Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A brief look at the prophet Isaac Bullard

In Canada, Isaac Bullard had been healed from a partial paralysis which proved instrumental in his calling as a prophet.  "Before he began his mission, he had a severe spell of sickness, when he fasted 40 days, (as he said, and his disciples believed;) after which he recovered very suddenly, by the special interposition of the Divine Spirit, and being filled with enthusiasm, he declared that he was commanded to plant the church of the Redeemer in the wilderness."[1]

After Bullard prescribed a remedy that was thought to have killed a child, he and his group left Canada to Vermont and then settled in Woodstock, New York.  Oliver Cowdery's grandfather lived in Woodstock when "The Pilgrims" settled there in 1817.  "Although the Joseph Smith, Sr. family had departed Vermont by the time the Bullard Pilgrims arrived on the scene, Oliver Cowdery's Grandfather, (William Cowdery, Sr.) then lived in Woodstock and Oliver himself lived in an adjoining county ... It is not unlikely that members of the Cowdery family had some first-hand knowledge of Bullard's cult."[2]

His group was particularly known for their lack of hygiene, a practiced mandated by Bullard who found no edict to wash in the Bible.  They wore leather girdles and bear skins (later a revelation changed their clothing to colorfully patched clothing).  Bullard boasted he had not bathed in seven years, and the women of the group were sometimes observed rolling around on dusty roads.  Raw bacon was the only allowed meat, and food was eaten while standing, sucked through a quill straw from a community bowl.  For a period of time, when they traveled, they did not walk erect, but used short walking sticks forcing them to walk humped over.  Sometimes the men pretended to ride ponies because of the biblical injunction to become like little children.  Extreme fasting was common and the prophet enacted other bazaar mandates (and punishments) to ensure his followers were not partaking in any of the luxuries of the world.[3]

While their beliefs and particularly their practices were quite different from the Mormon church (organized over a dozen years later) there were some interesting parallels.

Bullard felt he and his followers were the "the only true followers of Jesus Christ and his gospel, and [were] in a special manner called of God"[4]

"[T]he Pilgrims were in revolt against the prevailing denominationalism of the time. They viewed the established churches as being formal, lacking in piety and inspirational warmth, and corrupt. With a romantic yearning for the lost simplicity, universality, and purity of the primitive New Testament Church, these restorationers separated themselves in the hope of forming a more holy and perfect communion after the apostolic model of the Book of Acts."[5]

'Bullard did not "believe himself possessed of the powers he professed." Like any prophet worth his salt, he received divine revelation and professed to govern by immediate inspiration from Heaven. His authority was unquestioned, and he ruled "the sect as an absolute monarch in all things spiritual and secular."[6]

Bullard considered himself the prophet Elijah[7] and was referred to as a "second Moses" and "high priest."[8]

He felt God was "holding forth the power of his holy spirit, as communicated unto them, saying that the millennium is near at hand, and that the lost tribe of Judah is now beginning to be gathered in, and the way is fast opening, when the four quarters of the world will be gathered into one fold, of such as will receive the true spirit of faith: not the faith which is received by christians of the present day, but such as is accompanied by holy fire."[9] Non-believers were referred to as "gentiles."

One of his followers noted "we began to preach that the coming of the Lord was at hand, that darkness had covered the land and gross darkness the people but God was now about to establish his kingdom on earth."[10]

"The property of all who joined was put into a common stock, amounting to some $8,000 or $10,000. As the undisputed ruler, Bullard distributed the common stock as he saw fit." They also practiced healing, believed in freewill, followed the ancient patriarchs, and practiced speaking in tongues (considered to be quite the spectacle by observers).[11]

The Pilgrims rejected traditional marriage.  "He rejects sirnames, and abolishes marriage, and allows his followers to cohabit promiscuously."[12]

He 'controlled his followers most intimate social relations, "marrying and unmarrying, ... according to his sovereign pleasure." ... Most likely Bullard did conjure up some form of spiritual wifedom, for one Shaker diarist learned "they pretend to marry a woman in God & by daoing [sic] sanctify the flesh."'  In fact, '[a]ccompanying the Prophet were his wife and an infant son -- an alleged holy child who was called "Christ" or the "Second Christ"'[13]

The Pilgrims left Woodstock, New York in search of a "New Jerusalem."  Bullard used a rod to determine the direction of their promised land.[14]

'[T]he Pilgrims "knew not where they were going being led & directed by the spirit. According to later accounts, each morning Bullard would throw his staff on the ground to learn the direction of the day's travel. Unerringly, the staff always pointed to the southwest.[15]  The story is probably legend, but there is no question that Bullard, like many of the social architects of the epoch, was lured on by a romantic vision of the glories of the American Garden of Eden, the transappalachain West. Surely, if God had [ever] prepared a primitive paradise where his chosen people would live in millennial happiness, the great American West was such a place."'[16]

They traveled through the Finger Lakes region (near Fayette and Palmyra) in the Autumn of 1817, to Ohio and onto Missouri. "The whole company pursued their journey down the Ohio, in search of the good country which the Prophet had taught them to believe, they should certainly find: -- he said that Providence directed their steps, and he should infallibly know the place when they arrived at it."[17]

In Missouri Bullard had a revelation that they had found the promised land.[18]

One gentleman reported "I was told that their prophet led them westward to the Allegheny river, where they took a large boat, and went down that river in search of the 'promised land,' to which their pretended prophet was conducting them; that on their arrival at a certain island, they disembarked, and the prophet began to penetrate the soil with his staff, to discover if there were any indications of their approach to his uptopian Canaan. He at length announced to his deluded followers that this island was in very deed, the sought for land; in proof of which, his staff, which he left in the ground, would, at a given hour, put forth buds and blossom! but that in the mean time, himself, and priest must go to the main land, ' and seek the Lord.' They accordingly took the boat together with all the provisions and money (of both which they had picked up a considerable quantity on the road) and departed; leaving the rest of the party, augmented to about 70 persons, on the island to wait the issue of the prophet's miracle. The given hour however went by, and the prophet's staff remained but a barren stick. Neither bud nor blossom, prophet nor priest, appeared; and what was still worse, they had neither bread nor meat nor the means of procuring either.[19]

When they "landed at the Little Prairie, [Missouri]. The prophet's staff, which by the direction of its fall had hitherto pointed out the way, now stood still; and he declared that here he was commanded to settle and build a church;"[20]

Because the property owner was reluctant to allow them to settle, they continued south out of Missouri into the territory of Arkansas where a new swampy location was identified with the rod.  Their journey away from civilization coupled with Bullard's harsh measures, particularly continual fasting, proved difficult, and many of Bullard's followers died or deserted.  Bullard's fate is unsure, but he may have prophesied his future resurrection. "[H]e promised to return to them in two years, and for them to continue their journey.[21]

By 1824 only two followers remained in his New Jerusalem, still dedicated to his teachings.

While the many of the Pilgrims beliefs and practices differed from those of Joseph Smith, similarities invited this 1831 comparison of Isaac Bullard's Pilgrims to Joseph Smith's Latter Day Saints.  Discussing the “Mormon Delusion” the author notes, "Our readers will recollect a similar delusion which raged some ten years ago in the case of the 'Pilgrims.' Their Prophet -- Old Isaac, as he was called -- came from Canada with a few, and encamped in Woodstock. Here outraging not Christianity only but humanity, by their absurd opinions and absurder practice -- by taking the assertions of their infatuated leader for divine revelation... they induced many decent people who should have known better to join them, under the empty practice of being led to the holy land... From the resemblance between the Pilgrims and the Mormonites in manners and pretensions, we should think Old Isaac had re-appeared in the person of Joe Smith, and was intending to make another speculation."[22]

-Clair Barrus
[1]Wayne Sentinel May 26, 1826
[2]Dale Broadhurst, "Uncle Dale's readings in early Mormon History: Newspapers of New York," note 3, http://sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NY/miscNYS0.htm, accessed June 2010.  Broadhurst has assembled an impressive collection of newspaper articles and other materials regarding Bullard (primarily used to assemble this post).
[3]"The Prophet and the Mummyjums: Isaac Bullard and the Vermont Pilgrims of 1817," F. Gerald Ham, Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Summer, 1973)
[4]"Unknown Sect," The Sussex Register, Newton, New Jersey, September 15, 1817
[5]Ham, pp. 290-293
[6]ibid. He felt "his authority as paramount to any other human or divine" [Zadock Thompson's 1842 History of Vermont, section on "Fanatical Sects"
[7]Wayne Sentinel May 26, 1826
[8]"Conducted Meeting in Front of Courthouse: Bearded Prophet Visited Zanesville in 1817," Norris F. Schneider, The Sunday Times Recorder Vol. 106, Zanesville, Ohio, Sunday, July 6, 1969
[9]"Modern Fanatics, September 15, Unknown Sect," New Jersey Journal, Vol. XXXIII. Elizabeth-Town, N. J., October 28, 1817. No. 1774
[10]Fanny Ball to the Brethren and Sisters at New Lebanon, April 30, 1820, in Union Village Shaker Letters, Western Reserve Historical Society, quoted in Ham, pp. 290-293.
[11]"Conducted Meeting in Front of Courthouse: Bearded Prophet Visited Zanesville in 1817," Norris F. Schneider, The Sunday Times Recorder Vol. 106, Zanesville, Ohio, Sunday, July 6, 1969; Ham, pp. 290-293
[12]"More of the Vermont Pilgrims," Washington Whig, Vol III, Bridgeton, New Jersey, November 3, 1817,  No. 120
[13]Ham, pp. 290-293; "Conducted Meeting in Front of Courthouse: Bearded Prophet Visited Zanesville in 1817," Norris F. Schneider, The Sunday Times Recorder Vol. 106, Zanesville, Ohio, Sunday, July 6, 1969
[14]Oliver Cowdery's had a "rod of nature" (later called "gift of Aaron") in D&C 8.  Other Mormon leaders apparently used rods including Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith Sr., Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde and Sidney Rigdon (see my forthcoming presentation, "Oliver Cowdery's Rod  of Nature," Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, August 2010).
[15]Compare to the Liahona used by Lehi in the Book of Mormon to find the promised land of America
[16]Ham, pp. 290-293.  Upon leaving Woodstock, they split into two groups, later rejoining.
[17]"The Pilgrims", Saturday Evening Post., Vol. I., No. 62, Philadelphia, October 5, 1822
[18]'Strange "Pilgrims" Camp Here; They Don't Work, Wash, or Comb,' The Arkansas Gazette, Arkansas Post, A. T., early 1820s?; Ham, pp. 290-293
[19]"Extract of a letter from a gentleman in the interior of New York to a friend in this vicinity," Christian Watchman, Boston, Ma.,  January 1820.  This account is called into question  "the person who gave this information was undoubtedly misinformed himself," "The Vermont Pilgrims," The  Philadelphia  Union, Philadelphia, January 26, 1820
[20]"Wonderful Infatuation: Modern Pilgrims," Wayne Sentinel, Vol. III No. 35, Palmyra, N.Y., Friday May 26, 1826 [whole No. 139] likely reprinted from the Western Balance
[21]"Warren County Local History: The Passing Through Of The Pilgrims," Dallas Bogan, Dallas Bogan's Warren County, Ohio and Beyond (Bowie, MD: Heritage Press, 1979) p. 100
[22]Vermont Chronicle, June 24, 1831


Anonymous said...

Clair, thank you for posting this research.
- Mark Ashurst-McGee

Mike Reed said...

Grate stuff, Clair! Do you by chance have access to Rick Grunder's "Mormon Parallels" CD?
http://www.rickgrunder.com/parallels.htm There is a ton of information in it that you almost certainly would find useful.

Clair Barrus said...

Thanks Mark and Mike.

Yes, I've got a copy of the Grunder CD. It does have some great info on it.

Joe Geisner said...


This is a very interesting and informative post. Thanks for writing this. The similarities with Smith and Bullard are quite interesting.

I am curious if you have read entry #400 in Mormon Parallel. The entire Wood Scrape incident seems to be an area that needs additional fleshing out.

I wish you success on you paper you are presenting at the SLC Sunstone. Sounds like a great presentation.

Clair Barrus said...

Joe, Thanks. Yes, I've read #400.

I've been reading about Nathaniel Wood, Richard Brothers and Isaac Bullard -- and have found them to be very interesting, as they are rod-bearing prophets working towards a gathering of Israel in preparation for the millennium. I've got a section on them in my paper.