For the past year, I’ve scrolled through social media posts from members of different religious backgrounds and political opinions. However, since my ethnographic research is based in fundamentalist Mormon communities, much of the comments I see are libertarian or conservative, and come from communities that have developed during a time of perceived religious and cultural insecurity. These new Mormon religious communities – truly new religions – bring together changing religious landscapes and fears of everyday life in ways that seldom makes sense to the casual observer.
As the world watched a virus pandemic cost millions of lives and scrambled to devise medical interventions and preventive measures, much of my Facebook feed looked conspiratorial. Special, QAnon emerged in response to an increasingly chaotic world.
QAnon is a conspiracy theory that honestly reads like a mess of words. For supporters, however, it is a mystery of cryptic codes and symbols that reveal a satanic pedophile ring that controls the government. As of 2018, the mysterious character “Q” began the rise of Donald Trump to power and the “storm” that was to come to take control of the “Deep stateâAnd corrupt government. With “Q-Drops”, the cryptic 8Kun messages used to gather supporters, “Q” provided the general population with alleged information on everything from military psyops to Marina AbramoviÄ’s controversial ones Cooking spirits Art installation.
By the time the January 6 riot flickered across my TV screen, I’d seen countless Q-drops with catchy one-liners to explain their meaning. Over time, however, the content of the conspiracies grew religious (with strong anti-Semitic undertones) and went beyond the standard theories advocated by Q followers.
âQ said it would happen. Special investigation, everything will come out. “
“Noah was a conspiracy theorist, then it started to rain.”
âDon’t understand [Covid] shot if you haven’t already, it’s fatal. And why should God and his prophet [Russell] Nelson [president of the LDS Church] do this to people? The people here actually think that this is from God. “
âWe have all been warned about the globalist / elite plans for the world. Now they come in full force. Even our own LDS leaders call themselves Global Citizens. “
âI believe Brigham Young was a Rothschild agent sent to murder the Smith family and take control of the Church. The Cabal has taken over all major religious institutions. The Book of Mormon warns against this, but modern prophecy [sic] don’t even talk about it or cover up much of what Joseph Smith taught. “
The latter initially piqued my interest in a new Mormon religion that took QAnon’s theories and canonized them as doctrine.
Religious scholars have taken Q by storm (pun intended). Many framed it in the context of white evangelicalism. Others rightly highlighted the New Age characteristics for which many supporters advocated, especially with regard to the reluctance to use vaccines. Most perspectives were based on the prevailing assumption that Q is not a religion, but the product of the entanglement of American religion with conservative politics.
Earlier this year PRRI offered statistics for the intersection of Q Beliefs and religion, noting that white evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals, and Mormons are most likely to believe Q’s ideas. This includes 21% of Mormons who believe in QAnon and 18% who specifically believe that “the government, media and finance in the US are controlled by a group of Satan’s worshiping pedophiles who are running a global child sex trafficking operation” .
Things got complicated in 2021 when the vaccine became widely available. The leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest branch of Mormonism, acted quickly during the pandemic to close temples and offer guidelines for church meetings, including social distancing and masks. Additionally, they promoted vaccineswho describes medical technology as a “literal stroke of luck”. On January 19, 2021, the President of the Church and other senior members of the leadership received their own inoculationswhich sparked applause and outrage.
Members with political differences felt marginalized and some began to question their membership in the LDS Church as a whole. Others viewed these events as confirmation that the hierarchy of the Church had gone astray.
Enchant the world anew
The LDS Church’s central claim to restoration requires something lost and restored. Since the religion was founded in 1830, the schism has remained the rule, with many factions of the movement claiming apostasy among the leaders of the prevailing faith. One such example appeared in 2013 with a man named Denver Snuffer, the leader of the Residual movement.
Snuffer became known in Mormon circles for his widely read publications that showed the way for individuals to encounter Jesus Christ and have the assurance of salvation without the need for a religious institution. Eventually, Snuffer claimed that God “ended the priesthood authority” of the LDS Church and led them into the apostasy. In response, he was excommunicated in 2013. Since then, Snuffer has canonized new scriptures, raised funds for temple construction, and hosted conferences for national audiences.
Snuffer’s claims became controversial in historical circles in 2017 when he began preaching that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, did not practice polygamy; that he was indeed an ardent opponent of the practice. According to Snuffer, the LDS Church began a long downward spiral after Smith’s death. After his death, Brigham Young came to power and used the story of Joseph Smith to justify the emergence of the controversial marriage practice.
During the Sunstone Symposium 2016 I saw Snuffer present “Was there an original” in front of a standing audience at the University of Utah. He was charismatic and spoke of an authentic Mormonism that was lost after the death of Joseph Smith. This loss only escalated and matched the current state of apostasy in the LDS Church. The goal of his movement, The Remnant, is to regain an “authentic” Mormonism that is characterized by spiritual experience and individual encounter with God and does not need a temporal mediator–that is, a priesthood or a person with a special relationship with God.
As early as 2016, Snuffer’s historical tale spoke the language of conspiracy. Alongside his claim of authentic Mormonism is a claim about the transformation of Mormonism under Brigham Young into a polygamous and theocratic institution that Smith was unfamiliar with. The claim led its followers to deny polygamy, a hallmark of the movement that requires an extraordinary reinterpretation of historical evidence for practice. Snuffer provided a way for Mormons to re-enchant the world and a way to understand a chaotic story that challenges their leaders.
Snuffer’s movement is decidedly religious, with few political claims. However, in the wake of the global pandemic, some sought answers that went beyond the spiritual realm. Step into Phil Davis, a LDS Church member known for the artisanal chocolate shop he owned with Morgan Coleman in downtown Provo, UT. As of 2020, Davis will be the Head Chocolatier at Small Batch Cacao.
While most know him for his chocolates, some also know him as the end-time servant called to gather the elect and prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ. His movement, Doctrine of christ, is not large, but it is one of the newest expressions of Mormonism that addresses the context in which we find ourselves. According to Davis, an angel visited him in his chocolate shop, followed by a translated being who took him to a new Authorized Terrestrial Order of the Church.
The doctrine of Christ goes a step further, arguing that Brigham Young was withdrawn from the priesthood in the 1830s. After allegedly murdering Joseph Smith, Young claimed ownership of the church and led it to ruin. Recently, however, Joseph Smith has returned to dedicate a Restoration through the Davidic servant Phil Davis.
Earlier this year, the movement linked the perceived apostasy of the LDS Church to the political claims circulating in conspiracy circles, beginning with the endorsement of “globalist agendas” by the church and the promotion of the “secret combinations” that make up the Covid-19 narrative check. Under a picture by Russell M. Nelson, the group wrote:
“Our research shows that this bully is using a fake pandemic to force the world to accept vaccination. this ‘Cure’ most people who receive it will be prone to a ‘wild virus’. This can show up later after most people’s immune systems are weakened by the vaccine.â
According to supporters of the Doctrine of Christ, the virus and its subsequent vaccine are part of the “arch-tyrant” plan to depopulate 90% of the earth. One article pointed to the United Nations as a central element of this mission, while others cited the Illuminati, Freemasons, Jesuits and other entities historically linked to the end-time apocalyptic. The conspiracies that found their place in American homes and internet forums became doctrine.
Doctrine of Christ currently has 367 YouTube subscribers and 231 social media followers. The movement is small, but its existence makes sense in the context of new Mormon groups that have emerged over the past decade, and it is likely to continue to grow. Davis and his community capitalized on a desire for enchantment that many no longer find in the LDS Church, and the conspiracies offer a comforting answer to a chaotic world. At a time of heightened skepticism towards various institutions, he addressed the desire for independence both politically and religiously.
When I first reported on this new group on social media, I met with interest and several people expressed that the Brigham Young Conspiracy would make a great movie. Well you are lucky. Phil Davis and the Doctrine of Christ await a film premiere, The Return of Joseph Smith, on April 15 at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, UT. Offering an alternate story about LDS discipleship, the film answers the deepest questions of those searching for meaning in an uncertain world.