[Paleopsych] J. Religion and Society: Anti-Mormonism and the Question of Religious Authenticity in Antebellum America
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Anti-Mormonism and the Question of Religious Authenticity in Antebellum America
Journal of Religion and Society
[Again, the paragraphs are numbers and are not links to anything.]
J. Spencer Fluhman
Brigham Young University
 Antebellum Americans who rejected Joseph Smith's religious claims
were left with few interpretive options when writing about him.
Lacking the intellectual tools that allow some modern scholars to
"table" truth claims in their historical analyses, non-Mormon folks in
the nineteenth century had a relatively simple choice: they needed
only to decide whether Smith was a madman or a fraud. Tellingly, most
antebellum commentators chose the latter and portrayed him as a
self-conscious deceiver. Indeed, the practice of narrating Joseph
Smith as a religious imposter was so commonplace that one can scarcely
find an early anti-Mormon book whose title did not make the point:
Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed, Internally and Externally (1838);
William Harris, Mormonism Portrayed; Its Errors and Absurdities
Exposed . . . (1841); Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [sic] . . .
(1834); E. G. Lee, The Mormons; or, Knavery Exposed (1841); Richard
Livesay, An Exposure of Mormonism . . . (1840); Adrian Van Brocklin
Orr, Mormonism Dissected; or, Knavery "On Two Sticks" Exposed (1841);
Tyler Parsons, Mormon Fanaticism Exposed . . . (1841); LaRoy
Sunderland, Mormonism Exposed and Refuted (1838); William Swartznell,
Mormonism Exposed . . . (1840); Samuel Williams, Mormonism Exposed . .
. (1842). In exposing or unveiling Mormonism, though, anti-Mormons did
not invent the language of religious imposture but rather brought
Smith and the Latter-day Saints into a long-standing conversation
about religious authenticity, authority, and the place of religious
variety and innovation in Christendom. I intend what follows to serve
as a comment on the place of what one scholar has called the
"imposture thesis" of religion in America and an explanation of why
anti-Mormon polemicists almost unanimously adopted it as a framework
for understanding the Mormon prophet - or, put another way, why so
much of the first wave of anti-Mormonism took the form of
"anti-Smithism" (Manuel: 47-53, 65-70).
American Fears of Religious Deception
 In short, I argue that the historical circumstances attending the
antebellum years, including the pervasive sensitivity to illusion and
deception, coupled with both Protestant understandings of religious
history and the uncertainty facing American churches, made Smith's
claims to prophetic authority, additional scripture, and
ecclesiastical superiority particularly compelling for some Americans
and obviously false for far more. The very conditions, in other words,
that gave rise to movements like Smith's also engendered the
uncertainties that in turn shaped critiques of Mormonism throughout
its early history. Anti-Mormons, moreover, felt no sting at the charge
of "religious persecution" because they typically denied the very
label of religion to Mormonism. In the end, works like Mohammetanism
Unveiled (1829), Mormonism Unvailed [sic] (1834), Noyesism Unveiled
(1849), and Spiritualism Unveiled (1866) shared more than just similar
titles. They each betrayed the admission that religious claims are
complicated, that if left to themselves people might just choose
amiss, and that in a religiously voluntaristic and disestablished
United States, a free market in churches might entail unintended - and
for some, woeful - consequences.
 The antebellum cultural preoccupation with deception is easily
detected but not as easily explained. Add complicated and
unprecedented religious circumstances to the formidable political,
social, and economic upheavals that marked early national culture,
though, and the historical admissions of anxiety (or downright
befuddlement) become comprehensible (Noll: 195; Sellers). Colonial
churches were thrown into varying degrees of disarray by Revolution
and met an entirely new environment thereafter, as disestablishment,
drawn-out but more or less complete by the mid-1830s, made it
impossible for traditionally dominant churches to combine with the
institutions of state to fence out religious upstarts (Curry; Lambert:
236-64). Anti-Mormon reactions to Smith and the Book of Mormon no
doubt constitute the recognition that the new arrangements provided in
some ways too much room for religious expression, a circumstance
traditionalists had warned against during the disestablishment
debates.<1> The ambivalences about the relationship of Christianity
to the republic, the pitfalls of religious freedom, and the management
of religious variety that had flared as colonies became states were by
no means resolved by the time of Joseph Smith. That prominent
religious commentators experienced early national religious liberty
and pluralism as a profound, if somewhat subterranean, tension is
arguably most evident in their efforts to organize American religion
into a comprehensive narrative or to situate Protestant Christianity
in the context of other religious traditions.
Antebellum Commentators and Religious "Imposture"
 Notably, many of these writers saw their efforts as vital means of
educating a sometimes fractious body of Christians, with the desired
end of a more peaceable pluralism. Thomas Branagan intended his
Concise View of the Principal Religious Denominations in the United
States of America, published in 1811, "as a persuasive to Christian
Moderation." Young people, he warned, were too often poisoned by
"wrong impressions" about religion, which "produce[d] bigotry and
intolerance, with all their destructive concomitants." Branagan was
certain correct information would mitigate religious intolerance and
accordingly proposed to offer readers the "true sentiments" of various
Christian and non-Christian groups. He took care to note that he had
undertaken his project "without passing my opinion relative to them
individually," thereby avoiding "any slanderous reports to prepossess
the reader against any of them" (iii-vi, 176, 181). Branagan's ensuing
descriptions, however, seem, to modern eyes at least, to repudiate his
envisioned impartiality. Catholicism, for instance, did not receive
separate treatment, functioning only as the foil to the Reformers'
heroism. He provided just enough space for the Unitarians to note that
theirs was not the "side . . . supported by scripture." His
descriptions of Jemima Wilkinson's "pretensions" and the Shakers were
even less flattering (22, 45, 52, 92). When he detailed what he called
"Anti-Christian" groups, Branagan candidly related that he purposed
to shew the superiority as well as super-excellence of the Christian
system . . . when put in competition with the most refined of the
Anti-Christian Sects. I have taken the liberty to particularize a
number of the most celebrated of these unenlightened sects, that the
Christian may prize his privileges, and love the divine system of
theology taught by God himself (105-6).
Accordingly, his treatment of Deism, atheism, Judaism, and Islam ran
from patronizing to visceral. After lambasting Paine and Spinoza in
turn, he concluded by tracing Muhammad's rise "from a deceitful
hypocrite" to his becoming the "most powerful monarch of his time"
(110, 113-14, 116-18, 125, 128-29).
 Branagan had at least one thing right. American Protestant
churches were "in competition," both among themselves and, at least in
the abstract, with non-Christian religious traditions. Other writers
of religious reference works were forced to admit the same: their task
was not simply to describe different faiths objectively, but as ardent
Christians and (often more conspicuously) adherents to particular
varieties of Christianity, they were duty bound to compare, to weigh,
to assign value - to educate in the more dogmatically Protestant sense
of the term. Accordingly, later writers felt no pressing need to
adjust Branagan's approach.
 Hannah Adams' Dictionary of All Religions, published in several
editions in the United States and England, was undertaken, as readers
were informed in the opening pages, with several rules in mind. First,
"To avoid giving the least preference of one denomination above
another: omitting those passages in the authors cited, where they pass
their judgment on the sentiments, of which they given an account:
consequently the making use of any such appelations, as Heretics,
Schismatics, Enthusiasts, Fanatics, &c. is carefully avoided." Second,
"To give a few of the arguments of the principal sects, from their own
authors, where they could be obtained." Third, Adams intended to give
as "general" an account of each group as possible and, fourth, to
provide quotations rather than synopses, "to take the utmost care not
to misrepresent the ideas" (1-3). This admirable concern for fair
representation did not, however, extend to the "heathen nations,"
whose "obscene and ridiculous ceremonies" pervaded before the advent
of Christ (the state of the Jews, she noted, was "not much better") or
the Anabapists, whose "pretensions" had sown "insurrections" and
social discord (6, 12, 23, 132). In Adams' account, the "French
Prophets" were notable only for their "strange fits" and "pretended"
prophecies. Similarly, she wrote that "Hindoos . . . pretended" to
have been bequeathed the "vedas" from "Brama." Descriptions of
Muhammad's "pretensions" followed; his successes dismissed with the
allegation that he "contrived by the permission of poligamy and
concubinage to make his creed palatable to the most depraved of
mankind." Shakers in Adams' telling were noteworthy in that they
"pretend to have the power imparted to them of working miracles"
(84-85, 106, 156-57, 269).
 J. Newton Brown's massive Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
(1836) followed suit. His entry for "Bigotry" is worth an extended
quotation. Bigotry consists, he wrote
in being obstinately and perversely attached to our own opinions . . .
Bigotry is mostly prevalent with those who are ignorant; who have
taken up principles without due examination; and who are naturally of
a morose and contracted disposition. It is often manifested more in
unimportant sentiments, or the circumstantials of religion, than the
essentials of it. Simple bigotry is the spirit of persecution without
the power; persecution is bigotry armed with power, and carrying its
will into act. As it is the effect of ignorance, so it is the nurse of
it, because it precludes free inquiry, and is an enemy to truth: it
cuts also the very sinews of charity, and destroys moderation and
mutual good will. . . How contradictory is it to sound reason, and how
inimical to the peaceful religion we profess to maintain as
Christians! (1836: 239).
Brown's entries for "heresy" and "orthodoxy" complicated matters,
however. He granted that "heretic" was often used as a term of
reproach, but defined it as one who defied "what is made the standard
of orthodoxy." His passive construction obscured the real dilemma:
who, in a pluralistic, disestablished American, decided what or who
was orthodox? Brown had no such doubts and assumed that he was
numbered among the qualified. Orthodoxy, he wrote, consisted in
"soundness of doctrine or opinion in matters of religion,"
particularly, and this is the point, those doctrines "considered as
orthodox among us," namely, "the fall of man, regeneration, atonement,
repentance, justification by free grace, &c." (1836: 615, 894).
Latter-day Saints, despite adhering wholeheartedly to each item
(albeit ambiguously in the case of the last item), were clearly
unorthodox, to say the least, in Brown's estimation.<2> He pitied
Smith's "misguided followers," whom he regarded as "simple and
credulous" for believing in a book Smith "pretended to interpret." He
deplored the actions of some anti-Mormons in Missouri, but Brown
nonetheless felt it his duty to make "the facts [regarding Mormonism]
known . . . which show the real foundation of the imposture" (1836:
 In even the most moderate attempts to catalogue American religious
variety, writers still faced the reality that, given their ideological
commitments, some of their subjects were simply unpalatable. John
Hayward, who followed his Religious Creeds and Statistics . . . (1836)
with the more detailed Book of Religions (1843), endeavored to gather
information from "the most intelligent and candid among the living
defenders" of each denomination (1843: 3). He went so far as to seek
out newly-arrived Latter-day Saint preacher Joseph Young (Brigham's
brother) in Boston for an authoritative representation of Mormon
belief. Hayward described Young as "a very civil man" and included
Young's written outline of Mormon belief in full. His interaction with
Young hardly changed Hayward's mind, however (his article on Mormonism
was culled from standard anti-Mormon sources), as his summation of
Young's statement revealed. "Elder Young," he wrote, "seems to think
that revelations from heaven, and miracles wrought, are as necessary
now, and as important to the salvation of the present generation, as
they were to any generation in any preceding age or period. This
appears to be the sum and substance of the Mormon scheme" (1836:
139-42). To be fair, it should be noted that Hayward was quite candid
about his endeavor of religious description. He had described the
various "systems [to] settle the minds" of those without "definite
opinions" about religion, and to "lead us all . . . by contrasting the
sacred truths and sublime beauties of Christianity with . . . the
absurd notions" of the heathen, skeptics, and, as it turned out, those
who he felt only pretended to profess Christianity (1843: 3).
 Several important insights emerge from these reference works.
First, antebellum Americans agreed that the propagation of true
religion was critical for maintaining the republic's strength. They
also agreed, at least in principle, to the denominational theory that
versions of the truth might reside (and peacefully coexist) in various
Protestant churches. Second, not all movements claiming to be
religious were accepted as valid. Disquieted by fears of religious
deception, many antebellum Protestants found the old grounds for
determining heterodoxy or fraud from orthodoxy ineffective. This
uncertainty owed much to the period's sectarian proliferation and the
perception that the post-establishment religious scene was rootless
and hyper-competitive. Third, as a result, much of the period's
polemical literature took the form of exposing religious impostures.
This conceptualization was almost always applied to innovators or
leaders of various religious groups; their followers, on the other
hand, demanded other rhetorical tools. (Such a framework for
understanding "false" religions in the past, incidentally, provided
unintended but perhaps not unwanted consequences when attached to
contemporary movements - rendering Mormons, for instance, as
pseudo-Christian or non-Christian, more by a process of historical
association than theological taxonomy.) Fourth, the seeming
contradiction between the authors' stated aims of objectivity or
toleration and their treatments of non-Christian and unpopular
Christian groups is made comprehensible if viewed in conjunction with
a particular set of assumptions and a certain corresponding logic,
namely, that true religion was vital to the health of the young
republic and should be tolerated and encouraged in its variety, but
what appeared to be religion in other cultures - or unpopular
movements at home - was not real religion at all and was thus
worthless or even harmful. The question of tolerating these groups was
 Seen in this light, "imposture" was in fact an indispensable
rhetorical device for antebellum Protestants. It ostensibly resolved
the potentially pesky perplexity lurking in the term "religion," for
it granted that untrue religion could imitate real religion by evoking
deity, redemption, spiritual power, creation, salvation, etc. Untrue
religion, in other words, could mimic the "form of godliness" even if
it lacked the power. These assumptions about real religion and the
world's religions is clear, for instance, in Hannah Adams' assertion
that religious history began with the advent of Christ, her
acknowledgement of pre-Christian religious traditions notwithstanding
(7). The concept of imposture, though, was not without its problems.
For one thing, the theory had a complicated past. As historian Leigh
Eric Schmidt has shown, the origins of the framework are complex: the
"imposture thesis" had been wielded with comparable utility by
Protestant polemicists against the church in Rome and by early
Enlightenment skeptics against religion in general. The use of
imposture as an explanatory strategy during the century or so
preceding the advent of Mormonism was so tangled, Schmidt concludes,
that "it is difficult to mark where the Protestants' polemic ends and
the rationalist's begins." The antebellum Protestants who wielded the
concept against Mormonism, however, were either unconcerned or unaware
of such complications, never hinting that believers of almost every
stripe had been exposed to the "imposture" thesis at one time or
 Mormons and anti-Mormons, then, found ready-made conceptual tools
when they plunged headlong into this long-standing cultural
conversation about religious legitimacy. Furthermore, while it is
certainly the case that early Mormonism provided fodder for the charge
of imposture, it remains true that anti-Mormons were considerably less
concerned with LDS theology than with the figure of the prophet, at
least initially - the message of either the prophet or his book was
(almost) beside the point (Givens: 64). Early opponents were thus more
concerned with Mormonism as form than as content; the combination of
the period's multiplicity of spiritual voices and American attachments
to religious freedom (at least in terms of one's religious
"sentiments") presumably made countering any particular tradition's
theology problematic. Latter-day Saint theology became important for
anti-Mormons, but only as further evidence of Smith's perfidy and long
after they had concluded that he was a mere, if somewhat talented,
charlatan. Hiram Mattison's A Scriptural Defence of the Doctrine of
the Trinity . . . (1846), in which he upbraids Mormons and other
purveyors of what he considered modern "Arianism" for their
heterodoxy, thus reads like a very different kind of attack because it
was. Mattison's work and others like it, in taking up Mormonism as a
theology (albeit a fatally flawed one), signaled a certain maturity in
both Mormon and anti-Mormon thinking. The earliest critiques of
Mormonism, though, could not dignify it with the label of theology
because none were prepared to credit Joseph Smith with anything but
imposture, least of all theology.
 In sum, antebellum narratives of false religion turned to
everything but religion - and history's false prophets necessarily
became despots, charlatans, and crooks - because nineteenth-century
Americans had invented no other frameworks for understanding a figure
whose religious claims they utterly rejected. In actuality,
anti-Mormons could defame Smith, endeavor to thwart his movement, and
even seek his demise, and at the same time claim quite sincerely that
they had no argument with Mormon religion whatever. Thomas Ford,
Governor of Illinois during the Saints' controversial stay at Nauvoo,
could thus maintain that he held no personal prejudice against
Mormonism while at the same time lamenting that he felt "degraded by
the reflection, that the humble governor of an obscure State, who
would otherwise be forgotten in a few years, stands a fair chance . .
. of being dragged down to posterity with an immortal name, hitched on
to the memory of a miserable impostor" (360).
 In his theorizing about deceivers and society, anti-Mormon Origen
Bacheler articulated the often-unspoken social logic that underlay
decades of anti-Mormon polemics. "I respect the rights of conscience;"
he wrote, "I am opposed to persecution for opinion's sake." But, he
cautioned, it would be a grave mistake to extend the same "forbearance
and compassion [due the] dupes of the Mormon imposture" to the "lying
knaves who dupe them." Joseph Smith, he argued, was "entirely out of
the pale of charity" and could be "viewed in no other light than that
of [a] monsterous public" nuisance. Bacheler's contention that such a
nuisance "ought forthwith to be abated" - he left to readers to figure
out how - rested on the assumption that among the "social obligations"
that fell to every "member of the community" was the responsibility
that "he shall not knowingly deceive and impose upon that community."
Not surprisingly, Bacheler charged that Smith had done precisely that
and, as a result, all of the trouble between Mormons and their
neighbors could rightly be blamed on him and other leading Mormons:
"By their deception and lies, they swindle [their followers] out of
their property, disturb social order and the public peace, excite a
spirit of ferocity and murder" (48). Such logic not only led Smith
into an 1831 South Bainbridge, New York, court on charges of being a
"disorderly person" (i.e., "setting the country in an uproar by
preaching the Book of Mormon") but ultimately to an early end in
Illinois in 1844 (Bushman: 162; Firmage and Mangrum: 50-51). In the
end, the antebellum histories of the "imposture thesis" and Joseph
Smith paradoxically reveal on the one hand the promises of American
religious liberty and, on the other, our conflicted and still-forming
commitment to religious pluralism.
1817 A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations,
Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan, and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Fourth
Edition. New York: James Eastburn and Company.
1838 Mormonism Exposed, Internally and Externally. New York: Published
at 162 Nassau St.
1844 Religion in America. Or An Account of the Origin, Progress,
Relation to the State, and Present Condition of the Evangelical in the
United States. With Notices of the Unevangelical Denominations. New
York: Harper and Brothers.
1824 History of All Religions, As Divided into Paganism, Mahometism,
Judaism, and Christianity. Providence: John Miller.
1811 A Concise View of the Principal Religious Denominations in the
United States of America, Comprehending a General Account of Their
Doctrines, Ceremonies, and Modes of Worship. Philadelphia: John Cline.
Brown, J. Newton
1835 Fessenden & Co.'s Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge: or,
Dictionary of the Bible, Theology, Religious Biography, All religions,
Ecclesiastical History, and Missions . . . Brattleboro, VT: Fessenden
1836 The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge; or, Dictionary of the
Bible, Theology, Religious Biography, All Religions, Ecclesiastical
History, and Missions; Containing Definitions of All Religious Terms .
. . Brattleboro, VT: Fessenden & Co.
Buckley, Thomas E.
1977 Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia 1776-1787.
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Bushman, Richard L.
1984 Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana: Illinois
Curry, Thomas J.
1986 The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of
the First Amendment. New York: Oxford University Press.
1849 Noyesism Unveiled: A History of the Self-Styled Perfectionists;
with a Summary View of Their Leading Doctrines. Brattleboro, VT: By
1844 History of All Christian Sects and Denominations; Their Origin,
Peculiar Tenets, and Present Condition. Second Edition. New York:
Firmage, Edwin B., and Richard C. Mangrum
1988 Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. Urbana: Illinois University Press.
1854 A History of Illinois: From Its Commencement as a State in 1818
to 1847. Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Co.
1829 Mohammetanism Unveiled. 2 vols. London: A. & R. Spottiswoode.
Givens, Terryl L.
2002 By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New
World Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
1866 Spiritualism unveiled: and shown to be the work of demons; an
examination of its origin, morals, doctrines and politics. Boston: The
1841 Mormonism Portrayed; Its Errors and Absurdities Exposed, and the
Spirit and Designs of Its Authors made Manifest. Warsaw, IL: Sharp &
1836 The Religious Creeds and Statistics of every Christian
Denomination in the United States and British Provinces; with some
Account of the religious Sentiments of the Jews, American Indians,
Deists, Mahometans, &c., alphabetically arranged. Boston: John
1843 The Book of Religions: comprising the views, creeds, sentiments,
or opinions, of all the principal religious sects in the world,
particularly of all Christian denominations in Europe and America, to
which are added church and missionary statistics, together with
biographical sketches. Concord, NH: I.S. Boyd and E.W. Buswell.
Howe, Eber D.
1834 Mormonism Unvailed [sic]: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular
Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time. With
Sketches of the Characters and its Propagators, and a full detail of
the manner in which the famous Golden Bible was brought before the
world. To which are added, inquiries into the probability that the
historical part of the said bible was written by one Solomon
Spaulding, more than twenty years ago, and by him intended to have
been published as a romance. Painesville, OH: Howe, E. D.
Hutchison, William R.
2003 Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a
Founding Ideal. New Haven: Yale University Press.
2003 The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lee, E. G.
1841 The Mormons; or, Knavery Exposed. Philadelphia: E. G. Lee.
1840 An Exposure of Mormonism, Being a Statement of Facts Relating to
the Self-Styled "Latter Day Saints," and the Origin of the Book of
Mormon, by Richard Livesay, of Winchendon, Massachusetts, America,
Minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Manchester, England: Wm.
Shackleton and Son, Printers, Ducie Place.
Manuel, Frank E.
1959 The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods. Cambridge: Harvard
1846 A Scriptural Defence of the Doctrine of the Trinity: or a Check
to Modern Arianism as Taught by Campbellites, Hicksites, New Lights,
Universalists and Mormons, and Especially by a Sect calling themselves
"Christians." New York: L. Colby.
Noll, Mark A.
2002 America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New
York: Oxford University Press.
Orr, Adrian Van Brocklin
1841 Mormonism Dissected; or, Knavery "On Two Sticks" Exposed.
Bethania, PA: Reuben Chambers.
1841 Mormon Fanaticism Exposed. A Compendium of the Book of Mormon, or
Joseph Smith's Golden Bible. Boston: Printed for the Author.
Rupp, I. Daniel
1844 He Pasa Ekklesia: An Original History of the Religious
Denominations at Present Existing in the United States. Containing
Authentic Accounts of Their Rise, Progress, Statistics and Doctrines.
Written Expressly for the Work by Eminent Theological Professors,
Ministers, and Lay-Members, of the Respective Denominations.
Philadelphia: J. Y. Humphreys.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric
2000 Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American
Enlightenment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
1991 The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. New York:
Oxford University Press.
1838 Mormonism Exposed and Refuted. New York: Piercy & Reed.
1842 Mormonism Exposed: in which is shown the Monstrous Imposture, the
Blasphemy, and the Wicked Tendency, of the Enormous Delusion,
advocated by a Professedly Religious Sect, calling themselves "Latter
Day Saints." New York: Office of the N. Y. Watchman.
1840 Mormonism Exposed, Being a Journal of Residence in Missouri from
the 28th of May to the 20th of August, 1838, together with an
appendix, containing the revelations concerning the Golden Bible, with
numerous extracts from the `Book of Covenants,' &C., &C. Pittsburg: O.
1842 [?] Mormonism Exposed. Pittsburgh [?]: n.p.
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