History of the Church Series | BYU Studies

History of the Church Series

James Gordon Bennett's 1831 Report on "The Mormonites"
October 3, 2018
History of the Church Series
James Gordon Bennett's 1831 Report on "The Mormonites"
Author Leonard J. Arrington,

The first volume of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days has recently been published! Titled The Standard of Truth, 1815—1846, this volume features several stories that draw on research and articles published by BYU Studies. One such article is cited in chapter 5 of Saints, in which Martin Harris visits Charles Anthon to verify the language of the characters found on the golden plates. To read an account of this event from the perspective of a contemporary journalist for New York’s Morning Courier and Enquirer, see “James Gordon Bennett's 1831 Report on ‘The Mormonites,’” by Leonard J. Arrington. Below is an excerpt of the full article, which was published in issue 10:3. To read the full text of this article, click here.

August 8, 1831:

Mormonism—C[harles]. Butler saw Harris they wanted to borrow money to print the Book—he told him he carried the engravings from the plates to New York—showed them to Professor Anthon who said that he did not know what language they were—told him to carry them to Dr. Mitchell— Doctor Mitchell examined them—and compared them with other hieroglyphics—thought them very curious—and they were the characters of a nation now extinct which he named—Harris returned to Anthon who put some questions to him and got angry with Harris.

Although the reader will note important inaccuracies, these notes nevertheless demonstrate Bennett’s intense interest in the controversial new religion. Certainly, the notes reflect myths about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon which were already in the process of formation in 1831. . . .

While at Canandaigua (located at the head of Lake Canandaigua, ten miles south of the Joseph Smith farm) on August 15, 1831, Bennett used the above notes to write a two-part feature story which appeared in the Morning Courier and Enquirer on August 31 and September 1, 1831. Having been written “on the spot,” this early report on “Mormonism” as a species of “religious fanaticism” and as a “Church and State Party” suggests not only contemporary attitudes toward “the Mormonites,” but also the rapidity with which misinformation was conveyed by the press. . . .

Thursday, September 1, 1831, issue of the MORNING COURIER AND ENQUIRER

MORMON RELIGION - CLERICAL AMBITION - WESTERN NEW YORK - THE MORMONITES GONE TO OHIO

. . . Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket, went to the city of New York, and called upon one of the Professors of Columbia College for the purpose of shewing them to him. Harris says that the Professor thought them very curious, but admitted that he could not decypher them. Said he to Harris, “Mr. Harris you had better go to the celebrated Doct. Mitchell and shew them to him. He is very learned in these ancient languages, and I have no doubt will be able to give you some satisfaction.” “Where does he live,” asked Harris. He was told, and off he posted with the engravings from the Golden Plates to submit to Doc. Mitchell—Harris says that the Doctor received him very “purlitely,” looked at his engravings—made a learned dissertation on them—compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered by Champollion in Egypt—and set them down as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more. . . .

Throughout his journalistic career (his death occurred in 1872) Bennett published hundreds of articles on the Mormons, and his reports on Joseph Smith were among the fairest that were printed about that extraordinary personality. Never one to recall past injustices and ever ready to acknowledge present favors, Joseph Smith personally induced the City Council of Nauvoo, Illinois, in December 1841, to pass a resolution expressing “lasting gratitude” and “appreciation” to “that high-minded and honorable editor of the New York Weekly Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Esq. . . .”