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Arthur Conan Doyle Reinterprets Joseph Smith

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 08, 2008

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, mastermind behind the master mind of Sherlock Holmes, famously pitched into the Mormons in his A Study in Scarlet in 1887:

The supply of adult women was running short, and polygamy without a female population on which to draw was a barren doctrine indeed. Strange rumours began to be bandied about – rumours of murdered immigrants and rifled camps in regions where Indians had never been seen. New women appeared in the harems of the elders – women who pined and wept, and bore upon their faces the traces of unextinguishable horror. Belated wanderers upon the mountains spoke of gangs of armed men, masked, stealthy, and noiseless, who flitted by them in the darkness. These tales and rumours took substance and shape, and were corroborated and recorroborated, until they resolved themselves into a definite name. To this day, in the lonely ranches of the West, the name of the Danite Band, or the Avenging Angels, is a sinister and an ill-omened one.

Some 46 years later, Doyle visited Salt Lake City on a lecture tour of the United States. He was favorably impressed with the Mormons on that occasion, but declined to apologize for his earlier “overcoloured” depiction: “[T]he facts were true enough, though there were many reasons which might extenuate them.”

Doyle spoke in the Tabernacle on 11 May 1923, in a program sponsored by the University of Utah extension service, to an audience composed of 5,000 “pastors of many churches, attorneys, doctors, men of science, students of literature, bankers, merchants, mechanics, salesmen, railroad men, from executive down to the clerical force, women, from social leaders down to house servants – representatives of every type and station,” and to a smaller group of select community leaders – including LDS general authorities James E. Talmage and Edgar Levi Young – at a luncheon the following day.

His subject at both events was spiritualism – his belief, accompanied by “ectoplasmic” photographs, that once the physical world was escaped at death, the immaterial (or nearly so) remnant of man’s spirit went on to another sphere of unimaginable bliss. He believed that the spirits of the departed could manifest themselves in the physical world through the gifts of certain mystics, and that he had successfully photographed several events of communion between the physical and immaterial worlds.

He wrote about his American tour is his Our Second American Adventure (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1924), which has several times been quoted in Mormon reviews for its positive description of Utah, his Mormon hosts, his reception in the Tabernacle, and the general polite ignoring of his earlier treatment of Mormonism in A Study in Scarlet.

What fascinates me more, however, is his reinterpretation of the Joseph Smith account as the story of a medium receiving visitors from the spiritualist’s version of the world after death, unable to “correctly” interpret them as a mature spiritualist would have done, but describing his experiences in the only terms known to a young, ignorant farm boy: those of traditional religious experience. Reading Doyle’s reinterpretation is like reading Mormonism in the distorting mirrors of a fun-house.

You can read his entire chapter if you’re interested; what follows are key excerpts:

There are points, to which I will allude later, which Spiritualism and Mormonism have in common.

The most interesting document the “Mormons” possess and the one which is of most value to the historian is Joseph Smith’s own account of the whole matter. I think that it is impossible for anyone with a discriminating mind to read a long narrative without understanding whether it is written honestly or not. Here is a long, plain statement by a man who finally sealed his faith with his blood. I am prepared to take it up to a point at its face value, but I am also prepared to maintain that the writer, from his ignorance of psychic matters, lost all sense of proportion and misinterpreted to a great extent the evidence which was put before him.

We have to remember that when apparitions form the other world, teachers or angels, come through, they usually assume some very high name, meaning perhaps that this message is in the name of that High Person. This is the “Angel of the Lord” of Scriptures. … So in the case of Joseph Smith it is easy to grant that he saw an apparition and that he believed that apparition to be the Father and the Son. It is only this latter belief which I would dispute. I am sure that he believed it honestly, but that he was not aware of the strange way in which things are done from beyond.

Having made this concession, everything resolves itself into a plain case of mediumship with all its attendant signs. …

What was the message? It was really the same which we [the spiritualists in general and Doyle in particular] have got ourselves, but which we have been able to interpret more fully because we have had a far wider experience, and have been able to systematize and compare many examples of what to Smith was an isolated miracle. The message was that the Christian Creeds had wandered very far away from primitive spiritual truths and that while “they retain the form of godliness they deny the power thereof,” which expresses in other words what we mean when we say that ritual and forms have completely driven out that direct spirit-communion and power which are the real living core of religion.

Smith seems to have had no further psychic experience for three years, during which he admits very frankly that he was no better than his neighbours, though he refused to be bullied out of the fact that he had actually seen a vision. At the end of that time, being in his eighteenth year, he had a whole night of trance. In the course of it he saw a high spirit, who gave the name Moroni and who claimed to have lived upon earth some 1,400 years ago – a perfectly possible apparition.

Moroni appeared clad in that brilliant white which is familiar in spiritual accounts, and which occurs so often in the psychic descriptions of the Bible. Thus far we can closely follow and approve the sequence of events. Then there comes a passage which rings untrue, in which Smith gives those long portions of the Bible which Moroni quoted, and shows where they were as in the original and where they differed. This would imply that Smith knew the Bible by heart and also that he remembered with verbal accuracy all that Moroni said, which is surely incredible. We will take it that he simply means to give general impressions as to how far Moroni endorsed or disputed the texts.

But now we come to the core of the matter, which leaves Smith either a deliberate impostor or a most privileged mortal. Moroni declared that a book written upon gold or metallic plates was to be found at a certain place. Also that there were two stones with them which were Urim and Thummim, and gave the power of interpretation of the book. Of course the idea that Urim and Thummim, the mystic stones of the Hebrews, were used for such ends was not novel, and may well have reached the ears of a youth who lived in a community where religious questions were much discussed. The disappearance of Moroni is described with a precision of detail which carries the conviction of some actual experience to the mind. Next day the medium “found my strength so exhausted as to render me entirely unable to work.” “I fell helpless to the ground and for a time was unconscious of anything.” This psychic exhaustion is of course a familiar symptom and once again fires Joseph Smith’s experience into the known signs of mediumistic power.

The spirit-message had told Smith where the plates were deposited, and, according to his account, he went there and saw the hillside exactly as indicated in the vision. …

At this point [Oliver Cowdery’s coming to aid Joseph Smith, followed by restoration of priesthood authority and ordinances], it seems to me, the decay of the system begins to manifest itself, for clearly, instead of being a message of hope and knowledge for the whole human race such as we bring by Spiritualism, it is tending towards the discredited and old-world idea of a special priestly caste, of formal sacraments, and of a new sect, complete in itself and antagonistic to the other sects. It is curious that this decline should have come within a month of the accession of Oliver Co[w]dery.

From now onwards there came the period of conversions, of organization, of growth, and of edicts delivered by priestly authority, a source of strength, no doubt, when coming from an inspired saint, but dangerous, as all history has shown, when carried on as a custom. …

But there is still the important point to be discussed, what about the Book of Mormon? What story does it tell? How far are the facts narrated in it credible in view of our present knowledge of history and ethnology? It strains us. No one can deny that it strains us. And yet, knowing the wonderful things that have happened in the world, one cannot say that it is absolutely impossible. I fancy few Gentiles have read the Mormon revelation. I have done so, and would record my impressions. …

On the purely secular side there is some support. The buried cities of Yucatan and Central America with their pyramids, and the general suggestion of Oriental construction and ornament upon them, might be quoted. …

So much for the historic side. It is on the side of revealed religion that the record is weak, so weak that there are only two possible explanations, the first that the whole thing from start to finish is a fraudulent fabrication, the second that Joseph Smith had a record, as is vouched for by so many, and that he worked into it his own religious memories and conceptions. Any other view seems to be untenable. …

In the numerous messages, delivered under alleged inspiration, by Smith there are many passages which seem to me to be true, as they coincide with the spirit-information which we have ourselves received. Thus in one passage he describes how death confers no knowledge upon a man, but he finds his mental outfit the same as before. This was both new and true. Then, again, he declares that spirit is itself a superfine matter, and here again we are in agreement. True marriage carries on, but the tepid or cold marriage dissolves. That also we know. There are very many resemblances in our teaching. But in dealing with inspiration one has always to bear in mind St. Paul’s profound saying that the prophet (i.e. the medium) should keep his spirits subject to him and not be subjected by them. One’s own conscience and judgment must keep constant guard. …

I believe, then, that Smith was a true medium, but that his controls were not always reliable, nor did he have sufficient character to check them as they should be checked. …

If you have the time, the full account – about twice the length of this post – is a worthwhile, slightly disorienting reexamination of a familiar story by a man who clearly had done most of his homework.



10 Comments »

  1. Of course Doyle also did his homework on the fairies.

    (Not that you can dismiss someone’s entire body of work based on one dubious episode in their career, but it’s definitely something to be taken into consideration.)

    Comment by Researcher — September 8, 2008 @ 7:28 am

  2. I had read A Study in Scarlet before but not this later work. Thank you.

    This reminds me of an event on my mission. We ran into one contact that upon hearing about the first vision responded with a question. “So why did Joseph Smith Believe them? Just because they said they were God & Jesus Christ doesn’t mean they were.”

    Comment by BruceC — September 8, 2008 @ 8:00 am

  3. What’s more interesting is considering the Spiritualists among the Godbeites and imagine what their view of Mormonism was overall. That syncretic movement between the Spiritualists and Mormons always was interesting to me.

    Comment by Clark — September 8, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  4. I’ve seen a number of spiritualists claim Smith over the years. Some angel guidebooks (people would call them New Age now) actually list Moroni. Ann Taves is useful here (Fits, Trances, and Visions). Spiritualism was amazingly big news across America. Laurence Moore, In Search of White Crows is also good. Fun excerpt; thanks for sharing.

    Comment by smb — September 8, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

  5. I was familiar with the accounts of Mark Twain and Richard Burton, but not this one. It is interesting to see the respect the saints showed people, even to one who had previously written such a sensationalist work as A Study in Scarlet and who discounted Joseph Smith’s role as a prophet. Were there any other of theses major literary figures who came out and actually looked at how the Mormons actually did things and wrote about it?

    Comment by Eric Boysen — September 9, 2008 @ 6:31 am

  6. Eric, are you familiar with Charles Dickens’s account of his visit to a Mormon emigrant ship? Not quite what you’re asking for, but it’s an astonishingly positive, honest account of what he saw (mixed inevitably with some unpleasant assumptions of what they might be headed toward, based on factors he did not witness).

    Then there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brief encounter with Mormonism during his political service in Britain. (Hawthorne didn’t mention it, but the Mormon involved did.)

    Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas) enjoyed his opportunity to play the Tabernacle organ.

    I can think of others who were polite and generally kind, and some who were not, but can’t think off hand of a major figure who made more than a superficial study.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 9, 2008 @ 7:00 am

  7. Of course the big problem with A Study in Scarlet is that it gets so much of the history wrong. I mean if you’re going to write a lurid book about Danites at least get the basic Church structure right.

    Comment by Clark — September 9, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

  8. Ah, Clark, but it’s so much more fun to invent salacious things and ignore real ones! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 9, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  9. #8 – Ain’t that the truth!

    This truly was a fascinating read, Ardis.

    Comment by Ray — September 9, 2008 @ 7:32 pm

  10. Thanks Ardis. I will look for those things.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — September 10, 2008 @ 6:40 am

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