Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Are Mormons in their 20s and 30s leaving the LDS Church?

Yesterday I gave a keynote speech at a Mormon Studies conference Utah Valley University, raising a number of questions about the generation that fascinates me most: the Millennials, or those Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s.

You can read news coverage of the conference here or here, but here’s a basic summary of what I was trying to get at by collating a whole lot of data. (The talk was a little Death by PowerPoint-y, I’m afraid. Way too many slides. I get overexcited.)

Here are three key takeaway points:

1. Millennials as a generation are taking longer to grow up.

The Millennial generation as a whole is departing from the traditional script of adulthood: job, marriage, children.

Here’s a slide of Pew data comparing first marriage for each of four generations: the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. By the time members of the Silent Generation (the generation born between 1928 and 1945, who are now among the top leaders of the LDS Church) reached their early 30s, almost two-thirds of them (65%) were already married.

FT_Marriage_DeclineEvery generation’s age of first marriage has dropped since then to the point where only one-quarter of Millennials (26%) are married by their early 30s.

Millennials are also delaying childbirth, having fewer children, and living at home with their parents in greater numbers than previous generations (the “Boomerang” effect).

2. Millennials value inclusion and diversity.

Diversity for Millennials isn’t just a nice thing, or something to tolerate. It’s essential. In one study of Millennials in the workplace, 83% said they were more likely to be engaged with their work in a diverse, inclusive environment. Only 60% thought they could stay engaged in an environment that was not diverse.

This attitude stems directly from their experience of a rapidly changing America. In the early 1960s, when the Silent Generation entered adulthood, 85% of the nation was white, 10% was African American, and 4% was Hispanic. Other racial categories were so small as to not even be blips on the statistical radar.

But look at our nation’s mosaic half a century later in 2010, and at Pew’s projections for 2060, when there will be no racial majority in America.

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

So long, Caucasian hegemony. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

3. Mormon retention is down.

There’s an abundance of good news if you’re a Mormon leader. Mormons still have the highest rates of marriage in the United States, extremely high self-reported findings about belief in God and religious practices such as daily prayer, and low incidence of high-risk behavior.

The bad news is that retention is slipping, and younger generations appear to be leading the way.

Let’s get some context for this. Millennials are the most religiously unaffiliated of any generation in recorded US history. More than a third of them have dropped out of organized religion altogether.

Young adult Mormons show some signs of following the national trend. When Pew surveyed this in 2014, 64% of all Latter-day Saints who were raised Mormon still self-identified as Mormon as adults.

That 64% rate is very decent, actually. It’s smack dab in the middle of the stats on religious retention in America, as you can see from the Pew table below.

Hindus, Muslims and Jews Have Highest Retention Rates. Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Survey.

Hindus, Muslims and Jews Have Highest Retention Rates. Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Survey.

But a 2007 Pew study, which asked the same questions as the 2014 one, had shown Mormon retention at 70%.

And Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition, based on research conducted in the early 2000s, had the retention rate (specifically among Mormon young adults) at 72%.

Moreover, retention rates among Mormons reportedly used to be as high as 90% in the 1970s and 1980s (though frankly those samples were small enough and that retention rate so optimistic that I’m not entirely confident we’re comparing apples to apples).

Even if we just consider the national research that has been done in the last fifteen years, Mormonism’s retention rate has been dropping, though not at the precipitous rates experienced by other groups like mainline Protestants.

If we’ve gone from a retention rate of 72 percent to 70 to 64, that’s not half bad considering the times we live in. But I doubt many LDS leaders are going to throw a Munch-n-Mingle to celebrate those numbers.

There are reasons for Mormons’ successes and failures in this area. Yesterday I tried to lay out some of the things we do wonderfully by young adults: sending them on missions; gathering them into singles wards (yes, really) where they are allowed to exercise responsibility; and simply modeling, as parents, the beliefs and behaviors we hope to inculcate. Parental influence is still, statistically, the single most influential factor in determining whether people stick with the religion of their childhood.

But there are also existing or potential problems in the ways the LDS Church is interacting with Millennials. For one thing, there has never before been such a wide generation gap between young adults and the highest leaders of the church.

It’s not just that apostles, like other people in America, are living longer than ever before. They’re also getting appointed much later in life. Recall that Thomas S. Monson was only 36 when he became an apostle. Reverse those digits and you’re getting closer to the age of appointment of our three most recent apostles (64, 62, and 60).

And of course, the church’s hard-line stance on LGBT issues is alienating to a generation that, as a whole, accepts inclusion and diversity as a way of life. The issues that previous generations have with homosexuality are not nearly as problematic for Millennials. What is problematic is the marginalization of minority groups.

I’ll keep you posted on my research for this book.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

55 Comments

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  • My guess is millennials are a practical lot, and they want value for their money. Compared to most other churches, the Mormon church is expensive and involves a whole lot of work and arbitrary compliance. In exchange for which, you get to listen to long, boring testimonies every Sunday and probably miss the Sunday game for your trouble. Plus, everybody makes fun of you for that rocks in a hat thing.

  • The other day I was watching a new video by one of my favorite acapella groups, BYU Vocal Point. I was introduced to them when they were contestants a few years back on the Sing-Off. What struck me was that every member was a handsome white guy. And I began to wonder was this just the reality at BYU Provo, that the campus has none of the real racial diversity that is actually the modern LDS Church. How about BYU ID? BYU HI has to have a predominant Asian/Pacific Island representation right? BYU Provo doesn’t have a cross section of Black, Asian, Latino young folks who can sing? Is this an actual bias in the current guys who make up Vocal Point who select the new members each year?

  • Whoa, whoa. I have to push back on the idea of marriage and children as delaying growing up. As a never married single in my 30s, I can assure you that I am grown up. And it’s this idea that perpetuates the culture of the church to treat married 20 year olds as more “adult” than older singles.

    Maybe, instead, our ideas of what adulthood means has also evolved along with the decreasing rate of marriage.

  • Not to mention that the consolidated meeting schedule that requires folks to carve out a full 3+ hours on Sunday isn’t as relevant to some folks today as it was when developed in the 1970s following the artificial world oil crisis, when gas jumper from 25¢ a gallon to $1.

  • Second that, as a not-married, childless, independent woman of thirty.

    I pay my taxes and fix my car and wash my dishes and serve in my community and am quite thoroughly sick of getting sent to the kids’ table because of the condition of my hymen.

  • Please reconsider your framing of delayed marriage as “taking longer to grow up.” Single adults are already infantilized enough by the church. Marriage is not a marker of adulthood. This kind of discourse is why many of us single adults feel excluded even in more progressive Mormon circles.

  • Ug, JANA! I have SERIOUS reservations with this article. It’s called a LINGER LONGER, not a Munch-and-Mingle, you heathen!

  • I was going to make a similar comment! Suggesting that “growing up” means married and having children seems like a pretty narrow definition. I would suggest that sometimes delaying marriage and/or childbearing can actually be a pretty grown up choice!

  • I find the testimonies [given the first Sunday of every month] to be worth the time and often very interesting. It is a way of community bonding and sharing of life high and low points. It can reveal personal development and discovery. I don’t drink kool-aid … and perhaps there is some geographical dependency in my experience [I live on the West Coast] … but I find the association and common worship valuable – often very valuable. Of course – I am no millennial – am about to begin my eighth decade.

  • Very interesting observation! I sang in the varsity mens glee club (a 20 member acapella) at my university in the south eastern U.S. in the 70’s, and it was quite a diverse group. I was only in Utah around SLC for a few years, but there was a striking lack of diversity compared to other places I’ve lived (west coast and south east). Don’t know if that explains the make up of the singing group.

  • You’re quite right. I thought when I wrote it that using that phrasing about the traditional definition of adulthood would suggest that I agree with you that this is certainly not the only definition of adulthood. But I certainly wasn’t very clear about that, and I’m sorry.

  • Awhile back, just for fun, I combined retention, conversion and fertility numbers reported by Pew Research. The growth numbers I came up with for one generation, assuming nothing changed, were:

    Evangelicals: 117%
    Mainline Protestants: 75%
    Historically Black Protestant: 106%
    Catholics: 72%
    Mormons: 152%
    Jews: 86%
    Unaffiliated: 203%

    Mormons were the only group to show positive growth through fertility and retention alone, if only barely.

  • As someone who has left, I think the Church needs to engage in a conversation where it seeks to understand respectfully why people leave. Instead it seems the focus is still inward. Yes there are reasons to be upset and angry about Church history and policy but the real reason I left was in search of something “truer” and more sincere.

    God and inspiration and relevant guidance felt muffled by defensiveness and rigidity. Apologize, include, seek inspired changes, look for Zion, cease to coerce youth. Soften, show kindness, appreciate context, create a tone where more of us recognize our still small voices presence in institutional places and practices rather than opposite. Less fear more love. And of course MORE WOMEN!

  • I’m very skeptical retention rates were ever much above 70%. One problem once you go back before the 80’s is that the church is still so essentially regional and so dominant in that region. That means people who today wouldn’t need to associate with the church would de facto be part of the church. (Think especially in small town Utah, Arizona, or Idaho) So today people who in the past would have been inactive now can become something else.

    Anyway, if retention was always around 70% then things haven’t changed much. The drop the latest Pew data shows is somewhat concerning. I’m looking forward to the next ARIS study to see what it shows. There are a few reasons to be skeptical of Pew. Even if Pew is accurate though Mormons are basically tied with all non-ethnic religions. (Meaning religions where there’s also a strong ethnic identity tied to it such as Judaism, much of Islam, and arguably even historical black protestant churches)

  • I wouldn’t judge BYU’s diversity by a nine-member, a cappella group. I’ve lived in student housing for Snow College, USU and BYU (though I didn’t attend BYU), and BYU was by far the most diverse from my experience. While I was there, I had friends and roommates who were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Nepali, Ghanaian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Bolivian, Peruvian, Chilean, Navajo, US-born Hispanics, and of course US-born whites (probably left some countries out). I don’t specifically remember any US-born blacks (although I’m sure there were at least some). Nor do I remember anyone from the Middle-East or North Africa. But overall, it seemed much more diverse than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Lower tuition for all LDS members regardless of where they’re from probably had something to do with that.

  • You’ve made my point! The Provo campus is more diverse. So why are all nine of the guys only white? Why isn’t a school sponsored, ambassadorial, music organization more representative of the diversity of the student body?

  • The recent rape case at BYU and how the school is trying to victimize her again is another sign why the church will continue to have retention problems. The brethren need a heavy dose of common sense and need to be more in touch with young people.

  • I saw that article. The LDS church has a history of shaming female victims of sexual abuse, blaming the victims (as occurs at BYU), and discouraging victims from contacting police. What we need for the Q12 is less white, younger, from outside Utah, and a few Sisteren in the mix. Amazing how, out of all the world wide choices God has to “call by revelation”, he picks old white guys from Utah for Q12. Sheesh. It’s almost like a bunch of good ol’ boys are perpetuating their own grip on the LDS church’s power and money, and God has nothing to do with the choices. But, you know, “the church is true!”

  • Sue, I am very interested in where you went, after you left the LDS church, how long ago, and did you find what you were looking for.
    I realize by disclosing this you open yourself up in this open blog but I will not criticize you.
    Please share.

  • Disqus, yay! Too bad it means that all the previous comments vanished. Anyway, to repost my previous comment, awhile back I combined fertility, retention and conversion rates from Pew Research polls, and the population changes I came up with for the next generation (assuming nothing changes), came to:

    Evangelicals: +17%
    Mainline Protestants: -25%
    Historically Black Protestant: +6%
    Catholics: -28%
    Mormons: +52%
    Jews: -14%
    Unaffiliated: +103%
    Of these Mormons are the only group producing enough children to maintain their own numbers without converts, if only barely.

  • Yeah, but a majority of those children will leave the church. And the activity rate in the church is only about a 1/3 to begin with, being liberal. If the church wants to retain members it’s going to have to change, on current trajectory it’s not looking good.

  • I’d say this to young Mormons as well as any other dogmatic sect, including Southern Babtists, Right-Wing Catholics, Tounge-Speakin’ Pentecostals/AOGs, Scientologists, Boko Haruns, Isi [that’s plural of Isis], Talibangelicals, Campbellites, Lubativichers, Likudniks, Hassidim, Hindu nationalists, etc. – Get out! Get out now. Like the saying goes, “Honor a man who seeks the truth; beware the man who says he’s found it.” Seek your own truth. Nobody, no one, is ever authorized as a middle level authority between you and the Divine.

  • Most of those I know who have left the Church in the past 5 years are in their 40’s now, mostly over points of doctrine, history and just plain pride.

  • Why is this ridiculous cult given ANY credence? Unlike with characters in the bible (also full of fanciful stories and much silliness), the truth about the con-man/money-digger/sex predator Joe “I Want to Marry Teen Age Girls” Smithee is extremely well-known. Why don’t you guys invite Scientologists to post their views as well, given that Mormonism has all the bona fides of Scientology?

  • Our daughters are just too smart to accept the milarky that we were all spoon fed growing up. Sure, the church has great values, BUT it’s history and the First Presidency’s inability to explain, justify, deny, or refute- is the ELEPHANT in the ROOM. The Church Prides itself on “TRUTH”. Ironically and hypocritically, the Church wants no part of its own history’s ‘Truth’.

  • I’m confused…. Why does this article say retention rates are 70% when if 70% of YSA are inactive, the retention rates would actually be %30.

  • I was born a Mormon. Served a mission, married in temple served in bishoprics and high council positions, etc. However, I left the Mormon Church when i was 43. Best thing I ever did…I just resigned, they tried to bring me to one of their Kangaroo courts, but I refused to attend, informing them they already had my formal resignation. After a bit of a fuss on their part, they conceded and I got an official letter accepting my resignation. I am now 74 and have no regrets leaving that crazy religion.

  • One thing to take into consideration. Once a member statistic on the Mormon membership rolls, always a member. Just because you leave doesn’t mean they purge your name. Your name just goes onto a different list. In the end, you’re still counted as a member.

  • Mormons play games with their membership statistics. And since no one can go into their archives and do independent research themselves, everyone will just have to believe what they report. Since they preach about gold plates, seer stones and other strange things, it’s no leap for them to spin a tale about how many members they have and retain. Strong indicators exist to allow us to conclude that their back door is just as busy as their front door, it’s just not reported.

  • People are following mormonism and not the gospel of Jesus christ what works out salvation

  • Pride? How about having access to information today demonstrating what liars run the church. After decades of denials, in 2015 the Church finally admitted that JS was a money digger using a rock he dug up in a well. Sorry, that’s a deal killer.

  • People, especially Christians, who know nothing about Mormonism, become Mormons through baptism because they think they believe what the Mormon full-time missionaries tell them about LDS theology, doctrines, and history. They want to believe those boyish and girlish full-time missionaries who seem so sincere about Jesus, and, in the case of families, are mesmerized by those agents of Mormonism to believe things that are not true about Mormon theology. These Christians who become Mormon converts eventually learn, within two years, that they were not given full-disclosure from those missionaries about polytheistic Mormon theology, especially the part about the Mormon father-god with a capital G, (Heavenly Father) having been born as a man on an earthlike planet somewhere in the cosmos, and having changed, and changed, and changed to die, be resurrected, and become a Mormon father-god with his celestial wife, or wives, who are Mother-goddesses in heaven. Yes, the Mormon Church believes and teaches in a “mother in heaven! Furthermore, if Christian men were told by the Mormon missionaries that their ultimate destiny is to become father-gods, with a capital G, by doing everything that the Mormon father-god, with a capital G, (Heavenly father) has done, do you believe that they would continue listening to those Mormon missionaries?

    Acculturation into the social realm of Mormonism is the adhesive element that keeps Mormons, who were once Christians, from leaving. The ward and stake web of social affiliation, what Mormons call fellowshipping, includes what are called home teachers, who are spies for the ward bishop, the ward high priest group leader, and the elders quorum president, who are sent into the homes of recent converts for the purpose of learning what is going on in the lives of those recent converts. Yet, there are quite a few Mormon converts who learn about the lies and misrepresentations about theology and doctrines from the Internet. And they just stop going and affiliating. Especially people who read “Lesson 21-Man May Become like God,” from the 1984 LDS Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide, “Search These Commandments,” which is available at the following link – http://www.mormonthink.com/files/Lesson%2021%20Man%20Can%20Become%20Like%20God%201984.pdf
    Mormon converts are shamed into remaining in Mormonism by the ward leaders and the converts’ cognitive dissonance many times interferes with them making rational decisions.

  • You make converts out to be ignorant stooges who are incapable of independent thought or research. I can assure you that many converts and people who join the Church are well aware of the differences and ‘eccentricities’ of the Church’s doctrines, theology, and history.

  • The retention rate in the United States is approximately 65% based upon those who were raised as and continue to self-identify as Latter-day Saints/Mormons. This is based upon a Pew survey. It was published in this column some time ago.

  • There are minorities at BYU-Provo, but it is much whiter than the average top-tier university. BYU-Hawaii is predominately minority (Pacific Islander and Asian). BYU-I has more minorities than Provo and is less selective in admissions.

  • If you are a Mormon who regularly bears testimony of your conviction of your faith, I don’t believe it is a leap to understand and appreciate my ‘testimony’ that leaving the LDS Church was one of the best decisions of my life. Simple as that. Why does it interest you?

  • You might very well be a polytheist who believes in as many gods as the Romans and the ancient Greeks believed. If so, I pray that you will come to believe in the one and only Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the only savior and redeemer of this world and in all of his creations of the vast universe, who is the Word and was with God from the beginning and is God. But if you don’t, you have the freedom to believe what you want to believe. The very disturbing thing is that what the Mormons have taught and continue to teach their elders, and prospective elders, inside the cult is much different than what the Mormon full-time missionaries teach Christian investigators about Mormon theology, doctrine, and history. If you are Bible-believing Christian convert to Mormonism, the truth Mormon polytheism is very disturbing when you realize, later after you are baptized into the cult, that what you were told by those missionaries waas not the real theology of Mormonism. I am providing a link to “Lesson 21-Man May Become Like God” for you to read. If you believe it, then you go ahead and practice it. If you don’t believe it, then I would say that you were deceived into joining the Mormon Church. The Mormon Church couldn’t afford, in terms of dollars and cents, to allow the content of “Lesson 21” to be disclosed to Christian investigators to Mormonism.

    http://www.mormonthink.com/files/Lesson%2021%20Man%20Can%20Become%20Like%20God%201984.pdf

  • Latter-day Saints worship one god, Heavenly Father. We do not worship multiple gods. Do we believe that there are other gods? Yes, we do. However, they are not of this existence. They are gods of other realms.

  • I am an active Latter-day Saint. I just don’t understand why you have such a strong interest in this 31 years after your excommunication/resignation. I think you would like to see a decline in the Church to feed your conviction.

  • Read your Roman and Greek mythology. Those pagans actually believed in, and had reverence for, many gods, with a capital G, and Titan-gods, with a capital G. Yet, they only worshiped the gods, with a capital G, that were in their sphere of existence who could influence them. True Mormons believe that all Mormon elders. meaning you and every other Mormon elder, if you are a man, may become a heavenly father-god, with a capital G. Worshiping a theology of many gods, with a capital G, is tantamount to worshiping the gods themselves. The most hideous and abominable part of this Mormon polytheism is that every Mormon elder who becomes a father-god, with a capital G, will procreate his own version of Jesus, a savior. Brigham Young stated very loudly in 1865 that “there are as many Gods as there are stars, and as many saviors as there are Gods.” Read “Lesson 21” and I pray that you will understand. Mormon theology states that the ultimate destiny of Mormon elders is to be as great as the Mormon god, not to worship at the feet of Jesus in heaven.

    The Apostle Paul spoke to the Greek gentiles and explained about other pagan gods, erected to be worshiped on this earth and in the sky, in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6. The gods he was talking about were false gods. The Roman Caesar was regarded as a god. Paul said, “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.” You will notice that Paul stated very plainly there is “one” God in two forms, the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. If the godhead can be separated as the Mormons insist, Paul would have said that there is for us two Gods, the Father and Jesus. He did not classify the Father and Jesus as two separate gods.

  • Hardly. However, I believe it would be a better world if the LDS Church were to decline and disappear. Actually, I feel that way about all power-centered monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity in particular. They have done more harm to the world than good.

  • What about Judaism? I am a Jew according to Halakha, but I was raised LDS. How do you feel about that? Or, is it too politically incorrect to judge that faith tradition?

  • Was your wife raised LDS? I am a little confused by what you mean when you say her “parents converted before she was born.”

    I view the Jewish and Latter Day Saint experiences as sharing a lot similarities. And to reiterate, I say that as someone who is both Jewish and a Latter-day Saint. The negative stereotypes of Jews and LDS are nearly identical, and many of the conspiracies (such as those surrounding the financial crisis, the Fed, and the CIA) are overlapping.

    It’s ironic that you view the LDS as trying to persecute those around them. Mormons are often criticized as being too insular. If one wants to criticize the close association between the Utah government and the LDS Church, one can’t ignore the similarities between that and the modern state of Israel.

    I really don’t understand how you can be so hard of the LDS Church, Christianity, and Islam while turning a blind eye to the similar excesses of Judaism.

  • I find the Israel/Palestine situation very difficult to accept and understand, however, whatever it is, its dysfunction is rooted in Religion…and for what? In my opinion, even though it is a somewhat romantic notion for Mormons, it’s a stretch to equate Judaism with Mormonism..

  • Totally agree I,was a Mormon resigned then my Mormon wife cheated on my then married a Mormon. The church turned a blind eye not that I care, and allowed her to get married in the temple.

    Now my daughter is getting baptised against my wishes so I am disowning her.

    Been a terrible experience

  • That is considered heresy in Christianity Mormons are not Christians when I got divorced I ask a Catholic priest if I could remarry in the Church Once I told him I was married as a Mormon he told me I was free to marry because the Church considered the Mormon marriage to me invalid. In fact I had to go to confession to confess living in sin and being a heretic. Too bad the inquisition isn’t around to deal with Mormons would love to see the fires around Temple Square.

  • I left the Amish Church before I was baptized. Surprisingly, Amish Churches have one of the highest rates of retention of their young people averaging over 80% depending on the region. I think that high rate has to do with the limited education Amish children get. Education past 8th grade is generally not allowed. Also, Amish people really indoctrinate their children starting at a very young age. I was introduced to the LDS church about ten years ago. At first, I felt I had found a family and community that I was longing for after losing everything I lost when leaving the Amish. But then things changed. I became internet savvy and found information that did not mesh with the lovely story I was told by the missionaries. The Bishop and other members didn’t do a good job of refuting the things I presented them. I was told to pray. Sadly, I chose to not be baptized once again. Now I use the brain God gave me and I am not a believer. Luckily I have found a community of like minded people to share my life with.

  • Whatever the % in America that still identify as Mormon in the Pew pole, Martinich & Stewart—two devout Mormons and meticulous demographers of Mormonism—report that Mormon activity, church-wide, is about 30%. And that only about 25% of new converts are still active at one-year. They also show abysmal activity of less than 15% in some import mission areas.

  • I can answer this question for continued interest in the Church, it’s because I keep bumping up against it. The leaders tell my friends and work colleagues that apostates are morally bankrupt. This is after they tell them to trust their warm feelings rather than evidence. The Church sends out 80k missionaries who are not truthful about the Church’s history or truth claims. If the Church would drop its cult like behavior, there would be a lot less people pushing back on them.

  • How can outsiders accurately measure the Church when they have been so dishonest. Good thing is that the internet is changing that. Yesterday’s Anti-Mormon lies are today’s Gospel Topic Essays. That should indeed raise red flags.

  • Why you ask, because if you’re raised Mormon you were lied to all your life. The internet isn’t that old so there wasn’t a way the verify the story.

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