Holy Men and Hucksters

This post is ostensibly by way of reminding our Southern California readership that it’s not too late to catch the last day of the Claremont Conference on Joseph Smith. It’s also an excuse for me to ruminate on the ever-engaging question of what sixteenth-century blogging might have looked like had they, you know, invented computers and the internet and everything. Here’s a possibility:

A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word.

He affirmeth that Moyses was but a Jugler, & that one Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man can do more then he.

That Moyses made the Jewes to travell xl yeares in the wildernes, (which Jorney might haue bin Done in lesse then one yeare) ere they Came to the promised land, to the intent that those who were privy to most of his subtilties might perish and so an everlasting superstition Remain in the harts of the people.

That the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe.

That it was an easy matter for Moyses being brought vp in all the artes of the Egiptians to abuse the Jewes being a rude & grosse people.

That if there be any god or any good Religion, then it is in the papistes because the service of god is performed with more Cerimonies, as Elevation of the mass, organs, singing men, Shaven Crownes & cetera. That all protestants are Hypocriticall asses.

That if he were put to write a new Religion, he would vndertake both a more Exellent and Admirable methode and that all the new testament is filthily written.

That all the apostles were fishermen and base fellowes neyther of wit nor worth, that Paull only had wit but he was a timerous fellow in bidding men to be subiect to magistrates against his Conscience.

That one Ric Cholmley hath Confessed that he was persuaded by Marloe’s Reasons to become an Atheist.

These thinges, with many other shall by good & honest witnes be aproved to be his opinions and Comon Speeches, and that this Marlow doth not only hould them himself, but almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins.

As it happens, this is an excerpted deposition given by one Richard Baines, testifying to the dangerous opinions of the notorious Christopher Marlowe, hard-living playwright and spy. What interests me are Marlowe’s (alleged) assertions that Moses was a juggler—that is, a coney, a con artist—who manipulated the Israelites with his clever Egyptian art in order to keep them in awe, and, further, that Marlowe himself could devise a better religion, should he be inclined. (The deposition goes on to quote Marlowe’s blasphemous take on Christ which, while not especially original, is still sufficiently pungent to make me uncomfortable posting here.) Today, as the Claremont cohort explores Joseph’s place in the prophetic tradition, it is perhaps worth noting that there is another tradition, an anti-prophetic tradition, in which Joseph also finds a place.

A few months ago, in the midst of the Tom Cruise media debacle, I read this profile in Slate on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The piece is determinedly unsympathetic, though, for all I know, entirely accurate—but what struck me hardest were the parallels between the writer’s version of Hubbard’s life and the common anti-Mormon attacks on Joseph Smith’s life. The anti-prophetic tradition is fairly well established, it seems, and the writer, like Brodie and Marlowe and countless others before him, hit all the major topoi: the dabbling in bogus magic, the money-trail, the undisputed cleverness abd conscious fraudulance, the tangles with law-enforcement, the salacious sexual deviance, the secrecy, the dedicated opponents, and, above all the egomaniacal hunger for power. It’s possible, even likely, that charismatic religious figures—particularly the successful ones—share a number of personal attributes. But the long history and predictable forms of the genre lead me to suspect that the anti-prophetic tradition tells us more about the sub-cultures in which it flourishes than about the subjects themselves.

The anti-prophetic tradition is a project of radical demystification reducing the miraculous to the manipulative, lofty profundity to mere power-hunger. The irony, of course, is that the anti-prophetic expose, for all its purported rationality, is itself a deeply mythologized form—particularly in the United States, where the con artist inhabits the upper reaches of our cultural pantheon in the figures of Brer Rabbit and Huck Finn and the Wizard of Oz and hundreds more. Even the anti-prophetic tradition, then, gives Joseph his apotheosis as quintessentially American myth-made myth-maker—whether his name be known for good or evil. Hail to the Prophet, and, yes, praise to the man.

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15 comments for “Holy Men and Hucksters

  1. “the dabbling in bogus magic, the money-trail, the undisputed cleverness and conscious fraudulance, the tangles with law-enforcement, the salacious sexual deviance, the secrecy, the dedicated opponents, and, above all the egomaniacal hunger for power.”

    And this differs from blogging . . . how?

  2. Enjoying Bushman’s opening adress and Q&A last night. He spoke on Joseph as a maker of holy word and holy space/place in America. To me it felt as though Bushman was using the forum to respond to Brodie’s pessimistic view of the spirituality joseph and the Church provided to his people. If I remeber corectly an “anti-prophetic” criticism of Brodie that highlights his supposed fraudulance is that Joseph created a people, but not a viable spirtuality.

    enjoyed the post and contextualization.

  3. Fascinating post, Rosalynde. As a student of “anti-mormonism” in its various forms (earlier in my analysis of the image of Mormonism in French literature, and more recently in the follow-up of cult-hunting trends in Europe), I agree with you that the anti-prophetic tradition is a genre with its own characteristics and, of course, motives. Your comparison with Richard Baines is well-chosen. A “fil rouge” in this genre is obviously the need to prove the irreality of the prophetic claims or deeds by natural explanations, and to reinforce that by tarnishing every aspect of moral credibility of the “prophet”. Joseph Smith underwent it all.

    What I also find interesting is that those who try to study this genre neutrally (and by so doing exposing the lack of integrity of anti-prophetic authors) are quickly accused of being cultish themselves. Researchers at CESNUR, for example, are accused by cult-hunters of being some kind of secret agents of the cults they study, simply because they do not join the mob… See e.g. here and here. Enter the weirdest embroglio of vendetta’s…

  4. Which came first, the prophet or the anti-prophet? It seems obvious to me that the prophet comes first. The anti-prophet then points out where the prophet apparently falls short of what he claims.

    Prophets try to root themselves in the prophetic tradition. They tend to quote scripture written by prior prophets, for example. And many of them approvingly quote prophets of other denominations, if not other religions, from time to time.

    But I don’t see anti-prophets rooting themselves in a wider anti-prophetic tradition. It seems clear to me that most anti-prophetic claims stem from the specific facts of a particular prophet’s life and teachings. If there is similarity among anti-prophets claims, that is only because of the similarities among prophets. Do anti-Mormons read anti-JW, anti-Scientologist or other religions’ anti- literature before typing up their own lists of where Joseph Smith went wrong? I don’t think so.

    On the other hand, I guess there is the image of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door which many anti-prophets allude to, but was not Martin Luther as much a prophet as an anti-prophet? And for that matter, was not Joseph Smith who denounced the creeds and ministers of his day as much an anti-prophet as a prophet?

  5. Definitely JS was an anti-prophet as well as a prophet; I was expecting something about this when Rosalynde said he had a place in the anti-prophetic tradition! But I don’t think he really went all-out for anti-prophecy; he had better things to do. Those who worked to tear him down now tend to be known only because so many still find his calling credible. The best anti-prophecy, asI think history proves in Joseph’s case, is prophecy!

  6. I attended the Friday session of the Claremont conference. My notes are available for download in PDF format:


    The notes reflect things I thought were interesting, and not necessarily the main thrust — or even a complete overview — of the talks. Some talks were more interesting than others.

  7. In our vertiginous world of seemingly endless and accelerating change, it is fascinating to see such examples of the degree to which humans’ central tendencies and concerns are actually conserved. Beyond the delightful example of Elizabethan blog material, it seems that both religion and atheism have been rediscovered/reinvented numerous times over the millenia (in the case of atheism, at least since the Greeks I think)—perhaps in nearly every generation, maybe even in nearly every person. The persistence of such duelling perspectives may be a symptom of the unfortunate mismatch between humanity’s capacity for memory and imagination with the universe’s intransigent retention of data relevant to cosmic questions.

    Or, it may simply be that some are good and some are evil.

    In addition, I think the prophetic and anti-prophetic traditions have something to do with fruitful tensions that necessarily exist for humans, as highly autonomous individuals that nevertheless require cooperation for survival and prosperity. There are never-ending negotiations between the need to form collectives—historically, at the behest of charismatic leaders (“prophets”)—and the need for individuals (“anti-prophets”) to resist the sacrifices required by collective interests, and also the need to form new collectives when the old ones are no longer effective (anti-prophets acting in an incipiently prophetic role).

  8. Christian, good to see you around T&S again! The dialectic between collectives and individuals is interesting; I hadn’t really thought of it, but I think you’re right that many of the debunkers understand themselves as insider-outsiders on a mission (ie Brodie). Some, of course, are just looking for a good story that will move books or bodies (ie Marlowe, though he was something of an outsider, as well)!

    Mike, I’m so glad you were able to attend the conference! And thanks so much for posting your notes. I wasn’t able to open the files, but I’ll get my husband to look at it (did I really just say that?) and hopefully I’ll be able to respond later…. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you’ve got!

    Ben, you make an excellent point. The more I think about it, the less I like the term I hastily chose—“anti-prophetic tradition”—since, as you point out, it’s more descriptive of the kind of theological rejection (rather than rational debunking) you describe.

  9. Rosalynde, you might be interested, unless you are already aware of it, in this recent article by J. Spencer Fluhman from BYU, Anti-Mormonism and the Question of Religious Authenticity in Antebellum America. Just a quote which seems to illustrate your post nicely:

    “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’.”

  10. B: Your points are well taken. Certainly not all critics of prophetic figures take the same approach: Joseph Smith, for example, has been everything from an prolific epileptic to a pedestrian product of his times. But I do think within these varied, local approaches there is a particular strain of criticism with a continuous history—the prophet as con-man—that has developed its own set of conventions and forms; that is, it has become a genre of its own. Because this genre has taken on a cultural meaning larger than the sum of its instances, it’s not necessary for the anti-Josephites to have read the anti-Hubbardites: the figure of the con-man, and the story of his cunning, is part of the American air we breathe.

    Wilfried: Agreed that the world of the conspiracy theorists rapidly becomes far weirder than the alleged conspirators themselves!

  11. Thanks, Wilfried, for the reference: no, I hadn’t known the piece, and yes, it’s nice to think that I may not be just blowing hot air here! (though I am certainly doing that on occasion, too….)

  12. Mike…thanks so much for posting your notes. I wasn’t able to open the files, but I’ll get my husband to look at it (did I really just say that?) and hopefully I’ll be able to respond later…. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you’ve got!

    I was able to follow the link and open the file just now, so please let me know if you can’t and what the error message is.

    You need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed to open the file.

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