Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
Ardean Walton Watts
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
[p.203]Ardean Watts’s career has been steeped in music. He took his bachelor’s degree in music theory at Brigham Young University, and his master’s in performance at the University of Utah. He was for a time a student at the Academy of Music in Vienna. At the University of Utah his career brought him many honors, including a Distinguished Teaching Award. He served as chair of the ballet department and as a Dee Fellow, to name a few of his achievements. He retired from the U. in 1993 and is now professor emeritus.
His activities with the Utah Symphony will recall him to many readers; he was associate conductor for eleven years, and was musical director and principal conductor for Ballet West, as well. He was also piano soloist with the symphony under Maurice Abravanel and Paul Whiteman, and was the official pianist of the Utah Symphony Orchestra for twenty-two years.
Not all of his performing has been classical. He was leader and conductor of dance and show bands at Lagoon, Saltair, and the Rainbow  Randevu in Salt Lake City in the 1950s. He was a Grammy Award nominee for best classical performance-choral in 1962, when he prepared the University of Utah Chorus to record Honegger’s King David with the Utah Symphony. He has also been a vocal coach and was founder of the University of Utah Opera Company. Recent creative projects include incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Pioneer Memorial Theater, electronic realization of the orchestration of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, and the composition of Mark V Marimba Toccata.
Ardean is active in Rotary Club, was a member and chair of the Music Committee of the YMMIA General Board of the LDS church (1958-74), and was appointed to the Utah Arts Council in 1987, serving as its chair in 1993-95. He has been president or a member of the board of the B. H. Roberts Society since 1987. He was also the founder of the Mushroom Society of Utah, and is a member of the board of Hawk Watch International.
Ardean ushers me into a room in his home whose walls seem composed entirely of books. A grand piano sits near a window, through which winter sunlight filters across a green-blue carpet. The piano is draped with a throw woven with a piano key pattern in black and white. A madonna hangs on a wall, a framed Egyptian papyrus rests on a shelf. The place is dotted with pictures of family. This man is imposing, with white hair and jet-black eyebrows setting off a white Brigham Young beard. He wears suspenders and black glasses. His hands tremble slightly, but his voice is steady and mellow, and he frequently enjoys a laugh at his own observations.
Were you born in Utah?
I was born in Kanosh, Millard County, Utah, but my father left the farm and became a grocer in Idaho. I was raised mostly in Idaho Falls. I left home at age seventeen when I graduated from high school to attend Brigham Young University; fulfilled a mission in the New England states 1947-49; and then completed a degree in music at BYU in [p.205]1952. Married, settled here, and I’ve been in the music profession ever since.
Let’s go back for a moment to your childhood. Were both of your parents active church members?
We’ve already talked about how many kinds of Mormons there are. My father at one time decided that Sunday was his only free day of the week and that justified hunting and fishing on Sundays. But that represented an aberration of some sort. Generally my parents were very dedicated. But I’ve come to accept that there are thousands of variations on being Mormon, and I’m one of them.
I know you’re concerned about the term “Jack Mormon.” The church calls them “less active.”
I don’t consider any description that I’ve heard yet adequate to describe my situation accurately. Jack Mormon, in spite of the fact that it is very ambiguous and could probably mean anything to anybody, is most often associated with people who don’t adhere to the Mormon lifestyle. But I still do, as I did for the first forty-five years of my life. It would be more accurate to describe me as a “heretic.” The church likes to refer to us as “intellectuals,” but that doesn’t apply to me either. One time I was asked to give a lesson to the high priests on “What Is a Mormon?” The recommended chapters in the book we were using as a quorum manual contained a definition by J. Reuben Clark that maintained a Mormon believed this, this, this, and this—a half dozen or so essential beliefs. I started my lesson by saying, “I’m not a Mormon by his definition.” I think he was dead wrong. You’re a Mormon if you say you are, and I say I am. The first forty-five years of my life were very orthodox Mormon. I spent about fifteen years as a member of the general board of the Mutual Improvement Association (MIA) working very closely with general authorities. Some of my colleagues became apostles. I prefer to reserve the right to call myself whatever I wish. And I’m neither a Jack Mormon nor an inactive, although right now my bishop is still looking for a place where I fit in, where I won’t cause too much trouble.
[p.206]Describe what kind of a Mormon you are.
First of all, I’m an historical Mormon. I was raised in the church, and I’d say that most of my habits of living, the way I think, and my values have been inherited from the Mormon tradition. I don’t repudiate them in any way. I consider the church essentially a human institution. As a human institution, it stacks up very well against other human institutions, like the Democratic Party, the Elks Club, etc. I think that the big problem that many people have is that their expectations are too high because the church claims to be a divine institution. I have lowered my expectations to the extent that I can still smile a little bit once in a while when it comes to the church. I think they do a great deal of good for individuals of all ages. In my ward they nourish old people in ways that are very often rare out in the world. And they do the same for the very young. We used to be very good in the field of youth programs, but I think we’ve slipped somewhat where that’s concerned. There are many programs sponsored by religious and secular societies that probably do as good a job as we’re doing in that area. But I’m still amazed at how many good things happen, and they’ve happened in my family, and I personally feel they’re worth investing in. It’s just that I don’t believe that the officers are called of God, and I’m under no obligation to believe what they say.
It sure is.
You have eight children?
You’re married to a woman who is a …
A strong believer.
You were at one time a strong believer?
Definitely, until about age forty-five.
A moment of grace came into my life, which I can describe more specifically, but it’s not worth the time. It was simply a moment when I realized that change was possible, and I wanted to make it. I wasn’t [p.207]dissatisfied. I’ve never been persecuted by the church. Nobody hurt me as a Mormon. I did dislike Boy Scouts, and I wasn’t a good one as a result, but I have an Eagle Scout in my family, so obviously I’m not against Boy Scouts. It just didn’t work for me. That event (the moment of grace) happened at 3:20 in the afternoon.
Please describe it?
I was reading a book, and the name of the book I know, but it doesn’t matter. The idea occurred to me that in order to be a better person, I would have to be more receptive to what I thought were God’s messages for me. And so I said, “I’ll do whatever You want if I know it’s You speaking, and hang the consequences.” And that was it. Everything caved in within a few minutes, and I had to start from scratch to build a new faith.
A genuine epiphany.
I think it was. I consider that the most important, single moment of my life.
Was it a freeing moment?
There was no lead up to it at all. It was just, Wham! And I did respond in the way that I said I would.
What were the first things you did?
I was on my way to Denver with the Utah Symphony. The first thing that I did was to decide to buy a pair of roller skates—pretty irrational. The second thing was I felt compelled to read a book which in my mind at that time was forbidden. That book was one I had run across when I was a missionary in New England and had more or less put into a file to be dealt with some other time. The next morning in Denver I was waiting on the library steps when it opened, and I spent two days nonstop reading that book.
What book was that?
It’s a book called Oahspe, and it’s doubtful that you’ve ever heard of it. It’s a mystical book, and dates from the middle of the nineteenth century. Its content was startling to me, although I can say it has little impact on me today. It was a catalyst, and it did accelerate the process  of flushing out the old and making room for the new. It happened very, very fast. Most of my library, which you see, I gathered during the period immediately following that event when I felt I had to fill in the blanks. Generally Mormons are not encouraged to study all faith systems seriously, but I had to. So I became a voracious consumer of literature about religion. I’m at least four things. I’m a father and husband, a musician, a naturalist, and a religious nut. But I don’t own a church. I make up my own theology to fit the need.
You’re very spiritual, aren’t you?
I don’t know what that means. I’ve succeeded in erasing the line between what is spiritual and what is not. I think every human activity has the potential to be a spiritual act—an act of worship, an act of thanksgiving, of rejoicing—or the opposite, damning and hellish. I choose to make life experiences, as much as possible, fun and glorious. That may be spiritual to some, but it’s not a conventional way of looking at spirituality. They wouldn’t buy that in my ward, but they wouldn’t buy it in a lot of other places, either. My modes of prayer and worship are so many that they’re indescribable and constantly changing.
When I was tracting in New England as a missionary, people would often say, “I’m very open-minded but I’m not interested.” Bam! We’d walk away and I’d remember saying to myself, “Yes, they’re so open minded their brains are falling out.” One could say that about me perhaps, but I have my own solid convictions. I have a very strong belief system, but it is unconventional by Mormon standards. I care little if there’s a hereafter. I find most descriptions of God uninteresting. I believe in doing compassionate things and having fun. That’s about it.
How does that impact your wife and children?
My children are close to each other and to my wife and me, very close. It’s inconceivable that we do important things without sharing them. We have four families who live here in the valley, and we have four families from sea to shining sea. And I’m good friends with all of them. We do much better than tolerate each other. I respect their religion and they reciprocate. I encourage them to be good Mormons if they believe that way. But my heresies are a source of great pain to my wife whose upbringing was also conventional Mormon. She’s opened [p.209]herself considerably over the period of twenty-plus years that I’ve been floating free out there. That’s made our lives together tolerable, better than tolerable—we have a wonderful life together. We’ve been married almost fifty years. But it hasn’t been especially easy for her. Once in a while things get tense and it’s hard for her. But we’ll survive that.
Is it conceivable that another epiphany could return you to a conventional kind of Mormonism.
That could happen?
I consider myself open to that possibility, but most of my problems with Mormon beliefs are that I really don’t like them. It’s not that I don’t believe them so much. I don’t want to believe. They don’t fit into a cosmic scheme my brain can deal with. Does your brain create a cosmic scheme of its own? I have dozens of them that I like. I don’t pretend that any of them is the right one. I think that they’re constructs that may be useful to us humans when thinking about that which is beyond our ability to comprehend. I probably feel more comfortable with aspects of Hindu philosophy or Buddhist than the Judeo-Christian tradition, which I feel is burdened with an overall notion of a chosen people. When God selects from all of us offspring, so to speak, a few to give them either favor or a special mission, I get very uncomfortable. I say, “No way, I’m sorry.” Whatever god set that up is alien to me. I think that situation is at the root of many of the world’s ills—the religious conflicts including Ireland, Israel, and Bosnia. Much of the conflict in our world history has been fanned by the idea of some people being God’s chosen—or having his favor or his authority or some other thing—and others not. Being dominated by those who think they are is an idea that is abhorrent and sickening to me, almost inconceivable.
Alma in the Book of Mormon begins his lecture on faith by saying that first you have to have a desire to believe—that’s the beginning of it. I agree wholeheartedly with that, but I have little desire to believe the Mormon myths. So I don’t. But Mormons are still my friends, my best friends. What a person believes is such a private thing. It’s incon-[p.210]ceivable that we can think that the things that we hold dear or have defined for ourselves are somehow so lofty and wonderful that other people can’t be happy without them.
If somebody wants to know my story, I’m glad to tell it, but it’s more in the spirit that there are lots of kinds of faith. One of our close friends is Hindu. In her little shrine in her home is a ceramic elephant head. That representation is one of the Hindu pantheon of gods. I don’t care at all what symbol a person uses to focus their attention on that which they may call God. It could just as well be an ant as far as I’m concerned, and would be just as close. However, I don’t believe that all beliefs are the same. That is, if somebody’s belief system teaches them it’s okay to take advantage of somebody else, then their belief system is inferior, by my standards. Period. So I do have strong values. I’m grateful to various religious traditions who’ve articulated those. People have done that, and they continue to do that today. I wept when Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, and he brought together a cabinet of his enemies. I think he’s a prophet to our world. In my sense of a prophet, he’s showing us a very lofty way to live. Prophets are wherever you find them, and I think there are a whole lot of them to learn from.
I reject the traditional idea that there’s such a thing as scripture. All the books in this room, to me, are scripture. That is, every one of them has ideas of worth, of inspiration; I’d be willing to cross-out the titles and all of the authors’ names and judge every book by its content. If it’s profitable for instruction and virtue and so on, then it becomes scripture to me. So I don’t have four scriptures. I have more like 4,000. Some of them I value more than the traditional four Mormon scriptures because they’re more in line with where I am at the present. But I’m prepared, as you said, that tomorrow morning the world may look different to me.
Not everybody should do what I do. You have to have a certain disposition or personality to make your way alone where the religious enterprise is concerned. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that anybody follow me. I enjoy people who grow their own because we get so many new ways of looking at the world, whereas when we get institutionalized, we are encouraged to all think similarly or to not think at all. Maybe I wouldn’t have done it at another time in my life. I think that [p.211]what happened to me was appropriate when it happened, and probably shouldn’t have happened earlier—for reasons I don’t know.
Given the philosophy you’ve just articulated, I’m not sure you’d want to say anything to the president of the church, if you could. You might simply accept the way things are. You seem to be a very accepting person. But if you were to say something to the president of the Mormon church, what would it be?
Only to lighten up with regard to intellectuals, gays, the woman’s movement, etc. I like President Hinckley very much. He’s a gifted public spokesperson for the church. I wouldn’t for anything want to be in his shoes, but there are zillions of things I’d do differently. For instance, the recent controversy over [BYU basketball coach] Roger Reed and the recruit he was trying to sign up. [Reed had attempted to use church influence to have the young recruit sign with BYU.]
I think that BYU’s course is tragic. It’s not because they’re trying to teach values in addition to science and other disciplines—that’s wonderful. But the fact is they’re not practicing good values. They’re putting athletics ahead of scholarship, for one thing. That was very clear, not only in what Coach Reed said, but when I heard [BYU] President [Merrill] Bateman address the Rotary Club a few months ago, he said virtually the same thing. I wanted to stand up and say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with an institution of higher learning that has such skewed values.” At the time that I went to BYU I thought it was, of all places, the place I wanted to be. After I graduated, I even dreamed of coming back there to teach. But things change. I taught for thirty-two years at the U. of U. instead, and I love that institution very much. So where the church’s attitude toward education is concerned, I see serious problems. I think that our kids are encouraged to obey rather than think. I consider that a terrible thing, a human tragedy—at the very time when they have the most energy to devour things, to learn, to contribute. The students are at the age of Joseph Smith when the church was founded, and the attitude seems to be “don’t trust them as far as you can throw them.” This isn’t my big message, it’s just one that occurred to me because it’s been in the news recently.
What do church authorities make of Ardean Watts?
I don’t know, but I can imagine. One of my friends who became an  apostle told me that he thought that my epiphany was from the devil. My response was that if I pray to God and God allows the devil to answer, then he’s not my God. On the other hand, I had a number of other interviews with the brethren at the time that were very positive; some were quite understanding and said things like, “Well, you’ll probably be back some day when you wake up out of your funny dream,” which is better than saying that it was the devil. One former general authority friend responded, “I understand where you’re coming from.” I’m sure there’s a large file maintained by the committee organized for the purpose of keeping track of folks like me dealing with the times that I have appeared in public and spoken critically of church policies or programs. But I’ve always tried to do that politely and respectfully.
I do respect them. I do respect the gentleman and ladies who contribute much to many lives through their service in the church. But I get to choose my own prophets. So I guess that’s fair.
Do you have anything you want to add?
Is my story different from your other interviews?
Altogether different from any of the others. A little more mystical than almost all, except maybe Ed Firmage. He didn’t have a lightning-strike epiphany like you.
I value Ed as a friend, and I’ve been quite close to him and several others. The people I gravitate toward the most are liberal Mormons, then liberal non-Mormons, and then straight Mormons. I should retract that. It sounds condescending to say some of my best friends are straight Mormons. Nobody could have had a better church life than I did. I graduated from BYU and settled in Salt Lake Valley. After a few years I was invited to become a member of the MIA general board. I worked on a daily basis on that board with people whom I respected as much as any who existed in our town. My church service was doing something in harmony with my professional ability. That’s as good as it gets. My life has been so rewarding that there’s nothing I can complain about. I have a good family, I’ve been healthy. I don’t have any sense that I earned that at all. I’m not comfortable with the notion that [p.213]God singled one out for such lavish gifts, but I’m perfectly happy to enjoy them while I can. I can understand that somebody who’s been beaten up repeatedly would have a totally different attitude, depending on who beat them up. That’s not something that I understand existentially. I understand only that I can’t imagine that life then or now could be any better. I’m retired and can do anything I please within reason. I hope that I contribute to other people’s happiness in the process.
May I make a request? Would you play something for me?
No, I’ve never played the piano well enough to match my standards. Now, for the first time, I’m playing for my own pleasure at home. I don’t do it excellently, so playing in front of anybody makes me ill. The only exceptions are a few family occasions when the family understands, and occasionally I support others as soloists.
I do find ways of contributing musically. For instance, I’m on the search committee to find a new conductor for the Utah Symphony. I dig into that with my heart and soul. I do things my way. I do everything with passion. My life is full and varied. Tonight I’m taking my first scuba diving lesson. I’m going to the Yucatan Peninsula next winter to have that experience for the first time. I’ve snorkeled a little bit in the Caribbean and in the Gulf of California. Never done the deep stuff, and I wanted to do that before my body and mind deteriorate to the point I can’t.
So you plan to be certified?
I’m going to be certified by Christmas.
When were you born?
In 1928. I’m sixty-eight.