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Pious fraud, sincere charlatan (new bio of Joseph Smith)

Sep 12, 2004 05:03 PM
by kpauljohnson

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 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 
(quoting directly)

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

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