Lying for the Lord
by Revilo P. Oliver
WHEN JOSEPH SMITH, an enterprising young man in Palmyra, New York, found that swindling farmers by claiming that his magic stone monocle enabled him to see buried treasure underground resulted in unpleasant experiences in court, he turned his fertile mind to higher things and manufactured a whole new “New Testament” with the aid of an obscure book that had been published in a small town in Vermont some years before, and (probably) the manuscript of an unpublished novel, and (certainly) his thorough knowledge of the diction and contents of the English Bible and his own lush imagination. With the aid of his stone monocle, now put to godly use, he was able to translate into Biblical English the fifteen books of his supplemental Scriptures from the hieroglyphics inscribed on massive gold plates, which an obliging angel prudently carried off to Heaven as soon as he had completed his inspired task. Smith found a few perjurers, mostly members of his own family, who were willing to swear they had seen the gold plates before they were removed to God’s city in the welkin. Later, when Smith decided to write a “Book of Abraham,” he tried for greater verisimilitude, but was less cautious. He procured part of one of the cheap papyrus copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead from the wrappings of the Egyptian mummies that were being used at that time for fuel on the Nile steamboats, and exhibited it to the gawking True Believers as an autograph manuscript, the crudely drawn hieroglyphic text being one in which he could recognize Abraham’s own handwriting. On the basis of a drawing of the dead Osiris, which is usually found in such copies, Smith elaborated a fantasy about how the priests of the Egyptian Pharoah in Chaldaea (sic), after sacrificing a bevy of virgins, thought of popping young Abraham onto the altar in the posture shown by the picture with which Abraham had illustrated his holograph. This naturally called for prompt action by the Lord God, and the tale came to a happy ending. Now Smith was so reckless that he not only preserved the papyrus (which, after his death, was presented to the Metropolitan Museum as a priceless treasure by a True Believer with more faith than education) but had the tell-pictures, with only the head of Anubis crudely redrawn, copied on wood-blocks and printed with the text of his latest holy book to impress the yokels. The only reasonable explanation of such astounding indiscretion is that Smith was interested only in enjoying his eminence (and other men’s wives) during his lifetime, and cared not at all what would happen to his sect after his death.
Smith had a shrewd successor and thus became the founder of the most cohesive and strongest Christian Church in the United States, which has survived frantic persecutions by competing holy men and their followers, and almost succeeded in establishing a country of its own in what is now Utah. The major Mormon sect has more than three million members in the United States and at least a million in other parts of the world. The three minor sects, products of various schisms, probably number no more than two hundred thousand all together. And we should note that the members of the Mormon Church in its earlier days were almost exclusively, and still are predominantly, of English ancestry.
Another recent gospel-writer is a pleasing contrast to the Prophet of the Latter-Day Saints. One cannot avoid the impression that the prime object of Joseph Smith’s devotion was Joseph Smith, and it must require much Faith to like him, but the Reverend Mr. William Dennis Mahan is a sympathetic figure, a man whom we must respect for a deeply sincere Christian faith and his effort to defend it. I confess that I was prejudiced against him when I began to look into his career, but I ended by liking and pitying the man. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, born in 1824, and in 1879 he was the poorly-paid pastor of the local church in Boonville, a little town, scarcely more than a village, in central Missouri. For years, from his scantily-furnished parsonage in the boondocks, he had watched with sorrow and dismay as infidels, especially Colonel Ingersoll, blasphemed against his god and excited doubts that caused many of Jesus’s sheep to stray from their folds. And then in 1879, Ingersoll expanded one of his famous lectures, “The Mistakes of Moses,” into a book of 270 soul-destroying pages and published it. For years, America’s most eminent divines had screeched at the eloquent Beelzebub from their opulent pulpits and preached jeremiads about the apostasy of a nation in which it was not possible to flay Ingersoll alive or, at least, cut his tongue out – but they had appealed to god and man in vain. So poor Mahan girded up his loins to defend his faith. Mahan published A Correct Transcript of Pilate’s Court, a precious historical document that he had obtained from the Vatican through the good offices of an itinerant German scholar, whom he had befriended when snowbound in Missouri twenty-three years before. The book created a sensation and was promptly pirated by clergymen throughout the nation. In 1883, Mahan started all over, and produced a much improved version of the document, now called the Acta Pilati, and supported it in the following year with a whole passel of historical records that conclusively established the truth of the “New Testament,” including “Jonathan’s Interview with the Bethlehem Shepherds,” “Gamaliel’s Interview with Joseph and Mary,” the authentic “reports of Caiaphas to the Sanhedrim” concerning (a) “the Execution of Jesus” and (b) “the Resurrection of Jesus,” the speech given by Herod before the Roman Senate when he was prosecuted for his “conduct at Bethlehem,” and other equally precious documents, making a total of sixteen. And then, of course, there were letters from strangely named European scholars who had helped Mahan find these treasures in the Vatican and the “Library of St. Sophia” in Constantinople, and letters from other scholars authenticating those letters. To this collection, Mahan gave a title too long to be quoted here, but some of the later publishers brought it out under the odd, but concise title, The Archko Volume.
This collection enjoyed a considerable success; I do not know how often it was published and have not tried to find out, but I have noticed fourteen editions between 1884 and 1942, including some by Eerdmans, one of the most prominent religious publishing houses in the United States. The report from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius has been the most popular item in the collection and frequently reprinted separately, most recently, to my knowledge, in 1974, when the clergyman who published it claimed that his “transcription” had been verified from the original by the British Museum! I should not fail to mention a remarkable edition printed on a long strip of oilcloth attached to small wooden cylinders with projecting umbilici to resemble an ancient papyrus volumen.
One feels sorry for Mahan. He was a poor man, and although he made some money from his first hoax, despite the pirating by brother clergymen, he had to borrow $150 from a bank so that he could hide out in a village in Illinois called Rome to prepare his greater effort and to permit his wife to aver that he had gone to Rome, whence he was sending her letters regularly. He had so little experience of the world that his account of his voyage to Europe, his meeting with “Dr. McIntoch” and “Dr. Twyman” of the “Antiquerian (sic) Lodge, Genoa, Italy,” their researches in the Vatican and St. Sophia, etc. would be ludicrous, if it were not pathetic. He was an ignorant man, knowing only what he had learned in a Presbyterian seminary and probably without even the most elementary works of reference at hand. He seems not even to have known that the early Christians had forged quite a variety of letters from Pilate to Tiberius or Claudius, reports on the Crucifixion from a Roman consul to the Senate, and letters written by Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and scores of other documents from which he could have assembled quite a bouquet of sacred blossoms, for which he could plausibly have claimed a respectable antiquity and exhibited texts in Latin or Greek. The great weakness of his imposture was that he had only English “translations” to show. The Reverend Mr William Overton Clough, who was one of the first of the holy men to pirate Mahan’s work, translated parts of it into Latin to make it seem more authentic to his readers, but Mahan evidently could not do as much. Mahan’s compositions are filled with wild anachronisms and grotesque errors of every kind, which only the eye of Faith could overlook, but he did his best for his religion, and perhaps that best required hard labor. And he undoubtedly did succeed in bolstering the faith and warming the emotions of many thousands of Christians who read his books.
There is no indication that Mahan sought profit or notoriety. There is evidence that he was a sincerely devout Christian and, unlike so many of Jesus’s shepherds, truly believed in the religion he professed. He tried to defend it when clergymen more learned and more prosperous than he failed to confute the infidels. And given his attachment to his faith, I see something tragic in his declaration in his edition of 1887: “I have as much reason for believing the genuineness of the contents of this book, as I have to believe the genuineness of the Scriptures, looking at the question from a human standpoint.”
The way of the forger is hard, and poor Mahan attempted the impossible. A book recently published in England purveys a revised Christian doctrine, including the claim that St. Paul, instead of wasting much time in the Mediterranean, hot-footed it to London to announce the glad tidings to his fellow Anglo-Saxons on the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which, however, he is not credited with building. This is doubtless a doctrine that will be attractive to many Christians, but to be really effective, it would require the corroboration of a suitable gospel or, at least, an “Epistle to the Britons” opportunely discovered. But that can’t be done. There are probably a score of scholars in the world (I am not one) who could compose to specifications a gospel or epistle in the somewhat peculiar dialect used by the writers of the letters now attributed to Paul. I hope that none could be hired to do it, but if a linguistically sound forgery were produced, it would be impossible to manufacture papyrus that could pass for ancient, and while a case could perhaps be made for a use of parchment in remote Britain, I doubt that it would be possible to prepare and chemically age parchment that would not betray its modernity, if subjected to rigorous tests. Ancient ink could probably be duplicated, but then we would face the enormous task of finding an expert palaeographer who could, after months of practice, simulate a script appropriate to the supposed date. Then we should have to manufacture an hermetically sealed container, indistinguishable from an ancient one, in which the document would have been preserved. And if that were done, it would still be necessary to plant the container somewhere – in the ground or in the wall of a building – and the techniques of archaeology are now so refined that there is no chance of a planting that would not immediately be identified as a hoax. And even if all these obstacles were overcome – and that would be the greatest of miracles – there would remain the radioactive isotope of carbon that would betray the date of the very best forgery!
Lying for the Lord is a normal exercise of piety, but it is becoming harder and harder.
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Source: an excerpt from The Origins of Christianity