There’s an old saying, usually (but probably wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain that “a lie will go ’round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” Lies – or mistakes, or misunderstandings, or rumors; for purposes of this post it doesn’t matter what motivates an error – as well as some truth about the prophets and people of the Restoration have been printed in the world’s newspapers since our earliest days.
Even as far away as New Zealand, we were known very early on. An editorial in the Wellington Gazette, regarding some religious turmoil in that country, referred its readers to the fine example of the United States, where
… there is presented the spectacle of a great people, comprising in its numbers persons of almost every shade of religious opinion from the Romanist to the Mormonite … but all living in harmony, associating for the attainment of their common objects, whether religious or secular, without sacrificing or compromising their distinctive tenets.
The irony of that particular paragraph is that it was published on July 31, 1844, a month following the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (an event yet unknown, of course, in Wellington).
Reports of those murders make an interesting study of the treatment of Mormon subjects in the press. A report from Quincy, Illinois, printed within days of the martyrdom in St. Louis and New Orleans and elsewhere, presents the news this way:
The “Carthage Greys,” a volunteer company, were placed as a guard around the Jail. About 6 o’clock, last evening, an attempt was made by the Mormons on the outside to rescue the Mormon prisoners from the custody of the guard. A youth, about nineteen years of age. (a Mormon,) began the fray, by shooting the sentinel at the door, wounding him severely in the shoulder. Simultaneously with this attempt, the Mormons on the inside of the jail, including the Smiths, presented pistols through the windows and doors of the jail, and fired upon the guard without; wounding, it is supposed, mortally, four of the old citizens of Hancock! It is unnecessary to say that this bloodthirsty attempt, on the part of the Mormons, was the signal for certain and sure vengeance. The lives of the two Smiths, and Richards, were quickly taken, and we believe no others.
With the news that twisted so close to home, you might think the distortions would be enlarged the farther the story traveled. Not so. The news reached New Zealand by the end of the year, and was reported this way:
The Mormon prophet, Joe Smith, and his brother, Hiram Smith, are both dead. They were murdered in the debtors’ prison at Carthage, on or about the 25th of June. …
The circumstances attending the death of these men are very differently represented by the parties for and against them. It is said by their enemies, that the Smiths, while within the prison, fired with pistols upon the guard, and then attempted to escape, whereupon the guard returned the fire, and that they were then both slain. I have taken some trouble to ascertain the facts, and I have come to the conclusion that the following statement is as near the truth as anything that has yet appeared in print, but I may be mistaken.
On a solemn pledge given by Governor Ford, of Illinois, that their persons would be protected from injury by a mob, Joe and Hiram Smith, with others, suffered themselves to be arrested, and were removed to the gaol at Carthage, there to await a trial for any crime they might be charged with having committed. Everything appearing to be peaceful, only a small guard was left to protect the prisoners from being injured or from escaping.
On or about the 25th of June, a mob, consisting of sixty or seventy armed men, all disguised, rushed past the guard, in strength numbering only six or eight, into the gaol, and immediately commenced firing through the door of the room in which the prisoners were confined, wounding the Prophet; whereupon he and his brother fled to a window, and were in the act of jumping out, when Joe received three balls in his body and fell dead upon the ground. Hiram fell inside of the prison, having received ten or twelve balls through his body. these were the only Mormons killed. One or two others were wounded. The dead bodies were removed to Nauvoo (“the holy city”) to be interred with great solemnity. The followers of smith were greatly exasperated, but kept in subjection by their leaders. Smith’s mother is said to possess a controlling influence, which was exerted in the preservation of order, and the suppression of violence. At the last accounts every thing was tranquil.
Not perfect, but not bad, either. Even though the lies ran more swiftly, the truth managed to pull its boots on and get started eventually.
Today the truth has its boots on, all right, but sometimes it seems to be slogging along in those boots while the lies are wearing the latest technologically enhanced racing shoes. That seemed true last week when I read about the Wiki Wars , the tug-o’-war between supporters and detractors for the right to define Mormonism on Wikipedia. I heard from friends about their experiences in correcting factual errors and the antagonistic spins of Mormon doctrine and history: No matter how carefully they write, no matter how heavily they bolster their arguments with evidence, no matter how rationally they appeal for fairness, there are people who fear and hate Mormonism so badly that every alteration is reverted – switched back to its previous erroneous or unfair state – within moments of corrections being posted. There are people, it seems, who have dedicated their lives to keeping those track shoes snugly on the feet of the lies, who have chosen Wikipedia to make their stand.
That’s to be regretted, of course, since so many people innocently use Wikipedia as their default source for all kinds of topics. I use it myself, almost daily. We depend on the claim that articles are reliable because they have been vetted and corrected and adjusted and defended by editors of every imaginable background. (Insert your own sermonette here about the “honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men,” and those “who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.”)
I can’t blame anyone who has given up in the Wiki Wars; I don’t have the patience or the temperament to fight that battle, either. There are far more productive uses for my time.
I can’t erase the error that’s out there by trying to stomp it out – even if I succeeded in stomping it out from one corner, it would burst out in another. In the simile often used in pioneer Utah, that would be like the man who saw a mustard plant gone to seed in his field and became so angry that he kicked the plant all over the field, succeeding only in sowing mustard plants everywhere.
What I can do – what we all can do – is to put the truth out there, for honest men and women to find when they are sincerely looking. While Keepa’s regular readers are generally people who already love the truth, the stories of faithful men and women, the evidence of people who believe(d) and love(d) and support(ed) the faith, are posted where they can be found by anybody, among many other voices bearing witness to the same truth. Your supportive comments give that much more weight to Keepa’s testimony – thank you for your participation.
If we can’t halt the errors, we don’t have to fear the ultimate outcome. As Joseph said,
The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.
And we can have a whole lot of fun here while we’re at it.