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The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith
Journal of Mormon History ^ | January 1974 | Jan Shipps

Posted on 09/09/2009 12:35:30 PM PDT by delacoert

Joseph Smith was just one of a proliferation of preachers and prophets who found God along the stony ridges and narrow lakes of western New York in the first half of nineteenth century. It was a place and a time of intense interest in religion: pathways to paradise ran in all directions. Prospective pilgrims had a choice, and many a wanderer journeyed a little way down first one path and then another testing alternate routes to heaven. The story of the strange systems and unusual faiths that resulted is essentially a record of unsuccessful experiments with religion. Some survived for a season, but most of the cults and sects of the day disappeared at the death of their leaders if they lasted that long. Of all the unorthodox theological systems that were introduced in the New York hinterland between 1800 and 1850, the only one that has become an important American religion is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Mormon church found scant support in New York State, however. Within a year after the formal organization of the church, the Mormons had started their celebrated westward hegira by moving to Ohio. Because the phenomenal growth of the organization began after this initial move from New York State, the successful development of the church has generally been predicated on evidence found in the subsequent history of the sect. Tendentious histories whether pro or con almost invariably begin with the events that preceded the founding of the church in 1830, but for a very long time the objective historiography of Mormonism was largely made up of studies which explained how the Mormons built the Kingdom of the Saints following the removal of that realm from western. New York.

Recently the "Case of the Missing: Information about Mormon Origins," as Truman G. Madsen once styled the problem posed by the paucity of information on the New England-New York background, can be said to have been reopened. James B. Allen's article on "The Significance of Joseph Smith's 'First Vision' in Mormon Thought" was published in Dialogue in 1966, and the following year an intensive reexamination of Mormon beginnings was spurred headlong by the challenge to the integrity of Joseph Smith represented in the outcome of the Reverend Wesley P. Walters's investigation of the religious situation in and around Palmyra, New York, in the 1820s.[1] So much research has been carried out since then that a steady stream of articles, essays, and books on the early period in Mormon history is pouring forth.[2] While some of these new works are little more than arguments with the Reverend Walters about LDS chronology, or with Philastus Hurlbut and Elder D. Howe about valid interviewing techniques, much of it is extremely interesting - and extremely significant. Richard L. Bushman's description of what one can learn from a close reading of the rhetoric of the Book of Mormon, for example, is not only intrinsically useful, but methodologically important. Mario S. De Pillis, with his analysis of dream accounts, is also making a methodological contribution while adding to our understanding of the initial appeal of Mormonism.[3] At a less theoretical level, Dean Jessee's work with holograph writings provides precise information about who wrote what when, and, at the same time, demonstrates the procedures employed in the original production of such basic works as the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's history.[4]

Nevertheless, complacency is not in order. It is true that many major points have been clarified and many minor issues settled , but there are still loose ends not neatly tied up between the covers of BYU Studies and Dialogue; inconsistencies still exist that must be resolved before the case can be considered dosed. Perhaps Marvin Hill's projected biography of the prophet, which judging from his published articles seems to promise a much needed new interpretation of Joseph Smith, will provide answers to all the unanswered questions about the Lauer-day Saint leader's early career and the church's beginnings. In the meantime, all that can be said is that, while a great deal is known about the methods used in building up this extraordinary religious society, its creation is still surrounded by mystery.

Throughout the nineteenth century, when the church was regarded as a threat to the social and political fabric of the nation , those who wrote about it were less concerned with the mysterious nature of Mormon origins than with their perceptions of present dangers. For a very long time the mystery connected with Mormonism appeared to be corporate and criminal and its solution was seen, therefore, less as a matter of understanding Mormon origins and theological beliefs than discovering the secrets of the temple and penetrating the plottings of the "sinister" hierarchy.[5] When polygamy and the political Kingdom were shorn away, the mystery for a time seemed to dissipate. Emphasis on the radical and revolutionary elements in Mormonism diminished, and the Saints seemed destined to fade unobtrusively in to the American religious landscape. From the outside it even looked as if they might, in their search for acceptance and respectability, find a place, if not in the fold, then certainly along the fringes of American Protestantism.

In a recent essay, Klaus J. Hansen speculates that something of this sort has, in fact, happened. After reviewing the reasons which explain Mormonism's failure to fit into the pluralistic, voluntaristic pattern of nineteenth century American religion, he points out that, in the twentieth century, these reasons no longer function as boundaries marking Mormon peculiarity, and suggests that, as a result, Mormonism as a "distinct cultural unit" has more or less ceased to exist.[6] As is usually the case, Professor Hansen's elegant argument is extremely persuasive. Here, however, agreement must be made contingent on a clear understanding of the difference between a "cultural entity" and a religion theological until. While the homogeneous character of Mormondom is plainly giving way, the Saints are still set apart - certainly in their own self-consciousness as a "community of the faithful." Despite a value structure and belief in Christ which Mormons share with middleclass American Protestants, the Saints have not been absorbed in to Protestantism. A chosen people living in the new dispensation of the fullness of times cannot be a party to the denominational contract; they retain an identity as separate and distinct from American Protestantism as either Roman Catholicism or Judaism.[7] For that reason the "mysteries" of Mormonism, particularly the enigmatic early years, remain matters of concern not only for Lauer-day Saints who wish a deeper understanding of their faith, but also for historians who would fully comprehend American religion.

Now that the nineteenth century bias toward Brigham Young as the "real" genius of Mormonism is clearing away, it is obvious that the logical place to begin is with the study of Joseph Smith's life. That is not an easy task, however. As is so often the case with controversial figures, the prophets, adherents and detractors built up public images which they have been at pains to protect, leaving apparently irreconcilable interpretations of the Mormon leader's life to be dealt with. As a result, the historian must cope with the contradictory accounts found, on the one hand, in memoirs penned by apostates and in affidavits collected by Smith's enemies, and, on the other, in the official History of the Church, a reconstruction of events compiled by diverse persons, including the prophet himself, which was commenced in 1838 with the express purpose of countering the reports, circulated by "evil-disposed" persons, which were clearly designed to militate against the character of the church and its prophet. The situation is further complicated, moreover, by the need to establish the extent to which the contents of the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the revelations of the prophet works purportedly produced with the aid of diety can be utilized as primary source material.

All these difficulties to the contrary notwithstanding, a continuing effort must be made to solve the mystery of Mormonism by coming to understand the enigma at its core. The image that now exists is fragmented and incomplete. The perspective must be lengthened through a consideration of the prophet in the context of the social, political, economic, and theological milieu from which he came; the range of resources must be expanded to utilize the information and the insight that can be found in the Mormon canon; and the entire project must be approached with an open mind, a generous spirit, and a determination to follow the evidence that appeals to reason from whatever source it comes, wherever it leads. Only then will the outcome be a picture of the prophet and an account of the foundations of the Mormon faith which will be convincing to both tough minds, which demand empirical facts, and tender minds, comfortable in the presence of leaps of faith. What follows here are some suggestion s leading in that direction. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, western New York was, in effect, the New England frontier. As they crossed the Adirondacks, emigrants from New England left behind the Half-way Covenant that had allowed church membership to be handed down from generation to generation. On the frontier, the social satisfactions that had accompanied full communicant standing in the Congregational churches of the older settled regions all but disappeared. Even long after the frontier character of this area had passed away, religion ministered primarily to the emotional rather than the social needs of the populace. The unfolding economic opportunity that attended the building of the Erie Canal seemed to make all men fortune's heirs; status came with success. and society no longer gave church members special social or religious privilege. This fluid economic and social environment made an anachronism of the theological doctrine of divine election, and yet the Protestant community was still too close to the Reformation to alter the balance between faith and works in favor of the latter. As a result the way of conventional Christianity throughout the district was the way marked out by George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent during the Great Awakening in New England in the 1740s. Beyond the mountains, doctrinal distinctions denoting denominationalism were blurred by a stylized evangelism that forced the wide thoroughfare of Protestant Christianity into the straightened confines of the sawdust trail. Whether the ecclesiastical connection of the minister made the service a Baptist gathering or a Methodist meeting, the sermon followed the predicted pattern of its "New Light" Presbyterian prototype. With jeremiads that were painstaking catalogues of the known sins of omission and commission that would lead to destructions and they were legion Charles Finney and his fellows cautioned the unregenerate to beware the day of judgment. While penitents approached the sinner's benches, these lamentations were extended into compelling crescendos of exhortation designed to disturb the indifferent and terrify the wicked with speculation about the .fate of unrepentent sinners abandoned to the wrath of an angry God. As fear and guilt pulled heartstrings taut, the preacher watched with practiced eye for the signs that the limits of emotional stress were near. Sounds of weeping and audible appeals for mercy were the prelude to skillful modulation from admonition to invitation and promise. When a contrite soul accepted the pledges of forgiveness and love and yielded absolute trust in God, release and rejoicing sometimes verging on ecstacy followed. Another Christian had been born again.

As unquestionably effective as such techniques were, their often transitory results reconnected the limitations of a theology that attempted a compromise between the uncertainty inherent in the doctrines of predestination and divine election and the ineffable assurance of the interior religious experience. Using conversion as a catalyst, the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards had sought to merge mystic rapture and Calvinistic logic into a stable compound, but the subtleties of the speculations of this great philosophic intellect were lost when lesser minds proved unable to keep conversion at the center of Christian life where it had been placed by the Northampton divine. One result was the development of an emotional evangelism that made conversion the capstone of religious experience.

The good Master Edwards had kindled such a fire as has never yet been put out, but seldom has the name blazed so brightly or for so long as it did beside the banks of the Eric Canal during the youth of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. Revivalistic fervor swept through western New York State with such regularity that Orthodoxy back across the Adirondacks looked on the region as the "Burned-over District" The religious holocaust predicted by the use of this derogatory designation failed to occur, however, and in 1825 it was clear that the fire that raged over the area was like the fire in the midst of the bush that burned and was not consumed. As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on, the spiritual longings of the people had created one of those spheres of genuine religious exploration that have served from time to time throughout man's history as the seedbed for new theological systems.

Within a span of twenty-five years after the frontier gave way to the settled community life that paralleled the building of De Witt Clinton's canal, this "burnt" district sheltered a multitude of small bands and large congregations that had turned aside from traditional faiths to travel toward eternity along unmarked trails. As guides, contemporaries might follow Andrew Jackson Davis, the "Poughkeepsie Seer," and the amazing Fox Sisters into Spiritualism, or William Miller into Millennialism; they could make a more total commitment and move to Oneida to search for Perfection with John Humphrey Noyes; they could join the Shakers at New Lebanon or the Community of the Publik Universal Friend at Jerusalem in Yates County or any of a host of lesser known groups that sought God with creeds embracing vegetarianism, sexual abstinence, communism, complex marriage, or some other equally esoteric doctrine.

But man has a way of packing the past among his personal possessions when he moves from place to place, and most of those who settled in the area had come with Protestant traditions so firmly fixed that no alternative was acceptable. The overwhelming majority of western New Yorkers looked for religious assurance in the old familiar places, and Presbyterians (and Congregationalists under the Plan of Union), Baptists, and Methodists all hastened to provide ministers to preach the gospel to the community beyond the Catskills. Unfortunately, these virtually simultaneous home missionary efforts of the several Protestant denominations sometimes brought religious chaos, not spiritual comfort, for when conversion, rather than spiritual guidance and pastoral care, was made the primary purpose of the Protestant ministry, success became a matter of numbers. And since this quantitative criterion was not limited by the sum of uncommitted souls, the successful evangelist had to build his church by tearing others down. There was a buyer's market in salvation, and, in the confusion of contested credentials and conflicting claims, it was not at all unusual for a single soul to have been saved several times.

Although the Mormon prophet emerged from this volatile psychic ground, no evidence exists to indicate that the religious tensions there caused him to move as many other incipient religious leaders did through a succession of affiliations with different religious groups, searching for satisfactory answers to his spiritual questions. Like his father, Joseph Smith stood aside and refused to join any of the churches in the Palmyra region.

According to a biographical sketch written by his wife, Joseph Smith, Sr. did not become a member of any of the churches that were already established because he interpreted a dream (or vision) which he had had in 1811 the elder Smith, like the father of Nephi in the Book of Mormon, regarded dream and vision as synonymous as a warning that these churches were the outposts of Babylon.[8] Joseph, Jr. came to the same conclusion in a not altogether different fashion. When he dictated the explanatory prologue to the official History in 1839, the prophet described the way that the bewildering religious landscape had confused him. He said that in 1820 he had made prayerful inquiry about which church he should join, and that the prayer had been answered in a vision wherein he saw two "personages" and was told that he should join none of the established churches as they were all wrong.[9]

Since the account of the first vision published in the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet (the official history, Period One) seems to tie it chronologically to a revival that was going on in 1824 and 1825, since the prophet apparently mentioned this vision rarely, if at all, before 1830, and since no description of it seems to have been written down until almost a dozen years after it is said to have happened, Fawn Brodie, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Wesley P. Walters, and many others take the position that the first vision never occurred that the prophet invented it in order to defend himself when- his credibility was under attack.[10]

These critics may be right, of course. Certainly the Reverend Walters's reconstruction of the events surrounding the 1824 revival, and his argument that this was the "war of words and the tumult of opinions" the prophet spoke of, is far more convincing than the counter-argument that Smith was referring to an awakening that took place, not in the immediate Palmyra-Manchester area, but nearby, around 1820.[11] But using the confused chronology presented in the official History as the basis for assuming that an early vision one which led Joseph Smith to stay away from organized religion never occurred is less persuasive. And, considering all the available evidence, it is an exercise in unsound logic to use the same confused chronology to question the reliability of Smith's reports of subsequent visions and to conclude that his descriptions of most, or all, of the spiritual events in his life during the 1820s are ex post facto inventions designed to validate the story of the discovery of the metal plates which became the basis for the Book of Mormon.

As for considering all the available evidence: In addition to William Smith's earliest known recollection of his brother Joseph's conversion, which does not connect the first vision to the 1824 revival, and in addition to the general tenor of the prophet's personal diaries, from which an attitude of piety and devoutness can be read back,[12] the evidence which has not been adequately brought to bear on this question is the Book of Mormon itself. Although this work has been considered often at length in general histories of Mormonism, it has by and large been neglected as a source which might facilitate a better understanding of Joseph Smith's early career, The reasons for this neglect center on the answers that have usually been given to questions about who wrote the Book of Mormon and what its intrinsic merit is. Most of the Mormons themselves have taken the position that Joseph Smith was the translator of the book, not its author, which means, of course, that since they believe the prophet did not write the book, they could not regard it as a potential source of insight into his early life, Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, many non-Mormons were led to a similar conclusion, not because they thought the substance of the Book of Mormon had been taken from the plates of Nephi et al., but because the work was widely believed to have been plagiarized from a manuscript which had been lost by the Reverend Solomon Spaulding. Even if this notion were wrong, and Joseph Smith had written the book, taking the work into account in explaining his career seemed foolish; after all, what could an amateurish historical novel masquerading as scripture reveal about a man's spiritual history?

The situation is changed now. In 1945, Fawn Brodie completely demolished the Spaulding manuscript myth and made it absolutely clear that anyone who wanted to fully understand Joseph Smith would have to come to terms with his ‘golden bible.”[13] A dozen years later, in a critical explication included in his 1957 sociological study of the Latter-day Saints, Thomas F. O'Dea made it just as clear that scholars are equally mistaken in accepting Mark Twain's assessment of the Book of Mormon as "chloroform in print," and in taking, at face value, Judge Cradlebaugh's description of the book as "a conglomeration of illy cemented creeds from other religions."[14] As a result, historians are reconsidering the Book of Mormon. And it is becoming increasingly obvious that, whatever its source whether it was translated from engravings on metal plates or dictated directly from Joseph Smith's extraordinary mind this book functions as a powerful and provocative synthesis of Biblical experience and the American dream, and it occupies a position of major importance in both the religious and intellectual history of the United States.

It is likewise evident that, beneath its crude exterior, the Book of Mormon reflects knowledge of the Bible, familiarity with theological currents, perception of the problems posed by Protestant denominationalism, and experience with extra-rational religious phenomena that simply are not consistent with the theory that its religious framework was an afterthought.[15] Since it posits a Book of Mormon produced by an essentially irreligious young man, adopting such a position, in fact, requires a greater leap of faith than accepting a naturalistic explanation which holds (1) that Joseph grew up in a family fascinated with religion; (2) that, as he said, he thoroughly searched the scriptures and came to know them well; (3) that around 1820 he probably did have a vision, or go through some other nonrational experience, which at least left him convinced that his father's dream about the organized churches all being in error was true; (4) that in the throes of revivalistic excitement he could well have come to doubt his earlier conclusion about the Protestant churches, leading him to inquire about the matter a second time, thereby stimulating a second vision around 1824; (5) that (as will be discussed below) in connection with his money-digging activities, he actually found some Indian artifacts, or he hoped so much to do so, that the discovery or the desire for the discovery, inspired the writing of the Book of Mormon. ·Which, leaving aside the question of whether the book has captured eternal truths, plainly reflects the religious experiences and concerns that had been an important part of his life until that time.

Because Smith's history - so misleadingly alleged to have been written "by himself" was, at once, a defensive reconstruction of events and a proselytizing treatise, and because, as Joseph grew in spiritual stature and theological sophistication, he seems to have reinterpreted some of the things that occurred in his early life, the confused accounts of the spiritual episodes of the 1820s will never be reconciled entirely. Yet the effort to learn more must be continued, for the greater our knowledge of the prophet's history in the decade prior to 1830, the more likely we are to comprehend the meaning of events which occurred after the founding of the church.

If the foregoing conceptualization of the events of Joseph Smith's youth which includes the visions as an integral part of his life is not completely congruent with what really happened, it does, nevertheless, assist us in understanding his complex personality. Reports of visions not unlike those described by this gregarious and handsome, albeit somewhat strange young man were by no means unknown in western New York in the 1820s, but these experiences were sufficiently singular to convince Joseph Smith that he was set part from his peers. His subjective recognition of separateness may well account for the apparently compulsive need for acceptance that led him into "vices and follies" after he had been rejected "by those who ought," he said, "to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly." He wanted to belong, but he could not; he did not fit the pattern of men whose worlds were limited by scant schooling, mortgaged homesteads, and revivalist religion. He was different; he knew it, and the knowledge made him abnormally sensitive to the opinions of others. Although it was camouflaged in later years by his self-confident, almost cocksure, personality, this sensitivity persisted throughout his life. It caused him to place an unwarranted value on flattery and praise, and it made him react to criticism with an intensity that, at times, approached paranoia, in his transformation of slight censure into "bitter persecution."

It was not his propensity to prophetic vision that first made Joseph Smith's difference distinct and introduced him to condemnation, however; for he was also gifted with what his contemporaries called "second sight" Using a "peepstone" (a luminous semi-precious gemstone which served as a screen for mental images) as a kind of psychic Geiger counter, Smith attempted to supplement the meager farm income of his family by assisting in the location of lost articles and buried "treasure." Because ventures of this nature which proved unsuccessful left the "peeper" vulnerable to charges of dishonesty and fraud, Smith was brought to trial in 1826 after he had failed to locate a silver mine he had promised to find, and he was found guilty of being a disorderly person and a fraud.

A year or so following the conclusion of that trial, Smith reported that he had, in his possession, a book, "written upon gold plates, [containing] an account of the fanner inhabitants of this continent and the sources from which they sprang." The existence of the plates, Smith said, had been revealed by an angel; they were instruments of divine revelation, which would, after translation, be the occasion of the ushering in of the new dispensation of the fullness of times. When the translation of the plates .was completed and published to the world, the temporal juxtaposition of these two apparently antithetical activities digging for money and translating holy scripture was used to bring the prophet's integrity into question and to cast doubt on the validity of his claims.

Testimony was collected in 1833 from almost a hundred persons who had lived in the same general area where the prophet grew up, and their affidavits almost uniformly maligned the reputation of the Smith family and featured reports of the prophet's youthful search for buried treasure. Mormon apologists have sought to discredit these affidavits by charging muckraking, and demonstrating how the information the witnesses supplied was contaminated by the attitude of the investigators. They are probably right on both counts. But attempts to discredit the information gathered by Philastus Hurlbut and Eber D. Howe can never prove that the attitudes reflected in the affidavits were not generally current, or that the information in them is necessarily wrong, because newspaper articles, written by Obadiah Dogberry, the Reverend Diedrich Willers, and James Gordon Bennett, which contain precisely the same information were published in 1831 – a full two years before the preparation of Mormonism Unvailed.

The fact that so many of Smith's neighbors and casual acquaintances used the reputation of the Smith family (an important issue, but one which will not be dealt with here) and the "money-digging" to demonstrate the incongruity between the man they knew and a man of God is not surprising if the extraordinary difference between their perception of jovial Joseph and their Old Testament notions of appropriate prophets is kept in mind.

The situation can perhaps be compared to one occasionally encountered in today's tragic world. A "model" devout church-going teen-aged boy suddenly kills his father, and neighbours and casual acquaintances finding it dimwit to immediately alter their perception of the boy explain over and over again that the young man had been a perfect child. Just as these explanations are crucial in developing a psychic profile which will facilitate an understanding of the patricidal act, so the Dogberry, Bennett, and Hurlbut and Howe reports of the way the people of Palmyra perceived the prophet are crucial to the development of a complete religious profile of Joseph Smith.[16]

Although Professor Hill is undoubtedly right in his assertion that necromancy and religious faith were not incompatible in nineteenth century America,[17] it is nevertheless clear that the prophet and those who participated with him in the compilation of the official History of the Church were anxious not to emphasize the prophet's early connection with the divining art. It seems reasonable to conclude that the motive for playing down this part of the prophet's background was the knowledge that it could be used as the basis for charges that might endanger his reputation. But by sliding over that part of his life in the preparation of his history, Smith left himself vulnerable to the charges that have been used from that day to this as Exhibit A to prove his, at best, insincerity; at worst, outright fraud.

If the prophet's preference for leaving the money-digging part of his career out of the picture is ignored, and the -events of that part of his life are placed alongside the clearly defined spiritual events of his early years (see table below), a pattern emerges which leaves little room for doubting that Smith's use of the seerstone was an important indication of his early and continued interest in extra-rational phenomena, and that it played an important role in his spiritual development.


1820             first vision

1822             peepstone discovered while digging a well

1823-24       angel said to have revealed the existence of the plates

1824-26       most intense period of money-digging activity

1826             trial at Bainbridge

1827             Smith reports having possession of the plates

1828-29       engraving on the plates is "translated" by means of

                     the "Urim and Thummim," an instrument which

                     operated on the same principle as the peepstone.


Integrated in this fashion, the early events of Smith's life add up to a coherent whole that makes more sense than the charlatan-true prophet dichotomy which has plagued Mormon history from the beginning.

Historians who deal with Joseph Smith's post-1830 career are also faced with disparate interpretative models, but since the fruits of the prophet's labors after the church was established are more amenable to assessment, these models do not represent the same sort of polar opposites that have been developed to explain the Book of Mormon. The building up of Kirtland, Far West, and Nauvoo, the formation of an efficient and effective organizational structure for the church, and the overall development and remarkable growth of Mormonism were substantial achievements - feats which can hardly be credited to a ne'er-do-well, practiced in the magic arts and proficient at deception and trickery, or, far that matter, to a prophet intoxicated with divinity. Some students of the Mormon past have denied Smith's crucial role as the leader of the church - suggesting that he was a dreamer, a visionary, or a madman, who was fortunate enough to have Brigham Young around to handle practical things, and who managed to be martyred, as Bernard DeVoto said, "at precisely the right time," to allow his blood to become "the seed of the church." But this view, like the notion that someone other than Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, has not survived in the wake of Fawn Brodie's portrait of the prophet in No Man Knows My History. Historians are now generally agreed that the prophet's influence was the decisive factor in almost every phase of the construction of the Mormon Kingdom, though they do not agree on the reasons why this is so. Devotional interpretations explain Almost everything in terms of the working out of the will of the Lord, but historical interpretations of Smith's later career, in the main, are variations on two themes: Joseph Smith as charismatic personality and Joseph Smith as pragmatic prophet.

These two themes are not diametrically opposed; as categories they are not mutually exclusive; each depends on the other. Biographical treatments of that part of Smith's life which follows the founding of the church, therefore, betray less anti-Mormon-pro-Mormon bias than the portrayals of the years of his youth. The images remain distressingly different even so. Difficult questions are not adequately answered either with the explanation that the prophet was an effective leader because he was ultimately taken in by his own deception, or with the reminder that the prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.

Perhaps the situation will be clarified if the problem is approached from another direction. Joseph Smith was a dynamic personality, it is true; and there was undoubtedly a charismatic quality to his leadership. If his charisma is seen not as a function of his personality, but as an integral part of his role as prophet, seer, and revelator, the reasons for the reactions to his leadership of both Mormons and non-Mormons will be more intelligible. While the distinction being made here was not important for the large proportion of the Saints who perceived his personality and his prophet's role as one, it is important in fathoming the behavior of those Saints who made Smith's ability to carry everything before him contingent on their ideas about the authenticity of his prophetic position. When his pronouncements and actions led certain Saints to conclude that Smith was a fallen prophet, his charisma, for them, evaporated.

The prophet, seer, and revelator role, then, is central to an understanding of the prophet's life. Because this role grew out of, and was defined by, the Book of Mormon and the circumstances surrounding its "translation," it is there that we must look to get a glimpse of how the prophet's role was perceived by Joseph Smith and by his followers. There, too, we must turn if we would begin to analyze the importance of the role of the prophet as a factor in early Mormonism's appeal.

The Book of Mormon claimed to be the history of the Western Hemisphere between 600 BC and 400 AD, but its account of that millennium was interspersed with such an astonishing variety of philosophical notions and theological speculations that it was immediately apparent that this was no ordinary history. The work recounted stories of voyages and battles and tales of intrigue and treason. Yet the most striking passages in the Book of Mormon were those which were essentially explications of ideas that had also been a part of the visions of Joseph Smith's youth. Allusions to the ideas which, according to Smith's own account, were conceived in the course of his extra· ordinary experiences were particularly dear in the second section of the book. This section, the book of 2 Nephi, included a series of chapters which provided a detailed description of the state of society that would exist at the day when the plates of gold would be opened to the man chosen of God. These supposedly prophetic predictions returned again and again to the themes of the visions; that churches already current were corrupt, and that a book containing a "revelation from God from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof" would be delivered into the hands of a "seer" whom the Lord would bless, whose name like that of his father would be Joseph, who would bring the people who loved the Lord to salvation.[18]

Since a far greater portion of the book was concerned with the fanciful history of the Western Hemisphere, it stands to reason that its initial appeal was not entirely religious. This was a time when the people of the United States were busily engaged in the manufacture of instant heritage, substituting inspiration for antiquity with regard to the Constitution and the law, and producing a veritable hagiography of popular biography designed to turn America's political leaders into national heroes in the shortest possible time, Joseph Smith's visionary account of the American past was, therefore, perhaps not entirely out of place.[19] The passages which referred to the United States as the "land of promise" and as "a land which is choice above all other lands" appealed to (and reflected) the exceedingly nationalistic sentiment of the age in overt fashion. And in addition, Smith's golden book was a fascinating expression of the prevalent American desire to declare cultural independence from Europe. In a pseudo-Elizabethan prose style that recalled the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon maintained that the American Indians were remnants of the twelve tribes of Israel, and that Christ had appeared on this continent in 34 AD. Thus this book provided a connecting link between the history of the United States and the Judeo-Christian tradition that by-passed the European culture filter altogether.

Nevertheless, this unconventional pre-Columbian history of the Western Hemisphere must, in large measure, be regarded as but suits and trappings for the prophetic device that reiterated the errors of established churches and promised that the seer who read the record found on the golden plates would be the agency through which the ancient church in all its purity should be restored.


And it shall come to pass that my people…      shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions. …

If they will repent and hearken unto my words, and not harden their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come into the covenant and be numbered among this remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance…        that they may build a city which shall be called the New Jerusalem.

And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth Zion.[20]


Joseph Smith said that the "miracle" of translation was accomplished by means of a "curious instrument which the ancients called 'Urim and Thummim,' ... two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate," that somehow allowed him to read the "reformed Egyptian" engraving as if it were English.[21] As news of his unusual project spread across the countryside, a small band of followers including Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Knight, several members of the family of Peter Whitmer, and most of Smith's own immediate family gathered round. They watched the progress of the work as Smith dictated it from behind a makeshift curtain to be written out on foolscap paper by Cowdery or Harris, or his new bride, Emma, and they were convinced that Joseph Smith had a divine calling.

Martin Harris's wife, Lucy, was convinced otherwise, and so after a considerable portion of the manuscript had been completed, Harris persuaded the translator to let him take those pages home in order to prove to Lucy that the work was inspired of God. But Lucy Harris was not impressed. She had never liked Joseph Smith, and she heartily disapproved of her husband's association with him. She feared, not without reason, that Harris intended to use his modest fortune to make the publication of Smith's golden bible possible; and consequently, when she got her hands on the manuscript, she destroyed it.

The crisis that resulted profoundly affected the new religion. Joseph Smith prayed for guidance and received two revelations directing that the lost section should not be retranslated. Lest the devil arrange publication of the missing section, making any textual discrepancies lead readers to doubt the work's veracity, God would provide another set of plates which would summarize the account contained in the missing chapters.[22] Thus did Joseph Smith don the prophet's mantle.

Thomas F. O'Dea suggests that the exigency of the situation with which Smith was faced simply proved to be the necessary occasion for the introduction of contemporary revelation; he says that a belief in continuing revelation was vital to the secure establishment of the new religion, and that it should probably have come in any case.[23] Fawn Brodie failed to credit the translator with so much foresight; she concluded that the revelations were a ruse perhaps an unconscious one to conceal the fact that the story of the golden plates was false, and that Smith merely capitalized on their effect among his followers.[24] Yet Fawn Brodie and Thomas O'Dea agree that this event was decisive in Mormon history, and most students of Mormonism concur, so that accounts of the origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints usually trace the doctrine of continuing revelation to this juncture in Joseph Smith's career.

Notwithstanding the importance of the doctrine of continuing revelation in the development of the faith, few serious attempts have been made to delineate the difference between · these revelations and Smith's earlier esoteric activities. Church doctrine makes no distinction between the divine character of the Book of Mormon and the prophet's revelations, and that may explain why Latter-day Saints have not done so. From the outside, all the reports of ,·visions and revelations and the writing of golden bibles and the pursuit of treasure with a peepstone tend to become so confusing that it is entirely understandable that historians often dismiss the problem by saying that it is all a matter of faith. And indeed it is. But just as Vernon Louis Parrington and Perry Miller were obliged to go to theological polemics to fully comprehend the social and economic and political developments in Puritan New England, so the student of Mormon history must seek the explanation of many of the significant events in Mormon history in the subtle distinction between vision and revelation.

In the eyes of the Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith's early visions and his later revelations are both seen as dialogues between God and man. The difference turns on who initiated the conversation. Whether it is regarded as a metaphysical event or a psychic phenomenon, a religiously oriented vision is an intensely realistic subjective experience which leaves the individual who has experienced it with a definite sense of having been in direct communion with God. Like other spiritual manifestations, the hearing of transcendental voices, infused meditation, illumination, and so on, visions are spontaneous occurrences apparently independent of the conscious human mind.

Although it is true that many of the prophet's revelations particularly the ones having to do with theology or with the organization of the restored church were accompanied by visions, voices or some other metaphysical phenomena, much of the revelation in Mormonism proceeds from a more prosaic, but far more dependable, method of communicating with God. As it worked out in Mormon history, this process of revelation involves asking for divine instructions and receiving an "impression" of the will of the Lord in return. In theological terms, God initiates the vision and man responds; mall asks for revelations and God responds.[25]

The difference was clear even to the prophet. The visions left him with no doubts about the reality of what he had seen and heard. When Wil1iam James said that persons who have undergone traumatic religious experiences "remain quite unmoved by criticism from whatever quarter it may come, [because] they have had their vision and they know," he could have been referring directly to Joseph Smith who wrote, "Why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it and I knew God knew it, and I could not deny it."[26]

This same confidence did not always extend to the revelations, however. David 'Whitmer said that Smith, himself, said "some revelations are of the devil," when his revelation prophesying the sale of the copyright for the Book of Mormon failed to materialize.[27] Historians who deal with the prophet's life and the history of the church must take note of the implications of that statement and weigh the possibility of considering the revelations according to some classification scheme. This does not mean must not mean that a dash through the Doctrine and Covenants identifying revelations of a first, second, and third order is necessary. It means, rather, coming to realize and consciously accept what Flanders's Nauvoo and Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom demonstrate implicitly, a recognition of the fact that a continuum on which the revelations can be placed exists. At its highest terminal point are the revelations which came in those moments when a higher reality erupted into the prophet's everyday world; at its opposite extreme are the revelations which can, perhaps, best be marked, not as Smith said, "of the devil," but as wishful thinking.

Taxonomical exercises in history are always dangerous, frightfully so when the subject is the history of religion. But in view of the schizophrenic state of Mormon history, with its double interpretative strand of Joseph Smith as a man of God and Joseph Smith as a kind of fraud who exploited his followers for his own purposes lately brilliantly summed up as a religious vs. a rational being it is possible that drawing distinctions between the character of the different parts of the Mormon canon will allow us to see the prophet's mature life as more coherent than is now possible.


I am not an expert on Joseph Smith. I don't possess that kind of encyclopedic knowledge that would allow me to argue with anyone over where he was at two o'clock on July 12, 1843. I don't even know for sure how many town lots he sold or how many wives he wed. But I do know that the mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith. In a biography I once heard described as the best biography ever written of an American historical figure, Carl Van Doren describes Benjamin Franklin as a "harmonious human multitude." 'We don't have a comparable biography of the prophet. Joseph Smith was also a "human multitude," an extraordinarily talented individual - a genius beyond question - but our picture of him is anything but harmonious. '''That we have in Mormon historiography is two Josephs: the one who started out digging for money and when he was unsuccessful, turned to propheteering, and the one who had visions and dreamed dreams, restored the church, and revealed the Will of the Lord to a sinful world. While the shading has varied, the portraits have pretty much remained constant; the differences are differences of degree, not kind.

The approach I am suggesting here at least has the virtue of providing a different perspective from which to view the prophet's Ii £e. The result cannot be harmony, because Joseph himself had difficulty integrating the many facets of his complex career. But it might allow us to reconcile enough of the in· consistency to reveal, not a split personality, but a splendid, gifted - pressured, sometimes opportunistic, often troubled - yet, fo r all of that, a larger than life whole man.


[1][1] James B. Allen, "The Significance of Joseph Smith's 'First Vision' in Mormon Thought,"  Dialogue 1 (Autumn 1966): 29-45, The characterization of the need for information about  the early period as a "case" calling for good detective work is recalled from Dr. Madsen's  remarks at the 1968 Edwardsville Conference on the Mormons in Illinois. Reverend Walters's article, "New Light Oil Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival," was first published in  1967 as an Evangelical Theological Society tract. It was reprinted in Dialogue 4 (Spring  1969) : 60-81.

[2] Concentrated research in the available records relevant to Mormon history in New  York has been carried out under the direction of a committee of outstanding Mormon historians  and scholars headed by Dr. Madsen. The first fruits of this project were presented  in the Spring 1969 issue of BYU Studies (vol. 9), which included the following articles:  James B. Allen and Leonard J. Arrington. "Mormon Origins in New York: An Introductory  Analysis"; Dean C. Jessee, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision"; Milton  V. Backman, Jr. , "Awakenings in the Burned over District: New Light on the Historical  Setting of the First Vision"; Larry C. Porter, "Reverend George Lane Good 'Gifts,' Much  'Grace,' and Marked 'Usefulness' "; T. Edgar Lyon, "How Authentic Are Mormon Historic  Sites in Vermont and New York?"; Marvin S. H ill, "The Shaping of the Mormon Mind in  New England and New York"; and Richard L. Anderson, "Circumstantial Confirmation of  the First Vision through Reminiscences." The 1970 Spring issue of the same journal was  also devoted to the New York period. It included two articles by Russell R, Rich, "Where  Were the Moroni Visits?" and "The Dogberry Papers and the Book of Mormon" as well  as Dean C. Jessee, "The Original Rook of Mormon Manuscript"; Richard L. Anderson,  "Joseph Smith'.• New York Reputation Reappraised"; Stanley B. Kimball, "The Anthon  Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems"; Leonard J. Arrington, "James Gordon  Bennett's 1831 Report all 'The Mormonites' "; ami Larry C. Porter, The Colesville Branch  and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon." A chapter on "The Church in New York  and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831," in The Restoration Movement; Essays in Mormon History,  ed. by F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards (Lawrence, Kans., 1973),  pp. 27-61, was also written by Mr. Porter. In addition, see Marvin S. Hill, "Joseph Smith  and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties," BYU Studies 12 (Winter 1972) :  223-33; and "Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal," Dialogue 7 (Winter 1972); 72-85; Milton  V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1971), and Richard L.  Bushman, "The First Vision Story Revived," Dialogue 4 (Spring 19(9) : 82-93; and Reverend Walters's reply to same. pp. 94-100.

[3] Doctors Bushman and De Pillis read papers reporting the results of their research at a session on "Early Mormonism in Its American Setting" at the annual meeting of the Western Historical Association in New Haven, Connecticut, 13 October 1972.

[4] In addition to the articles noted above, see "The Writing of Joseph Smith's History." BYU Studies II (Summer 1971): 439-73.

[5] In a chronologically stratified representative sample of periodical articles on Mormons and Mormonism published between 1860 and 1895, 74 percent of the articles contained references to Mormonism as a threat to the American political system, 66 percent contained pejorative references to the internal control the church leaders exercised over the LDS community, but only 57 percent contained references which were coded as "unf1auerring descriptions of Joseph Smith, of the origins of Mormonism, or of the religion itself."

[6] "Mormonism and American Culture: Some Tentative Hypotheses," in McKiernan et al., Restoration Movement, I'P. 1-25. The complexity of the ideas put forth in this essay make summary difficult. The essay should be read in its entirety.

[7] This conclusion agrees with the characterization of Mormonism as the fourth major religion generally accepted in American. In society, found in Mario S. De Pillis, "The Quest for Religious Authority and the Rise of Mormonism," Dialogue I (Spring 1966): 78. The full effect of the abandonment of the policy of the "literal gathering" is more apparent today than it was in 1966. While cultural distinctiveness is disappearing - an inevitable conse- quence, in any case, of the international outreach of both major branches of Mormonism it is likely that the dispersal of LDS "communities of t he faithful" throughout the nation and the world has resulted in a heightened consciousness of Mormon peculiarity. both from within and from without.

[8] Lucy Mack Smith, History of the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City", Utah, 1902), p. 54.

[9] Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Period I, History of Joseph Smith the Prophet, ed. B. H. Roberts, 6 vols., 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1955), 1:46. (An official publication of the Mormon church.)

[10] Sec Fawn M[cKay] Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York, 1945), p. 25; Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith's Strange Account of the First Vision (Salt Lake City, Utah, n.d.). p. 3; Walters, "New Light on Mormon Origins," pp. 7173.

[11] See Bushman, "The First Vision Story Revived"; Porter, "Reverend George Lane"; Porter, "The Church in New York and Pennsylvania, 18161831:' chap. 1 in McKiernan et al., Restoration Movement; and Milton V, Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision.

[12] Hill, "Brodie Revisited," pp. 76, 7881.

[13] Mrs. Brodie categorized the Mormon Bible as merely one of several ostensibly inspired sacred books made up of "an obscure compound of folklore, moral platitude, mysticism, and millennialism" (p. 67). Readers of No Man Knows My History come away convinced, however, that the "compound" is Joseph Smith's own.

[14] See chap. 2 of O'Dea's The Mormons (Chicago, 1957), Mark Twain's sally is in the appendix to Roughing It. Judge Cradlebaugh's description was given in his testimony before Congress in 1863, It is reprinted in Andrew J. Hanson, "Utah and the Mormon Problem," Methodist Quarterly Review 64 (April 1882): 213. The description is, of course, not unique: it is a variation of Alexander Campbell's 1832 charge that the book contained answers to every conceivable theological question, Nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-Mormon literature, especially that portion of it published in religious periodicals, is shot through with similar charges that the Book of Mormon is made up of wholesale borrowings from other religions.

     It is likely that Sterling McMurrin's Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1965) is also a factor in the reappraisal of the Book of Mormon.

[15] Reverend Walters summarizes this position in the concluding section of "New Light on Mormon Origins.' With reference to this same point, Mrs. Brodie states; "What had been originally conceived as a mere moneymaking history of the Indians had been transformed at some point early in the writing, or possibly even before the book was begun, into a religious saga" (p. 83).

[16] The Dogberry editorials and selections from the affidavits collected by Hurlbut and Howe are reprinted in the appendix to No Man Knows My History. Bennett's articles are reprinted in Leonard J. Arrington, "James Cordon Bennett's 1831 Report on the Mormonites,'" BYU Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 35364.

[17] Hill, "Brodie Revisited," p. 78.

[18] Specific references to the errors of already established churches are found in 2 Nephi 26:2021; 28:320. The content of the records engraved on the plates of gold are described in 2 Nephi 27:611; 28:2. The prophecy about the seer to be called Joseph is in 2 Nephi 3:119.

[19] The German historian Peter Meinhold has commented at length on the way in which the Book of Mormon provided America with a useable past. See "Die Anfaenge des Amerikanischen Geschichtsbewusstseins," Saeculum 5 (1954): 6586. This work is discussed in Klaus J. Hansen's chapter on "Mormonism and the American Dream," Quest for Empire (East Lansing, Mich., 1970).

[20] Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 29:14; 3 Nephi 21:2223; I Nephi 13:37.

[21] In his 1974 Mormon History Association Presidential Address, "'Is There No Help for the Widow's Son': Mormonism and Masonry," Reed C. Durham alluded to a Masonic legend which utilized many of the same elements metal plates, stones called Urim and Thummim. and Egyptian hieroglyphics found in Smith's account o£ the origin of the Book of Mormon. The quotation is from the Wentworth Letter, Smith, History of the Church, 4:537.

[22] Ibid., 1: 2228.

[23] O'Dea, The Mormons, pp. 1920.

[24] Brodie. No Man Knows My History, pp. 5557.

[25] The two categories, vision and revelation, which are being put forth here are not

intended to be mutually exclusive: they are, rather, semantic symbols intended to encompass

process (the means by which communications between God and the Mormon Prophet were

initiated), as well as the extra-rational phenomena themselves.

[26] Smith, History of the Church, 1:78. While this quotation is taken from the official History, which account has been called into question, the reality of the prophet's perception of his having been made responsible for translating the plates is substantiated in chaps. 2, 4, and 9 of the Book of Commandments (1833; reprint ed., Independence, Mo., 1972), pp. 813, 2227.

[27] David Whitmer, "An Address to All Believers …," reprinted in Keith Huntress, Murder of an American Prophet: Events and Prejudice Surrounding the Killings of Joseph And Hyrum Smith; Carthage, Illinois, June 27, 1844 (San Francisco, 196O), p. 23. This point must not be confused with Smith's clear distinction between his actions as a prophet and

his actions as a "mere man."

TOPICS: History; Other non-Christian
KEYWORDS: 4asalamander; antimormonthread; josephsmith; lds; magicglasses; mormon; mormonism
This article was mentioned in a previous thread, The Reliability of Mormon History Produced by the LDS Church . It is written by a non-Mormon scholar, and while being more than a little deferencial toward Mormonism, at least enterains the strong possibily that Joseph Smith as a "pious" fraud.

It is very long, but well referenced and very valuable as a research tool.

1 posted on 09/09/2009 12:35:30 PM PDT by delacoert
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To: delacoert

Why do frauds always have to be pious? What is it about fraudulence and piety? Do they call on the same portion of the brain? the effect of the same hormone?

2 posted on 09/09/2009 12:39:22 PM PDT by dotan
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To: dotan

I think the implication is that the fraud comes from the pretence of piety.

3 posted on 09/09/2009 12:46:14 PM PDT by Sherman Logan ("The price of freedom is the toleration of imperfections." Thomas Sowell)
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To: dotan

Everything you want to know about joseph smith:

4 posted on 09/09/2009 12:49:18 PM PDT by RobRoy (The US today: Revelation 18:4)
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To: delacoert

The sheer quantity of ink and data bits wasted discussing the understanding of an obvious fraud never ceases to amaze me.

If it were not so serious it would be high comedy.

But it is so it isn’t.

5 posted on 09/09/2009 12:50:33 PM PDT by RobRoy (The US today: Revelation 18:4)
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To: RobRoy

Yes, I agree. No other heresies have persisted and “succeeded” like Islam and Mormonism.

6 posted on 09/09/2009 12:59:37 PM PDT by delacoert (Good health to your belly button.)
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To: aimhigh; Alamo-Girl; Alex Murphy; aMorePerfectUnion; Broker; brytlea; Colofornian; colorcountry; ...
Flying Inman ping

The author lays out a framework for considering the reasons for the fraudulent actions of Joseph Smith. Even though her analysis strikes me as being too lenient, it provides rich context.

Notice that it appeared as the first article in the priemere issue of LDS's own journal, Journal of Mormon History.

7 posted on 09/09/2009 2:16:35 PM PDT by delacoert (Good health to your belly button.)
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To: delacoert
engraving on the plates is "translated" by means of "Urim and Thummim," an instrument which operated on the same principle as the peepstone.

Hey, it's a magic vest with magic glasses.
Everybody has those, you buy 'em on Ebay.

That technology has been around for thousands of years.

8 posted on 09/09/2009 2:27:26 PM PDT by humblegunner
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To: delacoert

Joseph Smith, mormon prophet? Here’s the kind of man he was...

“Josiah Stowell, a Mormonite, being sworn, testified that he positively knew that said Smith never had lied to, or deceived him, and did not believe he ever tried to deceive any body else. The following questions were then asked him, to which he made the replies annexed.

Did Smith ever tell you there was money hid in a certain glass which he mentioned?


Did he tell you, you could find it by digging?


Did you dig?


Did you find any money?


Did he not lie to you then, and deceive you?

No! the money was there, but we did not get quite to it!

How do you know it was there?

Smith said it was!

Addison Austin was next called upon, who testified, that at the very same time that Stowell was digging for money, he, Austin, was in company with said Smith alone, and asked him to tell him honestly whether he could see this money or not.

Smith hesitated some time, but finally replied, “to be candid, between you and me, I cannot, any more than you or any body else; but any way to get a living.”

Here, then, we have his own confession, that he was a vile, dishonest impostor.

As regards the testimony of Josiah Stowell, it needs no comment. He swears positively that Smith did not lie to him. So much for a Mormon witness.”

9 posted on 09/09/2009 2:28:01 PM PDT by aMorePerfectUnion
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To: delacoert

I don’t think it was God he found.

10 posted on 09/09/2009 2:56:13 PM PDT by Marysecretary (GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL!)
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To: delacoert

Thanks for the ping!

11 posted on 09/10/2009 7:22:21 AM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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