An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Mitt Romney’s famous apology for the bullying incident, “And if anyone was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” sounds like a speech from Fast & Testimony meeting. Public confession of sins has long been part of Mormon tradition.

The Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants both command confession as a necessary step in repentance. The 42nd section of the D&C lists fornication, adultery, stealing, and lying as sins needing public confession. “And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God.” (D&C 42:91) And don’t you love the way the only Mormon scriptures that include feminine pronouns are for negative behavior?

The Bible also demands confession of sins to God and/or others. James 5:16 tells church members, “Confess your faults one to another.” Most Protestant religions believe sins should be confessed directly to God. Catholics confess to a priest who assigns penance. Mormons confess serious sins to their bishop—an untrained lay person who may be released from his calling and replaced the following week. Mormons generally don’t do public confessions other than the, “If I’ve offended any of you, please forgive me” rhetoric. (In most cases I suspect this phrase is code for “If I’ve said or done something you don’t like, tough sh__.”)

 In Fast & Testimony meeting, I have seen unwed pregnant girls make public confession and even a woman in her thirties confess sexual transgressions from her teen years. I don’t understand the point of public confession. Is there any evidence that it deters people from repeating the transgression? I also miss the point of confessing trespasses from years ago.

Some parts of the past are best left buried. In Levi Peterson’s novel, Aspen Marooney, the protagonist marries a returned missionary in the temple, not telling him she is pregnant with a former boy friend’s child. Somehow, she manages to carry off the deception and the child is raised as her husband’s own. Years later she meets the old boy friend and wonders if she should tell the truth.

Of course, she should not tell the truth. Her conscience might be temporarily relieved, but her confession would destroy her husband and the son he has raised. God could surely not be pleased at causing so much harm.

Our youngest son joined an evangelical church several years ago. He got a lot of mileage with his new friends by telling stories of his youthful escapades—prefacing with, “Before I became a Christian.” A pastor’s wife in our son’s church uses her past to teach young people about faith and repentance. She describes pulling herself from a spiral of sexual promiscuity by accepting Jesus as her Savior and receiving His help in rebuilding her life.

Somehow, I can’t imagine a Mormon leader’s wife encouraging sinners to reform by telling about a past shoplifting offense—let alone rehashing a drunken episode that resulted in waking up in bed with a strange man. Mormons may no longer make the analogy of repentance to pulling a misplaced nail from a board—“The nail has been removed, but the hole is still there.” Still, the feeling persists among Mormons—those who have sinned and repented are not equal to those who never sinned.

Confessing to God may be good for the soul. In most cases, confessing to humans is not.

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