Juvenile Instructor » An Alien Testifies of the Apostasy: Benjamin Winchester’s Creative Apologetics
 


An Alien Testifies of the Apostasy: Benjamin Winchester’s Creative Apologetics

By: Steve Fleming - February 13, 2014

The announcement that the church is planning to build a complex in downtown Philadelphia next to the temple puts me in mind of the church’s history in Philadelphia.  This history revolved around Benjamin Winchester who began preaching in Philadelphia in 1840.  Winchester was immediately successful but his success was soon tainted by the fact that most of his converts quickly grew to seriously dislike him.  Apparently Winchester was rather dictatorial, excommunicating all who disagreed with him.  The problems Winchester created (the Philadelphia branch split in two between the pro- and anti-Winchester factions) continued until Winchester left the church shortly after Joseph Smith’s assassination.[1]  Thus Winchester left this unfortunate legacy, made even more unfortunate considering Winchester’s intellectual legacy.  Winchester wrote the Mormons’ first Bible concordance, the first refutation the Spaulding theory, and the Mormons’ first historical theology, which gave a history of the apostasy that made statements that Joseph Smith endorsed in his very last speech.[2]

Winchester set up his own periodical in Philadelphia (The Gospel Reflector) where he asserted Mormon doctrine.  One of Winchester’s favorite topics was the apostate condition of present Christianity; the first issue of The Gospel Reflector addressed this issue in several articles.  The most creative was one called “The Present Condition of the Religious World Represented by the Similitude of a Dream.”  The writer, Winchester, who in this article called himself “A Believer in the Scriptures,” said he had a dream (a thought experiment) where he was surrounded by the peoples of the world all practicing their respective religions.  The writer sought out the Christians and found a “clashing of opinions.”  The writer said he nevertheless decided “to support a party and abide by the teachings of men,” but just before he did this “I was rescued.”

“Suddenly there appeared a cloud which hovered over the multitude, having a singular appearance, being accompanied with a terrible noise….  And behold, there appeared a personage in sight that was descending through the ethereal sky.… This personage soon landed in the midst of the multitude.”  Was it an angel sent from heaven, the Lord Himself?  No.  “I drew near him, to hear from whence he came, and I soon learned that he was from some distant planet, but he refused to give any further information on the subject.”

The crowd then began preaching to the alien who said he didn’t know anything about Christianity.  The alien didn’t like all their fighting but did read the Bible and “was overwhelmed with joy to think that he had found a doctrine that guaranteed unto him his soul’s salvation.”  He was also happy to learn about the church that Christ had organized and asked the Christians “to give him an introduction to some of their apostles” and was “astonished” to hear the Christians say “we have no apostles in the church now-a-days.”  Upon learning that they didn’t have prophets or spiritual gifts either, the alien “declared that [the Christians] did not believe what they professed, and turned from them much dissatisfied.”

Observing this interaction, “The eyes of my understanding were opened, and I saw the condition I was in, and also the awful apostasy of the Church” and the writer determined to seek the gifts of which the Bible spoke but then awoke.[3]

The idea that there was life on other planets was quite common at this time.  For instance, in his biblical commentary, Adam Clarke cited astronomer William Hershel who said that the sun and moon were habitable and declared there to be “innumerable worlds, all dependent on the power protection, and providence of God.”[4]  Emmanuel Swedenborg claimed to have visited other planets and apparently concern for the salvation of such individuals was on Joseph Smith Sr.’s mind since he gave a handful of patriarchal blessings saying that individuals would travel to other planets to preach.[5]  The idea of an alien coming to this planet to conclude that Christianity was in a state of apostasy still strikes me as rather creative.

 


[1] See my “Discord in the City of Brotherly Love: The Story of Early Mormonism in Philadelphia,” Mormon Historical Studies 5, no. 1 (2004): 3-28 and David W. Whittaker, “East of Nauvoo: Benjamin Winchester and the Early Mormon Church,” Journal of Mormon History 21, no. 2 (1994): 31–83.

[2] Benjamin Winchester, The Origin of the Spaulding Story: Concerning the Manuscript Found (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking and Guilbert, 1840); Benjamin Winchester, A History of the Priesthood from the Beginning of the World to the Present Time (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking, and Guilbert, 1843).  For the similarities between Smith’s and Winchester’s statements see Christopher C. Jones and Stephen J. Fleming, “‘Except among that Portion of Mankind’: Early Mormon Conceptions of the Apostasy,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of the Apostasy, ed. Miranda Wilcox and John Young, forthcoming at Oxford University Press.

[3]“The Present Condition of the Religious World Represented by the Similitude of a Dream,” The Gospel Relfector (Philadelphia) 1 no.1 (January 1, 1841): 14-17.

[4] Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, Genesis 1:16.  For a history of the idea see Steven J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

[5] Emanuel Swedenborg, Concerning the Earths in Our Solar System, Which Are Called Planets: and Concerning the Earths in the Starry Heaven.  Together with an Account of Their Inhabitants and Also of the Spirits and Angles There, from What Has Been Seen and Heard (1756, reprint; Boston: Adonic Howard, 1828).  Early Patriarchal Blessing, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. H. Michael Marquardt  (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007), 146, 72, 95, 105, 123.

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10 Comments

  1. Whodathunk a 32-story residential tower isn’t the most random Mormon thing to happen in Philadelphia?

    Great stuff, Stephen. Philadelphia, and Wichester, are such important and fascinating elements of early Mormon history. It seems we need a book-length treatment on the topic from someone so knowledgeable…

    Comment by Ben P — February 13, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

  2. Who knew aliens would be interested in religion? Thanks, Stephen.

    Comment by Saskia — February 13, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

  3. Excellent, Steve. Thanks for this.

    Comment by Christopher — February 13, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

  4. Cool stuff.
    What led Winchester out?

    (I have Winchester ancestors, but I don’t think he’s one of them.)

    Comment by Ben S — February 13, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

  5. Totally random, but this made me think of Eric James Stone’s short story on the conversion of space whales.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 13, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

  6. Thanks everybody. Ben P., I’ll get on that soon.

    Ben S., as mentioned, Winchester got in a lot of fights with people, not just the local members but also church leaders who passed through. Brigham Young and Joseph Smith quickly grew tired of him. He was censured several times. He also refused to stay in Nauvoo (like Joseph Smith wanted) because he couldn’t find a job there (a common problem). When he left he said it was because he had been called up on trial by the church too many times and that it had cost him lots of money to keep traveling to Nauvoo and polygamy. The articles I cited give more details.

    J. wild.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 13, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  7. And a lot of Winchester’s family stayed with the church, his father and such. Winchester communicated with them (BYU recently got a collection of letters) but eventually became a spiritualist. Had a theory about JS channeling the BoM through a spirit medium.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 13, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

  8. Intriguing; thanks, Steve. Was this part of your presentation at ApostaCon, or whatever people were calling it?

    Comment by Ryan T. — February 13, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

  9. Scratch that. Just found it in the notes. Nice!

    Comment by Ryan T. — February 13, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

  10. Actually, no, we didn’t mention this particular anecdote at ApostaCon (maybe we should have). We did discuss some other statements by Winchester on the apostasy though. That’s what the footnote references.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 13, 2014 @ 3:23 pm