The conduct of the founders of the major religions that were birthed in America would not be welcomed by their followers of today. Their extreme drive and genius were accompanied by conduct outside the precepts that undergird the religious institutions they created.
Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was a magnetic leader, carrying his Mormon flock through mass migrations and rebirth in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois.
Setting aside judgment on his constant claim of communication with God, we can be struck by his genius in gathering and maintaining the adulation of thousands in a short and openly self-indulgent life.
His positive attributes of character were marred by obsessions in sexuality, vanity and autocratic control. He may have had as many as fifty wives, according to eminent biographer Fawn M. Brodie in her definitive classic No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (Random House, 1995). The "wives" were almost always episodes of adultery, usually preceded by a ceremonial "seal for eternity," whereas the original primary husband--including many of Smith's associates--was sealed only for life. Smith acquired a new one on average almost monthly during the 1840s. This was the birth of the half-century of officially sanctioned polygamy in the Mormon Church.
The Mormons' diligence, growth and political solidarity under Smith's directives created fears and enmity wherever they were. They also had militia units. Smith was killed by a mob who stormed the jail in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844. His followers were forced from nearby Nauvoo, and Brigham Young led an epic ordeal to Utah. Brodie states: "And it was the legend of Joseph Smith, from which all evidences of deception, ambition and financial and marital excesses were gradually obliterated, that became the cohesive force within the church."
Vivid examples of the obliteration process are part of the incredible true-crime classic, The Mormon Murders, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988). It also introduces one to many facets of Mormon culture and history.
Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) lived in a time when faith healers were common and her Christian Science Church was the major survivor.
Among detached or critical biographers of Mrs. Eddy (that is, authors who did not avoid information critical of her) were Georgine Milmine, Frederick Peabody, Edwin Dakin, Ernest Bates/John Dittemore and my source, Julius Silberger Jr., M.D., a psychiatrist.
Mary Baker (twice a widow, once divorced) spent much of the first half of her life bedridden, allegedly using illness to control people and get attention. Her hypochondria brought her acquaintance with mental healer Phineas Quimby, who it has been said was the inventor of her basic teachings--which she denied in her successful years.
Whatever her obviously formidable accomplishments, she dismissed several capable aides, and afterward mobilized followers to mentally ward off the "malicious animal magnetism" she felt that the ex-aides were mentally exerting against her. Her paranoia and vindictiveness triggered deviousness. In one instance, her husband and current chief aide were arrested and charged with conspiring to have the previous chief aide assassinated. They avoided conviction. The Silberger book is replete with a lifetime of manipulations.
L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) was a pulp fiction writer who became a leader in science fiction until his Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health came out in 1950.
Commercialization of its treatment plan flourished, then floundered, until rescued by Wichita businessman Don Purcell. Hubbard's disregard for expenses and past debts led to lawsuits by Purcell. With the ownership of the Dianetics trademark contested, Hubbard renamed his (refurbished) approach Scientology and then fulfilled an earlier prediction: "If you want to make real money, start a religion." That helped Hubbard avoid taxes and medical practice restraints and to become fabulously wealthy.
Scientology "auditing" involves a multi-step hypno-psychoanalytic procedure based on superficial groundings, having value in some cases but questioned by professional therapists for others. "Auditors" were trained by the Hubbard organization, generating profits.
One cannot briefly portray Hubbard's awesome imaginative talents or his unbelievable history of deceit and arrogance, but let us quote Los Angeles Judge Paul Breckenridge in a denial of sealing Scientology records: "The evidence portrays a man who has been virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background and achievements. The documents in evidence additionally reflect his egotism, greed, avarice, lust for power and vindictiveness and aggressiveness against persons perceived by him to be disloyal or hostile." (This fromBare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard by Russell Miller [Henry Holt, 1987]. Another source was L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman by Bent Corydon and L. Ron Hubbard Jr. [Lyle Stuart Inc., 1987].)
Rather than confront an adult daughter who sought to meet him for the first time, Hubbard had an emissary deny his paternity to her face. He tried to erase from history a bigamous marriage with her mother.
Hubbard did not "die," it is alleged. The official revelation to 1,800 followers at the Hollywood Palladium was that he had discarded his body and chosen to move to his next level of research externally. This was in keeping with his many stories of previous lives, including reincarnation from lives millions of years before on other planets.
The late Sidney Harris provided an explanation of such baffling happenings in a 1985 newspaper column headed "Lying to yourself produces [the] most frightening evil of all." Harris was not thinking particularly of religious founders, of course:
"Most people seem to value sincerity as a value more than I do. But sincerity is not an independent value, like truth. If you are wrong, the more sincere you are, the more damage you can do, and the more wrong-minded followers you are able to attract."
Basil Conrad, a member from Michigan, is a retired charitable agency administrator.
See also Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (McFarland & Co., 2000), a comprehensive history of the Mormon fraud by longtime Foundation member David Persuitte.