The Joseph Smith Revelations and the Crisis of Early American Spirituality
J. Spencer Fluhman, “The Joseph Smith Revelations and the Crisis of Early American Spirituality,” in The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context, ed. Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2008), 66–89.
J. Spencer Fluhman was an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.
Returning from his mission to western Missouri in spring 1831, Elder Parley P. Pratt found the Ohio branches of the Church boiling over with dramatic spiritual displays. He wrote that in the various Church gatherings some very strange spiritual operations were manifested, which were disgusting, rather than edifying. Some persons would seem to swoon away, and make unseemly gestures, and be drawn or disfigured in their countenances. Others would fall into ecstasies, and be drawn into contortions, cramp, fits, etc. Others would seem to have visions and revelations, which were not edifying. . . . All these things were new and strange to me, and had originated in the Church during our absence, and previous to the arrival of President Joseph Smith from New York.
Elder Pratt’s description of the rather raucous spirituality that developed during his absence from the infant Latter-day Saint community in northeast Ohio was vivid but by no means one of a kind. Ohio convert John Corrill told a similar tale. During that winter, he remembered many young Latter-day Saints “became very visionary.” John Whitmer summed up the display by describing the goings-on as “vain and foolish manoeuvers, that are unseeming, and unprofitable to mention. Thus the devil blinded the eyes of some good and honest disciples.” Commentators from other faiths offered even less flattering appraisals of the Saints’ spiritual expressions. Writing to the Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph in February 1831, a concerned critic of the new Church blasted away at the Saints’ behavior. Soon after the missionaries had converted Sidney Rigdon and most of his congregation, the critic fumed that “a scene of the wildest enthusiasm was exhibited.” Members of the fledgling faith would fall, as without strength, roll upon the floor, and, so mad were they that even the females were seen in a cold winter day, lying under the bare canopy of heaven, with no couch or pillow but the fleecy snow. At other times they exhibited all the apish actions imaginable, making grimaces both horid and ridiculous, creeping upon their hands and feet, &c. . . . At other times they are taken with a fit of jabbering that which they neither understand themselves nor any body else, and this they call speaking foreign languages by divine inspiration. . . . They say much about working miracles, and pretend to have that power.
Whether within or outside the Latter-day Saint community, witnesses agreed that something had gone awry in Ohio. Corrill’s reminiscences made short work of the episode in a telling line: a revelation given after Joseph Smith’s arrival in Ohio put an end to “these visionary spirits, and gave rules for judging of spirits in general. After a while these spirits were rooted out of the Church.”
These Ohio encounters encapsulate early Church history in significant ways. First, the boldness with which participants publicized these charismatic outbursts reminds us that the Church’s first generation came of age in what one historian has called the “antebellum spiritual hothouse”—a period of unparalleled religious revival, creativity, and expressiveness. Second, the Saints were even more prone than others to provoke difficult questions about religious experiences because a central theme of their message related to the paucity of spiritual gifts in contemporary Christianity and, by contrast, the necessary abundance of those very powers in what they considered a restoration of the ancient church. Third, the conflicts resulting from these experiences revealed the explosive combination of shared assumptions and differing perceptions held by biblical believers within and outside the Church; both traditional Christians and the early Saints agreed about the reality of biblical spiritual “gifts” and the real threat of spiritual deception, but they disagreed in important ways about how and when those gifts might manifest themselves. Finally, though questions persisted after 1831, the resolution of the earliest clashes over religious experiences within the Church indicates that Joseph Smith’s revelations charted something of a middle way, a balance between various degrees of denying modern spiritual gifts and, on the other hand, an unrestrained cacophony that might have submerged the young Church in waves of divisive, albeit exciting, spiritual reverie.
In pressing their case for restoration, not only of doctrinal truth and lost scripture but of the apostolic church’s spiritual potency, early Latter-day Saints found themselves in an extended conversation within Christendom about the applicability of spiritual gifts in a modern world. Skeptics, in fact, were most often struck by strands of Latter-day Saint religiosity that had troubled orthodox Christians for centuries. “The distinguishing feature of Mormon Faith,” wrote Thomas Kirk, “is, that its devotees profess to be in possession of a certain power of the spirit, which places them in direct communication with God and his angels, endowing them with the gifts of revelation and prophecy, healing and tongues, &c.” Where some might expect the greatest opposition to the early Church to relate to distinctive doctrines, much that was levied at rank-and-file Saints in the early years thus pertained to inter-Christian wrangles over religious experience that had been fomenting for some time. In fact, skeptical preoccupation with the Saints’ spirituality was so common that, after surveying early criticisms of the Church, Hugh Nibley considered spiritual gifts, along with claims to being God’s chosen people, the central reason “the Mormons were formally ostracized by the churches of America.” So while the experiences that caused the greatest stir served to alienate early Saints from more traditional Christians, theirs seem to have been curiously standard forms of Christian “deviance.” Because some experiences embraced by early Saints had long been considered controversial by many Christians, antagonistic Christians reassured themselves that the Saints suffered from an age-old spiritual delusion, and thus the godly could weather outbursts of religious enthusiasm now as in the past. Untangling early American thinking about religious experience not only sharpens our understanding of the intellectual and religious worlds from which early Latter-day Saint converts came, but it helps clarify both the meaning and significance of the revelations that guided, and still guide, the spirituality of the Latter-day Saints.
The controversy over the Saints’ religiosity was not limited to Ohio, of course. With each Latter-day Saint gathering came critiques of the Saints’ vibrant spirituality. Missouri residents, for instance, first encountered the Latter-day Saints in 1831, and by 1833 they had seen enough. Meeting in July, non-Mormon residents drafted a list of grievances and demands before making their point with tar, feathers, and some rough handling of the Latter-day Saint printing press. The “gentlemen” of the county insisted that the Saints were “characterized by the profoundest ignorance, the grossest superstition, and the most abject poverty. . . . Elevated . . . little above the condition of . . . blacks,” they wrote, the sect of “pretended Christians” had a corrupting influence on slaves, boasted of their imminent possession of the whole of the county, and even offered free blacks a share in their new Zion. Of the Saints’ “pretended revelations from heaven—their personal intercourse with God and His angels—the maladies they pretend to heal by the laying on of hands—and the contemptible gibberish with which they habitually profane the Sabbath, and which they dignify with the appellation of unknown tongues,” the Missourians had “nothing to say”—though in fact they said a great deal by listing those particular “errors,” as the following pages reveal—but they warned that the growing “swarms” of Latter-day Saints would not long hence wrest civil government from civil hands.
This list nicely summarizes the mantra that the Church’s critics would sound throughout the nineteenth century, but what of the Saints as religionists? What of their distinctive brand of Christianity, of which the Missourians had so little to say? Taken at face value, the Missourians’ report designates Latter-day Saint religiosity as a relatively minor irritant. The document is complicated, though, by the fact that several “secular” grievances seem downright disingenuous. The alleged overture to free blacks, for instance, appeared in the local Latter-day Saint paper and seemed innocuous enough to some historians to prompt hypotheses that it was perhaps deliberately exaggerated. Moreover, upon hearing that some had taken offense at the warning to missionaries that Missouri state law made the “gathering” of free blacks to “Zion” problematic, the editor promptly ran an apologetic explanation. And as for tampering with slavery, it is true that many Saints came to Missouri from the Northeast and brought anti-slavery sentiments with them, but, as Richard Bushman has noted, overtly abolitionist Germans in Missouri were never harassed. Furthermore, the Saints, like many Northerners, had early and often repudiated abolitionism as too drastic a solution to the slavery problem. So, while some historians have rightly called attention to the real cultural divide separating the primarily New York–, New England–, or Ohio-hailing Saints and their upper-South-transplanted Missouri neighbors, others have emphasized the contradictions within opposition rhetoric and have narrated the conflict as Protestant “orthodoxy” loathing a threatening “heresy” existing within a political climate, given American ideals of religious toleration, that made attacks leveled in wholly religious terms problematic.
Such problems complicate efforts to categorize hostility to the early Saints as either “religious” or “secular.” Historian Kenneth Winn finds that “the Missourians displayed a relative indifference to the actual content of Mormon theology,” but his point has merit only if one limits the discussion of theology to exclude religious practice. If skeptical Christians sometimes exhibited little or no interest in the nuances of Latter-day Saint thought, they were likely to harbor deep misgivings about the Saints’ religiosity, as with those who composed the 1833 Missouri grievances. More to the point, Americans worried over various aspects of the Saints’ religious expression and were repulsed by their claims to spiritual power. The Saints, after all, gravitated towards beliefs and practices that were controversial or heretical in Protestant formulations, and, as the ubiquity of the epithets “delusion” or “enthusiasm” might suggest, some were troubling enough to prompt worries about the Saints’ mental fitness. “I sincerely believe,” wrote a prominent critic in a characteristic formulation, “the Mormons are in a perfect hallucination of mind.” As opponents emphasized the more striking elements of the Saints’ religiosity or wrestled with claims of translated ancient records, angels, and miracles, they found themselves making claims about the cessation of biblical supernaturalism in modern times, the reasonableness of Christianity, and the nature of God’s postbiblical influence in human lives. If one draws too stark a line between the secular and the religious in early Church history, in other words, one risks clarifying with contemporary lenses what was comfortably muddled for historical subjects themselves. Whatever political, economic, or cultural divides existed between the Saints and the skeptical, religion clearly remained in the mix.
In making sense of Latter-day Saint claims, commentators fixed the Saints on the radical end of a spectrum that had been taking discursive shape for some time before 1830. At one end was what some Protestants described as “formalism,” by which most meant religious life that was largely devoid of God’s Spirit and had thus devolved into lifeless form, cultural habit, or intellectual abstraction. At the other end of the gamut was “enthusiasm,” a term detractors used to designate various forms of religious craziness—from those religiously “insane” to those who were in some way falsely inspired. In her delineation of the various interpretive battles over religious experience in early nineteenth-century America, Ann Taves rightly suggests that false experience proved as troubling to Anglo-American Protestants as false belief: “In contrast to sectarian and schismatic, which were linked to false ecclesiology, and heresy, which was linked to false doctrine, enthusiasm defined illegitimacy in relation to false inspiration or, more broadly, false experience. Enthusiasm, unlike schism or heresy, located that which was threatening not in challenges to ecclesiology or doctrine but in challenges to that most fundamental of Christian categories—revelation.”
At least as early as the English Civil War, English-speaking Christians had exchanged charges of enthusiasm and formalism, all the while contesting what constituted legitimate religious experience. By the early nineteenth century, Protestants had consecutively exercised themselves over the religiosity of the Quakers, French Prophets, Methodists, Shakers, and successive waves of revivalists; not surprisingly, earlier “enthusiasts” often served as the denunciatory model for later targets. John Taylor, for instance, remembered that after hearing Parley P. Pratt preach, he was warned by concerned acquaintances with tales “about the French prophets—I was told about Matthias, Johanna Southcote, and of all the follies that had existed for centuries; and then they put ‘Mormonism’ at the end of them all.” Early American evangelicals, for their part, found that they had to walk a fine line, arguing for a more prominent place for the miraculous infusion of the Holy Spirit in the “new birth” but at the same time warding off charges of enthusiasm. Importantly, the most confirmed opponents of enthusiasm tended to be intellectual elites, and though they rarely decried religious experience generally, they tended to oppose particular practices or groups in naturalistic terms. Protestants thus found themselves employing Enlightenment strategies for discrediting enthusiasm and superstition in their sectarian contests, and eighteenth—and nineteenth-century religious polemics offer an often confused mingling of rationalistic, historical, and doctrinal arguments as a result.
The most controversial elements of the early Saints’ religiosity were the same ones that had figured in Anglo-American thinking about religious experience for at least the previous two centuries: speaking in tongues, angelic visitations, bodily agitations, and faith healing. Unitarian Jason Whitman astutely summed up both the Latter-day Saint message of spiritual power and the challenge it presented to Bible-believing Protestants. Writing in 1834, Whitman lamented that Mormonism was on the rise but admitted that the fact of its spreading “with some degree of rapidity . . . cannot be disputed.” By reviewing the contents of the Book of Mormon, he hoped to discover for his audience “the peculiarities which are calculated to give it success,” and, additionally, offered to illustrate how “the course pursued by the preachers in setting forth their views” might have also abetted Mormonism’s ascent. His summation of Latter-day Saint claims was sound. “They state,” he wrote, “what all admit to be facts, that, in the primitive ages of the church, there was among the disciples the power of speaking with tongues and of working miracles; that, at the present day, no denomination of Christians possesses this power.” Armed with claims of speaking in tongues and healing, Latter-day Saints could then reason from “these facts, as they call them . . . that they are the members of the true church of Christ.” Whitman abhorred the Saints’ arguments, but he conceded, given biblical precedents, that “some degree of plausibility” attended their message. Opponents of Mormonism, like the Protestants who had preceded them in decrying enthusiasm, thus found themselves in a prickly interpretive situation: they felt impelled to discredit expressions on the religious “fringe” but had to do so without disgracing religious experience generally. Moreover, they, like their antienthusiast predecessors, found ready interpretive tools in Enlightenment narratives but learned they had to wield them gently so as not to touch the validity of biblical miracles or more conventional experiences with the divine.
Perhaps no aspect of the Saints’ religion disturbed nonbelievers more than did speaking in tongues. The early Saints considered the gift of an “unknown” or “heavenly” tongue (glossolalia) and the miraculous ability to speak in an ordinary language the speaker had not previously known (xenoglossia) to be profound manifestations of divine power. Scholars disagree about the origins of the practice in the early Church, but it is clear that many understood it to be evidence that God was once again pouring out His spirit, this time on the new Israel. The Book of Mormon, after all, railed against those who would deny the miraculous in the last days. The following passage so neatly sums up how early Saints came to relate tongues with other spiritual phenomena, the Bible, modern Christianity, and a “restoration” of God’s power, that it merits extended quotation:
And again I speak unto you who deny the revelations of God, and say that they are done away, that there are no revelations, nor prophecies, nor gifts, nor healing, nor speaking with tongues, and the interpretation of tongues;
Behold I say unto you, he that denieth these things knoweth not the gospel of Christ; yea, he has not read the scriptures; if so, he does not understand them. For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?
And now, if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is shadow of changing, then have ye imagined up unto yourselves a god who is not a God of miracles. . . .
And these signs shall follow them that believe—in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. (Mormon 9:7–10, 24)
Joseph Smith remembered that Brigham Young had first introduced him to speaking in tongues in 1832 in Ohio, but the practice appears to have prevailed in Ohio before that time, perhaps even in the infant Church’s first months in New York. Sidney Rigdon, whose congregation made up the core of the early Mormon harvest in Ohio, had split with onetime ally Alexander Campbell in part because of a disagreement over the modern restoration of spiritual gifts, including tongues. Rigdon’s congregation was thus ripe for Parley P. Pratt and the other missionaries traveling from New York, armed with the conviction according to a skeptical Ohio editor, that “‘there would be as great miracles wrought’” through their preaching “‘as there was at the day of Pentecost.’” Indeed, the Ohio Saints experienced an outpouring of spirituality in the time before the Prophet’s arrival from New York and after, and glossolalia figured prominently among the gifts. John Corrill recalled an early Ohio meeting where he first witnessed the gift:
The meeting lasted all night, and such a meeting I never attended before. They administered the sacrament, and laid on hands, after which I heard them prophecy and speak in tongues unknown to me. Persons in the room, who took no part with them, declared, from the knowledge they had of the Indian languages, that the tongues spoken were regular Indian dialects, which I was also informed, on inquiry, the persons who spoke had never learned. I watched closely and examined carefully, every movement of the meeting, and after exhausting all my powers to find the deception, I was obliged to acknowledge, in my own mind, that the meeting had been inspired by some supernatural agency.
Corrill, though skeptical, had at least initially found in the gift what the other early Saints had found, namely, evidence of God’s restoration of the apostolic church’s spiritual power.
Future Church President Wilford Woodruff recalled that it was in the spring of 1832 that he had first read of the new sect “that professed the ancient gifts of the gospel they healed the sick cast out devils and spoke in tongues.” His statement reflects the fact that, scarcely two years into Latter-day Saint history, speaking in tongues had become a headline-grabbing curiosity. The Saints’ tongues probably caused them the greatest trouble in Missouri. The Missourians had “little to say” about tongues in their polished list of grievances quoted earlier, but their “secret constitution” (dubbed the “mob manifesto” by the Saints) written sometime before (probably early July 1833; the Saints discovered it by the middle of the month) provided a more candid appraisal of the Saints’ spirituality. “They openly blaspheme the Most High God,” Jackson County citizens wrote, “and cast contempt on His holy religion, by pretending to receive revelations direct from heaven, by pretending to speak unknown tongues, by direct inspiration, and by divers pretenses derogatory to God and religion, and to the utter subversion of human reason.” The violence that ensued in western Missouri that July and in the months following had myriad causes, but at least one participant reduced the trouble to the Saints’ spiritual gifts. David Pettigrew had joined the Church in 1832 after reading the Book of Mormon and thereafter moved his family to Missouri. Recalling the turbulent summer and fall of 1833, he wrote that the “gift of tongues, I think was the cause, or means of the excitement.” Pettigrew went on to reason that “when they heard little children speaking tongues, that they did not themselves understand,” the non-Mormons became convinced the Saints were up to no good—especially once a Mr. Poole of Independence joined the Church after witnessing a display of speaking in tongues. Pettigrew recognized the Missourians’ fears of being “over run” by the sheer size of the Saints’ gathering, but his statement is nevertheless indicative of the deep suspicion occasioned by this aspect of the Saints’ spirituality.
Antagonistic appraisals of speaking in tongues differed little from standard Christian accounts of the practice in postbiblical Christian history. Hannah Adams, writing years before Mormonism, noted that the infamous French Prophets had not only exhibited “strange fits, which came upon them with tremblings and faintings” but had “trances” that provided the prophets (false) prophecies and visions of the afterlife. Moreover, she wrote, the “prophets also pretended to the gift of languages, of discerning the secrets of the heart; the power of conferring the same spirit on others, and the gift of healing by the laying on of hands.” She went on to note that the Shakers had in her own time imbibed the very same extravagances. (Indeed, as much as prophetic leadership, tongues provoked both curiosity about Shakerism and the polemical association of Latter-day Saints with Shakers.) In 1782, Amos Taylor cautioned against the Shaker “delusion” by showing that they were “bewitched, as it were, or enchanted with the splendid shew of perfection.” Taylor wrote that this beguiling display of false religious power, “truly distinguished from pure and vital religion,” featured “a perpetual scene of trembling, quivering, shaking, sighing, crying, groaning, screaming, jumping, singing, dancing and turning” and a propensity to “utter forth their unknown mutter, so gibberish that a person not deluded would imagine they were a company of madmen, by whom their passions in different colours are artfully displayed; this they call the gift of new tongues.” Anticipating the American encounter with tongues in the Pentecostal movement of the twentieth century by three-quarters of a century, early Latter-day Saints found themselves embroiled in a controversy over glossolalia that had been ongoing in Christianity since antiquity (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 12–14).
The fact that much of the early speaking in tongues was initiated by ordinary Saints hints at its constituting a grassroots religious expression and a potential challenge to ecclesiastical order. Joseph Smith, for instance, while never invalidating the practice, tended to favor xenoglossia over glossolalia as the most useful expression of the gift. (His preference is clear, for instance, in the fact that, in his “new translation” of the Bible, the Prophet stipulated that all instances of “unknown toungue” in 1 Corinthians 14 be rendered “<and> other toungue
s.”) A revelation dated March 8, 1831, legitimized the already prevalent practice of tongues-speaking but also cautioned that spiritual phenomena, including glossolalia, could be deceptive and that Church leaders were given the power to “discern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you professing and yet be not of God” (D&C 46:27; see also vv. 24–25). Joseph Smith found himself sometimes encouraging the gift while at other times endeavoring to curtail it. In the end, the Prophet’s growing awareness of the problems glossolalia posed to spiritual authenticity and priesthood authority eventually prompted firmer direction about its place in the Church. Speaking at an Ohio Church conference in 1834, the Prophet asserted that the gift “was particularly instituted for the preaching of the Gospel to other nations and languages, but it was not given for the government of the Church.” At a meeting of the Twelve Apostles in 1839, the Prophet added that “tongues were given for the purpose of preaching among those whose language is not understood; as on the day of Pentecost, etc., and it is not necessary for tongues to be taught to the Church particularly, for any man that has the Holy Ghost, can speak of the things of God in his own tongue as well as to speak in another.” At another meeting the following month, he charged Church leaders to “speak not in the gift of tongues without understanding it, or without interpretation. The devil can speak in tongues; . . . Let no one speak in tongues unless he interpret, except by the consent of the one who is placed to preside.” Speaking to the Nauvoo Relief Society in 1842, he advised the women: “If you have a matter to reveal, let it be in your own tongue; do not indulge too much in the exercise of the gift of tongues, or the devil will take advantage of the innocent and unwary. You may speak in tongues for your own comfort, but I lay this down for a rule, that if anything is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.”
The Prophet’s efforts to circumscribe glossolalia and to emphasize xenoglossia apparently succeeded; historians of the phenomenon note that though glossolalia had flourished in every previous Latter-day Saint center, little or no evidence of glossolalia can be found for the Nauvoo period. As with Latter-day Saint spirituality generally, Joseph Smith’s “middle way,” in this case his simultaneous affirmation and circumscription of tongues-speaking, validated some individual experiences but kept expressions generally under the watchful care of the Church community and its priesthood leadership in particular.
If the Prophet displayed some ambivalence about glossolalia, the same cannot be said of his feelings about the bodily exercises that coincided with the first manifestations of tongues in Ohio. The fits, shakes, swoons, and other physical expressions that had animated American revivals before and after Mormonism’s advent found their way into the Church meetings in Ohio and caused no small stir within and outside the Church. Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, and other Church leaders denounced such exercises as false—generally, the Prophet supported only those manifestations for which some biblical precedent could be found—but were aware that such examples could be used by critics to discredit other spiritual gifts Church leaders deemed legitimate. Careful “filtering,” then, of the false from the real became an important task of early Church teaching about spirituality. A Times and Seasons editorial attributed to Joseph Smith left no question as to whether or not the bodily revival expressions had any place in the Church of Jesus Christ:
The “French Prophets,” were possessed of a spirit that deceived. . . . Now God never had any prophets that acted in the is way; there was nothing indecorous in the proceeding of the Lord’s prophets in any age. . . . Paul says “let every thing be done decently and in order;” but here we find the greatest disorder and indecency in the conduct of both men, and women. . . . The same rule would apply to the falling, twitchings swooning, shaking, and trances of many of our modern revivalists.
Non-Latter-day Saint observers, of course, rarely made such distinctions between true and false spiritual gifts when commenting on Church practices and tended, rather, to lump them together under the heading of religious enthusiasm.
Like speaking in tongues, Latter-day Saint claims of healing by faith were notable in part because such assertions were, at least ostensibly, amenable to outside observation and evaluation—internal experiences with the Spirit, in other words, were less open to empirical verification than were the Saints’ outward “signs.” For their part, the Saints, ever convinced that God would heal the sick when faith was sufficient, nevertheless came to recognize that their proselytizing efforts could be severely hampered if the elders tried to answer every skeptic with an attempt to heal by faith. Some early Church preachers learned that lesson the hard way, in fact, much to the delight of skeptics. In the wake of what one critic described as a failed healing, the Saints received prophetic caution in the form of a revelation dated February 1831, in which the Lord instructed that “he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed” (D&C 42:48). Another followed in August 1831, in the aftermath of the first Ohio controversies over tongues and healing. It warned that “faith cometh not by signs” but, rather, that signs would “follow those that believe.” The Lord further advised that he was “not pleased with those” who had “sought after signs and wonders for faith” (D&C 63:9, 12). These themes were underscored yet again in a revelation on priesthood issued the following year. Cautioning again that signs “follow them that believe,” the revelation warned the Saints against boasting of such things and against even speaking of them “before the world” (D&C 84:65–73). The revelations, then, sounded a moderating note. The message was clear: yes, the Saints would experience miraculous infusions of God’s power, but such were for their own benefit and were not intended to convince the unbelieving (see D&C 63:9–12).
Antagonistic dismissal of such cautions—one skeptic sarcastically derided the Saints for keeping their miracles “all to themselves”—skirted the problem of attested spiritual manifestations. An inquisitive group from neighboring Portage County, Ohio, visited Joseph Smith at Kirtland to ascertain the truth about his claims. When the conversation turned to the spiritual powers of the apostolic age, the Prophet surprised the party by approaching one of their number, Elsa Johnson, whose arm had been withered by what contemporaries assumed was chronic rheumatism, and in the name of Jesus commanded her to “be whole.” Not only did she impress the group by being able to immediately lift her arm but she resumed household tasks thereafter without difficulty. The event was evidence enough for Ezra Booth, a Methodist minister from Mantua, who, after his later disaffection from the Church, explained how observable evidence could as easily gather new converts as “expose” Mormonism. In justifying his earlier “beguilement,” he succinctly explained that his faith in Mormonism had been “built upon the testimony of my senses.” In another example, Mary Ettie V. Smith recalled that her family’s conversion to Mormonism resulted from the healing of her mother’s deafness. Promised by a “Mormon Elder” that the Saints could “heal the sick, and . . . if she would consent to be baptized, the deafness with which she was afflicted . . . would in a very short time be removed,” Smith’s mother consented to baptism. The family was convinced of the Mormons’ message when “immediately after” the event, “her hearing was improved, and soon, it was entirely restored.” A short time later, Joseph Smith himself healed Smith’s brother’s leg. “With all these astonishing evidences before us,” Smith concluded, “how could we doubt Mormonism?” So, while most Americans remained skeptical of manifestations like those described by Smith, many witnesses felt duty bound—in part because of the very Enlightenment strategies others used to discredit spiritual phenomena—to trust “empirical” sensory evidence of Mormonism’s spiritual power.
Added to the discomfort occasioned by tongues and healing was the fact that the Saints maintained more or less regular interaction with supernatural beings. Joseph Smith’s first religious experiences were with Gods and angels, but less-prominent Saints too found themselves in company with beings from the unseen world. Manifestations of supernatural beings struck a chord with antebellum Americans because they found biblical precedents for such visitations, yet many felt that enlightened reason demanded they toss such experiences onto the trash heap of antiquated superstition.
This tension between biblical precedent and “modern” discomfort reveals itself in the two ways Latter-day Saint visionary experiences figured in oppositional literature: on the one hand, such experiences prompted discussions of visions generally and addressed their reliability as evidence for religious claims or, acknowledging the presence of visions in the Bible, their applicability in a postbiblical context; on the other hand, they also were lumped together with belief in witches, ghosts, and the like, inferring that belief in angelic visitations was tantamount to folksy fascination with goblins and fairies. In 1829 the Painesville Telegraph reported that Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by a “spirit,” and editor E. D. Howe no doubt chose his words carefully. Unlike Latter-day Saints, who typically preferred the word “angel,” skeptics often chose words that effectively distanced such experiences as far as possible from the Bible. Similarly, the Vermont Telegraph reported that the Mormon prophet claimed to enjoy communication with “celestial spirits” at will. Howe wrote in 1834 that the Smiths’ neighbors knew them to be “ignorant and superstitious—having a firm belief in ghosts and witches.” E. G. Lee wrote that Martin Harris “had always been a firm believer in dreams, and visions, and supernatural appearances, such as apparitions and ghosts.” Howe, admittedly borrowing material from the Palmyra [New York] Freeman, also reported that Joseph Smith had seen the spirit “in a dream.” Ironically, the Prophet could have saved himself considerable trouble with skeptics had he maintained that his visitations were wholly visionary, but he typically did not. Indeed, he would eventually give the Saints a way to distinguish between a heavenly angel and a dark spirit merely posing as one: shake his hand and see if you feel anything. In 1843 the Prophet explained that angels were in fact “resurrected personages” with “bodies of flesh and bones” (D&C 129:1). Methodist Tobias Spicer attended a meeting where Latter-day Saint preaching turned to angelic visitations. Spicer recalled that one speaker asserted that “many angels had appeared” to confirm “the truth of Mormonism” and that they “had heard these angels with their own ears, and seen them with their own eyes.” Spicer found the assertions “strange” and considered the Mormons deceived; he wrote that he would like to smell such angels as well as see them, “to be sure they had not come from heaven by the way of hell.” In Mormonism Unvailed (1834), Howe ruminated on the relationship between belief in such fantasies as “spirits” and the spread of religious fanaticism. He wrote that one’s “faculties are always improved by embracing simple philosophical truths,” and, alternately, in rejecting them “we become depraved, and less capable of discriminating between falsehood and error.” For Spicer, Howe, and many other critics, intimate contact with supernatural beings was evidence not of blessedness but of evil or an unsound mind.
While most American Protestants saw no conflict in the twin commitments to Protestant Christianity and the march of enlightened reason, Mormonism’s spiritual “extravagances” nevertheless forced tough questions to the fore. Chief among them was the question of biblical interpretation. After all, early Latter-day Saints offered proof texts for their religiosity and indeed prided themselves on the “self-evident” biblical premises on which their faith rested. This line of Latter-day Saint reasoning was both blasphemous and confounding for Protestant skeptics, and the question of the Saints’ being either too biblical or not biblical enough runs through their writing. To inoculate believers against the Mormon threat, the Gospel Messenger advised a simple return to the Bible: “When will men learn from example & experience that all pretences to discoveries in religion, all plans for instructing men in the way to Heaven not upon the basis of the Revelation of Christ, and the model left by his Apostles, must be productive of mischief and mortification?” The Carthage, Ohio, Evangelist agreed: “A people ignorant of the Bible are always an easy prey to the ministers of delusion and error.” But, as Tyler Parsons found out in a Boston debate with Latter-day Saint Freeman Nickerson, it was not exactly that simple. Parsons claimed victory in their 1841 debate before Boston’s Free Discussion Society and described it in Mormon Fanaticism Exposed, published the same year. After hearing the opposing positions, two men in the audience came forward in defense of the Mormon argument, no doubt much to Parsons’s consternation. Indeed, a “Mr. S.” remarked that “it was the duty of the christians to come out in support of the Mormon faith,” reasoning that the “Mormons supported all their books and dogmas.” Ultimately, Mr. S. argued, “all the difference . . . between them was, the Mormons believed the Bible to the very letter, while the christians believed it figurative and spiritual.” Parsons’s self-proclaimed vindication followed, but he concluded his narration of that particular exchange by noting that at least one of the sympathizers “intended to become a christian of the Mormon stamp.” Thus, what the literalist hermeneutic Mark Noll has ably described as characterizing antebellum Protestant approaches to the Bible not only colored much oppositional literature, it also made some American Protestants susceptible to the logic of Mormon religiosity, resonating as it did with what the Saints believed to be biblical patterns (prophets, revelation, spiritual gifts, and so forth), and left the Saints and their antagonists alike wondering why the other would not simply follow the Bible.
The Holy Spirit was paramount among the interpretive issues prompted by early Latter-day Saint religiosity. Whereas the Saints tended to think that the Bible was a cornerstone of their spirituality, anti-Mormons charged that false spirituality had led the Mormons to do violence to biblical Christianity. The editor of the Christian Palladium associated the Saints with both Quakers and Shakers, asserting that each group so emphasized the Spirit that each had been led to “undervalue and discard the Book of God.” E. D. Howe found that religious imposters had been waging their war on true religion for some time under the false banner of the Spirit:
Here is the sure refuge, the fast hold, of every imposter. This something, which is the Spirit, or the Holy Spirit, has been the standing, unequivocal, incontrovertible and true witness for at least 24 false Messiahs, for Mahomet, who is considered the prince of impostors, and for nearly fifty others who have come with pretended comissions from Heaven. They all had, and may still have, numerous followers, whose faith was wrought and confirmed by what they supposed to be the Spirit.
The popular evangelical preacher Nancy Towle concurred. After reading the Book of Mormon, she was willing to grant that Saints’ attempts at “healing the sick, raising the dead, [and] casting out devils” were “according to the attainment of the primitive disciples,” but she was convinced they had misconstrued the influence of the Spirit and had thus failed to attain their desired spiritual potency. She related an experience at a Latter-day Saint meeting in which Joseph Smith “turned to some women and children in the room; and lay his hands upon their heads; (that they might receive the Holy Ghost;).” Eliza Marsh, one of those blessed under the hand of the Prophet, immediately turned to Towle and, according to the latter, remarked, “What blessings, you do lose!—No sooner, his hands fell upon my head; than I felt the Holy Ghost,–as warm-water, go over me!” Towle was disgusted with Marsh’s report: “I was not such a stranger, to the spirit of God, as she imagined;—that I did not know its effects, from that of warm-water!” Joseph Smith, though, bore the brunt of her revulsion: “I turned to Smith, and said ‘Are you not ashamed, of such pretensions? You, who are no more than any ignorant plough-boy of our land! Oh! blush at such abominations! and let shame, forever cover your face!’” The Prophet’s response was characteristic: “The gift,” he countered, “has returned back again, as in former times, to illiterate fishermen.”
Christian commentators had long sought a balance between formalistic and enthusiastic religion along a fictive spectrum that ranged from disbelief to hyperbelief, and Latter-day Saints functioned for antebellum Christians as the far end of the gamut. Often placed just beyond the “enthusiasm” of the more ecstatic revivals, Mormonism ironically numbered some of its most committed opponents among the evangelicals. Indeed, Joseph Smith, by his own account, was drawn as a youth to Methodist camp-meeting piety but could never acclimate to the evangelical temperament. A German convert recorded a conversation with the Prophet in Nauvoo in which the latter detailed his early strivings for a conversion experience. He recalled a “Revival meeting” where his mother and a brother and sister “got Religion”—he “wanted to feel & shout like the Rest,” but in the end “could feel nothing.” A turn to the Bible prompted a secluded prayer and subsequent vision that took his religious life in a markedly different direction. The Prophet told of “a fire towards heaven” and “a personage” joined by another “person” shortly thereafter. In answer to the first question, he posed to the personages—”must I join the Methodist Church[?]”—he was told that “none . . . doeth good no not one” and that the Methodists were “not my People.” The Prophet’s disaffection was complete when, shortly after the vision, he “told the Methodist priest” of his experience and was answered that the modern age was not one “for God to Reveal himself in Vision” and that “Revelation [had] ceased with the New Testament.” Undeterred, Joseph Smith insisted on a revelation of spiritual power aimed at a religious world that both craved and feared it. Those who heard the call rejoiced—and are still rejoicing—in a new age of miracles and a restoration of the ancient church’s gifts.
 Parley P. Pratt, ed., Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 61. Original spelling and grammar retained in quoted material unless otherwise noted. The author thanks Grant Underwood and David Holland for their suggestions and support.
 John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, (Commonly Called Mormons) (St. Louis: printed for the author, 1839), 16.
 Bruce N. Westergren, ed., From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 57.
 M. S. C., “Mormonism,” Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph, February 15, 1831, 1.
 Corrill, Brief History, 17. Corrill’s account, in positing an easy “resolution” of such matters, hints at the significance of Joseph Smith’s revelations in the development of Latter-day Saint thinking about spirituality but also obscures the fact that questions and problems persisted after 1831.
 See Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 225.
 Thomas J. Kirk, The Mormons and Missouri: A General Outline of the History of the Mormons, From Their Origin to the Present, (including the late disturbance in Illinois); and a Particular Account of the Last Mormon Disturbance in Missouri, or the Mormon War: With an Appendix, Containing an Epitome of the Book of Mormon, with Remarks on the Nature and the Tendency of Mormon Faith (Chillicothe, MO: J. H. Darlington, Printer, 1844), 62–63.
 Hugh Nibley, The World and the Prophets, ed. John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1987), 295.
 The quotation, derived from Ecclesiastes 1:9, is from M.S.C., “Mormonism,” 3. “Enthusiasm” in early American usage constituted an epithet relating to alleged false inspiration.
 As reported in the Western Monitor [Fayette, MO], August 2, 1833; reprinted in Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948), 1:395–98.
 See, for instance, B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:328.
 “Free People of Color,” in Smith, History of the Church, 1:378; “Extra,” Evening and Morning Star [Independence, MO], July 18, 1833; reprinted in Smith, History of the Church, 1:379.
 Richard L. Bushman, “Mormon Persecution in Missouri, 1833,” BYU Studies 3 (Autumn 1960): 11–20.
 For characteristic examples of these two perspectives on the Mormon/
 Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty, 89.
 Tyler Parsons, Mormon Fanaticism Exposed: a Compendium of the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith’s Golden Bible (Boston: printed for the author, 1841), 68.
 Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience From Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 17–18.
 For a discussion of the French Prophets and, especially, their influence on Shaker religiosity, see Clarke Garrett, Spirit Possession and Popular Religion: From the Camisards to the Shakers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); see also David S. Lovejoy, Religious Enthusiasm in the New World: Heresy to Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).
 See John Taylor’s 1857 sermon in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. and S. W. Richards, 1854–86), 5:239.
 Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions, 3–5, 15, 19. “Confused” to modern eyes, that is. Most nineteenth-century subjects saw no contradiction between Enlightenment thought and traditional Christianity (see Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America [New York: Oxford University Press, 1976]).
 Jason Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” Unitarian (January 1834): 45; see also pp. 40–50.
 Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” 45–46.
 Joseph Smith wrote: “About the 8th of November  I received a visit from Elders Joseph Young, Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball of Mendon, Monroe county, New York. They spent four or five days at Kirtland, during which we had many interesting moments. At one of our interviews, Brother Brigham Young and John P. Greene spoke in tongues, which was the first time I had heard this gift among the brethren; others also spoke, and I received the gift myself “ (History of the Church, 1:295–97). Brigham Young recalled the Prophet’s reaction to his prayer in tongues: “As soon as we arose from our knees, the brethren flocked around him, and asked his opinion concerning the gift of tongues that was upon me. He told them it was the pure Adamic language. Some said to him they expected he would condemn the gift Brother Brigham had, but he said, ‘No, it is of God.’” (Young’s reminiscence was recorded in his “Manuscript History” and reprinted in Smith, History of the Church, 1:297.) David Whitmer recalled in 1887, long after his exit from Mormonism, that the early Saints had in New York experienced “all the signs which Christ promised should follow the believers,” including speaking in tongues. David Whitmer, An Address to all Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO: David Whitmer, 1887), 33. A partially crossed-out portion of Joseph Smith’s effort to narrate the early history of the Church included a description of its first meeting on April 6, 1830, in Fayette, New York. In it, the Prophet wrote that “the Holy Ghost was poured out upon us all to a greater or less degree. Some prophecied, many spoke with new tongues, and some of our number were completely overpowered for a time, that we were obliged to lay them upon beds” (Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989], 1:242–43). For early speaking in tongues, see Lee Copeland, “Speaking in Tongues in the Restoration Churches,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 13–34; Dan Vogel and Scott G. Dunn, “‘The Tongue of Angels’: Glossolalia Among Mormonism’s Founders,” Journal of Mormon History 19, no. 2 (1993): 1–34.
 Painesville Telegraph, December 14, 1830; Copeland, “Speaking in Tongues,” 17.
 Corrill, Brief History, 9.
 Woodruff is quoted in Copeland, “Speaking in Tongues,” 19.
 See, as an example, “The Mormons in Trouble,” Boston Recorder, September 11, 1833, 148.
 Smith, History of the Church, 1:374–76. At precisely the same time, the Prophet expressed deep concerns about the Missouri Saints’ controversial tongues-speaking. “As to the gift of tongues,” the Prophet wrote, “all we can say is, that in this place [Ohio], we have received it as the ancients did: we wish you, however, to be careful lest in this you be deceived. . . . Satan will no doubt trouble you about the gift of tongues, unless you are careful; you cannot watch him too closely,” he concluded, “nor pray too much” (Smith, History of the Church, 1:369).
 David Pettigrew, “A History of David Pettigrew (n.d.),” David Pettigrew Papers 1840–1857, microfilm, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 15–17. In the end, speaking in tongues proved controversial enough that the Missouri high council, an ecclesiastical body charged with oversight of the Saints in the state, forbade the practice there for an extended period following the 1833 mobbing (see Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844 [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983], 63; Vogel and Dunn, “‘Tongue of Angels,’” 15–17).
 Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan, and Christian, Ancient and Modern, 4th ed. (New York: James Eastburn and Company, 1817), 84–85, 268–69.
 For examples, see Thomas Branagan, A Concise View of the Principal Religious Denominations in the United States of America, Comprehending a General Account of Their Doctrines, Ceremonies, and Modes of Worship (Philadelphia: printed by John Cline, 1811), 45; Valentine Rathbun, An Account of the Matter, Form, and Manner of a New and Strange Religion, Taught and Propagated by a Number of Europeans, Living in a Place Called Nisqueunia, in the State of New-York (Providence, RI: Bennett Wheeler, 1781), 4; Benjamin West, Scriptural Cautions against Embracing a Religious Scheme, Taught by a Number of Europeans, Who came from England to America, in the Year 1776, and Stile Themselves a CHURCH, &c. &c. (Hartford, CT: Bavil Webster, 1783), 14.
 Amos Taylor, A Narrative of the Strange Principles, Conduct and Character of the People Known by the Name of Shakers: Whose ERRORS Have Spread in Several Parts of North-America, but Are Beginning to Diminish, and Ought to Be Guarded against (Worcester, MA: printed for the author, 1782), 12–13.
 Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds., Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 507.
 Smith, History of the Church, 2:162.
 Smith, History of the Church, 3:379.
 Smith, History of the Church, 3:392.
 Smith, History of the Church, 4:607.
 Vogel and Dunn, “‘Tongue of Angels,’” 22–23.
 Times and Seasons, April 1, 1842, 745.
 For the critical appraisal of the revelation’s context, see “Mormonism,” The Spirit of Practical Godliness, Devoted to the Present and Future Happiness of Mankind 1, no. 1 (May 1832): 95–96.
 This direction revised earlier instructions. In July 1830, elders were to “require not miracles, except I shall command you, except casting out devils, healing the sick, and against poisonous serpents, and against deadly poisons; and these things ye shall not do, except it be required of you by them who desire it, that the scriptures might be fulfilled; for ye shall do according to that which is written” (D&C 24:13–14).
 James H. Hunt, Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect, With an Examination of the Book of Mormon; also, Their Troubles in Missouri, and Final Expulsion from the State (St. Louis: Ustick and Davies, 1844), 279.
 Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830–1838 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 83.
 Booth’s nine letters criticizing Mormonism, sent to the Ohio Star between October and December 1831, were republished in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time. . . . (Painesville, OH: Howe, E. D., 1834), 175–221 (quoted material appears on page 176).
 Some in Smith’s family, including Mary herself, eventually left the Church. See Nelson W. Green, Fifteen Years Among the Mormons; Being a Narrative of Mrs. Mary Ettie V. Smith, Late of Great Salt Lake City; a Sister of one of the Mormon High Priests, She Having Been Personally Acquainted with Most of the Mormon Leaders, and Long in the Confidence of the “Prophet” Brigham Young (New York: C. Scribner, 1858), 19, 52.
 For a discussion of the context of LDS visionary claims, see Richard L. Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies 37, no. 1 (1997–98): 183–204.
 “‘Golden Bible,’” Painesville Telegraph, September 22, 1829, 3.
 “The Mormon Delusion,” Vermont Telegraph, December 6, 1831, 44.
 Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 11.
 E. G. Lee, The Mormons; or, Knavery Exposed (Philadelphia: E. G. Lee, Frankford, Pa., 1841), 8.
 Tobias Spicer, Autobiography of Rev. Tobias Spicer: Containing Incidents and Observations; Also Some Account of His Visit to England (Boston: C. H. Pierce and Company, 1851), 113.
 Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 37.
 “Mormonism,” Gospel Messenger, June 1, 1833, 67.
 Matilda Davison, A.C., and W. Scott, “The Mormon Bible,” Evangelist [Carthage, OH], July 1, 1839, 160.
 Parsons, Mormon Fanaticism Exposed, 55–56.
 See Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), chapter 18. For the Saints’ attachment to and uses of the Bible, see Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
 “The Spirit,” Christian Palladium, September 1, 1834, 148.
 Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 130–31.
 Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated, In the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America (Portsmouth, NH: printed for the authoress, by John Caldwell, 1833), 152–53.
 Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated, 156–57.
 Interestingly, antebellum commentators cast the Saints as occupying both ends of the spectrum. For a discussion of the ways skeptics considered early Mormonism to both reflect and promote atheism, see J. Spencer Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” (PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2006), 132–37.
 Alexander Neibaur Journal, May 24, 1844, reprinted in Jessee, ed., Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:461. Joseph Smith and early Mormonism thus mirror the Revolutionary-era prophets Susan Juster describes as having both “fed on and repudiated the evangelical ethos” (Susan Juster, Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003], 5).