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Mazzuchelli, Smith Debate Beliefs

by Mary Paynter, OP

One of the most intriguing encounters that Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, describes in his Memoirs is his meeting with Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, popularly called Mormons.

It was not unusual for Fr. Samuel to meet with those of other faiths, for he states in his Memoirs that, when preaching publicly, “he thought it well to cite the Protestant Bible and the opinions and teachings of learned non-Catholics.” In contrast to many others in his time, his preaching or discussion of religious topics was never based on emotion or ignorance. His careful study of other faith beliefs was apparent in his decision to obtain and study books about Protestant reformers and their doctrines at different points in his life. For example, shortly after his arrival at his first mission on Mackinac Island, he was confronted publicly by the Presbyterian minister there, so he ordered from Detroit a number of books about the reformers and their teachings in order to respond thoughtfully and accurately. Later, in one of his notebooks, he recorded his reflections on his copy of The Life of Martin Luther. We know from his Memoirs and notebooks that he carefully studied the Book of Mormon and made a difficult winter trip to visit Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, IL, to learn directly about Mormonism.

In chapter 43 of his Memoirs, Fr. Samuel writes: “It was in February 1843, that the Missionary desired to see and speak with a heresiarch known for several years in every part of the Republic and even in England. . . . After descending the frozen Mississippi, he arrived at Nauvoo, the famous city of the Mormons. There the well-known prophet Joseph Smith, founder of the sect has his home.” Most of chapter 43 in his Memoirs is Fr. Samuel’s attempt to explain Mormon teachings to his readers. Fr. Samuel used a notebook, extant in the Sinsinawa Archives, to carefully record his summary of and observations regarding the Book of Mormon. He may have obtained a copy when he was with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, since new editions had been published there in 1840 and 1842. Perhaps his copy was a gift from Smith himself.

At the time of their Nauvoo encounter in February 1843, Joseph Smith was in his late 30s, about Fr. Samuel’s age. Most contemporary commentators noted Smith’s gaze, his penetrating blue eyes, and his air of ambition and physical energy. Fr. Samuel writes that Smith was “tall and well proportioned.” Other observers described Smith as “exuding confidence and energy.” Smith’s manner seems to have been off-putting to Fr. Samuel, who recalled that “his expression does not indicate friendliness nor good judgment; his looks show anything but piety; his manners are somewhat rough.” Smith may well have appeared self-confident and somewhat cocky, since just a few weeks before their February meeting, he had been vindicated in a State Circuit Court trial in Springfield, IL, that overturned Missouri’s request for his extradition and imprisonment.

Beyond personal impressions, Joseph Smith’s words and beliefs were distressing to Fr. Samuel, who writes that Smith “solemnly declared that he had many times seen God face to face and had more revelations than the Apostle St. Paul, to whom, he asserted, he was not inferior in goodness.” Rough manners on the frontier can be overlooked, but Smith’s self-glorification was clearly abhorrent to Fr. Samuel, as was Smith’s interpretation of Scripture, his theology, and practice of polygamy. Fr. Samuel evidently knew of the rumors then circulating about Smith’s practice of taking plural wives, since he writes that “even among his own followers there was much comment on his immorality,” although this practice only became publicly known later that year.

Not long after his February 1843 visit to Nauvoo, Fr. Samuel went with Bishop Loras to Baltimore for a meeting of the Provincial Council of U.S. Bishops. From there, he journeyed to New York and sailed for home. Perhaps he had the Book of Mormon and his notebook with him and worked on his summary and analysis during that voyage. He was planning to publish his Memoirs in Italy, and it contained a special section entitled “Protestantism and the Catholic Church in the United States,” so his analysis of the Mormon religion would appropriately fit into that section. His description would undoubtedly be of interest to his Italian readers, since Mormon missionaries were already active in Europe. The new Mormon religion had quickly spread after Smith made public his teachings of the Book of Mormon, beginning in 1830. Only eight months before Fr. Samuel’s trip to Nauvoo, the editor of the New York Herald had written that the Mormons were likely to swallow up the “lukewarm Protestant sects” and begin a “great religious revolution, as radical as Luther’s to take place in the Christian world.”

Besides the obvious differences between Joseph Smith and Fr. Mazzuchelli on theology and interpretations of Scripture, we can surmise that there were other areas of radical disagreement—perhaps ones they discussed during their meeting. One key area would have been the value of democracy vs. theocracy.

Joseph Smith proposed that American democracy had failed and should be replaced with a theocratic kingdom. In April 1844, Smith and his all-male “Council of Fifty” met in Nauvoo to consider a new founding document that would replace the U.S. Constitution— it began, “We, the people of the Kingdom of God.” Then Joseph Smith decided to run for President of the United States, and electioneering missionaries were sent far and wide to support Smith’s campaign. One of his most notable campaign posters in New York carried the phrase “Super Hanc Petram Aedificabo.” As Benjamin Park, in his 2020 book The Kingdom of Nauvoo, points out, “Just as Peter had been the repository for religious authority, the Mormons now believed God’s commandments to Joseph Smith would be the basis for political authority.”

In contrast, Fr. Samuel highly valued the freedoms ensured in the U.S. Constitution. Writing in his Memoirs, Fr. Samuel states that “the Constitution of this great Republic was formed by representatives of the people who, all on an equal footing, were unwilling to give the laws the least right over their particular and manifold religious beliefs; on the other hand, the intent of the Constitution was simply to provide for the well-being of each individual.” The freedom of religion provided by the Constitution was greatly admired by Fr. Samuel who had come from a Europe often torn by religious conflicts and by governmental exercise of control over religious practice. He described the United States as having “the one government which, while completely separated from any religious system, is content to protect its citizens in the free exercise of their own particular beliefs.”

Fr. Samuel was just two days out of the port of Le Havre, on June 27, 1844, sailing back to the United States after his yearlong trip home to Italy, when Joseph Smith was assassinated in prison by a mob. Local antagonism to Mormonism had turned to violence, and when Joseph Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo in June 1844, he was liable for arrest for committing an illegal act. The governor of Illinois urged Smith and others who had been indicted to turn themselves in, but they fled to Iowa territory. In a few days Smith returned and surrendered to state authorities. He and others with him were put in the county jail in Carthage, IL. Soon after their jailing, a mob surrounded the building and fought their way in, shooting the prisoners. Smith, attempting to escape, was killed. Fr. Samuel probably learned of Smith’s death shortly after his return from Italy. Only three years later he must have been intrigued at the news of the emptying of Nauvoo after the exodus of Brigham Young and other Mormons as they set out on their western trek through Iowa, eventually arriving in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Fr. Samuel continued to study Mormonism as it spread in the United States and Europe. In February 1858, he wrote to Archbishop Antoine Blanc of New Orleans describing four articles he had written to explain Mormonism. He hoped the Archbishop would consider the articles for publication in the diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Standard, which had begun circulation in 1855. The Archdiocese of New Orleans in the 1850s was one of the fastest growing in the United States, and its paper had wide circulation. Two of these articles were also published in the Western Star, a Dubuque paper. Fr. Samuel’s articles indicate that he had carefully studied The Voice of Warning, a book introducing the Mormon faith that was used widely by Mormon missionaries.

We know that Fr. Samuel continued to study the “new” religion founded by Joseph Smith, because, as he wrote in his Memoirs, he considered it important to know “the opinions and teachings of learned non-Catholics.” While he may not have considered Joseph Smith a “learned” non-Catholic, his respect for dealing with the realities of Mormon teaching is evident in his desire to engage in personal discussion with its founder and in his careful study of Mormon texts.

Wouldn’t it be intriguing to know what Joseph Smith thought of his encounter with Fr. Samuel?

Click for Spectrum November 2020 Index

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