Tag Archives: Joseph Smith

Church of Advent

It’s a common name. You might know one yourself: William Miller. Indeed, for many years of my own life I borrowed that surname from my stepfather before returning to my birthright after seminary. But the ordinariness of the name alone doesn’t explain it. Joseph Smith, a fellow creator of a new religion, also bore an innocuous name, and he was a Junior. While many people might have trouble placing William Miller among religious founders, they would likely know of Seventh-Day Adventism, a religion that sprang from the root of his teaching. During his lifetime the preferred title was Millerite, but Adventist also worked. David L. Rowe presents a sympathetic, but not hagiographic account of this somewhat remarkable life in God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World. For Miller, you see, predicted the year Jesus would return.

A self-taught farmer, Miller became convinced that the Bible indicated 1843 would be the end. This idea was based on calculations derived from cryptic books such as Daniel and considering their days to be years. A touch of math and before you know it, it’s all gonna burn. During the intense period known as the Second Great Awakening upstate New York was perhaps the most religiously creative place on the planet. New ideas bumped into each other and, as if the bounds of Christianity were too constraining, flew out into new forms of belief. People grew convinced that the world might indeed end in 1843. When it didn’t, they called it the Great Disappointment and carried on. Adventism is still with us today.

Rowe also makes the point that for being such an obscure individual, Miller influenced the great religious movements that would give us modern day Fundamentalism as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups trace their spiritual ancestry to the convictions of a not-so-simple farmer who could fill an auditorium with his plain speaking and clear exposition of the scriptures. He devised his end times scenario with the use of only a Bible and concordance. No seminary or advanced theological reading was necessary. Millerites did not reach the numbers of Latter-Day Saints. They were disowned by the Baptist Church that gave them birth. They got the date of the end of the world wrong. Yet they persisted. It is a curious story with a long afterlife that still helps elect extremist presidents to this day. William Miller, ever unassuming, managed to change the very world that he was certain would end even before the midpoint of the nineteenth century.

Get Me Jesus on the Line

The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.

One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.

Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.

"Don't forget to look for my letter!"

“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”

Exceptionalism

UnderTheBannerOfHeavenSome years ago I was invited to a famous person’s house along with some intellectuals—we’re all mature here, so names aren’t necessary. It’s no surprise that I ended up at the children’s table, being soft-spoken as I tend to be. The discussion had turned to international affairs, and since I can barely manage my own affairs I didn’t have much to say. Eventually it was suggested that if rule of law could take hold in the Middle East, strife would end. I finally spoke up, loudly injecting a “no” into the conversation. The problem with religious-based conflict is that the rule of law has been subordinated to the divine will. That is very well illustrated in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. As Krakauer explains in his conclusions, he had set out to write a book that explored the history and background of his polite, abstemious, and law-abiding Mormon neighbors and friends. The story, however, takes a darker turn.

What Krakauer delivers is not a slam on Mormonism, but rather something far more difficult—an attempted even-handed history. As even Mormons at the various trials depose in the book, the faith has some strange beliefs. All religions do. For a religion less than 200 years old, the Latter-Day Saints also have an impressive violence in their history; parts of this book are like a fantasy novel, they seem so unlikely. Again, nothing unusual here. All religions have violent episodes. In general, religions aren’t violent—people are. The problems arise when the true believer (and there always will be) insists that religion trumps the rule of law every time. As Krakauer shows, those who violate society’s laws are not insane. They are, however, not judging the world by the same standards of the wider society. It’s just that, occurring as it does in the light of an historical period, the strangeness of how a religion starts is clearly illuminated in Mormonism. No number of apocalyptic horsemen will be able to stop the religious imagination once it is fired up. The problem with lines in the sand is that they easily move.

Perhaps the most disturbing tenet of Joseph Smith’s latter-day revelations is that of polygamy. Like a young Augustine, Smith had an eye for the ladies. Personal indulgence at the hand of a religious founder is not at all unusual. The problem is, the women in this book have been abused and traumatized in a religion, not unlike Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that asserts (or has asserted) male superiority. Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen being married off to men three times their age to join what is essentially a harem doesn’t offer these young ladies a chance to become their own person. The majority of Krakauer’s study focuses on Fundamentalist Mormon sects, and not the mainstream Mormons who have great political power and occasionally run for president. Still, this is a very important book. It is not primarily about the Mormons. It is about those who can’t see beyond a blind faith in what would otherwise be a perfectly good piece of fantasy literature.

Burned Over

Western and central New York State, in any religious history of America, have acquired the nickname, “The Burned-Over District.”  This graphic metaphor arises from the constant evangelizing and, more importantly, the fertile soil for new religious movements left in its wake.  This region could claim to be the home of Seventh-Day Adventism, Spiritualism, the Oneida Society, and the Latter-Day Saints.  It was also an early home of the Shakers and the land chosen by the Publick Universal Friend for her new Jerusalem.  The sense of place is important to religions.  The Latter-Day Saints, however, grew restless in this region where Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and began a torturous trek that would land the Mormons in Utah.  Joseph Smith never made it that far.  Religious leaders being persecuted are nothing new; Smith had been tarred and feathered, was wanted on charges of fraud, and was eventually murdered for his beliefs.  He was also one of the most intensely creative individuals America has produced. His extraordinary creative venture is often overshadowed by the religion that grew out of it.

With Mitt Romeny’s campaign stoking up steam, many people find themselves wondering about Mormonism.  I first learned about the Latter-Day Saints from a rather biased World Religions course at Grove City College.  One aspect which was true in that course, however, was the great secrecy surrounding Mormon teachings. Of course, the Book of Mormon is in the public domain and is easily available to those who wish to read it.  Official Latter-Day Saint beliefs, on the other hand, are frequently inscrutable.  For all its problems (and they are sometimes significant), mainstream Christianity is very open (and often vocal) about its belief system.  The same holds true for Judaism (mostly) and Islam.  If you want to know what they believe, just ask.  Americans tend to be a little perplexed by the Latter-Day Saints because there is always a feeling that there is something they’re not telling you.  It goes all the way down to the underwear.  All religions are concerned with sex.  Some may not disclose the details in public, but they all deal with it somehow.  Latter-Day Saints have rules about underwear–I’m sure other religions do too.

If Americans are really, seriously curious about the religious heritage of a potential president, a great way to find out is to read a bit of our own history.  I learned about the Burned-Over District back in college and have periodically read about it several times since then.  It is no secret.  Our society is not likely to expend the energy needed to learn about its own heritage.  As several of my recent posts have intimated, even higher education has no time for the study of religion (or history, or anything that doesn’t make money–Romney surely does!). Instead we will charge fearlessly ahead into the dark.  And when we are in the dark we may start to wonder why we’re wearing this unusual underwear. Wondering about religion is far easier than supporting those who study it.

Have you seen this man?

Help from the Friend

Being unconventional does carry certain risks. I first learned of the Publick Universal Friend, born Jemima Wilkinson, from Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. There are many things, I imagine, worse in life than being labeled “occult,” but the Publick Universal Friend seems to have been more eccentric than occult. The “Friend” of her chosen moniker was a mark of her Quaker roots. The Quakers, while never among the most numerous of Christian sects, are infrequently considered occult. Two U.S. Presidents were Quakers, as is that friendly face smiling at you from your breakfast cereal box. What Jemima Wilkinson did that pushed her over the edge into the unconventional was actually the fault of her father: she was born female. In the 1770s religious leadership was nearly unanimously male. 

Wilkinson underwent a near-death experience that, like John Wesley some 70 years earlier, led her to believe that she was born to some higher purpose. Quakers, or Friends, generally eschewed excess showiness and the Publick Univeral Friend liked to make her presence known. She rode a white horse into Philadelphia and rode around in a carriage with her own logo, a kind of evangelical branding, if you will. Eventually tiring of the criticism of city folk (Publick Universal Friend was strictly platonic, advocating absolute celibacy), she moved to a region of New York that would eventually become the birthplace of several distinctive American religions. She settled near Keuka Lake and formed a community called Jerusalem.  New York and Pennsylvania would eventually harbor many utopian groups.  Both states were (and are, to a large extent) rural and it was a fairly easy matter to locate unclaimed real estate and establish a little bit of heaven here on earth. 

The message of Publick Universal Friend was peace and friendship, nothing too radical.  If preached by a male it would have been considered gospel. In fact, in a less darwinian world it might actually work.  The pull of nature on some people is too strong.  On others it is too weak. Maybe it is the legacy of having been born in a state that began as a “holy experiment” by William Penn, but I find it sad that the Publick Universal Friend has been nearly forgotten. Perhaps the Friend will have the final laugh. It seems that a young man named Joseph Smith might have been influenced by her in the days before writing up the Book of Mormon. As I’m sure Joseph Smith learned in the town of Carthage, we can all use a Friend who encourages us all to get along.