From the Archives: Interview with a (Strawman?) Clergyman

By April 30, 2008

The following was printed in Times and Seasons, September 1, 1842.

Sir: Not long since, I had the honor to be in the company of a clergyman, as he styled himself, and as our religion was the engrossing topic of the conversation, I have thought it would be no harm to community at large, if some of the items of our conversation were made public.

Clergyman.–Your society, I perceive, belive in the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God.

Saint.–Yes! certainly: all truth came from the Lord by revelation.

C. Why dont you show the plates and convince the world at once?

S. For the same reason, sir, that you do not show the stone tables, and convince the world at once. They were held sacred in the ark of the covenant, and he that looked into that died. Besides Mr. Smith would be the only proper person to exhibit and explain them; and for him to travel and exhibit them to covince the world at once, over a globe of about 25,000 miles in circumference, embracing various climes and inhabitants, using more than 300 different languages, and numbering more than 900,000,000 souls,–would be an eternal work. To do nothing but travel he would do well if he convinced one a day, which would be 365 a year. At this rate, could the present inhabitants live so long, it would require more than two and a half millions of years, leaving the increase, as the world is now, in heathen darkness.

C. I see you are prepared to resist natural reasons by arguments which have never before been presented to me. But as to its being a revelation the world doubts.

S. Don’t the world believe the witnesses to the book?

C. No: they testify too much: anything that an angel came down from heaven and brought the plates, and showed them.

S. Is any thing contrary to scripture that an angel should come from heaven in this age of the world, more than another?

C. Yes! The idea of seeing angels is preposterous. Dr. Gill, Dr. Scott, Dr. Clark, and all our great men in divinity discard the idea. Why sir, the presence of an holy angel would consume us.

S. I see you dont believe in the administration of angels in the church of Jesus Christ.

C. No: not I–it is next to blasphemy to suppose that God would send a holy angel among men in such an enlightened age of the world.

S. Sir, your reason is contrary to the bible; now listen to me a moment and I will show you that God never had a church and people upon the earth, without administering to them by angels…[He then goes on and gives several detailed examples of angelic ministrations in the bible]

C. You Mormons have too much scripture–you take all. Now we believe that reason and philosophy have the place of revelation, and as the old testament has been fulfilled, so as also the new, when the apostles died, ceased to be any thing more than the foundation upon which our learned divines were to build up churches until they converted the world to christianity, and brought in the millenium.

S. Too much scripture! why sir, the apostle says all scripture given by inspiration is profitable for doctrine and reproof, &c., and that in the last days God, not man, would pour out his spirit upon all flesh; and they should prophecy, dream dreams, and see visions; and the Lord would reveal the abundance of peace and truth: gather children his from every country whither he had scattered them, and return to them a pure language, that they might call upon him with one consent; gather all nations to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and destroy them, that the children of Israel would be seven years in burning the carriages and implements of war; that instead of your reason and philosophy, Paul says, beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, and after the rudiments of the world, and not after the doctrine of Christ; that instead of your easy times, the powers of heaven are to be shaken, and a time of trouble ensue which will baffle the skill of philosophy, while earthquakes, rebellion, bloodsed, and calamity will continue until great Babylon falls.

C. Must bid you good bye, sir, that doctrine is unpopular.

P.

There are several things I find intriguing from this text. First, the very interesting explanation the Saint gives regarding the Gold plates; he makes no mention of the common defence that faith is required, rather, he gives a sarcastically-driven response emphasizing the impossibility of Joseph Smith personally showing it to everyone.

Second, and most important to me, the “clergyman” in this dialogue meets many of the stereotypes we have for the “hard-headed” gentiles that frequent common Latter-day Saint discourse. He meets Moroni’s description of not believing in angels, Nephi’s description of rejecting further scripture, and the general concern of relying on “learned” counsel rather than revelation. In fact, I think this is the exact “clergyman” I was trained to confront in the MTC. Whether or not this dialogue ever really took place, this version of the stereotype has persisted even today.

Any thoughts on this type of “strawman” specifically, or of this dialogue in general?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


Comments

  1. Interesting excerpt, Ben. This piece demonstrates well I think how 19th century Mormons constructed the Protestant other and maintained boundaries between authentic and inauthentic religion.

    Comment by David G. — April 30, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  2. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by Todd Wood — April 30, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  3. […] 30, 2008 by Todd Wood 1.  Ben pulls out of the archives a conversation between a “saint” (LDS) and a “clergyman”.  Though we move forward 165 […]

    Pingback by A wild Wednesday « Heart Issues for LDS — April 30, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  4. Interesting find, Ben. As David said, this illustrates well the discursive techniques used by early Latter-day Saints to establish their identity and maintain boundaries between them and Protestants.

    This construction of the Protestant “other” by Mormons has led historians to assume that LDS saw themselves as explicitly different from their Protestant neighbors. While there is certainly something to that general notion, I think scholars have overstated their case because they have largely ignored how Mormons discussed and wrote about specific denominations, which often reveal greater flexibility in the boundaries used to establish LDS identity. This appears to be especially true in LDS discourse on Methodism.

    Comment by Christopher — April 30, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  5. I noticed that the clergymen mentioned three authorities. I would guess John Gill, a Baptist author of the 18th century, Walter Scott (a founder of the Disciples of Christ, not the famous author), and Adam Clarke, a Methodist author; both of the early 19th century. I have no idea how well he represents their opinions, but it seems unlikely that anyone other than a clergyman, (or other scholar of religion) would cite them at all.
    That inclines me to believe that this conversation, or something close to it, actually did take place.
    The specific objections the clergyman gives are still alive and well (along with nearly two century’s worth of new ones), but rarely given explicitly by the same person at the same time. That may have been what this particlar saint found noteworthy.

    Comment by Confutus — April 30, 2008 @ 9:47 pm

  6. Chris: Interesting points; I think that such an interesting topic from you deserves it’s own post….

    Confutus: Bonus points to you for coming up with the possible authorities; while I guess it can’t be proven, I personally think you are spot on. And, as for the discussion still being alive today, I do agree that it probably does take place from time to time, just not nearly as often as we tend to think it does (or as often as our general discourse hints at).

    Comment by Ben — April 30, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  7. I don’t think too much should be read into the citations of Gill, Scott, and Clarke. W.W. Phelps cites the same three individuals in one of his letters published in the M&A. Phelps represents, with a great deal of exaggeration, the whispers and discussions of “the wise men of the world, and the wary who watched diligently over their flocks” regarding modern prophets.

    Comment by Justin — May 1, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  8. Everyone, including Mormons, cited Clarke, whose Holy Bible was the standard Bible commentary of the day. Those three names stand in for the evangelical republic of letters and the parabiblical canon, but they are the types of names that an itinerant or lay exhorter would quote, rather than names that you would hear from established Calvinist clergy (not least given Clarke’s Methodism). Confutus, the data on theological literacy of commoners during the SGA and after actually suggests that they did know many of these names and would invoke them as authorities. the line between laiety and clergy was very blurry in that period.

    Incidentally, I suspect you’re misidentifying Scott. I would vote Thomas Scott, whose The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments. With Original Notes Practcal Observations. And Copious References by Thomas Scott, Rector of Aston Sandford, Bucks, and Chaplain to the Lock Hospital. In Six Volumes. was known as Scott’s Family Bible and functioned much as Clarke’s. Though the “Christians” gained a surprising number of devotees, their writings did not achieve deuterocanonical status, and they would not be inclined to quote someone like Clarke in their pursuit of true Christian primitivism.

    Christopher, I think you’re overstating. It’s pretty clear from the early sources that Gentile=Protestant, and the LDS were not careful to distinguish denominations except when they were in specific tangles with them. The host denomination for a convert of course would be treated somewhat differently, so since several were Methodists at one time they could speak more clearly about them.

    When I ran across this first (http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/11/on-missing-plates/#more-3297), I thought it was Parley, but the more I’ve looked over it, and the more I’ve seen how “P” was writing, the more I wonder whether this was Phelps rather than Pratt. It’s almost certainly one of the two.

    Comment by smb — May 2, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  9. smb wrote, “the line between laiety and clergy was very blurry in that period.” This can’t be emphasized strongly enough. In some important sense the distinctions, at least as they had existed in the years from the Synod of Dort through the FGA, were all but totally elided during the SGA. This was a liminal period as the center of American religion shifted from a congregational Calvinist model to an evangelical synthesis. Soon enough the boundaries between clergy and laity were re-established, but significantly changed.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 2, 2008 @ 8:27 am

  10. Christopher, I think you’re overstating. It’s pretty clear from the early sources that Gentile=Protestant, and the LDS were not careful to distinguish denominations except when they were in specific tangles with them. The host denomination for a convert of course would be treated somewhat differently, so since several were Methodists at one time they could speak more clearly about them.

    I respectfully disagree. I’m not trying to overhaul the notion that Gentile=Protestant and that the majority of the time Mormon identity in relation to the Protestant world was painted in explicitly black/white terms. It certainly was. However, at times LDS were indeed careful to distinguish between denominations even when not engaged in verbal battle with them. And it wasn’t Mormon converts from Methodism alone that painted Methodism in more favorable light than other denominations of the day.

    Comment by Christopher — May 2, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  11. Christopher, I’ll be interested to see your sources (and my disagreement is intended respectfully as well). Most of the Mormon sources I have seen are anti-Methodist, either deriding them as enthusiasts or mocking their pretensions to ministerial dignity. Since Methodists were so powerful and common in SGA, much of what I see has them treating Methodists as a metonym for all clergy (even if they seem aware of the conflict between arminianism and predestinarian orthodoxy).

    Comment by smb — May 2, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

  12. Sam, I’m currently working on a paper examining the construction of Methodism and Methodists in early LDS discourse that I plan to submit for publication somewhere. If you’re interested and willing, I’ll send it your way when I finish it to get your feedback.

    Comment by Christopher — May 2, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  13. Sure. I have some material from the organs squirreled away somewhere. mostly it’s mockery when they bother to specify Methodists, so I’ll be interested to see the more positive stuff. I think a fascinating paper (that I have material for but no time to write) would be a treatment of Mormon anti-Protestantism.

    Comment by smb — May 2, 2008 @ 10:19 pm


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