My wife tells me it’s a morbid habit, but I sometimes check the obituaries in the Provo newspapers to see if anyone I know has passed on. Probably has something to do with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or perhaps it reflects a longing to stay connected with my past.
This morning I noticed the obituary for Ida Smith, an 83-year-old woman who was the daughter of church Patriarch Joseph Fielding Smith and a proud descendant of Hyrum Smith, brother of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith. After the usual list of survivors and those who preceded her in death comes this:
Idas [sic] most trusted friends in life were Myrna, her neighbor of many years, and Christopher M. Nemelka, both who [sic] were among those who enjoyed Idas [sic] last moments of this Lone and Dreary World.
It was Idas [sic] wish to let the world know, that after a lifelong search for happiness and real truth, she found solace and fulfillment in the Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Ida wanted all of her friends and family members to know about this marvelous find. Ida desired that anyone interested in her life read Joseph Smiths [sic] Inspired Translation of the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 29, in regards to the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. Some of Ida Smiths [sic] last words were, Its [sic] a marvelous work and a wonder!
What is this “Marvelous Work and a Wonder” of which she speaks, this marvelous find, the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon? And what in this wonder brought her solace and fulfillment? One is tempted to believe that perhaps the wonder involves a prohibition of apostrophes, but then that would be too snarky.
I read about Ida’s journey of faith a few years ago in the Salt Lake City Weekly newspaper. (Full disclosure: I did an interview with City Weekly a couple of years ago, but I can’t see how that would relate to this post.) In 2007 Ida’s cousin told her that, as prophesied for many years, the “sealed portion of the Book of Mormon” had been translated and published. Ida wrote that, upon hearing this, “I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning.” The description in City Weekly is reminiscent of Parley Pratt’s reaction to receiving a copy of the Book of Mormon in 1830:
She devoured it over six weeks, in the process emptying two boxes of tissues and several red ballpoint pens as she wept and underlined page after page of scripture. The voice of the Mormon angel Moroni “was unmistakable,” she later wrote. By the time she had finished the book, “my entire worldview had been forever changed.” It revealed to her what she had suspected since her youth: that the LDS Church was fallible and unnecessary, and that its prophets since Joseph Smith had been in name only.
It’s always interesting to me what resonates with people. I am moved to tears sometimes by George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, and William Butler Yeats, and yet other people I know find them dull and uninspiring. One of my favorite books is Wright Morris’s The Deep Sleep, but I have loaned my copy to friends who have returned it bewildered as to why I love it. So it is with matters of the spirit. I love the language and content of the King James Bible, while others find its Jacobean prose daunting and inaccessible. In the same way, the prose that changed Ida Smith’s life forever is to me as tedious as one might expect a plagiarism of the Book of Mormon could be. To give you an idea of what it’s like, here’s a bit of Nemelka’s echo of 2 Nephi 2:
39 And Jehovah responded to the words of Lucifer, saying: And how dost thou suppose that we learn about this pain and sorrow of which the Father hath spoken if we do not first experience it? And how dost thou suppose that we comprehend the happiness and joy of eternity if we do not know what causeth them?40 Behold, thou knowest that one of the eternal laws stateth that there is an opposite to all things. If this were not the case, then we could not know anything. For if there was no dark, how could we comprehend the light? And if there was no bad, how could we comprehend good? And if there is no pain and sorrow, how can we understand what joy and happiness are?41 And these things are according to our feelings. But even so if there were not cold, how could we know warmth.[sic] Yea, even if there were no rocks, then there would be no earth, which is softer than a rock, yet made up of the same elements. (The Sealed Portion—The Final Testament of Jesus Christ 5:39–41.)
But I’m not going to criticize Ms. Smith for her taste in literature. For whatever reason, Nemelka’s book touched her in a very deep way, and she went all in as a follower. “I was prepared to give up everything for the truth,” she said. “I was looking for the truth all my life. And I wasn’t afraid.” According to the article, several friends and family members, “all, according to Nemelka’s blog, senior and well-connected figures in the LDS Church, … cut themselves off” from her. She gave Nemelka her burial plot in the Smith family portion of the Salt Lake City cemetery, where he had a tombstone erected “that proclaimed him as the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith, along with boasting two trademarked Websites inscribed in bright blue at the base of the plinth, which promote his work.”
The plot was not all she gave him. Nemelka is the executor of her will and her estate. Ida set up a trust, he says, called The Marvelous Work and Wonder Trust, to which she signed over all her assets. Others, he says, have also signed over their wills to Nemelka’s “work.” His message, he continues, “has freed” many people up. “It has given them a whole different view of life, and knowledge.”
Many of her friends and family tried to dissuade her from following Nemelka. Apostle Jeffrey Holland told her, “This guy is a wacko. He’s just not in touch with reality. … If we really believe there’s an order and a priesthood in the church, it’s gonna come to the president of the church.” Former Senator Robert Bennett wrote to her, “I am convinced, beyond any reasonable doubt, that [Nemelka’s works] are forgeries.” But Ida remained steadfast in her faith, no matter the cost, and she remained faithful to the end. And she’s not the only one. According to the 2011 article, Nemelka has attracted some 80 adherents. If you’re interested, you can read their testimonies here.
Who is this Christopher Nemelka, and how has he managed to convince people to follow him?
The official story is that, while working as a security guard in the Salt Lake Temple in the 1980s, Nemelka had a visionary experience.
Already disillusioned with the church, he ventured into the Temple’s upper room where the Twelve Apostles meet. Confronted with its opulence, he “wept bitterly.” Shortly afterward, a “tremendously bright light began to fill the room.” Not only did Nemelka see the personage of his late grandfather, but Joseph Smith and the gold plates to boot. His mission, he learned, was to “commence” the translation of the sealed portion, but only under the position and authority of Smith. The preamble ends with a rumble of stalwart righteousness: “Though I will endure many persecutions and trials, I will never deny that I have experienced that which I have described above, and if any man mock me or that to which I have testified, I will witness against him at the judgement bar of God … I solemnly testify.”
The sealed portion appears to have been published initially sometime in the early 1990s. By this time Nemelka had been through 2 marriages that had ended in divorce and had served time for abducting his son as a noncustodial parent. But there is some disagreement about Nemelka’s reasons for writing the book. In a 2007 interview, he appears to have decided to act the part of “pious fraud,” or someone who uses deception for godly ends. Some have argued that Joseph Smith was such a pious fraud, and it may have seemed natural for Nemelka to follow in his footsteps:
I set about in my own mischievous and arrogant way, of which I’m not proud of now, to prove that a person could actually write scripture and present it to people who were looking for certain scripture. I was playing on the belief that LDS people have that one day the gold plates would be returned and the sealed portion would be translated. Basically, I set about to write a fictitious version of the sealed portion as I thought Joseph Smith would have written it had he continued to perpetuate his translation of the gold plates. Much to the chagrin of the LDS church and others, what I wrote was indeed well versed and quite appropriate for the scripture I was trying to portray. Anybody who reads it would just be totally amazed. … My true intent was to somehow perpetuate a religion that would be based on true Christian principals [sic] of Christ-like love. Where I made my greatest mistake, for which I’m now extremely sorry for, is that I used deception to perpetuate what I proposed as the truth, assuming at the time that Joseph Smith had done the same thing.
In a letter to one of his wives, Nemelka wrote:
When I deal with people, I am amazed at the ignorance and stupidity of most. People are so easily manipulated and deceived. Knowing this has made me a near master of manipulation. I try only to use this art, however, to help people. Sometimes the things I do seem terrible at the time, but usually the manipulation works to accomplish that which I intended.
At other points, Nemelka has been more direct in explaining his motives: “Yeah that’s, that’s all bullshit. All the revelations are bullshit, of course. I made ’em up.”
In the early 1990s, Nemelka took his book to the Mormon fundamentalist community, where it was a big hit. Nemelka soon set himself up in a polygamous arrangement, but eventually he admitted to the fundamentalists that he had written the “scripture” himself, angering them such that he fled and adopted a pseudonym:
Yes, Christopher Stohl was an alias that I used after I ran away from religious persecution. I didn’t want anybody to know Chris Nemelka. See, when I did that thing with the fundamentalist group, there were people who wanted to kill me. They were so mad. When I came out and told these other polygamists, fundamentalist guys, that I had really written the sealed portion, that I had done it just to show people that it could be done—they were very upset.
He also ended his polygamous relationships. One wife relates, “He sat us all down and said he didn’t believe in polygamy, but [said], ‘What man wouldn’t want to have sex with more than one wife?”
At this point, one would expect Nemelka to give up his religious enterprise, but not so. In 2000, Nemelka met a woman named Christine Marie, who told him she had seen him in a dream. Seemingly borrowing from the Joseph Smith playbook, Nemelka reportedly told her “he had been called to translate the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. He almost failed the first time because of his pride, so God took his calling away for a while.” Nemelka made her feel like she had been chosen to receive this new revelation, that, in her words, “God sent me that dream about him because I had been called to help him. He knew I was one of the elect the minute he looked into my eyes.”
Even after Nemelka was jailed for violating a restrictive order, Marie stuck with him, and he sent her revelations from his jail cell. Nemelka denies having told her he was a prophet or called of God:
Never did he try to persuade Marie that he was a prophet of God, translating the sealed portion, he said. Never did he once ask or press Marie for money. It was Marie who projected a divine image onto him, convincing herself of his status as a prophet and man of God, he said. He ran with it and played on it, he admits. For that, he is sorry. And any money she gave him was money she volunteered, almost forced on him. He accepted it only after she told him her business was thriving and her children were being provided for.
“What I did do was I deceived her religiously. I played with her religious beliefs and mind, which I do not think a person should do,” Nemelka said.
Nemelka’s deception led to her financially supporting him, and she ended up forcing on him somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000. According to her friends, “Marie sold all her furniture and goods to move into a dumpy hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, where she lived almost like a homeless person, among near-homeless people.” Yet Nemelka insists that he never led her on and never asked for money:
My whole purpose was for good. Christine knew that—knew that with all her heart. That’s why she said, ‘I’m going to finance you.’ She’s the one who brought it up. She’s the one who said I don’t want you to work. I wrote it under the inspiration and guise of being a prophet of God. That’s what she wanted me to be.
Indeed, he took pains to make sure that money she spent on him would not be connected back to him.
You have been quite spectacular and trustworthy in your timely payments to my Visa, which covers my child support. By using the Visa method, all transactions will be kept virtually out of my hands and name. So the world will have no cause against me if something happens to you, or if the media, which I am sure will one day be investigating, takes it upon itself to accuse me, as they did Joseph [Smith], of taking advantage of religious contributions for my own gain.
At this point, one could hardly be blamed for wondering if Nemelka himself is clear about his own motivations. Is it for money? Faith? Benefiting humanity? One of his ex-wives says, “There are so many angles that he takes. One minute he claims he’s an atheist, the next he’s a prophet of God.” But for his supporters, the motivation is unimportant. In every sacred text there is something more there than just the tomes.
I’m less interested in Nemelka himself than in the reasons people adhere to such folks. I readily admit I don’t get the attraction to Christopher Nemelka; to me he seems like a low-rent, wannabe Joseph Smith. But something pulled Ida in, even after she knew about all the sordid details of his past (for some reason, I am reminded of Boyd K. Packer’s statement, “President William E. Berrett has told us how grateful he is that a testimony that the past leaders of the Church were prophets of God was firmly fixed in his mind before he was exposed to some of the so-called facts that historians have put in their published writings”). Similarly, Ida had a firm belief in Nemelka long before she learned about the jail time, the admissions of fraud, and so on. Why would she still believe? Was it the Spirit of God? Was it an unconscious desire to restore her family’s tarnished glory in the LDS church? Was it just that Nemelka’s stuff dovetailed nicely with what she already believed? I have no idea.
In the end, it doesn’t matter the reason. Religious attraction is a matter of individual desire, experience, and preference, and people like Ida are attracted to someone like Chris Nemelka, whereas others wouldn’t cross the street for him. I don’t know if these religious entrepreneurs specifically target certain kinds of people, or they just do what comes naturally in the hopes that the Idas of the world will appear.
Most people–and most Latter-day Saints–would dismiss Nemelka as an obvious fake, but Ida and others believe he has been called to usher in the last days. His website gives us a hint of when the end may come:
Plan to attend the next Marvelous Work and a Wonder® Annual Symposium, June 16th 2015 and every June 16th through 2144 with Wednesday June 16th 2145 being the ultimate culmination of all previous symposiums.
As far as I can tell, Nemelka will be around 183 then.
Maybe Ida will be there in spirit.