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Making Sense of Prophecies (5): “Lutius Gratiano” in the 20th and 21st centuries

The prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” has a missing link in its textual history. It was recorded in one personal journal even before the end of 1893.[1] And that’s where the prophecy likely would have ended, if not for one person acting around the year 1897, when the first inquiries about the prophecy were made. None of the versions of “Lutius Gratiano” circulating since then have been drawn directly from Spori’s article in the Juvenile Instructor (and no version, in English or German, derives from Der Stern). Instead, every copy of “Lutius Gratiano” you’ve ever seen has inherited the same set of textual modifications and descends from this one later version.

I don’t know who the individual was or where that version was published, but it’s perhaps noteworthy that the earliest publication to carry it, the Latter Day Saints Southern Star, a weekly periodical published by the Southern States Mission out of Chattanooga, gives the name of its source in 1899 as “Elder Geo. M. Pickup, of Provo,” who had supposedly come across the prophecy in Basel.[2] The same name appears in distorted form in Talmage family papers as “Elder Piekupe” and in a personal history written around 1930 as “G. M. Pickny.”[3] It is potentially relevant that George Melvin Pickup (1874-1926) of Vernal, Utah, was called to the Northern States mission in 1897.

[Now, back to the presentation]

This modified version continued to circulate in personal journals and family history, local newspapers, works of local history and devotional writing, mission newsletters and other periphery church publications, despite the denial of its authenticity in official sources. The prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” and similar texts are something like dye markers that make visible a subterranean media ecosystem that circulates both from top to bottom and bottom to top; from books that church institutions would never publish to those that they do; from the center of the church to the periphery, and back to the center; and from personal journals to the pulpit. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, online circulation has seamlessly taken over. “Lutius Gratiano” lives on today in the comments sections of sites large and small and the pages of defunct blogs.

Here, for example, is one version of “Lutius Gratiano” as it appears in a work of Utah local history published in 1985.[4]

Robert Nelson Watts of South Weber has discovered the following interesting statements in a collection of old papers which belonged to his father, Robert Harrison Watts, who came to Utah in 1850.

The document bears the notation that the original which contains the above, can be found in the University Library, Basel, Switzerland. Here follows the prophecy:

In 1739 at Basel, Switzerland, Titas Grationa printed the following prophecy in his ‘Hope of Zion.’

The old Gospel and the gifts thereof are lost.… I tell you that God, in one hundred years, will have spoken again. I see a little people led by a prophet and faithful elders….

Several things of note are going on here. First, the name “Lutius Gratiano” has undergone further distortion. Other versions distort the name in numerous additional ways.[5] We saw the same type of distortion at the outset of these posts in the 15th/16th century prophecies attributed to Theoderic of Senj.

The link from Basel to the United States is not attributed to Jacob Spori (his connection with “Lutius Gratiano” seems to have been entirely forgotten until the 1950s), but is instead attributed to another person, and earlier than 1893—an archaizing tendency again already seen in the early modern prophetic texts we considered at the outset.

Particularly remarkable is the statement that the prophecy was found in the papers formerly belonging to a now deceased individual (found in at least two other versions as well)—virtually the same claim made by the “Wilhelm Friess” prophecies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

As documented here, the prophecy has changed from something allegedly printed in 1739 (and thus available in any copy) to a text found instead in a specific place, just as many of the early modern prophecies claim to have been found in a specific library or church.

Although not found in this example, other versions of the prophecy change the author from a Protestant preacher into a Catholic monk, an exoticizing tendency seen earlier in the prophecy for 1697-1990 said to have been found in a Benedictine monk’s grave in Naples.

In short: as the prophecy of “Lutius Gratiano” continued to circulate, it became even more like a prophecy of the 15th and 16th centuries, evidence that the processes that create prophecies in a modern devotional setting can tell us something useful about the development of late medieval and early modern prophecies.

Just as the marginal annotations noted above attested both acceptance and skepticism of 16th-century prophecies, and just as Christian August Behr’s personal skepticism contrasted with the enthusiasm of his contemporaries at the end of the 18th century, reactions to “Lutius Gratiano” from the very beginning included both skeptical rejection and enthusiastic amplification.

Note, however, that these are not so much opposites as various aspects of the same acts of reception. In the “Titas Grationa” version noted above, note how the prophecy is termed “interesting statements,” suggesting both enthusiasm and reservation. A 1907 publication of the prophecy chose the headline “What do you think of this?”[6] Even the credulous can recognize the uncertainty of a text’s authenticity. The skeptics, for their part, are often motivated as much by hope as by disbelief and are disappointed when their research fails to find the prophecy. They can suspend their disbelief enough to recognize the text as something potentially remarkable: Big If True.

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Next time: some concluding remarks.



[2] “A Prediction—Its Fulfillment,” Latter Day Saints Southern Star 1, no. 11 (February 11, 1899): 84.

[3] John S. Stucki, Family History Journal of John S. Stucki, 1932, 21.

[4] Mountain Green the Beautiful: A History of Mountain Green Morgan County 1824-1930 (Logan, Utah: Herald Printing, 1985), 54; on this version, see also Pixton, “Play It Again, Sam,” 37–39.

[5] See Pixton, “Play It Again, Sam,” 43.

[6] Wells, “A Fraudulent Prophecy Exposed,” 161.

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