Craig Foster reviews the life of Henry Caswall; documents a lifelong antagonism towards the Church.
Craig L. Foster, "Henry Caswall: Anti-Mormon Extraordinaire," BYU Studies 35, no. 4 (1995–96): 145–159
In the spring of 1842, a young Englishman arrived in Nauvoo with an important mission. An Anglican clergyman, he had set aside his clerical apparel and was dressed as an ordinary traveler. In his possession was an ancient Greek psalter with which he planned to prove, once and for all, that Joseph Smith, the American prophet, was a fraud. Henry Caswall would later claim he had proved that not only was Joseph Smith not a prophet, but he was not even a religious man! To the contrary, Joseph was an impostor of an evil kind!
Who was Henry Caswall, and why was he so important to the critics of Mormonism? In describing his own profession, Caswall wrote in 1854 that a vicar is one who, “under God, [is] the friend of the poor, the instructor of the ignorant, the comforter of the afflicted, of the suffering, and of the dying.” These were high standards for a man to set for himself. However, Henry Caswall took upon himself this task, devoting his life to what he believed to be the true work of Jesus Christ. Part of this work, as he saw it, involved defending the Church of England against the Latter-day Saints. Thus it was that Henry Caswall, a little-known professor of divinity and a vicar, became an outspoken critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its doctrines. At the height of his anti-Mormon activities, Caswall’s colleagues considered him a powerful witness of the turpitude of Joseph Smith and his religion; the Mormons considered him the epitome of sectarian deceit. He was, in fact, one of the most influential anti-Mormon writers of the nineteenth century. But, for all that has been written or said about his books and tracts, we know very little about his life. He has remained somewhat enigmatic to Mormon scholars.
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Caswall’s account, first published in 1842, however, has some serious problems. The Times and Seasons article contradicts Caswall by stating that he introduced himself as an Episcopal minister. Caswall, on the other hand, claimed that he had taken off his clerical clothing to visit the Mormons.
Second, Caswall’s description of Joseph Smith contradicts other contemporary descriptions of him, which tend to describe him as a tall, handsome, muscular man. Third, Caswall’s supposed quotation by Joseph Smith wherein he used poor grammar describing the Greek psalter and Egyptian hieroglyphics stands in stark contrast with other examples of the Prophet’s grammar and speech patterns. While Joseph Smith did not have much of a traditional education, he was well read and articulate as an adult, especially by the Nauvoo period. These two factors further put into jeopardy the veracity of the whole story. Fourth, according to the Times and Seasons, Caswall’s nervousness about the Greek psalter discouraged Joseph Smith from pursuing the matter further. Thus, it is obvious that, although Henry Caswall visited Nauvoo and could very well have met Joseph Smith, the famous interview with the Prophet was not as Caswall described it.
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While Henry Caswall’s accusations are presently relatively unknown, the significance of them has not been lost on critics of Mormonism, nor have they gone unnoticed by defenders of the faith such as Hugh Nibley. In his book, The Mythmakers (1961), Nibley identifies Caswall as an important anti-Mormon and then proceeds to attack his account on several points. His approach is to create a hypothetical interview in which he, as the unnamed interviewer, engages Caswall in a rhetorical joust. In Nibley’s book, Caswall is portrayed as a liar who had falsely portrayed Joseph Smith, exaggerated and embellished the details of his visit to Nauvoo, and modified his story each time it was published. While the hypothetical interview is entertaining and informative, pointing out minor discrepancies in Caswall’s various published versions of the incident, the narrow “cross-examination” approach hampers a more detailed look at Henry Caswall and his works. Also, while Nibley claims that there was no mention of Caswall’s visit in contemporary official or personal journals, the Times and Seasons corroborates Caswall’s claims of visiting Nauvoo. The visit, including the presence of a Greek manuscript, was also verified by John Taylor during an 1850 debate in which he participated in France. Therefore, while Nibley correctly identifies the problems with Caswall’s story, such as the ridiculous description of the prophet’s physical and grammatical characteristics, his defense has problems that need to be further researched and evaluated.
Why did Henry Caswall write against Mormonism? Why did he devote so much time and energy publishing several books, tracts, and articles against Joseph Smith and the LDS Church? As is the case with most other enigmatic individuals, the full answer will probably never be known. Thus, the historian must surmise based upon available facts.
Henry Caswall’s life could be described as one of intense devotion, great hope, disappointment, sorrow, and failure. As a missionary in America, Caswall not only suffered from sickness caused by the rude living conditions of frontier life, but also witnessed the early deaths of two of his sons. Added to the pain of personal tragedy were the setbacks experienced in the work that he sincerely believed to be of the Lord. With the faltering and eventual demise of Kemper College, Caswall’s dreams of the growth of the church he loved, as well as the honor and recognition that he believed he deserved, were crushed.
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Henry Caswall attempted to fulfill the duties of the office to which he had been called. For Caswall these duties included the defense of the Church of England against what he perceived to be heretics and usurpers. Though he often failed in his efforts, Henry Caswall became one of the most influential anti-Mormon writers in the nineteenth century.