Title: Sökte sanning – fann tvivel (Sought Truth, Found Doubt)
Authors: Hans Mattsson and Christina Hanke
XP Media: Handen, Sweden, 2018.
Hardcover, 222 pages.
Price: 249 SEK. ISBN 978-91-984125-7-4.
Reviewed by Kim Östman, Turku, Finland
“Why is everybody afraid of questions,” wondered the Swede Hans Mattsson during his decade-long faith journey. It is widely known that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) has entered an era in which religious doubts are an increasingly common part of the faith’s discourse and its membership’s experiences. To date, Mattsson is probably the highest-ranking Latter-day Saint to provide a face to the related phenomenon that scholars such as Terryl L. Givens have termed “a real crisis.” That is, when some Latter-day Saints find traditional faith narratives wanting in the face of modern scrutiny, they have left the faith in numbers that former official Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen found to be alarming.
According to Dieter F. Uchtdorf, formerly of the church’s First Presidency, Mormons “respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves.” For some on these journeys, intellectual seekership and religious leave-taking becomes a reflection of their highest religious ideals, i.e., those of seeking and pursuing their truth, while accepting the personal, spiritual, and social consequences.
A member of the LDS Church’s Third Quorum of the Seventy in 2000–2005, the journey of Mr. Mattsson and his wife Birgitta received worldwide exposure through a July 2013 front-page piece in The New York Times. That article detailed how they “searched for truth and found doubt”, a process memorialized in the title and contents of a new Swedish-language book by Hans Mattsson and Christina Hanke, a long-time family friend. She has written most of the book, based on extensive discussions with the Mattssons; whether journal entries or other materials contemporary to the described events were used in addition to retrospective views is unclear.
The book is in essence an intimate deconversion narrative, although a small part of the narrative is also one of conversion to Protestantism, especially on Christina Hanke’s part. Hans, Birgitta, and Christina are all described as now being “believing Christians.” The verbiage describes this transformative process as “becoming free” from a strict religion and entering a new, “authentic life” of simple Christianity. This is not a focus of the book, however, and it is also otherwise nothing like the countercult exposés so often released by Protestant publishers. The book is written not only for current and former Mormons, but also for others who are interested in soul-searching travels within the land of religion.
The narrative proceeds in third-person style with Mr. Mattsson as the central figure, including occasional extended windows into his wife’s thoughts. The text describes his Mormon heritage, his childhood, serving a mission in England simultaneously with his twin brother, meeting his wife, living a life full of family, church, and professional responsibilities, and eventually—jumpstarted by his endeavor to find answers to the questions of others—the decade-long process of faith transformation.
If one views the narrative through sociologist of religion David Bromley’s typological lenses, it presents Hans Mattsson as a “whistleblower” (the term is actually used once in the text). These persons, according to Bromley, offer personal testimony and present themselves as motivated by personal conscience and integrity when an organization goes awry. The book is thus ultimately an exercise in self-vindication, of explaining and arguing for one’s motivations and choices in the face of an organization’s perceived problems.
The first chapters explain Hans’ grandparents’ conversion to Mormonism and lay the ground for the Mattsson “clan’s” activity in the LDS Church. This also provides the background for why taking the steps out of the religion will eventually be of such momentous consequence: there was always freedom when growing up, but it came with a price: “you have to honor your name”. Honoring one’s heritage is a theme that echoes throughout the book, although the way it is ultimately done turns out to be different from the expectations of many: after all, grandfather didn’t just convert to a new faith, he also deconverted from another.
Along the way, we learn of Mattsson’s youth and early adulthood, and the joys, blessings, and feelings of deeper meaning experienced through Mormon life. We also learn about common feelings of insufficiency in the face of leadership tasks and learning a foreign language, and of more problematic “shelving” of perplexing matters, such as a disconcerting first temple experience, aggressive missionary tactics, or failed priesthood blessing promises. It is obvious that the book is written by persons who are intimately familiar with the workings of Mormonism on the personal, interpersonal, and institutional levels.
The description of Mormon life is—at least to this reviewer—all the more interesting because it is focused on a life outside the English-speaking world. Church-published materials in those language regions play host to simple faith-affirming narratives, just like those published in English. However, in contrast to the English-speaking world—where further discussion has for decades taken place in scholarly publications and more recently in online fora—other language regions mostly lack sources and venues for deeper intellectual engagement with the faith and its thornier questions.
The members’ beliefs in those regions are thus a very accurate reflection of the church’s simple discourse, unaugmented by extracurricular books and other sources. That sometimes renders the membership unprepared for the more complex realities of history and present-day church operations, and exposes it to disillusionment along with painful feelings of institutional betrayal when confronted by those realities. Understanding this situation and dynamic is key to understanding the experiences of the Mattssons and many others in Sweden and around the world.
The bulk of the book presents the resulting process as it played out in the Mattsson family. It began as an attempt to find answers to questions that were posed to Hans as an LDS “Area Seventy” by members and leaders in Sweden. When Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005) confirmed some of the new things he was hearing, he decided to dig even deeper. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. After all, we have the truth,” the thought went. Many popular concerns are discussed: variant versions of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham controversies, details of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, temples and freemasonry, and racism. The excavation of similar topics extended over a period of years, led to new discoveries and more questions, and eventually severe religious doubt that began to affect personal relationships, including at times the Mattssons’ marriage.
Many of these personal relationships involved church members, and the description of Mattsson’s experience resonates with anecdotes published by Brigham Young University sociologists in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion already in the late 1980s: local leadership is often not prepared to help intellectual seekers, instead asking them to lay their worries aside and focus on the faith’s basics, sometimes even resorting to personal attacks. In a theme repeated through the latter part of the book, the authors’ views in such confrontations are portrayed as logically consistent and dominant, whereas Mormon responses are portrayed as weak and illogical. Still, leaders and particularly regular members do react with some variation: calls to repentance and accusations of devilish corruption alternate with others’ sympathetic questions and desires to better understand their own similar journeys.
Other personal relationships involved church leaders on the global level. Many readers will find Mattsson’s insider accounts of meetings with worldwide leadership interesting. For example, the book sheds light on the late President Gordon B. Hinckley’s reactions towards leaders “cooking the books” when it came to their reporting, and on meetings with Elders Marlin K. Jensen, L. Tom Perry, and Ronald A. Rasband regarding difficult faith issues. Mattsson clearly has a soft spot for Jensen, who is portrayed as an individual valuing true friendship over church membership status. In an emotional passage, the retired Jensen, hosting the Mattsson couple in his Utah home in 2015, kneels with the couple to pray for them. Why? Among other things, so that they could be of help to the many former Mormons they were going to meet immediately after.
The most emotional and pivotal part of the book is deeply personal, describing Hans Mattsson’s early 2010 road trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg and back, to visit his aged Mormon mother. Being in her 90s, she listened to his concerns and views—differing from her own—and trusted his honesty and integrity despite misgivings about his path. The mother’s unwavering love emerges as a turning point, allowing him to formulate “the most forbidden of all thoughts” for the first time while driving back.
Thinking the unthinkable—that his Mormon faith might be misplaced—is followed by fearful thoughts about the vexing potential consequences for his marriage, his children, and his extended family, or in short, the prospect of becoming “a traitor, a promise breaker” whose social life would be destroyed. Faced with losing integral parts of identity and community, the crying Mattsson prays to God in desperation, just for everything to be as it used to be.
Some readers may be disappointed that Mattsson’s religious quest did not turn its lens also on the foundations of Christianity itself, which underscores the personal nature of all such quests. On the other hand, many will find Mattsson’s journey inspiring and his penchant for asking respectful but pointed questions of those in positions of power—while not accepting hand-waving for an answer—a breath of fresh air. Conversely, especially believing Mormons may find the narrative too one-sided when it comes to controversial matters. They may also find the book offensive because of its ultimate message.
Be that as it may, Latter-day Saint life and faith is portrayed with great skill throughout the book, and nobody is portrayed flippantly or vindictively. Despite comments that remind the reader of the book’s ultimate message, its tone is respectful throughout, and it is abundantly clear that the authors have a place in their hearts for their former faith and their experiences within it. Mr. Mattsson appears to have arrived at a healthy vantage point from which to evaluate his life journey, which is demonstrated especially in the epilogue, written in first-person style.
I observed only a few minor errors of fact. For example, Richard Turley is introduced during the “Swedish Rescue” effort in November 2010 as an employee of Brigham Young University’s History Department, instead of the Assistant Church Historian that he was at the time. Some 50 spelling mistakes are interspersed throughout the 220+ pages of the book, which reflected subpar editing but did not disturb the reading experience.
For scholars of Mormonism, the book serves as a modern-day primary source: a retrospective deconversion narrative that illuminates the deeply personal struggles that are often overshadowed by the institutional framing of Mormonism’s encounter with modernity. That encounter is, above all, being played out in individuals’ lives, as some integrate new perspectives into their Mormon faith, while others find faith or a lack of it outside Mormonism.
Other interested readers both within and without the Mormon faith will find in the book a well-narrated life adventure marked by faith, relevant questions, doubts, and new vistas. It is also marked at times by sorrow and a painful longing for the simplicity of what once was. Ultimately, what unfolds is a deeply personal journey of reinterpreting what it may mean to be true to oneself, one’s highest ideals, and to one’s heritage.