The Salt Lake Tribune ran an interesting opinion piece last week (22 January 2008) written by Eric Dursteler, an associate professor at BYU. Describing himself as “a Mormon and a historian,” in “Attacks on Islam, Mormonism spring from the same dark well” Dr. Dursteler draws a parallel between the vitriolic language sometimes used to describe Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, and the language used in the Middle Ages to describe Islam’s founder, Muhammad. What’s more, this same sort of language was used against Joseph Smith in the 1800s. Dr. Dursteler explains,
“In describing Joseph Smith as a criminal, a fraud and a rapist, [current liberal pundit Lawrence] O’Donnell was drawing on deeply-rooted themes and images which medieval Christians used in the age of the Crusades, and which were revived in the 19th century by critics of Mormonism…
“…During the 19th century as Mormonism began to expand, American commentators dusted off the centuries-old rhetoric used against Islam and in similarly vituperative fashion equated the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, with the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. From the faith’s earliest days, Smith was referred to as the ‘Yankee’ or the ‘American’ Muhammad, and newspaper editors included him in a long line of religious imposters, which included the Muslim prophet.”
I’m no fan of Lawrence O’Donnell or his turgidity. I tend to agree with Dr. Dursteler that uncalled-for use of such virulent language may be a ploy on O’Donnell’s part to boost ratings. Yet, there is more to the story of the linking of Joseph Smith with Muhammad, historically speaking, than Dr. Dursteler has provided for his readers.
On October 14th, 1838 Joseph Smith equated himself with Muhammad. As reported by another Mormon historian, in a speech given to “every able-bodied Mormon in Caldwell County” Missouri, the Prophet said,
“If the people will let us alone we will preach the gospel in peace. But if they come on us to molest us, we will establish our religion by the sword. We will trample down our enemies and make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be to this generation a second Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was ‘Alcoran or the Sword.’ So shall it eventually be with us — ‘Joseph Smith or the Sword!'” (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 230-231. See History of the Church 3:167)
Though the LDS Church questions whether Joseph actually said this, Ms. Brodie based her report on the affidavits of seven different men, two of whom were LDS Apostles. The actions of the Mormons over the following days indicate Joseph probably said — and meant — what he was accused of. Hearing reports of “disturbances” in Daviess County, a non-Mormon committee went to investigate. They reported back,
“‘that much more had been done by the Mormons than the people of this county had been informed of.’ …Millport and Gallatin were almost entirely in ashes, Peniston’s horsemill had been torn down and its parts scattered, and nearly all the Daviess settlers had been driven from the county, their possessions seized, and their homes burned.” (Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, 136)
It is somewhat incongruous for Dr. Dursteler to find fault with people comparing Joseph Smith to Muhammad, when Joseph Smith did it himself.
More thoughts on Sludge from a Dark Well to be continued in a future post…
For further reading see Joseph Smith – The Second Muhammad?