Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Passing the Heavenly Gift/Introduction

Table of Contents

Response to Passing the Heavenly Gift

A FairMormon Analysis of: 'Passing the Heavenly Gift', a work by author: Denver C. Snuffer

Introduction to the volume's claims[1]

The central thesis

“…the Latter-day Saint church was predicted to fail, and in all likelihood has failed to secure the fullness of the priesthood” (447).
—Denver Snuffer

Denver C. Snuffer, Jr. claims to have had a vision of the resurrected Jesus Christ.[2] A convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he is the author of eight books.[3] The thesis of the most recent—Passing the Heavenly Gift—is summarized by his book’s cover photo: a snuffed out candle, smoke curling upward, with a dim ember persisting at the tip of the wick.

Snuffer claims that Joseph Smith was an inspired prophet, but Joseph’s commands and revelations were not heeded adequately. As a result, Joseph was betrayed by Church members and murdered prior to the completion of the Nauvoo Temple (104). This made it impossible, in Snuffer’s view, for Joseph to pass on all the necessary ordinances and doctrines, notwithstanding the endowment and other ordinances given the Twelve prior to Joseph’s death (105–110). Brigham Young, the Twelve, and their ecclesiastical heirs did not, therefore, perpetuate the fullness of Joseph’s mission (87–89, 268, 272–276, 283). Some of their acts, and the changes which Snuffer believes they have made to Church doctrine, practice, or administration, were not sanctioned by God, and constitute the “passing of the heavenly gift” (287, 400). This loss was, in Snuffer’s telling, predicted by Joseph Smith, and the time is now ripe for members of the Church to reclaim these blessings (315–317, 400–402, 447–499).

Prophecy and historical claims

If you can control people's ideas of the past, you control their ideas of the present and hence the future.
—Hugh Nibley[4]

Snuffer provides a reading of Joseph Smith’s statements and the Book of Mormon’s prophecies that accords with his opinions. One could—and perhaps should—contest these interpretations vigorously. As Hugh Nibley once noted, though, the uninspired interpretation of prophecy is a notoriously fickle and inexact science—and Snuffer would doubtless consider my interpretation as uninspired as I regard his.[5] Since we disagree about which authorities might be appealed to—for I have a much higher regard for LDS prophets after Joseph Smith than he does—only divine revelation could settle the issue. Such divine endorsement or reproof is not, however, amenable to citation here. Snuffer’s claims rest, however, on a foundation of historical interpretation and reconstruction. He insists that his work was provoked because “among friends of mine there is an increasing unease with official accounts of the history of the church” (xii). “A great deal of what is regarded as ‘well -settled’ [in Church history] is, upon closer investigation, merely a series of inconsistent leaps of faith unwarranted by the record” (xiii). Snuffer tells “faithful Latter-day Saint” readers that they therefore “will need to be open-minded” (xiii). Open mindedness is a virtue, and yet, as many wits have warned, we should not be so open-minded that our brains fall out.[6] Snuffer is somewhat dismissive of previous efforts to recount Latter-day Saint history. “History does not belong to the historians. Their techniques only permit them to offer an interpretation of events. Your own opinion is as valid as theirs” (38). This is an excellent example of PTHG’s tendency to make statements that are absolutely true, and then couple them with a conclusion that is dubious. It is certainly true that all history is an interpretation; no historian is infallible, nor are only professional historians allowed to “do history.” But it is absurd to claim that any opinion is as valid as any other opinion. If I am firmly of the view that the Church was first organized in Japan in 1930, instead of New York in 1830, my opinion is simply wrong, however sincerely I hold it. Snuffer continues:

I am a lawyer, not an historian. This book is a view of the events as I have come to understand them. Any historian will offer only his editorial opinion dressed in an academic discipline to pretend it is more than mere opinion. But history written by the academics suffers from all the bias, blindness and foolishness of the one who writes (5).

He is certainly correct that authorial bias cannot but contaminate any work. Elsewhere, however, he seems to declare himself above or immune to such concerns. There is not much intellectual caution in his self-portrait:

Taking this scriptural framework, (not as an historian but as a believer in the prophetic insight about us) I then tracked through our history. I used a lot of primary sources, including journals and diaries of church leaders. What I found was that the events in our history could be viewed as an exact match for the prophetic warnings given us in scripture (Book of Mormon/D&C). The result was not history, but truth. If the book is true (and I am persuaded it is the most correct account of our dispensation written so far) then we need to awaken to our present peril and repent.[7]

Not only is Snuffer’s work “truth” (rather than biased history), and not only is it the best account of our dispensation, but “I think I understand [Joseph Smith] as well as any person who has reviewed the written record about him” (40). But, even if this lofty self-portrait is true, if anyone’s opinion about history is as valid as anyone else’s, it is not clear why we ought to listen to Snuffer at all.

Snuffer claims that “The problem with Passing the Heavenly Gift has not been its accuracy. The issue raised in the notice I received from the stake president does not say the book is false, contains errors or makes mistakes in history.”[8] His stake president may not have said it—priesthood leaders are generally not tasked with evaluating the accuracy of history—but I will. The book makes many false statements and conclusions, contains errors, and makes mistakes in history—and it is difficult to believe that some of those mistakes are made by oversight.

I therefore propose to first outline the various historical claims upon which Snuffer’s reconstruction of the Restoration rests. I will then consider each point in detail—we will see that Snuffer’s reconstruction is simply implausible or in error. It ignores documents that do not match the story he tells and it distorts or misrepresents some documents that he cites. He does not interact with previous scholarship in a responsible way. It certainly cannot pretend to pure “truth,” and often shades into frank error.

Summary of Snuffer’s historical reconstruction

One searches in vain for a succinct summary of PTHG’s argument.[9] The book wanders, repeats itself, and usually does not include the author’s entire argument in a single place—it is scattered throughout. The claims do not always seem entirely self-consistent. The following points, however, provide the framework for his interpretation of LDS scripture and history:

  1. Priesthood conferred by ordination is just a potential (“many are called”) and not actual bestowal of power (“few are chosen”). To truly receive priesthood power, a type of divine theophany is necessary (36).
  2. Oliver Cowdery gave a charge to the original twelve apostles requiring them to seek to behold the face of God. This charge was discontinued in the early 1900s because so few had had a theophany-type experience (88–89).
  3. Brigham Young, many other post-Joseph Smith leaders, and modern apostles sometimes explicitly deny having had theophany-type experiences, or “parsinge” [sic] their words carefully to give false impressions to their unwary listeners (61, 65, 87–88, 243).
  4. Brigham Young was ordained an apostle by the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, not Joseph Smith, and so he did not receive priesthood keys or authority from Joseph Smith (87).
  5. Brigham appealed to his ordination as an apostle as the ground for his right to lead the Church following Joseph’s death. Brigham could not have received all the necessary keys from Joseph (especially the sealing keys), since traditional LDS history dates their receipt to 1836, a year following Brigham’s ordination to the apostleship (87–89, 105–110). Furthermore, Joseph not ordain the apostles (see point #4) and so could not have given his keys to Brigham and the Twelve.
  6. Joseph Smith did not receive the ultimate sealing powers in 1836 from Elijah in the Kirtland temple, but instead had received them by 1829 in association with the receipt of the revelations which later became D&C 132. This 1829 receipt of authority met the criteria outlined in point #1 above (75, 327).
  7. Despite the apostles’ claims, the necessary authority from Joseph could only be fully transmitted in a temple—since Joseph died before the temple was finished, it was impossible for them to receive everything God wanted them to receive (268, 272–276, 283).
  8. The Saints sinned in Missouri, and Joseph Smith had to offer God his life in order to get them another chance (98–101, 104, 285, 404).
  9. God commanded the Saints to build the Nauvoo temple, but warned them of dire punishment if they did not do so with enough speed or zeal. The Saints’ sufferings subsequent to Joseph’s death are evidence that God was punishing them for not building the temple quickly enough, as he had warned them he would (197, 202–206, 268–270).
  10. There were no divine, Pentecostal-type experiences in the Nauvoo temple as there were in the Kirtland temple. This demonstrates that God did not fully accept the temple because of the Saints’ delay in building it (381).

Snuffer’s Conclusion

Snuffer concludes, then, that the apostles’ lack of full authority, and God’s displeasure with the Church subsequent to Joseph’s death, means that since Joseph the leaders have been misguided. They have introduced inappropriate innovations in practice or doctrine. Mormonism has lost some vital truths which members, independent of the institutional Church and its leadership, can reclaim if they are faithful.

Snuffer's visionary claims

Undergirding everything is Snuffer’s claim to have seen Jesus Christ, and to therefore have his “calling and election made sure.” A large portion of his critique focuses on the supposed absence of this blessing among post-Joseph Smith leaders of the Church. Furthermore, Snuffer has portrayed himself as an expert on the topic in books and elsewhere:[10]

The books I have written do not ever touch upon Calling and Election, nor discuss the Second Anointing. But they will tell you what is required to go and learn from the Lord about these things directly. If you want answers about that, then follow the same path as the ancients did, as Joseph Smith did, and as Abraham did. I'm only interested in helping you understand the path….Most people who spend time writing about second anointings and calling and election don't know what they're talking about. The best treatment of that subject is something which ought to come from the Lord directly. Or an angel assigned by Him to minister to the person who has prepared.
The challenge is preparation. I'm all about that. That is what I write to explain and what I encourage all to do.[11]

These doctrines and the experiences that go with them are among the things which Snuffer sees the post-Joseph Smith Church as minimizing and rejecting, in part because of what Joseph could not pass on and in part because of the failings or inadequacy of subsequent leaders. Because Snuffer claims experience and expertise in a matter about which he says the modern leaders are either ignorant or inappropriately silent, this forms the implicit basis for his effort to steady the historical and ecclesiastical ark. “The culminating ordinances of Joseph Smith’s restoration….[is that w]e are to be prepared in all things” to receive” direct revelation from God.[12] “The real thing is when a person actually obtains an audience with Jesus Christ, returns to His presence, and gains the knowledge by which they are saved. This was the topic I first wrote about, and has remained the underlying theme of everything I have written” (53, italics added).

Lawyer, not historian

In a sense, Snuffer is more right than he knows when he claims to be a lawyer, not a historian. He is also absolutely correct when he says that has not provided us with history. What we have, rather than the unadulterated “truth” he claims to provide, is simply a type of legal brief. In this case, however, the lawyer does not address—or even mention—evidence that does not support his client’s case. And so, we must proceed to cross-examine his presentation.

Notes

  1. Portions of this wiki response are based upon Gregory L. Smith, "Passing Up The Heavenly Gift Part 1 Part 2," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 7 (2103), 181–341. The text here may have been expanded, reworded, or corrected given the nature of a wiki project. References in brackets like this: (xx) refer to page numbers in Denver C. Snuffer, Jr., Passing the Heavenly Gift (Salt Lake City: Mill Creek Press, 2011).
  2. “The Lord does still personally appear to mankind. I am a witness to that fact. He first appeared to me February 13, 2003. I have written a book about the topic….That book does not contain any details about the Lord’s ministry to me, but affirms it took place” (452). See also John Dehlin, “321-322: Denver Snuffer – A Progressive, Fundamentalist, Non-Polygamist Mormon Lawyer Who Claims to Have Seen Christ,” Mormon Stories Podcast (12 February 2012).
  3. Denver C. Snuffer, Jr., Passing the Heavenly Gift (Salt Lake City, UT: Mill Creek Press, 2011), 509. All future citations to this work will be in the form of page numbers in parentheses. I will refer to the book as PTHG for brevity’s sake.
  4. Hugh Nibley, “The Way of the Church,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Vol. 4 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Todd Compton and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 217. Nibley is here paraphrasing George Orwell's words.
  5. “Nothing is easier than to identify one's own favorite political, economic, historical, and moral convictions with the gospel. That gives one a neat, convenient, but altogether too easy advantage over one's fellows….This is simply insisting that our way is God's way and therefore, the only way. It is the height of impertinence.” [Hugh Nibley, “Beyond Politics,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 150.]
  6. The earliest variant that I’ve found of this aphorism is Max Radin, "On Legal Scholarship," The Yale Law Journal (May 1937), as cited by Peter Olausson, factoids, http://www.faktoider.nu/openmind_eng.html
  7. Snuffer, “Current events,” italics added.
  8. Snuffer, “Compliance (So Far As Possible)”.
  9. Snuffer’s blog summarizes it in once sentence, however: “We are not now the same church restored by Joseph Smith.” Denver Snuffer, “Compliance (So Far As Possible),” blog post (4 September 2013).
  10. The Second Comforter: Conversing with the Lord Through the Veil (Salt Lake City, Utah: Mill Creek Press, 2006). On Snuffer’s public claims about having seen Christ, see “The Lord does still personally appear to mankind. I am a witness to that fact. He first appeared to me February 13, 2003. I have written a book about the topic….That book does not contain any details about the Lord’s ministry to me, but affirms it took place” (452) and John Dehlin, “321-322: Denver Snuffer – A Progressive, Fundamentalist, Non-Polygamist Mormon Lawyer Who Claims to Have Seen Christ,” Mormon Stories Podcast (12 February 2012). Snuffer says (51 n. 46) that the results of the Second Comforter are discussed in his book Beloved Enos (Salt Lake City, Utah: Mill Creek, 2009). The introduction of the Father by Christ is “not appropriate to set out except through symbols and allegory,” and Snuffer claims to have done so in his Ten Parables (Salt Lake City, Utah: Mill Creek, 2008). Snuffer’s grandiose characterization of his work (see here) is not absent from these books either: “This commentary sheds light on Enos in a way which has not been provided by any previous writer. It will reveal to the reader some of the deepest and most profound messages of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Beloved Enos). Ten Parables tells us that “this collection of parables weave together symbols to illustrate profound truths. While meaningful in a single read, you will discover layers of meaning with careful review.”
  11. Denver Snuffer, “Clarification,” blog post (2 May 2010) and follow-up comment (10:41 pm).
  12. Snuffer’s text is more explicit, but since it quotes language from the LDS temple ceremony, I have elected not to reproduce it.