Thursday, August 8, 2013

"The Foulest Ulcer on the White Breast of the Nation": Charles Savidge Takes on the Mormons

Some time ago, a time when I still lived in Nebraska and was not in the middle of planning and then executing a move to Texas, I made a few posts based on my (recently published!) research on an obscure Omaha pastor and called it the Charles Savidge stories series. Now that I am halfway unpacked in Waco, I've managed to squeeze out enough time to present part three of my indeterminately-long series. In this edition, the good Rev. Savidge holds a public debate with T.W. Williams, a local Mormon leader. 

(For background on Savidge, you can refer back to parts 1 and 2)

From the Omaha Daily Bee, accessed via

The Omaha Daily Bee published the announcement for the debates between Savidge (the pastor of the independent People's Church of Omaha), and Williams (a leader of the Reorganized LDS church in Council Bluffs, IA), on October 21, 1894, a full month before the debates were to be held. The Bee hoped that the religious showdown would generate as much interest as the political debates held earlier in 1894 between John Thurston and Williams Jennings Bryan, the two candidates for Nebraska's open Senate seat. (For the record, Bryan, the "early-90s Buffalo Bills" of political candidates, won the popular vote but lost the vote that mattered in the state legislature.)

Although the Savidge-Williams debate did not garner nearly as much attention at Bryan-Thurston, it did manage to pack the house at Savidge's People's Church for four nights in late November. And although the exact details of the debate are lost to posterity, newspaper coverage allows for a sense of the type of arguments made by both combatants.

Savidge and Williams devoted the first night to discussing whether or not the Book of Mormon was "of divine origin and worthy of the confidence of all people." Like all Mormons, Williams argued in in the affirmative. However, as a member of the RLDS church instead of the more widely-known LDS church, his views on a number of important issues differed from the Utah Mormons. For example, the RLDS church rejected the leadership of Brigham Young and instead argued that the true leader of the Mormons would come from the lineage of Joseph Smith. Furthermore, the RLDS church was not a gathered community in the vein of the Utah Mormons. Instead, its headquarters were in Independence, Missouri, and its population lived in concentrations scattered throughout Illinois, Iowa, Missouri. Here's how other differences were described by Richard Howard in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
"Polygamy was the most clear-cut issue that RLDS people used to disassociate themselves from the LDS Church...Other issues, however, also placed Utah Mormonism and the RLDS church on opposite sides of an ideological boundary...Rejected were such doctrines as the political kingdom of God, militarism, the Adam-God theory, plural gods, exclusion of blacks from priesthood offices, and absolute theocracy...The RLDS church marked out a difficult course of development...When trying to persuade Protestant prospects, RLDS ministers were inclined to deemphasize aspects linking them with Mormonism and to focus on the common ground they shared with mainstream Christianity."
Seen in this context, the decision to engage in a public debate made sense for Williams. He was probably following the example of other RLDS leaders in using a public forum to gain legitimacy for the RLDS faith in the eyes of the local community. His opening address on the first night seems to back up this conclusion, as Williams, according to the Bee, "read passages from the Book of Mormon showing that it was in line with the Bible and supporting that book."

Savidge, meanwhile, took a less conciliatory tone. He connected the Book of Mormon to the Qur'an (or "Mohammed's Bible," as he put it), arguing that just because a book claims to be divine does not mean it actually is. His line of argument pretty much followed the pattern of anti-Mormonism described in detail in the first chapter of J. Spencer Fluhman's A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America. As Fluhman wrote, for American Protestants like Savidge, Muhammad served as a " dismiss what would not go away on its own."

Savidge also demanded that Williams provide proof that the Book of Mormon was divine, since "God don't ask any man to believe anything without evidence." Miracles and fulfilled prophecies established the Bible as true, according to Savidge, but the Book of Mormon lacked any similar supernatural verification. Savidge ended his opening remarks by lumping all Mormons -- RLDS and LDS -- together. No matter what form Mormonism took, Savidge declared it all to be "the foulest ulcer on the white breast of the nation."

Williams responded by stressing once again his love for the Bible, but added that "it was unfair to claim that everything that was not in the bible was not the word of God." Williams also turned to the Bible for evidence that "the word of God had been given to the people of the western world as well as to the people in the eastern hemisphere," and he asked Savidge to provide one example of a teaching from the Book of Mormon that was morally wrong.

Savidge was unable to describe any morally unsound teachings, probably because by his own admission he "had not studied the Mormon book." But this was no detriment to his ability to debate the merits of the book, because one "did not have to eat all of a tainted leg of mutton to find it was bad--one mouthful was enough." With that, Savidge turned his guns away from the unfamiliar Book of Mormon and towards Joseph Smith. He "used the statement of historians and others showing that Smith...was a sensual profligate and untrustworthy in business," and then "quoted authority to show that Solomon Spalding wrote the book of Mormon in 1812." The logic was simple: if Joseph Smith was a fraud, then the Book of Mormon, regardless of the merits of text itself, must also be a fraud.

Savidge likely took his Joseph Smith material from Mormonism Unvailed (1834), a widely-disseminated anti-Mormon work. The Spalding-Rigdon theory posited in Mormonism Unvailed -- that the Book of Mormon was simply a plagiarized version of an unpublished story Spalding wrote titled Manuscript Found -- seemed to lose credibility when Manuscript Found was actually found and ended up having few similarities with the Book of Mormon. In fact, the RLDS church itself published Manuscript Found in 1885, hoping to end the popularity of the Spalding theory. Either Savidge was not familiar with such details or he believed (with other supporters of the theory) that the found manuscript was not really the Found manuscript. As for Williams, although the Omaha Bee did not report his response to Savidge, it's nearly certain that Savidge was not the first person to bring up the Spalding theory to him. Williams likely had a well-worn rebuttal in mind.

After extensive coverage of the first night, newspaper reporting was sparse for the remaining three nights. The Omaha Bee did state that the subsequent debates centered "largely as to the character of Joe Smith, assailed by Mr. Savidge and defended by Mr. Williams." Interestingly, Savidge sensed pangs of remorse for his tone from the early nights of debate. He claimed that God supernaturally closed his mouth during portions of the third night, an event which he took as a sign of rebuke for his failure to "show the proper Christlike spirit" during the first two evenings. As for who won the debate, we cannot answer with any certainty. And whether or not Savidge ever did take the time to crack open the Book of Mormon and read it for himself before critiquing it -- that, too, has been lost to posterity.