Facility Of Human Belief

Summing up his observations of the Mormons as he found them in

Utah while secretary of the territory, five years after their

removal to the Great Salt Lake valley, B. G. Ferris wrote, "The

real miracle [of their success] consists in so large a body of

men and women, in a civilized land, and in the nineteenth

century, being brought under, governed, and controlled by such

gross religious imposture. "This statement presents, in concise

form, the general view of the surprising features of the success

of the Mormon leaders, in forming, augmenting, and keeping

together their flock; but it is a mistaken view. To accept it

would be to concede that, in a highly civilized nation like ours,

and in so late a century, the acceptance of religious beliefs

which, to the nonbelievers, seem gross superstitions, is so

unusual that it may be classed with the miraculous. Investigation

easily disproves this.

It is true that the effrontery which has characterized Mormonism

from the start has been most daring. Its founder, a lad of low

birth, very limited education, and uncertain morals; its

beginnings so near burlesque that they drew down upon its

originators the scoff of their neighbors,--the organization

increased its membership as it was driven from one state to

another, building up at last in an untried wilderness a

population that has steadily augmented its wealth and numbers;

doggedly defending its right to practise its peculiar beliefs and

obey only the officers of the church, even when its course in

this respect has brought it in conflict with the government of

the United States. Professing only a desire to be let alone, it

promulgated in polygamy a doctrine that was in conflict with the

moral sentiment of the Christian world, making its practice not

only a privilege, but a part of the religious duty of its

members. When, in recent years, Congress legislated against this

practice, the church fought for its peculiar institution to the

last, its leading members accepting exile and imprisonment; and

only the certainty of continued exclusion from the rights of

citizenship, and the hopelessness of securing the long-desired

prize of statehood for Utah, finally induced the church to bow to

the inevitable, and to announce a form of release for its members

from the duty of marrying more wives than one. Aside from this

concession, the Mormon church is to-day as autocratic in its hold

on its members, as aggressive in its proselyting, and as earnest

in maintaining its individual religious and political power, as

it has been in any previous time in its history.

In its material aspects we must concede to the Mormon church

organization a remarkable success; to Joseph Smith, Jr., a

leadership which would brook no rival; to Brigham Young the

maintenance of an autocratic authority which enabled him to hold

together and enlarge his church far beyond the limits that would

have been deemed possible when they set out across the plains

with all their possessions in their wagons. But it is no more

surprising that the Mormons succeeded in establishing their

church in the United States than it would have been if they had

been equally successful in South America; no more surprising that

this success should have been won in the nineteenth century than

it would have been to record it in the twelfth.

In studying questions of this kind, we are, in the first place,

entirely too apt to ignore the fact that man, while comparatively

a "superior being," is in simple fact one species of the animals

that are found upon the earth; and that, as a species, he has

traits which distinguish him characteristically just as certain

well-known traits characterize those animals that we designate as

"lower." If a traveller from the Sun should print his

observations of the inhabitants of the different planets, he

would have to say of those of the Earth something like this: "One

of Man's leading traits is what is known as belief. He is a

credulous creature, and is especially susceptible to appeals to

his credulity in regard to matters affecting his existence after

death." Whatever explanation we may accept of the origin of the

conception by this animal of his soul-existence, and of the

evolution of shadowy beliefs into religious systems, we must

concede that Man is possessed of a tendency to worship something,

--a recognition, at least, of a higher power with which it

behooves him to be on friendly terms,--and so long as the

absolute correctness of any one belief or doctrine cannot be

actually proved to him, he is constantly ready to inquire into,

and perhaps give credence to, new doctrines that are presented

for his consideration. The acceptance by Man of novelties in the

way of religions is a characteristic that has marked his species

ever since its record has been preserved. According to Max

Matter, "every religion began simply as a matter of reason, and

from this drifted into a superstition"; that is, into what

non-believers in the new doctrine characterize as a superstition.

Whenever one of these driftings has found a lodgement, there has

been planted a new sect. There has never been a year in the

Christian era when there have not been believers ready to accept

any doctrine offered to them in the name of religion. As

Shakespeare expresses it, in the words of Bassanio:--

"In religion, What damned error but some sober brow Will bless

it, and approve it with a text, Hiding the grossness with fair


In glancing at the cause of this unchanged susceptibility to

religious credulity--unchanged while the world has been making

such strides in the acquisition of exact information--we may find

a summing up of the situation in Macaulay's blunt declaration

that "natural theology is not a progressive science; a Christian

of the fifth century with a Bible is on a par with a Christian of

the nineteenth century with a Bible. The "orthodox" believer in

that Bible can only seek a better understanding of it by studying

it himself and accepting the deductions of other students.

Nothing, as the centuries have passed, has been added to his

definite knowledge of his God or his own future existence. When,

therefore, some one, like a Swedenborg or a Joseph Smith, appears

with an announcement of an addition to the information on this

subject, obtained by direct revelation from on high, he supplies

one of the greatest desiderata that man is conscious of, and we

ought, perhaps, to wonder that his followers are not so numerous,

but so few. Progress in medical science would no longer permit

any body like the College of the Physicians of London to

recognize curative value in the skull of a person who had met

with a violent death, as it did in the seventeenth century; but

the physician of the seventeenth century with a pharmacopoeia was

not "on a par with" a physician of the nineteenth century with a


Nor has man changed in his mental susceptibilities as the

centuries have advanced. It is a failure to recognize this fact

which leads observers like Ferris to find it so marvellous that a

belief like Mormonism should succeed in the nineteenth century.

Draper's studies of man's intellectual development led him to

declare that "man has ever been the same in his modes of thought

and motives of action, "and to assert his purpose to" judge past

occurrences in the same way as those of our own time."* So

Macaulay refused to accept the doctrine that "the world is

constantly becoming more and more enlightened, "asserting that

"the human mind, instead of marching, merely marks time. "Nothing

offers stronger confirmation of the correctness of these views

than the history of religious beliefs, and the teachings

connected therewith since the death of Christ.

* "Intellectual Development of Europe," Vol. II, Chap. 3.

The chain of these beliefs and teachings--including in the list

only those which offer the boldest challenge to a sane man's

credulity--is uninterrupted down to our own day. A few of them

may be mentioned by way of illustration. In one century we find

Spanish priests demanding the suppression of the opera on the

ground that this form of entertainment caused a drought, and a

Pope issuing a bull against men and women having sexual

intercourse with fiends. In another, we find an English tailor,

unsuccessfully, allotting endless torments to all who would not

accept his declaration that God was only six feet in height, at

the same time that George Fox, who was successful in establishing

the Quaker sect, denounced as unchristian adoration of Janus and

Woden, any mention of a month as January or a day as Wednesday.

Luther, the Protestant pioneer, believed that he had personal

conferences with the devil; Wesley, the founder of Methodism,

declared that "the giving up of (belief) in witchcraft is, in

effect, giving up the Bible. "Education and mental training have

had no influence in shaping the declarations of the leaders of

new religious sects.* The learned scientist, Swedenborg, told of

seeing the Virgin Mary dressed in blue satin, and of spirits

wearing hats, just as confidently as the ignorant Joseph Smith,

Jr., described his angel as "a tall, slim, well-built, handsome

man, with a bright pillar upon his head."

* "The splendid gifts which make a seer are usually found among

those whom society calls 'common or unclean.' These brutish

beings are the chosen vessels in whom God has poured the elixirs

which amaze humanity. Such beings have furnished the prophets,

the St. Peters, the hermits of history." BALZAC, in "Cousin


The readiness with which even believers so strictly taught as are

the Jews can be led astray by the announcement of a new teacher

divinely inspired, is illustrated in the stories of their many

false Messiahs. One illustration of this--from the pen of

Zangwill --may be given:--

"From all the lands of the Exile, crowds of the devout came to do

him homage and tender allegiance--Turkish Jews with red fez or

saffron-yellow turban; Jerusalem Jews in striped cotton gowns and

soft felt hats; Polish Jews with foxskin caps and long caftans;

sallow German Jews, gigantic Russian Jews, highbred Spanish Jews;

and with them often their wives and daughters-- Jerusalem

Jewesses with blue shirts and head-veils, Egyptian Jewesses with

sweeping robes and black head-shawls, Jewesses from Ashdod and

Gaza, with white visors fringed with gold coins; Polish Jewesses

with glossy wigs; Syrian Jewesses with eyelashes black as though

lined with kohl; fat Jewesses from Tunis, with clinging breeches

interwoven with gold and silver."

This homage to a man who turned Turk, and became a doorkeeper of

the Sultan, to save himself from torture and death!

Savagery and civilization meet on this plane of religious

credulity. The Indians of Canada believed not more implicitly in

the demons who howled all over the Isles of Demons, than did the

early French sailors and the priests whose protection the latter

asked. The Jesuit priests of the seventeenth century accepted,

and impressed upon their white followers in New France, belief in

miracles which made a greater demand on credulity than did any of

the exactions of the Indian medicine man. That the head of a

white man, which the Iroquois carried to their village, spoke to

them and scolded them for their perfidy, "found believers among

the most intelligent men of the colony, "just as did the story of

the conversion of a sick Huguenot immigrant, with whose gruel a

Mother secretly mixed a little of the powdered bone of a Jesuit

martyr.* And French Canada is to-day as "orthodox" in its belief

in miracles as was the Canada of the seventeenth century. The

church of St. Anne de Beaupre, below Quebec, attracts thousands

annually, and is piled with the crutches which the miraculously

cured have cast aside. Masses were said in 1899 in the church of

Notre Dame de Bonsecours at Montreal, at the expense of a pilots'

association, to ward off wrecks in the treacherous St. Lawrence;

and in the near-by provinces there were religious processions to

check the attacks of caterpillars in the orchards.

* Parkman's "Old Regime in Canada."

Nor need we go to Catholic Quebec for modern illustrations of

this kind of faith. "Bareheaded people stood out upon the corner

in East 113th Street yesterday afternoon, "said a New York City

newspaper of December 18, 1898, "because they were unable to get

into the church of Our Lady Queen of Angels, where a relic of St.

Anthony of Padua was exposed for veneration. "Describing a

service in the church of St. Jean Baptiste in East 77th Street,

New York, where a relic alleged to be a piece of a bone of the

mother of the Virgin was exposed, a newspaper of that city, on

July 24th, 1901, said: "There were five hundred persons, by

actual count, in and around the crypt chapel of St. Anne when

afternoon service stopped the rush of the sick and crippled at

4.30 o'clock yesterday. There were many more at the 8 o'clock

evening Mass. What did these people seek at the shrine? Only the

favor of St. Anne and a kiss and touch of the casket that, by

church authority, contains bone of her body. "France has to-day

its Grotto of Lourdes, Wales its St. Winefride's Well, Mexico its

"wonder-working doll" that makes the sick well and the childless

mothers, and Moscow its "wonder-working picture of the Mother of

God," before which the Czar prostrates himself.

Not in recent years has the appetite for some novelty on which to

fasten belief been more manifest in the United States than it was

at the close of the nineteenth century. Old beliefs found new

teachers, and promulgators of new ideas found followers.

Instructors in Brahminism attracted considerable attention. A

"Chapter of the College of Divine Sciences and Realization"

instituted a revival of Druid sun-adoration on the shores of Lake

Michigan. An organization has been formed of believers in the

One-Over-At-Acre, a Persian who claimed to be the forerunner of

the Millennium, and in whom, as Christ, it is said that more than

three thousand persons in this country believe. We have among us

also Jaorelites, who believe in the near date of the end of the

world, and that they must make their ascent to heaven from a

mountain in Scotland. The hold which the form of belief called

Christian Science has obtained upon people of education and

culture needs only be referred to. Along with this have come the

"divine healers," gaining patients in circles where it would be

thought impossible for them to obtain even consideration, and one

of them securing a clientage in a Western city which has enabled

him to establish there a church of his own.

In fact, instead of finding in enlightened countries like the

United States and England a poor field for the dissemination of

new beliefs, the whole school of revealers find there their best

opportunities. Discussing this susceptibility, Aliene Gorren, in

her "Anglo-Saxons and Others," reaches this conclusion: "Nowhere

are so many persons of sound intelligence in all practical

affairs so easily led to follow after crazy seers and seeresses

as in England and the United States. The truth is that the mind

of man refuses to be shut out absolutely from the world of the

higher abstractions, and that, if it may not make its way thither

under proper guidance, it will set off even at the tail of the

first ragged street procession that passes."

The "real miracle" in Mormonism, then,--the wonderful feature of

its success,--is to be sought, not in the fact that it has been

able to attract believers in a new prophet, and to find them at

this date and in this country, but in its success in establishing

and keeping together in a republic like ours a membership who

acknowledge its supreme authority in politics as well as in

religion, and who form a distinct organization which does not

conceal its purpose to rule over the whole nation. Had Mormonism

confined itself to its religious teachings, and been preached

only to those who sought its instruction, instead of beating up

the world for recruits and conveying them to its home, the Mormon

church would probably to-day be attracting as little attention as

do the Harmonists of Pennsylvania.

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