Avoiding the “Dupes of the Mormon Delusion”: An Antebellum Unitarian Weighs in on Mormon Success

By February 6, 2009

(I am taking a break from Woodruff for a moment, and thought I would post something related to Unitarianism in honor of Ryan T’s guest-blogging.)

The quick success of early Mormonism came as a shock to many contemporaries. This left religious thinkers scrambling to find a way to account for this “heretical” movement’s growth, attempting to explain why so many people were finding the Mormon message so persuasive. This dillemma was not new to antebellum America, either, for the contemporary religious scene was saturated with new spiritual innovators challenging the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy. As Ann Taves has shown, many Protestants found themselves using rationalistic methods to discredit what they felt were superstitious and outright ridiculous theological dogmas.[1]

Jason Whitman, a Unitarian minister, was one of these individuals who tried to make sense of Joseph Smith’s young church. Though it was only 1834, Whitman noted, “that the Mormon faith has spread, with some degree of rapidity, since its first appearance, cannot be disputed.” He appeared rather suprised to note that “there are already six hundred preachers of this faith, scattered abroad over the land.” Thus, he felt it crucial to approach the Book of Mormon in such a way to find “the peculiarities which are calculated to give it success,” as well as to inquire “as to the course pursued by the preachers in setting forth their views.”[2] What followed was a fascinating glimpse into how one clergyman was able to explain (away) the rise of the early LDS Church.[3]

Whitman began his review by giving a very fair treatment of the Book of Mormon, proving that he probably read the text thoroughly before writing about it. He explained the main plot, major figures, and overall themes. Though he never specifically states that he believes the Book of Mormon to be a product of Joseph Smith’s mind, that interpretation was definitely inferred by his framework.[4] He explained how it is difficult to believe that it was an ancient document written during Old Testament times, for it was written “in the language of the New Testament, or in the language of modern theology.”[5] He also critiqued the actual writing styled, claiming that “in endeavouring to preserve the solemn style of the Scriptures, there is a total disregard of grammatical propriety,” giving several examples of what he felt were the most “egregious” styalistic errors.[6] He concluded that even if the different books in the Book of Mormon were written by various authors, “the different writers seem to have been all educated in the same school, since the same style is manifest in the writings of all.”[7]

The Unitarian clergyman then began to explain why, in his view, this “delusion” had accumulated so many converts. First, he summarazed what he felt was the “evidential claims” of early Mormonism. Most especially, he mentioned their emphasis on spiritual gifts and accompanying reason that since no other Church spoke in tongues or worked miracles, “all denominations of Christians have departed from the true faith of the primitive church.” Then, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Whitman further described the Mormon method of “proof”:

They jabber with some strange sounds, and call this speaking with tongues. They assert it as a fact, that among them the dead have been raised and the sick healed. From these facts, as they call them, they draw the conclusion that they are the members of the true church of Christ. If you object to the historical accounts of their sacred books, as they refer you to the mounds of the western country, as remains of ancient cities, and as proof that this country was once inhabited by a race of people better acquainted with the arts of civilized life, than the present race of savages; and this, they contend, is satisfactory presumptive proof of the truth of history.

To a rational thinker, Whitman reasoned, this would appear as nothing more than “sophistry”; however, “all this presents itself to the minds of the ignorant, as being plausible, as being forcible. They see not the sophistry. They know not what answer to give, and they are consequently carried away.”[8] But, and this is the key question to Whitman, how could people who are otherwise intelligent be so ignorant when it comes to religion? Well, it can be summed up in three points.

First, he followed the same argument Alexander Campbell made several years earlier: Mormonism spoke to a certain group of society and confirmed their already held beliefs. The Book of Mormon, Whitman argued, “is with some art adapted to the known prejudices of a portion of the community.” Specific “communities” he mentioned are those who have “a strong prejudice against the support, by the people, of a regular ministry”; those against politicians being paid by taxes; those who have “a prejudice against fine clothing, or even against decent apparel, as indicating pride in the wearer”; and finally, those who have “a strong feeling of opposition to the institution of Masonry.” Thus, Whitman can dismiss those who accepted the Book of Mormon as scripture as individuals who were just seeking something that echoed their personal beliefs.[9]

Second, Whitman theorized that the Mormon message spread in part because of “a great degree of ignorance in regard to” the scientific approach to religion. The general public does not understand, Whitman reasoned, “that the allusions in Scripture to facts in natural history can be verified by an acquaintance with that science; and, consequently, they make no exertions to understand the natural history of the Bible.” They are only used to approaching scripture in such a way that they accept everything without thoroughly researching it. “All such are prepared, by their very ignorance of these subjects,” he warned,

to become the dupes of the Mormon delusion; or, rather, they are not prepared to detect and withstand this delusion. They open the book of Mormon. The paragraphs begin with the phrase, ‘And behold it came to pass.’ They read of cities of Zarahemla, Gid, Mulek, Corianton, and a multitude of others. They read of prophets and preachers, of faith, repentance, and obedience; and having been accustomed, in reading the Scriptures, to take all such things just as they are presented, without careful examination, they can see no reason why all this is not as much entitled to belief, as are the records of the Old and New Testaments.

On the contrary, if they were “accustomed to examine carefully into [the claims within scripture], they would at once perceive the utter impossibility” of proving the claims in the Book of Mormon. In sum, they would “be led to reject the whole as a delusion.”[10]

The third and final point Whitman touches on is that of spiritual gifts. He reluctantly admits that “there prevail, in the minds of a large portion of the community, pernicious errors in regard to the influences of the Spirit.” Specifically calling out camp meetings and revivals, Whitman accuses the public of misinterpreting the Spirit as confirming things when it is really their emotions or a speaker’s rhetoric. This is especially the case with “the Mormon delusion”: “the preachers are fluent, they warn sinners with earnestness, they pray with fervor; the people are affected; the Spirit of God is especially, powerfully, and visibly present; and, consequently, the opinions advanced must be correct, the measures adopted are ‘owned of God.’”[11] Such is the slippery slope to accepting religious heresy.

In concluding, Whitman hoped to use Mormonism as an example to “awaken” his audience “to the importance of strenuous exertions, on their part,” to avoid such delusions, but rather to “extend sound and rational views of the natural religion and of the influences of the Spirit.”[12]

Such a critical review offers a great insight into the trenches of the antebellum religious debate on theological authenticity. Jason Whitman’s rational, measured, yet condescending review exemplifies astutely the desire to use reason to disarm competing religious movements of intellectual merit.

_____________________

[1] Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 17-18.

[2] Jason Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” Unitarian (January 1834): 45-46.

[3] It should be noted that although the Unitarian Church at the time were toward the liberal end of the American religious spectrum, they were not yet at the point of rejecting the Bible as a historical record or Jesus Christ as a literal Redeemer. If a Unitarian were to write a critique of Mormonism half a decade later, the review would be much different.

[4] This review came out around the same time as Mormonism Unvailed, and thus Whitman most likely had not heard of the Spaulding Theory yet.

[5] Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” 43.

[6] It is interesting to note, though a bit tangential, that all of the styalistic errors Whitman mentioned were corrected in the next edition of the BoM in 1837. Could JS have been taking notes on what critics were saying?

[7] Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” 45.

[8] ibid, 46.

[9] ibid, 47-48.

[10] ibid, 48-49.

[11] ibid, 49.

[12] ibid, 50.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History From the Archives


Comments

  1. Being the dupe of a delusion is a refreshing break from being the knowing participant in an evil plot to promote a cult. If only those Mormon preachers weren’t so fluent and their prayers uttered with less fervor!

    Nice post, Ben. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 6, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

  2. Thanks for the review, Ben. Do you know how Fluhman uses Whitman?

    Comment by David G. — February 6, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

  3. Thanks, Ardis.

    David, great questions. Just at a short glance, his “Crisis of American Spirituality” article in the latest Sperry Symposium volume uses Whitman as an example of Protestants accusing early Mormons of enthusiasm and false spiritual gifts (the third of the three points I mention above).

    I’m not sure if he deals with it in his dissertation. Anyone know?

    Comment by Ben — February 6, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

  4. My guess is he uses Whitman in his chapter on Delusion.

    Comment by David G. — February 6, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

  5. David, I finally got off my lazy rump and looked at Fluhman’s dissy. It looks like the sperry symposium paper is mostly based off of his chapter of Delusion; it still only deals with the spiritual gifts (particularly gift of tongues), which is an understandably important portion of Whitman’s review. The rest of this 1834 text merely confirms everything else Fluhman says in the rest of the chapter, though.

    Comment by Ben — February 7, 2009 @ 12:13 am

  6. Thanks for checking, Ben. I figured it would fit in well with Spencer’s argument in that chapter. Thanks for introducing us to Whitman.

    Comment by David G. — February 7, 2009 @ 12:19 am

  7. Thanks for this post, Ben. Bernard Whitman’s review of the Book of Mormon is one of the earliest and most important articles of that genre. I have just posted my Mormon Parallels entry for that item online, for anyone who may wish to have easy access to it, at http://www.rickgrunder.com/parallels/mp448.pdf

    In your footnote 3, you mention an evolving Unitarian view of Christ away from that of literal Redeemer. Even in the 1820s one finds ambiguity of expression among Unitarians, and different shades of meaning from writer to writer, as one might naturally expect. An interesting characterization occurs in a pamphlet by an obscure Pittsburgh Unitarian preacher, John Campbell, entitled An Address to Professed Christians. In Two Parts. Part I. On the Unity of God. Part II. On the Reconciliation Made by Jesus Christ . . . (Pittsburgh: Printed for the Publisher by Eichbaum & Johnston, and can be had at their bookstore, Second-Street, 1821).

    In the second portion of that pamphlet, pp. 17-40, John Campbell presents his Unitarian views of Jesus as the teacher whose “Word” reconciles man to God – as opposed to a view of atonement whereby Christ assumes the sins of others and pays their penalties. The Conclusion, pp. 41-43, deplores the unkind treatment of Unitarians by Trinitarians. John Campbell affirms that “Jesus is the Christ” and “the only mediator,” p. 42, and hopes that opposing readers will not reply to his tract with “an answer, filled with abuse, and declamation . . . ,” p. 43.

    Many non-Unitarians viewed such talk in simplistic terms, however. Inasmuch as Unitarians generally denied that Christ was literally a God, it was an easy step to accuse Unitarians of not believing in any atonement. Ironically, even Alexander Campbell received a concerned letter from Boone County, Missouri (November 23, 1825, signed, “T. T.”) reporting that . . .

    . . . your influence is much injured in this country among the United Baptists, through a report that you belong to the Unitarians, and that you yourself are one. This report has been circulated by the Unitarians in this country.— . . . You will please do yourself the justice, and me the pleasure, of informing me of your standing . . . and your belief of our glorious Redeemer.

    Alexander Campbell replied by mentioning the many accusations which had been made privately against him in subtle innuendo. While supposedly rejecting sectarianism and intolerance, he yet insisted that he was “not a Socinian” (i.e., Arian or Unitarian). At the end of his lengthy communication, he added: “P. S. There was a John Campbell in Pittsburgh, who was said to have been a Socinian. He is no longer one. He has gone to Hades, where there is not a Socinian, an Arian, nor a Trinitarian. —Alexander Campbell, “Reply to ‘T. T.’,” signed, “EDITOR. January 17, 1826.” The Christian Baptist 3 (February 6, 1826). Copied here from The Christian Baptist; Edited by Alexander Campbell . . . Revised by D. S. Burnet, from the Second Edition, with Mr. Campbell’s Last Corrections . . . (Cincinnati: D. S. Burnet, 1835), 216 (T. T. query), 217 (denial of being a Socinian), 218 (post script mentioning John Campbell).

    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 8, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  8. Rick: thanks for weighing in. You are square on in your take on Unitarian doctrine; it was in flux as early as the 20s. While many “old-school” leaders hoped to stay somewhat conservative, there were always progressives, most notably Emerson and Theodore Parker, who tried to press the boundaries. What made it so difficult to regulate doctrinal matters and come to a theological consensus in the Church was the fact that they were founded on the principles of ideological freedoms and refused to force ministers to teach a certain dogma. So, when Theodore Parker, for example, began to push the envelope on matters of foundational theology, all they could do is restrict other congregations where he could preach to. But the general consensus, at least until the 1870s and 80s, still accepted Christ as a personal redeemer.

    (And Rick, your grasp of early pamphlets is always impressive)

    Comment by Ben — February 9, 2009 @ 2:41 am


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