Obadiah Dogberry: Mormonism’s First Critic

Tom Flynn

The story of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the eventual rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is one of the more colorful, even outlandish, tales American history has to offer. Yet one of its more fascinating postscripts is undeservedly overlooked: the story of a freethinking journalist who, albeit by dubious means, subjected the Book of Mormon to withering criticism even before it was published by its “author and proprietor,” Joseph Smith Jr. Meet Abner Cole, better known to history (if only slightly) by his nom de plume, Obadiah Dogberry.

Cole was born on August 17, 1783, in Chesterfield, Massachusetts. Little is known about his life; he was apparently a lawyer and served briefly as a judge. When he arrived in 1829 at the just-incorporated Erie Canal town of Palmyra, New York, he assumed his pseudonym and took over editorship of a weekly newspaper, the Palmyra Reflector. Under Dogberry, the paper’s ambit included anything that might grip the attention of an educated reader, from mineralogy to foreign affairs. Dogberry’s first issue (September 2, 1829) also took note of the community’s juiciest item of gossip: “The Golden Bible, by Joseph Smith Junior, author and proprietor, is now in press and will shortly appear.” This is almost certainly the earliest mention of the Book of Mormon in print and the source of its enduring nickname, “the Golden Bible.” As to the description of Joseph Smith as the work’s “author and proprietor,” this is an exact quote from the work’s title page (later editions replaced those two words with language more in keeping with the claim that Joseph received the text by revelation). How did Dogberry know what was on the title page of a not-yet-published scripture? Thereby hangs the tale.

Twenty-something Joseph Smith Jr., a Vermont-born farm boy, had attracted substantial attention around Palmyra with his efforts to launch a religious community. Among his early adherents was a relatively prosperous farmer named Martin Harris. Between October 1827 and July 1829, Smith dictated what he claimed to be a divinely mediated translation of an ancient scripture supposedly recorded on golden plates. Harris mortgaged his farm to pay for printing of the finished work. Smith and Harris retained printer Egbert Bratt Grandin of Palmyra. The Book of Mormon was a mammoth project for Grandin’s small shop; its composition, proofing, and printing took several weeks, during which he continued to serve his other customers—including the Palmyra Reflector.

Grandin’s one-room print shop occupied a narrow storefront. When Dogberry visited the printer to read proofs for the Reflector, the latest pages of the Book of Mormon would lie in plain sight on an adjacent table. Dogberry was a freethinker who had chosen to head his paper with this humanistic epigram: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan! The proper study of Mankind is MAN …… Pope.” He found Smith’s ponderous tale of lost Israelites emigrating to the Americas outlandish.

Starting in January 1830, two months before Smith and Harris placed the Book of Mormon on sale, Dogberry printed lengthy unauthorized excerpts in the Reflector, accompanied by his own trenchant criticisms. Accounts vary as to the chronology that followed. Apparently Smith confronted Dogberry face-to-face and complained that Dogberry was violating his copyright. Smith may have threatened to sue, and Dogberry may have challenged him to settle the matter with his fists; in any case, the Reflector stopped carrying verbatim Book of Mormon excerpts. But Dogberry continued to comment acerbically on Smith’s exploits, and in June 1830 he began a serialized Book of Mormon satire titled “The Book of Pukei.” Thereafter, the Reflector having built a readership outside Palmyra on the strength of Dogberry’s Mormon commentary, he published a six-part series whose tone was more analytical. “Although he did not change his scornful tone,” historian Robert L. Bushman summarized, Dogberry “did replace satire with argument and attempted to make a case against Joseph Smith that would appeal to his enlarged readership.” His tenure as editor of the Reflector ended in 1831.

Taken as a whole, Dogberry’s criticism raised most of the objections that both Christian and freethinking detractors would present during the early and middle nineteenth century, no small achievement when we recall that Dogberry was the first to do so and, early on, had nothing to work with save his own responses to the text. He presented Smith as a charlatan too dull and unlettered to have composed a text as complex (if flawed) as the Book of Mormon on his own. Dogberry surmised a link between Smith and “Walters the Magician,” a “vagabond fortune-teller” from nearby Sodus, New York, who was said to have shown his followers a Latin translation of Cicero and claimed it to be a record of previous inhabitants of America. Though Dogberry could not prove that Smith and Walters had met, he surmised that Walters gave Smith the intellectual framework for his scripture. This was the first of several nineteenth-century efforts to find a literary source from which Smith might have purloined ideas for his gaudy tale of lost Israelites as the first settlers of America. Dogberry ridiculed Smith’s faith healing of Newel Knight, trumpeted as the first miraculous healing of the Mormon Church, objecting that “no prophet, since the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, has performed half so many wonders as have been attributed to that spindle shanked ignoramus Jo Smith” (emphasis and capitalization in original). He attributed the remarkable public popularity of Smith’s new creed to the foolishness and gullibility of those inclined to interpret their lives through the lens of superstition.

Cole then moved to nearby Rochester, New York, where from 1832 to 1834 he published (again as Dogberry) another freethought paper, The Liberal Advocate. The new paper maintained the humanistic Alexander Pope epigram; it may be best known for Dogberry’s mordant comments on the revivals of evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, a leading instigator of America’s so-called Second Great Awakening. Cole died in 1835.

Grandin’s print shop was eventually purchased and lavishly restored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today, the Church operates it as a museum: its excellent restoration of an early nineteenth-century printer’s shop and interpretation of the printer’s craft would not be out of place in the Henry Ford Museum’s Greenfield Village or Colonial Williamsburg. (If you visit Palmyra and take the tour, be advised that your Mormon hosts will make a good-natured effort to save your soul.) Grandin’s print shop also has an unusual distinction: it’s the only historic site owned and operated by a church that is also a stop on the Freethought Trail, the Council for Secular Humanism’s commemoration of freethought and other radical reform sites within one hundred miles of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, New York. (Inclusion on the Freethought Trail is not an honor to which a property’s owner is required to consent!)

Obadiah Dogberry is little remembered today. In 2006, the Rochester performance artist Bleu Cease organized a series of temporary outdoor memorials in that city under the aegis of the Obadiah Dogberry Society. Its website, http://www.obadiahdogberry.org/index.htm, remains the best single online source for information about Dogberry.

The Freethought Trail website (www.fre
ethought-trail.org) features pages on Dogberry (http://www.freethought-trail.org/profile.php?By=Person&Page=2) and on Palmyra (http://www.freethought-trail.org/munic.php?By=Location&Page=6). At Palmyra, one may visit the LDS museum at the print-shop site and the unmarked probable location of Cole’s residence there. Palmyra is also the location of Hill Cumorah, the hill wherein the Book of Mormon’s golden plates were allegedly buried. In addition to a year-round Church-run visitor center, it is the site of the annual summer Hill Cumorah Pageant, a lavish outdoor spectacle staging stories drawn from the Book of Mormon.

Further Reading

  • Joseph W. Barnes. “Obediah [sic] Dogberry: Rochester Freethinker.” Rochester History XXXVI, No. 3, July 1974.
  • Robert L. Bushman. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. New York: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

The story of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the eventual rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is one of the more colorful, even outlandish, tales American history has to offer. Yet one of its more fascinating postscripts is undeservedly overlooked: the story of a freethinking journalist who, albeit …

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