The Mormon Church Is Imploding. Can Psychedelics Save It? - Rolling Stone
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These Mormons Have Found a New Faith — in Magic Mushrooms

Worshippers are leaving the Church of Latter-day Saints in record numbers, and some are finding solace with an apostate band of psilocybin-loving spiritual explorers looking for God — one trip at a time

On a Sunday afternoon in March, a group of 30 strangers huddle under a park pavilion in Salt Lake City, Utah, sipping hot cocoa and shaking hands shyly as snow clots the cottonwoods. A clean-cut gang of mostly white professionals, they are united by their interest in the Divine Assembly, a two-year old church with 3,000 members that considers psilocybin its holy sacrament. 

The church’s co-founders, husband and wife Steve and Sara Urquhart, mingle quietly with the psychedelic-curious, many of whom are either new to tripping or considering their maiden voyage. Steve sticks to the sidelines, every so often reaching to smooth a conical white beard that, combined with his blue eyes and bearlike frame, make him look like a punk Santa Claus. The long beard is the only outer marker of his new identity: Before pivoting to mushroom churches, Urquhart was one of the most powerful Republicans in the Utah State Legislature, serving from 2001 to 2016, with a stint as majority whip in the House before eventually moving over to the Senate. Former colleagues and friends recall his small-government brand of Republicanism as “rock-ribbed.” He was also, like more than 60 percent of Utah and approximately 86 percent of the Legislature in 2021, deeply, devoutly Mormon. 

“We were all the way in,” Urqhuart says of the proudly peculiar American religion with about 6.7 million adherents in the U.S. and about 16.6 million globally. Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 during the Second Great Awakening in upstate New York, Mormonism (or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as church authorities requested it be called in 2018, though many Latter-day Saints, or Saints for short, still use the term “Mormon”) bases its teachings on the revelations of Smith, whom they consider a prophet. According to Smith, who claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from a pair of gold plates inscribed with “reformed Egyptian,” Latter-day Saints are God’s chosen people destined to restore the original Christian gospel — a gospel that included, they professed up until 1890, polygamy. 

“I knew all the secret handshakes,” Urquhart later divulges after one shot of tequila, and he means it quite literally, demonstrating a dizzying pattern of grips, bumps, and daps that look straight out of a Monty Python skit. 

In all likelihood, Urquhart and others believe now, Smith lifted those handshakes and many other ceremonial elements from the Freemasons, the then-popular secret society that counted Smith as a member. Urquhart also believes, 100 percent seriously, that the LDS Church (the mainstream one he and Mitt Romney are from, not the fundamentalist offshoots depicted in Under the Banner of Heaven) is a cult. Specifically, he says, alluding to the church’s polygamist history and fact that some bishops still ask teens if they are masturbating, “a sex cult with really bad sex.”

Church or cult, Urquhart crashed out of it around 2008. In the park that Sunday, he is in good company. Although the Divine Assembly is not limited to former LDS members, or “post-Mormons” as they refer to themselves, the majority of the crowd by default is, and they’re aching for a new kind of spirituality to fill the void. One couple, Yesenia and Guillermo Ramos, tell me they left the LDS Church in 2012, after it began to feel like the opposite of what they thought it stood for. “God is love,” Yesenia says with conviction, but within the church, she says she felt judged for her decision to be both a mom and a nurse, rather than a stay-at-home mom. Furthermore, Yesenia says, she was sick of the pressure to appear perfect all the time, a common complaint among LDS women that Dr. Curtis Canning, president of the Utah Psychiatric Association, has called “Mother of Zion Syndrome.”

While charges of sexism and racism have long dogged the Latter-day Saints (women are still not allowed to receive the priesthood, and Black men were only permitted to do so in 1978, whereas all white males over 12 receive it virtually automatically), many post-Mormons cited 2015 as the year their frayed faith finally broke. That’s the year the LDS Church classified members in same-sex marriages as “apostates.” The policy (since marginally backpedaled), combined with a disturbing number of gay teen suicides in Utah (highlighted by Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds in the 2018 documentary Believer), woke a lot of people up, multiple post-Mormons tell me. Although, as Sara Urquhart is quick to point out, “It took a bunch of white men dying for some people to notice there might be a problem.”

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM Sara and Steve Urquhart, followers of the The Divine Assembly, dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms, pose for a portrait in Memory Grove on Wed., June 16, 2022 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

Sara and Steve Urquhart, co-founders of the Divine Assembly, a two-year-old church dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms, in Salt Lake City in June.

Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

In 2021, the LDS Church stopped publishing official membership numbers, breaking with decades of tradition. But according to Jim Bennett, a current Saint who met me in the basement of the Salt Lake Tabernacle before choir practice, the LDS Church “is barely treading water in the United States, and imploding everywhere else,” with the exception of Africa and South America, where it continues to grow. Bennett thinks the downward trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic: Some of his fellow Saints simply got used to being in charge of their own spiritual affairs the past two years, and now that church doors are finally open again, “a lot of people haven’t come back.” A representative for the LDS Church did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Bennett is descended from six generations of LDS elites and wants to see the church reform so the institution his ancestors built does not cease to be relevant for his children. He’s also known the Urquharts since they lived on neighboring cul-de-sacs in St. George. While Bennett doesn’t think the Divine Assembly will absorb a majority of disaffected Saints, he acknowledges that “it’s already happened” for some. “I think we’re in the infancy of where this is going to go,” he says.

Urquhart, ever the provocateur, paints a slightly more vivid picture: Like a mushroom spurting forth from a cow patty, “the Divine Assembly is growing out of the death and decay of the LDS Church.” 

 

The LDS Church is far from the only organized religion in decline. As of 2020, for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1937, less than half of Americans belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Nevertheless, according to another recent survey from Pew Research, 90 percent of Americans still say they believe in a higher power, with 56 percent placing their faith in a theistic god, and 33 percent acknowledging a more abstract spiritual force. All told, it appears God is not, after all, dead; neither science nor technology have sated man’s need for meaning. Now, as psychedelics such as psilocybin are reentering the mainstream for their promise in treating some aspects of the mental-health crisis — a crisis Utah leads the nation in by some counts, with more residents depressed and suicidal than those in almost any other state — a second question is emerging, perhaps intertwined with the first: Can psychedelics help heal us and restore our connection to the divine? 

For Professor John Vervaeke, a cognitive scientist and psychologist at the University of Toronto, the answer is a cautious yes, although he prefers the term “sacred” to “divine.” “When I hear ‘divine,’ I hear there’s a consciousness, and there’s an intelligence attached to that,” he says. “I don’t know about that. But do I think there are depths of reality that we can fall in love with that transform us? Yes. Yes, I do.”

Vervaeke relates to the LDS experience because he, too, was raised Christian fundamentalist before finding his spiritual home in practices such as meditation and tai chi chuan, and he has been a repeat guest on the Mormon podcast Where Will You Go. His work focuses on what gives our lives meaning, a concept psychologists tend to measure by how connected we feel to ourselves, others, and the world. In the past, he says, religion gave people this sense of connectedness. The Latin word itself, “religio,” shares a root with “ligare,” meaning to bind. In other words, religion was supposed to be a ligament connecting us to the sacred. 

Vervaeke considers that ligament badly torn, which explains the psychedelic renaissance. “If religions were really healthily functioning,” he says, “there wouldn’t be this turn to psychedelics.”

Vervaeke has found that people who have mystical experiences — a state of union with “ultimate reality” that is often described as both ineffable and realer than real — tend to report their lives as more meaningful. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found similar results, showing that newcomers to psychedelics often rank their first psilocybin trip as being on par with the birth of a child. Clergy also experience powerful effects: “The dead dogma comes alive for them in a meaningful way,” Hopkins researcher Dr. William Richards told The Guardian in 2017. “They discover they really believe this stuff they’re talking about.”

Many of the post-Mormons I spoke with see the leap from Joseph Smith to mushrooms as shorter than one might think. “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth,” wrote Smith in 1842. The core principle of the faith is revelation, or the idea that God spoke to Joseph Smith, and can speak to you and me, too. According to Tess Huntington, a 29-year-old Divine Assembly member who has emerged as a prominent member due to her personal charisma and extensive experience using psilocybin to heal her own sexual trauma, Latter-day Saints are “already programmed to … seek the divine on the daily.” She quips, “A married [Mormon] couple probably talks to God more every day than they talk to each other.”

Huntington, a grimacing blonde in old photographs who now sports a shaved head, feather earring, and crocodile tattoo, says that losing this personal relationship with God, and the intricate myth of Mormonism, is one of the worst parts about leaving the church. “You just need something to matter again,” she says while describing the loss, a creeping sense of nihilism so shattering she bought a dog just to have something to tether herself to. 

“Then you eat some fungus,” Huntington continues, “and it’s like hitting the jackpot.” Everything she had been grasping for as a Mormon was suddenly “IV’ed” into her arm on psychedelics. After years of seeking magic in the world, says Huntington, sometimes even feeling it ripple through LDS gatherings, psychedelics “validated this guttural desire for a rich and meaningful existence” outside the patriarchal confines of Mormonism. 

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM , Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, right, speaks to reporters while Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, left, listens during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, will unveil a compromise bill that protects LGBT individuals against discrimination in housing and employment while also protecting religious rights. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Urquhart, right, as a state senator in 2015. He struggled with drinking and pills before discovering the healing powers of ayahuasca and, later, psilocybin. “The only word I have for it is rapture,” he says of his first experience with psychedelics.

Rick Bowmer/AP Images

Vervaeke takes it as a good sign the Divine Assembly is operating a church, because when people start experimenting with psychedelics “autodidactically,” they can go down a “rabbit hole very, very rapidly.” Messianic ideations can sometimes occur, and without a community to help people to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism, says Vervaeke, “you can start bullshitting yourself in a very powerful way.”

Huntington and Urquhart also frequently emphasize the idea that the real medicine is the community. “What we’re really seeking is connection,” says Huntington. “As post-Mormons what we have in common is [that] we gave up belonging for selfhood. It’s a huge price to pay.” 

 

Sitting on the dark blue lip of the Great Salt Lake, the smoke of our piñon fire curling like incense, Urquhart is telling me how Latter-day Saints assume that anyone who leaves the church leaves because they want to sin. “‘Namby-pamby taffy-pullers’ they call us,” Urquhart roars. “They might as well just call us goatfuckers.” While Urquhart is unusually transparent about his own misadventures, sharing sloppy drunk stories readily, no amount of sex or drugs could make someone want to leave the church, he says. According to him and all the post-Mormons I spoke with, the experience of leaving is excruciatingly painful; the equivalent of social annihilation, or loss of personhood, even. It’s not uncommon for parents to stop speaking to children. “In my case, [my behavior] wasn’t hedonism for hedonism,” Urquhart says. “It was just, I think, fighting depression.”

Puffing gently on a mapacho cigarette, an exotic habit for a man who used to abstain from Coca-Cola, Urquhart’s story unspools. When he was around six, his beloved 19-year-old brother, Ike, died by suicide. No one in the family could find the words to explain to Steve what had happened. “A family friend just told me Ike had fought with a bear, and the bear mauled [him],” he says. Traumatized, Urquhart spent his early childhood imagining bears chasing him, and pissing his pants at school. At some point, neighbors asked Urquhart’s mother to join the LDS Church, promising the grieving family, as LDS missionaries are trained to do, that the Urquharts would one day be united again in the celestial kingdom — one of the highest tiers of LDS heaven — if they converted. The pitch worked.

“I used to say I’m really glad we joined the Mormon Church,” says Urquhart. “It was nice to have adults who really cared about me and my brother. They were good people, and” —  he underscores this point — “they were sincere.” 

Within the structure of the church, Urquhart thrived. “It was like someone handed me an answer key,” he says. Each rule he followed was another rung on the ladder to eternal salvation. Urquhart got into Williams College, then law school. In 2001, St. George elected him to the Utah House of Representatives. Then around 2008, the year he moved over to the Senate, Urquhart’s faith began to flicker. He says his daughter was being bullied at church, and that made Urquhart take a second look at the institution he’d grown up in. Suddenly, God’s plan — that the LDS Church is the one true church — wasn’t adding up. The prospect terrified him. If the Book of Mormon wasn’t true, was anything? 

Around the same time, Urquhart got prostate cancer, and his father died. The trifecta sent him into a tailspin. He turned to alcohol, pills, affairs — anything to numb the pain. By 2014, he shares openly, he was “drunk and/or high every day on the floor of the Senate.” 

Urquhart knew he couldn’t keep up the act much longer. One night, at a Willie Nelson concert, the future mayor of Salt Lake City, Jackie Biskupski, a Democrat, approached Urquhart and his friends. “God damn you fucking Republicans and your moral high ground,” Urquhart recalls she teased them, “You’re all drunk off your asses, and I haven’t seen you take a single drink. Why don’t you own your shit and pour me one?” But Urquhart couldn’t own his shit. Raised on Mormon dogma, Urquhart claims, he never particularly learned to think for himself about anything, let alone develop his own moral compass. “I think you just die spiritually when you’re handed the answer key,” he says.

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM

Tess Huntington in 2013. She started using psychedelics to heal her own sexual trauma. After leaving the LDS church, she found that the drugs “validated this guttural desire for a rich and meaningful existence.”

Courtesy of Tess Huntington

One night, in 2015, Urquhart says, he had been drinking and “couldn’t shake the feeling there was no hope.” He decided to take all the oxycodone he had. But as soon as he swallowed the pills, he says, he realized he didn’t want to die. Losing consciousness, he tried to make himself throw up, not knowing if he would wake up the next morning. When he did, he showered, put on his suit, and went to the Capitol. “I didn’t tell anyone about it for years,” Urquhart says. “It was just one more shameful thing I hid.” 

Several difficult years ensued. Desperate to save her husband, and their marriage, Sara Urquhart, who was already out of the church herself, agreed to try something she had heard was like five years of therapy in one night: ayahuasca. In 2017, the couple boarded a plane to Amsterdam, and “Yelped us up a shaman,” says Steve. There, in a stranger’s living room, Steve Urquhart says he encountered God. Except God was a woman, he recalls, and she was sitting in a garden. As she beamed at Steve with a trillion watts of unconditional love, Urquhart wept. After a lifetime of believing God could read his thoughts, and hated him for them, the experience — his psychedelic one — was a revelation. “The only word I have for it is rapture,” Urquhart says. He also realized he didn’t know how to love Sara or his children the way he wanted to, the way God loved him. 

For Sara, a no-nonsense go-getter who favors crisp button-down shirts, the ayahuasca was also “life-changing.” But when they got home and Steve began making noises about creating a church so others could experience what they had under the protection of the First Amendment, she initially put her foot down. “No way,” she told Steve. “I just got out of one goofy religion. There is no way in hell I’m going to start another.” 

 

The U.S. has known about psilocybin for less than a century. In comparison, the Maya, Aztecs, Huastec, Totonac, Mazatec, and Mixtec people all used hallucinogenic mushrooms in religious ceremonies stretching back thousands of years, with the Aztecs calling it teonanácatl, or “flesh of the gods.” Because the Spanish violently suppressed the Aztecs’ customs when they sacked Tenochtitlán in 1521, teonanácatl was forced underground, resurfacing nearly four centuries years later when Mexican ethnobotanist Dr. Blas Pablo Reko spotted it in use among the indigenous people in Oaxaca. In 1955, María Sabina became the first indigenous “wise woman” to introduce psilocybin to an American when she permitted Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist with a controversial legacy, to participate in one of her ceremonies.

Both Mazatec and Catholic, Sabina reported she used mushrooms to commune with God about how to best treat her patients, and did so in full view of the local bishop, Father Antonio Reyes Hernández. According to Sabina biographer Álvaro Estrada, who also spoke Mazatec like Sabina, Hernández was untroubled by Sabina’s syncretism, and in 1970 told Estrada that Sabina, far from being a heretic, “doesn’t do harm to anyone.” That Sabina considered the mushrooms to be the body and blood of Christ was apparently unremarkable to the father, but the parallels to the Eucharist so enthralled Wasson that he would devote his career trying to prove psychedelics — or entheogens as he preferred they be called, meaning “god-generated within” — were the secret heart of many world religions, an argument that modern scholars such as Brian Muraresku (The Immortality Key) and others are resuscitating today. 

Steve Urquhart knew little of this history in April 2020, pacing downtown one morning after his latest psychedelic ceremony, the twin spires of the LDS Church and the Utah State Capitol piercing the dawn sky. All he knew was that he was a tiny part of something magnificent — something infinitely bigger than regular reality. “People need this,” he thought, inexplicably stretching his arms out in front of him as if holding a basket. 

As a maverick Republican senator, Urquhart had sparred with the LDS Church several times, mainly over LGBTQ rights. In doing so, he had come to appreciate how powerful the First Amendment is, eventually sponsoring an antidiscrimination bill that, as a compromise, included some religious exemptions. If religion could be used to protect anti-gay sentiment, he mused, why not a mushroom church? 

He wasn’t the first one with the thought. Currently, there are only three religious groups legally permitted to use psychedelics in the United States: the Native American Church, which uses peyote as its holy sacrament; the Brazilian União do Vegetal church, which uses ayahuasca; and the Brazilian Santo Daime church, which does the same. When other psychedelic groups petition the government for similar protections, usually fruitlessly, they often invoke the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government “from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” That is, even if a substance like psilocybin is federally illegal, groups using it for “sincere” religious purposes may be able to trigger the protections of the RFRA in special cases. 

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM Tess Huntington and followers of the The Divine Assembly, dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms, participate in breath work exercises at the Great Salt Lake on Wed., June 16, 2022 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

Tess Huntington, far right, and other Divine Assembly members participate in breath work exercises at the Great Salt Lake in June. “You eat some fungus and it’s like hitting the jackpot,” Huntington says.

Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

After spending two weeks with the Divine Assembly and speaking with dozens of members, I am left with little doubt they are sincere about using mushrooms to access the spiritual realm. But while they may be genuine, and also hold regular integration sessions so members can process their trips communally, the organization is also exceptionally laissez-faire. Joining takes nothing more than signing up online. “The only things required,” reads the website, “are 1) sincere belief in your ability to commune with the Divine 2) strict adherence to the law and safety protocols 3) and a sincere effort to respect yourself, others, and the Divine. Beyond that, let the Divine guide your worship. Enjoy!” 

It’s bare-bones by design. Fresh out of the LDS Church, Urquhart describes himself as “allergic to dogma,” and wary of accidentally propagating new hierarchies. Already, he says, too many post-Mormon psychedelic gurus are cropping up around Utah, suggesting that sincerity’s shadow may well be zealotry — and gullibility. 

Rather than a religion, Urquhart prefers — in the crypto argot of the day — to characterize the Divine Assembly as a “platform” on which “anyone can build.” Anyone can facilitate a mushroom ceremony, and no one is required to ask Urquahrt or anyone else for permission. In some instances, the facilitators are trained psychedelic therapists, educated at institutions like the California Center for Integrated Studies. More frequently, they are ordinary people with a penchant for hosting, and often very new to psychedelics themselves. 

While this radically open approach has allowed all sorts of groups to coalesce — including a “death cafe,” where older members talk about how to die well, and a support circle for firefighters coping with PTSD — it also leaves the Divine Assembly exposed to any bad actors who might use their membership in the organization as an imprimatur of legitimacy. Sexual abuse within the psychedelic space is frighteningly entrenched, although perhaps not more so than in organized religion. As the Divine Assembly grows beyond Utah, with members now on multiple continents, it’s unclear how it will protect them — and itself — beyond stating “TDA has no patience or place for predators” on its website.

According to Salt Lake County District Attorney Simarjit Singh Gill, no one has ever brought a case against the Divine Assembly, or Urquhart. If law enforcement theoretically were to, says Gill, he would have to weigh the specific complaint against the fact that religious groups receive the greatest amount of Constitutional protection — “it’s like the thickest part of the ice.” Gill says that ice is even thicker in Utah, which was settled by LDS pioneers fleeing religious persecution back east, mainly for the practice of polygamy. 

Although Gill admits he has known Urquhart since the former senator’s days in office, he dismisses the idea that Urquhart is getting a free pass based on any special privileges. “I don’t think a district attorney … should ever use the power of their office in a way that is gratuitous, or even in an arbitrary way, that would violate the constitutional protected rights of its citizens,” he says. Gill is quick to point out that in a hypothetical case of physical or sexual abuse, religious protections are irrelevant. But for now, the same reason a man can take multiple wives in Utah is the same reason another can operate a psilocybin church in broad daylight. 

 

On my last Sunday in town, I put on my longest skirt to attend General Conference, a biannual LDS super-gathering that takes place in the conference center on Temple Square. Broadcast live in more than 70 languages, General Conference is an opportunity for the globe’s 16.6 million Saints to hear directly from the 17th president and prophet of their church: 97-year old former surgeon Russell M. Nelson. 

Thanks to Steve Hunter, an active bishop in the church when I met him, I have a ticket — and a guide. Whisking us downtown in his sleek black Tesla, Hunter, who once ran Republican Mia Love’s successful bid for Congress, waffles between criticism of the LDS church as a modern institution and great affection for his fellow Saints — a delicate position that seems to cause him great wincing pain at times, and none at all at others. Religion “creates this security, but the security is also a prison,” he reflects. “It’s not intentional, but it’s hard for people to see the bars around them.” 

As we make our way to the third tier of the Conference Center, I take in the surroundings. It’s like Madison Square Garden if Madison Square Garden were filled with oil paintings of oxcarts and the Lord; and with 21,000 seats, it is equally large. As we wait for the program to get started, two Jumbotrons play scenes of what is clearly intended to be God’s creation: golden fields of wheat shimmering, a family walking hand-in-hand on the beach, a tomato ripening on the vine.

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM Steve Urquhart and followers of the The Divine Assembly, dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms, participate in breath work exercises at the Great Salt Lake on Wed., June 16, 2022 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

Urquhart and with fellow Divine Assembly members at the Great Salt Lake in June. The church’s website says the only requirements to join are “sincere belief in your ability to commune with the Divine; strict adherence to the law and safety protocols; and a sincere effort to respect yourself, others, and the Divine.”

Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

The faces in the crowd appear impassive despite the fact that God’s living mouthpiece will soon address them. “We don’t know who they are,” Hunter narrates with more wonder than foreboding. “They haven’t discovered who they fully are yet.”

Hunter knows a thing or two about double lives. In 2020, his 72-year-old uncle, who was gay but had remained in the church, took his own life. Two weeks later, the church called Hunter to be bishop. Still grieving, Hunter accepted, but he was concealing a secret of his own: He occasionally takes psychedelics, and postulates Joseph Smith may have, too — a theory to which Hunter is far from alone in subscribing. Psychedelics “don’t say the church is bad,” he contends, “they just add to it.”

How is it possible that some Latter-day Saints seem open to psychedelics when many won’t touch coffee? According to Lindsay Rider, a wellness coach who provides information about microdosing to LDS mothers struggling with postpartum depression, there is a narrow opening in the Word of Wisdom, the Book of Mormon that prohibits “hot drinks” and tobacco but also encourages “good herbs” and a low-meat diet. “My grandparents always had jars and jars of dried herbs in their house,” Rider recalled, citing the pioneer value of self-sufficiency that’s also behind the massive essential-oil industry in Utah. 

In 2016, Hunter participated in his first ayahuasca ceremony with the hopes of finding God for himself — in a deeper way. “It brought all the walls down for me,” Hunter recalls. “Politically, culturally, spiritually … I wanted to experience the truth, and it all came to me. It was stunning.” 

In one of his most powerful ayahuasca ceremonies, a giant female serpent appeared to him, and he went on a journey to find God. During that trip, he saw a panorama of Earth and all of its inhabitants.

On stage at the conference, President Nelson — prophet, seer, and relevator — is finally speaking. “Discover the joy of daily repentance!” he enjoins, and the Saints write it down on their iPhones. Hunter provides more unofficial commentary to the sermon. “Did you know the Greek word for repentance is ‘metanoia’?” he asks. According to Hunter, and the Greek Orthodox Church, metanoia means to change one’s mind; to expand it in such a way as to have a new perspective on the world or one’s self. “Sounds pretty psychedelic,” I whisper back.

As President Nelson shuffles off stage, numerous choir members look like they’re touching their foreheads. “What are they doing?” I ask, squinting. “You guys don’t make the sign of the cross, do you?”

“No,” says Hunter, “they’re crying. Wouldn’t you, if you had just heard God speak?” 

He is right; the Saints below are not touching their foreheads, but rather dabbing tears away. “Is that genuine?” I ask. 

“Of course,” he says, eyeing me curiously. “God still exists in a straightjacket.” 

 

No two Divine Assembly ceremonies are alike. During my stay in Salt Lake City I witnessed two: one as an observer, and one as a participant. The one I observed took place on a Sunday morning in the home of Valerie, a retired banker who often hosts other retirees after meeting them in person first. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, if incongruously staid given the journey her guests were about to go on. Valerie opened the ceremony by tapping a sound bowl, and reading a brief invocation. Then she passed out three grams of lemon tek — tea made from mushrooms soaked in lemon so the chitin is easier to digest — and led her four charges to various pieces of furniture. Thus tucked in, they snapped eye masks and iPods into place. After about three hours, Valerie reconvened the day-trippers at her dining room table and fed them French toast and berries with powdered sugar as they shared their experiences — Martha Stewart meets psychedelics. 

The second ceremony I observed, from the perspective of a partaker, was far more irreverent — and profound. The group I was there to join calls themselves the Witchy Women. Composed that night of Huntington and four working mothers, mostly in their forties, they had met one another just a few months prior via the Divine Assembly. As they swept me into their midst, bedazzling my face with plastic jewels and placing a garland of mushrooms on my head, it was hard to believe; they seemed more like childhood friends, or the coolest women in your sorority. They laugh when I share this observation. “I was the goodest Mormon girl ever!” squeals Brooke Lark, our emcee for the night in leather pants. 

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM Steve Urquhart pours participants a drink made from psilocybin mushrooms into a sacrament cup used by the Mormon church during a gathering for The Divine Assembly, dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms, at the Great Salt Lake on Wed., June 16, 2022 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

Urquhart pours a drink made from psilocybin mushrooms into a sacrament cup during a gathering of the Divine Assembly. “We are connecting,” Urquhart says of the church. “And when we connect, we rise, like the mushroom.”

Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

Huntington, too: “My cousin said to me, ‘It was more jarring for me to hear you say you were leaving the church than when I found out my parents were getting divorced.’ He was like, ‘The sun will rise and Tess will never leave the church.’” The chocolates are Godiva-level decadent and made by Nicki Wharton, a therapist by day. We settle onto the floor of Lark’s living room, slumber-party style. While the scene feels familiarly feminine to me, it’s still new and electric to them. All five women are discovering, with the help of psychedelics, what it means to connect with themselves, and one another. From Huntington’s perspective, the LDS Church systematically robbed them of that. When Huntington was around 20, she served a mission to Brazil, where she fell deathly ill. Unable to eat or walk without blinding pain, she sought help from an older sister, who told her they should pray. By the end of their supplication, Huntington recounts, both women were crying. “Sister, you need to go home,” the older woman told her. But when they informed the mission president they had received a revelation, Huntington remembers, he was unmoved. “That’s not how it works” Huntington says he told her, spelling out the byzantine hierarchy of men who would first have to approve the decision. 

In that instance, Huntington recalls, she felt “completely imprisoned.” She had no money, no telephone, and no autonomy over her body — a female body that suddenly seemed to count for way too much. “Or discount me way too much,” Tess recalls, because while she was busy selling the principle of direct revelation for the church by day, in practice, she wasn’t allowed to receive it herself — even about her own self

As Jon Krakauer argues in his book Under the Banner of Heaven (now a drama series on FX) this catch-22 of the LDS religion — that direct revelation is encouraged, unless it contradicts male authority — is the mechanism by which cults spring out of the mainstream. Although the LDS Church swore off the polygamy Joseph Smith preached in exchange for Utah’s admittance to the Union in 1896, thousands of fundamentalists still practice it in places like Colorado City, Arizona. By Krakauer’s account, LDS men typically become fundamentalist when they receive a “direct revelation” that they should take another wife. LDS women, he contends, can be uniquely vulnerable to offshoot cults because they’re raised to trust their husbands to accurately interpret God’s word, and to obey.

“Which is exactly why psychedelics are so healing for post-Mormon women,” Wharton says. Psychedelics often produce a feeling of tapping into one’s own intuition, or higher self. Wharton, whose clients are mostly current or former Latter-day Saints, says a good portion of her work involves helping women learn it’s OK to listen to their inner voices. I think back to Valerie’s ceremony. “I got complete confirmation of some things I sort of already knew,” one female participant shared afterward. “I felt utter clarity.” 

By this point, the walls are undulating with fractals. Someone offers me a vape pen loaded with DMT — the main active molecule in ayahuasca. Although I’ve never tried DMT, I feel safe enough to go a little deeper. Surrounded by the witches, trying to figure out how I ordered my steps to this, I breathe in three times, and  — whoosh. The living room is gone. 

Out of the darkness, a colorful mandala appears. I pass through its aperture, and am immediately face to face with … the Goddess herself. Crowned in a gold headpiece, dripping in jewels, and flanked by a never-ending procession of cats and snakes, the Mother of All Creation regards me with a Mona Lisa smile as if she’s been waiting for me. She is gorgeous, and terrifying, like a multiheaded dragon who could birth a planet or destroy a galaxy, simply by licking her numerous lips. “So you’re who the patriarchy is afraid of,” I think, and for once in my life, I feel like I’m batting on the stronger team. 

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM Psilocybin mushrooms. The Divine Assembly, dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms.Photo by Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

The host of the podcast ‘Mormons on Mushrooms’ has a theory about why the divine feminine seems to be showing up in Salt Lake: Latter-day Saints, and the patriarchy at large, have “repressed the feminine to our shadow. And so [when] we’re taking these substances, our shadow is going to come out.”

Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

As if I’m standing on a viewing deck in outer space, this being, who seems to exist independently of me, though I assume is an aspect of my psyche, proceeds to show me scene after scene of creation. I am made to see babies being born, seeds sprouting, and waterfalls gushing, as if she’s trying to show me the dynamic energy that animates the universe, a concept I learn later some Hindus call Shakti.

When I open my eyes some 15 minutes later, the witches are eating chips and licorice, giggling where I left them. “Where did you go?!” they want to know, but the experience dwarfs every clumsy word I try to summon. Earlier in the evening, situated somewhere between a Panda Express and a nail salon, I had attended a cacao ceremony where the band sang songs about some of the divine feminine’s other iterations: Pacha Mama, Isis, and — my childhood favorite — Mary Poppins. I had thought these were just some New Age-y tunes — not odes to a specific and apparently shared concept. “I’ll tell you guys about it someday,” I manage feebly, and spend the rest of the night quietly listening. 

 

One week after my encounter with the divine feminine, the LDS Church issued a proclamation that members should no longer pray to the Heavenly Mother. The who? I asked the Witchy Women. The Heavenly Mother, they replied. You know, God’s wife?

According to LDS doctrine, Heavenly Mother is Heavenly Father’s co-parent and a concept many LDS women cherish, sometimes directing their prayers to her instead of the Heavenly Father. “My mom is going to be PISSED,” Hungtington responded when first I texted her about the crackdown. “Wow I didn’t want to believe they would actually do this,” another woman from our ceremony replied. 

The coincidence sat in front of me. Or was it a synchronicity? Could church leaders somehow sense the divine feminine reawakening? The thought was far more than I had bargained for. At the same time, was it not curious that Urquhart had seen God as a woman, too? 

I began asking the post-Mormon men I was interviewing the same question: “So, when you trip … if you encounter any gendered forms, do you see the divine masculine, the divine feminine, or both?” 

“The divine feminine,” they answered with few exceptions. To my surprise, the memory often brought tears to their eyes. While many described plenty of formless trips that took place light-years beyond the universe of gender or language, one entertainment executive, Mike, described seeing a grandmother figure who said to him, “It’s time.” Afterwards, he started a podcast, Mormons on Mushrooms, which he says receives about 10,000 downloads monthly.

Mike, who hosts Mormons on Mushrooms with his friend Doug, has a theory about why the divine feminine seems to be showing up in Salt Lake City: Latter-day Saints, and the patriarchy at large, have “repressed the feminine to our shadow. And so [when] we’re taking these substances, our shadow is going to come out.” 

It’s an idea Mike has absorbed from Carl Jung, whom he is currently studying as a part of his doctorate in depth psychology. According to Jung, each individual has both an animus and an anima — a male and female aspect. In a healthy individual, the two work in harmony. But in an unhealthy individual — or a society — a repressed anima can lead to a lack of feeling or relatedness, which Mike sees in the way we’ve become disconnected from the Earth, and our own bodies.  

PSYCHEDELIC-SHROOM Tess Huntington, follower of the The Divine Assembly, dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms, poses for a portrait at Saltair at the Great Salt Lake on Wed., June 16, 2022 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

Tess Huntington says that as a woman she felt “completely imprisoned” at times in the LDS church, but has found the “divine feminine” through the use of magic mushrooms in Urquhart’s congregation.

Kim Raff for Rolling Stone

Repression is a feeling that Mike and Doug know intimately; it came up again and again in my conversations with post-Mormon men. From an early age, Mike reflects via Zoom, from his home in Los Angeles, LDS children are taught that “natural man is an enemy to God,” and “your body is the enemy.” As a result of this doctrine, many of the men I spoke with said they grew up deeply self-loathing for having normal sexual thoughts, or looking at pornogrpahy. Mike says that, for many years, he believed God and Jesus are “watching me jerk off, and they hate every word I say, and they’re mad at me all the time.” He even developed a clinical case of scrupulosity, or the obsessive compulsion to confess every little thing in order to feel clean. 

“And you think of what masturbation is, like it’s this beautiful connection with yourself to explore your own body,” ponders Mike. To shame someone not to masturbate, is to insert “a barrier. Like, ‘No, you can’t even get in touch with yourself.’”

All those barriers dissolved on his first mushroom trip with Doug. Not having any idea of what to expect, he suddenly felt his “soul snap back into place.” “Oh”, he recalls thinking, “this is what it feels like to be Mike.” 

To be sure, not everyone on Mormonism has a bad trip. Indeed, I spoke with numerous LDS members, like Steve Hunter, who say they have had mostly positive experiences within the church and see psychedelics as something eminently compatible with their faith. 

Jessie and Sam Allman were one such couple. Two trim retirees in their seventies, they invited me to their son’s stylish home to talk about how they are eager to try psilocybin after watching the documentary Fantastic Fungi. Even though they admit they are more open-minded than some of their LDS peers, fully embracing their son, when, after a mushroom trip, he came out as gay, they contend that many Latter-day Saints are more progressive than outsiders give them credit for, and are hopeful the LDS Church can evolve.

The state, for its part, is considering its options. Desperate, as many governments are, for creative solutions to the mental-health crisis, in March, Utah lawmakers passed a bill that created a task force to study the medical benefits of psychedelics. “If this is a tool we can use,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, the sponsor of the bill and an LDS Republican, “then it needs to be in our toolbox and we need to do it the right way.” 

Which is exactly how the Allmans feel. While Jessie, a self-described green smoothie aficionado, is interested in psilocybin because she’s read it might help with her anxiety, Sam, a Robert De Niro type who has had several careers as a microbiologist and motivational speaker, says he sees psilocybin as “a positive way to have more awareness of yourself.” As the Gospel states, he reasoned, revving into motivational mode, “‘The Glory of God is intelligence,’ and we’re here to gather that.” 

For Urquhart, the Divine Assembly is reviving the intimate tradition of the house church, when early followers of Christ worshiped in each other’s homes, and avoided persecution from the Roman Empire. Like the mycelium itself he says, “we are connecting. And when we connect, we rise, like the mushroom. We are connecting and rising, and we are healing.”

This article was reported with support from the Ferriss – UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship

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