From the Archives: Is Mormonism Utterly Absurd or Completely Rational?

By July 14, 2008

Well, it depends on who you ask. As discussed before (see esp. comments 9-12, 25-29), the argument over what was rational and what was absurd was a hot topic in Antebellum America, especially when attempting to describe and understand new religious movements. What many felt was completely asinine, others found fulfilling. This led to confusion on both sides while they tried to grapple with the other’s beliefs. Here, for example, is an editorial written in Europe in 1843 attempting to explain this new Mormon movement stealing away many of their citizens.

We are accustomed to boast of the intelligence of the nineteenth century–to laud ourselves on the march of mind in the modern days, and to speak of the popular delusions by which the past generations were misled, as of the spectral shadows of “the long night now gone down the sky.” Mormonism is a bitter reply to our self-laudation: it exhibits to us a convicted swindler received as a prophet by thousands in both hemispheres–a literary forgery so thoroughly absurd and puerile, that its gross anachronisms may be detected by a school-boy of the lowest form, recognized as a revelation, and placed on the same level of authority as the Bible itself;–a creed full of the most palpable falsehoods and glaring inconsistencies, exercising an influence not inferior to that of Islamism at its first promulgation, not only in America, the place of its birth, but even in England, and especially in those parts of it where the arts and sciences would seem to have received the greatest developments.

You can easily sense a feeling of bewilderment on behalf of this author while he tries to understand how a silly and simple-minded sect could actually be believed by “thousands in both hemispheres.” His confusion is even more expressed when he speaks of his own experience with many of these converts.

Viewed merely as a social phenomenon, the history of such an impostor is no unworthy object of enlightened curiosity; but, unfortunately, it has a deeper interest: hundreds of our countrymen annually quit their homes to join the ranks of the impostor in the wilds of Illinois, taking with them their hoarded savings to swell his treasury. We have conversed with these deluded men: on all subjects, save religion, we have found them shrewd, clever, and well-informed; but, when a reference was made to Mormonism, they at once became insensible to reason and argument; neither clergyman or layman could turn them from their error, or convince them of the absurdity of their proceedings…Such astonishing perseverance in detected error led us to examine closely a system which, for boldness of assertion and nullity of evidence, is without parallel in the annals of human imposture.[1]

On the other hand, while this author obviously feels that it was the Mormon converts who were deluded, the Mormons themselves were left to defend what they felt was a very rational religion (as mentioned elsewhere, their belief in and defense of a form of “rational supernaturalism” is worthy of a detailed study). The Mormons were also left to offer reasons why others didn’t see the plain truth when it was presented to them.

One Mormon who attempted to do so was Parley P. Pratt (hat-tip to David’s recent post on Pratt’s writing, which led me to spend my Sunday afternoon re-reading many of his great pamphlets as my devotional reading, and therefore led to my writing this post). In his “A Dialogue between Joe. Smith & the Devil” (possibly my favorite missionary pamphlet of all time), Pratt describes JS and the devil having quite a pleasant conversation and discussing each other’s work.[2] When the devil asks, “How dare you venture thus to commence a revolution without reserve, and without aid or succor, and in the midst of innumerable hosts of my subjects?”, JS gives an answer which depicts what he (as presented by Pratt) saw as the perfect rationality of the Mormon religion:

Why, sir, in the first place, I knew that I had the truth on my side, and that your systems and forms of Christianity were so manifestly corrupt, that one had only to lift the veil from your fooleries on one side, and to present plain and reasonable truth on the other, and the eyes of the people could at once distinguish the difference so clearly that, except they chose darkness rather than light, they would leave your ranks and come over to truth.

In response to this, Pratt has the devil explain why the people don’t easily “distinguish” the truth so easily.

To be candid with you, Mr. Smith, I must own that what you have now said, neither myself nor my most able ministers have been able to gainsay by any argument or fact. But then you must recollect that tradition and custom, together with fashion and popular clamor, have in all ages had more effect than plain fact and sound reason…In this way, though God may speak, they will not hear; angels may minister, and they will not believe; visions may reveal, and they will not be enlightened; prophets may lift their voice, and their warnings pass unheeded; so you see we still have them as safe as we had the people in olden time. God can communicate no message to them which will be examined or heard with any degree of credence or candor. So for all the good they get from God, all communication being cut off, they might as well be without a God. Thus you see I have full influence and control of the multitude by a means far more effectual than argument or reason…

The devil would even further say, “Smith, you must be extremely ignorant of human nature, as well as of the history of the past, to presume that reason and truth would have much effect with the multitude.”[3] Thus we see Pratt flip the table on the gentiles: rather than the Mormons being deluded religious fanatics, it was those who didn’t heed the restoration message that were ignoring “reason and truth.” Pratt explains that it is because of “tradition and custom” that people are not able to recognize “plain fact and sound reason.”

While these polemical attacks are fun to read and always bring a smile, they give an important glimpse into the struggle of self-representation: the quest to display themselves as completely rational while the other is utterly absurd.

__________________________________

[1] “Mormonism; Or, New Mohammedanism in England and America,” The Dublin University Magazine 21, (January to June, 1843), 283.

[2] Just as a random side note: I love the smooth, charismatic, and even cordial Devil depicted in the fictitious story.

[3] Parley P. Pratt, “A Dialogue Between Joe. Smith & the Devil,” in The Essential Parley P. Pratt, 133-134.

Some other favorite parts from this pamphlet: the devil admitting that the “Spaulding Story” was “not the most honorable course to the world” and was a result of people who were “more reckless, hardened, and unprincipled” than even himself; the devil explaining that the stories being spread about JS failing to walk on water, raise the dead, and appear as an angel, among others, were merely just “for fun,” and the devil did not expect that “any being on earth would be so silly as to give any credence to them,” and, besides, if it wasn’t for spreading fun rumors like that, the devil and demons “would have nothing to kill time”; and finally, the devil and JS going to a near-by pub for a good drink and toast to the other’s demise.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


Comments

  1. The openness and professionalism at Public Affairs is nice, but I kinda wish that we still produced pamphlets like Parley Pratt did. I think an imagined dialog between Satan and President Monson would be awesome.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 14, 2008 @ 5:13 am

  2. On my mission, I met Seventh Day Adventists much like the Mormons described above: Intelligent, witty, well-read, etc, until it came to religion – then it got wacky. It certainly is curious that for the premium God seems to put on faith and belief, our brains appear to be wired for delusion and rationality to overlap. It makes it very difficult to disentangle the two when the disentagling tool (brain) is the same tool is that supports the delusions to begin with.

    Comment by NorthboundZax — July 14, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  3. The modern dialog could open with this video, substituting Utah/Georgia and Tommy/Johnny. Then it would probably have to move to a more substantive discussion.

    Comment by Edje — July 14, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  4. I think an imagined dialog between Satan and President Monson would be awesome.

    I imagine that one ending with Satan covering his ears and shouting “You win! You win! Please, no more pigeon stories!!! No more widows!!”

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 14, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  5. Alan Taylor argues that the Hurlbut affidavits are representative of the cult of rationality that was beginning to permeate society. This rational view would have rejected outright the money diggers as either for dupes or deceivers, setting up this dichotomy that has plagued us ever since and clouded our efforts to understand the context of JS’s treasure seeking. He argues that the money diggers pursued their craft in a rational fashion that adapted to the increased emphasis on rationality, not ignored it. Very true that it depends on who you ask.

    (“Rediscovering the Context of Joseph Smith’s Treasure Seeking”. Dialogue 19:4, 18-28.)

    Comment by Jared T — July 14, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  6. I only get two choices?

    Here’s the deal: “irrational” doesn’t mean “absurd”. Ask any artificial intelligence researcher about the “need for bias” in generalizing. It turns out that it’s not possible to logically arrive at any generalization whatsoever (even as seemingly simple as “this object is a chair” – that one is actually HARD) without first making at least one completely ungrounded assumption.

    One question AI researchers constantly grapple with is exactly what set of biases (irrational, ungrounded assumptions) actually works. The human set obviously works, but what exactly is that?

    So here’s my answer: irrationality is necessary. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding himself, and I can point to proofs.

    Comment by The Right Trousers — July 14, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  7. TRT: I would agree with you that it is a false dichotomy. The purpose of this post was not to actually decide what is “absurd” and what isn’t. The purpose of this post was to explore how individuals in the 1840’s attempted to situate themselves within this tension of rationality.

    Comment by Ben — July 14, 2008 @ 2:05 pm


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