The hidden depths of the Web can offer a disguise, a cloak of anonymity.
And the ex-Mormon community is no different.
Many have gathered in a place where names aren’t mentioned and personal backgrounds and histories are kept in the dark. There are 33,000 subscribers on the ex-Mormon subreddit, a community where church controversies and grief over leaving the religion are mostly aired freely.
Just 1.6 percent of the United States is Mormon, but the membership numbers of exmormon dwarf that of other ex-religious groups. The second-largest Reddit community for people who’ve left their faith is the exmuslim subreddit, which has a relatively paltry 15,459 subscribers.
A leak of internal church documents posted to exmormon yesterday led to the group’s biggest one-day surge in membership since it started in 2009. The credibility of some of the documents has come into question, as has the level of interest they even sparked.
Internal Mormon Church Documents Leaked Online in Least Interesting Act of Whistleblowing Ever https://t.co/G5hRQLEz7L
— Hemant Mehta (@hemantmehta) September 22, 2016
There’s a giant leak of internal Mormon Church documents at Reddit and they’re as hilariously boring as you’d expect https://t.co/PRBoc18xZS
— (((Yair Rosenberg))) (@Yair_Rosenberg) September 22, 2016
In fact, the church itself brushed off the leak. LDS church spokesman Eric Hawkins called it a collection of “procedural manuals, work plans and memos with very little important or sensitive information,” in an email to Mashable.
But even as the documents received open criticism about not having very interesting, controversial or even credible information — one appeared to actually be a CIA document — there was still overwhelming support for the leaker, aptly named “mormondocuments.”
Loyal members of the subreddit were initially excited, and many later disappointed, by the apparent leak fail. But the resilience of the group remained. That’s because for many ex-believers the real scandal wasn’t hidden in the leak. It’s in the church’s history.
In recent years, the church has sought to clarify its position on a number of difficult controversies, like issues of racism, prejudice against LGBT communities, polygamy and teen marriages condoned in the earliest years of the faith. But some say the essays have just caused doubtful Mormons to seek more information online, and not like what they find.
One person who thinks the essays did more harm than good is Jeremy Runnells, a sort of crusader of the online ex-Mormon community. Runnells wrote an 80-page letter to a church leader in 2013 that went viral. A person born into the faith, he was seeking answers about the its history, naming past issues of “polygamy, child abuse, stoning disobedient children, pillage, plunder, sexism, racism” in the letter.
In 2012, the New York Times ran an editorial denouncing past racist policies by the LDS Church. It explained how prophet Brigham Young once described black people as “cursed with dark skin as punishment for Cain’s murder of his brother” and called on the church to address its history.
“The church would benefit itself and its members — and one member in particular, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee [Mitt Romney] — by formally repudiating the priesthood ban and the racist theories that accompanied it,” religion scholar John G. Turner wrote in the Times.
And the church did just that.
Just over a year later, in December 2013, the organization published an essay called Race and the Priesthood, which details its history of not allowing Blacks to be priests or full members of the church. It also disavowed past practices and teachings, drawing praise from church members and scholars. But it also drew more outrage from doubtful members of the church.
“Today’s prophets are disavowing yesterday’s prophets,” Runnells told Mashable. “So this was extremely shocking.”
Ryan McKnight, a former believer who has been active in current and ex-Mormon online groups for years, said church materials “water down” its true history. Finding out through church sources that Joseph Smith married teenagers, for instance, made it hard for him to trust his faith.
“If I was wrong about that, what else am I wrong about?
But the essays were intended to be truthful and clear explanations of church controversies.
“Ours is a fairly recent history, so there’s an ability to look at primary sources in the historical record, and we think it’s important for our members to have that,” spokesperson Hawkins told Mashable.
On its website, the LDS Church explains it launched the collection of controversial essays in 2013 because “so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources.”
McKnight said leaving the church was a painful experience. He decided to leave a few years ago after going down the rabbit hole of Internet research on topics like Joseph Smith’s teen brides and the banning of black priests. His wife remained in the church for almost a year, and with all his family and friends also being Mormons, he turned to the exmormon Reddit for support.
“When you first leave the church, you can have an angry and bitter phase,” he told Mashable, comparing it to losing a loved one.
On the exmormon subreddit, a post linking to an article published Sept. 23 titled “Why ex-Mormons are so angry,” had many commentators talking about the difficulty of being married to someone still in the church.
Three years after Jeremy Runnells penned the 80-page letter to a church leader, he faced a disciplinary council meeting in American Fork, Utah that ended with him leaving the religion. A vigil was organized by supporters beforehand and afterwards there was a crowd clapping, cheering and holding signs that said “Thank you Jeremy” outside the church where the meeting was held, according to a report from local news station Fox13.
He said the support ex-Mormons have found amongst one another is a product of the digital age.
“In the pre-Internet age, when you found an aspect of Mormon history that challenged your faith, you were very alone,” he told Mashable. “It was pretty risky to come out.”