A common refrain heard when members of the LDS Church discuss those who have left and are still vocal about aspects of the Church is, “You can leave the Church but you can’t leave it alone.”
The statement indicates that when a person leaves the Church they will, at least likely, continue to argue against, or at least be interested in, the Church. At its most innocuous, the statement may be viewed as neutral or value free—it is merely an observation about the behavior of former members that they continue to be involved in or concerned with LDS matters even after having left.1 However, the history of its usage by LDS leadership, the context in which members typically deploy it, and explicit elaborations of its meaning by members suggest that it is usually meant derogatorily. At very least, the phrase works to invalidate the perspective of former members.
This document begins by outlining the history of the phrase and then summarizes the implied meaning when deployed by leaders or in some self-published instances by members. It then briefly examines the proportionality of behavior of former members in contrast to active members of the Church. Finally, the document concludes by advancing and defending valid reasons why some members might focus on the LDS Church for some time.
In 2008, LDS scholar Blair Dee Hodges investigated the origin of the phrase in a detailed blog post and, along with other helpful commenters, was able to piece together a reasonable chronology of its inception and usage. He also pin-pointed the similarity between Maxwell’s statement and a story, used frequently in official and unofficial LDS literature, where Joseph Smith describes the necessary trajectory of apostates if they leave the Church.
As detailed more completely in this compilation, the phrase was first published by Neal A. Maxwell in 1979 (“Strange, how often defectors leave the Church, but they cannot leave it alone!”) and seems likely to have originated with him.[^who_originated_the_phrase] In its first published usage it was explicitly linked with a statement from Joseph Smith:
When once that light which was in them is taken from them they become as much darkened as they were previously enlightened, and then, no marvel, if all their power should be enlisted against the truth, and they, Judas like, seek the destruction of those who were their greatest benefactors. (HC 2:23)
In 1989, Glen L. Pace defended the phrase “can’t leave it alone” with another statement from Joseph Smith regarding “neutral ground”:
It seems that history continues to teach us: You can leave the Church, but you can’t leave it alone. The basic reason for this is simple. Once someone has received a witness of the Spirit and accepted it, he leaves neutral ground. One loses his testimony only by listening to the promptings of the evil one, and Satan’s goal is not complete when a person leaves the Church, but when he comes out in open rebellion against it.
The “neutral ground” story Glen L. Pace advanced is very similar in meaning to the “can’t leave it alone.”
When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’”
Following the dictation of the evil one
Official LDS literature includes a direct example of a member discussing how they would leave Mormonism alone and not attack it, were they to leave the Church. The example is found frequently in official LDS literature.2 In this example, Joseph Smith responds to the individual claiming that they would leave “Mormonism” alone were they to leave by saying:
When you [enlisted to serve God (by joining the Church)] you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’
The semi-official Encyclopedia of Mormonism has an entry for “Apostate” and their explanation of Apostate behavior seems to hinge on “guilt” as the driving motivator for former members’ continued attention:
Apostates sometimes become enemies of the Church. Leaving the Church, which claims to be God’s official church, containing the fulness of the gospel, often results in feelings of guilt. While many return, others develop a need to defend their actions, “disprove” the Church, or become hostile enemies. The fruits of apostasy are generally bitter.
The LDS blogger Jeremy Goff, in his article “Why Ex-Mormons Can’t Leave The Church Alone” writes:
Members who leave the church know that their actions are wrong. Deep inside they feel guilty that they are denying their witnesses from the Holy Ghost and forsaking Christ and His gospel. That guilt is demoralizing. They are faced with two options, have the integrity to admit they are wrong and repent, or lie to themselves and rationalize their actions.
The intended effect?
The intended effect of using the phrase seems to be the marginalization of the former member and their perspective: the content of a former member’s concerns or expressions can be more easily dismissed whole-cloth without because, to the believing member, the former-member is merely on “auto-pilot”—why should a member carefully consider the perspective of a guilt-ridden agent of Satan seeking for others to be miserable like them (see 2 Nephi 2:27 and Modern-Day Korihors)?
A “big list” response to the phrase has evolved on Reddit. The list implies that whatever the interest or time a former member dedicates to research or broadcasting of critical perspectives about the LDS Church, that level of engagement is dwarfed by member efforts to spread the faith (and often in ways that are unwelcome by many). A few examples from the list:
- “Every Exmormon a missionary” is not a thing.
- Exmormons don’t go knocking on their neighbor’s doors to tell them about Exmormonism.
- Exmormons don’t text friends saying, “I noticed you went to Church today. I sure missed you at not-Church. Hope to see you soon.”
- When their Mormon neighbors move, Exmormons don’t track them down and invite them to leave the Church in their new area.
- Exmormons don’t fly across the country/world their own expense and then spend two years trying to get Mormons to leave the Church.
- When a Mormon neighbor makes the decision to stay in the Church, Exmormons don’t write them a letter explaining the eternal consequences of their decision and telling them that before they make such an important decision they must sit down with them to discuss it.
- Exmormons don’t give their Mormon friends books by Jerald & Sandra Tanner for Christmas and Birthday presents.
- Exmormons never use funerals as an opportunity to teach the plan of natural selection to grieving Mormons.
- Exmormons never write their testimony inside a copy of “No Man Knows My History” and give it to a Mormon relative while explaining what the book has meant to them and how it has changed their life.
- Exmormons do not send Birthday cards to their Mormon neighbor’s children with a note that says, “Jeremy Runnells loves you and so do I. We sure miss you when you at Not-Church.”
- Exmormons don’t invite their Mormon friends to dinner and surprise them by having also invited two young evolutionary biologists who would like to share a message with them.
- When Exmormons notice a family in their neighborhood has attended Church for several weeks in a row, they don’t leave delicious chocolate cupcakes on their doorstep with a note that says they wish you would stop attending Church so often.
- Exmormons don’t call a meeting with other Exmormons and say, “Hey, lets make a list of all the Mormons in the ward boundaries, and let’s think about it and pray about it, and we’ll narrow that list down to 5 names, and we’ll focus all of our energy and attention on these five people or families, and we’ll try to get them to leave the Church”.
Family entanglement. Former member lives are often still impacted by the culture and practices of the LDS Church. I have siblings and parents in the Church, and may former members have children and spouses who still attend.
I live in Provo, Utah, so the LDS Church and its culture and policy impacts political decisions and those decisions influence me, or my nation, directly.
Many LDS politicians are strongly influenced by LDS doctrine in how they approach legislation. For example:
- [Gordon Smith discusses politics with LDS leadership]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4FPVZH8fIg)
My foundation is the doctrine of my church, and it flavors everything I do … I believe this is the word of God. I’m reading the Old Testament right now, three chapters every morning. Really enjoying it.
… returning to the subject of the nondiscrimination bill. “It is contrary to our church doctrine,” he said, pointing to the church’s 1995 proclamation stating that marriage is between one man and one woman.
I spent 38 years of my life (at this point ~83% of my entire life) as a dedicated member. It frames who I am and how I think. Virtually all my formative experiences were made from within the LDS framework. How do I even interact with the world except from within that framework, at least in some significant ways?
Many former members feel like not knowing about the truth-claim data can cause people harm. They felt compelled to leave after understanding the data, so they think others deserve to know about it, also. Few of them wish to compel others to leave, they simply want others to have all the information to make an informed choice.
- informed consent, caring, leaving a burning building (or abuser)
processing a monumental life transition
- if they love you, then they want to process that transition with you, somehow. Unfortunately, this often feels like a personal attack since the Church is tied into identity.
- countless life decisions were informed by their membership
- accepted the package of decisions and now are needing to grow into this new role very rapidly
- perpetual reminders
- not enough people who understand, so want to process with those who understand their life experience
A variety of perspectives have been expressed on the topic (or are closely related).
- The Politics of Religious Apostasy (general reference discussing narrative arcs)
- They leave the Church but can’t leave it alone (Blair Hodges)
- SW08006: PURPOSEFUL STRANGERS: A STUDY OF THE EX-MORMON NARRATIVE (Seth Payne and Elise Johnson, Sunstone archived podcast, currently dead-link)
- Ex-Mormon and Other Emerging Mormon Identities (post by Seth Payne)
- Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry “Apostate”
- They Can Leave the Church, But They Can’t Leave the Church Alone (Brie Sweetly)
- Why is it that former Latter-day Saints leave the church but they can’t leave it alone? (Quora)
- You can leave the church, but they can’t leave you alone (anecdote from exmormon subreddit)
- “They leave the church but they can’t leave it alone” (anecdote from exmormon subreddit about PTSD)
- “They Can Leave the Church, But They Can’t Leave the Church Alone“ - Thoughts? (discussion on mormon subreddit)
- Exmormons can’t leave it alone (My Spiritual Life youtube)
- Why ExMormons can’t leave the Church alone (The Tomsters Podcast)
- Why ex-mormons “can’t leave the church alone” (Zelph On the Shelf youtube)
- Why People Who Leave the Church Can’t Leave It Alone (argues that when a member leaves they have left neutral ground and are under the influence of Satan but they should still be loved and not shunned)
- Why Ex-Mormons Can’t Leave The Church Alone. (“It is important to understand that Anti-Mormons are not honest brokers. They are miserable and they seek that all men might be miserable like unto themselves.”)
- Why People Leave The Church, But Can’t Leave It Alone (Nate Bagley)
- Cutting a Little Slack for Ex-Mormon (Jeff Lindsay)
This document does not seek to counter the observation that at least some significant fraction of former members seem to fixate on the LDS Church, the actions of its leaders, its history, or its truth-claims for some length of time following their departure. But, while some former members clearly spend some time after their departure still focused on the LDS Church, it may be the case that many do not and the observation may, in fact, be a form of survivorship bias: the former members who are most noticed by LDS members are those who still engage. ↩
The story of Joseph Smith’s response to Isaac Behunin, as recounted by Daniel Tyler (e.g., see this lesson manual is frequently conveyed in official LDS literature—a search on 2022-08-04 for the phrase “left the neutral ground” from the story retrieves 13 instances of its usage on churchofjesuschrist.org). The story begins with Isaac and Daniel visiting Joseph Smith and hearing Joseph recount among other things the “many false, inconsistent and contradictory statements made by apostates.” Isaac responded by saying that if he were to leave he would “go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.” Joseph Smith responded, according to Tyler, by saying that in joining the Church Isaac had “enlisted to serve God” and “When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.” Ben Arkell appeals directly to this story when discussing the idea that former members can leave but they can’t leave it alone in this essay. ↩