Fake News, Leaked Documents, and the Book of Mormon: Part II (1829-1830)

By March 22, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 6.39.27 PMIn Part I, I introduced the relevance of “fake news” to the beginnings of Mormonism by looking at the “Golden Bible Chronicles,” a serially published satire of the Book of Mormon published in Paul Pry’s Weekly Bulletin in the summer of 1829 – several months before the Book of Mormon itself was published. Noting that the “Chronicles” fit within a much broader culture of scriptural parodies in early America, but that it differed in one important respect: Unlike Benjamin Franklin’s biblical parodies of the eighteenth century, Paul Pry’s work satirized an unpublished book. It did so, I surmised, as part of an effort to emphasize (and mock) the absurdity of a boy from Palmyra translating ancient records.[1]

The final installment of the “Golden Bible Chronicles” ran in Paul Pry’s Weekly Bulletin on August 29, 1829. Two days later, the Rochester Advertiser and Daily Telegraph included among its various notices a brief account of Joseph Smith and the means by which he obtained the widely-rumored “Golden Bible.” Dismissing the whole affair as “the greatest piece of superstition that has ever come within our knowledge,” the editors noted with satisfaction that “the subject was almost invariably treated as it should have been—with contempt.” The Rochester Advertiser concluded by noting that “the work is soon to be put to press at Palmyra,” a point confirmed in the first issue of Abner Cole’s The Reflector two days later on September 2.

Editing under the pseudonym Obadiah Dogberry, Cole set up shop in E.B. Grandin’s shop, using the very press to print his paper where John H. Gilbert had begun typesetting the Book of Mormon. Under a series of “Selected Items” highlighted on Page 2 of The Reflector‘s first issue was the following note:

The Gold Bible, by Joseph Smith Junior, Author and proprietor, is now in press and will shortly appear. Priestcraft is short lived!

The notice was sandwiched between others mocking the eccentric Methodist preacher Lorenzo Dow, a panhandling priest who made his living preying on the Christian goodwill of others, and disreputable characters, including lawyers and anti-Masons. Over the course of the coming months, Cole would compare Joseph Smith and his “Gold Bible” to Jemima Wilkinson, “Islamism,” and the 16th century illiterate visionary Egidus Cantor. And then, in the December 9, 1829 issue of The Reflector, Cole dropped a bombshell: Noting that the “Gold Bible … is now at press” and citing the “much curiosity [that] has been excited in this section of the country on the subject,” he promised to “commence publishing extracts from it.” It was quite the scoop for the young paper. Months earlier, in late September, The Reflector had dismissed as “not genuine” the editor of the Palmyra Freeman‘s claim to have seen “the hidden mysteries of ‘the Book of Mormon.'” But now Cole had done just that, and on January 2, 1830, the lead story on The Reflector‘s front page (indeed, the only thing on the paper’s front page) was an extended excerpt from “The First Book of Nephi.”

Having spent months mocking the very notion of the long-rumored Gold Bible, Cole and others now had to deal with the actual text that Joseph Smith claimed he had translated from an ancient language. In addition to #fakenews, then, leaked documents played a crucial role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In addition to leaking the text of the Book of Mormon, The Reflector publicly outed those they believed to be in sympathy with Joseph Smith. In addition to Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and others within Smith’s small sphere of followers, the paper singled out for ridicule Luther Howard, E.B. Grandin’s business partner who worked in the bindery upstairs. After Howard wrote “O. Dogberyy, Esq.” to request his subscription to The Reflector be cancelled, Cole responded by accusing the bookbinder of living a double life, charging that he “professes, ostentatiously, to belong to a Calvinistic church” but “privately advocated the ‘Gold Bible.'”

Much like whistleblowers and wikileakers today, Cole claimed the moral high ground in leaking documents and names. After publishing the first in a series of three excerpts from the Book of Mormon, he explained that “The Book, when it shall come before the public, must stand or fall, according to the whims and fancies of its readers.” He was thus merely assisting his neighbors in their pursuit of truth. To those “who profess liberal principles” and objected to the ethics of publishing the material before the book’s release, Cole assured them that there did not appear to be “any thing treasonable, or which will have a tendency to subvert our liberties” within the book’s pages. In revealing Howard’s supposed spiritual duplicity, Cole protested that he was merely gratifying the man’s own wishes “to appear in print.”

In response to legal threats from Joseph Smith and a near fist-fight between the two men, Cole backed down and stopped publishing the pirated excerpts before the end of January.[2] But Cole was far from done with the Book of Mormon. In spite of his promise to let readers judge the book’s “religious character,” Cole worked subtly to undermine its claims, turning back to satire to make his point – something we’ll explore more fully in the third and final installment of this series.

________________________

[1] As with Part I, I rely heavily in this post on Jared Michael Halverson’s “Extravagant Fictions: The Book of Mormon in the Antebellum Popular Imagination,” Master’s Thesis, Vanderbilt University (2012). It is available online here.

[2] On JS confronting AC, see Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 81.

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


Comments

  1. History blogging at its finest, Christopher.

    Comment by Ben P — March 22, 2017 @ 9:56 am

  2. This was great, Christopher. Thanks. Your little note on Cole using the Grandin print shop reminded me of a scene from a Terry Pratchett novel in which people agitate against typeset print, because you could use the same material to set a book of spells and a cookbook, and who knows what would happen? Obviously that’s just a lighthearted scene from a silly if excellent book, but there’s something in that idea of the sacred and the profane merging that interests me.

    Comment by Saskia — March 22, 2017 @ 11:28 am


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