Pious fraud, sincere charlatan (new bio of Joseph Smith)
Sep 12, 2004 05:03 PM
with some relevance to Theosophical history.
Yesterday I skimmed Joseph Smith: the Making of a Prophet by Dan
Vogel. For three years my historical research has been focused
entirely on my own family history. It was family connections that
brought me into contact with Edgar Cayce and the ARE, and as I've
pursued them through several generations I've learned that several of
my ggg grandparents lived in the same Vermont county where Joseph
Smith and his family lived at the time, and later moved to the same
area of New York state where the Smith family relocated. (Also
learned that Mary Baker Eddy is a distant cousin, btw.) One
grandmother's ancestors were exclusively Quakers in northeastern NC
at the time of George Fox's visit to the region, so I have ancestral
links to the founders of several major spiritual movements.
The Smith bio is interesting in that the author is frankly
naturalistic in his approach, not only a non-Mormon but apparently a
non-believer in anything paranormal, supernatural, etc. He
deconstructs the Book of Mormon in terms of Smith's family history
and contemporary political and religious issues. The book's
relevance to Theosophical history is in its introduction. Here are
the quotes that apply to Blavatsky and approaches to her:
...we must address what Jan Shipps, non-Mormon historian of the LDS
experience, once termed the `prophet puzzle' if we ever hope to
understand Smith and the church he founded...Shipps wrote of the
Mormon prophet `What we have in Mormon historiography are two
Josephs: the one who started out digging for money and, when he was
unsuccessful, turned to propheteering and the one who had visions and
dreamed dreams, restored the church, and revealed the will of the
Lord to a sinful world.'...[Shipps] called for a more fully
integrated view of Smith, one allowing for, even encouraging, the
complex spectrum of human personality...to my mind, the most obvious
solution to Shipps's conundrum is to suggest that Smith was a well
intentioned "pious deceiver" or, perhaps otherwise worded, a "sincere
fraud," someone who prevaricated for "good" reasons.
Later in the introduction, Vogel, who practiced stage magic in his
youth, offers a fivefold typology for various kinds of magicians
1. The charlatan who may or may not believe in magic but uses its
vocabulary and props while employing trickery for profit, power, and
2. The sincere charlatan who believes in magic but occasionally
practices trickery both to enhance his presentation and more easily
convince others of his powers.
3. The deluded magician who, for a variety of reasons, believes he
really possesses magical powers.
4. The sincere magician who practices magic without trickery but may
support his belief through anecdotal evidence.
5. The real magician who possesses supernatural gifts, controls
nature, performs miracles, etc.
I find this a much more useful typology than the dichotomous genuine
vs. fraud perspective most often applied to HPB, CWL, etc.
PS the HPB letter 118 I posted last week situates HPB quite
specifically on Vogel's spectrum
[Back to Top]
Dedicated to the Theosophical Philosophy and its Practical Application