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Pretend Mormons

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 30, 2012

No, this isn’t another entry in the ongoing furor over who is allowed to be called a Mormon and who isn’t. It’s about genuine fakes … er, I mean, authentic imitations … no, that’s not quite right, either … I mean it’s about people with absolutely no baptismal, cultural, inherited, or any other kind of ties to Mormonism, who pretended to be Mormons, almost always with an eye to a profit rather than to a prophet.

Apparently in the early years, at least, of the Church in Britain, men claiming to be Mormons, even claiming to be Mormon missionaries, drifted from branch to branch, living off the generosity afforded by members who supported the “without purse or scrip” elders, even preaching and collecting tithing. Every once in a while, often enough in some years to merit the descriptor “frequently,” the Millennial Star carried brief warnings about someone who had bilked the Saints this way, giving his fake name, the branches where he had been seen, a rough physical description, and so on. Once in a while these would be one-time Saints who had been excommunicated but who were still using their elder’s certificates in branches where they were not known; usually, however, these were absolute impostors.

Early in 1850 the elders at the Liverpool mission headquarters undertook to make it more difficult for these fakers to impose on the Saints, by standardizing the identification that traveling elders carried or that members moving from one place to another used to introduce themselves to their new branches:

Beware of Forged Licences and Certificates

The great variety of the forms of licences and certificates among the Saints of Great Britain, has been a fruitful source of imposition. Many impostors have forged licences and certificates, and have travelled from branch to branch, and from conference to conference on the strength of the same, living on the hard-earned labours of the Saints, and imposing themselves upon them as members of our church

To remedy in some measure this evil, and introduce greater regularity and order in regard to these matters, we have been induced to adopt one particular form for both licences and certificates. This form we wish to become universal among the Saints in this country. Let all old forms be immediately abolished, and done away with, and let the blanks for all licences and certificates for the supply of the present officers, and for all who shall hereafter be ordained, be procured from our office, through the book agents of the respective conferences. All other forms will be considered illegal and invalid from and after the first day of March, 1850.

If strangers pass through the branches with written forms, or with printed forms which have not the words “Printed by R. James, Liverpool,” in fine type at the bottom, or which may lack in any other characteristic, – beware of them– they are impostors.

All licences should be signed by the President and Secretary of the Conference in which the person receiving the licence resides.

All certificates should be signed by the President and Secretary of the branch in which the person receiving the certificate resides. All persons emigrating to America should take with them these certificates, duly signed as herein specified. And any person neglecting this counsel will not be received as members of our church in that country.

That the officers may be properly instructed in relation to filling up the blanks, we here insert the forms of both licences and certificates, with the blanks filled up by words printed in italics.

Form of Licence to be Used in the British Isles.

Licence.

We hereby certify that (A.B.) has been ordained a(n) (Elder, Priest, Teacher, or Deacon, as the case may be) in the (Bolton) branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of the (Manchester) Conference, under the hands of (C.D., Elder or Priest, as the case may be) with the sanction of said Branch, on the (Eleventh) day of (March) 1843.

Given under our hands at (Manchester) this (fourth) day of (January) 1850.

(E.F.) President.
(G.H.) Secretary.

{Printed by R. James, Liverpool}

Form of Certificate to be Used in the British Isles

Certificate.

We hereby certify that (A.B.) is a(n) (Elder, Priest, Teacher, Deacon, or Member, as the case may be) of the (Bolton) Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of the (Manchester) Conference, in good standing; and, as such, we recommend (him or her, as the case may be) to any branch with which (he or she) may desire to unite.

Date _____________________ 185___

(C.D.) President
(G.H.) Secretary

This certificate is not intended to be shown to the private members of a branch; but it should be presented to, and retained by, the presiding officer of the branch of which you desire to become a member.

{Printed by R. James, Liverpool}



11 Comments »

  1. That’s absolutely fascinating, Ardis. On the one hand, you’ve got missionaries being hounded and abused for their work, and on the other you’ve got people who choose to be recognised as missionaries in order to take advantage of the members. I wonder if there’s any instances of one of these impostors being taken for a real missionary by an angry mob? :-)

    Comment by Alison — August 30, 2012 @ 7:18 am

  2. Now, THAT would have served a faker right!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 30, 2012 @ 7:21 am

  3. This is really interesting, Ardis. Thanks.

    The only complimentary information I can think of is in the 1890s when JFS railed against people not getting a recommend for their new ward when they moved. Was that part of the same impetus or a broader emphasis on “discipline”?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 30, 2012 @ 8:36 am

  4. Cool. This was a common problem for itinerant faiths like Methodists or Baptists. Sort of like that cheesy DiCaprio movie about the guy pretending to be a physician. It was a pretty sweet gig if you could make it work.

    Comment by smb — August 30, 2012 @ 8:50 am

  5. That is interesting. Because my son’s records are in my ex- husband’s ward, my husband has a priesthood recommend, even tough he is a priest. (He was baptized 10 months ago and our stake has a policy of waiting at least 11 months before ordaining adult men to the Melchezidak priesthood.)

    When we go to the kids ward, the bishop has my husband show him his recommend before he can pass the sacrament with my son. I am glad that our ward doesn’t make my 12 year old bring a recommend every time. My son doesn’t always bring a tie and scriptures. I am sure the recommend would have been lost in the week. :-)

    Julia
    poetrysansonions.blogspot.com

    Comment by Julia — August 30, 2012 @ 9:24 am

  6. In recent years, the church sent out notices to stake presidents with photographs and descriptions both missing persons and impostors–usually people trying to game the church welfare program.

    And even now each stake is supposed to assign one bishop to deal with requests for assistance from transients, to try to avoid having someone make the rounds and collect food or money from many wards.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 30, 2012 @ 9:53 am

  7. Still goes on in a manner. Back in the early 1990s, we had a guy move in, saying he was an investigator that just moved to the area from California, where he’d lost his family. The ward was excited and brought him in, providing him with a room, job, etc. He had no papers, so a member worked to get him a social security card and etc.

    He had impressive dreams, such as being in front of a curtain with Gordon Jump the actor (in the pre-1990 temple film). He had a lot of people pretty amazed.

    After a couple years, we found out he was a fraud and was bilking LDS and other people and groups out of money. He skipped town before they could arrest him.

    To this day, the Church sends notices to bishops about people involved in such scams.

    Comment by Rameumptom — August 30, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  8. I seem to recall an event like this in Tennessee. In the 1840’s a man claiming to be an LDS missionary arrived in Rutherford County. He said he was a veteran of the troubles in Missouri where he was injured. He walked with a pronounced limp and claimed he needed a horse to continue his missionary work. He bilked the local members out of a horse, saddle, and some tithing funds before he left to preach at a nearby branch and was never seen again.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 30, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  9. In somewhat of a similar vein, I have seen many letters written by JFS to mission presidents in Europe during the 1890s and early 1900s, asking them to extend hospitality to one or another traveling member of the church from Utah, which was also followed up with a letter to the person traveling to show to the mission presidents once abroad. Kind of the same concept, identifying legitimate church members, who mostly seemed to be business owners and political acquaintances of JFS.

    I remember seeing those bulletins when I served as bishop, but I never served as out stake’s transient bishop. The bishops who did were always trying to discern those with legitimate needs from those just seeking any help they could get. A couple of community social service agencies got a bit of a bad reputation with our stake for constantly referring any homeless person that came to them for help to our transient bishop, without ever qualifying if there was any link to the church at all.

    Comment by kevinf — August 30, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  10. I was conned by some members who were my tenants. They committed all kinds of fraud with welfare agencies and the church. After I found out the truth about them, they moved into the next ward. But, our bishop told me that they can put a note on their membership records so the next bishop can know to watch out. They’re both in prison for felony fraud now.

    Comment by Carol — August 30, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

  11. Awesome post, Ardis. As Sam mentioned, other groups with itinerant preachers dealt with this same issue. Famed Methodist itinerant Lorenzo Dow, in particular, had regular imitators trying to capitalize on his success. When he traveled to the British Isles, he brought along a dozen or so letters of recommendation from church leaders, government officials, and others.

    Comment by Christopher — August 31, 2012 @ 5:50 am

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