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“Doing God a Service to Kill Us”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 10, 2011

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?

“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.

Provenance, people!

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.



32 Comments »

  1. It is both remarable and depressing that history is repeating itself. Not so long ago, and in some place, as a whole “Mormon” was something to be destroyed, wiped-out and never mentioned again. Now as a people we are respected, still ignored, sought after and are parts of a whole. While I can’t claim to be an expert on Islam, I find this whole Congressional hearing sad and a trampling of the Constitution. Who will be next?

    Comment by Andrew's Other Half — March 10, 2011 @ 7:06 am

  2. Excellent.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 10, 2011 @ 7:08 am

  3. Thank you for your research!

    Comment by kew — March 10, 2011 @ 7:30 am

  4. Way to go, Ardis!

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — March 10, 2011 @ 8:01 am

  5. Thank You!

    Comment by Coffinberry — March 10, 2011 @ 8:11 am

  6. This was an interesting read. Great work, Ardis! But why are you working so hard on your birthday?!

    Comment by David Y. — March 10, 2011 @ 8:57 am

  7. For the same reason a drunk drinks, my friend … to forget!

    Thanks for the response, all. Also, I’m about to free a comment caught in the filter because it’s political rather than one addressing scholarship or method. Please, let’s steer clear of politics beyond that — I’m sure there will be opportunities on other Mormon blogs today to carry on such discussions.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 10, 2011 @ 9:03 am

  8. I love your work, Ardis.

    You may find this funny. I’m doing some IT consulting work in North Carolina this week, working with a man who studied languages for the last 30 years. He’s of a Southern Baptism persuasion and teaches a Sunday School class in his church incorporating Greek and Hebrew into his lessons.

    So I turned to him a few minutes ago and asked him if he’d ever heard of the phrase, “There are good people on this earth who think they’re doing God a service to kill us.”

    He immediately responded, “I think that’s in John”.

    Comment by queuno — March 10, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  9. Love the detective work on this quote. That’s the fun part of history research. And Happy Birthday! Oops, sorry, you were trying to forget.

    Oh, and I have a suggestion for your epitaph, which is obviously still way, way out there:

    Provenance, people!

    Comment by kevinf — March 10, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  10. We need to all remember now when Ardis’ birthday is, and coordinate an eParty next year…

    Comment by queuno — March 10, 2011 @ 9:28 am

  11. Congratulations on an excellent piece of research.
    If you think about Joseph F, Smith’s background the quote “fits”, remember his father and uncle were killed when he was six by men who had felt that they were doing God a service.

    I wish more people in the Church were as careful about the profvenance of quotes as Ardis is.

    A few weeks ago while visiting another ward one of the speakers used a “quote” by James Madison about “our future being staked on following the 10 commandments”, a nice thought but there is absolutely no primary source in any of Madison’s published or unpublished writings that Madison ever said anything like that.

    The alleged Madison quote does NOT “fit” with Madison’s overall views on religion. He was a deist who had a lot of problems with Anglican Virginia religous establishment of his time.

    Comment by john willis — March 10, 2011 @ 9:36 am

  12. I *do* find that funny, queuno — tell him I admire him, and you can bet I’ll never again have any question as to the Biblical source of that statement.

    Am going to amend my will, kevinf, with the instruction to carve that in stone some day — literally. It’s oddly fitting for a headstone in any case (“Where did SHE come from?”)

    If you throw an eParty, queuno, I’ll throw some eConfetti and offer you some eCake.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 10, 2011 @ 9:36 am

  13. That’s exactly the kind of “quotation” I’ve seen thrown around ad nauseum, john, and, frankly, what I expected to find with this one. The sentiment may fit JFS for the reason you note, but its easy adaptation to a modern context felt suspect. Also, the wording of “We’ve got a problem” sounded too modern, too informal to have been used by JFS in a public speech.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 10, 2011 @ 9:41 am

  14. Since Lorenzo Snow died in Oct. of 1901, Flake’s attribution of the quote to JFSmith’s “first speech” as “president of the Mormon Church” is a good indication you found the right one.

    Comment by Clark — March 10, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  15. Yup. Good point.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 10, 2011 @ 10:25 am

  16. “So what” is that WVS at BoAP.org rocks.

    True indeed, as does Ardis Parshall at Keepa. Thanks for the fun read.

    Comment by David G. — March 10, 2011 @ 11:08 am

  17. Yes, David G. hath said justly.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 10, 2011 @ 11:46 am

  18. Ardis, I admire both your research skills and whatever it is in your nature that leads you to dig like this. While I’m interested in the outcome, the thought of expending the energy to do so makes me want to take a nap.

    Comment by Ellen — March 10, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  19. “We’ve got a problem” as a phrase illustrating a difficulty was popularized in this generation by Apollo 13, right?

    Comment by queuno — March 10, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

  20. Very nicely done.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 10, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  21. Nice post, but I’ll have to echo what Ellen said (about the nap). Kudos to you and WVS and many happy returns of the day.

    By the way, isn’t it about the time of year that your web hosting fees are due? Would you mind if any of your interested readers chipped in a bit towards that to celebrate your birthday? I see that you still have the little donation button on the sidebar from when an anonymous reader asked about that last year. (That was me. : )

    We (DH and I) do feel that the work you do is very valuable to the Mormon history community and it is nice of you to allow us to help support your amazing work.

    Comment by Researcher — March 10, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  22. Oh, good call on the web hosting fees, Researcher! Ardis, please do let us know.

    By the by, Researcher, you’ve done more than your share of … shall we say RESEARCH, so you haven’t been napping much!

    Comment by Ellen — March 10, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

  23. Oh, heck, I find what most people do for fun to be too exhausting to think of (skiing?? driving somewhere and parking and going to sit in a crowd to watch a football game or a movie??) — I’m just glad you’re willing to read the reports of my nosing around.

    Thanks, Researcher, for asking about the hosting fees. Yeah, it’s getting to be that time again. I appreciate the donations that have come from several of you through the year. They all just sit in that PayPal account where they will help defray Keepa’s expenses in a few weeks. Thanks to those of you who have thought of that. You might not think that $5 is much help, but it really is a great help when added to other donations.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 10, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

  24. I’ve just corrected the OP to indicate that JFSmith’s talk was given in November (10 November 1901) rather than in the regular October Conference. As Clark noted in #14, Lorenzo Snow had just died. Apparently the new First Presidency called for a special session on 10 November to conduct priesthood business connected with the change in administration, rather than waiting a full six months for the next regularly scheduled general conference of April 1902.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 10, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  25. Thanks for the shout out Ardis. We like it when people use it.

    Comment by WVS — March 10, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

  26. Happy Ardis Day, Ardis! Put sprinkles on your brussels sprouts!

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — March 10, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  27. When I read the title of your piece, I assumed you were quoting the passage in the Gospel of John about the persecution to be expected by the disciples of Christ. That was clearly the theme of the efforts by many “establishment” Jews toward Jesus and his followers–including the pre-visionary Saul/Paul, and it played out in the cases of James (son of Zebedee), Stephen, and James (brother of Jesus), as well as the vow that was made by certain Jewish enemies of Paul to murder him in Jerusalem. I would not be surprised at all to hear that any LDS leader, remarking on our own persecutors, had quoted or paraphrased Jesus’ warning–especially one whose own father and uncle were murdered in exactly that way, by self-justifying hypocrites (one of whom was, appropriately enough, later elected to Congress).

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — March 10, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

  28. I was so curious to see where this ended up — so cool that you would find the answer to your question and share it. Fun stuff.

    Happy birthday, by the way!

    Comment by michelle — March 10, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

  29. Happy Birthday.
    When I get to Salt Lake in a couple of weeks, I’ll take you to dinner.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — March 10, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

  30. Enjoyed. As I read this I thought of how many urban legends get started by someone paraphrasing or quoting another’s paraphrase. How many times in Priesthood/RS do you hear “quotes” from JS or BY or someone else that were adapted to get a certain point across.

    Thanks for the great work you do.

    (Happy belated birthday)

    Comment by Steve C. — March 11, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  31. In addition to google web search, I have found google book search to be a wealth of fascinating finds. George Q. Cannon, in a discourse delivered July 15, 1883 as recorded in Journal of Discourses was quoted as saying this, but there are earlier references to the phrase by non-lds authors in the same google book search, including The life of the Rev. George Whitefield, Volume 1 published in 1877 but referencing material from 1739!

    Comment by Mark — March 12, 2011 @ 12:37 am

  32. Fascinating, Ardis! Thanks so much for sharing not only your conclusion, but the long and windy road you took to get there. I admire your persistence!

    Comment by Ziff — March 12, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

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