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by William H. Benson

June 22, 2000

     Those religious leaders from America’s past who achieve notoriety on a national scale are not always well treated and accepted.

     It is a sobering footnote in our nation’s history that on June 27, 1844 a mob broke into the jail at Carthage, Illinois and shot and killed Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.  Governor Thomas Ford had promised Joseph safety if he turned himself in, but Ford did not fully understand the level of hatred that had arisen against Joseph that drove the mob to a point they were ready to kill him.  His neighbors around Nauvoo, Illinois hated him because he had such a despotic control over his followers, for they believed him a prophet and did whatever he wanted.  Joseph paid the ultimate price for his actions and his beliefs and died at age thiry-eight years and six months.

     Most religious and cultural historians have considered Joseph Smith a very low character with little ethical restraints; however, most recently that evaluation has been upgraded drastically.  Harold Bloom, the religious critic, has even dared to label Joseph Smith the one true American genius, and that the church he founded is the archetype of the American Religion. 

     Bloom wrote, “Though I do not lack respect for the Mormon religion, and possess a healthy fear of its immense future, as a religious critic I judge Smith to be greater and more interesting than the current faith of the people that he created.  Partly this is because he died much too soon. . . . Partly this is because there has been a falling-away from his teaching and his example . . . in the last century or so.  He had an enormous religious imagination. . . . “

     Nevertheless, Joseph Smith dared to create a new American Religion and dared to challenge existing social mores, and in so doing brought out the very best in some and the very worst in others.  He was divisive.

     Two hundred years before the events in Carthage, Roger Williams, a young Puritan minister, arrived in Boston and voiced his opinion that church and government should not be too closely aligned, as it was being practiced in Boston  The outraged magistrates promptly arrested him, brought him to trial, and convicted him of heretical notions.  Facing sure deportation back to England, he chose instead to flee to Rhode Island and establish his own colony.  So angered were the Boston authorities by his opinions that they permanently banished him from ever living in or even passing through the Massachusetts Bay colony.   

     Then, more than three centuries later, in the early 1980’s, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jim Bakker built the biggest and most influential religious broadcasting system ever, bringing in at its peak $160 million a year.  Millions watched him, and the millions poured in.  Then, came the announcement of the Jessica Hahn affair, Bakker’s resignation, Jerry Falwell’s inept bungling, and the declaration of PTL’s bankruptcy.  In two years Jim fell further than any other American.  He and his wife Tammy Faye became the national laughing-stock, grist for David Letterman’s jokes late at night.

     In the fall of 1989 federal prosecutors tried Jim Bakker, and a jury convicted him of fraudulently selling lifetime partnerships over the television airwaves.  Judge Rober Potter slapped the stunned Bakker with a 45-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.  The judge was very anxious to sever the pipeline connecting Bakker and the people.  Four and 3/4 years later, on July 1, 1994, he stepped out of the prison camp at Jessup, Georgia, a deeply reduced and humbled man, who has deliberately shunned the limelight ever since. 

     Peering into the 21st century and on into the third millennium, I wonder what characters will come to the forefront of future religious movements across America.  Whoever they are and whatever they institutionalize, America will find a place for them, for the first Amendment assures them of that.  But if the past is a prologue, I suspect that the solid–such as perhaps the Billy Graham’s, will probably receive the acclamation and respect that they more or less deserve.  Those who make promises on the airwaves and then fail to deliver on them will probably go directly to jail.  Those who think further and deeper than any others on the religious issues and problems of the day will, no doubt, suffer cruelly at the hands of lesser men. But the fierce extremists–the Jim Jones and the David Koresh’s, they will quickly find themselves in trouble–hated and hunted.

     These future faceless and nameless characters will be no less astonishing than those whom we have already seen and heard and even endured.