In the spring of 1842, a young Englishman arrived in Nauvoo with an important mission. An Anglican clergyman, he had set aside his clerical apparel and was dressed as an ordinary traveler. In his possession was an ancient Greek psalter with which he planned to prove, once and for all, that Joseph Smith, the American prophet, was a fraud. Henry Caswall would later claim he had proved that not only was Joseph Smith not a prophet, but he was not even a religious man! To the contrary, Joseph was an impostor of an evil kind!
Who was Henry Caswall, and why was he so important to the critics of Mormonism? In describing his own profession, Caswall wrote in 1854 that a vicar is one who, “under God, [is] the friend of the poor, the instructor of the ignorant, the comforter of the afflicted, of the suffering, and of the dying.”These were high standards for a man to set for himself. However, Henry Caswall took upon himself this task, devoting his life to what he believed to be the true work of Jesus Christ. Part of this work, as he saw it, involved defending the Church of England against the Latter-day Saints. Thus it was that Henry Caswall, a little-known professor of divinity and a vicar, became an outspoken critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its doctrines. At the height of his anti-Mormon activities, Caswall’s colleagues considered him a powerful witness of the turpitude of Joseph Smith and his religion; the Mormons considered him the epitome of sectarian deceit. He was, in fact, one of the most influential anti-Mormon writers of the nineteenth century. But, for all that has been written or said about his books and tracts, we know very little about his life. He has remained somewhat enigmatic to Mormon scholars.
Henry Caswall was born into a prominent Anglican clerical family in Yately, Hampshire, England, in 1810. His father, a vicar, descended from Sir George Caswall of Leominster and married the niece of Thomas Burgess, Bishop of Salisbury. Caswall was the eldest son.In 1827, Caswall met Bishop Philander Chase of Ohio, who was on an extended tour of England to collect money for the fledgling Kenyon College, located in what later was named Gambier, Ohio. Kenyon College was the first Episcopal seminary west of the Allegheny Mountains. At the urging of Bishop Chase, Caswall sailed to America to attend the newly founded college. He arrived in New York City on September 18, 1828, and then traveled to Ohio.
Bishop Chase’s interaction with English society and members of the Anglican Church was reflective of his era. Beginning in the last part of the eighteenth century, English churches increased their missionary activity. They published and distributed tracts, commenced social and religious societies, and expanded missionary work in both England and America. While the Anglican Church was slower to display a missionary zeal than the nonconformist denominations, it too began to exhibit an evangelical fervor by sending money and missionaries throughout Britain and to other parts of the world.
It was in this spirit of missionary work that Caswall traveled to Ohio, where he spent the next three years at Kenyon College. There he assisted Bishop Chase in various duties such as traveling through Ohio distributing Bibles. Apparently, he soon became a close friend to the bishop. In 1830 he married Chase’s niece, thus solidifying his ties to the dynamic Bishop of Ohio.In the autumn of 1830, six months after the organization of the LDS Church, Caswall received his divinity degree from Kenyon College. After a short time of study in Boston, he returned to Ohio, where he was ordained a deacon on June 12, 1831.
For the next six years, Caswall held minor clerical positions in Ohio and Kentucky, including Professor of Sacred Literature at a theological seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1834 to 1837. In 1837, Caswall was appointed to be the pastor of a small congregation in Madison, Ohio, where on July 2 of that year, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Jackson Kemper.
Caswall took his appointment in Madison with great enthusiasm. The Episcopalian periodical, The Spirit of Missions, printed a January 1838 letter from Caswall stating that there were twenty-two communicants in his congregation and that plans were under way for the construction of a church.But by April, Caswall, who was suffering from ill health, had also experienced personal tragedy with sickness in his family and the death of his youngest son. He also noted that attendance at religious services had been “exceedingly small.”
The small attendance at the religious services was the result of at least two factors. First, in England the Anglican Church’s monopoly on religion was eroding away as the church became just one of many denominations competing for souls. This erosion was brought on, in part, by real and perceived corruption among the Anglican clergy, as well as the zealotry and millenarian message of the nonconformists. Secondly, the problems of Anglican missionary work in America were compounded by the perception that the Episcopal Church was nothing more than an agent of the Anglican Church and its members, anti-American monarchists.
Nevertheless, Caswall worked hard to build a congregation in Madison. While his next letter again mentioned sickness in his family, Caswall proudly announced the laying of the cornerstone for the new church.By August 1838, Caswall’s family was in such a poor state of health that he wrote, “My wife is now lying dangerously ill at her brother’s house . . . and my little boy is in a very delicate state of health.” He found a replacement pastor for the small congregation in Madison and in September moved with his family to Brockville, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Upper Canada, where he hoped the cooler climate would help restore their health. However, shortly after their arrival in Canada, the Caswalls lost another son in death.
Because Caswall had been ordained in the United States, he was prevented from becoming a rector in Canada, so he taught in a school and performed clerical duties until a rectorship opened across the river in Morristown, New York:
A vacancy, however, occurring in the Rectorship of the Church in Morristown, N.Y., immediately opposite Brockville, Mr. Caswall was called to fill it, and having two good boats, and being very fond of both sailing and rowing, he had great pleasure in fulfilling his international duties. He had to be careful, however, while offering up the prayers for those in authoritiy lest he should pray for Queen Victoria in Morristown, or for President Martin Van Buren in Brockville!
In 1841, Bishop Kemper used his influence to have Caswall return to the United States to become professor of sacred literature and Hebrewfor theology students at the newly founded Kemper College about six miles west of St. Louis, Missouri, which was under the jurisdiction of Bishop Kemper. The Caswall family arrived in St. Louis on November 15, 1840, where they took up residence in two rooms of the Planter’s Hotel for $90.00 a month. Although the professorship at Kemper College had some potential for success, it, like the college itself, did not live up to the expectations of either Caswall or Bishop Kemper.
Although Caswall had been appointed to teach divinity students, none ever arrived at the college. Thus he was relegated to officiating at the Sunday service, conducting daily prayers, and teaching a class on scriptures. Caswall’s account of his stay in St. Louis gives the reader an understanding of the frustration that he must have felt at the lack of duties available to him.In June 1843, the college announced that the missionary Rev. H. Caswell [sic] (Caswall may have pronounced his name Caswell because the name is spelled this way on several occasions) was then abroad. Caswall and his family had returned to England to collect money for the struggling college.
It is unclear whether or not Caswall had originally planned to return soon to America. The Spirit of Missions notice sounded as if he would shortly return, but the fact that Caswall took his family with him suggests he planned to stay in England for an extended time.
In England, Caswall met with the same difficulties in finding an ecclesiastical appointment that he had encountered in Canada—as a clergyman ordained in the United States, he was prohibited from taking any permanent position in England. Through the efforts of the archbishop of Canterbury, William Gladstone, and other influential men, a private act of Parliament granted Caswall an exception, and on October 16, 1843, he was appointed curate of Figheldean.Five years later, in 1848, he became a vicar.
Figheldean is a parish located in the county of Wiltshire near the town of Amesbury in southwest England. An 1865 county directory calls the parish a vicarage, valued at £182 10s, which was a fairly high salary. The vicarage was under the jurisdiction of the treasurer of the Cathedral Church of Salisbury, of which Caswall’s late uncle, Thomas Burgess, had been bishop. The population of the parish was 472 inhabitants.
During his tenure as vicar, Caswall was actively involved in the work of the church that he loved. As vicar, he oversaw the building of a new parish school, the refurbishing of the parish church, the distribution of funds to numerous charities, and the collection of monies for the Society for Propagating the Gospel, which published religious tracts as well as provided financial and physical support for Anglican Missions in America and other parts of the world.
Caswall had a special interest in missionary work. In 1853, a delegation of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel visited New York City. This delegation included Henry Caswall.The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society helped support Caswall’s work during his return visits to the United States.
By the 1860s, Caswall had reached the height of his power and prestige. In addition to his vicarage, Caswall had been awarded honorary degrees from Oxford University and from Trinity College in Connecticut. He was also the prebendary of Salisbury Cathedral as well as the author of several books.
Caswall was, however, experiencing serious health problems.In 1868, he received a leave of absence and returned to America, where three of his grown children were then living. He settled in Franklin, Pennsylvania, and lived there for two years. He then returned to England but was so ill that his family decided to take him back to Franklin, where he died on December 17, 1870. He was buried at Nashotah, Wisconsin, four days later.
Caswall left behind a legacy that particularly interests those of the Mormon faith. In late 1842, Caswall publicly claimed to have visited the Prophet Joseph Smith and exposed him as a fraud. He published these claims in tract form under the title The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842. Caswall subsequently retold the story in various other books and tracts, making it one of the most common arguments by British anti-Mormons.
According to Caswall, he obtained “an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalter written upon parchment, and probably about six hundred years old.”On Friday, April 15, he boarded a steamboat for Nauvoo, taking with him the Greek psalter, and he arrived there Sunday morning.
He then proceeded to observe Nauvoo and describe its inhabitants. His language and descriptions, as is the case with other polemic works, are filled with bias. In relating his first meeting with the Saints, he writes:
I perceived numerous groups of the peasantry of old England; their sturdy forms, their clear complexions, and their heavy movements, strongly contrasting with the slight figure, the sallow visage, and the elastic step of the American.
There, too, were the bright and innocent looks of little children, who, born among the privileges of England’s Church, baptized with her consecrated waters, and taught to lisp her prayers and repeat her catechism, had now been led into this den of heresy, to listen to the ravings of a false prophet, and to imbibe the principles of a semi-pagan delusion.
The frequently cited incidents of conflict with deluded Mormons and comments on their lack of intelligence and honesty encompass the first twenty pages of the tract. At this point in the text, Caswall explains the purpose of his taking the medieval Greek psalter with him. He writes that on Monday, April 18, he crossed over the river from Montrose, Iowa, where he was staying, showed his psalter to a member of the Church, and asked to have Joseph Smith look at it. He was not able to show the Prophet the psalter until the next day. He records that he used the time, however, to expose the ignorance of the Mormon leaders and confound them in their beliefs and that his presence attracted the attention of the city’s inhabitants.
On the following morning, he again crossed the river with several Mormons, including a Mormon doctor who discussed the missionary work in England. At this point, Caswall writes, “I observed, that I had reason to believe that the conquests of Mormonism in Britain had been principally among the illiterate and uneducated. This, he partially admitted.”By this time, they had reached the home of the Prophet, followed by a crowd of curious Mormons who were hoping to get a glimpse of the mysterious book.
He met Joseph Smith a short distance from his home and was informed that he could have an interview with him. He then gives a detailed description of Joseph Smith:
He is a coarse, plebeian person in aspect, and his countenance exhibits a curious mixture of the knave and the clown. His hands are large and fat, and on one of his fingers he wears a massive gold ring, upon which I saw an inscription. His dress was of coarse country manufacture. . . . I had not an opportunity of observing his eyes, as he appears deficient in that open, straightforward look which characterizes an honest man.
Caswall then proceeds to recount his visit with the Prophet and how he showed Joseph the Greek psalter. Upon seeing the psalter and hearing Caswall explain that he thought it might be Greek, the Prophet supposedly said:
No, . . . it ain’t Greek at all; except perhaps, a few words. What ain’t Greek, is Egyptian; and what ain’t Egyptian, is Greek. This book is very valuable. It is a dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. . . . Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics; and them which follows, is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates.
He claims that Joseph wanted to buy this valuable record, but Caswall refused his offer. After a walk to Joseph’s office to look at the papyrus and after some penetrating questions by Caswall, Joseph disappeared. He was seen driving quickly away from Nauvoo in a light wagon.Caswall and the multitude that had followed him then engaged in a debate, in the middle of the street, on doctrine and the Prophet Joseph Smith. In his own eyes and writings, Henry Caswall won the debate.
Henry Caswall’s tract was of great importance among anti-Mormon writers. Hugh Nibley portrays Caswall’s story of his visit to Joseph Smith and the Greek psalter as the “most effective single contribution to anti-Mormon literature.”Before Henry Caswall’s publication, English writers had to depend upon the newspaper articles and other anti-Mormon materials that they could obtain. However, with the publication of Caswall’s tract, they had an Englishman who claimed to have personally seen and talked with the Mormon Prophet. Better yet, he claimed to have not only visited the Prophet, but also proven that he was a fraud. For the opponents of Mormonism, this was, indeed, a coup.
Caswall’s claim of having visited Nauvoo is corroborated in the Times and Seasons. The October 15, 1843, edition states:
It will be recollected by some, that a Mr. Caswell, professing to be an Episcopal minister, came to this city some twelve or eighteen months ago. He had with him an old munuscript [sic], professing to be ignorant of its contents, and came to Joseph Smith, as he said, for the purpose of having it translated. Mr. Smith had a little conversation with him, and treated him with civility, but as the gentleman seemed very much afraid of his document, he declined having any thing to do with it.
Caswall’s account, first published in 1842, however, has some serious problems. The Times and Seasons article contradicts Caswall by stating that he introduced himself as an Episcopal minister. Caswall, on the other hand, claimed that he had taken off his clerical clothing to visit the Mormons.
Second, Caswall’s description of Joseph Smith contradicts other contemporary descriptions of him, which tend to describe him as a tall, handsome, muscular man. Third, Caswall’s supposed quotation by Joseph Smith wherein he used poor grammar describing the Greek psalter and Egyptian hieroglyphics stands in stark contrast with other examples of the Prophet’s grammar and speech patterns. While Joseph Smith did not have much of a traditional education, he was well read and articulate as an adult, especially by the Nauvoo period. These two factors further put into jeopardy the veracity of the whole story. Fourth, according to the Times and Seasons, Caswall’s nervousness about the Greek psalter discouraged Joseph Smith from pursuing the matter further.Thus, it is obvious that, although Henry Caswall visited Nauvoo and could very well have met Joseph Smith, the famous interview with the Prophet was not as Caswall described it.
Whether or not the other writers who used Caswall’s story and those who reviewed his works were aware of this fact will never be known. In all probability, they did not know. Several reviews applauded Henry Caswall for his integrity in writing about Mormonism, the “most extraordinary heresy and [of] its vile founder,”whose recent converts had been “directly from England—sound, enlightened, Protestant England.”
Henry Caswall’s influence on numerous anti-Mormon and other writers was strong and long lasting. As was the practice with many polemic writings, including Caswall’s, an informal network passed information and stories to other writers who then incorporated them into other tracts. In 1865, Elder William Lewis, a missionary in Shropshire, wrote about clerical anti-Mormon activity: “Others are ‘disgusted with the character of that dreadful man,’ Joseph Smith, a respectable minister (Henry Caswall) having written a tract to ‘prove him a murderer, thief, adulterer,’ and everything that is bad.”Some scholars have also used the Greek psalter story in their writing of Mormon history. As recently as 1979, Fawn Brodie repeated Caswall’s story in the second edition of No Man Knows My History.
While Henry Caswall’s accusations are presently relatively unknown, the significance of them has not been lost on critics of Mormonism, nor have they gone unnoticed by defenders of the faith such as Hugh Nibley. In his book, The Mythmakers (1961), Nibley identifies Caswall as an important anti-Mormon and then proceeds to attack his account on several points. His approach is to create a hypothetical interview in which he, as the unnamed interviewer, engages Caswall in a rhetorical joust. In Nibley’s book, Caswall is portrayed as a liar who had falsely portrayed Joseph Smith, exaggerated and embellished the details of his visit to Nauvoo, and modified his story each time it was published. While the hypothetical interview is entertaining and informative, pointing out minor discrepancies in Caswall’s various published versions of the incident, the narrow “cross-examination” approach hampers a more detailed look at Henry Caswall and his works. Also, while Nibley claims that there was no mention of Caswall’s visit in contemporary official or personal journals,the Times and Seasons corroborates Caswall’s claims of visiting Nauvoo. The visit, including the presence of a Greek manuscript, was also verified by John Taylor during an 1850 debate in which he participated in France. Therefore, while Nibley correctly identifies the problems with Caswall’s story, such as the ridiculous description of the prophet’s physical and grammatical characteristics, his defense has problems that need to be further researched and evaluated.
Why did Henry Caswall write against Mormonism? Why did he devote so much time and energy publishing several books, tracts, and articles against Joseph Smith and the LDS Church? As is the case with most other enigmatic individuals, the full answer will probably never be known. Thus, the historian must surmise based upon available facts.
Henry Caswall’s life could be described as one of intense devotion, great hope, disappointment, sorrow, and failure. As a missionary in America, Caswall not only suffered from sickness caused by the rude living conditions of frontier life, but also witnessed the early deaths of two of his sons. Added to the pain of personal tragedy were the setbacks experienced in the work that he sincerely believed to be of the Lord. With the faltering and eventual demise of Kemper College, Caswall’s dreams of the growth of the church he loved, as well as the honor and recognition that he believed he deserved, were crushed.
Added to the gall of failure was the success of Joseph Smith and the Mormons in the same region. Viewing Joseph as a false prophet and a usurper, Caswall aptly expressed his own feelings of envy over the success of the Mormons and frustration for the failure of his college and the Church of England’s lack of success:
As a Churchman, I feel almost ashamed for my Church, when I reflect upon the heavy discouragements which are suffered to afflict the amiable and patient missionary bishop of Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. . . . Why is Kemper College, the first and only institution of the Church beyond the Mississippi, permitted to languish, while the Mormon temple, and the Mormon university, offer their delusive attractions to the rising generation? Why is the venerable bishop of Illinois permitted to labour almost alone, while the missionaries of Joseph Smith, with a zeal worthy of the true Church, perambulate his diocese and plant their standard in every village?
Several years after returning to England, Henry Caswall had to face yet another personal tragedy, which must have filled his mind with humiliation and despair. His younger brother, Edward, like others in his prestigious family, had become a clergyman. However, Edward, a graduate of Oxford University and curate of Stratford-sub-Castle near Salisbury, apostatized from the Church of England and converted to Catholicism in January 1847. A younger brother, Thomas, had become a Catholic a few months earlier. In the ensuing years, Edward became an outspoken defender of his newly found religion.
The personal anguish that Henry must have felt at the apostasy of members from his own family can only be surmised. Even so, one is able to get just a glimpse of Henry’s inner turmoil by reading the conclusion to Mormonism and Its Author (1854). After warning British citizens about the evils of Mormonism, he ends his text by stating:
And, lastly, do not suffer yourselves to be led away from the Church, even though the Church should be called to pass through fiery trials for her correction and purification. Rather let it be your endeavour to understand and appreciate the wonderful system of the Church in which you were baptized. . . . The worship of the Church of England is scriptural in its doctrine and in its language, and most holy and edifying to those who really join in it with a purpose of devotion. If religious difficulties perplex you, if the arguments of false teachers harass and distract you, recollect that, under God, the minister of your parish is the person to whom you ought to apply for information and instruction.
Henry Caswall attempted to fulfill the duties of the office to which he had been called. For Caswall these duties included the defense of the Church of England against what he perceived to be heretics and usurpers. Though he often failed in his efforts, Henry Caswall became one of the most influential anti-Mormon writers in the nineteenth century.