Had a bit of serendipity…I was doing some research for an upcoming photo/hiking expedition. I was looking at an edition of Columbia’s The Daily Phoenix from 1868 for information on the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad. The article was on the front page, and by itself was just a short notice about the finances of the railroad.
The article that took up all of the first column and part of the second was not one I would have expected. It was entitled “Jesus Christ’s Letter”, and it described a letter that was supposedly found “under a Great Stone, sixty-five years after the Crucifixion of our blessed Savior, eighteen miles from Iconium…” The letter starts out by saying that anyone who doesn’t keep the Sabbath will be cursed, and that everyone should go to church. There were other various injunctions, curses, and blessings on a variety of topics. At the end end of the letter it states that anyone who keeps a copy of this letter and publish it would be blessed.
At this point it downed on me – the Daily Phoenix just published a chain letter! I guess they took the exhortation to publish the letter literally, hence its appearance. I wondered if other newspaper editors published the letter in order to secure its “blessings.” Turns out, many did from around the country.
I used the key words “Jesus,” “Iconium,” and “Mesopotamia” since those words figured prominently in the letter. I looked for places where these words occurred in close proximity. I found lots of examples. The letter itself was repeated almost verbatim, but the ancillary material varied. Publication of the letter fell into three groups.
First, there were the papers that published the letter without much commentary as if it were actual fact, as was the case with the Daily Phoenix. These tended to be in the late 1860’s after the Civil War, and tended to be more in Southern newspapers. Perhaps the desperation of war caused some to seek solace wherever they could. Another example is this one from the Fremont Weekly Journal in Fremont, Ohio, also in 1868, and this one from Sedalia, Ohio, which states “Christ Wrote Letter.”
These papers often published articles submitted by individuals in the community. Instead of posting to a Facebook page or sending via e-mail, many would take a letter such as this to their local paper. This constitutes a second group of publication, and are often published with the name of the person making the submission. One from Fayetteville, Tennessee in 1878 states that the letter “…was handed to us, with the request to publish in the Observer, by an active and efficient member of one of our churches.”
A third type of publication couched the letter in questioning terms. Two of them, one from the Keowee Courier (1905), and one from Perrysburg, Ohio (1868) talked more about copyright claims over the letter. In the early 20th century there was a series of articles that talked of a religious scam. These usually started as follows:
“A negro has printed several hundred copies of a letter..A good many copies of this letter have already been sold among the poorer white people of Columbus, many ignorant people not doubting its genuineness.”
The articles played upon racial fears, but they still printed the letter in its entirety. I wonder if these pseudo articles where window dressing just to get the letter published, thereby securing the blessings of the letter. Examples of the religious sham type of article can be found from Brownsville, Texas, and Pullman, Washington. Both were published in 1905, and were identical. The “Columbus” referred to in the article isn’t identified.
I decided to see what other information existed about this letter. The American Antiquarian Society has an excellent history of the letter, including an image of a hand-written copy of the letter from 1800.
The letter apparently has been around for a long time. As early as the 1700s copies of the letters were printed and often sold, hoping to obtain the blessings described in it. Here’s an example from the online Library of Congress collection:
So, chain letters pre-date e-mail and Facebook. It seems gullibility will be with us always. And, just so I don’t miss out on any blessings, here’s the entirety of the letter.
A copy of a Letter written by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and found eighteen miles from Iconium, fifty three years after our blessed Saviour’s Crucifixion. Transmitted from the Holy City by a converted Jew. Faithfully translated from the original Hebrew copy now in the possession of the Lady Cuba’s family in Mesopotamia. The Letter was written by Jesus Christ, and found under a great stone, round and large, at the foot of the Cross. Upon the stone was engraved, “Blessed are they that shall turn me over.” All people that saw it prayed to God earnestly, desiring that he would make this writing known to them and that they might not attempt in vain to turn it over. In the meantime there came of a little child about six or seven years of age, and turned it over without assistance, to the admiration of all who were standing by. Under this stone was found the following, written by Jesus Christ. It was carried to the city of Iconium, and published by a person belonging to the Lady Cuba. On the Letter was written, “The Commandments of Jesus Christ. Signed by the Angel Gabriel, seventy four years after our Saviour’s birth.”
Whosoever worketh on the Sabbath day shall be cursed. I command you to go to church and keep the Lord’s Day holy, without any manner of work. You shall not idle or misspend your time in bedecking yourself with superfluities, costly apparel and vain dressing, for I have ordained it a day of rest. I will have that day kept holy, that your sins may be forgiven you.
You shall not break my commandments but observe and keep them, they being written by my own hand and spoken with my own mouth. You shall not only go to church yourself, but also your man servants and your maid servants. Observe my word and learn my commandments. You shall finish your labour every Saturday in the afternoon by six o’clock, at which hour the preparation of the Sabbath begins.
I advise you to fast five days in the year, beginning with Good Friday and continuing the four Fridays following, in remembrance of the five bloody wounds I received for you and all mankind.
You shall diligently and peaceably labour in your respective callings wherein it has pleased God to call you. You shall love one another and cause them that are not baptized to come to church and receive the holy sacraments. baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and to be made members of the church. In so doing I will give you long life and many blessings, your land shall be replenished and bring forth abundance. I will comfort you in the greatest temptations, and surely he that doeth to the contrary shall be cursed. I will also send hardness of heart upon them until I have consumed them, especially upon hardened and impenitent unbelievers
He that hath given to the poor shall not be unprofited. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day, for the seventh day have I taken as a resting day to myself.
He that hath a copy of this letter, written with my own hand and spoken with my own mouth, and keepeth it without publishing it to others, shall not prosper, but he that publisheth it to others shall be blessed of me. And if their sins be in number as the stars of the sky, and they truly believe in me, they shall be pardoned. And if they believe not this writing and my commandments, I will send my plagues upon them and consume both you and your children.
Whosoever shall have a copy of this letter and keep it in their house, nothing shall hurt them, and if any woman be in child-birth and put her trust in me, she shall be delivered of her child. You shall hear no more of me but by the Holy Spirit until the Day of Judgment. All goodness an prosperity shall be in the house where a copy of this letter shall be found.
So, please, share this blog post with 20 of your friends, so that you, too, will be blessed.