The Wonders of Nature and of Providence, Displayed. Compiled from Authentic Sources, Both Ancient and Modern, giving an Account of Various and Strange Phenomena Existing in Nature, of Travels, Adventures, Singular Providences, & c.
Hardbound in full leather.
Here’s something weird you don’t see every day.
I bought this book a couple of years ago as part of one of those wonderful online auctions where someone takes three of four pictures of five or six boxes of books and everyone pretends that they know what they’re bidding on. As is usually the case, the auction turned out to be a mixed bag. There were some fairly valuable books (like a couple of limited edition Arkham House titles) and some that got thrown in the recycling bin (like an old copy of The Blithedale Romance that had been gnawed on—and I mean a lot--by something with teeth bigger than mine).
Then there was this book . . .
Unfortunately, the first few pages are missing, including the title page, which means I don’t have a publication year. It is, however, clearly an early copy of Josiah Priest’s weird classic, The Wonders of Nature and of Providence. The first edition of The Wonders of Nature and Providence came out in 1826 (you can see a digitized copy of it here, courtesy of Google books). I’m guessing, because my copy lacks the plates that were typically in the first edition but is otherwise the same, that this copy is from the second edition of 1833.
Nowadays, the book is primarily remembered as a possible source for The Book of Mormon, specifically portions of the book that speculate on the “Hebrew” origins of Native Americans.
But that’s not what drew me to the book. My interest began with the idea that Priest writes some wild and wacky stuff about “natural” things that we know never really existed. He’s the literary descendent of those fifteenth and sixteenth century travel writers who filled the unknown corners of the world with many strange creatures and inexplicable miracles. This, I thought, will show me some good old-fashioned cryptozoology in its raw form. I figured it for an entertaining read.
Boy was I wrong.
It’s not just that Priest is incredibly long winded, although he is that. Nor is it his nearly unbearable, smug piety, although that certainly does not help. No, what I learned is that Priest is an annoying example of a particularly disconcerting American breed: the self-appointed “expert” really knows very little. He goes on and on citing all sorts of sources for all sorts of “wonders” and much of it is moonshine and hogwash. This may sound amusing and harmless enough, but it isn’t. Among other things, the prolific (and distressingly popular) Mr. Priest wrote Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro (1843), a racist polemic that perverts biblical scholarship to build an argument that God specifically created black people in order to be slaves. His ignorance is neither amusing nor harmless.
Today we live in a world today where many self-appointed experts are more than happy to dispute scientific research about topics as diverse as global climate change and virology. Such people are, like Josiah Priest, often proud of their own ignorance. This is, as Isaac Asimov once pointed out, a unfortunate trend in American culture:
"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
Priest is, alas, just an early part of this long, winding thread.