excerpt – Early Mormonism and the Magic Word View
[Note: Due to length limitations, the footnotes have not been included.]
In 1985 the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published two documents portraying early Mormonism and Joseph Smith’s family in terms of folk magic and the occult, a perspective foreign to most Mormons today. Leading LDS officials spoke to the media and to church meetings about these documents and their possible significance. The first, an alleged 1825 letter of the founding Mormon prophet, gave instructions for locating treasure with a split hazel rod. The second was an alleged 1830 letter of Mormon convert and benefactor Martin Harris who allegedly attributed to the Smith family various folk magic beliefs about buried treasure, seer stones, and a treasure-spirit capable of transforming itself from a white salamander into human form.
Initially, the letters appeared genuine to a number of respected historians and document experts, and greatly impacted the Mormon historical community. However, using a new technique, forensic investigators denounced the letters as fraudulent in 1986. The following year Mark Hofmann, the document collector responsible for their sale, admitted to forging both.
I believe that the historical issues these forgeries first raised still require a careful re-examination of other evidence long in existence. In fact, some researchers began examining the significance of this long-existing evidence for a decade before the announcement of Hofmann’s documents.
Despite those publications since 1974, my own research and writing ignored the issues of magic and the treasure-quest in early Mormonism. That inertia continued even after the custodian of the Smith family’s magic parchments (see ch. 4) showed me what he described as these “cabalistic” documents in his home in 1978. I took a long look at them, commented on how “unusual” they were, and quickly asked him to show me something else. I was interested only in the Hyrum Smith diary and other traditionally historical materials in the possession of Hyrum’s descendant. I did not want to take the time or effort to understand the “cabalistic” inscriptions on the Smith family’s artifacts. For a decade after I first learned about the evidence of occult and esoteric influences in early Mormonism, I preferred not to understand them or their context. Instead, I wrote about LDS events and persons from a perspective I already understood. Until I began doing research early in 1985 for this book, I did not realize that those events of early Mormonism functioned within a larger world view.
As noted in an October 1985 memorandum sent from the headquarters of the LDS Church Educational System to regional and local administrators: “Even if the letters were to be unauthentic, such issues as Joseph Smith’s involvement in treasure-seeking and folk magic remain. Ample evidence exists for both of these, even without the letters.” This study explores the kind of evidence the church’s educational bulletin described as “ample” regarding early Mormonism and magic.
The following analysis of Mormonism and folk magic includes sources which have been available for more than a century. Their authenticity is beyond question. These sources give evidence of Smith’s participation in treasure-digging; the possession and use of instruments and emblems of folk magic by Smith, his family members, and other early LDS leaders; the continued use of such implements for religious purposes in the LDS church for many years; and the sincere belief of many Mormons in “the magic world view.” This magic world view has as many variations as does “the” scientific world view.
These sources express a perspective of the world different from twentieth-century perceptions. I have tried to approach this earlier world view through the lenses of two groups: those who clearly shared it and those who may have shared it. For readers today, this process resembles Thomas S. Kuhn’s description of changes that periodically confront scientists: “It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.”
By adopting a different perception, I present familiar events in unfamiliar ways and introduce evidence previously not recognized as significant. My analysis is by no means conclusive. It originally represented two years’ research into connections between early Mormonism and folk magic, topics to which other researchers have devoted many more years of work. (This update has taken another year.) Consistent with Moses Gaster’s comment in 1896, sociologist Daniel Lawrence O’Keefe has warned: “A thousand sources are not enough to cover the universe of magic.” Whole volumes have explored subjects that I discuss only briefly in this book.
Nevertheless, I feel it is necessary to attempt a general survey of many dimensions in the magic world view’s relationship to Mormon experience. Others certainly can (and do) interpret Mormon origins differently. Still, my re-examination of early Mormonism from this new perspective provides an interpretative tool for weaving together what otherwise appear as loose threads of the Mormon past. Not all these threads are of equal weight, strength, or value.
In that regard, LDS reviewer Benson Whittle noted: “Quinn’s intention has been to put down any and all findings that seem relevant to the mindset Joseph Smith took with him into his prophetic calling.” Whittle explained: “If much [of Quinn's] evidence is tenuous, it must be countered that much of it is very solid. It convinces when the whole, composed of diverse strands, is woven together into a fabric suddenly greater than the sum of its parts.” Yale historian Jon Butler made a similar observation.
To continue that metaphor, this study interweaves several theses. First, believing in and practicing various forms of magic have never necessarily been nonrational, uneducated, or irreligious. Second, the magic world view and the practice of magic rituals rarely substitute for religion. They do manifest a personal religious focus, rather than institutional (church) emphasis.
Third, there is a difference between labeling and separating. It is common to label magic and religion in various ways (desirable vs. undesirable, Judeo-Christian vs. pagan, satanic vs. divine, divine vs. cultural, rational vs. irrational, superstitious vs. actual). It is more difficult to distinguish between external manifestations of magic and of religion.
Fourth, the first generation of Mormons included people with a magic world view that predated Mormonism. This was especially true of Joseph Smith’s family, the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, nearly half of the original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and some of the earliest converts from New York and New England. Finally, exploring this world view indicates that some early Mormons perceived their church differently than later generations. That can help us better understand Mormonism, both in the distant past and more recently.
It is often difficult for us in the twentieth century to appreciate the world from the perspective of earlier times. As Danny L. Jorgensen has recently written: “From a modernist standpoint the occult claim to be both science and religion simply is conceptually illegitimate and, thereby, it is incomprehensible.” However, in his study of medieval society Richard Kieckhefer has recently written that “magic is a crossing-point where religion converges with science, [and] popular beliefs intersect with those of the educated classes.” Likewise, Peter Brown commented that knowledge of magic “techniques could be widespread among the literate people that the historian meets.”
All of us have a tendency to assume that our ancestors saw the world as we see it today. Morris Berman, a historian of science, noted a common pattern when “modern” people discover that earlier generations had views different from our own. We dismiss “the thinking of [these] previous ages not simply as other legitimate forms of consciousness, but as misguided world views that we have happily outgrown.” He called this approach “misguided,” and noted that such an attitude results from our apparent inability to understand the point of view of “premodern man.” Historians call this problem “present-mindedness” or “the fallacy of presentism.” This presentist bias can obscure our understanding of people only a few generations in the past.
For example, analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein severely criticized that bias in the anthropological writings of James G. Frazer concerning magic. “What a narrow spiritual life on Frazer’s part! As a result: how impossible it was for him to conceive of a life different from that of England of his time!” Yet, as Johann J. Bachofen wrote Lewis Henry Morgan, German historians of that era were no better: “German scholars propose to make antiquity intelligible by measuring it according to popular ideas of the present day. They only see themselves in the creation of the past” (emphasis in original).
By contrast, historian of religion Mircea Eliade has written: “There is, indeed, only one way of understanding a cultural phenomenon which is alien to one’s own ideological pattern, and that is to place oneself at its very centre and from there to track down all the values that radiate from it.” He concluded: “Before we proceed to judge [this cultural phenomenon] we must fully understand it and become imbued, as it were, with its ideology, whatever form it may take—myth, symbol, rite, social attitude.” As Michael D. Swartz has recently noted, this is a special challenge when we begin to discover that familiar “cultures we study differed from ours in fundamental ways of thinking.”
An essential starting point is the meaning of two words I have already used frequently: occult and magic. For many, occult means evil and magic refers to fantasy or sleight-of-hand entertainment. However, those popular definitions distort the more descriptive meanings of these words in historical context and scholarly usage.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives only these meanings for occult: “deliberately kept hidden, not revealed to others, secret, undisclosed; not to be apprehended or understood, demanding more than ordinary perception or knowledge, abstruse, mysterious, recondite; hidden from view, not able to be seen, concealed; of, relating to, or dealing in matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural agencies or some secret knowledge of them, not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone.” For magic, Webster’s states: “the use of means (as ceremonies, charms, spells) that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being to produce or prevent a particular result (as rain, death, healing) considered not obtainable by natural means and that also include the arts of divination, incantation, sympathetic magic ["magic based on the assumption that a person or thing can be supernaturally affected through its name or an object (as a nail paring, image, or dancer) representing it"], and thaumaturgy ["the performance of miracles"], control of natural forces by the typically direct action of rites, objects, materials, or words considered supernaturally potent; an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source; something that seems to cast a spell or to give an effect of otherworldliness, enchantment; the art of producing unusual illusions by legerdemain.” This lengthy quote from a dictionary was the basis for an example of dishonest polemics by John Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac, and Jacob,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies 7 (1995), no. 1:59-60. Without acknowledging even in his footnotes that Webster’s was my source, Gee commented on selections from the above passage, as follows: “He only applies the pejorative label to his former religion, but not to any others. Consider how Quinn’s definition of ‘magic’ applies to the prayer through which a born-again Christian becomes saved: It is ‘the use of means (prayer) that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being (God) to produce or prevent a particular result (salvation and damnation respectively) considered not obtainable by natural means (works).’ Therefore, by Quinn’s definition, the prayer through which one becomes born again is magic. Christ’s grace also fits his definition since Quinn also includes any `extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source.'” The above phrases in parentheses were Gee’s additions, which he bracketed. I use parentheses here to be sure readers recognize that I made no additions to Gee’s words. There was no possibility that Gee misunderstood the source of his quotes, because the 1987 book introduced them as follows: “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1981) which I have adopted as a guide, gives only these meanings for occult: ?Webster’s also gives the following definitions for magic: ?” Remarkably, Gee (64) then accused me of doing what he had actually done: “We have seen how Quinn takes a fairly innocuous definition and heaps censure and innuendo on it ?” For meaning of polemics, see my Preface.
Those modern definitions reflect an 1820 essay that magic “may generally be described as supposing the existence & agency of certain excessive & undefinable powers, or extending the range of those powers with which we are acquainted to an height beyond the limits which experience authorizes.” My study incorporates all the above definitions of magic except legerdemain. That old-time word refers to sleight-of-hand trickery as practiced by performance “magician” Houdini of the silent-film era or by “illusionist” David Copperfield of our own time. As Robert K. Ritner has written about the oldest-known tradition of magic: “No suggestion of trickery is ever implied in Egyptian terms for magic.”
Our current society’s secular emphasis also affects the adjective “magical.” To most readers, that word refers to stage-illusion or fantasy, neither of which describe the world views and activities emphasized here. This book describes people who did not regard their beliefs as fantasy nor their experiences as “purely imaginary and not physically real,” as one scholar has written concerning the problem in using the word “magical.” My quotes acknowledge that other writers often use “magical” or “magical world view,” but I regard that as subtle secularism rather than grammatical necessity. Aside from quotes, I avoid using the word “magical” in this discussion.
There are four additional characteristics of the magic world view. First, “peculiar to the magical or mythical perception of reality is that it does not distinguish, as we do, between lifeless and living things, between organic and inorganic. All have `power’ and `life’ of one kind or another in them. This can also be expressed by saying that all things have a `soul.'” This is sometimes called an “animistic” world view. Second, there are no symbols, as such, in the occult-magic world view. Special words, signs, numbers, and “inanimate” objects are in themselves powerful, even when they also represent something else. Third, “for the dweller in the magical world, no event is ‘accidental’ or ‘random,’ but each has its chain of causation in which Power, or its lack, was the decisive agency.” In other words, events do not occur by coincidence, which Joscelyn Godwin has recently described as “the very essence of the occult world view.” Finally, and perhaps most important, the magic world view is emotionally satisfying and rational for those sharing such perceptions. The perceived rationality of magic has not been restricted to premodern or pre-industrial societies, yet it has certainly been more pervasive and less self-conscious among such peoples. As one biographer has noted, “[T]he occult striving was in essence an attempt to penetrate beyond the world of experience to the reality which underlay it.”
In addition, a world view is fundamentally linked with actions which result from it. As one author has noted: “Debates on magic have occasionally included an unnecessary argument between those who emphasize that magic is a worldview and those who emphasize the pragmatic aims of magic.”
With a degree of empathy once unusual among academics, Morris Berman has stated why magic was as appealing to its adherents as science has been for us: “It is not merely the case that men conceived of matter as possessing mind in those days, but rather that in those days matter did possess mind, ‘actually’ did so” (emphasis in original). This historian of science continued: “When the obvious objection is raised that the mechanical world view must be true, because we are in fact able to send a man to the moon or invent technologies that demonstrably work, I can only reply that the animistic world view, which lasted for millennia, was also fully efficacious to its believers. In other words, our ancestors constructed reality in a way that typically produced verifiable results.” Edward Harrison (a professor of physics and astronomy) has also observed that “in accordance with its principles, the magic universe was fully logical, completely rational, and abounded with predictable phenomena.”
Many of the above characteristics of the magic world view are also characteristics of the “religious” world view. Today’s Jews and Christians may recognize some of their own personal beliefs in the preceding paragraphs.
The potentially religious dimension of these definitions raises the problem of clearly separating magic from religion. Influential writers attempted such distinctions from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, and these views continue to appear in textbooks and scholarly writings. For modern Americans, “the distinction between magic and religion seems ? simple and obvious enough,” commented George B. Vetter. “Magic, being by definition false or wicked, or both, couldn’t possibly be confused with `religion’ which was equally by definition true and virtuous.”
While such views have dominated, there have been dissenting voices. Ernst Cassirer, a philosopher of culture, summed up both the motivation for and difficulty of separating magic and religion: “It is natural to desire a clear-cut definition that would enable us to trace a sharp line of demarkation between magic and religion. Theoretically speaking, we are convinced that they cannot mean the same thing and we are loath to trace them to a common origin. We think of religion as the symbolic expression of our highest moral ideals; we think of magic as a crude aggregate of superstitions. Religious belief seems to become mere superstitious credulity if we admit any relationship with magic. On the other hand the character of our anthropological and ethnographical material makes it extremely difficult to separate the two fields.”
One traditional distinction is that religion is supplicative and magic coercive in intent. Anthropologist Lucy Mair wrote that “the difference between religion and magic ?might be epitomized as the difference between communicating with beings and manipulating forces.” Even after affirming this distinction, one historian of early Christianity conceded that “not one man in a thousand fully lives up to this theoretical idea of religion and that there are in ritual and liturgy elements which scarcely differ from magical arts and incantations.” For example, it is difficult to ignore the coercive dimension of Acts 16:18, “But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”
In addition to the coercive dimensions in religion, British historian Keith Thomas noted the supplicative aspects of magic. “Yet for the magicians themselves the summoning of celestial beings was a religious rite, in which prayer played an essential part, and where piety and purity of life were deemed essential. ? For many, this was no mechanical manipulation of set formulae, but a humble supplication that God should extend to them the privilege of a unique view of his mysteries. ? At this level the practice of magic became a holy quest; the search for knowledge, not by study and research, but by revelation.”
An example of supplication in ancient magic has survived among the Egyptian/Greek magic papyri: “I call upon you, lord. Hear me, holy god who rest among the holy ones, at whose side the Glorious Ones stand continually. I call upon you, [fore]father, and I beseech you, eternal one, eternal ruler of the celestial orb ? You have been exalted to heaven.” Likewise, humble pleas to deity were central to spirit conjuration in the Arbatel of Magic, published in English for occult practitioners since 1665: “Omnipotent and eternal God, who hath ordained the whole creation for thy praise and glory, and for the salvation of man, I beseech thee that thou wouldst send thy spirit N.N. of the solar order who shall inform and teach me those things which I shall ask of him; or, that he may bring me medicine against the dropsie, &c. Nevertheless, not my will be done, but thine, through thy only begotten Son, our Lord. Amen.”
To distinguish religion from magic on the basis of supernatural supplication-coercion requires that one continually acknowledge “exceptional” instances when the “distinctive” feature of magic appears in religion, and vice versa. “The distinction between beseeching or imploring and coercing or exploiting is surely a valid one,” observes New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, “but where is the evidence that religious miracle is always the former and magical ritual always the latter?”
Keith Thomas concluded that despite efforts to separate the two, “From this point of view religion and magic were not rivals, but travelling companions along the path to one identical and comprehensive truth.” Both religion and magic involve supernatural supplication, supernatural coercion, intricate rituals, and efforts to understand the otherworldly and ineffable.
A more useful distinction between the two is centered in ethics and personal conduct. Religion prescribes ethics of daily conduct for all its adherents, not simply its officiators. The ethical emphasis of magic tends to be limited to ritual purification necessary for the successful performance of its ceremonies. While religion and magic seek knowledge of (and even contact with) otherworldly powers, religion subordinates ritual to group and individual ethics. However, magic gives little or no attention to group ethics, and emphasizes individual ethics primarily as another instrument to achieve the desired ends of ritual. In fact, even though Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith stated their preference for abandoning the term “magic” in favor of the “less value-laden term” of “ritual,” they saw this group-individual emphasis as a situation “where current theories of ritual do not help, while the old distinction between religion and magic may.”
Ritual is the source of a fundamental problem confronting attempts to separate magic and religion. The practices of each are often outwardly similar, sometimes identical. For example, of “magic and religion,” the New Catholic Encyclopedia noted long ago: “They have a certain connection, and in a given case it is often difficult to determine whether an action or attitude is magical or religious.” Meyer and Smith recently observed: “the more closely these texts are actually read, the harder it is to maintain any distinction between piety and sorcery.”
Another problem arises because some distinctions are valid in one culture, while not in others. For example, nineteen years ago Jonathan Z. Smith confidently described “the one universal characteristic of magic—it is illegal,” yet that was not true of ancient Egypt. “However magic may be defined, in Egypt the practice was in itself quite legal,” Egyptologist Robert K. Ritner has recently observed in a critique of Smith’s assertion. “Sorcery against the king, not sorcery per se, was illegal.” Even in a culture with widespread practice of magic, there are varying definitions of magic and differing attitudes toward it.
A further difficulty is that Anglo-European scholars, religious leaders, and lay-persons tend to equate “religion” with “church,” or at least with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This excludes from religion any beliefs and practices that may be inherently religious but which occur outside the church or outside a religious “mainstream.” In 1829 Eusebe Salverte’s study of the occult sciences commented on the bias of defining religion and magic according to one’s own beliefs.
In addition, all societies identify some magic practices as forbidden or disapproved. But religious historian Erwin R. Goodenough observed: “they have usually tended ? to reserve such words as `magic’ and `superstition’ for the lower levels of other religions” (emphasis in original). Even within a single religious tradition, such a bias can operate: “`Magic’ implies any approach to religion, even within our own faith, which appears to us unworthy, that is, which we have rejected for ourselves. ? These are religious beliefs and acts which the person calling them superstition or magic simply does not like.” The polemical use of “occult” and “magic” can apply to previously accepted religious practices that are now discarded: “Whatever smacks a bit too strongly of methods or practices we no longer apply is ? classified as ‘magic.'” Because of those problems in definition, for decades a few scholars in various disciplines have recommended that the category of “`magic’ must be discarded.”
In response to the mid-1980s media attention about folk magic and early Mormonism, in 1987 LDS authors Stephen D. Ricks and Daniel C. Peterson suggested replacing “magic” with “a less value-laden term (e.g. `popular religion’ or `folk religion’) ?” The first edition of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View indexed their preferred term “folk religion,” which appeared twelve times—four on a single page. In response Ricks and Peterson (now both serving as editors for publications by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, FARMS) suddenly decided that the amorphous term “ritual” was the ideal substitution for “magic” and “occult.” Since then, they have been joined by fellow FARMS writer John Gee (an Egyptologist-in-training), who has made this proposal more emphatically. The three FARMS writers advocate that “religion” and “religious rituals” should substitute as terms for “magic” and “magic practices.”
However, in the scholarly book on “Ancient Magic” which published Ricks’s proposal, its editors warned about the “slippery” substitution of “ritual power” for the term “magic.” In making such a substitution, authors ignore the fact that “ritual” also applies to such diverse enterprises as college sororities, fraternal organizations, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. “Ritual” is also a standard term to describe obsessive-compulsive disorders.
On the other hand, without making the sophomoric substitution of “ritual power” for magic, Michael Swartz has recently incorporated the phrase in his discussion of the relation between religion and magic. Similar to my discussion of early Mormonism, Swartz observed: “To recognize the extent to which magic was an ingredient in Judaism in the rabbinic milieu is to rethink the nature of ancient Judaism itself.” Citing Jonathan Z. Smith, he called this “the process of `defamiliarization’ by which we see a culture in a new way.” Swartz continued: “Indeed, to separate or rank magic in opposition to religion not only misstates their relationship, but limits the sphere of religion, which can encompass the use of ritual power for the individual’s needs.” Thus, in his discussion of “prevailing elements of Jewish magical texts,” Swartz included “ritual practices for the needs of specific individuals.”
Likewise, “[i]f prayer cannot be distinguished from incantation or rite from enchantment, sorcery or wizardry,” wrote respected Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, “then religion cannot be set apart from magic.” He considered the possibility that “magic” was merely a “term of judgment, not of classification.” However, Neusner concluded that “they [the Rabbis] may sometimes have distinguished, as I cannot, between magic and `Torah,’ but the evidence before us leaves little ground to repeat that distinction.” By equal application of Gee’s standards of faith and scholarship, this FARMS polemicist would deny (60) that “any religious person, for that matter, would find [Neusner's] book useful, since it condemns not only [Judaism], but nearly every other religion, under the vituperative label of `magic.'” However, Neusner has not been a pariah to BYU’s religion faculty, as demonstrated by publication of his The Glory of God Is Intelligence: Four Lectures on the Role of Intellect in Judaism (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978); Neusner, “The Case of Leviticus Rabbah,” and Neusner, “Why No New Judaisms in the Twentieth Century?” in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also By Faith, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.; Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), 1:332-88, 2:552-84; Neusner, “Conversation in Nauvoo about the Corporeality of God,” Brigham Young University Studies 36 (1996-97), no. 1:7-30, which was edited by FARMS founder John W. Welch.
Whether certain scholars like it or not, they share with non-scholars a common understanding of the kinds of activities encompassed by the word “magic.” However, “ritual” applies to diverse activities that no one would ever confuse with magic. It is illogical to select a word of vastly generalized application to substitute for a term that has always had more specific application.
Significantly, Ricks, Peterson, and Gee have not suggested substituting “ritual” for the word “religion.” Proposing to abandon only the category of “magic” is an admission of their inability to define “religion” exclusively. Various writers want to privilege the category of “religion,” but cannot define it in such a way as to exclude all beliefs and practices that they regard as The Other. Defining The Other as “ritual” simply begs the fundamental question. Ariel Glucklich has recently acknowledged this problem by observing that the religion/magic debate actually demonstrates that both “terms [are] empty intellectual containers.” Thus, H. S. Versnel has also claimed: “Magic does not exist, nor does religion. What do exist are our definitions of these concepts.” Ceasing to use both “religion” and “magic” as terms is the logical extension of arguments by Ricks, Peterson, Gee, and others, yet I do not regard either term as “empty” or meaningless.
Nevertheless, these FARMS authors have a more specific concern than their fields of biblical studies and ancient Egypt. Defending Joseph Smith from any association with magic is the primary motivation for their definitional nihilism. In 1987 Ricks and Peterson introduced their rejection of the term “magic” by acknowledging that there were “uncomfortable questions about the influence on the young Joseph Smith of the `magical’ elements in his environment.” Equally important was Gee’s comment: “Since they have given no grounds for what constitutes `magic,’ their accusations that Joseph Smith practiced it are groundless, and their evidence consists mostly of hearsay, ambiguous or dubious objects, innuendo, or blatant forgeries.”
However, the fundamental problem with this tactic of LDS apologists is that denying the legitimacy of the word “magic” or “occult sciences” also denies the self-definition of people before and during Joseph Smith’s time. From the sixteenth century to Smith’s generation, dozens of authors wrote books enthusiastically promoting Magic, the Occult, and Occult Sciences, (Philadelphia: Fisher & Brother, 1841); Johann Georg Theodor Graesse, Bibliotheca Magica et Pneumatica ? (Leipzig: W. Englemann, 1843); Johannes Faust, Doktor Johannes Faust’s Magia naturalis et innaturalis ?, vol. 5 in Johann Scheible, Das Kloster, 12 vols. (Stuttgart: J. Scheible, 1845-49). yet Ricks and Gee want current Mormons to believe that the titles really meant “religion” and “religious rituals.” For LDS apologists, this substitution has become necessary because published research since the mid-1970s has demonstrated that two branches of the Joseph Smith family preserved as “sacred relics” certain artifacts whose inscriptions were copied directly from published handbooks with Magus and Occult Sciences in the titles (see chs. 3-4). To free early Mormon history from association with magic and the occult, Ricks, Peterson, and Gee insist on eliminating the words “magic” and “the occult” from the lives of everyone who embraced those terms.
For example, John Gee implies that respected Egyptologist Robert K. Ritner agrees with Gee’s graduate-student views, yet the opposite is true. Ritner actually rejects arguments for abandoning the term “magic” and emphatically affirms the need “for maintaining the concept of `magic’ in Egyptology.” Why?—”because the Egyptians themselves gave a name to a practice which they—not others—identified with the Western concept of magic.” That term was not one of disapproval: “Both deity [Heka] (‘Magic/Magician’) and concept (`magic’) are attested from the Old Kingdom through the Roman period.” Ritner concludes: “The undisputed prominence of Heka/heka within orthodox Egyptian theology necessarily provokes skepticism about the supposed incompatibility of `religion’ and `magic.'” Moreover, in contradiction to Gee’s insistence that “religion” is the only appropriate way to describe Egyptian ritual, Ritner observes that in ancient Egypt “a recognized category of `religion’ did not even exist.” Nevertheless, in an astonishing misrepresentation of Ritner’s repeated statements in the articles that Gee himself cited, this FARMS polemicist has claimed that Ritner allegedly recommends “that the term magic be dropped” (emphasis in original).
For centuries “magic” and “occult” have described generally recognized beliefs, practices, and writings. Even though people disagree over how far to extend those terms, there are no better words in English to describe the beliefs and practices discussed in this book. Even when a scholar like John G. Gager professes to abandon the term magic, it remains as the unspoken context of his book title and analysis. With reference to the same curse-tablets that Gager analyzed, Versnel commented on this scholarly approach of avoiding “both the use of the term magic and any query which entails the application of this term even in books which have magic as their very subject.” In fact, Versnel observed that “in the context of (magical) curse-tablets and—related but clearly distinct—(religious) prayers for justice or vengeance, the ancient authors were clearly aware of the very same distinctions modern people normally associate with the notions of magic and religion” (parentheses in original).
Likewise, William J. Hamblin has not followed his fellow FARMS writers in abandoning the category of magic. This is evident in two books published jointly by FARMS and the official LDS publishing company. For a non-polemical article in 1990 Hamblin wrote: “Thus the inclusion of various types of talismanic markings on armor to secure divine or magical protection is almost a universal phenomenon.” In a non-polemical article of 1994 Hamblin also referred to “the occult sciences such as astrology and magic,” to “various magical incantations and practices” in ancient Jewish mysticism (redacted as early Christian pseudepigrapha), to “medieval magicians,” and to “Renaissance magical Christian worldviews.” However, as a polemical reviewer, Hamblin follows the FARMS format of polemics by claiming that magic is “a highly problematical concept” and saying the term “should be abandoned in academic discourse.” He also published this in 1994. Hamblin’s inconsistencies are typical of the polemical “double standard” that FARMS editor Daniel C. Peterson condemns only in those he regards as anti-Mormons.
Contrary to the example of FARMS polemicists, I consistently accept the “wide consensus” of many scholars about religion and magic. In the words of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: “There is no religion without magic any more than there is magic without at least a trace of religion.” In his exhaustive survey of the various theories of magic, sociologist O’Keefe explained: “It is because the interactions of magic and religion are so complicated and paradoxical (overlap, hostility, expropriation, rejection, synthesis, etc.) that there has been such confusion as to which preceded which, magic or religion—and even as to which is which: 1. First, there has been outright disagreement as to whether particular phenomena can be classified as magic or religion. ? 2. And even when investigators agree on which is which, magic and religion overlap so conspicuously and beg, borrow and steal from each other so outrageously that there is disagreement about priority.” Morton Smith called this “the intimate, almost incestuous, relations of magic and religion.”
This overlapping of magic and religion applies equally to biblical Hebrews, Jewish rabbis from the Hellenistic period to the Middle Ages, early Christians and medieval Catholics, and to various believers during the Renaissance and the Age of Reason (see ch. 1). Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (New York: Adama Books, 1986), 29, 46-47, 221; Neusner, “Science and Magic, Miracle and Magic in Formative Judaism,” Moshe Idel, “Jewish Magic from the Renaissance Period to Early Hasidism,” and Karen Louise Jolly, “Magic, Miracle, and Popular Practice in the Early Medieval West: Anglo-Saxon England,” in Neusner, Frerichs, and Flesher, Religion, Science, and Magic, 76, 82-117, 175-76; Kieckhefer, Magic In the Middle Ages, 56; Lawrence H. Schiffman and Michael D. Swartz, Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts From the Cairo Genizah (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press/JSOT Press, 1992), 12; Paola Zambelli, The SPECULUM ASTRONOMIAE and Its Enigma: Astrology, Theology and Science in Albertus Magnus and His Contemporaries (Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer Academic Publications, 1992), 51-59; Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press/Hebrew University, 1993), 17-31; Frank R. Trombley, Hellenic Religion and Christianization C. 370-529, 2 vols. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993-94), 1:65, 150, 176, 183, 2:93, 191, 209; Swartz, “Magical Piety in Ancient and Medieval Judaism,” 167-83; G. Stemberger, “Non-Rabbinic Literature,” in Jacob Neusner, ed., Judaism in Late Antiquity, 2 vols. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 1:36, 38; Henry Maguire, “Magic and the Christian Image,” and Robert Mathiesen, “Magic in Slavia Orthodoxa: The Written Tradition,” in Maguire, ed., Byzantine Magic (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library/Harvard University Press, 1995), 51-71, 155-77; Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, 450 B.C.E. to 600 C.E., 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA/Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996), 2:401-02, 691-92; Hendrik F. Stander, “Amulets” and Gallagher, “Magic,” in Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 1:47, 2:705. Schiffman and Swartz, Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts, 15, stated in 1992: “Ludwig Blau’s Das altjuedische Zauberwesen (1914) remains the most thorough study of Jewish magic in the Talmudic period.” According to Julio Caro Baroja’s study of witchcraft and witchcraft persecutions: “Magic and religion cannot, I repeat, be separated as simply as people used to think. The only real distinction that can be made is between White and Black Magic.” Applying such distinctions to the Hebrew Bible (Christianity’s Old Testament), the recent Anchor Bible Dictionary observes that magic is “the more neutral term,” when compared with “the negative and antisocial term ‘sorcery.'” Likewise, James H. Charlesworth has referred to the “white magic” of “the Aramaic Incantation Bowls” that were in common use among ancient Jews.
In its entry for magic, the 1986 Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion observed that the Talmud also “seems to differentiate between what might be called `black m[agic].’ and `white m[agic].,’ depending on the source of the occult powers.” Its Jewish editors added that in certain instances the Talmud also “refers to sorcery which is entirely permitted.” Even today, the encyclopedia also observed, “the use of amulets is still prevalent among Oriental Jews.” Likewise, the two-volume Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period also affirmed in 1996 that “the use of magic within the general culture of the talmudic period had significant impact upon Jewish society, which largely accepted such practices.” Like the earlier work, this 1996 dictionary referred to “Jewish magical amulets, often with inscriptions naming the deity and names of the angels.” Both Jewish reference books agreed that the “universal Jewish phrase of congratulations Mazzal Tov (`Good Luck’) ? is a relic of the belief in astrology.” The encyclopedia translated the phrase as “a good constellation,” while the dictionary rendered it as “under a propitious star.”
Following Baroja’s recommendation, it is easier to distinguish between kinds of magic than between magic and religion. Renaissance writer Gabriel Naude identified four separate categories of magic: that produced “ by the particular grace of the Almighty God, or  by the assistance of an Angel, or  by that of a Daemon; or lastly, by his own industry and ability. From these four different wayes, we infer four kinds of Magick: Divine, relating to the first; Theurgick, to the second; Goetick, to the third; and Natural, to the last.” The Age of Reason reduced the types of magic to divine, diabolic, and natural, but the original distinctions hold up remarkably well after hundreds of years.
Beyond academic occultism, people with limited education also demonstrate Baroja’s definition of magic as a duality. For example, concerning “the mountain Whites of the Alleghanies,” a nineteenth-century researcher commented: “In these parts the distinction between Black and White Magic is well established.”
Like sociologist O’Keefe, I regard magic and religion neither as identical entities nor as polar opposites. Nor are they dual foci that overlap only peripherally. The position each occupies on the spectrum of beliefs and practices depends, of course, upon one’s vantage point. But there is such a pronounced interrelationship among the various manifestations of magic and religion that the inextricable blending of the two at some point or points is difficult to overlook. Scholars have noted that this was true of Joseph Smith’s America and of Mormonism’s early history.
In attempting to make connections between magic and Mormonism, I use several kinds of evidence. Because Mormonism was controversial among many of its neighbors, primary emphasis must be given to direct evidence from friendly sources. Nevertheless, it is misleading to ignore or reject out-of-hand direct evidence from unfriendly sources, particularly when Mormon sources corroborate information from unfriendly sources.
LDS historian Richard L. Bushman has written concerning non-Mormon “evidence which Mormons dismissed as hopelessly biased. But when I got into the sources, I found evidence from friendly contemporaries as well, Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Oliver Cowdery, and Lucy Mack Smith. All of these witnesses persuaded me treasure-seeking and vernacular magic were part of the Smith family tradition, and that the hostile witnesses, including the 1826 trial record, had to be taken seriously.” Non-Mormon sources (even anti-Mormon eye-witnesses) can improve understanding about events that are only sketchily recorded in Mormon sources.
This study also relies heavily upon certain artifacts of material culture. The Smiths and other early Mormons possessed magic artifacts that were handed down reverentially to descendants or other relatives. Possession of a verified magic artifact is not proof that the possessors used the object at all or in the manner dictated by a magic world view. Nonetheless, historical inquiry requires that one examine the purposes of such possessions and determine to what extent those purposes were consistent with the known actions and statements of the apparent possessor(s). The probability that an artifact was actually used in traditional ways increases to the degree that its purpose is consistent with the activities and statements of the possessor. Consistency also is not proof, but the discipline of history depends upon context and consistency in the effort to reconstruct the probable past.
Between the past’s indisputable facts and its unknowable gaps in evidence, there is a vast terrain of the possible and probable. Establishing possibilities and probabilities is more mundane and incomplete than the kind of absolute proof that a polemicist demands only of interpretations he dislikes. Surviving documents and artifacts allow researchers to assess significant possibilities, which is a more legitimate process than the nihilistic dodge that “anything is possible.” As researchers accumulate evidence about a topic, they may conclude that a significant possibility has increased to a probability. If this sounds like detective work, that is what most historians do. Like detective work, the conclusions of historical research are similar to the legal requirement known as “preponderance of the evidence,” rather than “proof beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
My analysis also uses the indirect approach of parallel evidence. Parallelism has been a standard interpretative method in many disciplines. It has been the nearly exclusive approach of Mormon scholar Hugh W. Nibley and others in discussing the cultural context and historicity of the Book of Mormon. FARMS historian William J. Hamblin has insisted: “Parallels, whether ancient or modern, should certainly not be seen as proof of the origin of the Book of Mormon, but they cannot be ignored or dismissed as evidence” (emphasis in original).
Environmental parallels assume that persons and activities are influenced by and respond to contemporary events and circumstances. An awareness of the contemporary environment is a standard method of identifying persons, things, activities, or developments as typical or atypical of a time and place. For readers who prefer the biblical “let us reason together,” I affirm two things about environmentalism. First, Joseph Smith did not fabricate the Book of Mormon or falsify its claims. Second, in producing this sacred scripture from ancient records by the “gift and power of God,” translator Joseph Smith left traces of his environment on the English translation (see chs. 5-6). To me those are two essential realities–the first an imperative of spiritual faith, the second an imperative of earthly evidence. Polemicists like Novak substitute fiat for faith, ignorance for evidence, and vilify anyone who disagrees with them. Literary parallels often lead to causal explanation when a person expresses certain words, phrases, or ideas also used in a written source that is potentially available to the individual. The degree of similarity indicates that the person’s ideas, speech, writing, or actions were directly influenced by the pre-existing text or indirectly influenced by the popularity of the text in common vernacular. Historical parallels assume that a person’s world view and sometimes his or her activities reflect in part an influence from the past. This can be personal, familial, cultural, or societal. These are common uses of parallel evidence, even though each has its limitations and no use of parallel evidence constitutes absolute proof.
The most difficult challenge in using parallel evidence is the situation where there are parallels without any known connection between individuals and the relevant evidence. Some have argued that without a demonstrable link, the analogies are insignificant, to which one scholar objected: “Are we to refuse to recognize them as parallels?” In such cases, Herbert J. Rose argued that it is important to acknowledge close parallels as significant because “what is done by one group of human beings may have been done for the same or similar reasons, by another group, without supposing any other bond between them than their common humanity.”
Likewise, I believe it is necessary to consider parallels, because their existence is a form of evidence which should at least be acknowledged. Paul M. Edwards (a direct descendant of Joseph Smith) has advised current believers in the LDS prophet: “it would be foolish for us to ignore the presence of parallels and interrelations between Mormonism and the magic world view held by nineteenth-century Americans.” As Hamblin stated unconditionally, parallels “cannot be ignored or dismissed as evidence.”
Psychologist Carl G. Jung proposed one means to interpret parallels that lack causative links. He wrote that “the connection of events may in certain circumstances be other than causal, and requires another principle of explanation.” The explanation Jung proposed was “archetype,” a pattern of thought (and its resulting act) within the “collective unconscious.”
Archetypal parallels do not require environmental, literary, historical, or causal connection. Rather, seemingly unconnected developments of thought and action may appear strikingly similar, leading to the almost metaphysical conclusion that they are replicating patterns or archetypes. Scholars in various fields have adopted a Jungian view of such parallels.
The LDS church’s youth magazine, the LDS publishing company, and FARMS have even printed Hugh Nibley’s endorsement of using ancient “myths” as “a useful means of checking up on the revelations of Joseph Smith.” Several LDS authors have also adopted this approach to examine how Joseph Smith’s life matched the archetypal patterns for mythic heroes/prophets. Intriguing and possibly significant in themselves, archetypal parallels do not necessarily represent dependence between events or conscious borrowing of ideas.
Concerning parallels widely separated in time and place, there have been some important observations in the official journals of FARMS. Todd Compton has described two groups of writers who usually talk past each other, except to engage in polemics about Book of Mormon origins. On one side are nonhistoricists, who seek nineteenth-century “parallels to show that the book is not an ancient historical document.” On the other side are historicists, “who believe the Book of Mormon is an inspired translation of an ancient text,” and seek “ancient parallels to show that the book is ancient. The natural tendency, for both sides, is to disallow the other side’s parallels as negligible.” Hamblin uses the terms secular naturalists and historical traditionalists to describe those groups, and (as previously quoted) regards each side’s use of parallels as a legitimate endeavor.
However, Compton and Hamblin did not specify the unequal requirements of this scholarship, which resulted in huge differences in reaching the reading public. With English as the only skill necessary to locate nineteenth-century environmental parallels for the Book of Mormon, secular naturalists had the publishing field largely to themselves for a hundred years. In the mid-1920s a few LDS scholars obtained graduate training in ancient Near Eastern languages and literatures, initially at the University of Chicago Divinity School. This allowed historically traditionalist scholarship among Mormons for the first time, and it became centered in Brigham Young University from the 1930s to the present. Still, the secular naturalists maintained an absolute advantage because even watered-down scholarship by historical traditionalists requires its readers to make unusual commitments of time, attention, and (often) additional study in order to comprehend the faith-promoting scholarship. The scholarly “war of words and tumult of opinions” has continued to the present.
I share Compton’s dismay at the take-no-prisoners approach of writers on both sides of this debate. “I believe that every critic, in all fairness, should consider the others’ parallels by the same standards one applies to one’s own,” he insists. “Strong parallels, from whatever period, will enrich our understanding of the Book of Mormon. We should all have enough breadth to welcome work from other fields.” I regard Compton’s advice as academically wise, personally charitable, and encouraging for religious and intellectual growth.
In this present study of popular religion, folk magic, institutional religion, and academic occultism, my analysis uses parallel evidence from the written text and oral tradition. In the Western tradition of the occult, the relationship between the printed word and folklore is especially interdependent. As Katharine M. Briggs observed: “Many of the occult writings never came into general circulation, but were handed down jealously from magician to magician. ? From the fifteenth century onward, however, there were many manuscript books of magic for the less learned through which scraps of occult knowledge were distributed among the people, and returned again to the folklore from which they had been borrowed. For occult learning was originally founded upon folklore. It borrowed from magic and lent to it, and used symbols rooted in folk consciousness.”
To extend her comments, the occult sciences preceded the invention of writing in all cultures. In fact, magic is still pre-literate in some cultures. In the absence of writing, certain men and women were more “adept” in occult knowledge and practice than others. These adepts were magic’s first elite and perpetuated themselves through mentoring and oral tradition. With the development of writing, academically trained occultists became magic’s second elite, which was capable of training disciples without personal contact. The two elites coexisted, but competed for followers in the general population (the folk) only when literacy became widespread. This was the preface to the process Briggs described for western European society.
After the establishment of literate religion and instructional institutions, academic magic had a circular relationship to folk magic. Magicians, academics, priests, and monks formalized the occult’s oral tradition into manuscripts and books of occult philosophy and formula magic. In turn, this academic occult tradition filtered down to the common people, who incorporated it into their own folklore and folk religion. To complete the circle, these academically influenced vernacular traditions reached later academics, observers, writers, and practitioners of the occult. In other words, magic folklore has a symbiotic relationship with academic occultism in literate cultures. Each depends on the other, and each contributes to the other’s survival.
Common people have an intellectual life. The fallacy of “intellectual history” among traditional historians of Europe and America has been to limit the concept of intellectual history to privileged elites. In cultures that are primarily literate, such as Anglo-European America, common people’s intellectual history responds to, imitates, and departs from the intellectual life and published works of the elites. The intellectual history of common people is more diverse—and sometimes more interesting—than the intellectual history of elites.
In attempting to portray the magic world view of Joseph Smith’s culture, I have emphasized works published prior to the 1830s. This demonstrates how persons may have incorporated the pre-existing view into their particular understanding of Mormonism. In addition, because of the relationship between the oral and written occult traditions, I have drawn upon insights from manuscript books and oral folklore available in Smith’s time, but not published until afterward.
By citing books written hundreds of years before Joseph Smith’s birth, I do not assert that he actually read those books. Nonetheless, he certainly had opportunity to read many out-of-print occult books that continued to circulate in New York state (see chs. 1, 4, 6).
During Smith’s youth, recently published occult handbooks were even available in his neighborhood (see ch. 4). In one case he later acknowledged familiarity with esoteric literature advertised and sold in Palmyra and nearby Canandaigua during his youth. In another case the Mormon prophet definitely owned a rare non-occult book that had been out-of-print as long as some of the occult handbooks I cite. Moreover, of the books Smith donated to a library shortly before his death, 60 percent of the pre-1830 titles were available in his neighborhood as young man (see ch. 6). Artifacts handed down within his family also show direct dependence on the text and illustrations of previously published handbooks for ceremonial magic (see chs. 3-4). In fact, during the last years of his life Joseph Smith used one of those out-of-print occult books as the basis for instructions to a prominent member of the LDS church (see ch. 7).
At the least, literary citations show the extent of the written tradition which eventually diffused widely within oral traditions. That includes publication-history, book notices, advertisements, and library holdings for various kinds of works. In a few cases, I argue for a causal relationship between available texts of magic and Joseph Smith’s specific acts or statements.
Likelihood of acquaintance with previously written texts will increase when two factors intersect. First, when there is near correspondence or exact match between occult texts on the one hand, and certain activities/statements on the other. Second, when there was easy access by the Smiths and other early Mormons to writings about the occult and magic world view. But, for the most part, I present parallels to indicate how persons sharing a magic world view may have understood developments in Mormonism which I personally regard as divine in origin.
Readers and writers of any work using parallels as evidence would do well to remember the observation of New Testament scholar Samuel Sandmel: “It would seem to me to follow that, in dealing with similarities we can sometimes discover exact parallels, some with and some devoid of significance; seeming parallels which are so only imperfectly; and statements which can be called parallels which are so only by taking them out of context.” With such cautions in mind, I have tried to proceed vigorously and carefully.
Despite my best efforts, some critics have dismissed much of this book’s evidence as mere coincidence. In this regard, careful readers will profit from two perspectives.
First, for those who perceived reality from the magic world view, there was no coincidence. To grasp how those persons understood or may have understood certain circumstances, one should try to reconstruct their “distinctive pattern of thought or logic,” even though ultimately they were “thinking thoughts that we cannot recapture ? because they conformed to a totally alien logic.”
Second, there is a methodological question when one moves beyond recapturing a world view, to asserting that there are significant correlations of parallel evidence. When do seeming coincidences of evidence exceed the probability of coincidence and move toward circumstantial proof? Each reader may answer this question differently. This study presents evidence that seems, in my judgment, significantly connected and not haphazardly unrelated. Hamblin would discover his error very quickly if he applied his polemical analysis to his apologist writings in support of the historicity of the Book of Mormon as a text deriving from the ancient Near East. For example, there is a probability of historicity when a close parallel exists between warfare in that book’s narrative and in the ancient Near East. A separate probability of historicity exists when there is a close parallel between kingly rituals in that book’s narrative and in the ancient Near East. Underlying this apologetical approach is the assumption (often made as an explicit argument) that every ancient parallel increases the probability that the Book of Mormon is an English translation of an acient text. However, according to Hamblin’s polemical argument, the existence of those two probabilities would actually reduce the probability that the Book of Mormon reflects the ancient Near East. To the contrary, the existence of warfare similarities and kingly similarities does not reduce the probability that both are true and significant, nor lessen the probability that the Book of Mormon was Joseph Smith’s rendition of an ancient record. As Hamblin expects his readers to conclude from his apologist writings in favor of that book’s historicity, the probability of historical validation of an “overall thesis” is increased with each addition of new evidence in support of that thesis. This is true even though the evidences have varied probabilities of supporting the general thesis, when those evidences are viewed in isolation. Only when cumulative evidence runs contrary to the FARMS agenda, do polemicists like Hamblin want readers to view each piece of evidence as though it existed in isolation.
Furthermore, as should be obvious to most readers, diversity is always the rule in human conduct and belief. Even though I have emphasized Judeo-Christian traditions of religion and magic, both were diverse and fragmented. Just as there have always been differences within Judaism and Christianity, there was great diversity among those who believed in magic. Occult traditions had no hierarchy of authorities, no formal institutions, no canonized texts. For instance, astrologers often criticized each other and disagreed about other dimensions in the occult. Some occult scholars and common people accepted “natural magic” such as divining rods, yet rejected ceremonial magic with its spirit invocations through formulas and rites. Others used various instruments and rites for treasure-seeking, but for very different motivations. As a term and interpretive tool, the magic world view defines a certain unity of perspective but does not regiment either the beliefs or practices of those associated with such a view.
Nevertheless, there has been an identifiable occult tradition in Western civilization. Scholars and common people alike relied on various authorities and texts in transmitting occult traditions, formulas, and rites. Magic texts date to the earliest periods of written records. Medieval writers on the occult cited ancient authors and copied their texts. Renaissance occultists cited both ancient and medieval authors/texts, while nineteenth-century occult works cited authors and texts extending back two millennia. Jonathan Z. Smith called this “an occult chain of tradition.”
Of early Americans, historian David D. Hall wrote: “People in the seventeenth century inherited a lore that stretched back to the Greeks and Romans. ?Whenever the colonists spoke or wrote of wonders, they drew freely on this lore; theirs was a borrowed language. ?High or low, learned or unlearned, these people had absorbed a host of older beliefs.”
The best example in the early nineteenth century was Robert C. Smith’s Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century ? a Complete System of Occult Philosophy. In one footnote this 1825 occult handbook cited Francis Barrett’s “Magus, Ceremonial Magic [part of Barrett's subtitle], and Agrippa’s Occult Philo, lib. 4; also Pope Honorius on Magical Rites, and Solomon’s Key to Magic.” Barrett’s book had been out-of-print for twenty-four years, Agrippa’s for 174 years, and the last two were unpublished manuscripts of medieval magic. Robert Smith later advised his readers to consult eight ancient authors, six authors of the 1600s, and eight authors from the 1700s to early 1800s.
Because each century’s occult works and traditions explicitly recirculated the philosophy and ceremonies of previous ages, there was an intentional timelessness unifying occult manifestations in different circumstances. One historian has noted that “the range of magicians’ actions ?seems to change very little ?[and they] retained their currency from antiquity through early modern times ?With some variations, such procedures remained current in magical literature through the Renaissance and beyond.”
This extended beyond the academic magic of occult elites. A study of a Pennsylvania German’s handbook of folk remedies (composed in 1819) noted: “Thus charms which were in use among the Anglo-Saxons more than a thousand years ago are essentially similar to the material in [Johann Georg] Hohman’s book.” A recent history of English astrology likewise observed that “popular astrology persisted [among common people], almost unchanged in its content, from about the late Middle Ages until at least the mid-nineteenth-century, probably throughout the British Isles.” Concerning the cheaply bound chapbooks of occult instruction that common people could purchase for a penny or so, “various editions of Mother Bunch’s soothsayings were current for at least two, and possibly three, centuries.” Before his death in 1860, one village astrologer compiled “a scrapbook of astrological data ranging from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.” Even though occult authorities and philosophies have varied at different times and places, the occult maintains its timeless aura in European-Anglo-American culture. As Nachman Ben-Yehuda wrote about the “occult revival” in America from the 1960s to 1980s: “Modern occultists have added practically nothing to occult practices, theories, or notions, which have existed for hundreds of years.”
This timelessness transcends the Western tradition of the occult. For example, Mircea Eliade has written: “In every culture where alchemy has flourished, it has always been intimately related to an esoteric or ‘mystical’ tradition: in China to Taoism, in India to Yoga and Tantrism, in Hellenistic Egypt to gnosis, in Islamic countries to Hermetic and esoteric mystical schools, in the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance to Hermeticism, Christian and sectarian mysticism, and Qabbalah” (emphasis in original). Eliade noted that in these disparate cultures, alchemists all emphasized secrecy and similar approaches to the esoteric.
Eliade’s comment also serves as a useful introduction to the fallacy involved in the substitution of terms by another FARMS polemicist. “It is unfortunate that [Lance S.] Owens uses the misleading term occult to describe the esoteric tradition,” William J. Hamblin has recently written. “For a late twentieth-century audience kabbalism and hermeticism are much better described as esoteric rather than occult” (emphasis in original). Hamblin creates a false dichotomy between the occult and the esoteric, as Edward A. Tiryakian indicated in his 1972 essay on “esoteric culture.” The occult is a group of “practices, techniques or procedures,” and the esoteric is “those religiophilosophic belief systems which underlie occult techniques and practices.” That has become an internationally accepted view among reputable scholars.
Because I hope to explore sympathetically a world view different in some respects from my own and in many ways alien to twentieth-century assumptions about the nature of reality, I feel it necessary to state my biases at the outset. I believe in Gods, angels, spirits, and devils, and that they have communicated with humankind. In Mormon terms, I have a personal “testimony” of Jesus as my Savior, of Joseph Smith, Jr., as a prophet, of the Book of Mormon as the word of God, and of the LDS church as a divinely established organization through which men and women can obtain essential priesthood ordinances of eternal consequence. I also believe that no historical documents presently available, or locked away, or still unknown will alter these truths. I believe that persons of faith have no reason to avoid historical inquiry into their religion or to discourage others from such investigations.
This book does not pretend to portray a full understanding of Western civilization, the Judeo-Christian tradition, early America, the founding Mormon prophet, the Smith family, Mormon origins, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Latter-day Saints generally. In order to understand the magic world view as it relates to the above, I have emphasized the magic perspective. Likewise, other historians may focus on the military activities of George Washington or the politics of America. Such a focus is necessary to understand the topic at hand, but inevitably omits many dimensions of a civilization, a culture, a nation, a religion, a group, or an individual. In a classic comment about Mormon complexity, religious historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom expressed his uncertainty whether Mormonism “is a sect, a mystery cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an American subculture; indeed, at different times and places it is all of these.”
In what follows most Mormons will not find a story with which they are familiar. Instead, they will discover that the LDS prophet certainly participated extensively in some pursuits of folk magic and apparently in others. Joseph Smith and his family shared with others of their time a magic view of the world.
For myself, I have found that the “official version” of early Mormon history is sometimes incomplete in its presentation and evaluation of evidence. Therefore, official LDS history is inaccurate in certain respects. Mormon apologists—scholars writing to defend the faith and to sustain an official version of Mormon history in a conscientious manner—have occasionally focused narrowly on the inherent prejudice of early non-Mormon sources. LDS apologists often do not inform their readers that pro-Mormon sources corroborate the statements by anti-Mormons. As Hugh Nibley once wrote: “Now anyone who takes it upon himself to withhold evidence is actually determining what the reader’s idea of church history is going to be—he is controlling the past.” Exploring evidences previously ignored or regarded as insignificant has only enhanced my understanding of Mormonism’s founding prophet.
For non-Mormon readers, my purpose is not to demean Joseph Smith as a prophet or to proselytize. I seek to appreciate in greater depth (and with greater fidelity to the evidence) a man who, I believe, was remarkable. The sources I present and analyze may appear unusual to many readers, yet I do not believe that my analysis disparages the Mormon founder’s integrity or prophetic claims. If my interpretations have validity, this requires that Mormons and non-Mormons try to understand Joseph Smith and early Mormonism in a different light. Whatever else, this process should deepen our understanding of an often neglected early American subculture larger than Mormonism.
When complex developments extend across time to intersect with each other, either a wholly topical or strictly chronological analysis will create some problems for the reader. A certain amount of overlap in topic and chronology seems necessary in order to avoid fragmenting the analysis. I have chosen to divide the discussion that follows into three time periods, with topically oriented analysis in each.
The first chapter briefly sketches the Judeo-Christian tradition of religion and magic from biblical times to the contemporary environment of the Smith family in the early 1800s. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 emphasize the period from Joseph Smith’s first vision of 1820 through the translation of the Book of Mormon as new scripture in 1829. Analysis within these chapters tends to be topical rather than chronological.
Chapter 6 discusses certain dimensions of Mormon scripture and theology, with emphasis on the years 1830 to 1844. Chapter 7 focuses on the Latter-day Saint church and its people from 1830 to the present.
In addition, this study’s detailed analysis and extensive citations have seemed necessary in view of pre-publication review. Readers unfamiliar with some dimensions of the subject have indicated a need for more careful explanation and multiple citations than readers who were acquainted with these areas. Therefore, the book assumes a general readership and attempts to carefully explain and substantiate topics that might be obvious to readers with more specialized background.