Requiem for an Apostate
A Review of “Passing the Heavenly Gift,” by Denver C. Snuffer, Jr.
Denver Snuffer, Jr. was excommunicated in September of 2013 for “apostasy.” The reason for his excommunication was his publication of a book titled, “Passing the Heavenly Gift,” his popular lectures on the subject of the book, and his refusal to withdraw his book from the public domain when demanded to do so by Church leaders.
I thought it might be helpful to give interested parties a synopsis of the 500-page book that led to Snuffer’s excommunication as an apostate.
Four Phases of Mormonism
Snuffer says Mormonism can be divided into four phases. The first phase belongs to Joseph Smith, which he describes in glowing terms. It is obvious Snuffer accepts Joseph Smith as a prophet. The same cannot be said of subsequent Church leaders.
The second phase begins with Joseph Smith’s death and continues to the First Manifesto in 1890. The second phase is marked by an absence of angelic ministration and personal visitations of Christ to Church leaders. He quotes statements from Brigham Young to the effect that he never received a visitation from either angels or the risen Lord. (90-91) He also quotes a 1926 letter from Heber J. Grant to similar effect. (65) This is significant to Snuffer. When the First Manifesto was given in 1890, a major shift occurred in Mormonism. Plural marriage was done away with. Suddenly, a practice that had been considered essential to exaltation was now grounds for excommunication. Snuffer argues that with this complete reversal in Church policy, the stage was set for the Church to do anything it wanted with impunity and the members would accept it.
The third phase continues to the administration of David O. McKay, when there was a concerted effort within the Church to begin calling the president a “prophet,” and focus on the prophetic nature of his calling. This phase is also marked by a continuing decline of prophetic announcements of divine visitations.
This fourth phase continues to the present, where new Church presidents are referred to primarily as “the Prophet” ( as opposed to “President” with which leaders from Brigham Young to George Albert Smith contented themselves), with the implication that anything done by the Church is sanctioned and directed by the current “prophet” who speaks and acts exclusively under the direction of Jesus Christ himself. The result is that questioning any decision by the Church or its leadership is tantamount to questioning the prophet himself, which is equivalent to challenging Jesus. Denver argues that this state of affairs has led to according celebrity status to Church leaders, to worshipping men instead of Jesus, to swearing fealty to a Church instead of to God. (414-15)
Passing the Heavenly Gift
Snuffer takes special exception to modern LDS Church claims of the transition of authority after Joseph Smith’s death to Brigham Young and the apostles. Here Snuffer relies heavily on D&C 124, which he quotes to the effect that the saints must complete the Nauvoo temple within a certain, though unspecified, period of time or be rejected as a people. Further, that it was only in the Nauvoo temple that the “fullness of the priesthood” would be given to the saints. It is this “fullness” that Snuffer appears to equate with “the heavenly gift” of his book’s title.
The saints never received anything in the temple after its completion, because they had already left Nauvoo prior to its completion. Hence, any endowments they received in the uncompleted Nauvoo temple prior to their exodus could not have qualified as “the heavenly gift” God had in store for them. The subsequent burning of the temple and later destruction in a storm that “left not one stone upon another” is seen by Snuffer as the judgment of God upon the temple and the saints similar to that visited upon the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. at the hands of the Romans.
Snuffer also argues, again citing D&C 124, that because the Lord said it was only in the completed Nauvoo temple that the “fullness of the priesthood” would be restored, and that because Joseph Smith transferred endowment and second anointing ordinances in his red brick store, whatever Joseph Smith gave his “quorum of the anointed” in his red brick store could not be the “fullness of the priesthood” promised in the revelation.
But this is all that Brigham Young and the apostles received, and all they transferred to other saints after Joseph’s death and before the Nauvoo temple was completed. They never received the “fullness of the priesthood” in the Nauvoo temple, and hence neither Brigham Young nor any of his successors possess this “fullness of the priesthood.” Instead, they possess only a partial priesthood, which is insufficient to exalt the saints. Snuffer likens the LDS Church since Joseph Smith to Old Testament Israel which did not possess the “fullness of the priesthood” but only the Aaronic priesthood. Even though the LDS Church possesses only a partial priesthood, Snuffer maintains that they are still chosen of God, even as ancient Israel, and that eventually a teacher will arise who will restore to them that which was lost. Snuffer appears to see himself as filling this role, though he says it indirectly, as he does many of his more controversial opinions: “We have moved further away from Zion since the time Joseph Smith was Prophet. The Lord will extend the offer again, but until He sends someone who can teach what is necessary in order to establish Zion, we will continue to lose light, discard truth, forget what is expected, and dwindle in unbelief.” (402)
And again, “Just as He (God) continued to care and send authorized messengers from time to time to warn ancient Israel and declare repentance to them, we should expect such messages to be sent to us. Their message from Him, just as anciently, will necessarily be a plea for us to repent.” (417)
I was surprised it took Snuffer to page 497 to bring up the prophecy of “one mighty and strong,” who will “set in order the house of God” (D&C 85:7). Though he notes with amusement “how many have claimed” to be this individual, it seems evident Snuffer sees himself as filling the bill (or somebody very like him).
What is the “Heavenly Gift”?
Snuffer appears to equate the “heavenly gift” with the “fullness of the priesthood” that was never delivered to the saints in the Nauvoo temple. This constitutes a personal visitation by Jesus Christ, the “Second Comforter.” Such a personal visitation is a requirement of exaltation, and also known as having one’s “calling and election made sure.” Snuffer says this is the “testimony of Jesus” referred to in Section 76, which must be received in this life to qualify for the celestial kingdom; that receiving the “testimony of Jesus” in the spirit world qualifies one for only the terrestrial kingdom.
Snuffer argues the “testimony of Jesus” is not saying words about Jesus by way of “testimony,” but rather Jesus’s own testimony to an individual that they will have eternal life. This constitutes the “fullness of the priesthood” that must be received individually in mortality in order to be exalted. “Those who fall short of this, and do not receive this witness from Christ in mortality but receive it afterwards, will be heirs of the Terrestrial Kingdom.” (431-32)
This is why Snuffer finds it significant that Brigham Young never claimed to have received such a visitation, and that the same should be said for all subsequent Church presidents. (Snuffer does not explain the apparent contradiction in Joseph F. Smith who claimed to have seen Jesus in vision as recorded in D&C 138, though Snuffer quotes from the “Vision of the Dead” to other effect.) Snuffer asserts that current apostles give the false impression they have seen Jesus while never claiming to actually have done so.
Snuffer discusses the controversy surrounding the appearance of Elijah to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple in 1836 as recorded in D&C 110. He notes that the recording of this event occurs in the journal of Joseph Smith, is written not by Joseph Smith but by a scribe (Warren Cowdery), is written in the third person, is the last entry in the 1835-36 journal, and there are several blank pages after it. Snuffer implies that this could have been written at a later date than the one given it in the journal. (74-78)
Adding to the mystery, Snuffer notes that Joseph Smith never mentioned this visit from Elijah anywhere else, that the same is true of Oliver Cowdery (Warren’s brother), and that Joseph Smith subsequently mentioned the promised visit of Elijah as something that was still in the future.
Snuffer sets forth the traditional narrative of the Church that Elijah restored the sealing keys in Kirtland, that these keys were transferred from Joseph to the Twelve in Nauvoo, and that they are still maintained by the Church President today. Though he fails to complete his argument, his discussion of the D&C 110 issue seems to be Snuffer’s indirect way of questioning whether the recorded appearance of Elijah to Joseph Smith ever occurred in Kirtland, and whether Joseph therefore even had any keys of sealing to transfer to the Twelve before his death. Snuffer also notes that even in the text of section 110, Elijah never purports to transfer anything to Joseph, but only claims that such has already been accomplished. (Careful readers may note a discrepancy here–If Elijah did appear to Joseph and did announce the transfer of keys as already accomplished, then Joseph would have had the keys to transfer to the Twelve in Nauvoo.)
Raging Against the Machine
Snuffer has many uncomplimentary things to say about the current leadership of the LDS Church. In his initial chapters, he couches such sayings in conditional phrases, peppering his language with “ifs.” By the end of his book, however, Snuffer is much more direct in his assessment.
Snuffer relies heavily on 2 Nephi 28, calling it a prophecy to the Latter-day Saints that they will lose the fullness of the gospel after receiving it. Indeed, many of these prophecies appear to apply to God’s latter-day church. For example, when Nephi pronounces a woe upon those who say that “all is well in Zion,” it indicates the people making this statement are part of God’s church in the last days, and that all is most definitely not well in Zion; if all is well, why pronounce a woe upon those who make this claim?
It is Snuffer’s attacks on Church leadership that almost certainly caused his excommunication. Snuffer likens them to the Pharisees:
“Christ lived at a time when the presiding authorities were corrupt and wicked. They conspired to kill Him. He knew this was their intent, but He still showed respect for their offices. Even as He condemned their evils, He taught obedience to them. It is not the responsibility of church members to judge church authorities. The Lord will judge all and render just recompense to every person. He knows there are abominations among us.” (422)
“The Proud Descendants of Nauvoo”
Snuffer states that virtually all Church leaders have descended from those in leadership at Nauvoo, and over and over again calls them “the proud descendants of Nauvoo.” (See p. 420, for example.) So often is this specific phrase repeated that it seems a point of fixation for Snuffer.
Snuffer’s deep-seated antipathy for “the proud descendants of Nauvoo” may be related to his novel idea that Joseph Smith offered his life as a sacrifice in order to give the saints more time to complete the Nauvoo temple; a sacrifice that was ultimately in vain: “Joseph Smith offered his life to purchase the saints more time. He acknowledged our shortcomings and failures, and his failure to get repentance from us. He thought he could do more if he were given more time. The Lord accepted Joseph’s offer, gave more time, but ultimately we failed to accomplish what was required.” (404)
Snuffer nevertheless seeks to find value in Joseph’s sacrificial offering: “Joseph’s life was forfeited, but Joseph’s blood was not shed in vain. We remain the Lord’s people and have inherited a covenant which still provides power to any who repent. Until we repent, however, the condemnation, rejection and cursing remain in effect.” (404-05) So in spite of Joseph offering his life to God as a ploy to get more time for the Nauvoo temple to be completed, the Nauvoo saints took no advantage of this extension of time gained at such a cost and never completed the temple. Little wonder they were condemned, rejected and cursed. And little wonder Snuffer repeatedly refers to current Church leadership as “the proud descendants of Nauvoo.”
It should probably be mentioned in passing that Snuffer presents no evidence to support his belief regarding Joseph Smith’s sacrificial offering, except for D&C 124:1 which says nothing more than that God is “pleased” with Joseph’s “offering and acknowledgements.” The rest of Snuffer’s theory appears to be a gloss on this text.
And advancing the idea that God was responsible for taking Joseph’s life in a bloody gun fight seems somewhat at odds with the negative view in which Snuffer assesses Brigham Young’s teaching of blood atonement. (120-146)
More Raging Against the Machine
Snuffer writes: “We idolize men, rather than Christ. We claim to hold keys that would allow men filled with sin to forgive sins on earth and in heaven, to grant eternal life, or to bar from the kingdom of God. Using that false and useless claim, we slay the souls of men, thereby committing murder (of their souls). We are riddled with priestcrafts. Men seek the praise of others rather than to bring again Zion. We envy those who fill leadership positions because we want the power granted through priestly office and position.” (414-15)
In speaking of Church leaders, Snuffer says, “Christ’s words should take precedent (sic) over the smooth things we hear from the philosophies of men, but they do not.” (415)
Snuffer calls Church leaders “false guides” who will lead the membership to “destruction”: “Although we remain part of the Lord’s latter-day agenda, we are not going to be collectively saved. Only those few who repent and return to Him will be numbered among His people. For the rest, they will follow false guides down to destruction.” (415)
With pointed accusations like this brimming in his book, it is little wonder Church leadership decided Snuffer must recant or go. This is not Galileo saying the earth revolves around the sun. This is Galileo calling the Pope a fraud.
Although there is much that is plainly true in Snuffer’s book (can there be any real question that the modern Mormon Church is substantially different than in Joseph Smith’s day?), there are a number of weaknesses in his reasoning that should be taken into consideration.
Snuffer’s biased relating of LDS history becomes apparent when he paints the Joseph Smith era as one of glory and perfection and then compares it to Brigham Young’s benighted administration. In so doing, he whitewashes over problems with Joseph Smith and ignores positive aspects of Brigham Young. He compares Joseph’s best with Brigham’s worst. Nowhere is this plainer than in his discussion of plural marriage. While faulting Brigham’s 1852 public announcement of plural marriage and the way it was practiced in territorial Utah, Snuffer prefers to consider Joseph’s polygamy as Platonic and meant only to seal others (both men and women) to him, and through him to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as part of the essential “adoption” sealing ordinance. (Snuffer notes this exalting ordinance of “adoption” is another thing discarded by the Church.) Completely unmentioned is Joseph’s marrying women already married to other living men, sometimes called polyandry, and the incident with Fanny Alger never comes up. (157-175)
It is clear Snuffer is well versed in Church history and must know of these things. His reticence to include them therefore indicates not ignorance, but unwillingness to provide information that contradicts his thesis.
Weaknesses in Snuffer’s Theory
The major weakness in Snuffer’s position, however, is not so much in his biased use of sources, but in the internal inconsistency of his major propositions.
Snuffer contends the “heavenly gift” necessary to exaltation is a personal visitation from Jesus Christ. Snuffer quotes extensively from Joseph Smith to good effect to support this proposition. Practicing what he preaches, Snuffer claims to have received just such a visitation himself. “He first appeared to me February 13, 2003.” (452) Snuffer is reticent to give any details beyond this declaration.
As noted above, Snuffer spends a great deal of space in his book arguing that this “fullness of the priesthood” was never given to the Church because they did not complete the Nauvoo temple as required in D&C 124; that whatever Joseph passed on could not have been this “fullness of the priesthood” because it was given in his red brick store and not in the completed temple.
Snuffer says Church leadership after Joseph has gone astray and been rejected and cursed of the Lord, wandering in the wilderness with a partial priesthood sufficient only to allow the ministering of angels but not the personal visit of God necessary to exaltation.
And yet, if all this is true, how does Snuffer explain that he was nevertheless enabled to obtain the “fullness of the priesthood” through a personal visitation of the Savior? Snuffer likens his situation to the Old Testament period where, even though the lesser priesthood prevailed in general usage, God himself called certain prophets from time to time and through personal visitation conferred upon them this “fullness of the priesthood.”
Why Was the Nauvoo Temple Necessary?
But what then, exactly, constitutes the “heavenly gift” that was supposed to have been delivered to the saints had the Nauvoo temple been completed in a timely manner? This is a place where Snuffer gets hazy, and for good reason. Following his reasoning, the “fullness of the priesthood” intended for bestowal in the Nauvoo temple must have been a personal appearance of Jesus to qualify the recipients for exaltation by making their calling and election sure.
That Snuffer claims to have received just such a visitation outside the Nauvoo temple weakens this claim. If Snuffer could receive a personal visitation outside the Nauvoo temple, then the completion of the Nauvoo temple prior to Joseph Smith’s death was not essential for this purpose.
Why is Elijah Necessary?
A similar vagueness is involved in Snuffer’s extended discussion of Elijah. If we grant him the full extent of his implied argument that Elijah never actually appeared to Joseph Smith with sealing keys in 1836, and Joseph never had the sealing keys to pass on to the Twelve, and that Joseph spoke in the 1840’s of Elijah’s visit as still in the future, what does this have to do with a personal visitation of Jesus?
If Jesus appeared to Snuffer in 2003 without any appearance or intervention or bestowal of keys by Elijah, this whole line of argument appears nothing more than a non sequitur.
Why is the Priesthood Necessary?
Snuffer’s argument is further undercut by his position that ordinances are performed in the Church today not by any priesthood power, but by the power of God independent of the institutional structure. “Any of us can repent and be baptized. Any of us can endure in faith to the end. Any of us can be saved. The Holy Ghost comes to any soul who repents and seeks for God. It does not matter whether there is an officiator with authority from God on the earth or not. . . . It would be good to have an authorized minister to perform the ordinance, but the language of Section 20 is not contingent upon authority. Rather, it is the faith of one receiving baptism which determines the ordinance’s validity.” (418) “If the Holy Ghost will visit you even without an authoritative ordinance, then the responsibility to live so as to invite the Spirit is all you need to have that same companionship the ordinance could confer.” (460)
Later, Snuffer says, “Using the language for the ceremony (of baptism) authorizes the covenant to be performed.” (421) He makes a similar argument for the ordinance of the sacrament. (421-22) Why does Snuffer make this argument while at the same time contending the Church still possesses the Aaronic priesthood necessary to perform these lesser ordinances? Is it an indirect attempt by Snuffer to justify how it is he could receive the “fullness of the priesthood” by a personal visitation of Jesus without going through institutional priesthood channels? Regardless of why, Snuffer’s argument that the lesser ordinances, as well as the greater ordinances, require no priesthood authority undercuts his belief that a restoration of priesthood authority was necessary in the first place.
If Snuffer is correct, all that is necessary is to strictly follow the commandments of God, receiving ordinances not requiring priesthood authority, until one makes the necessary sacrifice to qualify for a personal visitation of Jesus—again without the need of institutional priesthood authority. While Snuffer maintains that the personal visitation of the Savior is what is necessary in order to obtain the “fullness of the priesthood,” this can be done outside the structure of the LDS church and without the need for any authority along the way, until one receives a “fullness of the priesthood” directly from the Savior. If this is so, the question we are left with is why a restoration of the priesthood was necessary in the first place. This is especially puzzling inasmuch as Snuffer gives no indication he believes anything other than that Joseph Smith was telling the truth regarding receiving priesthood authority from divine messengers.
Why did Joseph Smith need to receive priesthood authority to perform ordinances requiring no priesthood authority?
Why is Temple Work Necessary?
Not only do ordinances in the Nauvoo temple fail under Snuffer’s theory, but much of the work for the dead in subsequent temples. As noted above, Snuffer is clear that a personal visitation of Jesus Christ must be received by an individual in mortality to qualify for exaltation. If this is so, to what purpose is the vast majority of temple work for the dead conducted in LDS temples since Nauvoo? Temple ordinances for the dead cannot be for the exaltation of the recipients who are no longer in mortality and have missed the required visitation of the Savior. And endowments for the dead, at the very least, convey nothing more than what was obtained by the Twelve from Joseph Smith in his red brick store, which Snuffer maintains was not the “fullness of the priesthood” necessary for eternal life.
The advantage of Joseph Smith’s teaching of temple ordinance work for the dead is highlighted (and contradicted) by Snuffer’s belief that a person must receive the “heavenly gift” in mortality. What does Snuffer’s theory say to those who die without having received this personal visitation? It appears the gates of the Celestial Kingdom are shut against them forever. If Snuffer hews to Joseph Smith’s doctrine of the age of accountability being eight years old, what happens to the nine-year old who dies without having received the “fullness of the priesthood”? It appears all such unfortunates are made doubly unfortunate in the eternal worlds, never being able to qualify for exaltation.
Why is the Church Necessary?
While Snuffer maintains the truthfulness of the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith, and cavils only at the direction the Church took subsequent to his death, following his argument to its logical conclusion calls into question why the need for a restoration of the church at all. “Whatever the church as an institution has retained or lost, you have lost nothing. The fullness of the Gospel is still available to any of us. But it is obtained the same way Joseph Smith obtained it, not through an institution.” (468)
All that appears to be needed is strict conformity to the will of God resulting in a personal appearance of Jesus to seal one up to eternal life. The distinction Snuffer draws in this regard is that Joseph claimed such a visitation, and encouraged all the saints to make their calling and election sure by individually receiving a similar visitation, while subsequent Church leaders have made no such claim and give no such encouragement. Snuffer notes the Correlation program that has gained ascendancy in the modern Mormon Church forbids the discussion of the subject in official church manuals. (441)
But if Snuffer is correct that we ‘have lost nothing” regardless of what state of apostasy the LDS Church may languish in, why was it important for Joseph Smith to restore a church (any church) in the first place? This is another question that goes unanswered in his book.
Why is Grace Necessary?
Judging from his popularity, many Mormons seem attracted to Snuffer’s theology. He speaks authoritatively of the glory days of Joseph Smith, and does a competent job of assembling the founding prophet’s teachings regarding the Second Comforter. On further reflection, however, they may find it disconcerting that Snuffer maintains strict obedience to God’s laws and ultimate sacrifice to God’s will is required in order to qualify for the “testimony of Jesus” essential to exaltation.
This loops us back into the doctrine that perfect obedience is not only attainable, but required in mortality, at least with enough repentance; a position that many thousand years of human experience seem to contradict. It also appears to be in tension with another teaching of Joseph Smith in the King Follett Discourse: “Thus you learn some of the first principles of the gospel, about which so much hath been said. When you climb a ladder, you must begin at the bottom and go on until you learn the last principle; it will be a great while before you have learned the last. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it is a great thing to learn salvation beyond the grave.”
Though Snuffer quotes from other sections of the King Follett Discourse, he does not mention this passage nor try to deal with its implications.
Snuffer has many good and important things to say and he does not hesitate to say them. He raises many issues of concern to modern Mormons who are discovering unsavory things about Church history and tries to deal with them in a way that keeps Mormons from leaving the Church. While teaching the Church is inspired of God and part of God’s plan, Snuffer simultaneously accuses Church leaders (“the proud descendants of Nauvoo”) of being false guides who lead the members down to destruction, having changed the ordinances and refusing to speak of the one thing that is necessary to eternal life—having one’s calling and election made sure by a personal visit from Jesus in mortality.
But upon reflection, Snuffer gets fuzzy in his argument at the precise places where it begins to break down, both as to exactly what the “heavenly gift” that never got delivered in the Nauvoo temple was supposed to be, and how the failure of the “heavenly gift” to be transferred to the Twelve is of significance, considering he himself claims a personal visitation of the Savior outside the Nauvoo temple and without the priesthood authority of the church institution.
Whatever one thinks of Snuffer’s teachings, his popularity may speak to a hunger among thousands of Latter-day Saints for a voice that speaks authoritatively of modern day visitations of deity and communication from heaven. A similar phenomenon occurred in the late 2nd century when the Montanist movement sprang up, practicing spiritual gifts and prophecy that had been all but extinguished in the Orthodox Church; a siren song strong enough to attract converts from orthodoxy such as Tertullian.
Is Snuffer a latter-day Tertullian? Both Snuffer and his movement appear at approximately the same point of development in the LDS Church (about 180-years after its founding) as Tertullian and the Montanist movement did in the Orthodox Church (about 170-years after Christ’s ministry). Which puts me in mind of a saying I once heard that the only difference between the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church is 2,000 years.
Snuffer seems to see himself as a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the paths of the Lord”; as the “one mighty and strong” sent by the Lord to put his house in order; as the mortal Jesus crying against the corruption and abuses of the religious leaders of his day.
Whether these self-portrayals are accurate, the LDS Church appears to have confirmed them by first attempting to silence Snuffer, and when he refused to be silent, to excommunicate him, the modern PC version of crucifixion.
Ironically, Snuffer may have predicted his own excommunication when discussing the shift from the first phase of Mormonism to the second phase: “The second made it possible for Mormonism to make radical changes, enforce, those changes, and punish by excommunication those who would no support those radical changes.” (239)
Perhaps Snuffer is not entirely devoid of the gift of prophesy after all.