Denver Snuffer published an interesting note on his website yesterday. (Those not familiar with Denver Snuffer should read on through the next paragraph before clicking on the link.) In his note, he suggests that the LDS Church Historian’s Office “hopes to undermine confidence in [the] Lectures on Faith and bolster the inappropriate administrative decision to delete them from LDS scripture. . . .” I would like to take a somewhat different perspective on the issue.
Some background information about the note’s author is appropriate here. From whatever perspective you take, Denver Snuffer is one of the most interesting figures in modern Mormonism. He is a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His testimony, speeches, and writings have been the impetus for a movement1 within Mormonism which carries the potential to upset the established understandings of roles of different groups — e.g., member vs. nonmember — within the Mormon community. In particular, Denver Snuffer and those who share his point of view are critical of the LDS Church’s2 narrative of its history, but, unlike the expected “apostate” or “anti-Mormon,” they believe in the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith. A lot of Denver Snuffer’s writings and speeches are available on his website, along with links to purchase his books, but all of that is to be avoided if you are uncomfortable with materials that challenge the Church’s narrative about its history.
In his brief article, Denver Snuffer noted that the first lecture from the Lectures on Faith was placed in the appendix of The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 4. (The Joseph Smith Papers is a series of publications by the LDS Church Historian’s Office with the goal of publishing complete transcripts of all documents related to Joseph Smith.) He cited the reasons given by the Historian’s Office, namely, that Joseph’s role in the production of the lectures is not certain. Brother Snuffer goes on to mention that this treatment is inconsistent with the treatment of various documents in The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846. Specifically, the latter volume places minutes of meetings that took place after Joseph Smith’s death, and therefore are not directly related to Joseph Smith, in chronological order instead of relegating them to the appendix.
Brother Snuffer concludes:
“The disparate treatment forces the conclusion that by relegating Lecture First to an appendix and questioning the authorship, the Historian’s Office hopes to undermine confidence in Lectures on Faith and bolster the inappropriate administrative decision to delete them from LDS scripture in 1921 without approval by the body of the church. Likewise, by putting into the JS Papers project, meetings held after Joseph’s death which were presided over by Brigham Young, the Historian’s Office wishes to convey the impression of continuity and trustworthiness in the LDS institution following Joseph’s death. They want to convey the impression it was “business as usual” and nothing changed.
I don’t believe Denver Snuffer’s conclusion is necessary (that is, I disagree that the inconsistency “forces the conclusion” made by Brother Snuffer). I think that the Church Historian’s Office really suspects that the provenance of the Lectures on Faith is uncertain, and their treatment of it reflects, rather than promotes, their view. This distinction is admittedly subtle, but I consider it important because it avoids attributing a bad motive where such a motive may not exist. I don’t think the different treatment of the Council of Fifty minutes necessarily shows that bad motive; I doubt they were particularly concerned about a potential inconsistency between the two, and thought it more natural that the particular volume dealing with the minutes would go somewhat beyond the scope of the original Joseph Smith Papers project. It’s almost certain that the Church Historian’s Office subscribes to a belief in the “continuity and trustworthiness in the LDS institution following Joseph’s death.” The belief undoubtedly affected the presentation in the volume of Council of Fifty minutes. Nevertheless, to conclude that they “wished to convey the impression” goes a little too far for my comfort.
On the other hand, the Church Historian’s Office is part of the LDS Church, and no rational person would deny that the LDS Church has an agenda. It is, after all, a missionary church. I can see how Brother Snuffer or others could easily come to the conclusion that a motive to favor the Church’s narrative was behind the organization of the books’ presentation. Denver does have greater experience and insight into motives of LDS Church officials than I do, so the reader is welcome to count that against my credibility and in favor of his. On the other hand, the idea that the Church is consciously and purposely arranging the texts in order to convey a specific impression, without further supporting facts, is just too conspiratorial for me.3 If they wanted to preserve the traditional narrative intact and unsullied, it seems like not publishing the Joseph Smith Papers and continuing the branding of less-friendly historians as “anti-Mormon” would have been a more effective strategy.
This doesn’t leave out the possibility that in making the arrangements, the Church Historian’s Office was influenced by beings — false spirits are a thing in Mormon theology, after all — with the aforementioned motives. However, such things are far beyond my expertise to comment on, and I think to assume Brother Snuffer was suggesting such a thing in his comments would be to read more into what he has written than is there.
I appreciate Denver Snuffer’s insights, even when — as in this case — I’m not fully persuaded to adopt his viewpoints. I would encourage those who are comfortable doing so to review for themselves those things that he has written and determine whether or not they should be believed.
1. I use the word “movement” here deliberately. Others might say “schism,” but I see this as more analogous to a new activity springing out from an established religious tradition, which was referred to as a movement in the Book of Mormon in Alma 18:32. Unfortunately, the prevalence of far too delicate souls in the LDS community forces me to state what should be obvious: My use of the reference is not intended to extend the analogy beyond what I wrote. In particular, I’m not comparing the LDS Church to any particular aspect of King Noah beyond the fact that an established religious tradition existed in relation to him!
2. In order to preempt complaints, I note that I freely reject here and elsewhere the guidelines in the LDS Church’s style guide that I think sacrifice correctness or clarity in order to push a certain image onto the public.