Mormon gnostics: a must-read talk from the FAIRMormon Conference

I wanted to bring to your attention a very important talk on “Mormon gnostics” at the FAIR conference last week. The talk was given by Cassandra Hedelius, one of those young, smart FAIRMormon volunteers who are helping the organization grow.

We should address the term “gnostic.” Hedelius is using this term the following way:

Mormon Gnostics emphasize personal spiritual effort and de-emphasize the role of the church in spiritual progression. This can lead them to conclude that they have learned a new scriptural interpretation, contrary to what church leaders have taught, or that they have discerned that church leaders and members have strayed, and God has called new leaders or revealed a new means of spiritual progress without prophets. Gnostics try to get at a supposed hidden, deeper truth that most members don’t find due to supposed faithlessness or lack of passion for spiritual things. Gnostics seek for what the scriptures “really” mean, or what prophets are “really” saying, or for teachings that were known a long time ago but aren’t part of modern mainstream belief, perhaps because they were unofficial and hence abandoned, or prophets revealed better understanding.

In real life, a Mormon gnostic might be that guy in High Priests or Elders Quorum who loves to quote some apostle from 1850 revealing some deep secret that is not emphasized today. Or it might be somebody like Denver Snuffer, a dangerous apostate who is leading people away from the Church. The former is relatively harmless; the latter is very harmful.

If you have been around the Mormon blog world long enough, you may have seen liberal Mormons claim that if you are “too conservative” you will end up parroting Denver Snuffer. The claim is of course ridiculous because a conservative Mormon is, by definition, somebody who follows the prophets, i.e., the current prophets speaking at general conference every six months.

However, the Mormons liberals may have a point that *some* Church critics start out from the perspective of trying to be “more Catholic than the Pope” or, in our case, “more Mormon than the prophet.” And this is a tendency that can take you down the wrong path.

Hedelius points out that a Mormon gnostic might start out innocently enough trying to study new things that support the Church. She notices the following pattern:

1)I’m a loyal church member and I follow church leaders. I read about others’ prophecies because I long to hear more of God’s word and prepare for the future.
2)I assume church leaders have visions and prophecies just like these others I’m reading about, since they all come from God. It’s a shame church leaders can’t talk openly about them; it must be because most church members are too faithless to handle it. I’m glad I’ve found these other sources for learning these things.
3)Maybe church leaders don’t have these visions and prophecies. Perhaps because they’re too wrapped up in managing the church’s assets and employees. It’s a shame the church has become so corporate and uninspired. There is no prophecy or revelation from God to the church anymore.
4)The church is apostate. I have found the replacement.

Hedelius’ experience mirrors my own. I have been observing spiritual progression and regression on-line for many years, and I have seen dozens of unfortunate examples of people leaving the Church.

I want to say this as clearly as possible: the problem begins when you start criticizing Church leadership, whatever the reason. Let me quote Joseph Smith:

“I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives.” (History of the Church, 3:385)

It is significant that Brother Joseph points out that this is an “eternal principle,” i.e., a pattern that has existed forever. Criticism, murmuring, questioning, pride — these are the tendencies that get you in trouble.

Hedelius lists some of the obsessions of the Mormon Gnostics:

Inordinate interest in the Second Comforter or Second Anointing, complaints that the church does not teach or emphasize them enough, and belief that books or teachings by individuals who are not church leaders are the best way to obtain them.

Belief that visions claimed by individuals other than church leaders are authoritative for general church membership and important to temporal preparedness and spiritual progression.

Predictions about “tent cities” where those who diligently prepared for future calamities will go for protection.

Claims of divine authority that was not received via regular priesthood within the church, but from an angel or vision or other unusual divine means.

Claims that a “remnant” group of spiritually elect are more obedient and spiritually advanced than general church membership, or even that the “remnant” are the only non-apostates, and everyone else has gone astray. This of course violates the principle that Joseph called “a key that will never rust” and “a key by which you will never be deceived”–that if you stay with a majority of the church, a majority of the apostles, and the records of the church, you’re with the right group. A tiny “remnant” is not the majority and are therefore the apostates.

Criticism of the LDS church and its leadership for spending priorities, corporate organization, purported lack of recent revelation, or on other grounds. It is interesting how among ex-Mormons, those who have gone off in the atheist direction, and those who have gone off in the opposite, Gnostic, direction, still come together sometimes to generate and discuss criticisms of the church. They’re very different movements, but they unite in their hatred of the church.

I would urge you to read Hedelius’ talk in full. It behooves us all, as we strive to follow the prophet in these dangerous times, to remember that humility is a key attribute in Christ-like discipleship. And humility sometimes requires that we acknowledge we don’t know things that the prophets do.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

26 thoughts on “Mormon gnostics: a must-read talk from the FAIRMormon Conference

  1. It was a good talk, but I think she needs a different word than “gnostic.” She’s talking about people who criticise the church and undermine its authority when it differs from their own spiritual insights and journeys. That’s an important point, but by calling it gnosticism, she denigrates a rich spiritual tradition which has nothing to do with these typical liberal or conservative criticisms.

    If you happen to be a gnostic Mormon, one who quotes from the Gospel of Thomas or believes God to be both good and evil, you might be critical of the Brethren’s non-gnostic views, but more than likely, you will embrace the gnostic principle of hidden knowledge which emphasises its esoteric, mystic nature, and would abhor the idea of mixing it with the church’s authoritarian structure.

  2. I love this concept. I wish I could have watched the conference this year. It sounds like there were some really good talks.

  3. There aren’t a ton of online personalities that fit this description, but there are enough for me to believe this movement exists. I haven’t experienced it in church so much among active members (besides the old HP who likes to quote some prophet from 100 years ago as being completely relevant today.) Thanks for the article reference.

  4. A friend I know from an online community subscribed me to a Facebook group that tends to fit this category. In addition to practical hints on preparedness such as the amount of water and type of food to store, some emphasize books and lectures that feature visions such as Hedelius described. Hedelius’ address at the 2015 Fair Conference put a hawk among the chickens. I have seen several members of the group posting warnings against FAIR. To complicate the matter there has been an invasion of mischief makers who copy posts and paste them to a site designed to ridicule Mormons.
    Most members of this Facebook group are both naive and well intentioned. They seem genuinely determined to live the Gospel and often post LDS memes and links to recent talks by General Authorities. Others are like the friend who originally subscribed me, relatively sophisticated and informed as well as faithful, but perhaps too gentle on those members of the group who are in some instances profiting from the naive enthusiasts by selling tents or other survival gear.

  5. “The claim is of course ridiculous because a conservative Mormon is, by definition, somebody who follows the prophets. . . .” Where is this definition documented?

    Regardless of my quibble, I really like this post. I will be reading the talk. Thank you for calling attention to it.

  6. Those Hedelius calls “gnostics” are those who start off steadying the ark and end up spiritually dead.

    My favorite part of the Q&A was the question from someone who appeared to have thought the seerstone picture was an old photograph from the 1800s, and was trying to (delicately?) inquire how such a high-resolution, color photograph could come from the early days of daguerrotypes.

  7. “besides the old HP who likes to quote some prophet from 100 years ago as being completely relevant today’

    I don’t know about you but I value prophetic teaching for its truth not it’s freshness. Is there an expiration date on truth? Besides, that sentence is nonsensical in our church, considering “the some prophets” that were older than 100 years out of date, as the Book of Mormon would already be out of date for Joseph before translating it, let alone us.

    It may be easy for you to dismiss old prophets, but to me honoring and receiving the Lord’s servants is key to receiving the Father. Period.

    Sorry for being defensive, but those are fighting words as I don’t accept anyone throwing my prophets under the bus to avoid awkward sermons, and neither does the Lord.

    You’ll note that you don’t hear the apostles distancing themselves from the prior authorities like the online folk do. They respect and honor those lifetimes of consecration, rather than discarding then because some obscure sermon mashed you squirm.

    Let’s practice being more united with those whose shoulders you stand on as well as the current authorities.

  8. We do indeed ‘stand on the shoulders of Giants’ but we also have easy access to a modern leadership who are just as gifted.

  9. Haven’t read the talk yet but I’ve definitely met people like this and, as the OP notes, they do often fall away. I tend to think a big part of the problem is a lack of self-skepticism.

    That said I do think this is more common, in perhaps limited ways, than others suggest. I think we are so focused on getting people to start listening to the spirit and following it that we forget about people missing the mark. They may not go the way of Denver Snuffer or that “prophetess” in Idaho who’s led so many to think there’s a big calamity coming this fall. However they may be led subtly astray as they are unable to distinguish between the spirit and its counterfeits.

    I wish in Church we spent as much time discussing the ways “listening to the spirit” can go wrong as we do pushing people to listen to the spirit. It’s that seeking without self-criticism that often is the problem. (IMO – others might disagree)

  10. Taylor the Godbeits are a great example of this. Believe it or not there actually was a group I had some contact with in the 90’s that often used the term gnostics. They were often trying to rethink Mormonism through a mystic lens and would bring in things like tarot cards and traditional European neo-platonic like mysticism to understand the endowment and so forth. i.e. take these genealogical aspects of the restoration that apologists or historians bring up and then take them as true on their own terms rather than just a structural influence used to restore an older idea.

  11. On this quibble about former prophets versus living prophets, I think neither group would themselves be divisive. The living prophets are doing what needs to be done now, and I suspect the former prophets are cheering them on, rather than tsk-tsk-ing them. And, there is so much to learn from prophets who have gone before that it would be foolish to disregard them. To me there is unity among these men, across the generations, all doing and saying what God needs them to do and say, sometimes proclaiming eternal truth, sometimes giving urgent warnings specific to their time.
    Anyway, I don’t like dividing what should be unified. It reminds me of the Heavenly Father ‘versus’ Heavenly Mother debates. Honoring the one means honoring the other, and you cannot honor one while implicating the other in dealing falsely (most those who wish to push`Mother forward are implicating oppression by the Father.) And there is a proper order. We are to pray to our Father in Heaven. And we are to heed the prophets of our time.

    Feminists should not own Heavenly Mother, and I wouldn’t want “Mormon Gnostics” to own the idea of personal revelation and deeper truth. I’m grateful for the defense against conflation of conservatives with “Mormon Gnostics” as described.

  12. The fact is we study the teachings of prophets who have gone before in RS/PH classes. Obviously, the Church encourages us to ponder, rather than dismiss, their words and teachings with regard to eternal truths. Each prophet has specific teachings relevant to their time and their audience. But it is also a truth, and each prophet–dead or alive–would wholeheartedly agree, that a living prophet is always better than a dead one. Which is one of the reasons I follow M*: a blog that does not lose sight of that critical fact.

    I’ve not met any gnostics but it is essential to be aware that they do exist as there are many types of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  13. Gnostics are by definition those that believe in “hidden knowledge”. Lds scripture teaches there are hidden treasures of knowledge that others just don’t get. I think it’s fairly obvious that a lot of things are just missed by the average member. Good doesn’t call us to be clueless sheep that only listen to current prophets , however, I’m not very knowledgeable about the groups this author is condemning, so maybe I could agree with her warning, just not her reasoning for it. Not Geoff’s statement about only believing something if the most recent general conference has mentioned it.

  14. Laserguy, you misrepresent my point. What I said was, ” a conservative Mormon is, by definition, somebody who follows the prophets, i.e., the current prophets speaking at general conference every six months.” The point of this is that there are things that may have been said 100 years ago that appear to contradict what current prophets say. The inclination should be to follow what current prophets say because they are giving prophetic advice for our generation. (Just to give one example, the Word of Wisdom was much less binding on latter-day Saints 120 years ago than it is today. Yes, there were Mormons who drank wine or beer in those days and were members in good standing. You should not think that this means you can drink alcohol today and maintain your temple recommend, however. Modern-day prophets have made that clear).

    This does not mean you “only believe” something that is said by current prophets. Obviously, we study in depth the words of earlier prophets in Priesthood, for example, and we believe them (at least I do). In this very post I quote Joseph Smith, who made the statement above in 1839. So, please don’t misrepresent what I wrote: we should listen to earlier prophets and prophets today. They all have important messages for us.

  15. I think the things mentioned here were good warnings against pride and leaving the Church. However, I think people should be careful about the following statement of Hedelius’:

    “This of course violates the principle that Joseph called “a key that will never rust” and “a key by which you will never be deceived”–that if you stay with a majority of the church, a majority of the apostles, and the records of the church, you’re with the right group. A tiny “remnant” is not the majority and are therefore the apostates.”

    I don’t know what her source is, but I found this- that sounds similar, from Ch. 27 of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 315–26:

    Ezra T. Clark remembered: “I heard the Prophet Joseph say that he would give the Saints a key whereby they would never be led away or deceived, and that was: The Lord would never suffer a majority of this people to be led away or deceived by imposters, nor would He allow the records of this Church to fall into the hands of the enemy.”

    However, not suffering the majority to be led away is different than saying there is a need to follow the majority. We need to follow Christ, not the supposed majority.

  16. I just finished reading the transcript at I thought it was well-written and insightful. As for the criticism of her use of the term “Gnosticism”, I believe she addressed that at the beginning of her talk and clearly designated what her intent or meaning of that term was in context of her talk. When people clearly define their meaning of a term, it confuses me when people bring in all the other possible uses of that term (correct or otherwise).
    It can be confusing to some to hear that we need personal revelation, but also need to follow the revelation of church leaders under the stewardship of their callings. It seems it can be an slippery slope to apostasy when we think our own revelation trumps that of our prophets for our church.
    I can receive revelation for myself, for my children in the capacity of their mother, and for primary children in my ward in their part of their lives as members of our primary. While I definitely have opinions about how other aspects of our ward and church are run at times, I can share my opinions when appropriate and then have faith that the Lord will have His will be done because of, or sometimes in spite of his human leaders here on earth.
    I’m hoping there will be more transcripts up soon, as I really enjoyed this one. Thanks for sharing.

  17. As for the discussion of Mormon “gnostics” who use tarot cards, etc., I had to laugh.

    Tarot cards were merely playing cards back in the day. As my husband loves games, we have hundreds (not kidding – could be pushing 1000) of games in our home, along with all kinds of card decks. This includes a few tarot card decks.

    But we are much less likely to be playing with the tarot cards than to be playing with the various Cthulu mythos games. And in none of these things to we do more than laugh and cry the way any family does when playing games.

  18. Meg, while it’s fine to criticize silliness with tarot cards given their genealogy as literally just cards to play card games in the Renaissance, I think the concern is their use in 19th century occultism that branched off from such games. We should also note that while the occult use became significant only in the 18th and 19th century the origins do go back to the Renaissance as a way of divining the future or at least inspriation. I think the debate among those who still use them for-less divinization or occult means is how much they are a catalyst for creativity or tied to the rebirth of the pagan art of memory in the Renaissance.

    While I tend to think objects don’t have much meaning in and of themselves, I do think there are solid reasons to avoid tarot cards, ouiji boards or the like. Even if I doubt the children’s game with a ouiji board sold at Toys-R-Us is apt to do anything more than a modern deck of cards.

  19. If, as Brant Gardner seems to assume in ‘The Gift andPower: Tranlating the Book of Mormon’ it is the seer and not the stone that contains the power, it makes little difference what means is used, however Joseph Smith declined to use a pair of stones that had been used in England before their owners joined the Church with the observation that they had been contaminated by unholy usage. Our practice in the Church today avoids the use of material objects, with the possible exception of the scriptures, in receiving spiritual information. It would seem wise to avoid a category of games or cards that has a history of being associated with the occult, or darker powers such as Tarot cards and Ouiji boards no matter if they are bought at Toys R Us. Table knocking is also out

  20. I think it is along the lines of what Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8:9)

    9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.

    Paul was talking about folks who would help themselves to the free food offered in the pagan temples. He was saying there was nothing wrong with the food, but that in partaking, there might be some who would presume that by eating the free food in the pagan temple, one was also engaging in the worship of the pagan god. Or so I seem to recall.

    Last night’s games were neither played with tarot decks nor cthulu figurines, but with little plastic mice and cockroaches (Mice and Mystics). We had a delightful time. Another game that has been widely enjoyed in our family is called “Poo!” where monkeys fling feces at each other. “Bang!” is another great game, though it involves “shooting” one another (and broad Italian accents, in homage to spaghetti westerns).

    Ironically, my good husband was raised in a home where the only cards were Rook decks, since they have no face cards. They would play “Pounce” and it became an almost viscious battle between the siblings whenever the Rook decks came out.

    As I was trying to find the verse in 1 Cor 8, I stumbled across a great verse in 1 Cor 6:

    12 All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient…

    So, nothing inherently wrong with any number of things by themselves. But each of us should search for that thing that is most right, most expedient, and most sacred at each moment. That holy deed (sacred doing, or sacer facere (sacrifice)) is the thing that God would want us to do.

    In the vein of doing the most right thing in any given moment, I agree that it is unlikely that I will ever find myself playing with the tarot cards my husband happens to have in his extensive cache of games.

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