His entire life seemed to hang by a thread.
Then late one night in 2007, while sitting at his computer in his suburban Atlanta, Johnston came across an article by a Mormon academic in Arizona whose wife had also left the church. Johnston, a burly former Army technician, e-mailed the man explaining his situation. I have no idea what to do, he said. There’s no one I can talk to.
A response came back almost immediately: Hang in there.
I know what you’re going through.
Johnston’s blue eyes widen when he recalls the relief he felt. “Yes! That’s what I thought. I knew, there must be more, but how do I find them?”
Five years later, Johnston, who now lives in Frederick, has become a leader in an online Mormon world full of people just like himself — questioners. And in an extremely orthodox faith, that’s not a simple place to be. Even as the country considers electing a Mormon president, this is a faith still strongly shaped by prejudice, where questions are met first with a hand up to protect the face.
The Web has become such an important part of Mormon life that Mormons call their social networks the “bloggernacle” — named after the Tabernacle, a famous gathering place in downtown Salt Lake City. With names such as feministmormonhousewives.org, newordermormon.org and Johnston’s stayLDS.com, the sites devoted to questioning provide a safe place for Mormons to grapple with topics such as polygamy, institutional racism and a scripture that teaches that Jesus visited the American continent.
Church officials say the growth of the sites does not point to a corresponding growth in the number of Mormons leaving the church, whose membership has burgeoned to more than 6 million inAmerica. “Those leaving the church are a fraction of 1 percent each year and it is a trend that is decreasing rather than increasing,” said Michael Purdy, a church spokesman.
However, said another spokesman, Michael Otterson,“anti-church groups . . . have become more aggressive and outspoken.” And the church has acknowledged on other occasions that it has had difficulty retaining young Mormons, in particular, and has generally lagged in dealing with doubt — perhaps the largest challenge not only to Mormonism, but also to modern organized religion as a whole.
The official church historian Marlin Jensen made news last year when he said that the loss of members in the last five or 10 years has been greater than perhaps any period since Mormonism was founded in 1830.