SS's feature article spotlights multiple Remnant members.

Apr 19, 2019
Sarah Scoles
Scribed Summary
2nd Hand

Scoles, Sarah, "Religion for the People: Ex-Mormons Embrace Populism in the Remnant," Bitterroot (April 19, 2019).

Dallin Pankratz, Sara Lohmeier, Sarah Scoles, Denver Snuffer, Bret Corbridge, Matt Lohmeier, Brian Bowler, Jennifer Bowler
Reading Public

Members of the Remnant, a populist offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe the church’s bureaucracy has deviated from founder Joseph Smith’s message. | Illustration by Yebel Mosqueda

Bret Corbridge lives about six miles east of downtown Montrose, a town of 20,000 on Colorado’s Western Slope. On an unseasonably warm day in January, the snow in his driveway melted into mucky streams. Out in the yard, the sun was shining on a pyramid that Corbridge — an eye-smiley, middle-aged father of four — built to scaled-down Giza specifications. Corbridge often sits inside to meditate, read, think, and commune with Jesus.

He was doing a lot of that in recent years as he navigated a spiritual crisis. Corbridge was once an upstanding member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But gradually, over years of reading and writing and cognitive dissonance, he came to believe his once-beloved church is wrong, run by corrupt men who no longer hew to the teachings of Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder. Based on that belief, Corbridge is now part of a schismatic Mormon movement called, when it is called anything, the Remnant.

The Remnant is based on Latter-day Saint fundamentals — the Book of Mormon, the rest of the standard scriptural canon, and the writings of Smith — but its adherents believe the official church basically went to hell after Smith died in 1844. On paper and in philosophy, the movement is a populist version of Mormonism. It has no leaders, and, unlike the Latter-day Saint religion, it does not proclaim to be the One True Church. It focuses on the rights, abilities, interests, power, individualism, and virtue of the common people, as opposed to those of the elite Mormon leadership.

Rather than gathering in halls of worship, Remnant members meet in informal fellowships. On this Sunday afternoon, Corbridge was getting ready to host his group. Beforehand, he leaned over a lunch of keto-diet chicken and salad — a menu ushered in by New Year’s resolutions — and explained his deconversion.

Around 2002, Corbridge began to desire a deeper, more personal connection to God than the church gave him. In theory, Mormons are encouraged to seek out “personal revelation” — wisdom whizzed from God to them. But in practice, everyone is supposed to come to similar conclusions, and official authorities are the only ones who really really talk to God.

Corbridge didn’t like that. A friend, knowing his doubts, recommended a book, called The Second Comforter, by some guy named Denver Snuffer Jr., an LDS lawyer from Sandy, Utah. Snuffer had, the book claimed, met Jesus Christ, face to face. He conversed with him from time to time. Anyone can, the book continued, if they are righteous and humble and also try very hard.

Snuffer has since published 10 more books, and the Remnant has coalesced around them. It’s hard to pin down the exact number of members in an anti-bureaucratic organization, but there are dozens of fellowships spread across 26 states. Thus, Snuffer’s works have quietly spoken to, likely, thousands of Mormons — often the most Mormon Mormons, people like Corbridge who felt disenfranchised by the church and wanted to talk to God themselves. People who felt like they weren’t getting the spiritual fulfillment, and personal empowerment, they’d been promised. Remnant followers tend to hold some beliefs in more direct conflict with the church: that Joseph Smith didn’t practice polygamy; that the sacrament should happen with wine, which the Latter-day Saint church strictly forbids; that members need to be rebaptized, and can get baptized over and over again whenever they feel like it; and that official Mormondom has wrongly rewritten its history.

As the Bible’s Ecclesiastes says, “To every thing there is a season.” And right now — in voting booths and chapels — is the season for populism.

By 2013, fellowships were forming around Snuffer’s ideas. By 2015, people were getting rebaptized. By 2016, the Remnant had its own conferences. And somewhere in there, the church took notice, and action.

Corbridge remained a Latter-day Saint until he wrote his own book, a tome called 77 Truths. It uses 600 quotes from church authorities and 1,000 scriptures to shore up the hypothesis that the official church has strayed from the truth, from God. Churches don’t like to hear that kind of thing, and this one excommunicated Corbridge for it. Many other Remnant members — including, in 2013, Snuffer — have met the same fate.

The church sees Snuffer as a threat. A 2015 presentation, put together by the church’s highest authorities and distributed by MormonLeaks, lists Snuffer (along with 16 other items) in a slide titled “Issues and Ideas Leading People Away from the Gospel.” The church is perpetually concerned with the reasons its congregants leave and who’s spreading information it deems inappropriate. In fact, there is a whole outfit — called the Strengthening the Members Committee — that, a spokesperson told The New York Times, “provides local church leadership with information designed to help them counsel with members who, however well-meaning, may hinder the progress of the church through public criticism.”

Snuffer argues he’s not leading anyone anywhere. But the movement around him gained momentum because it gives people the exact revelatory power the LDS church promised to deliver, and because it claims the Mormon church isn’t being faithful to itself.

Those ideas unite the Remnant adherents, including the members of Corbridge’s fellowship. During the January meeting, members began to filter in around 2 p.m. They parked bumper-to-bumper in the driveway, grabbed snacks, and slid into a back room full of couches, loveseats, and folding chairs. A statue of Jesus stood on a table. Berobed, be-long-haired, arms out and hands open — a replica of the statues that adorn the visitor centers in every Mormon temple. Near this statue sat a coin jar, the word “temple” written on it — a piggy bank to save up for the Remnant’s own building.

“I had a lot of darkness when I was going to church … But what if the thick darkness can be a good thing?”

This week, as they do each week, the group plunged into scriptural passages. Fellowship meetings resemble a college English class — close-reading discussions with a touch of group therapy. On this day, the fellowship focused on “Third Nephi,” a section of the Book of Mormon set shortly after Jesus was crucified. The Book of Mormon, the theology goes, is a record of people from Israel who traveled to North America around 600 B.C. and then populated the continent.

Members of the fellowship began to read aloud verses that describe how North America had a hard time after Jesus died. A storm came; cities fell into the sea; one caught on fire; another jutted up on a new mountain; earthquakes broke up highways. And after that chaos, the world went black, shrouded in a “thick darkness” that firelight couldn’t penetrate.

On the couch next to me, the flameless night stirred something in a woman named Eva, whose own revelation compelled her to move here with her family from Australia. “I had a lot of darkness when I was going to church,” she said. “… And it was because I wasn’t going to Him myself.”

She fingered the edges of her copy of Snuffer’s book Preserving the Restoration, a velveteen rabbit of a book with a torn cover and well-worn edges. “But what if,” she continued, “the thick darkness can be a good thing?”

After all, it pushes you toward the light. In her case, darkness instigated leaving the church, joining the Remnant, moving to Montrose, sitting in this back room where index cards taped to the wall say stature, prayer, doctrine, wisdom. That opposition Eva pinpointed may be necessary not just for individuals but also for the collective. Those who study the recipe for populist movements have identified crises as the yeast that, finally, causes Us to rise up against Them.

To Eva’s left, David and Michelle Taylor nodded. They’re a sturdy mountain couple, Michelle with long dark hair and colorfully warm clothes, David more of the flannel-and-Carhartt type. In their house, guilt borne of Mormon cultural customs initiated periods of anxiety for Michelle, which led to depression and marital discord. They thought they were doing everything right, like the church prophet said. So why were they so sad?

When they found Snuffer’s works and, after that, formed a fellowship, it was like Vitamin D for their souls — for a while, at least. But this meeting was actually one of the first they’d attended in a long time. Because, in their experience, the Remnant doesn’t always obey its own rules.

The Taylors were once regular attendees of a different fellowship, one that meets about an hour away, in Cedaredge, before Snuffer held a 2017 conference. At the gathering near Boise, about 600 Remnant members — the Taylors among them — voted on whether to canonize a new version of Latter-day Saint scriptures, put together by Snuffer and a committee, in the form they believe Joseph Smith intended. Attendees also entered into a “covenant,” an agreement to repent and go a new way — the Remnant way. Those who agreed stood; those who didn’t stayed sitting. David and Michelle remained seated. Promising themselves to something seemed like the very conformity they’d been trying to avoid.

“One of our friends in the fellowship at the time was like, ‘If you don’t get on the plane, it’s going to leave without you,’” Michelle said.

That friend was right. Soon, the Taylors’ fellowship starting holding two kinds of meetings: one for the people who’d made the covenant, and one for those who had not, because they didn’t feel comfortable taking the sacrament with the uncovenanted. In the Remnant, “truth” supposedly can come from anywhere, not just from the Book of Mormon or Denver Snuffer. Yet a spiritual caste system had emerged in a movement supposedly based on the opposite of that. “We just call it LDS 2.0,” David said.

“I think that admiration is toxic. And I think that ego is toxic.”

The Taylors prefer to sample a wider variety of truth. Michelle recalled a recent trip the family took to a Hindu temple. Afterward, one of their eight kids put a finger on her parents’ philosophical pulse.

“So, pretty much everybody believes in God,” their daughter observed. “They just call it different.”

“Yes, honey, I think that’s true,” Michelle told her. “Everybody just sees the God they want to see.”

Michelle and her family came to the Corbridge’s fellowship, though, because they’re still friends with their Remnant peers, who invited them to this meeting. And at the end of the gathering, Corbridge extended an olive branch. He asked Michelle to sing the closing song, a hymn called Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.

She stepped to the front of the room, peered over her glasses. Her voice, when she started, sounded like the laser version of musical notes, traveling in pure waves, monochromatic light, above the gathered Remnant.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love.

Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,

Seal it for Thy courts above.

Everyone sat quietly for a second, staring into the middle distance, after the last note dissipated in the air.

Denver Snuffer, Denver Snuffer says, is not the leader of groups like Corbridge’s, and he does not particularly want to do an interview about any of it, lest he be perceived as such. After I explained that this article would be looking at the Remnant as a populist movement, he agreed to talk. Still, he began our call by letting me know he was dreading this call.

Snuffer rejects any allegation of authority, but his ideas nevertheless calcify the Remnant’s backbone. “I constantly view myself as having the obligation to persuade,” he said. “But I have no right to command anyone. I have no right to control anyone.”

Empowerment within the Remnant comes from the belief that individuals should believe whatever they feel is true. “We should let everyone come to their own conclusions and worship as they please, no matter how, what, or where they choose to worship,” Snuffer told me. “And the LDS church insists that they have a proprietary right to even my thoughts.”

In this statement, Snuffer is doing what Snuffer does best: Turning a mirror toward the church’s own doctrine. Its 11th Article of Faith reads, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Which means that Snuffer, of course, didn’t tell the Taylors’ fellowship to second-class anyone for not taking the covenant. But what people in a leaderless movement do isn’t actually up to the not-leader, and what happened in Colorado is not an unusual progression. Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics at Princeton University, notes in his book What Is Populism? that when populist movements actually get power, they tend to start authoritarian regimes that disenfranchise anyone outside of their particular group.

Even Snuffer recognizes that rebels tend to turn into the very thing they rebelled against. Take Martin Luther, initiator of the Protestant Revolution, founder of the Lutheran Church. “Many of the things he hated about Catholicism,” Snuffer said, “became part of his conduct leading Lutheranism,” like kicking out heretics, despite being the ur-heretic himself.

The point is, once oppositional movements have some traction, it’s hard for them not to become what they once opposed. And that, in some minds, applies to Snuffer: People left the church because they didn’t want to follow the prophet. But now some of them are following Snuffer, whether he likes it or not. And he says he doesn’t. “I think that admiration is toxic,” he said. “And I think that ego is toxic.”

Still, he does want people to listen, or he wouldn’t have conferences, books, and websites. And it’s not surprising that people are listening to his particular version of Mormonism right now. As the Bible’s Ecclesiastes says, “To every thing there is a season.” And right now — in voting booths and chapels — is the season for populism.

American politics, or at least American political rhetoric, has recently been consumed by populist fringes. On the left, frustration with corporate power, stagnating wages, and other financial factors has led people to the policies supported by Bernie Sanders. Conversely, Donald Trump’s pseudosentences and retrograde messaging have reached white voters on the right who feel their rightful place has been supplanted. Adherents on both sides detest the ruling class they claim to be at fault, but nonetheless support leaders who resemble what they oppose. Trump supporters bemoan the political swamp in Washington, D.C., yet back a president who’s steeped in allegations of fraud and has appointed suspiciously swampy people. Sanders’ disaffected followers have pledged millions to put yet another millionaire in office.

One parallel to Snuffer’s movement may be Occupy Wall Street, which arose in 2011 in protest of too-powerful corporations and economic inequality exacerbated by the Great Recession. The Occupy movement, like the Remnant, was technically leaderless. But also like the Remnant, it did have a founder — Micah White, editor of Adbusters magazine. Nothing, unless we’re talking quantum mechanics, can come from a vacuum.

The Remnant’s logic — though religious instead of economic or political — is similar to Occupy’s: Immense power at the top inherently robs agency from everybody else. And because Mormonism, in theory, holds that regular people can receive revelation, it gives those regulars the power to say, “God told me to do this,” be they a Smith, a Snuffer, or a Corbridge.

After the meeting at the Corbridges’, I visited the fellowship from which the Taylors seceded, at the house of a man named Brian Bowler. It’s a spacious place full of teenage kids, rooted atop a mesa from which you can see every kind of landscape in Colorado.

Home, for the Bowlers, was for a long time the Mormon church. But it wasn’t always a loving place. Brian has struggled with cycles of addiction to amphetamines and pornography.

“The church wasn’t equipped to shepherd him,” his wife, Jennifer, said. To deal with his difficulties, church authorities simply took away privileges and refused to have meaningful conversations. The redaction of both was killing Bowler.

Things started to change in 2008, when a friend introduced Brian to Snuffer’s books. There, he found a guy who wasn’t perfect, who didn’t shrink from the hard stuff. One who encouraged tough conversations. Fostered disagreement. Held out cognitive dissonance and uncertainty like gems. That relatability is an important part of populist appeal, whether it comes in the form of vulgar real-talk like Trump’s or unbridled indignation like Sanders’.

Snuffer’s normality made Brian think that he, like Snuffer, might turn out okay. But first, he needed to be cleansed. “I wanted to reboot, to lay down this life and start over,” Brian said. Baptism was the way to do that. Rebaptism.

He and Jennifer looked into each other’s eyes as she described the day they got in the car and drove up to Grand Mesa, trying to find a body of water. Above, a storm was concocting itself. The wind was blowing in the hard way it does out here. “It wasn’t a holy experience,” Jennifer quipped.

Finally, they found a suitable body of water — so cold, when they entered, that it took their breath away. Getting in at all was a leap of faith. The atmosphere swirled chaotically above them. The sky grew ever darker. But the couple persisted. They prayed together. They dunked their whole bodies below the water together. They came up together. And then — like a scene in a fairy tale or a figurative Bible story — the sun came out. It was that magic hour, the mountain time when golden alpine light makes the world its own Instagram filter while winding back to a time before Instagram existed.

“Many Mormons believe in Joseph Smith but are blinded to Denver’s message. How often it is we’re blinded by our traditions.”

Feeling lighter in all ways, Brian and Jennifer danced in the water they had barely been able to stand a few minutes before. They splashed each other, like kids too young to have truly sinned at all.

At Jennifer’s description of this scene, Brian began to cry.

“There was a voice that told me I didn’t fit into the church,” he said. “But I fit with Him.”

Brian also was drawn to a place the Remnant, as a whole, hopes to build: Zion, a collection of people so righteous, so faithful, so seeking, so united in purpose that they can just be taken up to heaven, and have a good life on Earth in the meantime.

Sometimes, you don’t live near the people you want to build Zion with. And that’s when computers come in handy, says Air Force Major Matt Lohmeier, who’s part of a fellowship that meets using conferencing software Zoom.

On my screen, another Sunday afternoon in January, digital tiles displayed a matrix of faces. They were from Bountiful and Cedar City, Utah. Sacramento. Colorado Springs, Monument, and the Denver suburbs. Webcams took in wide shots of the fellowship members — gathered four astride on a couch, sitting next to and on armchairs, at home in their environments and with each other. In the prayer that opened the meeting, they thanked heaven for the technology allowing them to be together.

Lohmeier, a former pilot who looks like Hollywood’s idea of a pilot, pulled up passages from the book of Moses, apologizing that he only had the LDS version and not the ones canonized at the covenant conference. The section is about God telling a prophet named Enoch that the people have gone astray and he should tell them to repent and return to the right way of life.

“It came to pass,” one verse begins, as many do, “that Enoch went forth in the land, among the people, standing upon the hills and the high places, and cried with a loud voice, testifying against their works; and all men were offended because of him.”

Lohmeier saw a parallel here. “Many Mormons believe in Joseph Smith but are blinded to Denver’s message,” he said. “How often it is we’re blinded by our traditions.”

Eschewing some Mormon traditions means that Remnant adherents are generally more liberal and liberated than traditional LDS churchgoers. Some drink, some curse, some accept that their kids might have teenage sex, some are OK with same-sex relationships. Their Zion, even if it’s both hypothetical and imperfect, sounds like a lot more fun than the LDS church’s version.

But Lohmeier and his wife, Sara, have sacrificed a lot, on Earth, to leave that Latter-day Saint version behind. Sarah was Mormon royalty; her grandfather was an apostle. She came from pioneer stock, her lineage stretching back to Joseph Smith’s founding days. But she wasn’t just entrenched: She also loved the church. “It was my world. It was everything.” She paused. “It still is — religion is, just not the church.”

Sara first encountered Snuffer’s writing when she married Matt, in 2011. “I started reading The Second Comforter because Matt had said it meant a lot to him, and it was about the gospel,” she said.

“Did Jesus come down and say, Build a shopping mall, my One True Shopping Mall?”

It didn’t feel threatening — then. Snuffer was still part of the LDS church. The book was based on Joseph Smith’s teachings. Snuffer’s work seemed so good, and so uncontroversial, that she even gave a copy to her parents for Father’s Day. But Matt had already trod farther down a rockier, shadier path.

Two months into their marriage, Matt delivered a bombshell. “Sara,” he said, “the clearest revelation I’ve gotten is we’re in apostasy.”

Oh my gosh, she thought, who did I marry?

Soon enough, though, after reading more, she started to agree with Matt. Today, the two have been excommunicated. As they’ve built a new spirituality, a wall has cropped up between them and people from their previous life.

“I’ve had family who love me as much as anything feel like there’s a distance that’s unbridgeable,” Lohmeier said. “It’s just remarkable because all it took was a few minutes of conversation to all of a sudden create this divide. And we’re the same people.”

That familial distance is familiar to Dallin Pankratz.

Pankratz was never a perfect Mormon. At 14, he stopped attending church. He got into drugs — dealing and using — and alcohol. “The wrong path,” he said, “not even by Mormon standards, just by society’s standards.”

Eventually, he found himself living in a dumpy apartment in Orlando. He was sad and addicted. One day, he passed the Orlando temple. It’s a beautiful building, white and columnar and spired and surrounded by palm trees, rising up out of the suburbs like a muscular McMansion.

Oh, yeah, these people, he thought. I remember there’s some good here.

That night, back at his apartment, he got on his knees and prayed for the first time in years. It wasn’t a plea related to a church, or even a specific theology: It was simply a plea for the truth.

“Everything about my life changed,” he says.

He started going back to church, read the Book of Mormon twice in two months, and tried to learn about God from whatever sources he could find. He became evangelically Mormon and defended the church against its detractors. But those detractors started to get to him. “They were citing correct, legitimate sources,” he said — pointing out, for instance, where the church was putting its money. Like into a $2 billion City Creek mixed-use development in downtown Salt Lake City. “Did Jesus,” Pankratz said, “come down and say, Build a shopping mall, my One True Shopping Mall?”

Searching for answers, Pankratz found the Remnant through a post on Pure Mormonism, a blog The New York Times once described as attracting “Mormons so orthodox that they believe their church is not sufficiently adhering to its own doctrines.” When he told his Mormon grandmother about this new truth, he says she claimed that Satan had deceived him. His father, he says, called him a false prophet.

Pankratz, now living in Boise, still attends fellowships (and the LDS church, and another Christian church, and soon, he hopes, a Hindu temple). But he worries about how, in some fellowships, sacrament is a bacchanal. Most of these Mormons hadn’t ever drunk alcohol, and so treat it as 17-year-olds might.

Meanwhile, as someone who had drunk — a lot — Pankratz had a different perspective. “Man, you don’t understand what this stuff does to you,” he told me. “This destroys relationships, destroys stuff.”

The Remnant probably won’t build Zion, he added. But a remnant of the Remnant might.

Whether you believe Zion will be at all, of course, is another matter. For now, what’s here on regular Earth is messy, affirming, doubt-inducing, heart-hurting, head-clearing, inclusive, exclusive, lax, rigid, conformist, nonconformist, good, bad, neutral. It’s full of people who disagree, and who disagree about disagreeing. People who don’t follow their own philosophies, who have fought and made up and fought some more. Who have split and stayed that way, or come imperfectly back together, like scrambled eggs stuffed back into their cracked shells. In short, it is — like everything from high-school cliques to political parties — the world in miniature, replicating the system that shook it into existence.

But it is also, of course, trying very hard.

At the end of the Corbridges’ fellowship meeting, after Michelle Taylor finished singing Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, the kids were running around. People had started to stack up their plates, smeared with homemade icing and glossed with salsa. They chattered about schedules, school, the weather. The room filled with regular, loud, human chaos.

Soon, the disaffected Taylors and the ultra-faithful Corbridges would disagree again. But not yet. For now, Michelle turned calmly toward the front of the room. She pointed to a framed print, leaning back on its stand. It showed an illustration of a pastel and peaceful-looking city.

“Bret,” Michelle said. “What’s this picture of?”

Corbridge picked it up and looked at it himself. “It’s Zion,” he replied.

He handed it to her. Smiled.

Holding it by the frame, she lifted it to her face, and focused.

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