Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

8 questions for Denver Snuffer: Excommunicated Mormon explains growth of new movement

Denver Snuffer, 2016

In 2013, Denver Snuffer was excommunicated from the LDS Church because of his teachings — specifically, those contained in the book Passing the Heavenly Gift.

Snuffer has claimed, among other things, that the LDS Church is in apostasy, which did not endear him to church leaders. If you’d like to read two different views of Snuffer’s work, click here for a sympathetic portrayal and here for a critical one.

I don’t agree with Snuffer on much (except that LDS sacrament meetings are often painfully dull; see below), but as a religion writer I am fascinated by what the growth of his movement shows about the dissatisfaction some Latter-day Saints on the right feel with the Church today.

So I contacted Snuffer for a phone interview to find out more about the “fellowship groups” that have coalesced around his teachings, and what their lived religion looks like in action. We talked for an hour and a half, which I’ve broken into two posts. Today’s comments — all direct quotes from the interview — focus on the fellowships and how their worship compares to the LDS Church. Later I’ll do another post about what Snuffer teaches about polygamy, which may surprise some folks. (Short answer: he is absolutely not in favor.)

Just to give you a little more background, Snuffer is an attorney in Salt Lake City and the father of nine children ranging in age from their early teens to their late thirties. He recently lost a foul-mouthed pet parrot, so be nice to him in the comments. — JKR

 

1. On his role in the movement

The “movement” (if it can be called that) is not owned by me. The participants are independently motivated, and I exert no control over anyone.

No one sustains me, or accepts me as their leader. I don’t ask or expect them to, and I don’t believe that I am above criticism or that what I say can’t be challenged. Everyone is free to believe according to the dictates of their own conscience. Our common ground only has to be a belief in Christ, in baptism, in receiving the Holy Ghost, and the need for repentance. Everything else is open for discussion.

2. The fellowships

There are 40 fellowships registered across the globe, from Australia to Alaska to Germany to New York, but I have not founded a single one. They are established by those who share the common belief in the need to be more scripture-based, more seriously devoted and more individually accountable for the restoration through Joseph.

There’s a website called the Fellowship Locator, where groups that are open to other people joining in have registered. In addition, there’s probably an equal or greater number that aren’t registered as open because their experience has been that introducing new “outsiders,” so to speak, has produced more trouble than benefits. So they want to stabilize themselves until they feel confident about their own ability to absorb more people. The unregistered fellowships exist and function, but are not openly accessible through the website.

3. Local, not central, control

The fellowships proceed pretty differently from one to the next. And that’s how it should be; a one-size-fits all approach doesn’t work. One fellowship has a lot of children; another has practically no children. The needs of those groups are markedly different, so the form of their worship takes a significant variance.

I’ve been attending several meetings of fellowships in Sandy, one in Utah County, and one up in Davis County. I have been circulating through a number of the fellowships to see how they are working and what lessons are being learned, what progress is being made.

4. “Wine of your own make”

Almost always, the sacrament is either done right at the beginning of the meeting or it is the last thing done as the meeting is wrapping up. But in most cases—actually, I think in all cases—the bread was made by someone belonging to the fellowship. And rather than water, either grape juice or wine is made. In most cases the wine is also made by one of the men who attends the fellowship, but I suspect the time is not too far off that a woman is going to be making the wine. Some of the grape juice is homemade also, meaning they grew the grapes.

And by the way, that kind of grape is pretty sour; it’s bitter. Although I’ve drunk wine as the sacrament, to me it’s an unpleasant taste. One of the reasons for wine in the sacrament is to symbolize and remind us of the bitterness of our Lord’s sacrifice.

5. Spiritual gifts

In the meetings I have seen those who have displayed spiritual gifts. Healing ordinances have taken place. Prophecies have been given. Prayer meetings have included revelation that was given in answer to prayer as the meeting took place.

One of the more remarkable expressions of spiritual gifts was from a woman who exhibited the gift of prophecy in a meeting. No one thought that it was odd that a woman should have such gifts given her from God. I think it is the universal human condition that we are all children of a caring God who doesn’t favor one over the other, and therefore doesn’t favor a man over a woman when it comes to spiritual gifts.

6. House churches

One of the groups manages to borrow a nondenominational Christian church to meet in, but most use people’s homes. On occasion there are conferences, and those are as likely to be held outside as inside. Before the weather turned cold several hundred people attended a conference in a campground that was reserved in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

7. Relational tithing

Tithing is collected and distributed locally. No benefit comes to me. I donate when I am at a meeting when it is collected, and those who are present decide among themselves by common consent how the tithing is used among themselves.

The way I have seen it done [at the Sabbath meeting] is that people who are aware of needs write those needs on a slip of paper and put it in a box. Then anyone who intends to donate tithing money donates that in a separate box. When the meeting reaches a point where they’re dealing with the tithing issue, they count the money so they know what the total is, and then the ‘need’ box is open and the needs are read. As a group they decide the priorities of the needs, and then the money gets allocated to the needs that may exist. In every instance I have seen, the excess is in the care of at least two of the women and the women watch over it.

One of the lessons that is learned is that generally, not always, there’s more money than there is need. It’s one of the things that surprises people when they’re administering their own tithing: there’s enough and to spare. In the LDS Church, there’s a massive bureaucracy that has to be financially sustained. In these fellowship groups, when the tithing money is limited to taking care of the poor, there is enough and to spare.

8. Sunday worship

The ambition is usually to have it last one and a half to two hours, but they go on for sometimes three and longer. If you’re in the middle of an interesting discussion, no one is terribly interested in a rigid schedule cutting it off.

If I were going to use only one word to describe fellowship meetings, I would use the word “interesting.” LDS meetings are, to me, excruciatingly boring. It is the same bland, uninteresting material hour after hour, week after week, month in and month out.

These fellowship meetings are interesting. The scriptures are parsed carefully. Interesting events from Mormon history are considered. Things that might get people scolded in a Gospel Doctrine lesson are discussed openly. Our objective is not to criticize but to learn something, but if it exposes an embarrassment for the institution, there’s no reason to shy away from it or say it is not troubling or puzzling.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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