mormon bubble if ever there was one in Gilbert.) I quickly became friends with Hindus and Muslims, Asians and Middle-Easterners, Liberals and Conservatives alike; the school was a melting pot for many different religions, races and nations of origin. Many of the students spoke two or more languages fluently and all were self-driven, academically motivated, intellectually gifted and passionate in their pursuits in life. Quite naturally we would sit during lunch or in class and speak of our respective backgrounds, world views, and cultures. I see my experience there as being integral to the expansion of my viewpoints and in showing me the great diversity that exists in the world among thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. Essentially I had switched from a school with a population that was around 97% Mormon to one where I was among just three other Mormons in my same grade. It was difficult at times, I always felt like the minority but I quickly got used to identifying the constructive pain that comes when one’s preconceived notions and beliefs are being challenged.
So as an introduction to my AP Human Geography class taught by another early mentor and example of mine, Mrs. Kim Novak, she had all of us students fill out notecards with answers to the following questions:
1) What religion are you and what religion are your parents?
2) What is a religion you wish you could learn more about?
3) If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you go?
4) What languages do you speak and what languages do you wish to speak?
While we were conducting this ice-breaker exercise several things became apparent, chiefly being that the two religions most people wished to learn more about were Islam or Mormonism. I found this intriguing but not completely surprising. At the end of the activity Mrs. Novak began an extended speech that would produce some amazing effects on the course of myself. She spoke of the need for understanding, tolerance, respect, love and the importance of inclusivity and diversity. She spoke of the unique perspectives and valuable experiences that collectively we brought to the classroom. She spoke of the need for the continued sharing of our cultures, world views and opinions in an open and respectful environment. Finally she ended with a reiteration of her commitment as a teacher to provide that very same environment for us. Frankly, I was inspired and touched by her address. It got me thinking as to the importance for such opportunities and dialogues to be open to all. By all means, Arizona College Prep was already diverse enough so as to provide such an environment to the students and very quickly, I got multiple others on board after introducing the idea to them.
We called it COEXIST or The World Religion and Tolerance Club and it quickly gained in popularity. We were happy to have the participation of a diverse sampling of the general student body, the club being a combination of several Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Christian, Hindu and Secular students. We enjoyed an informal environment where we had the ability to just relax after school and discuss what we had already been covering throughout our shorter outside conversations. Of course COEXIST was just an informal and unofficial moniker for the World Religion and Tolerance Club and with our name and club sponsor (Novak) already covered, we just needed a purpose. After some collaboration between club members it became something like this:
In a world where misinformation and ignorance distorts the perceptions of many, we strive to stimulate the discussion of our own beliefs in an environment where there exists only love, acceptance and complete tolerance. For in the end we are all walking the same path; so why not lend each other a helping hand along the way? Our diversity only makes us stronger.
So we began to organize and develop a curriculum for future use. We mapped out a plan in which the world’s belief systems would be discussed and presented in an order taking into account several variables such as the number of total adherents, the relative current and historical influence on the local area and worldwide, their region of origin and their relationship towards other religious traditions. Several attributes soon served to define the club with weekly meetings lasting a duration of 90 minutes in the which the religion is to be briefed on and discussed. As often as possible, local faith leaders were scheduled to be brought in, allowing for only the most accurate and first-hand of information to be presented. Spiritual literature and other materials were shared and distributed often followed by Q&A segments. The rest of the time was left completely open to those presenting to use as they deemed appropriate whether it be in the form of powerpoint presentations, videos or activities such as group songs, chants or prayers. The club held outside meetings as well, providing an opportunity for the students to experience other faiths in a more natural and authentic environment. Often times on the weekend we would visit various places of worship covered that same week, thereby allowing further personal experiences. What the students did next with that faith was their choice, whether to research it further or just retain the knowledge and experiences they gained for future application.
In order to safeguard both the club and its members, signed parental and student consent forms were required in order to gain membership, declaring that those participating were aware that alternate belief systems would be taught and shared, that materials would be distributed and that an environment of respect, tolerance and love would to be maintained at all times. Such was both necessary and practical and the opportunities that stemmed from founding and leading the student club would change my life forever. I became infatuated with religious studies and plan on making it my major in college. I was offered speaking engagements in Utah, Arizona, Virginia and Mexico and was able to validate and strengthen my deeply held beliefs regarding interfaith dialogue, cooperation and understanding. The World Religion and Tolerance Society (WRATS), as it would eventually be named, would become recognized across state, national and international circles. My Eagle Scout Project was actually spent in establishing the WRATS at Williams Field High School.
To be continued…