On a day a few weeks after I turned eight, my mother was curling my hair as I stood in her room in my white dress. I remembered thinking it was odd that my hair was being meticulously fluffed, as it was about to get soaked. The whole family was milling about in the lounge getting ready to go to the chapel. My dress had lace and ribbons, and a nice thick slip underneath so nothing would show when it all got soaked, Mum had ripped the tag off my knickers because it had black printing on it, as if this would somehow diminish the water’s ability to bleach the sins from my soul.
I stared at myself in the mirror, unused to getting this much fuss and attention. I was the oldest grandchild in the family, the example for the next generation of Mormons. My mother probably felt a sense of pride at having produced the first grandchild to be baptised in the extended family, although the race was still on to produce the first future priesthood holder. (Do not fear; she won this race eventually.)
As my head bobbed from the gentle strokes of hairbrush and hot iron, I thought of something. Here I was, about to engage in a very important ritual, and I had never actually agreed to do it. (I’ll be so vain as to acknowledge that I was a rather precocious eight-year-old.)
I turned to my mother, who nearly burnt her finger on the curler from the unexpected movement. “Mum, do I have to get baptised?” The question was not one of fear, but rather curiosity. I just wanted to know if I had any say in the matter, or if having to get baptised was simply another “must,” like eating veg, no telly on school nights, or bedtime.
She looked very alarmed for a moment, but remained calm. “No,” she told me. “It’s a choice. You should only do it if you want to.”
My immature mind considered this possibility for a moment. I was too young to understand that I really was unable to make a real decision on the issue. I had been carefully conditioned since birth to understand that this was the only path to walk on. All of the preparations for my baptism had taken my compliance in the ritual for granted. I had been trotted up to the microphone on fast Sundays and had my opinions whispered into my ear so that I could parrot them before the congregation. “I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. I love my mummy and my daddy and my teachers. I know President So-and-So is a prophet.” My “testimony” was something I’d been spoon-fed, like baby food. So far I hadn’t tasted anything bad, so I had no reason to bite the hand that fed me.
“Well, I think I shall,” I told my mum. She sighed with relief finished curling my hair and sent me out to be admired by the family before we left for the chapel.
An unremarkable moment, But that day a light went off. Although I didn’t grasp the meaning of free will, I recognised the concept. I didn’t really give the decision much thought, but I at least saw that a decision could be made. Even in my first moments of Church membership, the spark of inquiry was there.
Now that I look back on it, I don’t think I ever had what it takes for this Mormonism thing to work out.