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What an Irishman Thought of Us in 1851

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 17, 2010

BELFAST NEWS-LETTER
5 November 1851

An Hour with the Mormons!

To the Editor of the Belfast News-Letter.

Sir – A number of individuals, presided over by an “Elder,” and calling themselves “Latter-day Saints,” now occupy the little building in King Street, formerly used by the members of the Baptist communion. The walls of our town, on Saturday, being covered with placards, with the striking heading, “Restoration of the Gospel,” and announcing that “Elder Wallace, from the Great Salt Lake Valley,” would preach a sermon, I determined to be present.

When I entered the small meeting-house, I saw about fifty individuals assembled, many of them, like myself, no doubt, brought thither by curiosity. After a rapid glance at the congregation generally, my eyes, wanderers as they are, were next directed to a small table, which sat before a comfortable-looking gentleman, having on it two plates, on which were some pieces of bread, and a glass vessel, containing something very green-looking, “original ginger,” I dare say.

“Elder Wallace” then attracted my notice, talking away from his little desk – to call it a pulpit would be a misnomer. He had not, as is usual, a Bible open before him, but a shilling copy of the Word of God, to all appearance, lay there closed; it being of little use to these gentry as it is not their gospel. What his text was I could not make out; indeed, from the rambling way in which he talked, a text would have answered no purpose.

He had not proceeded far before I had classed this “high priest” – for such I am informed he is, when out at the Mormon settlement – and all his congregation who believed what he said, with those whom Cowper aptly described as

“Church quacks, with passions under no command,
Who fill the world with doctrines contraband;
Discoverers of they know not what, confined
Within no bounds – the blind that lead the blind,
To streams of fatal error drawn,
Deposit in those shallows all their spawn.
The wriggling fry soon fill the creeks around,
Pois’ning the waters where their swarms abound.
Scorned by the nobler tenants of the flood,
Minnows and grudgeons gorge th’ unwholesome food.”

“Elder Wallace” denounced, in no measured terms, the bigotry and superstition of those who still cling to the faith of their fathers, and refused to receive the concoction of Joe Smith as a revelation from heaven. The way in which he defended the character of their “prophet,” the aforesaid Smith, raised my indignation to the utmost, and I could scarcely “keep down my ire” while he proceeded. What was the defence, think your readers? Just this. He instituted a comparison between the Saviour of lost man – “He who was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners” – and the infamous false prophet who met with his death from the hands of an indignant population; and asserted that as Christ was innocent, although those in authority at the time, as well as those who had most religion amongst the Jews, cried out for his blood, so, in like manner, although D.D.’s and fanatics tried to prove to the contrary, Smith was innocent, and a true prophet of God! At this shocking comparison, several of his audience seemed very much pleased, and I observed a couple of “saints” elbow each other, as much as to say – “That’s capital.”

Waxing warm, he then lifted in his left hand (which, I forgot to say, was adorned with a ring) the Bible, and declared that the Mormons were the only people who believed the Bible literally. The Methodists, for instance, on any ticklish point, run to Dr. Clarke, and believe him in preference to the Bible. Who was Dr. Clarke? – he was never sent to preach the gospel. “But,” says “Elder Wallace” (still holding the Bible in his hand), “this is not the Gospel. We don’t receive it as such. The gospel existed long before this book was heard of. It was preached by Abraham and Moses.” I was going to ask him to produce what the Mormons call their gospel, and let me see the plates; but I did not like to disturb the repose of “the saints,” many of whom seemed to be almost mesmerised.

He then began to the practical, and said that the same cause will produce the same results, &c. From this he argued that those who believed, repented (thus inverting the order of things), and were baptised (i.e., ducked), were still enabled to do what the apostles did in their time, quoting as proof of this the promise in Mark xvi., 17, 18: – “And these signs shall follow them that believe: in My name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” This he knew and had experienced himself.

The man, to my mind, seemed totally ignorant of the plan of salvation, and I then thought that he was recommending to the people

“An ignis fatuus that bewitches,
And leads men into pools and ditches,
to make them dip themselves, and sound
For Christendom in dirty pond;
To dive like wild-fowl for salvation,
And fish to catch regeneration.”

It would be very little use for me to occupy your space by detailing, at any greater length, the foolish things that this “Elder” from the Salt Lake said in his address. Suffice it to say, he boldly stated that the deluded followers of Joe Smith were the only people of God, and tried to prove that all the Christian Churches of our land – its glory and its boast – were little better than the Bushmen of Africa.

This importation from the Far West was dressed a la Yankee, and talked very glibly; but was incapable of speaking a sentence of English correctly, and took the liberty of a “saint” in “laying hands” upon the language with the most unfortunate effect, for I am certain a jury of common tradesmen would have brought him in guilty of murdering his mother tongue. You have heard, no doubt, of the child who, on a visit to her friends in the country, asked a playmate to “come into the gerden to shear gress.” The Elder sometimes talked in the same rather too nice pronunciation. He said something about the “deef hearing, the leem lepping like the hart upon the mountings.”

The preacher then began to “stump” about the number of the Mormonites in England, Scotland, Wales, and America, and coolly told his audience not to be cast down at the opposition of the world, assuring them, “If ye were of the world, the world would love you, but because God has chosen you out of the world, therefore” (capital and consolatory conclusion!) “the world hates you.” His peroration had reference to their hopes and prospects, both with reference to time and eternity, and he ended by an ejaculation for the eternal happiness of the “saints,” which was followed by responsive shouts of “Amen.”

“Elder Wallace” was followed by the regular priest of the sect, who expressed the happiness he had experienced in listening to the “clear, simple, and yet powerful arguments” of the “saint” who had preceded him, and launched out on the same tack, expressing his conviction in the full “restoration of the gospel” that had been preached to Abraham. He then invited any strangers to stop and partake of the sacrament, and hear the experience of the “saints”; but a great many, with myself, departed.

I have now, Sir, given you my impressions on my first visit to the Mormon chapel. I felt pained to see so many dupes of this great imposture, evidently listening with pleasure to such deceitful and soul-destroying doctrines. The cool effrontery of their “prophets,” in commencing such a trade in Belfast, is great, indeed; but I dare say this batch will go like the last which visited the Athens of the North – that is, when they have effectually fleeced their poor dupes, and “stern necessity” compels them to seek out a new field for the exercise of their art.

That some of the ignorant and “anythingarian” of the population should be gulled by these “saints” is not very strange; but that any intelligent member of our community, much less any individual who has known the truth, should be led astray by these speculators in the credulity of human nature, is beyond conception. Should there be one or two, as I believe there are, the sooner they return to the “old paths” the better for their present peace, as well as for their eternal interests.

C.W.



15 Comments »

  1. I really enjoyed some of the linguistical aspects of this — the author’s poking fun at Yankee pronunciations; “anythingarian”, “laying hands” upon the language; and the saints nodding as if to say, “That’s capital.” Fun stuff and wonderful images, if a bit piquante!

    The part that surprised me was at the end. Throughout, the letter writer uses a tone of an investigatory journalist, and then, it sounds like it gets personal. The letter writer says that it’s understandable how an ignoramus could get swept up in the folly of the “Mormonites,” but . . .

    . . . that any intelligent member of our community, much less any individual who has known the truth, should be led astray by these speculators in the credulity of human nature, is beyond conception. Should there be one or two, as I believe there are, the sooner they return to the “old paths” the better for their present peace, as well as for their eternal interests.

    This sounds to me more than just incredulity that an intelligent person could be persuaded by the Mormon elders, but also as if the letter writer is addressing a particular few people s/he knows, and is truly concerned for them. Interesting stuff. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — March 17, 2010 @ 9:24 am

  2. Ah, so it wasn’t Alan Jay Lerner who came up with that image:

    By right she should be taken out and hung,
    For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!

    Comment by Mark B. — March 17, 2010 @ 9:51 am

  3. The second bit of poetry quoted is from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. Interesting to see that the Elders were looked down on for having a cheap “shilling” copy of the Bible, their Yankee clothes, along with the awful American accents. I’m impressed with the writer’s attention to detail. This was no wild-eyed fanatical denunciation of the Mormons, but a much more dispassionate approach. Loved to read it.

    Comment by kevinf — March 17, 2010 @ 11:56 am

  4. I guess I should have caught this the first time, but how appropriate to have this Irish-themed post for St. Patrick’s day, Ardis. Which reminds me of an old joke, about the Irish…

    Nah, can’t do it.

    Comment by kevinf — March 17, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  5. /rhythmic chant rising from the masses/ Do! It! Do! It!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 17, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  6. Did you hear about the Irish 7 course meal? A six-pack and a boiled potato!

    Comment by kevinf — March 17, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  7. That reminds me of the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral.

    One less drunk.

    Yeah, it should be “fewer” but that sounds too proper for a joke like this.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 17, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  8. /groan/ These both are bad enough to appear in the Funny Bones collections!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 17, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  9. “Original ginger” puzzled me–i’m guessing it’s a reference to Stone’s Original Green Ginger Wine, which i find by googling. I’m curious whether that was seen as a low-class beverage, since that would seem to match the tone of the narrative.

    I also find it interesting that Elder Wallace wearing a ring on his left hand was worth stressing–is this another poke that i don’t get, not having the same cultural background as the writer?

    Comment by David B — March 17, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  10. Poking around a bit further, i find that Stone’s Original Green Ginger Wine, despite its name, is reddish. Now i’m very puzzled what it was referring to.

    Comment by David B — March 17, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  11. I think you’re on the right track, David, with it being ginger ale or ginger beer, maybe Fentiman’s (it’s been around that long) or a home brew. Between the mild fermentation and the home-brew aspect, it probably was low-brow. Anne? Alison? David? any other readers from that part of the world who might be better at the cultural clues than I am?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 17, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

  12. Alcohol as a sacrament beverage? When was that done away with? I guess after 1851, huh? (Sorry for the threadjack.)

    I think the ring comment is supposed to be disparaging in that Irish Catholic priests were celibate, so being married meant the Elder wasn’t as holy or devout as a “real” priest.

    Elder Wallace gets the last laugh though, as we hold his name and sacrifices for the gospel in sacred remembrance.

    The nameless Irishman can return “to the vile dust from which he sprung; unwept, unhonored, and unsung.”

    (I have a low opinion of those who seek to discredit the Church based on the economic status of those who preach it…)

    Comment by Clark — March 17, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

  13. The writer does bring up an embarrassing aspect of LDS missionary preaching that endured into the 1950′s at least. It reminded me of something my mission president said to us back in the 1980′s. When he was a missionary (in the 1950′s I presume), the first lesson consisted of bashing the Catholic church. Not just teaching “The Apostasy” as is done now, but really going negative.

    As illustrated in Joseph Smith’s account of the religious fervor in his area up through 1820, I suppose attacking the opposition was a common tactic for preachers of all denominations.

    From what I’ve read in Journal of Discourses, the saints of the 19th century had bitter feelings towards Catholicism, more so than Protestantism. And if people today (Catholics and non-Catholics) understood better the nature of Catholicism in America prior to the 1960′s, (or prior to the 1980′s world-wide) they would better understand the reasons for anti-Catholic sentiment. In the 1960′s in the US (later elsewhere) the Catholic church underwent a reformation, part of which was to become less controlling and domineering of its members. For instance, lay people had not been allowed to read the Bible.

    Today’s level of diplomacy and respect did not always exist in the church’s missionary system.

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 19, 2010 @ 9:31 am

  14. Until very recently I liked to listen to a Seventh Day Adventist broadcast on Saturdays while I did desk work. No more. They had a program that ridiculed Mormonism — I don’t even remember now what aspect — with shots of the audience smiling condescendingly to accompany the minister’s more pointed ridicule. I’ve never watched them since.

    If I didn’t realize before what was at risk by that behavior, Bookslinger, I do now.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 19, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  15. You know, coming from a family with a long Roman Catholic history, i don’t know that anyone could say that the Catholic church was “controlling and domineering” of its members in the century before the 1960s. I know that my great-grandparents grew up in (late nineteenth century highly devout Catholic) homes where the Bible was one of the major sources of reading material, for example. There were, i’m sure, some dioceses where such micromanaging took place, but i’ve seen no evidence that such was the rule.

    The rumors that flew around about Catholicism’s “evils” back then, actually, remind me rather pointedly of the rumors that fly around about Mormonism even now. We really ough to be careful about vectoring them further.

    And i find rather little anti-Catholic sentiment in the pre-Utah history of the church–Catholicism doesn’t even seem to have been on the radar. It leads to an interesting question of where it came from.

    Comment by David B — March 19, 2010 @ 10:47 am

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