Business Insider ran a story Sunday about the rise of Mormon-themed anonymous online confessions. Such confessions aren’t exactly new—see this blog which attempts to gather all of the Mormon-themed Postsecret admissions in one place, or this Pinterest page where people have collected highly personal Mormon memes—but they seem to be gaining steam.

Some are full-on, angry breakup declarations. Others are more subtle and heartrending, showing otherwise faithful people who post personal truths they clearly feel unable to voice at church.

tithing meme PinterestI receive a fair number of letters from those people. What they tell me ranges in severity from mild worries that they can’t measure up to deep anxiety that if anyone at church knew the real person inside of them, they would be shunned.

Contemporary Mormonism’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach makes sites like Post Secret particularly attractive since we no longer have a rite of public confession.

We certainly have private, ecclesiastical confession; penitent Mormons can and should take some sins before their bishop. There are also opportunities to counsel with the bishop at a temple recommend interview or tithing settlement.

But public confession in which Mormons air their dirty laundry before God and everybody? Unless some individuals choose to do so during open mike at a monthly testimony meeting, public confession is a relic of the Mormon past.

According to an excellent BYU Studies article by Edward Kimball, many nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints came clean before their congregations. The practice waxed and waned, gaining momentum during some periods (such as the Mormon Reformation) and becoming less common in others.

(D&C 59:12)

(D&C 59:12) (lds.org)

Not everyone was a fan of transparency. Brigham Young, for example, thought the Saints should keep themselves to themselves:

Were I to relate here to you my private faults from day to day, it would not only do you no good, but it would injure you. If you were to relate your private faults to one another, it would tend to injure you; it would weaken and not strengthen either the speaker or the hearer, and would give the enemy more power. Thus far, I would say, we are justified in what some call dissembling. . . .

I have my weakness, and you have yours; but if I am inclined to do that which is wrong, I will not make my wrong a means of leading others astray. Many of the brethren chew tobacco, and I have advised them to be modest about it. Do not take out a whole plug of tobacco in meeting before the eyes of the congregation . . . . If you must use tobacco, put a small portion in your mouth when no person sees you, and be careful that no one sees you chew it. (JD 8:361–62, March 10, 1860)

On the one hand, I can see Young’s very practical point that we can’t take up everyone’s time with a litany of all our wrongdoing. He separates peccadilloes that are personal “follies” (in his day, not keeping the Word of Wisdom was considered such) from sins that actively injure others.

Fair enough. But I hate it that words such as “be careful that no one sees you” create a false culture, encouraging masks to the point that we are considered justified in “dissembling,”—i.e., putting on a good show. Young actually counsels people to screen their imperfections from each other, even to the point of sneaking off in secret: “hide it from the eyes of the public gaze as far as you can, and make the people believe that you are filled with the wisdom of God.”

I don’t agree that public confession weakens the confessor or the hearers. On the contrary; it’s the perpetuation of a masquerade that causes lasting harm.

We need more public confession in the LDS Church, not less.

Now, I’m hearing an objection in my head from those who already feel judged by the Mormon people; the last thing they want is to make themselves vulnerable before the very community they’ve come to regard as judge, jury, and executioner. And perhaps they are right that some critics would take advantage of their moments of defenselessness.

But surely in God’s timing there are also other cases where they would see their judges become vulnerable too; where the community could be brought closer by having pain and failings out in the open; where we could chip away at the myth of perfection and see the church as it really is: a community of flawed and wounded people in need of holy grace.

18 Comments

  1. Jana,

    What are your thoughts on the Twelve Step Program administered by the Church? Do the “public confession[s]” made there factor into your reasoning?

    Thank you,

    -Spencer

  2. Jana Riess

    I think that 12-step programs are great, and I’m glad the Church has adopted the 12-step approach rather than trying to convince people they can kick addictions through prayer alone, etc, as in the past.

    However, a lot of members don’t even know that the Church facilitates such programs, because the support groups don’t meet in the church building and aren’t discussed openly. People are generally referred privately by a bishop or LDS Social Services. While still respecting the privacy of people who want their attendance to remain private, it would be great if we could also talk about addiction IN CHURCH, so that those who choose to be more open might have the support from their brothers and sisters instead of having to hide their recovery.

    • In Loomis, California, the ARP (addictive recovery program) meets in the church building every week on a night no mutual activities are scheduled. An explanation with an invitation and the facilitators names, phone number and email are printed every week in my ward’s bulletin.
      http://addictionrecovery.lds.org/find-a-meeting?lang=eng
      will help you find a meeting.
      I checked out the Sacramento metropolitan area and all of them seem to meet in our church buildings.
      It still amazes me how little things like this can be so different from area to area.

    • They do meet in the church bldgs. I have family members that have attended them Regularly.
      They also have the people called to be in charge of them go to the wards in their stake & talk about them & provide the info of when classes are held.
      Maybe they just haven’t in your area?

    • Jana, they do meet in the church. In fact, some meet during the three hour blocks. It depends on the individual Bishops of the wards. They are supposed to meet at another time, but I have attended meetings during the three hour block in OREM no less.

  3. Infinite power and YET still wanting more

    Openly before the world I confess all my sins….
    I am nothing even less than the dust of the earth…
    I seek the depths of humility and the Baptism of Fire that I might be purified and filled with perfect love for one and all….
    Through HE who came and descended below all things I seek this cleansing and purifying miracle that I might shun the darkness and embrace the light.

    That pretty much sums it up doesn’t it ?

  4. At Stake Conference this week a counsellor in the Stake Presidency talked about how he’d once lied to his father. The Mission President talked very openly about instances of severe and dangerous depression in his immediate family. Both were in service of some other point they were making, rather than as pure confession, but it was astonishingly refreshing to hear such leaders be so open and self-revealing. In my very occasional visits to other churches, I love the obvious absence of judgement, and I long for it in my own church. Tell our actual truths, and we’ll learn to love and forgive ourselves and each other. Or such is my hope.

  5. Recovering Adict

    I’ve been in LDS 12 step groups and also in other 12 step groups. I think it is interesting how the culture of dissimilation infiltrates even these types of groups.

    Most 12 step groups are very open and healthy. Our 12 step groups have people pretending to be more righteous than they are and bearing their testimonies.

    A leader “confessing” to having told a white lie “once” about 4 decades ago, can in a way be counter productive when most of the congregation is struggling with more serious sins. It makes everybody feel comparably worse and as a result less likely to admit (to themselves) their own problems.

  6. Addiction programs are held in our church buildings. Each week in the ward bulletin, there is a list of the meeting times at the various buildings around the city. Not sure why it’s done differently where you live.

  7. It seems that the Church is actively trying to get word out about these programs. Here are links to just some of the articles that have appeared recently in church publications. The last two links are to the actual program. Mormon Channel has been used to get the details out. It’s interesting too that the first link shares how a man found an ad in the newspaper about the program.

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/01/my-journey-from-alcoholism-to-sobriety

    http://www.lds.org/liahona/2010/06/power-to-change

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/2008/07/hope-healing-and-dealing-with-addiction

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/09/rescued-by-the-gospel

    http://addictionrecovery.lds.org/steps

    http://www.mormonchannel.org/addiction-recovery-program

  8. I know a woman in Reno, NV. She stands in front of her ward every third or fourth Sunday and “confesses” to them her “sins and weaknesses”. Often, she talks about her sarcasm and that she really wishes and wants to be more humble. And, she often talks about her ex-husband and how she was so cruel to him going through their divorce, but now wants everyone’s, including his, forgiveness. I do not care for the woman personally, but I wonder what good, if any, she is doing by these tri-monthly confessionals?

  9. This is all very interesting, but somewhat out of line with my own Mormon experience. I have lived all over the world and have moved about every 2 years, so I’ve been in a lot of wards and branches. I’ve also had born again Christian friends whose congregations have turned against them with hateful venom when they’ve asked questions about doctrine. My experience in Mormon congregations is that Mormons are forgiving and sympathetic, and those who feel judged are misjudging and underestimating the charity of other Mormons. I’m glad that public confession is not a cultural norm nowadays, because it can be tiring and unproductive, but I always hate hearing that certain Mormons are true hypocrites, whited sepulchers, who present themselves as moral and faithful, but who are not.

  10. Honestly I find it suspect when people dig up obscure Brigham Young quotes to support their opinions of what changes we should make in our culture. How about this as a basis for a culture shift (which we trot out and sing nearly every General Conference): “We’ll love one another and never dissemble.”

    (By the way I read that B.Y. quote as a modesty and reverence quote – seeking to glorify God not distract others with yourself – not an encouragement to dissemble. To be honest, I think a lack of reverence and true modesty – seeking to glorify ourselves over God – is a much more pernicious cultural problem).

    I fail to see how public confessions will reduce judgment or sin. In fact, psychology research on social norms suggests that exactly the opposite will happen. For example, when the IRS started talking about how often people were cheating on their taxes, cheating on taxes went up (source: http://195.37.26.249/ijsc/docs/artikel/03/3_03_IJSC_Research_Griskevicius.pdf). When the parks service started talking about how many people were stealing petrified wood from the forest, petrified wood theft went up (source: http://osil.psy.ua.edu/672readings/T3-Social%20Influence/Cialdini2005.pdf). Even just discussions of people’s behavior has astounding effects on other people’s behavior – and not in a good way. If you read through the extensive literature on this subject, you’ll probably conclude that public confession would increase the frequency of whatever sins are regularly confessed, increase self-justification (Janie did that and she’s fine, I don’t need to worry), result in more judgment (I saw Janet do that last week – how come SHE’S not up there confessing) and a host of other ills.

    The way for Mormons to stop judging others is to spend more time really learning about Christ and what He has already asked of us, not create more man-motivated, arbitrary programs. We should really teach the principle of reverence and spend more time thinking about our relationship with God and less about what we think about our brethren.

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  1. […] Business Insider ran a story Sunday about the rise of Mormon-themed anonymous online confessions. Such confessions aren’t exactly new—see this blog which attempts to gather all of the Mormon-themed Postsecret admissions in one place, or this Pinterest page where people have collected highly personal Mormon memes—but they seem to be gaining steam. [Read more] […]

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