Reviews – Early Mormonism and the Magic World View
Church History, Klaus J. Hansen
The connection between magic and Mormonism can be traced to the very beginnings of this nineteenth-century American religion. Founder Joseph Smith himself recounted that he had translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates with the aid of “two stones in silver bows . . . called the Urim and Thummim,” known as “seers in ancient or former times.” Detractors of Mormonism were quick to link these “magic spectacles” to other practices by Smith and his family that could be labeled magic, on the assumption that such activities were incompatible with true religion and that Mormonism, therefore, must be either a fraud or of the Devil. Mormons, ironically, agreed with the logic behind this premise, and for nearly a century and a half heatedly denied that there are any links between magic and their religion, insisting that whatever artifacts Smith may have employed in the translation of the Book of Mormon, he had done so “by the gift and power of God” (his own words), and that charges of other magical and occult practices were slanderous. For Mormon apologists there was a clear inference that any link between Mormonism and magic would seriously undermine the truth claims of their religion. As historians over the past two generations amassed growing evidence of a link between Mormonism and magic, apologists, to some extent, were able to reassure the faithful because much of this literature was regarded as hostile: the exploitation of anti-Mormon sources by authors unfriendly to the church. In recent years, however, the rise of the “New Mormon History” has made this position increasingly untenable as scholars professing to be believing Mormons or regarded as friendly to the church have also explored the relationship between Mormonism and magic, aided and abetted by a rising scholarly interest in magic and religion in the Western world in general and in American history in particular—to the increasing discomfort of apologists and church leaders.
It is ironic that when the church, in a dramatic news conference in 1985, finally acknowledged that there indeed exist a direct link between magic and the origins of Mormonism, it turned out to be the result of one of the most monumental frauds in the history of documents forgery. Yet once the genie had been released from the bottle, it was impossible to put it back. A 1985 memorandum circulated within the Mormon educational system acknowledged: “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 letter.”
It was these events that provided the impetus for Michael Quinn’s magisterial study of early Mormonism and the magic world view. As he himself writes, “This study attempts to address and examine, among other issues, the kind of evidence the church’s education bulletin described as ‘ample.'” The truly stunning mass of evidence Quinn has assembled in this tour de force no doubt had not been envisioned by the authors of the bulletin. Quoting sociologist Daniel L. O’Keefe to the effect that “a thousand sources are not enough to cover the universe of magic,” Quinn has produced a bibliography of over sixty pages. Discriminating and sophisticated in his use of this evidence, Quinn has divided it into four categories: direct evidence from friendly and unfriendly sources, magic artifacts used by the Smith family, and parallel evidence: environmental, literary, and historical. Quinn demonstrates convincingly that the first generation of Mormons shared a magic world view predating Mormonism, much of which, inevitably, was incorporated into the new religion. This world view changed rather dramatically and suddenly in the 1880s and was replaced by a modern, rationalistic outlook: a perspective shared by modern Mormons and historians of Mormonism, both religious and secular. By showing us how early Mormons perceived their religion—in their terms, not ours—Quinn has opened up major vistas towards a better understanding of the premodern Mormon past. And by linking the world of Mormon folk magic to that of early American culture in particular and to an early modern European folk tradition in general, Quinn has also raised important questions regarding the uniqueness of Mormon culture. Thus his work, among other things, is an important contribution to a continuing debate about the relationship between Mormonism and American culture.
Deseret News, Carma Wadley
In the book Masks of the Universe, philosopher-physicist Edward R. Harrison describes the history of the world in terms of various masks which society has worn: the magical mask, the mythic mask, the mechanistic mask, the infinite mask. Each describes how society viewed its world through different eyes, based on knowledge, culture and tradition. And at any given time, no mask was any less “true” than any other. Each society believed in its world, and only by looking back do we get any other perspective.
If that is a valid premise, then Michael Quinn would say that a magical mask was firmly in place in early 19th century New England. It was a time when the practice of folk magic was an accepted part of life, closely entwined with religion. By folk magic, he is careful to point out, he means not the occultish black magic that we tend to think of today; but white, Christian magic that stretched back to earliest times. (An example of folk magic might be the use of a dowsing stick to locate water—a practice firmly believed in and practiced by some even now.)
“Since biblical times, the belief in magic and reactions to it have overlaid the religious, intellectual and cultural heritage of many civilizations and societies, not the least of which was Joseph Smith’s America. “One need not be a linguist or biblical scholar to recognize that something of great mystery and power would have been communicated to many early Americans in passages of the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the shorter prophetic works, John and Revelations.”
His book attempts to set the founding of the LDS Church into this magical world view context—when such things as astrology, treasure hunting or use of seer stones was common practice. Don’t look in this book for a lurid, sensationalized account of how Joseph Smith practiced magic. The book is scholarly all the way (in fact the constant citing of sources wears a bit thin and is distracting—I would have preferred notes at the end of each chapter). In the introduction, Quinn affirms his faith in the church he is writing about, and notes throughout the book that there is nothing in the magical world view that detracts from the status of Joseph Smith as prophet and founder of that church.
“The existence of these evidences of magic and the occult in early Mormonism would not diminish its claims for validity, any more than the lack of such an overlay would necessarily guarantee Mormonism’s truth. For Mormonism, like pre-exilic Judaism and Primitive Christianity before it, developed within a particular cultural environment which is rapidly transformed in the process of becoming its own religious tradition.” he writes.
Quinn relies to a great extent on circumstantial evidence—papers and objects that by tradition belonged to the Smith family and have been passed on to succeeding generations. There are accounts from neighbors, both friendly and unfriendly, but little from the Smith family itself. At one point, Lucy Mack Smith denied that such activities detracted from their farming—as some had claimed—but did not deny (nor actually confirm) the practice of such activities.
There are places where Quinn may make too much of the magical view. But he is breaking ground here, and it may be left to others to put the questions into proper perspective. Quinn raises a lot of questions, and doesn’t satisfactorily deal with a couple of the big whys: for example, why was the magical world view so important to early Americans, and why did it decline? But he does deal with one intriguing issue: if these practices were important in the early church, should they be important today?
“For me, sympathetic and empathetic analysis of the past does not require endorsement and certainly not emulation of such practices. These and other magic techniques facilitated the religious quest of persons who already perceived reality from the magic world view. . . .
“My intent has simply been to sketch in broad strokes the outlines of a topic that I believe merits the careful, cautious study of Mormons and non-Mormons alike. For if we hope to begin to understand fully the origins of Mormonism, we cannot ignore the environment and world view of its first adherents or of the place and meaning of magic as one of the components of a complex mix . . .”
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Alan Taylor
Until recently, most Mormon writers have been pressed onto the defensive by the insistence with which anti-Mormons have exploited every hint that Joseph Smith, Jr.’s, family practiced folk magic. Consequently, the mounting evidence for the Smiths’ involvement in folk magic threatens to entrap Mormon naysayers. In a challenging and thorough reinvestigation of Christian magic’s role in early Mormonism D. Michael Quinn, a devout Mormon as well as a skilled historian, boldly steals a march on his faith’s critics and reveals an escape from the defensive trap. After an exhaustive exploration of an often dense and difficult evidentiary thicket, Quinn emerges with his faith not merely unscathed but reinvigorated. Building upon the pioneering work of Richard L. Bushman, Donna Hill, Marvin S. Hill, Jan Shipps, and Ronald W. Walker, Quinn concludes that both anti-Mormons and defensive Mormons have shared a mistaken premise: that folk magic in the early American republic was an irrational and irreligious challenge to Christianity. He shatters that premise by carefully documenting—principally from Mormon sources—how inextricably interwoven magic and faith were in both the folk Christianity of Joseph Smith’s youth and in the Mormon church of his maturity.
Quinn suggests that Joseph Smith, Jr.’s recovery of the golden plates culminated several generations of preparation by a family committed to the experimental pursuit of spiritual knowledge and power. At the start of the nineteenth century his father, Joseph Smith, Sr., lived in Vermont where he found many like-minded men, chiefly interrelated Connecticut Yankees. A group of them rallied around Nathaniel Wood and Justus Winchell of Middletown, Vermont, to found a sect of Christian Primitivist treasure-seekers known as the New Israelites—a collective spiritual experiment that went badly awry because the participants overestimated their knowledge of divine power. In contrast to previous Mormon historians, Quinn is inclined to accept the circumstantial evidence that Oliver Cowdery’s father and the elder Smith were New Israelites—who consequently appear to have been a premature dress rehearsal for the Mormon church. Following the sect’s sudden collapse in 1802, the leaders fled to northern and western New York. In the early 1820s Justus Winchell and a shadowy long-time associate and fellow seer named Luman Walter (or Walters) periodically joined the treasure-seeking conducted in Palmyra, New York, by the elder Smith and his sons.
Recognizing the limits of his own spiritual powers, the elder Smith prepared a son—at first eldest son Alvin, after his death the third son Joseph, Jr.—to advance the family’s mission. The third son grew up sharing his family’s and his neighbors’ conviction that deflecting demons and communicating with angels was essential to their well-being in this world and their salvation in the next. By employing magical techniques to communicate with angels and to battle with the evil spirits who guarded treasure troves, Joseph Smith, Jr., exercised and developed his seeric gifts. Quinn suggests that Winchell and Walter jointly played a John the Baptist role by giving Joseph magical parchments “designed to be used by an unmarried, pure young man or woman in summoning and communicating with a divine spirit as part of a treasure quest” (p. 110). The preparations began to pay off on the night of 21-22 September 1823 when young Joseph achieved an epiphany with the spirit/angel Moroni: “the dramatically successful result of ritual magic, specifically necromancy, communication with the dead” (p. 119). Following Moroni’s directions and employing treasure-seeking’s techniques, young Joseph acquired and translated the Book of Mormon. His translations, revelations, and system of “temple endowment” all borrowed magical concepts in an effort to communicate a new faith to his contemporaries (pp. 150-91), much as the Apostle Paul drew upon “contemporary magic to teach in terms the common people could understand” (p. 4). After Smith’s death, many rank-and-file Mormons, as well as several leaders (most notably Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, and Brigham Young) clung to Christian magic as a means of communicating with the divine. Only in the late nineteenth century did the Church begin to campaign against folk magic.
Quinn draws upon a broad array of evidence to make his case. He accepts the evidence in the affidavits of contemporary but hostile witnesses when they describe the actions of the Smiths (rather than their presumed motives) and when the hostile accounts are compatible with the testimony of friendly observers—especially Martin Harris, Lucy Mack Smith, and Brigham Young. Indeed, Quinn points out that the Smiths’ folk magic can be thoroughly documented exclusively from the observations of early Mormons convinced that magic enabled their prophet to contact the divine (pp. 146, 194-95). Quinn persuasively links to the Smith family, and astutely analyzes, several artifacts used in magical rituals: Hyrum Smith’s dagger for inscribing magic circles (pp. 55-56), a silver Jupiter talisman worn by the prophet on the day he died (pp. 66-71), his serpent-headed and Jupiter-symbolized cane (p. 72), and the family’s three parchments (or “lamens”) inscribed with Christian magical symbols (pp. 78-110). Quinn fearlessly ventures onto more uncertain ground to speculate that certain coincidences of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s life with astrological expectations may have reinforced his family’s faith in a magical world view—if they had read any of the cited works which, Quinn concedes, he cannot document (p. 59). The astrological speculation is clever and interesting, but it is inconclusive and overlong and threatens to distract readers from the judiciousness with which he approaches the other, sounder evidence for the Smiths’ Christian magic.
Despite a valiant effort, Quinn fails to clarify the elusive (and usually illusive) distinction between magic and religion. On the one hand he recognizes that in examining the practice of any particular faith it is virtually impossible to disentangle the two (pp. xii-xvi); and yet in his title and most of his text he insists upon a distinct “magic world view” that presumably sets Joseph Smith’s generation apart from our own. I think he starts out on the right track when he argues that “magic” perceives life, spirit, and power in all matter—organic and inorganic (p. xii). Consequently, those who subscribe to “magic” believe that they can empirically learn rituals to master and manipulate the life-spirit-power all around them. The premise is spiritual, but the logic is scientific. But Quinn does not follow up that promising definition of “magic” to counter-define “religion” as an effort (and invariably an incomplete effort) to divorce spirit from matter and set divine power off in a distinct, distant, and immaterial realm. Such a divorce renders it impossible for individuals to immediately and precisely affect their circumstances by manipulating their spiritual content. Instead, Quinn settles for an unsatisfactory (and I think misleading) observation that “religion subordinates ritual to group and individual ethics (or at least emphasizes both); but magic gives little or no attention to group ethics, and emphasizes individual ethics primarily as another instrument to achieve the desired ends of ritual” (p. xiv). As a consequence of his particular distinction between religion and magic, Quinn differs with the defensive Mormon writers only over the timing of Mormonism’s renunciation of magic, and not with their insistence that their faith made a decisive break and became purely “religious.” Quinn offers no explanation for how and why—over the course of the nineteenth century—most Mormons joined their fellow American Protestants in forsaking the “magic world view.” In his telling, it simply happened (presumably by the growth of “rationality” as a deus ex machina).
On the other hand, if we define the magic-religion spectrum as I have suggested above (and never lose sight of the fact that every faith is some middle-ground compromise between the two), magic remains an important presence in Mormon cosmology (as I have argued elsewhere; see DIALOGUE 19 [Winter 1986]: 25-26). In contrast to other forms of Protestantism, Mormonism continues to insist upon the interpenetration of spirit and matter, and continues to seek the progressive perfection of man’s ability to comprehend and master the cosmos through ritual. Today’s Mormons are set off from their progenitors less by their renunciation of a magic world view than by their concession to their church leaders of a monopoly over the exercise of rituals that can be defined as magical (what Quinn refers to as “essential priesthood ordinances of eternal consequences,” p. xx). Rather than extinguishing magic, Mormon leaders have (since 1830) steadily renamed, consolidated, centralized, and regulated its practice. Reconceiving the transition in this way resolves certain puzzles identified by Quinn: throughout life Joseph Smith, Jr., collected seer stones but ordered others’ destroyed whenever they competed with his revelations (p. 201); the prophet publicly denounced phrenological publications other than those he controlled (p. 219); similarly, Brigham Young endorsed astrology but discouraged a separate society devoted to its practice (pp. 215-16). The Mormon church has so successfully monopolized and renamed magic that twentieth-century believers can live in an overtly rational culture but continue to satisfy the universal human hunger for a medley of magic and religion.
The Logan Herald Journal, Helen Cannon
Probably most Mormons today would rather not think of Joseph Smith as being the possessor of occult parchments, divining rods, talismans, seer stones, magic daggers, amulets and astrological guiges. But D. Michael Quinn, professor of history at Brigham Young University, in his book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, has cared to look closely at these and other aspects of the magic milieu in which Joseph Smith functioned. Taking his courage and a plethora of source material in hand (the bibliography runs to 67 pages), Quinn examines the spirit of the prophet’s times and environs in a thorough, if not definitive, manner.
Joseph Smith’s involvement in treasureseeking and folk magic is well-known, but from our 20th-century perspective, such a magic world view will appear to some as irreligious and something less than sacred. We are, for the most part, more comfortable with the rational than with the mystical, with the miraculous than with the magical, and we tend to view the occult and supernatural as aberrations of the uneducated, the misled or even the wicked.
At the outset of his book, though; Quinn asserts that a supernatural orientation need not be inconsistent with a spiritual one. Furthermore, Quinn makes it clear from the start that in drawing connections between magic and early Mormonism, he is in fact affirming his own faith in the church. He presents the information not as heresy, but as elucidating history.
Les readers of either the book or this review misinterpret, I want to emphasize Quinn’s introductory statement that in “Mormon terms,” he has “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.” Quinn states further that his purpose is “not to demean Joseph Smith as a prophet or to proselytize, but to simply to appreciate in greater depth and with greater fidelity to the available evidence a (remarkable) man.”
Nevertheless Quinn’s book will not be uncontroversial, partly because from our world view we may have trouble comprehending an earlier way of looking at life; partly because the church is somewhat divided, itself, over the issue of how much history should be told; and partly because Quinn made the decision to draw eclectically from previously ignored or discounted non-Mormon sources from the early 18th century. Though Quinn gives primary emphasis to “direct evidence from friendly sources,” he also uses “direct evidence from unfriendly sources.” Additionally he makes use of parallel evidence—environmental, historical, archetypal and literary—to suggest connections, presenting parallels that in his judgment seem more than haphazard coincidence.
For instance, consider an example of Quinn’s “direct evidence” from a contemporary source. New York’s so-called Burned-over District (dubbed this because of the religious conflagrations there) of the early, 1800s was replete with organized churches. Nevertheless, it was simultaneously an environment in which private folk religion thrived as well. The Smith family lived within the context of this world view. They were “religious seekers who did not accept the limits imposed by secular rationalists and mainline Protestant clergymen.” For evidence Quinn cites a statement made by one Palmyra neighbor: “This Joseph Smith Sr., we soon learned from his own lips, was a firm believer in witchcraft and other supernatural things; and had brought up his family in the same belief.” (Lapham 1870, 2:384, also Shipps 1985, 8 Hedengren 1985, 148; D. Morgan 1986, 220-21) At this point some readers will ift eyebrows but proceed, some will slam the book shut or drop it in a parking lot (as my mother has been known to do with books of which she doesn’t approve), some will read on with a sense of intrigue and some few scholars will pause to ponder the parenthetical material that most of us skim over. Readers in the last category will either know or wonder who Lapham was, to write this in 1870 about events in the 1820s. The bibliography identifies him as one Fayette Lapham; the index points to four other places in the text where Lapham is quoted, and identified as a neighbor to the Smiths. Was he friend or foe, though, and does his proximity to the Smiths in time and place make his comment entirely credible?
Still looking at material within these parentheses, what of the citations of Shipps, Hedengren and Morgan, who represent what in Mormondom has been called “the new Mormon history”? Jan Shipps, a contemporary “friendly” non-Mormon, is generally trusted within the community of Saints, and her Mormonism: The Story of a New Religion is thought to be eminently fair and scholarly. Presumably, too, Hedengren’s In Defense of a Faith: Assessing Arguments Against Latter-day Saint Belief, and Dale Morgan’s On Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History, are solid, believable sources.
Now this digression into the parenthetical citation material may seem unnecessary, but it may also be the point on which Quinn’s book succeeds or fails. It would take a very long time to trace and evaluate Quinn’s barrage of sources, and as with an artillery barrage, some will hit the mark; others fall wide. There will be readers who will object to what might be labeled indiscriminate use of sources.
Whatever the reader chooses to believe of the source material, he will find in the book chapters which chronicle all sorts of occult leanings among those on the rural frontier in the early 1800s, among them many of the early church leaders. In the author’s chapter on divining rods and seer stones, for instance, using both parallel and direct evidence, Quinn convincingly shows how Joseph Smith and his family were involved in treasure digging.
Associated with Palmyra’s “Fraternity of Rodsmen” (which had nothing whatever to do with fishing), the Smiths sought with their divining rods “hidden treasures of the earth.” Citing Isaac Butts as a contemporary “just one year younger than Smith” and as an eyewitness to some of Smith’s activities, the author quotes: “Young Jo had a forked witch hazel rod with which he claimed he could locate buried money or hidden things. Later he had a peep stone which he put in his hat and looked into it. I have seen both.” (Butts 1885) Checking the bibliography on this, I note that it is taken from an Isaac Butts Affadavit, ca. 1885. “Naked Truths About Mormonism” (Jan. 1888). Obviously none too friendly, but perhaps admissible, posits Quinn, because it is closer than we are to the source.
So the book proceeds, examining an atmosphere charged with the occult. Chapter titles alone give some indication of the thrust: “Early America’s Religio-magical Heritage; ” “Divining Rods, Treasure Diggings and Seer Stones;” “Ritual Magic, Astrology and Talismans;” “Magic Parchments and Occult Mentors.” Then the emphasis shifts with chapter five, and succeeding chapters move us closer to our own time and world view, culminating in the final chapter on “The Persistence and Decline of Magic After 1830.” At the end of this chapter he makes an excellent summary statement: “In its origins, folk magic is private rather than institutional. This helps to explain both the persistence and the decline of magic in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was inevitable that magic beliefs and practices should have persisted among some converts to Mormonism, especially those stepped in the folk religion of America and Europe. Until the late 19th century, some of the church’s highest leaders were themselves products of the non-institutional folk religion of New England and New York.”
Quinn, in his chapter “Mormon Scriptures and the Magic World View,” makes a provocative case against the connections often made between Mormon revelations and the doctrines of Free-Masonry. Critics and commentators have associated many church rituals and revealed scriptures either with Masonry or with the strongly anti-Masonic feelings current at that time in New York. Proxy baptism for the dead, patrilineal priesthood descent, degrees of heavenly glory and other LDS revealed doctrines Quinn convincingly shows to be more compatible with ancient occult traditions than with the traditions of Free-Masonry.
On the other hand, I find his chapter linking Smith’s views with astrological signs to be thinly and tenuously supported. It is stretching it a little to imply that because Joseph Smith seemed “to fit exactly the astrological predictions of his Jupiter-determined physical appearance,” he therefore had to have a belief in astrology.
I have suggested that readers of this book should give special attention to Quinn’s introduction. The Afterword deserves similar close attention because it reiterates and clarifies the author’s intent and his faith. The Afterword is also his apologia. In defense of his method and in anticipation of his critics, Quinn writes, “the role of the historian is to avoid isolating pieces of evidence, and instead to understand how each fact that is possibly relevant may have connected in the past with other evidences, no matter how fragmentary. Although we will never understand the past as a seamless whole, we should be willing to acknowledge even unfamiliar patterns that these diverse evidences outline.”
But bridges between world views are not easy to construct. Octavio Paz, in his book Convergences, observes the fact of differences in perception. The Greeks’ perception of color was not, for instance, ours, the inference being that other times and cultures had an ethical and philosophical vision of reality that is different from our own. Suppose, Paz suggests, that a group of remote Stone Age pygmies were visited by representatives from our Age of Technology. Fascinated by sounds coming from a radio set, the pygmies, even if an interpreter could have immediately translated the radio’s scientific language to pygmy talk, would have had to make an additional internal translation in order to convert the 20th-century ideas, concepts and jargon into a language of myth, miracle and magic which they could comprehend.
Modern readers, used to translating the magical, the mystical and even the miraculous, to scientific explanation, may not be fully transported by this book back to Smith’s magic milieu. But Quinn has tried, and I think that is a vilid effort.
Journal of the West, Mark S. Joy
The debate concerning the origins of Mormonism has repeatedly returned to a focus on the life and character of Joseph Smith, Jr. Those skeptical of his claims as to the divine origins of the Book of Mormon have often cited Smith’s involvement in folk magic, treasure-digging, and similar activities as evidence tending toward doubt about those claims. In the past some Mormon scholars have attempted to deny or dismiss such allegations. In this substantial study, D. Michael Quinn, professor of American History at Brigham Young University and award-winning scholar of the history of Mormonism, attempts to put the involvement of Smith and other early Mormons in folk magic into the proper historical perspective. Quinn argues that the magic world view still found widespread acceptance in early nineteenth-century America, despite the twin assaults upon it by Enlightenment rationalism and evangelical revivalism. Furthermore, he suggests that Smith’s involvement in treasure-digging, his use of divining rods, seer stones, talismans, and other such paraphernalia, and his acquaintance with the literature of folk magic, were not atypical of his time and surroundings, but rather a reflection of the “religio-magical heritage” of early America. Writing from the point of view of a believing Mormon, Quinn also asserts that it is not necessarily inconsistent that Smith could have been both a practitioner of folk magic and a divinely inspired prophet.
Beyond the obvious points of interest here for those specialists in the study of Mormonism, the book has definite broader values. Scholars of religion in America, and of American culture generally, have not fully appreciated the extent to which the magic world view persisted into the early nineteenth century. Quinn, with an impressive attention to bibliography could serve as a general introduction to the scholarly literature on Mormon history as a whole as well as illustrations of artifacts, literature, and individuals associated with folk magic are a valuable resource for those new to this subject. Quinn writes from the conviction that “persons of faith have no reason to avoid historical inquiry into their religion or to discourage other from such investigations” (xx), and certainly in that vein this book will be welcomed by students of American religion.
Pacific Historical Review, Newell G. Bringhurst
D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is an extremely important book. Quinn, a practicing, believing, Latter-day Saint and former professor of history at Brigham Young University, convincingly demonstrates that magic had a strong influence on the course and development of Mormonism as founded by Joseph Smith. At first glance Quinn’s disclosure of Mormonism’s early reliance on magic might appear to lend support to contemporary critics who view Latter-day Saints in a negative light. Indeed, there is a present-day tendency to view the practice and use of magic as being at variance with, and antagonistic to, conventional Christian beliefs. However, in the early nineteenth century a significant number of Americans embraced the occult while at the same time considering themselves devout, practicing Christians. Thus, Joseph Smith and his followers, like many other people of that period, utilized observations in determining their daily behavior. Quinn, moreover, goes one step further in presenting convincing evidence that Smith, in defining and setting out many of Mormonism’s important and often distinctive doctrines and practices, utilized elements from his “folk magic world view.”
Besides presenting a strong and generally convincing case for the pervasive influence of magic on early Mormonism, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is important for other reasons. It represents a “case study” of religious influence “from the bottom up” in that it presents folk magic as a phenomenon of the “majority” of common, average Americans, despite being rejected by most rationally educated mainline clergy. The book also illuminates an important and heretofore unexplored side of Joseph Smith’s complex, often elusive personality, thus enabling students of early Mormon history to understand Mormonism’s founder in greater depth.
Despite its overwhelming strengths, Quinn’s book has a few problems. Notwithstanding these relatively minor difficulties, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is a seminal study, one of the most significant books yet written on Joseph Smith and early Mormon origins. It commands the attention of all students of Mormon history in particular and American religious history in general.
Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Jan C. Dawson
By neglecting “evidence long in existence regarding early Mormonism and magic” (p. ix), many Mormon scholars, according to D. Michael Quinn, have interpreted too rationalistically such elements of Mormon history as Joseph Smith’s visions and his translation of the Book of Mormon. They have also misunderstood the relation of certain Mormon scriptural passages—about the occult, Adam, Enoch, the afterlife, and the priesthood—to 19th-century Freemasonry and emerging denominational Christianity. Thus Quinn has “attempt[ed] a general survey of the many dimensions of the magic world view’s relationship to Mormonism” that “can provide . . . an interpretative tool for weaving together what otherwise appear as loose threads of the Mormon past” (p. x).
If, as a scholar, Quinn wants to set the historical record straight, as a believer, he also wants to make that record palatable to a church whose policy “by the mid-twentieth century . . . actually condemned magic” (p. 193). Quinn’s rereading of Mormon history and scripture, especially in chapters 5 an 6, may be of less interest to non-Mormon scholars than the description of early American folk religion meticulously documented in the first four chapters. Also of considerable general interest is Quinn’s thesis that the institutionalization of Mormonism in 1830 gradually increased the number of Protestant evangelical converts who rejected magic, thus decreasing the influence of the original converts from the ranks of folk magic practitioners and other churchless “religious seekers” (p. 224). Quinn concludes that “magic techniques facilitated the religious quest of persons who already perceived reality from a magic world view, at the same time that other church leaders and believers without that view or those techniques enjoyed an equally rich experience of divine communication, charismatic gifts, and personal spirituality without using folk magic” (p. 228).
The weight of Quinn’s evidence and the erudition he displays in interpreting it make plausible his argument that the early Mormons’ magic world view represented continuity in rather than conflict with America’s prevailing religious ethos. Somewhat troublesome, however, is the lack of conceptual clarity about he relative influence on Mormonism of “nineteenth-century folk culture” in New York and Pennsylvania (p. 150) and the “identifiable occult tradition in Western civilization” (p. xix). The 65-page bibliography contains dozens of references to pre-19th-century published works in the occult canon, which are used as both direct and parallel evidence of the early Mormon magic world view. The 44-page appendix contains photographs of occult material culture objects now preserved in Mormon museums. Further analysis of the folk versus elite roots of the Mormon magic world view might have helped locate early Mormonism even more precisely within America’s very complex antebellum religious culture.
Religious Studies Review, R. Laurence Moore
The best recent books in American religious history have placed the Puritan tradition, so long and so skillfully used to lend coherence to the history of the United States, in serious trouble. The news has not surprised everyone. Take the case of this reviewer. Long ago, I attended a “Northern” Presbyterian church in Houston, Texas. On the small side and not taken seriously by many people in town, its building was eventually sold and converted into a disco. The only Protestants who made a significant impression on me in my formative years were Southern Baptists. They were everywhere and took me to a Billy Graham rally where I was briefly saved during the first years of my adolescence. Otherwise the best friend of my youth was Roman Catholic. The smartest was an atheist. And my largest circle of pals were Jews who gave terrific birthday parties. Much later, when I had begun graduate work in New Haven, I learned to my surprise that the largely forgotten Presbyterian church of my youth was my only contact so far with something that stood at the “center” of American experience. I mastered Perry Miller and was dazzled by countless other books written out of New England’s rich historical archives. But I doubted.
A lot more is questioned in this fine book by Michael Quinn than whether high-level Puritan ideas and attitudes, sweeping out of New England, much affected the development of American culture. It reflects an interest to explore the persistence of occult and magical beliefs in a world overtaken by science.
Scholars who have worked on antebellum religion know how difficult it is to find the right tone. One of the impressive things about D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is that Quinn has done that. Quinn knows more about magic and occult lore, as it circulated in antebellum America, than any of the authors under review. What he seeks to describe is best defined as folk culture. It informed the lives of people situated at the bottom of the social scale. They were more rural than urban, and although they used print material, their culture was built upon oral tradition and upon artifacts. Quinn describes this culture without celebration and without condescension. It is simply what informed people’s lives, provided comfort for their insecurities, and brightened their dreams.
Quinn is a Mormon, although a somewhat embattled one. He set out to explain something vital about Joseph Smith and the founding of Mormonism, and incurred, like Fawn Brodie had almost a half century before, the wrath of his church. The result was lamentable but predictable. After all, Quinn proves that the contents of the now infamous “salamander letter,” fabricated though they were, were perfectly consistent with magical and occult views entertained by Smith and his family. They lived in a world that accepted the magical properties of divining rods, seer stones, protective talismans, prophetic dreams, and communications with nonhuman spirits that certainly included salamanders. Mormon officials, as Quinn notes, have long regarded evidence of these beliefs in the same way as the critics of Mormons. If they can be tied to Smith’s tail, they furnish evidence of superstition and fraud. Quinn stood little chance of changing their minds, and he keeps the focus of his book needlessly parochial in trying to do so.
His argument, however, is an extremely good one and has implications for cultural interpretation that go well beyond the origins of Mormonism. Quinn agrees that we cannot place religion in a category that is distinct from magic and the occult. All of them are ways of explaining a world in which nothing is presumed to happen randomly. Looking at systems historically, we can distinguish different traditions. Hermeticism, alchemy, astrology, and Rosicrucianism have historical roots that may be traced apart from the history of Christianity. Yet the Bible is filled with magic and occult happenings, and the different traditions have more or less constantly intermingled. Whatever efforts learned clergy made in the eighteenth century to strip their own libraries of occult and magical texts, many Americans continued to respond with enthusiasm only to religious leaders who did not insist on a separation of folk practice from Christianity. Quinn’s argument, then, suggests that Smith’s use of magical traditions was essential to the prophetic role
Saints Herald, Paul M. Edwards
This book contains a beautifully researched and articulated account of an age of magic, folk tales, and the occult. What the author discovered in his fully documented journey is that the world of Joseph Smith and his family was a world of supernatural creatures and events, signs and symbols, rituals and procedures, and magic (both black and white).
It is hard for us today to understand why men and women of promise and experience would take magic so seriously. But 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. They assumed that material existence possessed mind, or consciousness, which was available to be tapped, understood, and called on.
The existence of magical implements, protective signs and symbols of all kinds, published endorsements for mystical practices by Mormon leaders, and the correlation between ritual magic and early Latter Day Saint practices all make it difficult to deny the connection between the fringes of a magic world view and Joseph’s articulation of religious experience. It is important to remember that the Smiths—like most people of that time—were basically ignorant of the mechanical assumptions of the emerging scientific world. The limitations imposed by rational consideration and scientific logic, or by empirical data collection, seemed to fly in the face of the powerful experiences of visions and nature-powered communication. While Joseph himself showed many signs of intelligence and a familiarity with the increasingly “explained” world of science, it is also true that he practiced some of the more common magical aspects of his still-primitive society. In the early church, leaders found themselves living in both worlds, trying to identify and articulate their experiences in terms understood and appreciated by their peers. The world view since that time—some 170 years ago—has changed radically just as we anticipate it will change in the next dozen decades or so. One change has been our increasing ability to explain nature’s behavior. In some very important aspects this change in our belief systems—in world views—has deprived us of the value of wonder, of awe, of the mysterious. Our overly rational expectations are often as hard to understand as the overly emotive explanations of Joseph’s time. This hard-core “data-view” has replaced the idea of mystery with the idea of problem. Thus we are left to face religious experience as a problem to be solved rather than a mystery in which to participate.
Both views—magic and rational—are what we have called them; they are world views, models by which persons look at their world and try and give it order and meaning. With such a view Joseph reflected two things: (1) when he could not explain what seemed to be happening, he naturally saw things in terms of animistic understandings; and (2) when it came time to articulate his views to others, he would use terms and signs which reflected the mysterious.
Somehow I was expecting more from this book—perhaps because I have heard D. Michael Quinn speak on several occasions, and each time he referred to the soon-to-be-completed work as containing the “full story.” Yet, I do not feel he has given us the whole story. No doubt, he has presented the facts (he is an exceptionally fine scholar and is, above all else, a careful researcher). There is, however, considerable doubt in my mind whether some of the conclusions he reached are valid reflections of those facts. There is little room to question that Joseph Smith mirrored his culture, nor that he was influenced and drew upon folk beliefs in the presentations of his religious convictions. The Smith family reflected a magic world view common to the folk culture of America in the early nineteenth century. This is neither earthshaking nor informative if that is all there is to the story. What it means in terms of the experiences significant to the Mormon movement is still open to question. And I believe if Michael Quinn knew what it meant or drew conclusions based on the vast information he has collected, he has not said so yet.
Having made this complaint, I would point out that this book is the most significant work done to date on the important questions of magic and Mormons. It is well worth reading, and Signature Books is to be complimented both for its publication and for making it available at a reasonable price.
In his controversial response to the mid-80s “Salamander” crisis, former BYU history professor Michael Quinn attempts to recreate a nineteenth-century worldview that allowed for folk magic, astrology, and treasure digging. While Quinn’s thesis and much of his evidence helps to faithfully resolve problems with Joseph Smith’s treasure-hunting history, the folks in the JSB weren’t quite ready to make any such allowances. I have to admit, though, when faced with such a collection of “magic world view” ties, it’s hard to remember that Quinn is only presenting possibilities, not arguing for radical revisions of our understanding. Even so, this is one of the most fun and captivating books available to Mormons today. Orthodoxy rating: 1 (0 if you work for CES).
[“orthodoxy rating” from 0 to 5; 5 being ultra-right-wing-conservative-fanatic Mormon, and zero being the alternate-voice-of-all-alternate-voices liberal Mormons of any political or theological persuasion should be comfortable (or at least tolerant) of anything around a three.]
Sunstone, Jon Butler
D. Michael Quinn’s thesis that a magical world view structured Joseph Smith’s religiosity and early Mormon religious practice inevitably makes Quinn’s book controversial. It could hardly be otherwise, given the murderous recent interest in Mormon history in Salt Lake City. But this is not a merely trendy book. it is a major work of scholarship, formidably researched and vigorously argued, and it challenges scholars in a variety of disciplines, not just those in Mormon history. The issues it raises are as important to religious history generally and to American religious history in particular as they are to Mormonism.
Quinn’s book is important for three reasons. First, it undermines traditional interpretations of Mormonism’s origins and thereby shatters the exceptionalist myth about American and Mormon religion. Second, its choice of evidence opens up major questions about the historian’s conceptualization of scriptural texts. Third, Quinn’s argument brings both Mormonism and American religious history more tightly within the Western intellectual and religious orbit, meaning the expansive West of Europe, not the narrower confines of Utah. Quinn’s argument is spare and economical. He finds Mormonism rooted in a “magic world view” often hostile to orthodox, Christianity yet sometimes combined with it in powerful ways, especially in Christianity’s popular forms. This “magic worldview” took root in both intellectual and folk sources and showed a distinct preference for a “white,” or positive, magic that answered difficult questions, found lost objects, cured disease and prevented death (as first described in Keith Thomas’s magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic [New York, 1971], a classic book required for any reader interested in Quinn’s argument, pro or con). In Joseph Smith’s case, this interest led from treasure seeking to apparitions to golden plates to healing to miracles, finally to Mormonism in its pre-1880 varieties. Nor was Smith alone. Mormons of many backgrounds and views followed Smith in these practices until they were discarded in a modernizing process of sharp, swift effectiveness that occurred after about 1880.
Is Quinn’s thesis valid? Previous historians (and anti-Mormon detractors) pursued their arguments about Mormon magic through analogical proofs. Their reasoning went as follows: 1) Smith searched for fortunes using weird objects and devices; 2) these objects and devices looked a great deal like the paraphernalia early modem European occultists used to invoke supernatural aid; 3) therefore, Smith was an occultist or practitioner of magic. Direct evidence about eighteenth- or nineteenth-century magic was hard to come by; the century of the Enlightenment seemed to furnish few exemplars for Smith to follow. Worse, Smith’s activities were themselves poorly documented, often only sloppily so by anti Mormon propagandists. Smith’s behavior sometimes looked magical but it was extremely difficult to demonstrate that it was magical.
Quinn’s book caps investigations begun some twenty years ago by Mormon and non-Mormon historians who sought to understand, not discredit, Mormon origins. Even as these investigations began, the distinguished Mormon historian Marvin Hill wrote that their evidence about Mormon magic was too abundant and pervasive “to brush aside or ignore.” Quinn makes that evidence mountainous. No one has so amply documented the interest of Joseph Smith and other early Mormons in fortune-finding and witchcraft, their possession of seer stones and use of divining rods and healing sticks, and their ownership of daggers and parchments engraved with acknowledged “magical” symbols. The result is a stunning turn from the mere possibility that early Mormons imbibed magic to an overwhelming probability that they did so.
Quinn accomplishes his feat (to paraphrase John Houseman) the old fashioned way—with evidence. The book is an encyclopedia of American and Mormon occultism from the 1780s through the 1860s, and it culminates in a sixty-plus page bibliography and meticulous index that will allow friend and critic alike to pursue every one of Quinn’s arguments and evidences. Moreover, every one of his important proofs comes from Mormon contemporaries who were not bothered or embarrassed by such practices, such as Lucy Mack Smith and Oliver Cowdery. This kind of proof gives the book special power for historians, who, like jurors, thirst for direct rather than indirect manifestations of an alleged and important behavior. Quinn’s book accomplishes another aim as well. His prodigious research allows him the luxury of never depending on anti-Mormon agitators to substantiate his points. They become little more than interesting antiquarians and controversialists who sometimes correctly perceived magic in early Mormonism but who never understood its origins, depth, or even its importance.
One sometimes wishes that Quinn had written a more leisurely book, as much for himself as for his readers. He might have felt more free to speculate on some of the broader implications of his findings, such as the issue of intellectual chaos in a new religious movement or the competition to define orthodoxy as a religious movement matures. Still, the obsessive pursuit of every scrap of evidence about Mormon magic accounts for the power of the book and even give it a certain charm. Certainly, no one will mistake its message. No, Quinn has not settled the question about Smith’s occultism. Such questions are never settled, at least not in the way that federal budgets are settled. Historians who still are debating John Locke’s influence on the Constitution hardly can be expected to reach quick agreement on an interpretation of Joseph Smith’s occultism. Yet we have made the necessary leap. Like Zeezrom healed by Alma, we need no longer be buffeted by doubt that Smith harbored occult or magical notions and that these found sympathetic responses in thousands of followers.
But what kind of response, to an occultism of what meaning? No longer burdened to demonstrate any influence, we will now contest the ground of what influence. The question about Smith’s occultism—Was Joseph Smith a “magician” and, thereby, a charlatan? (this is not at all the same as asking whether Smith used magic, which is Quinn’s concern)—now will fragment into a thousand slipperier questions, each one of which will be as difficult to answer as the original query. What did Smith take from occultists, metallurgists, and alchemists? What did he transform? Which occultism was more important, the magic that descended from early modern European intellectuals like Francis Barrett, Nicholas Culpeper, and John Heydon, or the anonymous occultism which circulated through visual and verbal “folk” traditions? Did single, coherent folk magic and alchemical traditions find homes in early America, or, like Christianity, did conflicts and tensions characterize their internal histories and dynamics? Was the magic important to Mormon origins also important to Mormon expansion and to its development as a major religion? A Mormon history bloodied by the mere suggestion of magic among its founders surely will be further disturbed as scholars now probe the certainty of that practice.
Quinn’s expansive view of early Mormon thinking opens additional questions about the canon of religious movements, including Mormon canonical texts. Jan Shipps already has demonstrated that modern Mormonism accords “First Vision” an importance unknown to the first Mormons. Quinn extends this reconstruction of Mormon texts by reexamining the Book of Mormon and the physical artifacts that Smith frequently carried with him. Quinn’s techniques are commonplace among European medievalists, none of whom would write religious history by focusing, for example, on only a few of Thomas Aquinas’s works. Texts from many sources, some avowedly “popular,” as well as sculpture, painting, and physical artifacts have long comprised their canon, and Quinn and the medievalists may yet teach American religious historians important lessons about textual diversity in all facets of American religion.
Quinn also tells us something important about the breadth of the Mormon texts. Quinn’s subject is Mormonism as well as Joseph Smith, and he quite rightly examined many “texts” produced by many Mormons who “founded” as fully as Joseph Smith did. Puritanism, Presbyterianism, Christian Science, and Scientology all cry out for similar canonical redefinition because historians too often restrict themselves to the most familiar and traditional materials, thereby missing movers as much as movements. In taking this expansive view of the canon, Quinn has raised an important question: are a movement’s texts comprised of only a few sources taken from a few persons, or are they defined by many sources culled from many adherents? The answer defines the subject and its history simultaneously: whose text, whose scripture, whose religion. In the case of Mormonism, only by adopting the broadest conceptualization of “text” can we understand its tumultuous origins and take seriously the extraordinary proselytizing that established Mormonism as the most important religious tradition born (but not conceived) in the antebellum American spiritual hothouse.
Finally, Quinn’s argument about magic and Mormonism demonstrates that we can no longer consider Mormonism the uniquely American phenomenon we once believed or hoped it was. Quinn’s Mormons are nearly so idiosyncratic or unique as historians, might have dreamed. They fit with surprising ease into intellectual and spiritual traditions relatively common in early modern Europe. An interpretation that stresses Mormonism’s links to its surrounding cultures is not surprising, of course. David Davis long ago uncovered Mormonism’s Puritan roots; Gordon Wood has written about its evangelical origins; Jan Shipps has reminded us of its developmental complexities. Now, Quinn has uncovered new cultural matrixes important to shaping Mormon origins, from seventeenth-century Hermeticists to Emanuel Swedenborg to early nineteenth-century popularizers of traditional folk wisdom to Christianity, of course, in both learned and popular varieties. No one who has read Quinn’s book and likes it could any longer describe Mormonism as exemplifying the naive tradition in American culture. This realization might also encourage the same reader to rethink stereotypes about more general American-European cultural and religious separation, which guide American historical scholarship more fully now than they did thirty years ago.
In the end, Quinn’s book does what good books always do. In telling us about Mormonism’s magical heritage, its multiple “texts,” and its churning European intellectual and cultural roots, it tells us about Mormonism’s intricacies and, especially, its vast, often rambunctious complexities. These complexities always have distinguished Mormon religiosity. Increasingly they distinguish its history. Quinn’s book reflects that growing maturity. It would be a shame for both American and Mormon religious history if complexity, which always reflects maturity, were banished in favor of alluring, but always false, simplicity.
Utah Historical Quarterly, Sterling M. McMurrin
Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is nothing less than a scholarly tour de force. It is a highly informative and quite remarkable exercise in detailed research. The involvement of Joseph Smith and his family and many associates in occult beliefs and magical practices is not news. In his own time Smith was dogged with claims of treasure digging, reliance on peep stones, and related occult matters, but much of the evidence for the more blatant accusations came from sources that the LDS church managed quite successfully over the years to debunk on the ground that enemies of the church are not to be believed, and any writer or witness who criticized Joseph Smith was an enemy. In recent years historians both in and out of the church have chipped away at this shield until now it is impossible to deny the obvious.
The strength of Quinn’s study, it seems to me, is threefold: (1) It exhibits an impressive knowledge of folk magic and its practice in nineteenth-century America; (2) it lays before the reader an astounding array of detailed events and practices, even to the point of overkill; and (3) it clearly establishes, through the corroboration of divergent sources, that in this matter the traditional historians of the church have to some degree either been uninformed or have engaged in a conscious cover-up to protect the Mormon image. I suspect that it has been both of these.
Most churches are involved in some measure of magical belief and practice, and the Mormon church even today is no exception. Consider the use of sacred words—especially names—exorcisms, or the presumed power of set rituals. But such things are so commonplace and habitual that they are usually not seen as magical. Most Mormons have managed to live comfortably with the claims of a magical translation of the Book of Mormon by regarding it as revelation or inspiration, or something like that; and seer stones, which in Quinn’s account were not uncommon among early church members, have been kept at a bare minimum by the official histories. The prophet’s treasure digging, which has been difficult to ignore, has been regarded as a forgivable youthful aberation. According to Quinn, magic largely disappeared from Mormonism by the end of the century, but most Mormons are aware that some of it is still around. After all, it adds a little spice to religion.
But Quinn exposes far more in the magic line than most well-informed Mormons have ever suspected—witness the very titles of some of his chapters: Divining Rods, Treasure Digging, and Seer Stones; Ritual Magic, Astrology, and Talismans; Magic Parchments and Occult Mentors. No doubt the book holds no surprises for those who are well acquainted with recent research on Mormon origins, considering the present crop of excellent historians of the church, but I confess that I was both surprised and shocked by Quinn’s disclosure of the extent of belief in astrology of early church leaders—that Joseph Smith, for instance, even timed some of his numerous marriages by astrological charts.
Like most studies, Quinn’s work has its weaknesses: a penchant for generalization, for instance, that sometimes overlooks differences in place and time, excessive attention at times to matters more or less irrelevant to the case of Mormonism, and a failure to exploit fully the implications of important instances of magic with which he is concerned. And there is the problem of treating such things as astrology and phrenology as if they were more or less similar in nature to manipulative magic.
Finally, there is one gnawing problem that I have in reading the book. Just where does Quinn himself stand with reference to magic in relation to the belief claims of Mormonism? He is not obligated to discuss his own views, but in the introduction he makes it clear that the magical beliefs and practices of Joseph Smith and his family and associates in no way affect his faith in the truth of Mormonism. He states unequivocally, “I believe in Gods, angels, spirits, and devils, and that they have communicated with humankind” (xx). Perhaps the secret of Quinn’s sturdy faith lies in his position that while magic and religion are not “identical entities,” they are not “polar opposites” (xvi). He is certainly correct that religion has usually, if not always, been infected with what today we regard as magic and superstition. But, at least on the surface, he seems to be remarkably generous in his attitude toward such things, almost as if, after all, they are really God’s way of dealing with the masses, or even with their prophets. They are man’s way of dealing with God, but surely not God’s way of dealing with man.
Utah Holiday, Peter Wiley
One of the most intriguing intellectual undertakings throughout the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been the attempt to limn the life and character of Joseph Smith, the founder of “Mormonism.” Smith’s claim to have translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates revealed to him by an angel, his organization of what he called the one true church, his pronouncement of revelations that he said came to him directly from God, his secret practice of polygamy, and his political aspirations as a presidential candidate in 1844 all fanned a deeply passionate response that led to recurring violence directed at Smith and the Mormons, and ultimately to Smith’s death at the hands of a mob.
From the moment that stories of Smith’s discovery of the golden plates began to circulate near the Smith farm in western New York, his neighbors split bitterly over the question of Smith’s character and behavior. His opponents described him as a shiftless ne’er-do-well, who claimed to use magical means such as a peepstone to find buried treasures. His defenders, led by his family, described him as a righteous young man who was doing the work of the Lord.
IPSO FACTO. The debate raged on—backwoods charlatan or frontier prophet—even after his death. In recent years this debate has taken on new, more fascinating, even deadly, dimensions as it continues to stir the most intense passions. And that is of little wonder, since a literal acceptance of Smith’s story of the golden plates is at the heart of the beliefs held sacred by Mormons. Thus, any challenge to the official version of Smith’s story is often seen as, ipso facto, an attack on the LDS church.
Just two years ago a young, unassuming, document collector-turned-forger named Mark Hofmann became so entangled in the intricacies of inventing a version of the historical Joseph Smith that he sought escape by blowing two people to smithereens. Hofmann claimed to have discovered a number of documents, including the so-called salamander letter, that appeared to add new dimensions to the Smith story. The salamander letter had supposedly been written by Martin Harris, the man who financed the first printing of the Book of Mormon. The new twist in the story of the discovery of the plates, according to the letter, was that Smith had been rebuffed by a white salamander that struck him three times, before he received the plates.
Hofmann’s “discovery” greatly excited historians of Mormonism, because it provided another document that pointed to Smith’s involvement with the kind of folk magic that was known to be common among many families transplanted from New England to the new frontier of western New York. In the community of frontier magic, for example, a salamander was regarded as a fiery spirit or a divine communicant.
As it turned out, Hofmann was well aware of the interests of this close-knit community of Mormon scholars, so well aware that he forged a number of documents—including the salamander letter—that filled various lacunae in other areas of Smith research, such as polygamy. When the police broke the Hofmann case, church leaders seemed for a time to have rid themselves of the line of historical research that associated Joseph Smith with frontier magic. Hofmann’s arrest and conviction also appeared to have restored to the church the sanitized story of Joseph Smith that church intellectuals had defended over years of protecting the prophet from his critics.
This Joseph Smith was described by Gordon B. Hinckley, first councilor in the Presidency of the Mormon church, in his pamphlet Truth Restored, as a member of “a typical New England family of English and Scottish extraction.” Hinckley acknowledged, at the semiannual church conference in October, 1987, that “there was folk magic in those days.” But he went on to say that efforts to explain the origins of the Book of Mormon and the church in terms of folk magic are just another anti-Mormon fad that will fade.
BACK FROM THE DEAD. Shortly after Hinckley’s sermon, Salt Lake City’s Signature Books published a new volume on Joseph Smith, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, by D. Michael Quinn, a professor of American history at Brigham Young University. Quinn’s book has revived the debate that Mark Hofmann’s conviction appeared to have laid to rest.
The first thing to say about Quinn’s book is that it in no way uses any of the documents so skillfully manufactured by Hofmann. Instead Quinn draws on a colossal amount of research to show that “the first generation of Mormons (especially the Joseph Smith 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) shared a magic world view that predated Mormonism.” Quinn specifically cites evidence of Joseph Smith’s participation in magical practices of treasure digging, his possession and use of instruments and emblems of folk magic, and his continued use of such implements for religious purposes during the establishment and early years of Mormonism. Among the sources of this evidence are members of Smith’s family, including his mother, the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young and other early church leaders.
RODS AND PEEPSTONES. The gist of Quinn’s argument is that folk magic was common among many families on the frontier, particularly among families who, like the Smiths, practiced a blend of religion and magic independent of any established church, as they moved west out of New England into areas like western New York. Among these practices were the use of rods and peepstones to find lost objects, including buried treasure; the belief in the efficacy of dreams and visions; careful study of astrology and a belief in the influence of the movement of heavenly bodies; the use of parchments inscribed with magic writings to afford personal protection from evil spirits, and the wearing of talismans for the same purpose.
Quinn traces the transferral of folk magic from Europe and England to the frontier through newly arrived immigrants, through a wealth of written material that was readily available in the libraries of western New York, and through a number of practitioners of magic who were close neighbors of the Smith family. Quinn acknowledges that his arguments become more speculative when he turns to the questions of the origins of the Book of Mormon and the intermingling of folk magic with the origins of the Mormon faith.
In discussing the visions or dreams that led to the discovery of the golden plates, for example, Quinn examines the interweaving of Smith’s experiences with magical practices described in written material available to Smith, his family and neighbors, and with information derived from magical artifacts known to have belonged to Smith and his family. In particular, Quinn devotes several pages to an astrological interpretation of Smith’s three annual quests for the Book of Mormon. Quinn then examines the Book of Mormon in terms of the magic motifs he finds in what Smith claimed was a translation of ancient Egyptian writing on the golden tablets.
In discussing the discovery of the Book of Mormon, Quinn notes that Smith prayed to be guided to the plates for three years in succession on the autumnal equinox. On September 21, 1823, for example, Smith prayed under the full moon on a Sunday night that was ruled by his own ruling planet, Jupiter. The hours of his prayer and vision were ruled by planets and the moon, making the time particularly propitious for the summoning of and communing with a good spirit. (Smith also owned a talisman which had the magic seal of Jupiter and the Latin words “Confirmo O Deus potentissimus” on one side, and the astrological symbol for Jupiter, Jupiter’s magic number (136), and a magic table in Hebrew lettering that added up to 136 on the other side.)
Among the evidence Quinn examines are accounts, apart from Hofmann’s forged salamander letter, one by a Mormon, the other by a non-Mormon, that say that Smith claimed to have seen a toad or an amphibious creature during his first attempt to gain access to the golden plates. The ubiquitous salamander refuses to be laid to rest!
Unfortunately very little of Quinn’s work will see the light of day outside of scholarly circles, because of the almost unreadable manner in which Quinn presents his arguments. Quinn’s research, however, unlike a fad, will undoubtedly shape an important part of the Mormon historical agenda for years to come.
For this reason, it is most important to note that Quinn sees no reason why his discussion of folk magic as an important part of Joseph Smith’s religious practice should impugn Smith’s integrity as a religious leader. Smith’s magical practices, Quinn points out, had nothing to do with black magic. Rather they were a guard against satanism and an effort to conjure friendly spirits for religious purposes. And they had everything to do with what Quinn describes as “a pronounced interrelationship among the various manifestations of magic and religion.” Folk magic was just that, part of the experience of the folk, and Joseph Smith as a most uncommon, common man not surprisingly drew heavily on the culture of his time, bringing together magic, religion, and communal experiments with new sexual practices and economic cooperation, to forge a whole new religious tradition.
The unfortunate thing is that the Mormon church and its critics, like their predecessors, are still caught up in the old good guy-bad guy debate about Joseph Smith as charlatan or prophet. Historical research has moved way beyond this type of simplistic debate. Today historians recognize Joseph Smith for what he was: a towering figure with human frailties, who evoked a beneficient vision that drew on much of what was best on the frontier. In this spirit, the search for Joseph Smith, a man who “belongs” to Mormons and non-Mormons alike, will continue indefinitely.
Western Historical Quarterly, William A. Wilson
D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is likely to stir more debate in Mormon scholarly circles than any book published for some time. Unlike some researchers who have used Joseph Smith’s magico-religious practices to discredit both Smith and the church he founded, Quinn views the Mormon prophet sympathetically. He explains his actions in terms of the world that produced him and argues that from the cultural perspective of Smith’s New England, one could have been both a practitioner of magic—a possessor of occult parchments, amulets, and astrological guides—and at the same time a righteous individual capable of establishing the Kingdom of God.
In seeking a magical base for Smith’s acts, Quinn is correct in stating that Smith dug for buried treasure and used seer stones and divining rods to help in the search, and that he used some of these same devices in translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates he discovered near his home. But when he connects most major deeds in Smith’s life (from digging treasure to conceiving children to establishing theological practices and rituals) with prevailing magical practices and beliefs, Quinn moves beyond his evidence and gives readers an intriguing, but unsubstantiated, picture of Mormonism’s founder.
Quinn builds much of his case on associations that are seldom proved and on parallel evidence that lies beyond proof. Typically, he will recount an occult belief—that the Jewish Qabbalah was transferred patrilineally from generation to generation, for example—and then will show that a book detailing this belief was advertised for sale in Smith’s Palmyra from 1804 to 1828 and consequently could have been available to Smith as he developed the concept of the patrilineal transmission of priesthood authority. But Quinn never proves that ideas found in books available at the time actually moved from these books into Joseph Smith’s head. Because B follows A, B is simply assumed to have been caused by A. Or Quinn will compare an action in Smith’s life, like spirit incantation, to similar practices in other times and places and then, ignoring cultural differences, will explain the former in terms of the latter. This approach is possible because Quinn subscribes to a notion of folklore that professional folklorists abandoned long ago—that the “folk,” the people who engaged in magical practices in Smith’s time, were unsophisticated, unlettered country people who shared a world view with people like themselves across the ages. From this perspective, Quinn can explain why Smith wore an amulet by showing why people far removed from him in time, place, and culture also wore amulets—an approach that went out of style with James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
We know today that there is no monolithic “folk” and that there was none during Smith’s time; there have been only different folks, different clusters of people united by similar interests and constantly generating and reshaping folklore as they respond to the circumstances of their environments. There can, therefore, be no monolithic world view on magic. Similar practices can have quite different meanings, and researchers cannot explain one practice in terms of another until they have first set each in its proper cultural and historical background and inferred meaning from context.
Quinn’s book is an important work. It will be the starting point for any future studies of magic and the origins of Mormonism. Its richly documented pages tease the fancy and suggest numerous directions for research. But its basic argument, built on a foundation of unproven associations and parallel evidence and relying on an untenable notion of the folk, must remain in doubt.
Christian Century, F. Michael Perko
Few things provoke interest in a topic more than intrigue and violence. Attention to early Mormonism peaked in recent years with the discovery of letters attributed to Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, and Martin Harris, an early convert and benefactor, which apparently portray them as practitioners of folk magic, and with the subsequent claim that the letters were forged.
These discoveries provide the backdrop for Michael Quinn’s book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Quinn attempts to come to terms with the importance of magic and the occult in Mormonism’s formative years. Rather than deny the overwhelming evidence that Smith and other early Mormons practiced magic, the author points out that such activities have permeated religion since biblical times. He argues that in early 19th-century America the use of seer stones, divining rods and amulets, and an interest in manifestations such as theophanies and treasure visions, were common. Thus he presents Smith as a man of his times rather than as an overt prophet or idolater.
Quinn, who is a member of Brigham Young University’s history department, demonstrates an impressive scholarship characteristic of his Yale training. His explorations into the practices of magic and the occult in the Judeo-Christian tradition are wide-ranging. He not only investigates such obvious topics as the manner in which the Book of Mormon plates were translated but offers elaborate analyses of the uses of numerology and astrology, and a painstaking effort to establish ties between the Smith family and seers in western New York. Quinn fills important gaps left by scholars such as Jan Shipps and Laurence Moore.
Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is least satisfactory in its attempt to demarcate magic and the occult from mainstream religion. Are such phenomena as theophanies, angelic visitations and dreams and the use of oil for healing really folk magic, as Quinn seems to suggest? If they are, can similar elements in traditional Christianity be said to be genuine? More focused definitions of magic and the occult than those taken from Webster might have provided sharper discrimination.
Quinn’s citation form—simply giving the author and the year of the books he used—is ill-suited to historical research; traditional footnotes would have greatly improved the book. Nevertheless, this book has considerable merit, and will be valuable for anyone who desires to situate early Mormonism in the broader context of 19th-century American religion.