The Four Phases of Mormonism

This is another in a series of my study notes from Passing the Heavenly Gift by Denver Snuffer. I’ve spent considerable time this past year studying the material presented in an effort to come to grips with a paradigm change in how I view the LDS church. I am a lifelong active member. I love this church and the people in it. But the religion has changed dramatically even in my life.

In this essay I attempt to reconcile the changes I have seen from the religion of my youth to the faith we practice today. For those familiar with Denver’s latest book, you may recognize some of the wording in the early part of this essay to be taken from his summary of the four phases on pages ten and eleven. It can also be found on the back cover and the publisher’s online summary.

Besides a summary of the four phases, I’d like to respond to selected quotes from chapter two of the book, entitled History and Truth. If you don’t approve of quoting D. Michael Quinn or Davis Bitton for that matter (“I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church”), then you’re not going to like this chapter. From Denver: “If this book challenges your faith, then stop reading it.”

The Four Phases

Phase 1 – 1820 to 1844 – 24 years
Phase 2 – 1844 to 1904 – 60 years
Phase 3 – 1904 to 1951 – 47 years
Phase 4 – 1951 to present – 61 years

From its very beginning, Mormonism has undergone constant change. It has yet to assume a final form. It has undergone at least four distinct phases to date. The first was during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and ended with his death in 1844. The key changes during the first phase were exciting, additive and innovative: new revelation, new church structure, new doctrine and new ordinances.

The second phase began with Brigham Young and lasted until the second manifesto in 1904. As you can imagine, the key component of this phase was the influence of plural marriage. The end of this phase was so traumatic for some leaders of the church that they resigned their positions as apostles. Abandonment of polygamy was a watershed event in the maturing of the LDS religion.

The third phase began with the Smoot hearings and ended with the death of President George Albert Smith in 1951. This was a period marked by a church struggling to find its way in a modern world. Long gone were the days of isolation and clinging to old ways at all costs. The church became increasingly more conservative, doing all it could to shed a timeworn image.

The fourth and current phase of Mormonism began with the administration of David O. McKay. The early part of this period saw explosive growth of the church in membership, wealth, temple building, political influence and scholarship. In the latter part, Mormonism adopted correlation and corporate management techniques to consolidate and direct central church decision-making.

The Focus has Changed

In the early days of the church under the leadership of Joseph Smith, the focus was on every man becoming a partaker of the heavenly gift. The culmination of this period was at the dedication of the Kirtland temple. The rich outpourings of the spirit are unmatched to this day. The opening of the heavens in such great abundance for all greatly blessed the lives of early church members.

Brigham changed everything with the public announcement of polygamy as a major tenet of our religion. At one time we taught in this church that a man could not be exalted unless he entered into plural marriage. Mormonism became something I don’t think Joseph intended. The focus changed from receiving heavenly manifestations to a religion that only talked about them.

Later, the abandonment of polygamy became grounds for excommunication. The church outdid itself in efforts to prove to the world we are a “normal” church and people, just like the rest of America. We still celebrated our rich spiritual heritage but fewer and fewer people, especially leaders, focused on opening the heavens to pursue manifestations or new spiritual experiences.

In the modern church, we rarely hear of members, or leaders for that matter, who are willing to share their spiritual experiences. The church grows through modern efficiencies until one can say it is probably the best run church in the world. The focus on sharing spiritual events from our lives has almost completely disappeared. It seems we are expected to keep such things private.

What is Missing Today

I’ve thought long and hard about what it is I feel is missing in our church from my pre-mission days. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I recall stories of spiritual experiences, firesides focused on how to have the heavens opened, and classroom discussions that always included invitations to go and get a personal revelation on the subject so you could be an independent witness.

“Mormonism has become increasingly less mystic, less miraculous, and even less tolerant of ‘gifts’ of the Spirit. Although it retains an emphasis on personal revelation, there is no continuing expectation of new scripture, new commandments, or Divine visitations. The concepts are retained, but the expectations are gone. The idea of angels, visions and visitations are regarded as ‘magical thinking’ belonging to an earlier, primitive people.” – pages 45-46

Today, we seem to be a church at odds with itself. On the one hand, we continue to teach the importance of receiving personal revelation. On the other hand, those who talk about their own revelations are looked upon as weird or unusual. When did it become a taboo subject to talk about having the heavens opened? This is the major change I sense in our Mormon culture.

“The first phase of Mormonism was dominated by visions, angels, and direct involvement by God. Those experiences are still celebrated and taught. However, they are only used as a legitimizing credential for a demystified church. The current phase of Mormonism is missing the direct appearance or involvement of God, angels and visions. There is a disconnect between the miraculous events upon which Mormonism is based, and current church events.” – page 47

Expected Audience with God

It seems in the modern Mormon Church we are tolerant of just the right amount of revelation and no more. We nod our heads approvingly when we hear testimonies of new converts as they talk about how they prayed to know if the Book of Mormon is true. We smile as we hear them relate how they received their answer from God. Ah, yes, the warm, peaceful feeling of the spirit. We remember with fondness our own introductory experiences with the spirit in our youth.

“Every convert to the faith restored through Joseph Smith was, and is expected to have a revelation from God affirming to him or her that the work is God’s. … The purpose of Joseph Smith’s work was not to inform people of revelation as a theoretical possibility, but to install it as a practical reality. Revelation is required to bring converts into the religion, but an audience with God is always the expected culminating event.” – pages 49-50

Wait, what? An audience with God? Well, sure, maybe in the next life but not in this one. Yes, I know what D&C 93:1 says, but Joseph must have been referring to the life to come. “Verily, thus sayeth the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am.” It can’t be any clearer than that, can it? But in this mortal life?

Yes, I think it means in this life. We are expected to work towards and receive an audience with God in this life. Forsake our sins, come unto Christ, call on His name and do what he says. The heart of the work is to hear His voice and do as He personally directs us. We are to meet God face to face. Each person should approach Him for themselves. This was the primary message of the first phase of Mormonism’s that doesn’t seem to be taught today. I miss that.

Belief, Faith and Knowledge

Belief means to understand and accept true doctrine. Unbelief, as used in the Book or Mormon, means to accept false doctrine or to have an incomplete, and inaccurate understanding of correct doctrine. The phrase, “dwindling in unbelief” is the Book of Mormon’s way to describe moving from a state of belief, with true and complete doctrine, to a state of unbelief, where the truth has been discarded. Miracles end because men dwindle in unbelief. (page 52)

“The word ‘faith’ is used when an angel has ministered to someone. Going from belief to faith is a natural progression as soon as any person with a firm mind in every form of righteousness has been tried and found committed to the truth.” This short paragraph, also on page 52, was a real eye-opener to me. From it, I have come to the conclusion that I have not been a person of faith. Denver backs this up with Moroni 7:37, Jacob 7:5 and Moroni 7:30.

“A person acquires ‘knowledge’ when they have an audience with Christ. The Book of Mormon intends for all those who read it to acquire knowledge of Christ. They are to meet Him; to know Him. Hence the saying by Joseph Smith: ‘A man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge.’ Saving knowledge comes from ‘knowing’ – meeting with and being ministered to – by Jesus Christ. He is the Second Comforter. (page 53) We must gain this knowledge to be saved.

The Whole Purpose of the Temple

“The whole temple message can be summarized in one brief statement: We are to be prepared in all things to receive further light and knowledge by conversing with the Lord through the veil. The ceremony of the temple is not the real thing. It is a symbol of the real thing. The real thing is when a person actually obtains an audience with the Jesus Christ, returns to His presence, and gains the knowledge by which they are saved.” (page 53)

“The ceremonies and ordinances of the temple all point to Him. They are not the end of the search but instead teach you how to conduct the search. If all you receive are ordinances, you have nothing of real value. They are dead without a living, personal connection with God. God alone can and will save you. …when men come into contact with the Lord, they gain authority from Him. The Lord’s friends and fellow-servants are always endowed with power.” (pp 55-56)

I have always wondered about the purpose of the prayer circle and veil ceremony if they are not to teach us how to approach the Lord and receive instruction from Him directly. We are taught what we must do, but then we don’t do it. Why? Do we continue to think it is only symbolic, or that it is not meant to be done in this life? When is the appropriate time to knock at the veil to receive further light and knowledge? Surely the Lord didn’t intend for us to wait until we die.

We Must be Taught by Angels and Christ

“Returning to God’s presence is Joseph’s witness, message and theme. If you return to His presence, you will learn more in five minutes than you can by reading all that has ever been written on the subject. Joseph showed that we like him, can gaze into heaven and gain knowledge. No man or woman has ever, or will ever, be saved in ignorance. All of us are saved only as quickly as we gain knowledge of Him directly from Him.” (pages 60-61)

“…revealed religion is always founded on the dramatic; the light going on suddenly and illuminating the room. Without the dramatic appearances of the Lord after His resurrection, the New Testament account would not provide the promise of redemption through Christ. Despite all His profound wisdom, it is the suddenly miraculous return to life which moves Him from teacher of wisdom to Savior of mankind.” (pages 62-63)

“The restoration is marked by the First Vision, the appearance of Moroni, the visit of John the Baptist and return of Peter, James and John. These events identify it as something quite different from other Christian religions. It is not another sect. It is God’s latest work among mankind. When angels stop ministering to the Latter-day Saints, then the original faith has ended among us. At that point we become like any other Christian sect.” (page 63)

Statements from Heber J. Grant

“I know of no instance where the Lord has appeared to an individual since His appearance to the Prophet Joseph Smith.” – Heber J. Grant, 13 April 1926, private letter to Mrs. Claud Peery

“I have never prayed to see the Savior. I know of men – Apostles – who have seen the Savior more than once. I have prayed to the Lord for the inspiration of His Spirit to guide me, and I have told Him that I have seen so many men fall because of some great manifestation to them, they felt their importance, their greatness.” – President Heber J. Grant, 4 October 1942, probably referring to Matthias F. Cowley and John W. Taylor

These are troubling statements, because they seem to be in direct contradiction with the whole focus of the religion restored by Joseph Smith. Why would the president of the church denounce the need or desire to receive a visitation from the Savior who he represented as his prophet? Is personal knowledge of Jesus Christ unnecessary or viewed as a negative leading to a fall? This is so different from what Joseph taught – that such a visitation is the defining moment of our lives.

I also wonder why President Grant was not aware of Lorenzo’s Snow’s testimony that he saw the Savior in the Salt lake Temple directing him to reorganize the First Presidency immediately upon the death of Wilford Woodruff in 1898. In addition, On August 1, 1890, Charles Ora Card recorded in his diary that Apostle John W. Taylor had testified that “he had beheld the Savior.” Was President Grant withholding information on purpose? If so, why would he do such a thing?

Summary and Conclusion

Denver concludes chapter two with a discussion of the concept of “practical infallibility” that we have given to our prophets in the modern church. He quotes a few statements of the Brethren to the effect that the Lord would not allow the President of the Church to lead the people astray. It is the idea of respect for the office of the President of the Church that causes us to assume that they and all the apostles must be eyewitnesses of Christ, as opposed to administrative apostles.

In the next chapter Denver tackles the idea of succession in the church, another difficult subject in which he presents material in a different light from the traditional narrative of the church. As he wrote in the book and has written many times on his blog, “If this book challenges your faith, then stop reading it.” Remember, Denver is not advocating anybody leaving the church. On the contrary, he is encouraging all to remain a part of the church, to love and serve one another.

Occasionally, if you do a Google search for Denver Snuffer, you will note that two suggested phrases behind his name are “apostate” and “excommunicated.” Google searches are very telling in that they are a good indicator of what people think of a given subject or person. Denver has stopped posting as much as he used to. I think it’s to give some of us time to catch up and come to a better understanding of what he says the Lord asked him to share. That’s what I’m doing.


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McKay Platt said…
I'd like to contact you by email and extend an invitation. If interested contact me Love your stuff.

Unknown said…
Hey Tim!

Just a quick comment:

"At one time we taught in this church that a man could not be exalted unless he entered into plural marriage."

This is still technically true and has not changed. Polygamy will continue in the Celestial Kingdom even if we do not practice at this time in our existence.

To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi: "[So], this is true--from a certain point of view."
insynch said…
Hi Tim,

There are several conclusions that need to be evaluated. First of all, I would be reluctant to base my conclusions on some supposed private letter which may or may not be credible. The Journal of Discourses itself is not canonized scripture because much of it was taken from shorthand and subject to error. I remember President Hinckley in general conference saying that the bulk of revelation in the church had already been given. I wish I had recorded the exact speech. Anyway, I think the comment about not actively seeking the face of the Lord must be taken in the context it was given. The point is that, once one has had a direct audience with Christ, Satan's power becomes more prevelant,one may tend to feel they are superior to others and it can lead to a fall. You can know with absolute certainty the reality of Jesus without seeing him. Furthermore, even Denver would tell you that the experience of breeching the veil will be in yhe Lord's own way, according to his own will. It is not something that can be forced. I have experienced that, but it was not something I was seeking directly. I have no doubt of Denver's experiences and truly respect his knowledge, but he has crossed over his level of jurisdiction into believing he has a special calling to actively promote his views against all the requests of church authorities that he refrain from doing so. As I mentioned in a previous E-mail, even if all that Denver says is true, there may be many who are not spiritually mature enough to handle it. Just saying "Don't pay attention if this if it hurts your faith" is not sufficient.

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