Making Sense of Prophecies (3): Reconsidering “Lutius Gratiano”

In the prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano,” we have the unusual opportunity to observe the formation and development of a prophecy in some detail from its origin in the writings of Samuel Lutz (1674-1750), a Swiss pietist preacher, to their refraction through the memory of Jacob Spori (1847-1903), a Swiss educator and convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and its circulation among the Latter-day Saints over the following 128 years.

Jacob Spori, born in 1847 in Bern, taught at the secondary school in Oberwil and later served as the school’s principal. After his baptism, he was involved in Latter-day Saint missionary efforts in Europe and emigrated to the western United States. In southeastern Idaho, he was the first principle of the Bannock Stake Academy, which initially offered elementary-level courses. In 1891, he moved to Brigham Young Academy in Provo, where he taught German, Latin, French and mathematics.[1]

In 1893, Spori published an article in The Juvenile Instructor that has become known as the source of the “Lutius Gratiano” prophecy.[2] Several passages in Spori’s article are striking in their similarity to the tropes of late medieval and early modern prophetic texts previously described. Spori first mentions “Basilius the Great” who had died in 570 AD (St. Basil of Caesarea actually died in 379 AD, if that is who Spori meant). Spori writes:

Basilius wrote a book about the true state of things, which book, however, he did not make public; the clergy would have destroyed it. So he hid it in a church under an altar, where it was not found until the time of the Reformation in Germany.

Spori also mentions Paracelsus (1493-1541), Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535; “treated in a work of five volumes about theosophy” and affirming that “the true priesthood was taken away from the earth”), and an unnamed author of a long passage confirming, among many other things, that Christ’s “doctrines were changed for a long and dark period: but they will be restored in the first half of the nineteenth century.”[3]

Spori quotes another unnamed theosophist as saying, “In 300 years, my book will be translated by a people that will understand me”; the book was written “about 1599 or 1600.” This leads directly to the famous prophecy.

Another, Lutius Gratiano, in his “Hope of Zion” (printed 1739, in Basel), says:

“The old true gospel and the powers thereof are lost. False doctrines prevail throughout every church and all the lands. All we can do is to exhort the people to fear God, to be just, to shun evil, to pray, pray, pray. Prayer and purity may bring an angel to visit a deeply distressed soul. But I tell you, that in 100 years God will have spoken again; He will restore the old Church again. I see a little people led by a Prophet and faithful Elders. They are persecuted, burnt out and murdered; but in a valley that lies towards a great lake they will grow up, make a beautiful (herrlich) land, have a temple of magnificent splendor, have all the old Priesthood, with Apostles, Prophets, Teachers and Deacons. From every nation the believers will be gathered by swift messengers, and then God, the Omnipotent, will speak to the disobedient nations with thunder, lightnings and destructions never heard of in history.”

I cannot give in English the terrific power that peals forth from Gratiano’s original (German). The healings and wonderful doings of this unique man were so astonishing, his preachings so powerful, th[a]t he was invited all over the land to preach, and even today old men in the Swiss mountains remember having heard their sires talk about that man.[4]

[The whole quotation was too long for the presentation, so I only included around the first half. Much of what follows gets deep into the weeds of Mormon Studies and was not part of the presentation.]

The prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” has been most thoroughly treated by Paul Pixton.[5] Pixton’s article describes a variety of efforts to find this supposed prophecy; the identification of “Lutius Gratiano” with Christophilus Gratianus, the pen name of Samuel Lutz, author of Die Hoffnung Zions; denials of the prophecy’s authenticity by various sources; and its continued circulation anyway.

But Pixton’s 1985 article suffers from a number of flaws that have obscured the origin of “Lutius Gratiano.”

First, Pixton doesn’t address Lutz’s work directly. This is understandable, as eighteenth-century books do not typically circulate by interlibrary loan, even assuming that a copy was available in North America, and reading through hundreds of pages of black-letter type on microfilm would have been an arduous task for little gain. In 1985, Pixton did not enjoy the easy access to digital editions and online facsimiles that we have today. The question naturally arises, however: what did Lutz actually write?

In addition, Pixton characterizes Lutz merely as a prolific pietist writer and preacher, omitting any reference to the strongly eschatological outlook of Lutz’s work. But this is an important element of Lutz’s writing that has been well documented.[6]

More seriously, Pixton’s article omits any mention of the passages from Die Hoffnung Zions that early Latter-day Saints who looked into the prophecy’s origins did identify as prophetic, despite their confirmation that the prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” did not exist as such.

Pixton cites the unsuccessful efforts of James Learing McMurrin and Rulon S. Wells in the early 1900s to locate the prophecy and their publication of notes on the prophecy’s non-existence. Here’s how Pixton summarizes Wells’ opinion of  Lutz’s Die Hoffnung Zions:

While recognizing that the book was written by a devout Christian, he concluded that it contained nothing that would justify its being cited as the source from which the ‘prophecy’ was drawn.

He further quotes Wells as stating (the ellipses and brackets here are Pixton’s):

There is nothing in … Zion’s Hoffnung … that would warrant [its connection with the “prophecy”], and let us hope that it will not be used, either at home or abroad in the mission field, in support of the great work of the Master.[7]

Pixton provides a long quotation from McMurrin’s article and states that McMurrin

was equally emphatic that the labors of President Louis S. Cardon and the elders of the Swiss Mission had been unable to reveal the existence of any passages in the latter work which corresponded to the ‘prophecy.’[8]

But in both cases, Pixton’s citations omit key information, creating the impression that both McMurrin and Wells had found nothing of interest. Well’s dim view of “Lutius Gratiano,” however, was coupled with his finding that “at times [Lutz’s Hoffnung Zions] was almost prophetic.” Wells included a photographic reproduction of a passage from Die Hoffnung Zions provided by a former president of the Swiss Mission, David L. McDonald, who had also read through Die Hoffnung Zions and had found a “paragraph which to him seemed prophetic.” Wells concedes that this passage

may well be regarded as prophetic, although much of it is found in the Holy Scriptures, from which, no doubt, the author gathered his information. It is, however, on that account, none the less, a prophecy, the fulfillment of which we are witnessing, in our own day.[9]

The outcome of McMurrin’s search for “Lutius Gratiano” in Die Hoffnung Zions was similar: there was, on the one hand, “no such prophecy.”[10] On the other hand, McMurrin discovered “many interesting items” that he cites in English translation, including (these are my excerpts of longer translations)

  • page 2 (actually page zero) in Die Hoffnung Zions: “the decay of the protesting churches” and a “second and more magnificent reformation”
  • page 90: “God will give this church again the true Urim and Thummim”
  • page 112: “a new darkness has covered the earth”; “the second reformation…will give enlightenment to many Papists, Protestants and Lutherans”
  • page 230 (and also the passage provided in photographic facsimile by Wells): “Before the end of the world, the Gospel will show itself very powerful through the whole world”; “It shall not be noticed very much in the beginning, or be thought that something good will come out of it; but it shall become stronger and stronger”

In sum, in the early 20th century, David McDonald, James McMurrin and Rulon Wells all read through Samuel Lutz’s Die Hoffnung Zions in search of the prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” and found no evidence of it. And yet each of them also felt that Die Hoffnung Zions was in some sense prophetic; Wells (via McDonald) and McMurrin both cite specific passages. This may seem like a historical curiosity not worth a footnote, but it is of fundamental importance to understanding the origin of Die Hoffnung Zions and prophetic texts more broadly.

* * *

Next time: reconstructing the origin of “Lutius Gratiano”

[1] Ernst Staehelin noted that Spori’s later correspondence is from Idaho and Montana, raising questions about Spori’s activity at the Brigham Young Academy that still need to be clarified. “Eine angebliche Weissagung Samuel Lutzens auf die Kirche Jesu Christi der Heiligen der letzten Tage,” Kirchenblatt für die reformierte Schweiz 108 (1952): 9, 10.

[2] Jacob Spori, “True and False Theosophy,” The Juvenile Instructor 28 (November 1, 1893): 672–74. The same article appeared, translated from English, as “Wahre und falsche Theosophie,” Der Stern 25, no. 24 (December 15, 1893): 372–75.

[3] Spori, “True and False Theosophy,” 673. Italics as in original throughout. The five-volume edition of Agrippa von Nettesheim that Spori refers to is probably Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s von Nettesheim Magische Werke, 5 vols. (Stuttgart: J. Scheible, 1855), https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_X9_nAAAAMAAJ/page/n5/mode/2up.

[4] Spori, “True and False Theosophy,” 673–74.

[5] Paul B. Pixton, “‘Play It Again, Sam’: The Remarkable ‘Prophecy’ of Samuel Lutz, Alias Christophilus Gratianus, Reconsidered,” BYU Studies Quarterly 25, no. 3 (1985): 27–46. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/byusq/vol25/iss3/4

[6] See Philipp Hendriksen, “Der heitere Tag besserer und seliger Zeiten: Eine Einführung in die Eschatologie des kirchlichen Pietismus bei Samuel Lutz unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Schrift ‘Neue Welt’ von 1734,” Pietismus und Neuzeit 26 (2000): 147–70.

[7] Pixton, “Play It Again, Sam,” 30.

[8] Pixton, 31.

[9] Rulon S. Wells, “A Fraudulent Prophecy Exposed,” Improvement Era 11, no. 3 (January 1908): 162–64.

[10] James L. McMurrin, “The Swiss Prophet,” The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star 63 (January 31, 1901): 71.

6 comments for “Making Sense of Prophecies (3): Reconsidering “Lutius Gratiano”

  1. I should probably wait until I see the promised reconstruction in part 4, Jonathan, but let me just say here, once again, for the record, that you’re one of the most interesting and diligent and open-minded researchers the Internet Age of Mormonism has produced. Finding a 1901 article about a 1893 essay about a late medieval text and correcting one of its page references? You, sir, are the Ardis Parshall of North Dakota, and probably the entire Great Plains.

  2. I feel like I’m in that Weird Al Song “Everything You Know is Wrong.”

    Fascinating stuff. Can’t wait for the next part.

  3. Gratiano’s Hope of Zion–what a treasure!

    This kind of work is what LDS scholarship needs.
    This has more so much more relevance and staying-power than a lot of the gimmicky stuff coming from the Maxwell Institute.

    This puts Joseph Smith into company with a deeper undercurrent of Christianity that in some ways is more legitimate than the institutionalized Christianity that Puritans and Protestants had fled from. It gives Joseph new standing.

    Teach us more.

  4. This prophecy was printed and made available in one of the chapels in a European city I served in as a missionary. Thanks for contextualizing and analyzing it, Jonathan.

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