Dear Past is Present readers,
Anyone who has an email account is by now all too familiar with the forwarded email, as well as the accompanying guilt-laden demands to keep forwarding it.
The promise: just forward this email to 20 of your closest friends and you will be happy, or rich, or blessed.
The threat: vague but ominous bad things will befall you if you fail to do so.
But is this only a present-day phenomenon? Those of us of a certain age, who once upon a time sent and received actual letters, know that these forwarded emails are merely a modern take on a form from the not-to-distant past: the chain letter. Often religious in nature, chain letters were occasionally used for practical purposes. (In fact, I remember once getting a recipe chain letter in which I was asked to send one recipe to ten people and then, through the wonderful power of exponents, I would eventually receive 100 more recipes — or something to that effect.)
It turns out chain letters are nothing new to this century (or the last, for that mater). The American Antiquarian Society has a couple dozen copies of a very popular early chain letter titled: “A Copy of a Letter written by our Blessed Lord and Saviour.” Many were printed as pamphlets in America between 1761 and 1815 [see a list of AAS online records] and have been digitized in Readex’s America’s Historical Imprints. However, AAS also has a couple of handwritten copies of this letter in our miscellaneous manuscript collection (filed under Jesus, of course). One handwritten copy of the letter is signed and dated at the bottom: “August the 12 1800 JSH A true copy from the original.” The manuscripts collection also has an undated copy that appears to be from after 1800. In the miscellaneous broadsides collection there is a copy printed in New Orleans in 1820, which appears to be the latest printed copy at AAS.
All of these letters have only minor variations in wording. They start with a description of the letter’s provenance and the distance it has traveled:
“A Copy of a Letter written by our Blessed 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 Lady Cuba’s family at Mesopotamia.”
The actual content of the letter is rather unremarkable if you’ve read Jesus’s words in the Bible, but it does include the prerequisite blessings and curses, in appropriately Biblical language:
“And he that hath a copy of this my own 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 though his sins be in number as the stars of the sky, and he believe in this he shall be pardoned; and if he believe not in this writing, and this commandment, I will send my own plagues upon him, and consume both him and his children, and his cattle.”
It appears these words were taken to heart. AAS’s holdings can attest to the fact that many late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Americans were careful to be the one that “publisheth” this letter to others, in a variety of forms. I imagine printers were quick to assure buyers that the same blessing applied for purchasing multiple copies of the letter and then distributing them.
But Americans were not alone in this obsession. Turns out the copies of this letter at AAS are versions of what may be the longest running chain letter in human history. According to an amazing website called the Paper Chain Letter Archive devoted to all things chain letter (it even includes a mathematical explanation of the exponential growth!), the “Copy of a Letter written by our Blessed Lord and Saviour” is one of the earliest in a line of “Letters from Heaven” (or in German, “Himmelsbrief”). Daniel W. VanArsdale describes the spread of these letters in his discussion of the evolution of the chain letter:
“A letter which was said to have fallen from heaven existed in the third century AD (Hippolytos, Refutation of All Heresies). The oldest Letter from Heaven for which we have a full text is the Latin “Letter from Heaven on the observance of the Lord’s day,” the original of which dates from the close of the sixth century (Priebsch). St. Boniface denounced this as a “bungling work of a madman or the devil himself.” Eckehard (1115 AD) wrote that it had spread over the whole globe then known to man. It has circulated in English in many versions.”
VanArsdale then links to a 1795 English version printed by “J. Evans, 42 West-Smithfield, London,” the text of which is virtually identical to the copies at AAS. You can read VanArsdale’s transcription of the full text of the letter by clicking here.
One very interesting oddity about these letters, though: while the texts are nearly identical, each of the examples we have at AAS gives a different distance from Iconium at which the original of this letter was supposedly found — all the other details stay the same. The manuscript letter from 1800 lists the distance as 12 miles, the undated manuscript copy lists 18 miles, and the 1820 New Orleans printed copy lists 84 miles.
Perhaps the tendency to increase the distance from Iconium has something to do with the increasing distance these letters traveled, with the message becoming distorted over distance, like in the children’s game of telephone. Maybe it’s part of an ancient code and the numbers have to increase as part of a secret message being passed with the letters. Or perhaps you have a better explanation?
In closing, I feel I should warn you that you probably will want to forward this blog post to all your friends. You never know what may happen to you or your family or your cattle if you do not!
Wishing you peace and prosperity (which you certainly will have if you “like” this post on Facebook and/or email it to 20 people),
Your friends at Past is Present.org