Prejudice Against Me Among Professors of Religion

Sunday evening, my family and I were reading Joseph Smith–History in a not-quite-too-late bid to keep up with the Sunday School reading. And, although I’ve read the first 26 verses plenty of times before, something whetted my curiosity this time.

See, in v. 19, the Personage tells Joseph that all of the creeds were an abomination and that “those professors were all corrupt.” A few verses later, Joseph talks about how his story “excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion.”

I’d always taken for granted that these professors of religion were religious elites, presumably teachers at seminaries or colleges–the caretakers of institutional religion at the time. After all, that’s kind of how we collectively teach and read these passages. (Don’t believe me? Well, the footnote to “professors” in v. 19 references “False Prophets” in the Topical Guide, which at least implies some degree of authority and religious eliteness.)

But here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that reading is wrong. I’m pretty sure that when Joseph wrote those passages, he wasn’t thinking of a tenured professor in a college department of religion. Rather, I’m pretty sure he meant professor to be a synonym for believer or for Christian.

Why? Well, first I looked at Webster’s 1828 dictionary. It defines “professor” to mean:

PROFESS’ORnoun [Latin] One who makes open declaration of his sentiments or opinions; particularly, one who makes a public avowal of his belief in the Scriptures and his faith in Christ, and thus unites himself to the visible church.

1. One that publicly teaches any science or branch of learning; particularly, an officer in a university, college or other seminary, whose business is to read lectures or instruct students in a particular branch of learning; as a professor of theology or mathematics.

So the tenured college instructor connotation of “professor” certainly existed at the time, but the person-who-professes-belief meaning comes first. And I think that connotation fits better with the story Joseph is telling. As best I can tell, there probably weren’t a lot of colleges and universities around Palmyra at the time. (In fact, my Google search suggests that there still aren’t.) So where would these [college] professors be coming from?

On the other hand, in Joseph’s own words, there were a lot of people professing religion. And those people, again in Joseph’s words, were contending with each other about their professed faith’s truth. It would make sense that those people–believers deeply engaged with their beliefs–would react to a local boy’s claim that their preferred religion was not only untrue, but an abomination (and, for that matter, that they were corrupt).

And a lot of roughly contemporaneous writing uses “professor of religion” in the sense of “people who profess religion.”

For example, an 1830 missionary who was trying to recruit people to go west wrote:

We want, also, more pious laymen; not professors of religion merely, nor men who have simply a good report of those who are without; but men of character, and reputation, and influence. . . . We want active Christians, men devoted to the cause and interest of their Redeemer

Here, “professors of religion” seems to mean, not the elite, but people who do more than merely profess their religion.

In 1832, J. Barfett wrote The Question, “Ought the Professors of Religion to Interfere With Politics?” Considered in a Letter to a Friend. In the creatively-named pamphlet he asks the “Christian professor” essentially about his motives in choosing to vote for somebody. These various questions, he says, “claim the serious attention of the professors of religion.” Again, his pamphlet seems addressed to Christians, not to teachers.

And in 1835, the Rev. Daniel Clark wrote The Duty of Professors of Religion to Consecrate Their Property to the Spread of the Gospel. Again, it’s aimed to convince Christian believers that all things are God’s and that, thus, they should consecrate everything they have to God.

And what does reading “professors of religion” to mean believers, not only elite teachers, do to our reading of Joseph’s history? Honestly, I think it changes our reading significantly and makes it a lot more poignant. This isn’t Joseph being persecuted by elites; while the Methodist preacher told him he was wrong, he couldn’t take comfort in his community or his neighbors. Sure, the elites didn’t believe him, but neither did the Christian believers. His neighbors, perhaps his friends, ostracized him. The prejudice didn’t come just from above–it came, too, from beside.


  1. Yes, a “professor of religion”, especially in nineteenth-century usage, means “one who professes that religion” or rather, any religious believer. Good point! Thanks for pointing this out!

  2. Larry the Cable-Guy says:

    Thank-you for including the link to the 1828 dictionary. That is a valuable resource that reminds me that even the scripture rendered in “modern” English needs some clarifying.

    I think the word “religionists” is also telling, from JS-H verse eleven. I’ve rarely encountered that term before. It feels like it has all of the outward trappings of a zealous Christian, with very little expression of the two great commandments once the rubber hits the road. And, though it sounds somewhat distinguished or authoritairan, Joseph seems to be making it applicable to the public at large.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree; Joseph is using professor in the sense of one who professes religion.

  4. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I have always thought that was what Joseph meant by “professors of religion.” However it is not clear from the historical record that Joseph initially told anyone that none of the extant. The initial animus seemed to be because he claimed to at least one preacher to have had a vision, which thing was not supposed to happen since the heavens were closed.

  5. And here I expected this to be a throw-down between Sam Brunson and (BYU) Professors of Religion who were prejudiced against him ;)

  6. Ooh, thanks Ben! You’ve given me my next post topic! (Note to BYU religion profs: please be prejudiced against me so I can post!)

  7. Aussie Mormon says:

    Ben S: I was expecting the same thing, and was even going to say a similar thing to you had I been first to post.

    Then people got serious in their responses.

  8. While the OP draws a meaningful distinction, I do not believe Joseph Smith ever experienced the persecution of which he writes. His account is at odds with the historical record. There is no evidence he told anyone about his experience for ten years, save a lone Methodist minister. And if he had shared it with others, it is improbable that most people—especially professors of religion—would have considered a 14-year old kid a disruptive force or a threat to the status quo.

    In actuality, it appears that the prophet was projecting the persecution he experienced in 1838—the worst year of his life—back onto the First Vision.

    During that period he was accused and acquitted of murder. Then there was the economic crisis in Kirtland, Ohio, precipitated by his ill-advised banking scheme, which prompted a number of his closest associates to turn on him and try to replace him. Threatened with lawsuits and violence, Joseph flees in the dark of night to Far West, Missouri. But conditions there were not much better and were about to get worse. In November of that year he was arrested for treason and thrown in Liberty Jail, which were some of the darkest hours of his mortal existence. Is it any wonder that this would color his 1838/39 account of the First Vision?

    Science has shown that our memories are both fallible and malleable, especially when it comes to the most pivotal moments in our lives. We mold our recollection of those events to make sense of what we have learned and what we are experiencing in the present moment. This is a critical evolutionary survival mechanism.

    For a fuller discussion of this issue in the context of Joseph’s experience, I recommend Harper’s “First Vision: Memory and Origins.”

  9. Andrew Hall says:

    Looking at the Japanese translations (1957 and 1995), they both translate the phrases in v. 19 and v.22 as “those who confess/publicly announce religion”. So at least the Translation Department agreed with your interpretation at those times.

  10. Josiah Reckons says:

    A bit of a late comment, but I thought it would be interesting to see how the word professors has been translated into other languages. I picked two I’m familiar with; In JSH 1:22 in Polish is reads “nauczycieli religii” which is something like “teachers of religion” or “religion teachers”. The word for an academic professor would have been “profesor”. In Korean it reads “종교 신자들” which instead means “religious believers”. In this case an academic professor might have been something like “교수”. This is only two languages but we can already see some diversity in how the word professors has been understood by translators and and how their assumptions are not only transmitted but sort of solidified in the scriptures they translate.

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