Making Sense of Prophecies (6): Concluding Thoughts

For understanding texts and cultural history, the question “Did Samuel Lutz really write this” is ultimately not as useful as the question of how the prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” came about, and what function it served for those who kept it in circulation. If the storytelling practices of Serbian shepherds can tell us something significant about Homer, it shouldn’t be impossible for 20th and 21st century practices of devotional reading and writing to tell us something significant about Reformation-era prophecies.

[Pause presentation]

So what can we learn from all this?

I’m not saying it’s okay to quote “Lutius Gratiano” or similar material to your Sunday School class. Accuracy matters, especially in the long run. Do the work to find the real miracles.

But I am saying that simply debunking a story ignores context nearly as much as repeating it verbatim. There really were precursors to Cumorah: just as “Lutius Gratiano” didn’t spring out of thin air, neither did the church. There are real connections between early modern religious dissatisfactions, hopes and eschatological expectations, and the people who found their way to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jacob Spori is one such connection, as is pietism more broadly.

So merely saying that Samuel Lutz didn’t write what Jacob Spori said he did is misleadingly incomplete because it treats the connection from Lutz to Spori as if it didn’t exist. As we’ve seen, the relationship is complicated and involves a lot of reanalysis by Spori, but it’s there. Pretending there’s no connection will inevitably leave people wondering: well, what did Lutz actually write?

To understand “Lutius Gratiano,” this is what we need to do:

  • If you want to understand the prophecy in circulation, look at its textual history. People who looked into the prophecy from the early to late 20th century noted that versions differed slightly, but no one bothered to record the variants or examine the consequences.
  • If you want to understand Spori’s quotation of Lutz, look at Spori’s quotation practice. If much of what he places in quotation marks is a summary or free rendering, it’s not surprising if that’s true of “Lutius Gratiano” as well.
  • If you want to understand Spori’s publication of “Lutius Gratiano,” look at the rest of the article in which it appears. Spori has quite a bit more to say in it, and it all fits into his biographical context.
  • If you want to understand the relation of “Lutius Gratiano” to the writings of Samuel Lutz, you have to look at the rest of Lutz’s writings and the context of optimistic apocalyptic pietism.
  • If you want to understand the prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano,” look at how other examples of the genre of prophecy have taken shape and been used in new contexts historically, rather than looking at it as a solitary text in isolation.

While urban legends may not be the church’s best public face, cringing in embarrassment is not the answer. Any group with informal avenues of communication is going to have something similar (and if you’re reading this, you’re part of the problem; we should all be studying conference talks in the Liahona).

We have in “Lutius Gratiano” a rare opportunity to study a prophecy’s development in considerable detail over 128 years and counting. The prophecy had a function for Spori and others in how they understood and resolved tensions relating to “things past, present, and things to come,” to re-use Spori’s phrase. But it can also serve more broadly as an example of the genre. Looking closely at “Lutius Gratiano” has heightened my suspicion that some of the basic assumptions about medieval and early modern prophetic texts need to be re-evaluated.

Finally, I continue to believe that scholarship from a place of sympathy (and even affection, love and commitment) is often better than scholarship driven by disdain, resentment or loathing. If our interest is motivated by sympathy rather than disdain, we’re better able to see connections that would otherwise elude us.

* * *

Jacob Spori Building, BYU-Idaho

Now if you will excuse a personal note [as I said at the end of the presentation], and in the interest of providing the complete story, I’ve come to discover that Jacob Spori is something of an intellectual ancestor of mine. As mentioned, Jacob Spori was the founding principal of the Bannock Stake Academy in southeastern Idaho. It soon shifted from offering elementary to high school-level courses, and then to college courses, first as Ricks Academy and then, in 1923, as Ricks College. My grandparents met there in 1938; my mother in law graduated in 1954, my mother in 1965. Two of my sisters attended in the 1990s. In 2003, the name changed to BYU-Idaho, and I taught there for 3 years beginning in 2010. Today, the Jacob Spori Building sits at the center of a campus that educates some 23,000 students. The sponsoring church is today well-established in the American religious landscape, while its intellectual tradition continues to develop.

As for Spori’s prophecy attributed to “Lutius Gratiano,” it still circulates. I first encountered it as a missionary in 1991, while I last heard it used in a lay sermon in 1998. Of course I was appalled, and so, as a good Sunday School teacher, I enlightened my students the next week about the prophecy’s true origin, much in the spirit of Christian August Behr in 1794. Today I would probably explain the prophecy somewhat differently than I did then. “Lutius Gratiano” continues to appear in online discussion, and it was on my mind in 2005 when I was developing the proposal that would lead to a research fellowship and my ongoing research program.

Now that original spark of interest has caught up with me, however. I think I finally understand the prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” and its significance for early modern prophetic texts, but that understanding comes at a cost: you tell yourself and everyone else that you’re observing a phenomenon dispassionately from the outside, with nothing but scholarly interest in some long-dead topic of the 15th and 16th centuries, but then you find yourself still a part of the story, participating in it from the inside.

[End of presentation.]

4 comments for “Making Sense of Prophecies (6): Concluding Thoughts

  1. Another great and thoughtful series by Jonathan comes to an end; much applause! I really appreciate the personal connection you wove into your presentation at the end. And this line–“While urban legends may not be the church’s best public face, cringing in embarrassment is not the answer. Any group with informal avenues of communication is going to have something similar”–needs to be inscribed on the whatever reading rooms exist in whatever archives the church maintains for people to go look up records (I’ve never been, so I don’t know).

    It occurs to me that a larger project which could build from this insight might be one which gets sociological and institutional, as well as textual; one could consider the role the “unwritten order of things” plays in Mormon culture and practice, and the degree to which the maintenance of that informal order depends (not entirely, certainly, but perhaps at least partly) upon a selective authorization of certain non-canonized prophecies and other urban legends. Some are given textual boosts by believers both with and without institutional authority, and passed along as helpful, maybe even necessary, supplements to the aforementioned order; others have a more twilight existence, passed along far more carefully and without authoritative backing, as they implicitly challenge the unwritten order, and thus constitute the kind of thing that, if they (as occasionally happens) gain too much publicity, will require an official smack-down, even a formal denouncement. Anyway, as always, you’re generating some interesting ideas in my head, Jonathan, so thank you.

  2. ” if you’re reading this, you’re part of the problem; we should all be studying conference talks in the Liahona”

    If reading thoughtful posts by J. Green is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

  3. When you do, ping me. I have several letters from church members in the US asking the mission presidents in Basel at various times to look this up and copy it for them. You might see something in those letters explaining their requests that could add a little bit to your understanding of what this prophecy meant to those who read about it, or at least personalize your explanations by tagging ideas to specific people, if that seems desirable.

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