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Carrie Sheffield’s journey to forgiveness after childhood in cultlike family

by California Digital News

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(RNS) — Before she was a columnist and policy analyst speaking on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, Carrie Sheffield was a child shuffled from state to state in a motorhome with her seven siblings, subject to the whims of a charismatic father who believed he was a Mormon prophet destined to be a U.S. president. (He was later excommunicated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

But despite the havoc wreaked by her father’s belief system — one that justified spending tens of thousands on promotional newspaper ads while his children ate broth made from park grass — Sheffield isn’t anti-religious, or anti-Mormon. Now a convert baptized in the Episcopal Church, Sheffield distinguishes between the goodness of God and the brokenness of human-led religions.  

Religion News Service spoke to Sheffield about the decision to chronicle this cultlike childhood in her new memoir, “Motorhome Prophecies: A Journey of Healing and Forgiveness,” her departure from the LDS church and her decision to forgive her father. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to write this memoir?

We’re witnessing a mental health crisis in this country. We’re seeing a record number of suicide deaths and a surge in depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. My family and myself struggled with numerous mental illnesses. I wrote the book with the aim of providing some tools and a story of encouragement.

I also want the book to help bridge the divide between the academy that’s hostile toward God or religion, including mental health leaders, and the Christians who are skeptical of getting mental health treatment or therapy. I challenge both those narratives.

In your book, your dad pursues “The Mission.” What was that mission and what was your role in it?

"Motorhome Prophecies: A Journey of Healing and Forgiveness" by Carrie Sheffield. (Courtesy image)

“Motorhome Prophecies: A Journey of Healing and Forgiveness” by Carrie Sheffield. (Courtesy image)

The Mission was what my dad said was his call by God to save America from destruction. He would play his classical guitar on street corners and pass out brochures, trying to convert people to be LDS. As we grew older, all eight of the kids and my mom were there as a small orchestra, playing music and passing out the brochures. The goal for my dad was to create a lot of LDS converts, although, as I write in the book, he was excommunicated eventually. So he was not sanctioned by the official Mormon church.

Can you talk about how you discovered that your father was a false prophet?

It was a shock-wave moment for me because you always want to believe your parents. So when I discovered some of the prophecies he had written in the same style as Joseph Smith, it became a question of, who am I more loyal to? Am I loyal to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Or am I going to be loyal to my father? The LDS church only has one prophet, and he lives in Salt Lake City, and he is not my dad. So that was really a decision point for me. That was when I decided I needed to leave home because I could no longer in good conscience participate with The Mission.

You refer to your family as being a cult environment. How so?

In that setting, it was a mind control environment. It was very restrictive, it was abusive. When I said I want to go away to college, and I want to still be part of the family but not be part of The Mission, I was not allowed. My father raised his hand, like he was making an oath to the sky, and he said, “I prophesy in the name of Jesus, you’ll be raped and murdered if you leave.” To me, that is very cultish behavior, to tell your daughter that unless she stays at home and does exactly what I say, then you’ll be damned.

How did your path to healing begin?

At Brigham Young University, that was the first time where I felt like I belonged. My bishop was very encouraging about therapy. That really helped me remove that stigma. I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, and that started the process of understanding what had happened to me. But during my junior year, the LDS church also ended up contributing to my depression because I studied the origins and some of the theologies, and I realized I could no longer participate in good conscience.

Carrie Sheffield. (Photo by Barry Morgenstein)

Carrie Sheffield. (Photo by Barry Morgenstein)

 

What do you continue to carry with you from the LDS church?

The sense of community and looking out for each other is phenomenal. They also have a lay leadership model. There’s no professional clergy, except in the upper echelons. There’s not this chasm between the leader and the members. I think that’s admirable. I also think it’s partially why you see less corruption perhaps, because there’s more turnover in leadership. I also appreciate how they treat singles. In LDS culture they have congregations where you’re not allowed to attend if you’re married, which allows you to be surrounded by people in the same stage of life. There’s also a wonderful sense of civic participation outside of Mormonism.



What empowered you to ultimately forgive your father?

Forgiveness means you release the moral debt owed to you. You let God take care of that. Forgiveness is something, as Christians, we’re commanded to do. Forgiving my dad was partly through my Christian walk, and also through a mentor of mine, pastor Anthony Thompson. His wife was murdered in the horrific 2015 Charleston shooting by a white supremacist. Reading his book, “Called to Forgive,” I learned that forgiveness is not condoning or excusing or minimizing the wrong that was done. It’s simply releasing it to God.

You write that God is not religion. What led you to that conclusion?

A big part of it was because of my religious abuse. When I first started to go through my conversion process, I was worried I would get sucked into some type of mind control abuse like we had in my family. I was very skeptical of religion. I thought I would be fine as an agnostic.

Religion, at its best, is pointing people to God. But it’s run by humans and so is going to be broken to some extent. There’s a great analogy I’ve heard that, if you hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony played poorly, you don’t blame Beethoven. You blame the bad musician. I feel like God is a great symphonic creator. And sometimes people, when they interpret him, it’s out of tune.

Why did you decide to be baptized in the Episcopal Church?

Both Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Charles Robertson, a close adviser to him, became spiritual mentors for me. But I am not tied down to denomination. That’s something I’ve shed coming out of Mormonism. To me, I think Christianity is Christ. Part of why Dr. Robertson took me under his wing was, he said I want you as a conservative to know you have a place here. And I personally don’t like the church to be a place for partisan politics. Even though I am very strong in my conservative policy beliefs, I think, first and foremost, our responsibility is to love. And that means loving people, no matter their political beliefs.

Who did you write this book for?

I wrote it as a letter to my younger self, telling her what I wish that she had known. I wrote it to young people in particular. My hope is for this next generation who is walking away from faith will challenge themselves and review the data that shows how good faith practice and faith community and relationship with God is for your mental health, for your physical health. Also, I wrote the book for both believers and nonbelievers. Often Christians can take a self-righteous posture where we see people who are struggling, and it’s easy to dismiss them or say, well, that’s because they’re sinning. I wanted to provide a narrative that can shed some light on how to have more empathy. For the nonbelievers, I do talk a lot about my conversion process. I hope my ideas might resonate with some nonbelievers to see that mathematically, there’s a lot more evidence for a creator than for the universe to just happen randomly.



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