Fake News, Leaked Documents, and the Book of Mormon: Part I (1829)

By February 6, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 8.15.27 PMFake news has been in the — well — news. Over the course of the runup to the 2016 presidential election, everything from conspiracy theories to wholly fabricated stories about the two major parties’ candidates spread like wildfire, dominating the stories liked and shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And it hasn’t let up since Donald Trump was elected, with his administration labeling mainstream news outlets like CNN and the New York Times “fake news,” all while Trump and his spokespeople routinely lie, contradict themselves, and fabricate wholesale massacres to advance their agenda. 

But while fake news has only recently become a buzzword, it has a much, much longer history. As historian Jacob Soll reminded readers at Politico, “Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since news became a concept 500 years ago with the invention of print—a lot longer, in fact, than verified, ‘objective’ news, which emerged in force a little more than a century ago.” A Soll notes, satire, conspiracy theories, deliberate misinformation, and falsified “leaked” documents have played a role in everything from rallying American patriots to join the incipient revolution in the 1770s to the pseudo-scientific hoaxes of the 19th century to Nazi propaganda in the 20th.

Fake news also played a role in the beginnings of Mormonism. In June 1829, as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery continued their translation of what would be published the following April as the Book of Mormon, the Wayne Sentinel published what the editor has been told was the intended “title page of the work.” The following month, the Rochester-based Paul Pry’s Weekly Bulletin printed what its editor titled “Chronicles – Chapter 1” from “The Golden Bible.” Future issues included Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of the Chronicles. Though obviously intended to spoof the much-discussed “pretended discovery, through superhuman means, of an ancient record,” the text of the “Golden Bible Chronicles” in Paul Pry’s Weekly Bulletin bore little resemblance to the text of the Book of Mormon. As Jared Halverson has summarized, the chronicles instead introduced “a group of characters that included ‘Horace the Publican,’ ‘Israel the Darkey Paramour,’ ‘Wanton the Physician,’ ‘Chad the Money-Lender,’ and ‘Samuel the Miser,'” as well as “Joseph the dealer in fine linens” and “Hiram the Jeromite.” Whether or not those individuals were intended to refer to specific people is unclear — Halverson suggests they were “presumably representations of real individuals Paul Pry intended to lampoon,” possibly including Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.[1]

Such satirical spoofs of other texts were not uncommon. As David Holland notes, early Americans “inserted whole chapters into the Bible.” Benjamin Franklin, among others, penned “biblical parodies” that circulated widely throughout the English-speaking Atlantic world.[2] What separated the “Golden Bible Chronicles” from the fake bible chapters was that the latter parodied published and well-known texts; the former satirized a still-unpublished book. The unknown author behind the series in Paul Pry’s Weekly Bulletin might very well have thought the rumored Book of Mormon would never even see the light of day. Even though he had “been furnished” with the book’s title page, E.B. Grandin, the editor of the Wayne Sentinel, remained unconvinced of the promised publication of the book: “It is pretended that it will be published as soon as the translation is completed,” he noted in introducing the title page, noting that “most people entertain an idea that the whole matter is the result of a gross imposition and a grosser superstition.”

The whole episode, then, highlights the complicated ways in which fake news operated in the nineteenth century (and the ways it still does today). On the one hand, the “Golden Bible Chronicles” were clearly fake—Halverson calls it “an intentionally satirical piece.”[3] They were, to draw a modern parallel, the rough equivalent of The Onion outlining juicy tidbits from one of Wikileaks’s document dumps. But in doing so, the author of the Chronicles (along with E.B. Grandin) was signaling that the real (and potentially more dangerous) fake news of the day was Joseph Smith’s claim to possess ancient records and his pretensions to publish their translated contents. Again, from Jared Halverson:

After all, Paul Pry never explains the Golden Bible; it only pretends to be prying into its contents. In other words, the Golden Bible had already achieved enough cultural currency, at least on the regional level, to be merely alluded to, as if it were already part of a well-known joke. Secondly, “joke” may be the operative term, as the Golden Bible story was thought a perfect fit for the mocking tone of Paul Pry. Whether Joseph Smith was that joke, as when his “folly” was mentioned, or whether Smith was playing a joke on others, as a trickster seeking his “fortune,” the Golden Bible was considered nothing more than imaginative fiction. And that fiction—a third inference—was deemed potentially profitable, either to Smith himself or, as Paul Pry’s editor must have hoped, to creative minds able to capitalize on the curiosity surrounding Smith’s story.[4]

When, in August 1829, Martin Harris mortgaged his farm to pay for the printing and the first sheets of the Book of Mormon manuscript were delivered to the printer, it became clear that an actual text did exist. Critics and satirists would soon have to alter course. But purported (and real!) leaked pages of the Book of Mormon continued to play a central role in both its publication and its earliest reception, a subject I’ll take up in Part II.

_______________________

[1] Jared Michael Halverson, “Extravagant Fictions: The Book of Mormon in the Antebellum Popular Imagination,” Master’s Thesis, Vanderbilt University (2012), 20.  Available online here.

[2] David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 69-75.

[3] Halverson, “Extravagant Fictions,” 21.

[4] Ibid., 22.

 

Article filed under Book History Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Current Events Intellectual History Popular Culture Textual Studies


  1. This is fantastic stuff, Christopher.

    Comment by Ben P — February 6, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

  2. Excellent work, Christopher. I look forward to part II!

    Comment by J Stuart — February 6, 2017 @ 12:33 pm


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