Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Passing the Heavenly Gift/Joseph received sealing powers in 1829

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Response to Passing the Heavenly Gift

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

Is it true that Joseph received sealing authority in 1829?[1]

It is disappointing to see Snuffer resort to an ancient anti-Mormon canard regarding D&C 84 (30). Church critics have long claimed[2] that Joseph Smith’s theophany cannot have occurred because priesthood is required to permit mortals to tolerate the divine presence:

And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live (D&C 84:19–22).

Snuffer, like the Tanners before him, misreads the scripture, declaring that “Joseph Smith…necessarily holds this higher priesthood. For without it, no man can see the Father and live. Since Joseph beheld the Father in the First Vision, it was necessary for him to have this higher priesthood even before the appearance of the angels who later conferred priesthood upon Joseph” (30, citations removed). But this is not what the scripture says.

“Without this,” it reads, “no man can see the face of God.” To what does this refer? Its antecedent is clearly “the power of godliness”—thus, without ordinances and the priesthood authority necessary to perform them—“the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh.” And, without the power of godliness, one cannot abide the presence of God.[3]

In most circumstances, the manifestation of that power would follow the receipt of and obedience to the ordinances, which require the priesthood. But, God can by grace clearly grant the power of godliness to one who has been unable to receive the ordinances due to the absence of an authorized administrator.

To solve the problem which he believes he has discovered, Snuffer follows Orson Pratt in declaring that Joseph held priesthood already from a pre-mortal ordination (30, 295). But this claim will not salvage other aspects of PTHG’s theory. Joseph Smith taught that “At the general & grand Council of heaven, all those to whom a dispensation was to be commited, were set apart & ordained at that time, to that calling. The Twelve also as witnesses were ordained.”[4] Thus, if PTHG wishes to appeal to a pre-mortal conferral of priesthood for Joseph to meet his lack of mortal ordination, the Twelve could likewise appeal to pre-mortal ordination even if they did not receive it from Joseph in mortality.[5]

Date of plural marriage revelation(s) and implementation

PTHG claims that “[b]eginning in 1831, Joseph obeyed the" command “concerning plural wives” (326). Here again, his grasp of the relevant history is lacking. There is no evidence that Joseph practiced plural marriage in 1831. The first documented plural marriage was to Fanny Alger, whose marriage to Joseph has been dated by historians between 1832 and 1836.[6] Furthermore, Snuffer is not cautious enough in his use of the term “sealing,” (e.g., 92, 326).

During the Nauvoo period, sealing could involve the sealing of spouses. (The earliest references to marriages lasting beyond death are found in WW Phelps’ 1835 letters to his wife.[7] ) However, during the Ohio period, Joseph and others would be spoken of in the revelations as “seal[ing]…up unto eternal life” (D&C 68:12).[8] This usage of terminology may be compared to the Book of Mormon, which often speaks of “sealing up” for protection or security (e.g., title page, 1 Nephi 14:26; 2 Nephi 26:17, 27:8, 22; 30:3; Ether 3:22–28, 4:5, 5:1; Moroni 10:2). One sees the same usage in Snuffer’s often-cited D&C 124, where Hyrum Smith is said “to hold the sealing blessings of my church, even the Holy Spirit of promise, whereby ye are sealed up unto the day of redemption” (D&C 124:124). This blessing was given on 19 January 1841, i.e., prior to Hyrum’s knowledge of or acceptance of plural marriage. However, despite D&C 124 Hyrum was severely rebuked by Joseph for performing a marriage sealing in June 1843, since “there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred” (D&C 132:7).[9] Wilford Woodruff likewise sealed others up to eternal life in Joseph’s lifetime, but he had not received the sealing power involved in the higher ordinances.[10] Thus, the two uses of “sealing” must not be confused if one is to understand Joseph Smith’s thought.

Furthermore, Snuffer uses remarks made by Brigham Young in 1872 as the basis for his claim that Joseph received the plural marriage revelation found in D&C 132 in 1829. PTHG declares that this “makes the conclusion inescapable that the original revelation…was provoked during and because of the translation of the Book of Mormon, and not the work done revising the Bible” (80). This is not a sophisticated approach to the issue. Many LDS historians have considered the matter, and most have concluded that there is other evidence which argues against Brigham being correct.[11] It is ironic that Snuffer will reject Brigham Young’s account of his personal reception of priesthood keys from Joseph as a later elaboration or confabulation,[12] but insist that Brigham’s late remarks about an event which occurred before he was even a member of the Church leads to an “inescapable” conclusion. The only conclusion which we are forced to accept is that Snuffer is not doing serious history, and that he employs double standards in his evaluation of evidence depending upon whether it can be shoe-horned into his thesis.

The date of the marriage sealing power’s receipt is important to Snuffer’s broader argument because “I do not believe that Elijah’s [3 April 1836] appearance conferred sealing power on Joseph Smith. Instead, I believe it came to Joseph just as it came to Melchizedek….It is delivered by the calling of God’s own voice” (327). As we will now see, for Joseph to receive authority from God alone, without an ordaining intermediary, is vital to Snuffer’s project of disputing whether transmitted priesthood authority is needed to perform ordinances.

Elijah and the sealing keys

PTHG works tirelessly (326–327) to disprove the idea that Joseph received sealing keys in the Kirtland temple in 1836:

All the contemporaneous records kept by any party fail to record any mention by Joseph Smith of the Kirtland Temple visitation from Moses, Elias and Elijah. It was never taught by Joseph Smith, never mentioned in any sermon delivered by him, and was never mentioned in anything Joseph ever wrote (75).

This is excellent lawyering, since it is all true in a narrow, technical sense, but it hides several important points. One wonders, first of all, what a Snuffer-esque author in the first century would have written about Jesus’ encounter on the Mount of Transfiguration with the same individuals. Jesus wrote nothing about it, and said nothing about it to anyone afterward either. He likewise ordered the other witnesses present not to say anything (Matthew 17:9; Mark 9:9–10). Only when Jesus was gone did the apostles ‘conveniently recall’ (our Snuffer clone might argue) this theophany and have it written down decades later.

Secondly, why would Joseph and Oliver have spoken about the event, since the full temple ordinances for which the keys were necessary were not given to anyone until much later? A review of the Nauvoo-era discourses shows Joseph preparing the Saints for these ideas, and bemoaning their reluctance to accept anything new.[13] Public teaching about such things would make little sense until the Saints were ready to participate in the ordinances. One wonders if even Joseph understood their full import initially.[14] Thirdly, contrary to Snuffer’s implicit assumption that Joseph would talk in detail about his divine manifestations, LDS historian Ron Barney has demonstrated that Joseph’s inclination was to say nothing about his visions or revelations until commanded to do so.[15]

Fourthly, Joseph “wrote” very little, so his failure to write about Elijah is unremarkable. He would often dictate material, but seldom took up the pen himself. The account which we have of Elijah’s appearance is found in Joseph Smith’s journal, in the handwriting of Warren A. Cowdery. And so, Snuffer must dispense with that evidence: “So far as any preserved record exists, from April 1836, until their respective deaths in 1844 and 1849, neither Joseph nor Oliver ever mentioned this event to anyone. Only Warren Cowdery’s third person handwritten account mentions it” (75).

This borders on the absurd. Warren Cowdery was Joseph’s scribe, and made an entry in Joseph’s personal journal (the vast majority of which was always written by scribes, not Joseph himself). Where does Snuffer think the account came from, if not from Joseph or Oliver? And, why would he presume anyone but Joseph was the source, since it was placed in Joseph’s journal? Clearly, either Joseph and/or Oliver mentioned it to someone, and did so quite early on.[16]

Furthermore, we can narrow the time frame considerably—it need not stretch to 1844 or 1848 as Snuffer argues: “Warren Cowdery, who inserted the account of the vision in the…journal, could have written it at any time” (76). Technically true, but still misleading. An initial upper bound can be placed on its composition, since Willard Richards made a first person copy in 1843, which he inserted into the Manuscript History of the Church.[17] This demonstrates that the text existed by then, and that Richards (who by that date had received the Nauvoo temple ordinances from Joseph) likely understood the vision’s significance. Yet he too did not speak or preach about it publicly. Richards was preparing the Manuscript History under Joseph’s direction, and had reached 5 August 1838 before Joseph’s martyrdom.[18] Given that Joseph accorded a high priority to the history, and would periodically review it, Snuffer’s confidence that Joseph communicated nothing at all before his death about the vision seems misplaced (324). His claim that the vision was “unknown in the 1830’s and 40’s” is also shown to be false (77).

We can tighten the timeline further by noting that Warren Cowdery arrived in Kirtland 25 February 1836,[19] was writing editorials hostile to Joseph Smith by July 1837, and in 1838 would leave the Church never to return.[20] Unless Snuffer would have us believe that Cowdery somehow had access to Joseph’s journals after his estrangement, much less that he would make an entry about a spectacular manifestation when he was at odds with the Prophet, we have a narrow window between April 1836 and July 1837 during which the text was written.

PTHG later uses the fact that Warren wrote a March 1837 article about the Savior’s Mount of Transfiguration vision of Elias, Elijah, and Moses to argue “if Joseph and Oliver failed to mention the appearances of Moses and Elijah, the scribe who wrote the event displayed an interest in the subject” (77). But if Warren knew nothing in March 1837 (as opposed to simply having no permission to mention the event) this does not help Snuffer’s case—it would narrow the writing of the vision to between March and July 1837. Warren’s article may, on the other hand, have been stimulated by what he had already written for Joseph, but was to keep private.

PTHG’s account is also misleading when it claims that the Warren Cowdery account “was finally discovered and published in the Deseret News on November 6, 1852” (77). Willard Richards had placed the vision in the Manuscript History in 18421843 , and the serial publication of that history began on 15 November 1851.[21] The 1836 Elijah vision was not suddenly “discovered” and then published; it appeared nearly a year later when the on-going newspaper account had reached the events of 3 April 1836.[22]

Though he cites the Joseph Smith Papers project, Snuffer does not inform his audience of the editors’ conclusions which hurt his thesis. For instance, the editors point out that “This account of visitations closes the journal. After more than six months of almost daily recording of developments in Kirtland, entries ceased.”[23] This might push the record back to within days of the event. Furthermore, Snuffer claims again that “we [do not] know what source told Warren…about the event,” and notes simply that “[i]t is written in the third person” (76). He does not tell his readers that the editors indicate that as Warren worked on Joseph’s history, he “also produced third-person accounts. In that endeavor, he had before him a first-person text (the earlier entries of [the] journal), which he changed to third person as he copied them into the history….For this material, he must have relied on another original text—no longer extant—or on oral reports from either or both of the participants.”[24] It is thus unsurprising that Warren wrote as he did, and he likely did so on the basis of a first person account fairly soon after the event.[25] Snuffer also claims that the language of D&C 110 proves that “[r]ather than ordaining or conferring something, Elijah made a statement about what Joseph had previously received….the ‘keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands’ is a statement about what was already there. The sealing authority had been given to Joseph earlier” (92). This is quite a stretch—Moses and Elias had just appeared and “committed” their keys; why ought we to assume Elijah is simply there to point out what has happened years ago? Elijah speaks in the present tense, not the past. He does not say, “the keys have been committed,” he says they are committed—and Elijah then said that his prophesied coming was foretold and is now fulfilled. And, Moroni had long ago told Joseph Smith Elijah would have a role in restoring priesthood: “Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah.”[26]

One does not often see such tortured efforts to dispense with data fatal to one’s thesis.

Joseph’s Nauvoo era teachings about Elijah

Joseph Smith likewise would not have agreed with PTHG’s claim that Elijah only appeared to announce that all keys had already been returned. On 5 October 1840, the Prophet taught:

Elijah was the last prophet that held the keys of this priesthood, and who will, before the last dispensation, restore the authority and delive[r] the Keys of this priesthood in order that all the ordinances may be attended to in righteousness….
And I will send Elijah the Prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord &c &c.
Why send Elijah[?] [B]ecause he holds the Keys of the Authority to administer in all the ordinances of the priesthood and without the authority is given the ordinances could not be administered in righteousness.[27]

Joseph here explicitly rebuts two of Snuffer’s fundamental assertions by teaching that: (1) one must be authorized to perform the ordinances (see Claim #1); and (2) Elijah was sent because he holds keys necessary “to administer in all the ordinances of the priesthood,” and not simply to announce that everything had already happened.

Later, in the Times and Seasons of 15 October 1841, Joseph would discuss the concept that “[t]he dispensation of the fulness of times will bring to light the things that have been revealed in all former dispensations, also other things that have not been before revealed. He shall send Elijah the prophet &c., and restore all things in Christ.”[28]

Joseph thus speaks twice of Elijah’s mission in the future tense even after April 1836. If this is not a mere rhetorical act (i.e., speaking for effect as if in the time of Malachi, looking forward to Elijah’s return) then it may undermine Snuffer’s claims even further. As Ehat and Cook noted,

Apparently in [Joseph’s] mind it was not sufficient that he alone had these keys and this power, but he intended by way of ordinances to confer a portion of this power on others who were faithful, thereby actually bringing about the restoration of all things…. It was not enough to Joseph Smith to be a king and a priest unto the Most High, but he insisted that his people be a society of priests "as in Paul's day, as in Enoch's day" through the ordinances of the temple (see 30 March 1842 discourse). Throughout the remainder of his Nauvoo experience, Joseph Smith taught and emphasized the importance of the temple ordinances, ordinances that would bestow upon members of the Church the knowledge and power he foreshadows in this discourse.[29]

This view is confirmed by an address given over three years later. Joseph declared, “The keys are to be delivered, the spirit of Elijah is to come, the gospel to be established, the Saints of God gathered, Zion built up, and the Saints to come up on Mount Zion.”[30] We again note the future tense, which may be rhetorical, but seems here to also anticipate a culmination that was in the future. “But how are they to become Saviors on Mount Zion?” asks Joseph. He replies:

by building thair temples erecting their Baptismal fonts & going forth & receiving all the ordinances, Baptisms, Confirmations, washings anointings ordinations & sealing powers upon our heads in behalf of all our Progenitors who are dead & redeem them that they may Come forth in the first resurrection & be exhalted to thrones of glory with us, & here in is the chain that binds the hearts of the fathers to the Children, & the Children to the Fathers which fulfills the mission of Elijah….[31]

The ordinances seem vital, Elijah’s keys seem vital, and there is no hint that the Saints are in danger of losing them (see here). In fact, as we will now see, it would be absurd for Joseph to act as if these things were in danger of being lost, since he had conferred these ordinances upon the Twelve and others already.


  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 source for many seems to be Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Changing World of Mormonism (Moody Press, 1979), 149–150. A more recent repetition can be found in Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers, 2005), 34.
  3. This reading is also followed by, among others, H. Dean Garrett and Stephen R. Robinson, Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, Vol. 3 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2004), entry for 84:20.
  4. Samuel W. Richards record, discourse of 12 May 1844; cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 371, italics added.
  5. Orson Pratt taught that Joseph had a pre-mortal ordination to priesthood which allowed him to survive the First Vision (“The Divine Authority of the Holy Priesthood, Etc.,” Journal of Discourses 22:29–30 [10 October 1880]). I think Pratt makes the same error in reading that Snuffer and the Tanners make. If, however, Pratt et al. are correct and I am mistaken, then by Joseph’s statement, the Twelve were likewise ordained in the pre-mortal worlds (see note 142 herein)—a claim about which Pratt agrees in any case (JD 22:28). Neither scenario helps Snuffer’s theory.
  6. George D. Smith has suggested as early as 1832, Todd Compton argues for the date range of “early 1833,” Brian Hales inclines to “some point prior to 1837.” [George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 38; Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1997), 4. Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 85.] Hales reviews all dating theories on pages 99–106.
  7. WW Phelps Phelps to Sally Phelps, letter, 18 May 1835, 2–3. Phelps would mention the idea publicly about a month later: WW Phelps, "Letter No. 8," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1/9 (June 1835): 130.
  8. See discussion in Hales, 1:119, 3:85–86.
  9. See discussion in Ehat thesis, 66–70. See also Hales, 1:619–623.
  10. Woodruff sealed William Clayton up to eternal life on 21 January 1840: “Thou art one of those who will stand upon the mount Zion with the 144,000….and I seal thee up with eternal life….” [George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle; The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1995), 8; see also James B. Allen, Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 29].
  11. Snuffer is aware of these views (79) but does not engage them or even discuss their evidence. See Hales, 2:68–70 and references therein.
  12. See Snuffer, 87–91, and discussion at notes 123–127 herein.
  13. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1938), 91 (TPJS hereafter). See WWJ, 2:342 (21 January 1844).
  14. See Hales, 3:86–89.
  15. Ronald O. Barney, “Joseph Smith’s Visions: His Style and his Record,” FairMormon Conference, 2013.
  16. The other option is that the event did not happen at all—but Snuffer does not accept that hypothesis: he insists that the visitation of Elijah was real, as we will see shortly.
  17. Trever R. Anderson, “Doctrine and Covenants Section 110: From Vision to Canonization,” (Master’s thesis, Department of Religious Education, Brigham Young University, 2010), 76. See also Hales, 3:88 n. 6.
  18. Anderson, 5.
  19. Anderson, 5.
  20. See W.A. Cowdery, ["Editorial"], Messenger and Advocate 3/10 (July 1837): 534–541. Compare with the more friendly article in Messenger and Advocate 3/8 (May 1837): 505–510.
  21. Anderson, 9.
  22. Anderson, 9. British Saints would have the same material published from 5–12 November 1853.
  23. Journal, 223, emphasis added.
  24. Journal, 217.
  25. Anderson likewise argues that the vision was written on “the day it occurred or soon after” (4, see also 15). Anderson’s research, like the Joseph Smith papers, is also cited by PTHG (75 n. 83), but Snuffer does not include these details for his readers, perhaps because they weaken his efforts to downplay the vision’s importance to Joseph’s thinking by claiming that we don’t know what role Joseph had in creating Warren Cowdery’s account of it. Given that the account was written into Joseph’s journal and then included in the Manuscript History while Joseph was alive, these claims are dubious.
  26. Joseph Smith History 1:38
  27. Robert B. Thompson, original manuscript, discourse of 5 October 1840; cited in WJS, 43. See also TPJS, 172.
  28. Times and Seasons 2/24 (15 October 1841): 577–78, citing a speech of 3 October 1841; also in WJS, 76–77.
  29. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 54–55 n. 22.
  30. WWJ, 2:341 (discourse of 21 January 1844); cited in WJS, 317–319. I have here modernized the spelling, and added punctuation for ease of reading.
  31. WWJ, 2:341 (21 January 1844).