A Footnote to “The Strength of the Mormon Position”

FAIR has a service called “Ask the Apologist” where people can write in with questions about the Church. Volunteers, including myself, try to answer as many as we can. It’s actually fun and sometimes a challenge.

A few months ago the following question came in:

Do we know the name of the Catholic Theologian that came to Salt Lake City to study the Mormons and gave the comments that “You Mormons are all ignoramuses; you don’t even understand the strength of your own position…” It was quoted by Elder Richards in his book “A Marvelous Work and A Wonder”. If someone could let me me know ASAP it would be most appreciated.

I was of course familiar with the story, but I don’t think I had ever actually heard the name of the Catholic theologian. I did a fair amount of googling, and came up empty. I queried people on lists I am on, and again, nada. So this is the response I wrote:

Elder Richards’ proximate source for that story was a pamphlet published by Elder Orson Whitney, entitled “The Strength of the Mormon Position.” Below I have quoted what appears to be the earliest source, also from Elder Whitney, from 1921. In none of these sources is the name of the Catholic divine given. I have tried searching the internet and have queried some friends who are heavy into LDS history, without success.

That doesn’t mean that his identity is unknown, but it is not commonly known. You might try querying someone at the LDS archives. I would start with [Intentionally omitted].

Good luck and best wishes,

Kevin Barney

Orson F. Whitney, *Saturday Night Thoughts, Part 3,* (Salt Lake City:
Deseret News Press, 1921), 63-64.

A Catholic Opinion.–Many years ago there came to Salt Lake City a learned
doctor of divinity, a member of the Roman Catholic Church. I became well
acquainted with him, and we conversed freely and frankly. A great scholar,
with perhaps a dozen, languages at his tongue’s end, he seemed to know all
about theology, law, literature, science and philosophy, and was never weary
of displaying his vast erudition. One day he said to me: “You Mormons are
all ignoramuses. You don’t even know the strength of your own position. It
is so strong that there is only one other tenable in the whole Christian
world, and that is the position of the Catholic Church. The issue is between
Catholicism and Mormonism. If we are right, you are wrong; if you are right,
we are wrong; and that’s all there is to it. The Protestants haven’t a leg
to stand on. If we are wrong, they are wrong with us, for they were a part
of us and went out from us; while if we are right, they are apostates whom
we cut off long ago. If we really have, as we claim, the apostolic
succession from St. Peter, there was no need for Joseph Smith and Mormonism;
but if we have not that succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was
necessary, and Mormonism’s attitude is the only consistent one. It is either
the perpetuation of the Gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the
Gospel in latter days.”

Well, just moments ago I heard again from the original questioner with the answer. A friend of his worked with someone at the LDS Historical Library, and after much effort they found it. The Catholic theologian’s name is John A. Reiner. The source is Orson F. Whitney’s autobiography, Through Memory’s Halls: The Life Story of Orson F. Whitney, as Told by Himself (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1930), 222-23. [If you want to buy a copy of the book, be forewarned that it is long out of print; the cheapest one I saw on the internet was $325.]

This was such hard-won knowledge that I didn’t want to let it languish, but I wanted to put it out there where others would have a chance to find it. I remember having the same question myself in the past, but never pursued it to this extent before.

Does anyone know anything more about this John A. Reiner and his interaction with the Saints in SLC?


  1. Nice work Kevin. May this post serve as the landing place for future Googling on that question!

  2. Thanks, Kevin.

  3. Very fun footnote, thanks.

  4. Great! I thought we’d never learn who that was.

  5. I think his name is John M. Reiner. I know he was a faculty member at Villanova. He spoke in Salt Lake in January 1898. There is a series of correspondence between B.H. Roberts and Reimer published in the Improvement Era in 1898. Volume 5 of Collected Discourses contains his January 1898 address.

  6. An investigation into the life of Reiner would make for a good BYU Studies article, imo.

  7. Ardis Parshall says:

    His initial *is* M, Justin. JMR was in Salt Lake in the latter half of January 1898; he spoke at the Tabernacle, and was given a patriarchal blessing (at his own request) by Patriarch John Smith.

  8. Interesting. Perhaps it was John M. Reiner? Collected Discourses even reprints his talk to the Tabernacle (January 16th, 1898 in vol. 5). Later that year, the Improvement Era (May 1898) published a letter from Dr. Reiner and a response by B. H. Roberts.

    Knowing the name, he is a person that pops up frequently if you search the common digital archives. That is a great score, Kevin. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Curses. Justin and Ardis beat me to it.

  10. I’ve seen this fellow cited on several occasions, especially to preface debates between Catholics and Mormons. I can’t help but wonder, though, what the point is. Citing as an authority a late 19th-c Catholic theologian’s a priori dismissal of Protestantism like people are supposed to care what he thinks just seems– well– arbitrary. Is this just used to establish some common ground by identifying a mutual enemy? Or do Catholics and Mormons really think that by quoting it they can exclude Protestants from the debate from the get-go?

    I’m sure lots of Catholic theologians have made comments like this, but this one reminds me a lot of John Henry Newman. I wonder if Reiner had read Newman?

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Justin and Ardis to the rescue! What a difference an initial makes; I googled “justin a. reiner” and found nothing useful. But here’s a tidbit I got using the “m” instead:

    Special to the NY Times, NEWPORT, February 27, 1901–PROF GRIGGS CORRECTED. Member of the Audience Speaks Out at a Brooklyn Institute Lecture. The tongues of members of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences were merrily yesterday over an incident which caused a flurry at the close of a lecture under the auspices of the institute on Tuesday night. The lecture was given by Prof. Edward Howard Griggs, his subject being- ” Martin Luther.” As Prof. Griggs was about to leave the platform a man who sat in the centre of the hall arose and protested against the introduction by the lecturer of a” letter on indulgences, (Archbishop Alvord’s,) which he denounced as a forgery. The man, it was afterward learned, was Dr. John M. Reiner, a professor in a college at Wayne, Penn. It is said that he was formerly a Lutheran minister, but is now a convert to Catholicism. His protest, which caused a stir, was received by . a part of the audience with applause. Prof. Griggs did not reply to Dr. Reiner. The latter, when he left the hall, was followed by a number of people who sympathized with .his protest, and he held a sort of reception outside. Dr. Reiner was accompa nied by a party of friends, among whom, it was said, were two local Catholic clergymen.

  12. It also seems that the Mormon-Catholic position that Whitney then LeGrand Richards popularized was evident immediately after his discourse. B. H. Roberts spoke a week later in the Tabernacle and was recorded as saying:

    I know not where to find them [the ordinances of life], except in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has been said recently in our midst [The speaker alluded to remarks of Dr. John M. Reiner delivered in the Tabernacle the previous Sunday] that there are but two organizations which may justly lay claim to being the Church of Christ—one here, the other with headquarters at Rome. Hath the church of Rome preserved these ordinances alluded to pure and undefiled? And here let me pause to say that in making reference to this great church, or any other church for matter of that, I do it in a spirit of kindness, and with no bitterness in my heart. (Collected Discourses 5:384)

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Here’s another one from the NY Times in 1902:

    CHICAGO, June 14 — It is announced that at the fourth annual convention of the Association of Catholic Colleges in the United States to be held here July 9 and 10, papers will be read by the following: The Right Rev. John Quirk, President of Loyola College, Baltimore; John M. Reiner, Ph. D., LL. D. The Rev. John Poland, Society of Jesus, St. Xavier College. Cincinnati, and the Very Rev. B. Verheyn, Prior of St. Benedict’s College, AtcWson, Kan. The Right Rev. Thomas J. Conaty, President of the * Catholic University a.t Washington, and o . oo I President of the association, will preside. A conference on the Catholic High School movement will be held.

  14. If this is the same John Reiner, it appears he was Reformed Church of America before his conversion.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, wow, here’s a really cool one:

    “At Temple and Tabernacle,” Davis County Clipper 1 April 1898:

    Dr. Reiner, the Roman Catholic writer, who a short time ago visited Salt Lake City, has since his return home written some of his observations in Utah to the eastern press. The result is that a number of educated gentlemen have formed a society in New York City for the disinterested study of Mormonism; and to this end they hold weekly meetings.

  16. Here’s another interesting source. On p. 27, Reiner says Protestants are anti-Christian infidels. Pp. 74-93 contain a paper by Dr. Reiner in which he alleges, among other things, that Democracy is the child of Catholicism, that Jefferson was just a modern Catholic scholastic with respect to his views on government, and that the age before Protestantism was one of liberty and progress that has now been destroyed by barbarians.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    We learn more about him from “An Impressive Service,” Deseret News 22 January 1898. It’s too long to type, but highlights:

    – There were about 7,000 present for his address in the Tabernacle. His candor won the sympathy of the listerners.

    – It was given on a chapter of the Bible selected just before the meeting; most of his address was extemporaneous.

    – Some thought he was a Jesuit, but this is not true. He was a lay Catholic and a married man.

    – Also, he was not connected with an educational institution in New York City, another misconception. His profession was literature, especially journalism.

    – He was the author of historical and philosophical research. Especially interested in religious controversy, ecclesiastical history and literary criticism.

    – He occasionally appears before the public as a lecturer, and he is an editorial contributor to several NY newspapers.

    – He is a doctor of laws and philosophy.

    – He arrive in SLC about three weeks before on private business, and promptly undertook an earnest and thorough investigation of LDS claims.

    – He visiting many towns in the state and made many friends among the leading Saints.

    – He will leave to return to the east in a day or two; is currently the guest of John Beck [not the Miami Dolphins quarterback, though].

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    OK, if you want to read his discourse, go here and do a search on catholic reiner. Then click on the Deseret News article that is entitled “Discourse.”

  19. This exclusion of Protestants by creating a Catholic or Mormon dualism is pretty old hat for the Mormons. They were preaching it in church organs from the late 1830s on. It sounds like they were delighted to have a seceding Protestant agree with them. Great to have the name and thanks for sharing, Kevin. Sometimes these seceding agents provocateurs provide surprising glimpses into the functioning of broader culture.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Here, courtesy of my correspondent, is the page from the autobiography. It’s interesting that this actually gives Whitney’s response:


    Dr. John M. Reiner, a Roman Catholic scholar who had nearly a dozen languages at his command and seemed to know a great deal about law, literature, history, and science, visited Salt lake City in January 1898. He and Elder Orson R. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve became well acquainted. One day he told Brother Whitney: “You Mormons are all ignoramuses. You don’t even know the strength of your own position. It is so strong that there is only one other position tenable in the whole Christian world, and that is the position of the Roman Catholic Church.
    The issue is between Catholicism and Mormonism. If we are right, you are wrong; if you are right, we are wrong; and that’s all there is to it. The Protestant sects haven’t a leg to stand on; for if we are right, we cut them off long ago as apostates; and if we are wrong, they are wrong with us, since they were a part of us and went out from us. If we have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there is no need of Joseph Smith and Mormonism; but if we have not that succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and Mormonism’s attitude is the only consistent one. It is either the perpetuation of the gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the gospel in latter days.”

    Elder Whitney agreed with some that was said, but in no uncertain terms, told him he was mistaken: “Don’t deceive yourself with the notion that we ‘Mormons’ are not aware of the strength of our own position. We know it better than anyone else can know it. We have not all been to college; we can not all speak the dead languages; and we may be ignoramuses as you say. But we know we are right and we know you are wrong”

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree with #6, BTW, that an article on Reiner and this whole episode would be interesting. I’m not going to do it, so if anyone else wants to run with it please feel free to do so.

  22. The article’s practically half-written here on the pages of the BCC!

  23. Johnna Cornett says:

    What amazes me is how familiar I am with the quote–that Mormons are ingnoramuses and the truth must be us (LDS) or them (Catholic)–yet I am completely unfamiliar with the man who said it, and said it surprisingly long ago

  24. A few more sources on Dr. Reiner:
    New York Times, 19 Dec 1904.
    “Wrecked Professor’s Room.”
    “Students Did It After Complaining of Remarks Made by Him.
    “Special to The New York Times.

    “Philadelphia, Dec. 18.—Officers of the College of St. Tomas, at Villa Nova, are investigating the actions of certain students who broke into the rooms of a professor, destroying his portrait and other property. The students are said to have been dissatisfied with remarks made by him.
    “The professor involved is John Reiner, and recently the students protested to President De Lurey concerning some of Reiner’s utterances. The portrait of Prof. Reiner, which hung in his room, was torn to shreds, and his books and furniture were damaged.”

    Rev. Edward F. Jenkins mentions Dr. Reiner briefly in paragraphs on 1901-1902 and 1904-1905 in “A History of the Villanova Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Departments from 1847 to 1962” (link).

    NYT 11 Mar 1914
    “Priest Pleads Duress.
    “Forced to Admit Full Responsibility for Stock Losses, He Says.
    “Special to The New York Times.
    “Philadelphia, March 10.—The Rev. Laurence Delurey, former Treasurer of the St. Augustine College at Villa Nova, who was made defendant yesterday in a suit brought by John M. Reiner, once a professor in the college, for the recovery of a loan of $30,000 which the priest admitted he had lost in stock speculation, declared today on the witness stand that he had signed under duress a statement to the effect that his dealings were without the authority of the college.”
    “Father Delurey added that his admissions were made in the fear that a refusal to relieve the institution of responsibility would mean the revocation of his priestly functions.
    “‘The statement was sent to me with instructions to me from my superiors to sign it,’ testified the priest. ‘Under the circumstances I could not well do anything but sign it. It was a sample step for me for reinstatement.’
    “The money invested in the mining company proved a bad venture for the priest, who had hoped thereby to realize profits to help pay the expenses of the college. He realized nothing from the stocks.”

    David R. Contosta, in Villanova University, 1842-1992: American—Catholic—Augustinian (Penn State Press, 1995, p. 78-80), describes the mining/loan suit and identifies John M.’s wife as Frieda (link).

  25. The whole problem with using this as a “defence” of mormonism is that it assumes that authority means anything to you. The protestants often get around the whole issue of being lost in the middle by claiming that you don’t need any authority. If you believe, you can preach.

    But it does make us mormons feel good to contemplate…


%d bloggers like this: