Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Joseph Smith, UFO contactee?

As a former Mormon I found the 2012 “Mormon moment” interesting. I thought it would provide political enemies of Mitt Romney an opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the more arcane beliefs of the religion.(1)

Mormonism was discussed publicly, but its origins not so much. Republicans, even those who were holding their noses while supporting Romney, didn’t want to obscure the issues of the election with beliefs of the church that offend so many conservative Christians. The Mormon church has been known to deflect some discussions of its past that don’t fit its modern message. They can’t get away without the linchpin of their faith, though: their earliest history that involves Joseph Smith and his claims of dealings with supernatural beings.

 A nineteenth century woodcut of Joseph Smith, Angel Moroni and the golden plates. The angel is more of the popular conception; Mormons don’t believe in angels with wings.

Joseph Smith’s story of meeting with an angel and receiving plates of gold inscribed with ancient writing he “translated” into the Book of Mormon is usually dismissed by non-believers. But devout Mormons don’t get a choice whether to believe or not. According to this from the article published in the October, 1962 issue of American Heritage, “The Farm Boy and the Angel” by Carl Carmer, a belief in these tales is paramount. If they don’t believe Joseph Smith’s story they can’t consider themselves Mormons.
“This is the ‘origin story’ of the religious sect known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally as ‘the Mormons.’(2) All conversion to the Mormon creed begins with the acceptance of this miracle-fraught narrative. John Henry Evans, Mormon historian, who has written one of the most objective and thoughtful biographies of Joseph Smith(3) delivers plainly the accepted Mormon attitude: ‘Mormonism has its basis on the miraculous element in religion, or it has no foundation at all on which to stand. They are fooling themselves, whether within or without the Mormon church, who think they can accept the faith of Joseph Smith and at the same time reject the visions of Joseph Smith. No such choice is permissible. One must believe these supernormal experiences and Mormonism, or one must reject Mormonism with the visions.’”
That was where I found myself at the point I left the church. How much did I believe in Joseph Smith’s story? I didn’t, and over the years I haven’t had any reason to believe I made a mistake. I see Smith’s claims of interactions with the divine as fraud mixed in with some imagination (it took an imaginative mind to concoct and write the Book of Mormon). The church has gained legitimacy over the years due to its public relations, charity and organizational skills, but its beginnings are common to cults.

Since I think of Joseph Smith’s visions as being made up by him for whatever purpose, what then to think of books like Our Haunted Planet, written by John Keel, or a more current book, Contactees, A History of Alien-Human Interaction by Nick Redfern? Both of these books appear to treat Joseph Smith’s story at face value.(4) The difference is they don’t see the entities who visited Smith to be spiritual or of God, but alien beings. Keel called them “ultraterrestrials,” (described by Keel as UFO occupants he believed to be non-human entities capable of taking on whatever form they want(5)) and Redfern considers the Angel Moroni to be akin to the aliens who could have “just as easily stepped out of one of the saucers that landed before Adamski, Van Tassel, Short, and countless other Contactees in the 1950s.”

Our Haunted Planet is from 1971, Contactees was published in 2012.

To backtrack fifty years, I read George Adamski’s book, Flying Saucers Have Landed, at the same time I was active in the LDS faith. At that point in my life I was ready to accept whatever wild story someone came up with because I was a naïve adolescent and I didn’t believe people would lie about such things. Adamski claimed to have met a spaceman standing outside his flying saucer on the side of a lonesome California road. Unlike the small, gray aliens we envision today the aliens of the early Contactees appeared to be Nordic, with long blond hair. Adamski’s alien, named Orthon, was one of what became known as the Space Brothers. Those long-haired beings from Venus who were visiting Earth were here to warn us of the dangers of our nuclear weapons. From that Adamski created his own cult of believers.

Artistic views of the tales told by Smith of his meeting with Angel Moroni, and Adamski’s first meeting with Orthon.

While fascinating in their approach to Joseph Smith’s visitors being not of this planet rather than from “traditional” angels, it is harder to accept the theories from Keel’s and Redfern’s book than it is the official church version. Keel talks of many religions, even Islam as founded by Mohammed, which began with visions. This may be true, but I also believe they were visions that originated in the visioneers’ own brains, either from a brain disorder, psychological problem, or even hallucinogenic substances.

Joseph Smith’s story of his visitations with supernatural holy beings takes place over a long period of time, years  from his first “visions” to completion of the Book of Mormon, and all the while he was drawing more people, including his family, into his circle. He was either very skillful at manipulation or told big lies in such a way as to convince his listeners. Or perhaps his family members were in on the overall scheme.

What the LDS Church rarely publicizes is well known to historians. In New York State, in that era and place where Smith and his family lived, there were a lot of superstitions and tales of supernatural beings and devices like “seer stones” that would lead people to treasure, buried Spanish gold. Carmer wrote that Smith accepted a job with farmer Josiah Stowell to use his stone to find treasure. But after a time, as recounted in the article:
    “Then, as spring began, one, Peter Bridgeman, intolerant of such goings-on, swore out a warrant for the arrest of Joseph Smith as a ‘disorderly person and an impostor.’”
Continuing the story:
    “Joseph was brought before a justice of the peace at Bainbridge on March 20, 1826. Of the five witnesses at his trail, three told of their certainty that the defendant could ‘divine things’ by ‘looking into a hat at his dark-colored stone.’ One of these said that Joseph had told him how a money trunk was situated, and that after he had dug down several feet for it he struck upon something sounding like a board or plank. At this moment, the witness testified, Joseph remembered that the last time he looked into his stone he had seen the two Indians who had buried the trunk quarreling until one slew the other and threw his body into the hole beside the trunk where it remained as a spirit-guard. It had proved its protective power, the witness continued, for as long as the digging went on the trunk kept sinking and remained constantly at about the same distance from the diggers.”
Although the court found Smith guilty, there is no record of a fine or punishment.

Smith’s description of the moving trunk seems a lie, a fanciful tale by someone trying to explain why he isn’t able to perform the feats of magic he is hired to do. That sort of magic, like Harry Potter, we can dismiss as fiction. Tales of elementals or spirits guarding treasure are standard in folklore.

 From Contactees by Nick Redfern.

Why angels, or God, would visit Smith seems to me to be a made-up concoction of religion and fantasy, and why Keel or Redfern might theorize that those fantastic visitors were not of this earth, somehow tied to UFOs seems even more incredible, stretching credulity past the breaking point.

(1)I even contributed one article, “Does Mitt Romney believe black people are cursed?”

(2)Also referred to as LDS.

(3)Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, 1933.

(4)To be fair, they treat all the stories they tell in their books, whether they concern UFO/flying saucer cultists, bigfoot sightings, or any other oddball occurrences, as if the persons telling the stories were reporting the exact truth without lies or embellishment. In Keel’s case I think he believed the stories. Redfern is a reporter, telling stories without declaring prejudice, so the reader can make up his own mind as to veracity.

(5)Wikipedia entry on John Keel.


Kirk said...

Did you ever see the South Park episode where the Morman family moves into town? It's pretty funny, with the family singing the origin of the religion, including the dubious moments you mention.

The producers of South Park now have a musical on Broadway about Mormanism, which I haven't seen, but I know's gotten good reviews. I know it seems like they're picking on your former religion, about they may be trying to make a point about belief in general.

Postino said...

I have seen the South Park episode you mention, and have the soundtrack for The Book of Mormon musical.

As far as an extrinsic view I think that those guys have done as good a job, or even better, than an intrinsic satire. And there are a lot of satires done by Mormons on themselves. But no matter how they look at themselves as a culture, all devout Mormons share the belief in the Joseph Smith story.