Joseph Smith and Constantine S. Rafinesque

Constantine S. Rafinesque (1783-1840) was a naturalist who emigrated to America in the early 19th century.  In 1836, he produced a document called the Walam Olum, claiming it was an ancient text written on birch bark by early Lenape (Delaware) Indians that he had been able to translate into English.  Rafinesque claimed that the original tablets and transcription were later lost, leaving his notes and transcribed copy as the only record of evidence.

Rafineque’s document, which described the peopling of North America was for a long time considered to be authentic and historically important.  However, serious doubts started to arise in the 1980s.  But it was not until 1995 that researcher David Oestreicher concluded that the translation was a hoax.

The reason Rafinesque created the hoax, Oestreicher argued, was partly out of a desire for fame and recognition.  He may also have been inspired by Joseph Smith’s then recent translation of The Book of Mormon from golden tablets.  Rafinesque had publicly denounced TBoM as a hoax, but viewing its success, he may have decided to attempt something similar himself.  Oestreicher’s reporting leaves the reader uncertain as to whether Rafinesque was hoping to manufacture an American legend that rivaled the Mormon beliefs, or was simply attempting to undermine the LDS pronouncement that the Indians were ancient Isrealites.  If you believe the latter, then Rafinesque created a hoax in an attempt to prove that TBoM was a hoax?

Rafinesque was something of a disorganized genius and is, in many ways, a unique character in the annals of North American history, as is Joseph Smith.  Rafinesque’s name is given brief, if any, mention in modern encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries of science and scientists.  He has been called “the most widely celebrated unknown man in science, equaling in brilliant obscurity Roger Bacon and Paracelsus.”

Constantine Rafinesque, a Contemporary of Joseph Smith

Kenton L. Chambers describes Rafinesque as follows:

. . . [His] intellect was impatient and flighty, revealing its genius in breadth of knowledge but not depth.  His mind roamed freely through the sciences of his day–anthropology, archeology, botany, entomology, geology, history, linguistics, medicine, meteorology, paleontology and zoology.  But his writings appear to be almost totally unorganized; they skip from subject to subject, with ideas, observation and theories all thrown together willy-nilly.  Rafinesque seemed incapable of ever settling on a single theory or subject and studying it in convincing detail.  His reputation among fellow naturalists of the early 1800s was that of a crank and crackpot.  Nobody felt it was worth the trouble to sift the wheat from the chaff in Rafinesque’s voluminous writings. . . .

So, you could argue that Joseph Smith and Constantine S. Rafinesque were both brilliant.  One was charismatic and a “rough rolling stone,” and the other an “unfocused genius” who received little respect in his lifetime.  However, the latter’s reputation may be getting a make over. 

I learned about Rafinesque through a one paragraph review in Time magazine (12 Sep 2011) of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s upcoming book of gonzo essays titled Pulphead.  In the review is a brief reference to Rafinesque.  I had no idea about his connection to Joseph Smith until I did a Google search.  Sullivan’s book comes out on 25 Sep; I look forward to reading it.  Time calls it “this season’s sleeper.”

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