At the moment, I’m looking at prognostications and popular prophetic tracts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and last week I came across the following, from a book printed in 1549 (for the curious, the source is VD16 C 959). The ultimate origin of the text could be anything from the late thirteenth to the early sixteenth century, although the earliest edition I can find is 1520. In any case, I don’t think the text has its origins in Reformation polemic. The text is short, but too long to provide here in its entirety. It would be best to assume that my selection of passages, and my translation of them, are tendentious. After the translation, I’ve made a few comments, but I’ll let you read it first and form your own initial impression. [The title is a translation, not a description.]
The revelation of Reymund, written many years ago and found in an old book.
On Ascension Eve, after mass, as I was praying and reciting from the Psalter, my thoughts turned to the outrages occurring daily in Jerusalem and my tears prevented me from speaking or completing my prayer. And I said, “O Lord my God, do not be angry forever at your people, but have mercy on them, for you have redeemed them with your blood….”
As I was weeping in this way, a dignified man in a bishop’s cloak with a cross in his hand appeared to me. When I saw him, I was so out of my mind with fear that I could not speak. The bishop said to me, “Do not fear, but weep no more…and learn of many troubles and tribulations which are to come….[In addition to several political calamities,] worship will be all but destroyed, there will be disorder in the priesthood, and many Christian kingdoms will refuse to be subject to the Church of Rome. Many clerics will turn away from their obedience because of their own wickedness, which is so great that it has filled the whole world. People will rarely follow the commands of their bishop. Many cardinals will be taken captive and killed, and all their power and honor taken from them….And they will no longer be called cardinals but rather new Roman priests and deacons….”
And when the man who had appeared to me had said all this, I replied in fear, “Dear sir, perhaps God intends to permit the faith to pass away, and the world to be destroyed….”
Then the bishop answered me, saying, “The unjust will rule with violence for some time in the world, but at last the Germans, the Holy Roman Empire, will destroy the unbelievers and the heathens and the Italians, and will restore the Christian Church, and will make a true peace with righteous judgment, and bring order to the priesthood, and the priests will no more seek the gold of simony, and all just prelates will return to obedience, and then the unity of Holy Christendom will be assured, and it will be the beginning of a blessed time until the Prince of Damnation comes, who is the Antichrist. God be merciful to us. Amen.”
What I find interesting are the striking similarities to Joseph Smithâ€™s visions, coupled with the sheer irrelevance of those similarities for both faith and scholarship.
First, about the similarities. Note how reading in the Bible coupled with despair at the present state of the world leads to prayer, answered by a heavenly messenger–a just man made perfect, one might say. The visitation fills the beseecher with fear, but the divine messenger stills his personal anxiety, although the message about the world as a whole is woeful, particularly in the religious realm. But in the end, things will be restored to their proper order (with certain nationalist implications). Do you notice any other similarities?
What does this mean in a Mormon context? Well, nothing. It would be fun to run Reymund’s Prophecy through the oddball Mormon speculation filter and turn it into Angelic Confirmation That The World Was In Apostasy, but angels with crosses and mitres just don’t fit into our worldview at all. The advent of the Antichrist plays about as little a role in our religion as the eschatological significance of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s nice to note a certain kinship with restorationist longings of earlier centuries, but this vision neither authenticates the Mormon worldview nor is authenticated by it.
What do the similarities between Reymund and Joseph Smith mean for my research? Again, nothing. The end result of my research on Reymund and similar popular texts of that time period will stand or fall on its own, without reference to Joseph Smith or anyone’s opinion of him.
But this is not to say that there is no interaction at all. I’d like to think that my religious background makes me curious about some things, and sensitive about some issues, that other people might too quickly dismiss as boring or irrelevant. Part of the reason I think the prophetic voice is an interesting problem in media history is because of the time I’ve spent thinking about Mormon prophets, or listening to them speak. I have a certain amount of sympathy for reports of angelic visitors. When I’ve explained my research to other Mormons, a not infrequent response is, “You don’t think those visions were real, do you?” I assume my academic colleagues are too polite to ask the same question. My reply, to both, is that belief is irrelevant; evaluating truth claims is not what I am up to. Diagnosing Reymund, whoever he was, as diabolical or pathological won’t help me figure out how early modern prophetic texts dealt with media change, but not taking Reymund seriously might just keep me from noticing something important.