[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 seethemselves 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...