Yesterday at Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks posted a warning about a Congressional hearing “to put an entire religion [Islam] on trial” today. She quotes Mormon scholar Kathleen Flake on the nature of the Smoot hearings of the early 20th century, where Mormonism was put on trial by similar government action. (It isn’t clear to me what is the source of the lengthy KFlake quotation there; the structure of the post suggests that it came from KFlake’s book on the seating of Senator Reed Smoot, but that 2004 book doesn’t discuss specific political developments of 2011, of course; nor could it have come from the 2007 PBS The Mormons interview of KFlake, the other source linked in yesterday’s post.)
JBrooks’s next paragraph rang some bells for me, though:
In the 19th century, Mormonism was frequently characterized in Congress and in public discourse as a threat to the American way of life. Opposition to polygamy was used to legitimize and cover anti-Mormon sentiment. In 1901, at what might have been one of the the [sic] high points of American anti-Mormonism, the president of the LDS Church Joseph F. Smith said, “We’ve got a problem. There are good people on this earth who think they’re doing God a service to kill us.”
The same quotation attributed to Joseph F. Smith was used last summer to make a very similar point to JBrooks’s: Pat Bagley, a columnist as well as cartoonist for the Salt Lake Tribune, asserted that “the Mormon ‘9/11 Mosque moment’ happened more than 100 years ago” with the Smoot hearings. He wrote:
Upon becoming church president, Joseph F. Smith despaired: “We’ve got a problem. There are good people on this earth who think they’re doing God a service to kill us.”
Did Joseph F. Smith really say that? It seemed a little too tailor-made for today’s political climate, when two authors could – apparently independently – use the same quotation for virtually the same purpose, one of today’s hottest of hot button American political issues. I wondered where the quotation had come from, and whether it was valid, or if, like so many Facebook status updates and email taglines, it was merely a made-up statement created to lend false authority to somebody’s pet views (a practice so ubiquitous as to have been parodied: “Someday I shall be misquoted on the Internet to prove propositions I never believed” – A. Lincoln).
So did JFSmith ever say that, and if so, where and when?
Googling – always the first step in source sleuthing these days! – turned up only three uses of that quotation: JBrooks’s Religion Dispatches article from yesterday, PBagley’s August 2010 column, and KFlake’s 2007 PBS interview (plus a slew of blogs and spammy sites reproducing one or another of those sources). Period. That’s it.
That raised a red, red flag: How likely is it that a quotation perfect for today’s political environment could have been discovered only now, a century after it was purportedly uttered? That’s one of my rules of thumb for judging the credibility of all kinds of discourse: If George Washington, or Patrick Henry, or Abraham Lincoln, or Brigham Young, or Mark Twain, or John F. Kennedy, really, truly, honestly said something, the statement will almost certainly have appeared in reliable print publications through the years. If it suddenly pops up on the Internet without being traceable to a scholarly print source, it’s almost certainly a fake creation of the mass email forwarding generation.
But there’s a clue in the earliest known use of this JFSmith statement. The PBS transcript of KFlake’s 2007 interview quotes her as saying:
In Europe governments were refusing to admit missionaries to the country. They were also refusing to allow their own citizens to emigrate to Utah; they were refusing to allow Mormon congregations to be formed or Mormons to worship. In fact, in 1901, when Joseph F. Smith becomes president of the Mormon Church, he says to his congregation, he says in his first speech: “We’ve got a problem. There are good people on this earth who think they’re doing God a service to kill us.”
Now, again, they’re not so much concerned at this point about being believed; they’re concerned about being heard, because their reputation is so bad that good people won’t give them the time of day. … And if people won’t hear that message, they might as well just pack up and go home.
That clue is the folksy tone, the conversational style of the lines surrounding the attributed statement. KFlake is not reading a formal document, not pretending to report the exact words of JFSmith. She is having an oral conversation with an interviewer, summarizing and paraphrasing and drawing on her awareness of people and events and issues of the past in a general, almost casual way. What PBagley and JBrooks have been so careful to reproduce accurately in their columns is actually KFlake’s paraphrase, not JFSmith’s actual words.
But what could JFSmith have actually said that could have been paraphrased this way?
Tinkering with the ideas expressed in the statement rather than its precise wording, I quickly realized that the ultimate source was the New Testament:
They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. – John 16:2
Finally, with a great deal more tinkering of search terms, I tracked down the actual words of JFSmith, from his Conference address of
October November 1901. The first hit for the search terms I happened to use led to a Bloggernacle site, actually – BoAP.org:
We have been looked upon as interlopers, as fanatics. as believers in a false religion; we have been regarded with contempt, and treated despicably; we have been driven from our homes, maligned and spoken evil of everywhere, until the people of the world have come to believe that we are the offscourings of the earth and scarcely fit to live. There are thousands and thousands of innocent people in the world whose minds have become so darkened by the slanderous reports that have gone forth concerning us that they would feel they were doing God’s service to deprive a member of this Church of life, or of liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, if they could do it.
Not nearly as succinct and quotable as KFlake’s paraphrase, but her paraphrase accurately conveys the gist of the original.
Taking the last step to verify the accuracy of this quotation as found at BoAP.org, note the transcription of JFSmith’s talk in the contemporary conference proceedings.
“So what” is that JFSmith did say what JBrooks and PBagley and KFlake said he said, almost. Skepticism doesn’t always lead to debunking; sometimes it leads to confirming.
“So what” is that WVS at BoAP.org rocks.
“So what” is that the paraphrase seems positioned to become an Internet fixture. It’s provocative, it’s memorable, it fills an obvious niche in current political discourse, and – at least in KFlake’s paraphrase – it’s eminently quotable. I’m not faulting either JBrooks or PBagley for not verifying the quotation before repeating it: each of them carefully and accurately reproduced their source, and at some point we all have to rely on our sources without digging to the bedrock of every last statement. And I’m certainly not faulting KFlake for paraphrasing: her words and style were eminently appropriate for the setting, and her paraphrase accurately conveys the sense, if not the actual words, of JFSmith. (Note, too, that KFlake used JFSmith’s actual words in her 2004 book.)
“So what” is that most questionable Internet attributions are so far removed from their origins that it is impossible to know where or when or why they were created. If this particular paraphrase does become a staple of Internet Mormon quote files as I anticipate, this post will be findable to document its origin. It’s kind of fun to catch something like that at a point where it’s still traceable.
P.S.: I apologize for the awkwardness of referring to them as JBrooks and PBagley and KFlake. I didn’t want to refer to Flake so informally as “Kathleen,” yet I didn’t want to refer to Joanna, a regular Bloggernacle contributor, so formally as “Brooks,” and I didn’t want to mix styles. So I picked something that is probably equally offensive to all.
P.P.S.: Please, let’s not have a political debate on whether Islam equals terrorism (it does not) or about the wisdom or scandal (it’s scandal) of holding today’s Congressional hearings on Islam. That isn’t what this post is about.