Updated: Apr 26
2020 saw the introduction of Covid-19, riots in the streets, and election shenanigans. But for any who were following the news, the fascinating and terrifying story of the missing children of Lori Vallow came screaming into our living rooms. Lori had been flirting with some of the religious ideas and philosophies of an author named Chad Daybell. She ended up dating and then marrying him, whisking away to a bizarre wedding celebration in Hawaii. Her husband had been murdered with a claim of self-defense by Lori's brother, and Daybell's own wife had gone missing. Then the children disappeared. All the while, the newlyweds were dancing on beaches.
The media and those following the story were watching in rapt attention to discover any signs that the missing children may be alive. All hope was dashed in June of 2020, when the children's bodies were found . . . on Chad Daybell's estate. Later on, both Daybell and Vallow were arrested and trials are now ongoing to determine their fates. This case of religion and true crime has fascinated the pundits and put a magnifying glass on fringe Mormonism.
Daybell's ideology is a morphological case study. He started off as a fiction writer mixed with LDS eschatology concepts. He went full L. Ron Hubbard when he began claiming that his books were based on visions he had experienced. He was linked lightly to other visionaries like Julie Rowe, Mike Stroud, and Doug Mendenhall. Like some of these fringe Mormons, he started embracing concepts such multiple mortal probations (Mormon version of reincarnation), energy work, battling demons, and embraced conspiracy theology. Those are all typical gnostic/esoteric concepts that get explored by those who start heading off the Mormon establishment reservation but aren't necessarily indicative of violence. He was able to synthesize these ideas into a dangerous soup that called for the judgement of individuals with "demons" as a lost cause, needing release to be reincarnated to try again. Furthermore, anyone who wasn't on board with his eschatological and theological ideas were "zombie" demons who had murdered the true spirits of people and possessed their bodies. The only remedy was to kill the zombie and release them. It's not clear if Daybell was deluded enough to take such ideas and measures to task without the prodding and clearly mentally ill, Lori Vallow, or if he took his abstractions and decided to take it to the next step on his own. As of this writing, the jury is still out. What's not debatable is the horrendous nature of the crime.
It has also become a warning bell related to receiving personal revelation.
The challenges of personal revelation are not new to Mormonism. Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, takes a stab at the darker underbelly of Mormonism's claims and practices, and how it has led to some unsavory practices. Krakauer is a polemicist here and he often gets his facts wrong, but he has become the premier whistleblower considering Mormon-based violence among post-Mormons and never-Mormons. Thus, it becomes useful to use his main points to answer the broader question about the prevalence of Daybell syndrome stemming from Mormon concepts.
The foundations for Mormon violence, he would point out, seem to have been laid during the hostilities of the Mormon war, where Mormons found justice in burning, looting, and even killing Missourians as retribution and fear surrounding their settlements in Daviess County.
The Missourians responded in kind. In this long-term Missouri half-decade hatred, the original shots fired were earlier in Jackson County on the part of Missourians wanting to drive out the Mormons, largely on the basis of ideology over slavery and strange Mormon beliefs, but the Mormons finally retaliated by the time they settled in Northern Missouri. This is best viewed as an uncivil skirmish between settlers that couldn't learn to live peacefully, and was quite characteristic of many other areas of frontier America. It wasn't unique to Mormonism. Yes, Joseph Smith is said to have spoken favorably of some of that frontier justice in the form of his vigilante Danite group headed by Sampson Avard. However, toward the end of the conflict. Avard was removed from his post and made the camp surgeon because he overstepped his authority. Avard then laid the blame for those orders at the foot of Joseph Smith, along with others like Thomas Marsh, a loyal insider. Whether Joseph Smith removed Avard to cover his own tracks or to punish Avard is anyone's guess. But it has created justifications in Mormonism that have led to violence and murdering in the name of the Lord, largely under the cover of darkness . . . using secret oaths.
This is all strangely ironic since the Book of Mormon is framed with such oaths being the onus of destruction. The five decade struggle between the Lehite colony and the Gadianton Robbers are a testament to the defects of murdering in the name of gain where ends justify means.
There is one glaring exception to that narrative in the story of Nephi. Nephi is the genesis of the book, and while his family is escaping Jerusalem where they eventually travel to America, Nephi is given the opportunity to slay a rival in order to procure scriptures that the Lord has commanded Nephi to obtain, the Brass Plates. Nephi hesitates. An angel appears to Nephi and relates that it is "better for one man to die than a whole nation dwindle in unbelief." This story is told to children as an obedience tale about following the Lord's command, even if it means that you have to violate a law or do something morally repugnant. It informs Mormonism's theological culture on revelation in many instances, but many seem to forget that the entire impetus for the story doesn't pan out. Because even though one man did die, an entire nation, (Nephi's people) dwindled in unbelief . . . by the sword . . . that was stolen and cloned by Nephi! Eventually all Nephites were murdered in a genocidal and fratricidal war. If one reads this story more carefully and within the context of the entire Book of Mormon panoply, one sees that there is a sort of karma in the first murder in the Book of Mormon coming back to answer upon Nephi's descendants generations later. It just goes to show that it pays to study scriptures past your own proof-texting. It can also serves to humanize Nephi who perhaps got signals from the wrong source, yet could overcome his humanity and become a mighty prophet.
Mormonism has made some dark and bloody hay from this story from Nephi. Apostates and those committed to destroying the work were hardly tolerated in early Mormonism, particularly in the Brigham Young era. Using Nephi's rationalization, along with Old Testament retrofits of divine justice, men took lives in order to atone for the sins of other men and women. The ends justified the means. The fruits of these efforts, claimed to be hidden in personal journals and Church catacombs, were sensationalized in tell-alls which come into full fray with the Mountain Meadows and Circleville massacre tragedies, mass casualty events taken to protect the kingdom of God on earth. Even though the Church takes umbrage with the slitted throat tells-alls told by men like Bill Hickman, John D. Lee, and tales of Porter Rockwell in the Utah era, the fruits of the larger well-known incidents indicate that these more private and secretive murders may have been commonplace in those early decades but out of fear and reprisals . . . never discussed. It appears that as long as it was done in the name of the Lord and under the command of priesthood, it was murkily allowed. Thankfully, it seemed to have fallen by the wayside by the 1860's and the diversification of Deseret by railroads and industry helped to move at least the prevalence of blood atonement from the stage.
Today, commentators, progressive post-Mormons, along with the traditional orthodox are apoplectic at the rise of those promoting personal revelation like Denver Snuffer, Phil Davis, Julie Rowe, and the infamous Chad Daybell. Daybell's own mischief is used as a harbinger of doom using Krakauer's logic. This isn't without precedent. Krakauer's dip into the 20th century is littered with the stories of malcontents and apostates going away from the correlated dogmas and focusing on personal revelation and visionary experiences, ending up with some version of personal blood atonement. Nephi's story is often used as the excuse. The stories of the polygamist apostate murders by the LeBarons and the brutal murders of the Lafferty brothers are held up as historical precedent and are the focus of his oeuvre. This is what personal revelation does . . . they say . . . when mixed with religious dogmatism.
Krakauer's ties from earlier corporate abuses in early Utah to modern personal applications don't automatically follow. It's true that doctrinal justification for murder can be implicated with earlier Mormonism, but it can also be said the same of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Marxism, and fascism. The link to dogmatic mass murder to people making strange claims to justify their own personal abuses is a stretch. The mass murders and blood atoning done in Utah in the name of "just following orders," were hardly resting on personal charismatic experience. Religious and ideologically-based violence in these earlier cases were caused by edicts, mandates, loyalty, fear, and the love of dear leaders. The genocidal exterminations of the 20th Century were likewise based on those larger sociological factors, not personal divine mandates that went against those orders. Thus, it's difficult to place the causal realities of all religious violence, therefore, at the feet of simply seeking direction from the divine and getting hijacked by your own ego or mental illness in the process. There's more evidence that violence and murders happen with calls to set society in order by injunction and command than by personal gnostic vendetta. While individual atrocities exist, Brigham Young has more blood on his hands than just about anyone else in Mormonism under this rubric. And he wasn't a visionary at all, but a "Yankee guesser." Loyalty and fear is what gave him the ability to do what he did.
Just like with top-down hierarchies and ordered edicts that end up in violence, genocide, and war, the issue about personal revelation usually isn't so much about whether the information is coming from your own head, God, or a bad Italian restaurant experience, but whether there are enough checks and balances on your own psyche to cause you to pause in committing some atrocity in the name of Jesus. When it comes to learning how to have personal revelation, there are three different checks that can be used in a sort of three-legged stool to ascertain whether your intuition should be followed or not.
Does it violate what is considered "good" in scripture and other inspired writings? These attend all sacred writings, a kind of "golden thread" that implicates being kind and doing good to others, loving and serving one another, and lifting others above oneself. If your direction violates that, it can be used as warning system that you may be speaking to the wrong voice. Key Scripture: Moroni 7: 6-13
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God. And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such. Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift. For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water; wherefore, a man being a servant of the devil cannot follow Christ; and if he follow Christ he cannot be a servant of the devil. Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually. But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.
Can you persuade others to your cause? The term persuade is the key indicator here. Persuasion is done without compulsory means, without relegating tactics to the cultish, such as manipulation, gaslighting, or using fear. It also should be done in the light, and not in the dark of night, in secret, using aforementioned oaths. Can others get similar promptings without prodding and using pressure to obtain such promptings? Can they get these ideas and personal messages on their own, or do they always need someone at the tip of the pyramid to create the praxis? Some call this the law of witnesses. Are these witnesses independent and equal to one another? Key Scripture: D&C 121: 41-43, Ether 5:4
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day.
Does your personal revelation allow for other interpretations? Are you willing to admit that you may be wrong or deceived? Do you give grace to others who wish to take another avenue? And do you continue to fellowship with them despite this difference and let differences not get in the way of relationships? Key Scripture: 3 Nephi 11:28-30
And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been. For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
If you can answer all three of these questions affirmatively, then whatever revelation you receive should at least be benign. It doesn't mean that the information is correct or accurate, but it allows you to act upon it in that way that honors others' agency and the first principles of divine love. It should cause those concerned to settle down at least, and stop worrying about Mormon gnosticism as a threat to public safety. As a generally accepted rule, a "do no harm" principle is a strong foundation. If it takes an angel to prod a beheading, or a flaming sword to commit adultery, then it's also likely that you are dealing with beings and/or delusions that are not good and should not be heeded. It's more likely your sense of self-importance and ego are pushing you into mental illness or that you are "going dark," than you are being guided by God to some great Abrahamic sacrifice of your principles.
The same can be said of listening to or following a modern prophet, teacher, or guru. If they are asking for tithing, sexual partners, and obedience, it's a good indication that however they pierced the veil to justify passing that plate, you have no obligation to take heed. It should never get to the point where you are pulling triggers and administering poison. The warning about all off-reservation charismatics morphing into a Chad Daybell, is largely an unfounded McGuffin. The worst that can be said by most fringe Mormon internet prophets today is that they are asking for Patreon podcast donations, or hocking books. This goes as well, for post-Mormon secular "prophets," who are making a living off of counter-branding Mormonism. Most wilderness dweller Mormon gurus are largely benign. Some of it is informative. Some of it may be even be prophetic. Even more admirable if the theology being dispensed is free without any explicit or or implicit requests of money, fame, or women.
There are always risks when stepping out on your own to get personal revelation from God. But if you can develop and follow some checks, and you are following the gnostic path, then you should be able to comfortably tell those who are warning about Daybell syndrome and personal revelation, to go study a little bit of William Shirer's book about the rise of empires, and that there are worse things than listening to the voice in your head. There's a quote that is often used in cases like this from Steven Weinberg that is being bandied about these days:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.”
While this is true, it seems to take the religion of the State to make good people do evil on a mass scale. That usually has very little to do with theology and simply has to do with power. The German people of 1933 could have used a little stronger voice in their heads. So can those today who are watching a disturbing trend of increased propaganda and censorship over information in the name of public safety that seems to be entirely secular and part of a new emerging cult of worshipping alphabet agencies and those sitting atop them.