The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic — a devastating epidemic that killed up to 100 million people, or 5% of the world’s population — had a high mortality rate not for children or the elderly, but for young adults (20-30 years old). This was because the virus triggered a strong immune system response, which is what ultimately killed many of those who succumbed. Those with stronger immune systems were thus (ironically) more vulnerable to the disease.

Some ideologies and worldviews are particularly devastating to those with weak spiritual immune systems. I think that many secular and progressive ideologies are like this; a great many members are succumbing to secular liberalism (supporting progressive ideas over and against revealed truth) precisely because their spiritual immune system was not equipped to repel the ideas that were foreign to their faith.

Other ideologies and worldviews are particularly devastating to those with strong spiritual immune systems. The adversary knows that he cannot win their hearts through secular or liberal worldviews; the individual is too ready to detect those as falsehoods and cling to what they know to be revealed truth. But the adversary can gain purchase on their hearts by inciting their own spiritual immune system against benign organs within their (metaphorical) spiritual body, attacking core and essential systems within their spiritual worldview.

There are groups within the LDS faith community that are engaged in what I would call a spiritual autoimmune response, who feverishly attacking members and elements of our faith community for being — so they think — infected by foreign/alien worldviews and ideas. The Remnant movement, certain members of the Heartland movement, and others are examples of this. The growth of these and other similar groups is alarming precisely because those who are drawn into these movements were previously those of strong testimony and faith.

It’s one thing to see those we think to be weak of faith or testimony succumb to worldly ideologies — we can chalk that up to the normal attrition that comes from building a strong covenant community in a world of declining moral values. It’s another thing entirely to see those we thought strong and valiant leave the Church, and for movements that purport to be a truer versions of our own faith. A spiritual autoimmune response can range from mild (such as a member rejecting Harry Potter for its unsavory witchcraft, and condemning other members who read the books) to extremely severe (a group leaving the Church because they believe the prophet has embraced progressive worldviews).

What makes the metaphor so useful is that there really are (metaphorical) infections to be fought. The danger lies in the overwrought immune response that attacks and damages essential faith systems along the way. This spiritual autoimmune response can lead once-faithful, dedicated members into spiritually dangerous territories, while thinking they are fighting a spiritual infection instead.

The Remnant movement

The Remnant movement is a great example of a severe autoimmune response. The seeds of this start in something good: A deep recognition of our collective complacency in the things of God. To fully access the powers of heaven in advancing the Kingdom of God, we need to be more studious, more courageous, more bold, more discerning, more faithful to the instructions we’ve already been given from God. As President Uchtdorf suggested, we may all be “living beneath our privileges,” taking advantage of only a fraction of the divine power that God is able and willing to make available to us.

Someone who gets sucked into the Remnant movement might begin early on with a mere fascination with the “deeper” doctrines of the Church. They start to believe that their spiritual discontent is rooted with a perceived “shallowness” of Sunday classes and sermons. So they begin to dig, almost like a forensic archeologist, into Church history and doctrine. They start treating the obscure as if it were more valuable, by virtue of the fact that it is scarce; rarely taught doctrines come to be seen as more “important” than commonly taught doctrines. President Dallin H. Oaks taught:

Another strength Satan can exploit is a strong desire to understand everything about every principle of the gospel. How could that possibly work to our detriment? Experience teaches that if this desire is not disciplined, it can cause some to pursue their searchings beyond the fringes of orthodoxy, seeking answers to obscure mysteries rather than seeking a firmer understanding and a better practice of the basic principles of the gospel.

Some seek answers to questions God has not chosen to answer. Others receive answers—or think they receive answers—in ways that are contrary to the order of the Church. For such searchers, Satan stands ready to mislead through sophistry or spurious revelation. Persons who hunger after a full understanding of all things must discipline their questions and their methods, or they can approach apostasy without even knowing it. It may be just as dangerous to exceed orthodoxy as it is to fall short of it.[1]

Here’s how this works in practice: They might read some of Denver Snuffer’s earlier works, who seems only to encourage them to seek a stronger testimony of Christ. The books promise that if we follow our own teachings more fervently, we can access once again the charismatic spiritual gifts that have since been lost. And that is the trojan horse: a new view of the institutional Church, in which the Church is relatively barren of the charismatic spiritual gifts celebrated by early saints (healings, miracles, revelations, visions, visitations, etc.).

Snuffer claims that he has been visited by Christ. “When was the last time a prophet claimed the same?”, readers might ask. Snuffer casts subtle aspersions on Church leaders, implying that they are failing in their duty to help manifest the power of God in our lives. And because readers already have a fascination with the “deeper” doctrines of the Gospel that they feel are missing from modern Church meetings, this rings true. They start seeing General Conference sermons as “watered down” version of pure doctrines. They start to refer to the institutional Church as the “corporate church.”

Those in institutional power in Lehi’s day did not think they were wicked people. They saw themselves as the gatekeepers of orthodoxy, the very definition of what is right and good about the Israelite and Jewish faith. To them, Lehi (and others) were relative unknowns, railing against the chosen leaders of the day, leading followers away from the established promised land into unknown wildernesses. In many ways, Denver Snuffer appears to meet the scriptural “template” for a prophet more so than the men in business suits in Salt Lake City.

The secret ingredient that catalyzes all the above into a fatal autoimmune response is the allure of pride, a sense of spiritual superiority. Those who get pulled into the movement begin to feel the thrill of LARPing our own Restoration narratives, and feel of a kin with those who followed Lehi into the (metaphorical) wilderness, or Alma, or even Brigham Young. To be part of an enlightened group, to have secrets and knowledge that the rest of the saints do not, that is the drug that hooks people into the Remnant sect.

In short, their zeal for Gospel living, their deep testimony of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, their commitment to causes greater than themselves, all turn against them in an autoimmune response against core elements of their faith. In their desire for a deeper relationship with God, they start to believe that the institutional church is standing in their way. Excommunication (or resignation) becomes a rite of passage, almost; it is part and parcel with their conversion to Christ that they get “kicked out” of their synagogues and thrown out of the community.

The Heartland movement

Some high profile members of the “Heartland” movement also illustrate a spiritual autoimmune response. Heartlanders assert that the Book of Mormon took place in the midwestern United States, and that the hill Cumorah — the hill at which the final battle of the Nephites took place — is the same hill in which Moroni buried the records (later to be found by Joseph Smith). This is a perfectly acceptable (perhaps even plausible) Book of Mormon geography theory, one that many faithful members hold. It is a view that some early saints also held, including Oliver Cowdery.

Other theories have been put forward since then that are also plausible, such as the theory that the Book of Mormon took place in a limited region of mesoamerica. Because neither Moroni nor Joseph Smith named the hill in New York as the same hill referred to as Cumorah in the book of Mormon, there is no scriptural reason to hold to a midwestern U.S. geography. Oliver Cowdery’s bold but speculative assertions on the matter (contained, for example, in a letter he wrote discussing the origins of the Church) are neither canon nor authoritative.

Right now, the mesoamerican theory is “ascendent” amongst many faithful scholars, intellectuals, and apologists within the Church. But the truth is, there are multiple Book of Mormon geographies, and none of them are officially endorsed by the Church, and Church leaders simply don’t consider it an issue of importance. The Church has not taken sides, and considers matters of geography speculative. They are considered helpful to the extent that they build faith, and unhelpful to the extent that they undermine faith.

However, because (1) Oliver Cowdery and other early Church leaders seemed to hold to a North American geography, and because (2) Church leaders in more recent decades have been largely silent on the issue of geography, some Heartlanders have concluded that those who hold a mesoamerican viewpoint are defying the prophets. They treat Oliver Cowdery’s speculative assertions on geography as doctrinal, and anybody who holds contrary views as heretics undermining the spiritual authority of chosen servants of God.

For this reason, they regularly condemn FAIRMormon, the Book of Mormon Central, and The Interpreter on similar grounds. These are faithful intellectual resources trusted by Church leaders, but they are being treated as borderline-apostate by growing numbers of the Heartlander movement merely for being open to multiple Book of Mormon geographies, and for not treating Oliver Cowdery’s speculations as canonized doctrine. For that crime alone, Jonathan Neville, a prominent Heartlander and prolific blogger, wrote: “The Council of Springville [The Book of Mormon Central] has long been seeking to usurp the authority of Church leaders to declare doctrine.” That is a thinly veiled accusation of apostasy. He continues in another post:

Letter VII is nowhere to be found in the curriculum. Nor are any of the other teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. The [mesoamerican] citation cartel has successfully suppressed all of these things in academic writings. The Correlation Department has cooperated by making sure Church artwork, videos, and visitors centers promote [mesoamerican views].

Lately, revisionist historians in the Church History Department are censoring all mention of the New York Cumorah in the new book Saints. They are actually re-writing Church history by omitting historical references and replacing them with [mesoamerican] euphemisms. I think repudiating and censoring the teachings of the prophets will have disastrous consequences in the future.[2]

In other words, even the Church’s own departments and programs are turning people away from the truth. Other Heartlanders have shared similar sentiments: the Church’s acceptance, or embrace, of mesoamerican views on Book of Mormon geography is one of the highest forms of heresy, something that is only permitted because prophets and apostles are either not fully aware of it or not fully in control of the institution. And that is where the danger lies. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

In the earlier history of every rebellion there is a stage of which you do no yet attack the King in person. You say, ‘The King is all right. It is his Ministers who are wrong. They misrepresent him and corrupt all his plans—which, I’m sure, are good plans if only the Ministers would let them take effect.’ And the first victory consists in beheading a few Ministers: only at a later stage do you go on and behead the King himself.[3]

We understand the appeal of the Heartland view: it allows them to wed their fervent devotion to the Restored Gospel with their fervent American nationalism. This is troubling in its own right, and we will have more to say on this in a future article. But a localized North American Book of Mormon geography, by itself, is perfectly plausible and perfectly innocuous — and imminently plausible.

But the ferocity with which some Heartlanders attack good, faithful members who disagree? That can only be described as a vicious autoimmune response, in which they have wrongly tagged good, faithful organizations and members as dangerous heretics. And because it’s clear (to honest observers) that the modern First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are perfectly comfortable with mesoamerican geographies — and with members holding those views — it’s only a matter of time before the autoimmune attack turns against the prophets themselves (as with the Remnant movement, for example).

A conservative autoimmune response

Conservatives within the LDS Church will readily note when liberals within the Church ignore Church leaders and teach and agitate for policies that violate Church teachings. It’s easy to point a finger at someone who supports same-sex marriage and argue that they are going against what the Church has taught on the matter, because it’s true. But sometimes the reverse is true: conservatives do not fully live up to what the Church is teaching when it contradicts perceived conservative orthodoxy. In fact, when the Church contradicts conservative dogmas, it can ignite an autoimmune response amongst members.

What’s interesting and relevant is that they will sometimes reject statements by the Church by citing Church leaders, or quotes from earlier prophets. For example, when the Church expressed support for non-discrimination laws to protect LGBT employees and renters, we saw a number of conservatives argue that the Church’s public affairs office has gone rogue, and that they are clearly violating the libertarian-esque teachings of President Ezra Taft Benson, who would be turning over in his grave over such policies.

And to some extent they are right: President Benson did indeed teach principles that would seem to contradict the Church’s current position on non-discrimination policies. (And as a libertarian myself, I would otherwise default to those very teachings.) This is what sets up the autoimmune response: having once tagged such policies as problematic (similar to how antibodies cling to foreign invaders in the body, and signal to white blood cells to begin their attack), their spiritual immune systems continue to fight against them even when modern prophets have since clarified and “untagged” them.

Here’s just a few comments from real members, from social media forums that cater to conservative Latter-day Saints:

“Unfortunately some of the new leadership have embraced a feeling of tolerance [for LGBT populations]. It’s Lehi’s dream, some are seeking the praise of men in the name of missionary work. It will only lead to moral decay and spiritual death. Lehi’s dream is a warning to all who seek the approval of man. Mormonism used to be the shelter in the storm. … Ezra Taft, David O McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith are rolling in their graves.”

“I’ve been seeing so much pro-LGBT sentiment coming from the LDS social media pages I’ve found, and ‘feminist’ church members etc that it’s worried me. I’m not in Utah so I can’t tell what the sentiment on the ground there is like but to see Utah preserved as a holy and conservative place is important to me but it seems under threat from elements within the church.”

“Glad to be holding fast to the Rod of Iron. Unaffected by those leftist Mormons in the large, and spacious BLDG.” [Referring, we think, to the Church office building.]

“The gospel will always remain true but, sadly it seems that the church is changing and siding with the left. So far I’ve read an ensign message stressing for LDS members to accept Islam as another religion that worships the same god and a couple of weeks ago my bishop announced during elders quorum that we will be receiving new hymn books with all patriotic and British songs removed and replaced by Hispanic songs.”

Church leaders are teaching members to be compassionate towards minority populations and to pay heed to our unique ministerial duties towards LGBT members. But even though the Church is simultaneously retrenching its core doctrines on marriage and sexuality (such as, for example, a policy that makes those who enter same sex marriage automatic candidates for church discipline), some conservative members are worried that, because of these messages of outreach and love, Church leaders are compromising core teachings. They experience an autoimmune response against even mild statements that we should be patient and compassionate with those with unique challenges, such as same-sex attraction.

Sometimes, to justify their immune response, they have to reframe what’s happening: the Church’s public affairs department, or its magazine editors, or its correlation committee, etc., are going rogue, interfering with the free flow of communication between the Quorum of the Twelve and the members of the Church. They are inserting their liberal dogmas into the message, standing between us and Church leaders and confusing the public and members of the Church everywhere. The Church needs to “clean house,” we have heard, and rid itself of these internal saboteurs. As with the Heartlanders, they think they are attacking only the “king’s ministers,” not realizing that they are rejecting the prophets themselves. Again, President Oaks warned:

A desire to follow a prophet is surely a great and appropriate strength, but even this has its potentially dangerous manifestations. I have heard of more than one group so intent on following the words of a dead prophet that they have rejected the teachings and counsel of the living ones. Satan has used that corruption from the beginning of the Restoration. You will recall Joseph Smith’s direction for the Saints to gather in Kirtland, Ohio, then in Missouri, and then in Illinois. At each place along the way, a certain number of Saints fell away, crying “fallen prophet” as their excuse for adhering to the earlier words and rejecting the current direction. The same thing happened after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, when some Saints seized upon one statement or another by the deceased Prophet as a basis for sponsoring or joining a new group that rejected the counsel of the living prophets.

Following the prophet is a great strength, but it needs to be consistent and current, lest it lead to the spiritual downfall that comes from rejecting continuous revelation. Under that principle, the most important difference between dead prophets and living ones is that those who are dead are not here to receive and declare the Lord’s latest words to his people. If they were, there would be no differences among the messages of the prophets.[4]

The danger of this autoimmune response is that it undermines our trust in modern Church leaders and their spiritual discernment. Once again, it sets up a narrative where the institutional Church is no longer being steered by men who speak for God, but rather by usurpers within the institution who are wresting power away from true servants of God. In their zeal for following what previous prophets have taught, they end up attacking the institution lead by prophets today — somehow thinking they are doing today’s prophets a favor along the way.

This autoimmune response is one reason that Dr. Ed Gantt and I have co-written a book called Who Is Truth. In this book, we explore what it would look like if we took seriously — and not as mere metaphor — Christ assertion, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If we imagine truth as a divine Person rather than as a set of ideas, it changes how we think of our faith. Idea-truth is thought to be truth because it never changes; ideas and teachings that change over time cannot be truth. But Person-truth can reveal Himself anew to each generation, and adjust the content and emphasis of His doctrine for the unique needs of our time. Here is a passage from that book (the rest of the chapter can be read here):

We have witnessed friends question their loyalty to the Church when prophets or apostles have drawn into question their political worldviews. For example, some conservative and libertarian members of the Church questioned the Church’s decision to support non-discrimination policies in housing and employment in the State of Utah. These members used quotes from past Church leaders (such as President Ezra Taft Benson and others) to show that current Church leaders must be in error. The person view of truth can help us resolve these tensions.

When the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness, they began criticize Moses and complain about their situation. In response, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Number 21:6). God then instructed Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8-9). Those who looked to the serpent lived, but many chose not to look. Nephi, in the Book of Mormon, tells us that “because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished. And they did harden their hearts … and they did revile against Moses, and also against God” (1 Nephi 17:41-42).

Why would so many Israelites ignore such a simple instruction? They may have thought Moses was violating commandments that he himself had delivered from God: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. … Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5). Perhaps they thought Moses was a fallen prophet, or that he was testing them to see if they would value their own lives over God’s commandments. Either way, the Israelites may have rigidly adhered to what they thought were the unchangeable commandments of God.

In this story, the ancient Israelites may have elevated the law over the Lawgiver. That is, they may have prioritized what God had said over what God was now saying. Perhaps Moses was teaching the Israelites the person view of truth, and the need for constant, ongoing communication with God. Perhaps God was teaching the Israelites never to idolize abstract systems of belief over continuing direction from the Living God of Israel. …

When evaluate the teachings of God’s servants against our ideological worldview (whether it be liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any other perspective), we adopt the idea version of truth. In other words, the problem is not libertarianism, liberalism, conservativism, or any other belief system. The problem was with –isms entirely, when those –isms lead us to prioritize abstract ideas over ongoing revelation. This can lead to what we call, “ideolatry,” which what happens when we elevate an abstract system of belief (or ideology) to the level of “absolute truth.”

This is especially the case when we become dogmatic about our particular theological perspective, or hold to them with a fervor that defies correction by God or His servants. When we do this, we have supplanted the living God with an idea (or set of ideas). The God of Israel is not an abstract, universal, immutable set of ideas or laws, but a living, dynamic Person who communicates instructions tailored to our specific time and situation. Latter-day Saints can be flexible in matters of abstract belief while being resolute in matters of loyalty to God.

This, we argue, is precisely what it means to have living prophets and to worship a Living truth. Furthermore, the God of the Restoration is, above all else, a God who speaks. We do not only have records of what God has spoken, we believe that He continually guides His servants today. Nearly everything that we know about Him has the potential to change as He continues to reveal Himself to us.

Conclusion

Like physical autoimmune diseases, spiritual autoimmune disorders make us ill by turning us against our fellow saints where it is not needed, and tricks us into feeling like we are more faithful, more zealous, more discerning than other members for doing so. This can happen on an individual level. For example, I’ve seen members in social media draw into question the Church’s recent Gospel Topics essays, arguing that they take their information from apostates and do not represent actual Church positions. This is because the essays contain information and perspectives that they think contradicts prior narratives they had grew to think were indisputable truth.

The immense danger of the movements described above is that they compromise not those who are weak of faith, but those who think themselves strong of faith. What makes it an autoimmune attack (as opposed to other forms of apostasy) is that they are rejecting the Church’s activities, programs, initiatives, and directives by appealing not to worldly philosophy or imported ideologies, but to prior Church teaching. In other words, it is most likely to afflict those who are confident in their spiritual discernment, who zealously believe the doctrines of the Restoration, and who eagerly follow the teachings of prophets and apostles. It is their zeal to remain true to the faith, to “detect in every false way,” that is keeping them from embracing their faith community and its chosen leaders today. As Elder Oaks warned, our strengths can become our downfall.

References   [ + ]

1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, October 1994.
2. Jonathan Neville, https://bookofmormonwars.blogspot.com/2018/07/watching-byuces.html
3. C.S. Lewis quoted here: https://www.oakleys.org.uk/blog/2011/05/cs_lewis_on_the_apostle_paul
4. Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, October 1994.