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An American Mahomet : Joseph Smith, Muhammad, and the Problem of Prophets in Antebellum America

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An American Mahomet : Joseph Smith, Muhammad, and the Problem of Prophets in Antebellum America
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   A  N  “A  MERICAN  M  AHOMET ”: J OSEPH  S MITH , M UHAMMAD ,  AND THE P ROBLEM OF  P ROPHETS IN  A  NTEBELLUM  A  MERICA   J. Spencer Fluhman I N  1851, C HARLES  M ACKAY,  the noted British poet and journalist,treated the reading public to a lively rehearsal of Mormon history,such as it was after scarcely two decades. The book’s five English,six American, French, German, and Swedish editions testified tothe Mormon story’s appeal (or infamy), marked the entrance of Mormonism as a topic into the world of an international educatedclass, and set the framework for many subsequent treatments of Mormonism. 1* His title also sounded a telling comparison:  The Mor -mons; or, Latter-day Saints, with Memoirs of the Life and Death of JosephSmith, the “American Mahomet.”   That same year, the  American Whig  23 *  J. SPENCER FLUHMAN {fluhman@byu.edu} is an assistant profes-sor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. He holdsadvanceddegreesinhistoryfromtheUniversityofWisconsin-Madison.Heis currently preparing a history of nineteenth-century anti-Mormonthought, tentatively titled  A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America . He thanks Charles Cohen, Wil-liam Cronon, Ronald Numbers, Mario De Pillis, Grant Underwood, andanonymous reviewers on the  Journal of Mormon History  board for their in-   Review  ran a retrospective piece on Smith (who had been assassi-nated in 1844), under the title, “The Yankee Mahomet.” The latterauthor, certain that in Smith the nation had seen the “most danger-ous religious impostor that has appeared for centuries,” explainedthat while Mormon theology appeared to share much with Ameri-can Christian churches, Mormonism’s “main features [bear] consid-erable resemblance to [those] propagated by Mahomet.” 2** These efforts to cast Smith as an American Muhammad rein-forced, rather than inaugurated, the association of the two religiousleaders. As early as 1831, opponents of Joseph Smith saw in Islam’sfounding prophet a cautionary religious tale with obvious implica-tions for Mormonism. Antagonists, too, reveled in reports by Lat-ter-day Saint apostates that Smith had made the comparison himself in1838,promisingtobe“asecondMahomettothisgeneration”ifhisenemies did not “let him alone.” 3*** In their “exposing” or “unveiling”ofearlyMormonism,anti-MormonwritersoftenclaimedthatthoughSmith’s “imposture” was atypically dangerous, he was one in a longline of religious impostors, Muhammad being perhaps the signal ex-ample. 4**** Early explanations of Mormonism thus depended on a Pro-testant version of religious history that fixated on religious “frauds,” 24  The Journal of Mormon History sightful comments and suggestions. 1 Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen,  Mormon History  (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 9–10. **  2 CharlesMackay, TheMormons:or,Latter-daySaints,withMemoirsofthe Life and Death of Joseph Smith, the “American Mahomet”   (London: Office of the National Illustrated Library, 1851); “The Yankee Mahomet,”  AmericanWhig Review  13, no. 78 (June 1851): 554–64. ***  3 The allegations appear in the Missouri General Assembly’s  Docu-ment Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &c. in Relation to the Disturbancewith the Mormons . . .  (Fayette, Mo.: Printed at the Office of the Boon’s LickDemocrat, 1841), 57; Warren Parrish, “Mormonism,”  The Evangelist [Carthage, Ohio] (October 1, 1838): 226–27; James H. Hunt,  Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect, With an Examination of the Book of Mormon; also, Their Troubles in Missouri, and Final Expulsion from theState  (St. Louis: Printed by Ustick and Davies, 1844), v; Primitivus, “Mor-monism,”  Practical Christian and Church Chronicle , April 16, 1841, 63. ****  4 For the theme of counterfeit detection pervading early anti-Mor-monism,seeJ.SpencerFluhman,“Anti-MormonismandtheMakingofRe-ligion in Antebellum America” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madi-  which, in turn, assured that a major strain of early anti-Mormon po-lemics centered on Smith himself and his “pretensions” to propheticauthority. Antebellum anti-Mormon polemics were by no meansmonolithic, but “anti-Smithism” arguably dominated the genre dur-ingSmith’slifetimeandperhapsuntilanti-polygamyrhetoriccametopredominateafterthemid-1850s. 5+ Tracingthevarioushistoriesofre-ligious imposture and the corresponding links anti-Mormons dis-cernedbetweenSmithandMuhammadprovidescluestotheintellec-tualandculturalenvironmentfromwhichMormonismsprangandil-luminatesthereasonssomanycritiquesofearlyMormonismtooktheform of exposing Smith as a religious fraud. 6++ Historians of Mormonism have long noted the Smith-Muham-mad comparisons, but few have sought to explain them, perhaps inpart because the analogues seem obvious: Both men issued pro-phetic claims, offered extra-biblical scripture, and so on. 7+++ Even so,thefollowingattempttoreconstructthementalworldgroundingthe  J. S PENCER   F LUHMAN/ A MERICAN  M AHOMET  25 son, 2006), chap. 1. +  5 The terminology here follows William Swartznell, who referred toMormonismas“JoeSmithism.”SeeSwartznell,  MormonismExposed,Beinga JournalofResidenceinMissourifromthe28thofMaytothe20thofAugust,1838,Together with an Appendix, Containing the Revelations Concerning the Golden Bible, with Numerous Extracts from the “Book of Covenants”   (Pittsburg: O.Pekin, Published by the Author. A. Ingram, Jr., Printer, 1840), iii. ++  6 Peter Harrison,  “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlighten-ment  (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 16, writes that“the imposture theory was the most popular of all seventeenth and eigh-teenth century accounts of religion.” The concept has a complicated past.Theuseofimpostureasanexplanatorydeviceduringthecenturyorsopre-ceding the advent of Mormonism was so tangled that, Leigh Eric Schmidtconcludes, “it is difficult to mark where the Protestants’ polemic ends andthe rationalist’s begins.” Schmidt,  Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment  (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,2000),85–86.SeealsoFrankE.Manuel, TheEighteenthCenturyConfrontstheGods  (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 47–53, 65–70. +++  7 For Mormonism and Islam see, Terryl L. Givens,  The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy  (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1997), 130–37; Timothy Marr,  The Cultural Roots of Ameri-can Islamicism  (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), chap.4; Arnold Green, “Joseph Smith, an American Muhammad? An Essay on  comparisonsrevealstheconsiderableinterpretivechallengebothre-ligiousfiguresposedtoantebellumProtestants.Mostwhocomparedthe two prophets in the nineteenth century offered no extended ordetailed descriptions—often, in fact, they simply invoked Muham-mad’s name, apparently assuming the audience “got the point,”much as Smith’s biographer Fawn M. Brodie did when she titled a chapter “The Alcoran or the Sword.” 8++++ In the end, works like  Mo-hammetanismUnveiled  (1829)and  MormonismUnvailed  (1834)sharedmore than just similar titles; each betrayed the tacit admission thatnotallreligiousclaimsarecreatedequalandthat,inanewlydisestab-lishedUnitedStates,religiouslibertyandperceptionsofreligiousau-thenticity were inherently linked. 9* The ambivalences about the relationship of Christianity to therepublic,thepitfallsofreligiousfreedom,andthemanagementofre-ligious variety that had flared as colonies became states were by nomeans resolved by the time Joseph Smith added his voice to the ca-cophony. Indeed, it was the antebellum religious scene’s boisterous-ness that sent some writers into action. Leigh Eric Schmidt has aptlydescribed the dilemma facing conventional Christians: “With theSwedenborgians . . . Mormons, Adventists, Shakers, and Methodists,one thing was clear: God was hardly falling silent. Instead, with thecrumbling of established authorities, God had more prophets,tongues,andoraclesthaneverbefore;thus,themodernpredicamentactually became as much one of God’s loquacity as God’s hush.” 10** That prominent religious commentators experienced early national 26  The Journal of Mormon History the Perils of Historical Analogy,”  Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought  6,no.1(Spring1971):46–58;ArnoldGreen,“TheMuhammad-JosephSmithComparison:SubjectiveMetaphororaSociologyofProphethood,”in  Mor-mons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations , editedby Spencer J. Palmer (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1983), 63–84; MariannePerciaccante, “The Mormon-Muslim Comparison,”  Muslim World   82, nos.3–4 (1992): 296–314. ++++  8 Fawn M. Brodie,  No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), chap. 16. *  9 Charles Forster,  Mohammetanism Unveiled  , 2 vols. (London: A. & R.Spottiswoode, 1829); Eber D. Howe,  Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Ac-countofThatSingularImpositionandDelusion,fromItsRisetothePresentTime.. . .  (Painesville, Ohio: For the author, 1834). **  10 Schmidt,  Hearing Things , 11.  religious liberty and diversity as a profound, if somewhat subterra-nean, tension is arguably most evident in their efforts to organizeAmerican religion into a comprehensive narrative or to situate Pro-testant Christianity in the context of other religious traditions.Notably, many of these writers saw their efforts to educate a sometimes fractious body of Christians as a vital step in realizing a kindofdenominationaldétente.HannahAdams,whose  Dictionaryof  All Religions  was published in several editions in the United StatesandEnglandafter1784,endeavoredtoavoid“judgmentonthesenti-ments” of Christian groups and even refrained from employing divi-sive terms such as “Heretics, Schismatics, Enthusiasts, [and] Fanat-ics,” but her concern for fair representation had limits. It did not, forinstance, extend to the “heathen nations,” whose ceremonies ap-peared “obscene and ridiculous.” In Adams’s account, Islam was theresultofMuhammad’s“pretensionstoadivinemission”andstrategicuseof“polygamyandconcubinagetomakehiscreedpalatabletothemost depraved of mankind.” What sensuality could not do, she con-tinued, the sword certainly did. 11*** Similarly, Thomas Branagan intended his 1811 volume “as a persuasive to  Christian Moderation .” As an antidote to “religious big-otry and intolerance,” Branagan offered readers the “true senti-ments” of various groups; but, again, the descriptions that followedseem, to modern eyes at least, to repudiate Branagan’s assertion of impartiality. Catholicism, Unitarianism, and Shakerism receivedless-than-flattering appraisals, and when describing what he called“Anti-Christian”groups,Branagancandidlyrelatedthathepurposed“to shew the superiority as well as super-excellence of the Christiansystem.”HisportrayalofIslamthuschartedMuhammad’srise“froma deceitful hypocrite” to his becoming the “most powerful monarchof his time.” 12**** Other Protestant writers were similarly torn. “Enlightened” in-  J. S PENCER   F LUHMAN/ A MERICAN  M AHOMET  27 ***  11 Hannah Adams,  A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denomi-nations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan, and Christian, Ancient and Modern , 4thed. (New York: James Eastburn and Company, 1817); the first edition waspublished as  An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects . . .  (Boston:1784), 1–3, 6, 12, 23, 132, 156–61. ****  12 Thomas Branagan,  A Concise View of the Principal Religious Denomi-nations in the United States of America, Comprehending a General Account of Their Doctrines, Ceremonies, and Modes of Worship  (Philadelphia: Printed by
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