Introduction by Jan Harrington

In 1799 a Seneca chief, Handsome Lake, possibly saw the Three Nephites, and was taken to heaven by a fourth angel, very possibly John the Baptist. We may come to this conclusion because we, of the Restoration Work, have the privilege of knowing about the work of these four men through the Book of Mormon.

Handsome Lake was shown how to save his people--told what to do, and what not to do--including God's opinion on abortions. He was told of the 3 glories in heaven, and the existence of Paradise and Hell.

This aritcle is very valuable to the saints of the Restoration Gospel.  It is another witness to Life After Death, the Three Glories and Eternal Judgment, the same doctrine that was delivered to Joseph Smith, Jr.

The Vision of
Handsome Lake
by Thomas Fleming, New York, New York
As a nation, the Seneca seemed doomed. Then this prophet delivered a message.

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"In the spring of 1799 a Seneca chief named Handsome Lake returned from a hunting trip with a group of fellow braves. They arrived in the Allegheny River village known as Cornplanter's Town with several barrels of whiskey in their canoes. Soon drunken men lurched through the village, tearing doors off their hinges, abusing their wives and children.

Among the wildest was Handsome Lake. Not even his half-brother, Cornplanter, the most powerful Seneca chief, could control him. A group of Quaker missionaries, who had come to the village to teach the Senecas modern farming techniques, almost despaired.

The Seneca nation was mired in misery. They had chosen the wrong side in the American Revolution and defeat had cost them much of their land. They were living in western New York, on a few scattered reservations that were rapidly becoming slums in the wilderness. The men spent most of their time getting drunk and even maimed or murdered each other.

Belief in witchcraft and love potions led to still more crimes. Women suspected of witchcraft were often killed by the families of those who through their evil spells had sickened a loved one. Many women, having lost hope, took medicines to end pregnancies or to make themselves sterile. Others used love potions to try to steal husbands and break up families.

One spring evening, after the whiskey was gone, Handsome Lake lay in his bunk, sick in body and spirit. He brooded over the sad state of his people. What must their Creator, the Great Spirit, think of them--and especially of him? He should be a leader like his brother, Cornplanter, who was trying to persuade everyone to learn English and acquire the white man's skills.

Handsome Lake became convinced he was going to die. What else could the Great Spirit do with him? Each morning when he found himself still alive, he thanked the Creator for his mercy. But his sickness grew worse. Soon he was so weak he could not get out of bed.

In the middle of June, as the village was preparing to celebrate the annual strawberry festival, Handsome Lake's daughter heard him cry: "Nijo!" ('I'll respond to your call.") A moment later he appeared at the door of the shed where she was working. She gazed at him with horror. Shriveled and yellow, he looked like a walking corpse.

He staggered toward her and collapsed in her arms, barely breathing. She sent someone to fetch Cornplanter and his nephew Blacksnake. By the time they arrived, Handsome Lake appeared to be dead. His flesh was cold, and there was no sign of a heartbeat or breathing.

Examining him carefully, Blacksnake found a warm spot on his chest. Slowly over the next two hours the warm spot widened until Handsome Lake's chest, then his whole body, regained its usual temperature. He began to breathe normally. Finally he opened his eyes. 'My uncle, are you well?' Blacksnake asked. 'I believe I am,' he replied.

Then in a clear, firm voice Handsome Lake began telling them what he had seen and heard while he was suspended between life and death. He had risen from his bed because he had heard someone calling his name outside his house. He had no recollection of falling into his daughter's arms. Instead he had experienced a vision. 'Outside I found three men wearing the fine clothes of great chiefs on their way to a ceremony,' he said. 'They had red paint on their faces and bright feathers in their bonnets. In one hand they held bows and arrows, in the other, huckleberry bushes. They caught me as I fell. They laid me on the ground and told me in gentle voices that they had been sent by the Great Spirit because I had thanked him for his mercy.'

Handsome Lake realized these men were angels. They explained that they wished him to be their messenger. He was to tell the Senecas that the Great Spirit still watched over them. He wanted them to drink the juice of the strawberries at the festival and celebrate other feast days as their fathers had done, to thank the Creator for the gifts of the earth. But four things they were doing made the Great Spirit sad and angry. 'Whiskey, witchcraft, love magic and medicine-that-kills-babies,' Handsome Lake said. 'Everyone who has used these things must repent, confess his sins and promise never to sin again.'

"Ki-on-twog-ky, the Seneca chief known as Cornplanter" by F. Bartoli, c. 1796.

No paintings of Cornplanter's brother, Handsome Lake, are known to exist.

Angels On Earth, Nov/Dec 1997

Handsome Lake asked Cornplanter to call a great council, so the angels' visit and their commands could be communicated to the whole village. Cornplanter did so. One of the Quaker missionaries, Henry Simmons, attended this meeting. He was amazed by the effect of Handsome Lake's message. He said all the Indians appeared "solid and weighty in spirit." He 'felt the love of God flowing powerfully amongst the crowd.'

Simmons rose to his feet and spoke to the council, praising Handsome Lake and testifying to the authenticity of his vision. Handsome Lake said the three angels had told him a fourth angel would visit him soon. In August, about two months after the first vision, this fourth angel appeared in a dream and told Handsome Lake to prepare for a journey. He awoke and put on his best clothes and told Cornplanter not to bury him, even if he appeared to be dead.

Handsome Lake then fell into another trance in which his flesh grew cold and his breathing was undetectable. For the next seven hours he lay in his house while his spirit went on a "sky journey" with the fourth angel, who appeared wearing garments of celestial blue. They followed a road made of stars and looked down on the earth. The angel told him this was the path the dead ascended to the next world. Beside the path they saw a woman who was so fat she could not stand. The angel said she represented those who thought only of food and possessions and disregarded spiritual things.

They saw three groups of people. The angel said they represented those who would not repent, those who only half believe, and those who accepted the message of Gaiwiio, the way of the Great Spirit. They saw a jail and inside it a pair of handcuffs, a whip and a hangman's rope. This was a warning against believing that the white man's laws were better than the teachings of Gaiwiio. They saw George Washington; the angel said he was a good man who wanted the Indians and the whims to live in peace. They met Jesus, who told Handsome Lake the Senecas should follow Gaiwiio and not abandon all the Indian traditions.

Next, the angel showed Handsome Lake the fork in the road to paradise where those who had failed to repent were sent to hell. They followed these damned souls to a place of fire and desolation, where Handsome Lake saw them suffering terrible tortures. Then they ascended to the realm of the Great Spirit. Birds sang, fruit grew everywhere, pure water flowed inexhaustibly. Handsome Lake saw his niece who had died many years earlier, and relatives of other people in the village. They all wore the celestial blue garments of those who loved and obeyed the Great Spirit. The fourth angel then told Handsome Lake it was time for him to return to earth. He exhorted him to convince his people of the truth of his sky journey and the Great Spirit's loving concern for the Seneca people.

Handsome Lake ended the story of his vision with the warning that the Great Spirit knew everyone's innermost thoughts and nothing could be hidden from him. The Quaker missionary Henry Simmons told the Seneca he knew white men who had had similar visions of heaven and hell. It proved that white men and Indians were all children of the same Creator.

Over the next several years Handsome Lake had more angelic visits and visions. He decided to write down his teachings as The Code of Handsome Lake. The code stressed repentance and public confession of sins. It reiterated Handsome Lake's opposition to whiskey and witchcraft and the other vices that were undermining the Seneca way of life. Most important, Handsome Lake's code preserved and revived the Seneca religious festivals. Some Christian missionaries (not the Quakers) had tried to ban these ceremonies. They did not realize that the Seneca had a complex religious life, with traditions hundreds of years old.

Each year they would celebrate the Midwinter Ceremony. Then came Thanks-to-the-Maple, when the sap rose in the maple trees. Next came the Corn Planting Festival in May, the Strawberry Festival in June, the Green Corn Ceremony in September and the Harvest Festival in October. All these celebrations were rich in ritual. By defending these traditions Handsome Lake helped restore his people's pride and self-respect.

He--and his angels--told them they could remain Indians and still achieve spiritual wholeness. The new faith had an astonishing effect on the Seneca. A number of them abandoned whiskey and witchcraft and became an industrious and thriving people. Soon Handsome Lake's fame spread to other tribes in the Iroquois Confederation, where many tribes invited him to visit and preach.

President Thomas Jefferson wrote Handsome Lake encouragingly: 'Go on then, Brother,' he urged, 'in the great reformation you have undertaken.'   He assured Handsome Lake, 'You are our brethren of the same land, we wish you prosperity as brethren should do.'

Today the Seneca work in modern industries and businesses. But when they return to their reservations many still observe Gaiwiio, the way of the Great Spirit. They believe in the renunciation of sin and the acceptance of the saving power of the Creator. They celebrate the ancient Seneca festivals. The faith that the angelic messengers brought to Handsome Lake lives on." 


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