Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
Loneta M. Murphy
A great flame follows a little spark.
[p.15]Loneta M. Murphy has served as a member of the BYU Women’s presidency, and also as president, counselor, or teacher in all of the local women’s organizations of the LDS church. She was an active member of the League of Women Voters, of the National Women’s Party, of the National Organization of Women, of the Algie Ballif Forum, and also a member of Mormons for ERA.
Loneta has given me careful directions to her Provo, Utah, home, but the street coordinates (or my own inattentiveness) between Orem and Provo once again outfox me, and I’m a little late. It’s a sunny March day, and small banks of dirty snow shoulder the north sides of the houses as I check for her address.
After I find her tidy home next to a ward chapel on Provo’s east side, she greets me. Loneta, mother of five, grandmother of thirteen, has neatly coiffured blonde hair and wears stirrup pants that accentuate the trimness of her figure in spite of her seventy-plus years. She smiles easily as she shows me inside. The living room is done in autumn colors of orange, tan, and gold. She presents a two-tiered tray with chocolates and candy canes. My eyes fall on the top of a coffee table where a copy of the Ensign rests.
[p.16] What year were you born?
And you were born in Wyoming?
In Cowley, Wyoming. My parents lived in the Big Horn Basin in Wyoming, and their parents went there to help settle the Big Horn Basin. My father’s folks were from West Virginia. They were converts to the Mormon church. My mother’s folks were Danish and had been living in Sanford, Colorado. There were others moving to the northern part of Wyoming to Mormon church settlements, and they journeyed thinking the opportunities would be there for land and for building communities. So about 1905 both families somehow gathered there and became a part of the community for a long time, and made a place for Mother and Dad to raise their children. There were eight of us—nine, actually. One child died in infancy. The community that I grew up in was actually Lovell, Wyoming. Lovell was an interesting little city because it had several churches. It not only had the Mormon church, but it had Methodists and Baptists and Catholics and Lutherans. There were a lot of Lutherans there. I think that made a very healthy community life, looking back on it. We were very active in the LDS church. My Danish grandfather was a patriarch in the church, a very solid member in the community.
Were you a regular attendee at church?
I was. My mother was. My father was active as much as he could be. My mother was the strong one of the partnership and very devoted to the church, as her father was.
When you say your father was not, did this ever create friction between them?
No, he could take it or leave it.
But did he attend church regularly?
No. He was away from home a great deal of my childhood. He worked away from home, and Mother kept the family together and kept the home fires burning and food on the table. But when the children in the family—particularly my sisters—grew up and started hav-[p.17]ing children, then my eyes were open to the fact that the Mormon way of life lent itself to having children, to marrying, and to being content with the same process going on and on. My mother was having babies, and my two older sisters were having babies, and that to me was not the ideal life, and I could see it coming to me if I stayed in that community. So I rebelled or turned away from that emphatically. I said, “This is not Loneta’s life.”
So you left?
As soon as I graduated from high school.
And came to Salt Lake?
What did you do then?
I worked in the Remington Arms plant.
Were you still going to church?
No. I didn’t see a need for church. I didn’t have any reason to be inactive as far as any conflict goes. It just wasn’t necessary to my way of life. I think our church provides a lot for children. I really think that’s its stronghold. It provides good social life and good training for children, and I also think it’s good for older people in the church. On those two ends of the spectrum, it really is an important part of our lives. But I don’t believe it meets the needs of the middle.
That’s interesting. Why?
For one thing, if we are thinkers in life, there’s no room for thinkers in the Mormon church. But it also doesn’t allow for our feminist voice in the church at any age.
I’d like to explore that in more detail later. When you were living in Lovell, did it seem important that you were active?
Yes. It was a peer group thing.
Did you as a youngster have a testimony of Joseph Smith and the doctrines?
No. I think that those who say they did are just saying they did. I don’t think a testimony comes that early, if ever, because I don’t believe it’s true.
[p.18]So it was a social thing more than anything.
Very much so.
I guess your parents, your mother especially, expected you to do these things, to attend church.
Does growing up in a diverse community like that put a different light on Mormonism? Did it provide a dimension that may have caused you to view your church differently at some point?
It may have contributed a lot. It may have reflected the outside world, that there are other ways of thinking and doing. Now if I’d been in one of the other towns surrounding Lovell, I may have thought otherwise, because Byron and Cowley, Wyoming, were almost all Mormon people. But Lovell was a cross section and that was very good.
So now you’re a young woman, you’re liberated, you’re working at Remington Arms, and you’re the essence of Rosie the Riveter in World War II.
That’s pretty much the way it was.
You were suddenly experiencing some unusual freedom, weren’t you? In terms of the times?
I was. There were so many soldiers to date, for one thing. My social life was very exciting.
And you were also providing for yourself?
Oh, yes, I was very independent. But my sister was going to BYU at the time I was at Remington Arms, so she encouraged me to spend a year with her down in Provo to see if I liked college life—which I did. But financially I found it quite stressful. I loved the social life, I loved classes, I loved most things about it, but it was a financial burden that made me think I’d better go back to work. And because it was World War II, there were jobs in Utah and California, so when the opportunity presented itself for me to take a trip to California, I liked it too much to return to Utah. I settled in Long Beach, got myself a very good job with the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation. It was good for me, a good living and having an apartment and a nice lifestyle. So I was living in Long Beach through the war until it ended. And at that time, Joe had been a Marine and was coming back to his home town which was Long Beach.
[p.19]This was Joe Murphy?
Joe Murphy. Joseph Robison Murphy. We met in church because I kept in touch with the church down there, again for social reasons. We met in Mutual.
You were going to church occasionally?
Yes. I’d stop in with an escort of my choosing, some date that I’d had the night before or something. I brought my friends to church with me, and Joe thought I was married. Of course, I wasn’t, I was just playing the field. In fact, I wasn’t looking for a permanent partner at all. I wasn’t looking for marriage. I liked my lifestyle.
Obviously you’d returned to some kind of semi-active …
Just socially. Not spiritually. It still hadn’t met my spiritual needs. I should put it another way. It never did meet my spiritual needs.
You and Joe married?
We were married. We fell in love the summer of 1946, and his intent was to go to BYU in the fall. Because we were in love, the separation didn’t seem too wise, so we talked about it, and I decided to leave my job at the Port of Embarkation and come back to Utah. My folks were living in Bountiful at that time. I didn’t choose to live with them, but I knew I had contacts in Utah that would be helpful to me. So I left my job, came to Provo before he did, and in the meantime was able to get a job at the Geneva Steel Company in the accounting division and found myself a place to live. In November, during the Thanksgiving vacation, we went to Salt Lake and were married in the temple.
You were married in the temple?
Yes. Then I was able to marry in the temple without really having much of an active membership in the church.
How did that happen?
I don’t know. I just asked for a recommend, and they gave it to me. I guess that the idea that if I was going to the temple, they thought I’d be a good prospect for active membership. Perhaps because of my mother’s membership in the Bountiful community, good church people, but I hadn’t been paying tithing or doing anything that showed my allegiance to the church.
[p.20]Joe pursued an academic career?
Yes, he did.
And you lived in Provo for a while, and then moved to …
We lived in Provo for five years. He was a freshman when he entered school here, and he got his bachelor’s and his master’s here. Then he had a teaching fellowship to go to the University of Nebraska to work on his doctorate. So with our two children—one was born in 1949, and one in 1951—we moved back to Lincoln, Nebraska, for nine years.
During this time, were you active at all?
Yes, we were. We were both active in the mission field. That was a good lifestyle. I liked that. It was challenging. Then again, we were in a city with a lot of Lutherans and a lot of people. The university life was challenging and interesting, so we had what we considered a well-balanced life with family and church and university and community. We also spent our summers in Yellowstone Park. In the wintertime we were in Lincoln and in the summertime in Yellowstone Park, where Joe was a ranger-naturalist. We didn’t put off living until the doctorate was obtained. We had a good lifestyle. And while we were in Nebraska, two more children were born, so we were a family with four children when he received a call from BYU saying that there was an opening for a professorship in zoology, and would he fly out and look it over and possibly take the job? By that time, we were in our second new home and had only been in it three months, so I spent a few tears about that decision. I would’ve been happy to stay in Lincoln or even go farther east. We had had the Provo experience. We knew what it was like, so why not go for something new and different?
Was there anything you didn’t like about the Provo experience?
The influence of the church. I had realized by that time that it was a theocracy in this part of the world, more than it was a democracy, and the church had too much to do with our lives. I didn’t actually resent it, but it worried me. I wanted more room to move, more room to think, more room to do.
Why at mid-life do you now feel the church doesn’t serve some needs, as you indicated earlier?
[p.21]For one thing, there’s no voice for women in the church. If you speak your voice, as I did, in believing that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) should be part of our Constitutional rights, then I was speaking in opposition to the church’s stand on it. There were a lot of women who felt that the ERA was a good thing because it was in our Utah constitution. And it came out of Congress about the same time that I became an active member in the League of Women Voters. So it seemed to be something that blended with my thinking, rather than being on the opposite side, but the church took the opposite side, so that put me in opposition to the church.
What caused you to come to the point where you felt you could take a stand in opposition to the church?
How could I not take a stand? It was in our Utah constitution, and it was part of my philosophy. How could I not? In the church magazine in March 1971, there was a picture of a man and woman who were in an equal marriage. I thought my church teachings and my Constitutional rights really blended, and I was so happy about this article that I made copies and used it for my material.
This is the Ensign?
Yes. I really thought the church would take a stand for it, and when they took a stand opposite, then I could see that they just wavered back and forth, whatever was politically astute for them, rather than for people and for women. It was very disconcerting to me to think that they were taking that stand, but it didn’t make me feel like I should back off. I had convictions of my own, and I felt very comfortable taking position for it—all the time that I worked with it through the decade of the 1970s.
With your husband teaching at BYU, you saw to it that your five children were regularly attending church, and you were paying tithing.
Yes, and I was very active in all the organizations of the church for women. I had been in the Relief Society presidency, the Primary presidency, the Mutual presidency, I’d taught the lessons. I was part of the BYU Women’s organization on campus. I served in that presidency.
Then you came out in favor of ERA. What kind of heat did you take for your position?
[p.22]I probably wouldn’t have taken any heat if I hadn’t asked for a recommend to go to the temple with two of my married children who had not been married in the temple. That was in 1978, I believe. I was a public spokeswoman for the ERA and League of Women Voters. I was well known in the community and was quoted a few times in the paper and on TV and so forth. So because I was a well-known person and was taking that stand, it became a conflict for my stake president to give me a recommend. The bishop didn’t give me any trouble. None of my bishops ever gave me any trouble in any of my life activities, but this stake president felt he couldn’t approve a recommend as long as I took that position. I disagreed with that. He gave me fifteen minutes for the interview, and I wouldn’t leave without my recommend, so we talked for an hour and fifteen minutes, and he finally signed it. Then he rescinded it later.
How did he rescind it?By letter.
How did that make you feel?
It made me feel sad. It made me feel betrayed. I felt like it was a very political move on the part of the church, and I didn’t realize until that point in my life … It took me fifty years to realize how political the church was. Instead of being my spiritual leaders, they were my political voice. They wanted to be, and I just wouldn’t allow it, which meant that I couldn’t have a recommend. But going to the temple wasn’t the most important thing. My children could still go to the temple if they chose, and I could still be Loneta without a recommend. I just kept going—the same position that I’d taken. I didn’t back down.
Were you still active in …
Yes. I was teaching literature lessons at the time, so I continued to teach until I became so disenchanted with the environment of the church that I gave it up.
When was that?
Probably about 1980 or 1981.
Have you been back at all?
No. It doesn’t fill any needs for me anymore. It isn’t my spiritual en-[p.23]vironment, and I’ve been able to find my own way very comfortably, so I just don’t have a need for it.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Oh, very, very spiritual.
You don’t go to another church to meet your spiritual needs?
No. And if I did choose to go back to the Mormon church and be active in it, I couldn’t just walk over to church which is two houses away from me. I’d have to go several blocks because of the alignment of the different wards and stakes in our church. They actually make it inconvenient even if I were interested.
Is there any possibility you might?
I can’t see it in the future. I’m so comfortable with my lifestyle without it, why bring discomfort to my soul?
Do you get any pressure to become active again?
I’ve had a lot of pressure, but I just don’t acknowledge it. In fact, one of the members of the Seventies group called me after my divorce in 1990—my husband divorced me to marry someone else. So the leadership of the ward took it upon themselves to call on me with the idea of taking care of any needs I had. I quite frankly said, “No, I don’t need you and I don’t want you.”
You have a lot of friends and family.
I have a lot of friends and family, and I have no need for someone coming into my life and checking on me from the church.
Your children, are they active, inactive, a mix?
A mix. I taught them well, so they stay with the church somewhat, but I don’t think they have a strong conviction toward it. I think they’ve come to accept the fact that it’s a good social thing to do in a Mormon community—to belong.
You can’t imagine becoming active again?
Not unless there’re some real changes in the church regarding women and that there’s a voice for us.
[p.24]Can you imagine having your name removed from the roles?
It really wouldn’t matter one way or the other to me, and that’s why I don’t take it off. It doesn’t really matter.
It’s unimportant to you?
If I were a leader of the Mormon church, what would you say to me?
I’d say that you’ve built a theocracy that makes it impossible for the membership to live in this beautiful democratic country where we all should have a voice. That you make restrictions in such a manner that it isn’t an organization of free agents, and that there’s no room for a lot of my friends, and probably a lot of members of my family, and unless it changes to meet our spiritual needs as well as our secular needs, I don’t seek membership in the church or need it. I do think the Mormon church will continue to bring new members into the church, building its numbers. And maybe that’s all it needs—more members and more tithing and not really people who believe in it.
What is your bedrock belief in Mormonism today?
Joseph Smith didn’t see God. The Book of Mormon isn’t a revealed history. It’s words brought about by Joseph Smith’s personality, and I don’t believe that the beginnings of the church are true, and I don’t believe, above all, in polygamy. I think that’s been one of the worst things that’s happened to the Mormon church. So there are many things about its beginnings that I simply don’t trust. In fact, I would believe more strongly in the philosophy of a Sterling McMurrin than I would the president of the church.
But there are some cultural ties that are very binding?
For whom? They’re binding for my family. They’re binding on my past, but they’re not binding on my present. I don’t need and depend upon the church for my environmental needs or my cultural needs now.
One more question: What do you think happens when you die?
That’s a very good question—one that I think crosses our minds daily and probably of every person on the earth, but I don’t think there’s an answer to it. And that’s fine with me. I’d rather believe in the [p.25]mystery of life than the answers. I don’t think there are any solid answers, and for those who say they have the answers, I think they’ve convinced themselves and they’re aligning themselves with groups that also think they have the answers just simply for support. But there are no answers. We don’t know, but our life here can be a heaven on earth if we choose to make it so. And if we choose to make it heaven on earth, then if there is a hereafter, that’s just another room of that heaven on earth. I really don’t know. I hope there’s a hereafter, but if there isn’t, I’ve lived a wonderful life and experienced a lifetime of happiness.
I guess if I were to add anything it would be that I’d like to be more instrumental in helping people personally emancipate themselves, even within our church environment, so that they could become whole, wonderful human beings and probably much more sexually satisfied than they are under the umbrella, as we know it, where church has such an emphasis on families and children, and not on the whole human being.