Chad and Lori Vallow Daybell Took Latter-day Saints Faith to 'Dark Places,' Scholar Says
Folklorist and historian Christopher Blythe is the author of Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse.
Long before Chad and Lori Vallow Daybell made headlines around the world for their end-times religious beliefs and the role their doctrine may have played in the deaths of their family members, there was a controversy and cautiousness within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about who could share their visions and prophecies and how.
"There is a great fear of schism in the Latter-day Saint tradition, as well as of overzealousness, which becomes a little scary," Christopher Blythe, a Latter-day Saint folklorist and historian, told Inside Edition Digital. "If someone off-balance such as Chad Daybell claims to have visions leading him around, then the results, as we know, can potentially be very, very scary."
Chad has been charged with willfully destroying, concealing or altering evidence and conspiracy to commit destruction, alteration or concealment of evidence after the remains of Lori's children, Joshua "JJ" Vallow and Tylee Ryan, were found in his backyard. Lori has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit destruction, alteration or concealment of evidence, as well as misdemeanor charges of resisting and obstructing an officer, solicitation of a crime and contempt. Both Chad and Lori have pleaded not guilty. While authorities are investigating whether Chad and Lori might have been involved in JJ's and Tylee's deaths and the deaths of their spouses, neither has ever been charged with killing someone and both deny any wrongdoing.
As their cases make their way through the court system, Chad and Lori's religious beliefs remain a main focal point. So what role do visions, prophecies and apocalyptic beliefs play in the faith? Blythe, who is a member of the church himself, explored the history of apocalypticism in the Latter-day Saint faith in his new book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse.
"I don't think a belief in the last days brings on violence," Blythe explained. "Certainly, we see violence in religions that are not apocalyptic-based. However, that doesn't mean the lens of apocalypticism hasn't been used by violent religious people, and I think Chad Daybell is certainly an example of that."
A spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment for this story, saying the church has no connection to this topic. Neither Lori's attorney, Mark Means, nor Chad's attorney, John Prior, responded to Inside Edition Digital's requests for comment.
Ahead, Blythe shares his research on the history of apocalypticism in the church and his perspective on whether a focus on the end of the world is inherently dangerous — or whether it depends on what people do with it.
Kaelyn Forde: What were your first impressions of Chad Daybell when you read his work?
Christopher Blythe: My first impressions of Chad Daybell was that he was a little interesting. At the time, he was an author and a publisher of books about near-death experiences and about the last days. He'd written a series of novels that contained a lot of standard ideas that Latter-day Saints have had about last-days prophecies, and he also pulled from some evangelical ideas that you don't usually hear of in these circles. I wrestled with whether I should include him in the book I was writing, Terrible Revolution, and ultimately I decided there were more interesting figures who might bring out other insights about this movement. Chad hadn't yet made the big splash he would later on.
KF: Is Chad Daybell one of many people in the Latter-day Saints faith who has tried to gain a following with their visions or prophecies over the years?
CB: Chad Daybell is just one of many visionaries or prophets who have tried to gain a following in the Latter-day Saints faith since the foundation of that movement 200 years ago. Some scholars have suggested there have been over 400 different churches or denominations in the Latter-day Saint movement, and most of these have been founded by leaders — most often men — who claim to receive visions or angelic visitations commanding them to lead the church.
KF: How has the church's leadership reacted to these lay people sharing visions or prophecies in the past?
CB: Church leaders have responded in a variety of ways to lay visionaries over the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the early history of the church — it was founded in 1830 — church leaders encouraged visionaries. The idea that a member would receive a vision or a dream or have a prophecy was not unusual. They were shared widely and they were published in church newspapers. They were only controversial in so much that visionaries used their dreams to lead the church, because the Church of Jesus Christ has its own leadership.
There's a man that's sustained as prophet, seer and revelator of the church, and there are also 12 apostles that hold high leadership positions in the church. So it's understood that while individual members might have visions or dreams or any form of revelation, it's for themselves and for their own lives, not as a means to govern the church.
Again, it was very popular to share visions in the 1800s. Around the turn of the century in 1900, church leaders began to discourage the widespread sharing of these charismatic gifts, visions and dreams, and I think the reasons this became so important to the church was in response to the threat of schism.
KF: Do we see ordinary people becoming more receptive to hearing these lay people's prophecies and visions right now, and why?
CB: So in certain circles, there will be receptive individuals. I talk about an experience in my book where I had two friends sit down in a cafe with me a few years ago, and one of them was very excited about having recently heard a presentation from a guy who had a near-death experience and was talking about what the afterlife is like. I'm a Latter-day Saint also, and I kind of think that's interesting, but I don't place a lot of stock in it.
My one friend thought this was very, very exciting, and my other friend was very offended. And she said to this friend, 'Well, wait a second, if there was something so amazing happening like that, why didn't it come to our prophet? Why did it come to this random member?' I think that's what you see a lot of. When somebody is sharing this vision, there could be a sort of skepticism about them. People would particularly be suspicious that this individual is trying to amass a following.
We're talking about a very small percentage of Latter-day Saints that would be receptive to it once they dove in. I talked about what's sometimes called a 'prophecy enthusiast' in my book, or apocalypticists, and specifically the prepper community amongst Latter-day Saints. There's a fairly large-sized prepper community. You've heard the name LDS AVOW, the website that has 10,000 members. So there is a significant sort of network of individuals who are excited to talk about the last days and to prepare for the last days. However, they also recognize that this sort of conversation isn't occurring in the mainstream church, even though they consider themselves members of that church.
So it's a little complicated. There's definitely individuals eager to hear these sort of lay visions and lay voices, but there's a controversy built into that. So if you were excited about these things, you would probably limit who you shared them with. And if you were to talk about them, you'd find a close group of friends. If you yourself were a visionary and you wanted to not build controversy, you would limit your conversation to your family.
KF: What were some of the ideas or visions Chad Daybell was sharing?
CB: Chad Daybell shows up and says he's a visionary that, in fact, has been sharing his visions all along, that his books — his fiction — were part of his visions. He's not saying the sort of very strange ideas that we're going to learn about through the news and these documents and what we know from Lori [Vallow Daybell] and Alex [Cox, Lori's brother] and so on. None of that he's publicizing. He's just saying, 'I've had these visions, and I can tell you more about what's going to happen, where an earthquake is going to occur and how many years off, and why are prophets not talking about this? And so on.' So he became an important voice, and that's when LDS AVOW picked up Chad Daybell and he became a significant voice within that community. But he was never sharing his sort of most bizarre ideas or his most unusual ideas.
When people were talking about Chad Daybell, they wanted to talk about him as if he was a literal leader of something like LDS AVOW or Preparing a People, when really, these are just sort of networks of interested folks — it's almost like a fan community or something — that are excited about these visionaries. And he's just become a prolific visionary, so people are listening to him, willing to pay money to see him talk and stuff like that. Now from within that, Chad begins building a very small, I think, community. We might find out it's a dozen people, maybe, but right now, I think we could come up with maybe six or seven people that were believers in these sort of teachings. And it's from that group that he began to promote ideas like reincarnation, the demonology ideas that he had, the emphasis on energy work and an emphasis on how to rid the world of zombies, and talking about light spirits and dark spirits.
KF: Do you believe Chad Daybell's doctrine is dangerous, or was it just what he allegedly did with it that was dangerous?
CB: Chad Daybell's ideas were very dangerous, particularly the ideas surrounding possession. His idea that a child could be so possessed that they were a living zombie, obviously was a very dangerous idea, in that it appears to be the justification for murder. On the other hand, Chad Daybell had a variety of ideas that weren't dangerous in and of themselves, but he took them to very dark places.
He emphasized the second coming of Jesus Christ — and this has been a belief for 2,000 years of Christian history. For many Christians, it is a hopeful belief that creates optimism in their lives. It didn't operate that way for Chad Daybell. Another belief that was very important to Chad was the idea of reincarnation. Over a billion Hindus and Buddhists believe and accept the idea of reincarnation, but Chad took it to a dangerous place.
KF: Do you believe Chad and Lori Vallow Daybell used faith to their own ends?
CB: I think Chad and Lori Daybell used their faith for their own ends. I can't weigh in on whether I think they're sincere or not — I'm not sure. One thing is for sure: their doctrine set themselves up as special, and it seems to have acted to their own wants and desires. Ideas that Chad and Lori had about reincarnation weren't just a theological idea, they set Lori and Chad apart as significant figures.
They didn't just teach that the second coming [of Jesus Christ] was near, they taught that they would be the leaders in a movement leading up to the second coming ... It seemed a lot of their ideas were very self-serving. The most blatant example of where their theology was used for self-serving means was as a justification of what appears to be several murders.
KF: Do we also see a distrust of the government coming into play in this case? Some of the people who supported Chad and Lori Daybell before JJ and Tylee's remains were found expressed that it was none of the government's business where the children were.
CB: I think you do. Apocalypticist prophecy enthusiasts, since the 1990s, maybe even a little before, have had an idea that government is becoming increasingly corrupt, that they're trying to start a new world order that will take away personal citizens' rights. So yes, that sort of conspiracy-minded understanding of present government is very common in these communities.
KF: How has the community interpreted the COVID-19 pandemic, and has it bolstered their belief in end-times events?
CB: If we're talking about Latter-day Saints in general, I think we are in a moment where there's a deep interest in last day's events, and some speculation that perhaps COVID is part of that. But what I've also noticed is, because this isn't just one organization sort of promoting these ideas, it's really just a smattering of different individuals, many of the individuals that are LDS preppers, instead of thinking COVID is part of it, they see it as the sort of moving in of the new world order. So you don't need to worry about COVID necessarily, you need to worry about the government and losing your civil rights, which I think is interesting. But it's important to note that this is a really varied community.
There are different ideas, but yes, we are in an intense moment of anxiety, and during intense moments of anxiety, a great scholar named Paul Boyer talks about how there's always these apocalypticists, but it's during these very moments of anxiety — wars and so on — that people start listening to them. So the apocalypticists are always there, but you can really judge the uptick based on their audience, and I think the audience is growing for sure.
KF: What is the media getting wrong when they talk about religion and the Daybell case?
CB: I think there has been some really good coverage of the topic of religion in the Daybell case, but I've also seen some coverage that draws on stereotypes. Particularly, the problem I see is the use of the term 'cult.' Whereas I think obviously, if we mean dangerous religion, well then there's no question that Chad and Lori Daybell are involved in dangerous religion. But the problem comes in where 'cult' confuses exactly what sort of organization we're talking about.
Was Chad Daybell a cult leader? Well, Chad Daybell was part of a network of apocalyptic writers who had gained some notoriety amongst a community of Latter-day Saint preppers that had different organizations that promoted his sort of ideas. And so he had outlets where he could present his thoughts and where people could promote his books, but this wasn't a religious organization. They didn't think of Chad, necessarily, as an ecclesiastical leader. Most of these people — although they would be on the fringe of the faith — would consider themselves faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Instead, Chad and Lori Daybell may have had a few followers who knew their full intentions and their full theology. But most of these scary ideas that we've learned about since Chad and Lori have been arrested were not known by this larger community that was interested in Chad and Lori's ideas, or really Chad's ideas. Instead, what we're dealing with is probably a group of six or eight individuals who are confidantes to Chad and Lori Daybell, and perhaps were aware to varying degrees of the extent of their ideas and their plans.
One of the things I'm very grateful for in this media coverage is that I haven't seen any big media outlets associating Chad and Lori Daybell's beliefs or their [alleged] violence with the larger history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
KF: What is your biggest hope in terms of what comes out of the Daybell case - both for the families of the kids and for this community?
CB: My hope is that at the end of the Daybell case, the families of these children will receive justice. My hope for the LDS prepper community is that they won't be painted with a large brush that claims that they are inherently dangerous. I'm not sure that preparing for natural disasters and having a belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ — of hoping for a better world — is, in itself, a dangerous attribute. And so I hope that people don't leave thinking that this community of tens of thousands of individuals are what they are not.
I also hope that that community learns caution. By going through this moment where they have been taken advantage of, where they gave their trust and their faith and their money to a figure who did not have their best interest in mind, it might be a caution for them in the future.
And I think we should be cautious of individuals who claim to know something about the apocalypse, particularly when they are asking us to do things we wouldn't otherwise do. For me, as an individual, as I think about these events, the worst thing about it is that some might learn about them and think it says something about religion in general, like [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11 did, or about my particular faith. So my greatest hope is that people can see this as a terrible, terrible occurrence that happened to some very unstable people that used religion to those ends.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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