Monday, October 10, 2011

A Series of Modest Proposals: A Review of 'The Mormon Puzzle, and How to Solve It' (1887)

R. W. Beers. The Mormon Puzzle, and How to Solve It. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1887. 216 pp.   Rpt. As Kindle edition. General Books LLC. 14 October 2011. Free. ISBN-10: 145888838X, ISBN-13: 978-1458888389

In The Mormon Puzzle, and How to Solve It, R. W. Beers seeks to present an even-handed overview of LDS doctrines and history. To avoid being influenced by any charismatic personalities on either side of the issue—and to get the “real facts”—he tells us, he has taken particular care not to get too close to the subject. He has spoken with neither Mormons nor non-Mormons; he has assiduously avoided visiting Salt Lake City, where visitors are liable to be taken in by extremists of either camp; and he has focused his arguments on information available in books (by both Mormons and non-Mormons) and newspapers. 
So far, so good.
However, when he actually begin his presentation, his bias becomes more than clear.  He almost immediately refers to Joseph Smith as a “false” prophet who “(it is alleged) was an adept in robbing hen-roosts and orchards.” He states as fact that among the young Joseph’s “standard volumes” was a biography of Captain Kidd, ignoring for the moment that he will later refer to Joseph (and Brigham Young) as “illiterate.” He relates Joseph’s assertion that a “heavenly messenger” visited him and forbade him to join any church; in spite of the fact that Joseph’s own account of the First Vision had already been published for over forty years, Beers scrupulously avoids even the appearance of blasphemy by refusing to specify that Joseph actually claimed to have been visited by two personages, the Father and the Son.

By this point, lest there be any confusion as to Beers’ ultimate purpose, he makes clear the options he (and his book) is willing to entertain concerning Joseph Smith and the Church he founded: “There are TWO VIEWS that may be taken of Joseph Smith by the Christian world. One is that he was a base swindler and concocted the Mormon scheme for the express purpose of deluding the people; the other is that he was a religious enthusiast, deceived and deluded himself” (capitals and italics in the original).
(Please note here that enthusiast did not mean in the late 19th century precisely the same thing that it means today; it still carried the 18th century connotation of irrationality, if not outright madness … certainly extravagant and unsupported religious fervor. Beers is not simply saying that Joseph Smith showed an interest in Mormonism or considered it an enjoyable hobby.
This being said, what point is there in reading—much less recommending—a book that was written a century and a quarter ago, that readily identifies its bias through an ultimately untenable either-or assertion, and that represents little more than the prevailing attitudes of the day?
The answer: It is worth reading because, except for occasional and obvious historical references to 1887 as a terminal date (Beers misses Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto prohibiting polygamy by a scant three years), the book might have been written today. The claims made, the charges mounted, and the assumptions underlying the arguments—nearly all are identical with modern anti-Mormon publications; that is, with books that have as their fundamental purpose neither a restatement of LDS positions in neutral terms nor an explication intended to illuminate, but rather a determination to demonstrate that Mormonism is false, of the devil, the unhealthy spawn of an unlettered and illiterate, but brilliant if possibly epileptic mind.
A checklist of topics reveals that more than a century ago, the same old charges were being leveled … and essentially left unanswered except through adroit linguistic manipulation of evidence. 
Some examples: 

* Joseph Smith was “alleged” to be a thief; by putting the phrase in quotations—“(it is alleged)”—Beers is able to introduce an oft-mentioned canard (then and now) without producing any evidence pro or con; and at the same time, should the accusation ultimately be proved false, he is safe. He didn’t actually call Joseph Smith a thief;
* “It is asserted” that as many as eleven persons saw the Plates from which the Book of Mormon were taken, another manipulation similar in structure and purpose to “it is alleged”; and, should that stratagem fail, Beers implies that since all but three were members of Joseph’s family or neighbors, readers should be under no compulsion to believe the claim, even if it were actually true;
*”It may be said that Joseph Smith was evidently a swindler”—a doubly padded accusation, since “It may be said” allows literally for anything to be said and evidently is what we might now consider a ‘weasel-word’ that introduces an equivocality into the statement. The second half of the statement is more straightforward: “because most of the Book of Mormon was copied from the manuscript of one Solomon Spaulding…”; although later he acknowledges that since a Spaulding manuscript had recently been discovered that had no resemblance to the Book of Mormon, there must be yet another, still undiscovered manuscript that would prove Joseph Smith a forger. Another book of the same name;
* “Doubtless” shows up regularly throughout the text as a way of supporting assertions that otherwise remain unproven, even undiscussed.
Beyond the linguistic manipulations, Beers makes a number of accusations that will resonate with anyone familiar with present-day anti-Mormon arguments.
Mormonism itself is:
*Evil—an “iniquitous system” that, although sprung “from the boson of the American nation” must be throttle by that nation;
*Non-Christian—in fact, it is closely linked to Diabolism, Animalism, Paganism, Mohammedanism, and Thuggism, among other unsavory and pernicious belief-systems;
*Stained by a history of murders and assassinations;
*A closed society with tyrannous leaders, secret principles, and mindless dupes as followers;
*Anti-American and inimical to the social order; an “organized treason against our Government and our laws”;
*Intent upon establishing a secular government, first in Utah, then in the United States, and then throughout the world;
*Unaccountably wealthy (although he does not provide figures, nor does he show where the wealth is spent—there are no references, for example, to ancestral mansions of the priesthood authorities). 
Mormon men are:
*Credulous and superstitious;
*Avaricious and power-hungry;
*Spies on other members in service to the Mormon hierarchy. 
Mormon women are:
*Servilely subservient;
*Unfitting to vote; at a time when the Utah Territory was one of the few areas which enfranchised women, part of Beers’ proposal is to disenfranchise them:  “there is no particular reason or justice in allowing the confessedly ignorant and enslaved women of Utah to vote, while the hightly intelligent women of Massachusetts and New York are not allowed to vote.”
Occasionally, especially in the latter portions of the book, Beers attempts to give the Mormons their due. Church elders held in the Utah Territory Federal penitentiary for violating recent anti-polygamy laws are honorable in their refusal to abandon wives and families, he notes; it is too bad, however, that they are being honorable in defense of a perverted and wicked doctrine.
Frequently, his attempts at being even-handed lead him into contradictions (as also frequently happens in present-day arguments). The Mormon priesthood, he states, depends upon the ignorance of their dupes for their power; in another part of the book, however, he states that the majority of Mormon men are members of the priesthood. Where then do the all of the dupes come from?
Even at his most positive, Beers’ compliments remain empty since for him, as he asserted at the beginning, Mormonism is one of two things: a swindle or a delusion. No matter how much he praises the perseverance of the commonality of the Church in the face of persecution, he constantly reminds readers that members must either be co-participants in the swindle or mindless victims of the delusion. There is no chance that what they believe and practice has any ultimate validity.
Supported by random anecdotes, frequently undocumented quotations that thus cannot be verified, percentages without obvious foundation, statements of opinion dressed as facts, linguistic buffers to protect the writer while savaging his victims, repetitions of charges then already half a century old and still unproven, Beers’ arguments—then and now—demonstrate little connection with reality. As such is it an oddly worthwhile handbook to anti-Mormon strategies.    


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