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Early Mormonism and the Magic World View [Paperback]

D. Michael Quinn
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 15 1998
In this ground-breaking book, D. Michael Quinn masterfully reconstructs an earlier age, finding ample evidence for folk magic in nineteenth-century New England, as he does in Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s upbringing. Quinn discovers that Smith’s world was inhabited by supernatural creatures whose existence could be both symbolic and real. He explains that the Smith family’s treasure digging was not unusual for the times and is vital to understanding how early Mormons interpreted developments in their history in ways that differ from modern perceptions. Quinn’s impressive research provides a much-needed background for the environment that produced Mormonism.

This thoroughly researched examination into occult traditions surrounding Smith, his family, and other founding Mormons cannot be understated. Among the practices no longer a part of Mormonism are the use of divining rods for revelation, astrology to determine the best times to conceive children and plant crops, the study of skull contours to understand personality traits, magic formula utilized to discover lost property, and the wearing of protective talismans. Ninety-four photographs and illustrations accompany the text. 

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About the Author

 D. Michael Quinn (Ph.D., history, Yale University) is an Affiliated Scholar at the University of Southern California’s Center for Feminist Research. He has been a full-time researcher and writer, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, and a visiting professor of history (2002-03) at Yale. His accolades include Best Book awards from the American Historical Association and the Mormon History Association.

His major works include Early Mormonism and the Magic World ViewElder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark, the two-volume Mormon Hierarchy series (Origins of Power, Extensions of Power), and Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example. He is the editor of The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past and a contributor to American National Biography;Encyclopedia of New York State; Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education; the New Encyclopedia of the American WestUnder an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past; and others.

He has also received honors—fellowships and grants—from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Henry E. Huntington Library, Indiana-Purdue University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition, he has been a keynote speaker at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, the Chicago Humanities Symposium, Claremont Graduate University, University of Paris (France), Washington State Historical Society, and elsewhere, and a consultant for television documentaries carried by the Arts and Entertainment Channel, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the History Channel, and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Introduction

[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...


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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why hasn't anyone thought about this sooner? Sept. 19 2002
Format:Paperback
"Mormonism, The American Religion, which is based on an amalgam of Eastern mysticism and Hinduism, was concocted by the illiterate genius Joseph Smith, who plagiarized his religion (if you can call it that) from the Spaulding Manuscript, Freemasonry, and Shakespeare."
This book is incredible! It is one of the best-footnoted books-probably the only footnoted book-on the magic worldview of Mormonism. It is marvelous that Dr. Quinn is doing all of this digging to find these gems in the dirt, and finely polishing them in the light of truth.
He has hit upon the key to Mormonism, fantastic growth: the magic worldview. It is surprising after reading all 700 pages of this book that people have not hit upon this key sooner. We have been deceived by the bogus Spaulding Manuscript, by the Sydney Rigdon Decoy, and by Fawn Brodie's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill" psycho interpretation of Joseph Smith. That goodness we have gotten to the bottoms of things. And this finality was reached with all the scholarly assurance.
You can image that having magic would be key to everything that Mormons do. I even heard that they have done one of their baptismal orgies for the dead for Harry Houdini. What took them so long?
You can see why Mormonism has become the fastest growing religion in America. You have the magic along with their pseudo-gospel. If you have ever been to a boring service, the attraction is apparent, even to the blind. You pull a rabbit out of the communion chalice, and we are quite impressed. It's like what Bono said about the Catholic Church being the religion of rock and roll. They certainly know how to entertain. And now the Mormons are outstripping even them.
Kudos for D. Quinn in organizing and researching this book. Everything makes perfect sense now!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Quinn's Best, but . . . Jan. 13 2002
Format:Paperback
Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is Quinn's best book, the research is amazing, the sources belivable, and presentation is well organized. Quinn has a particular slant on Mormon history that contributes to his powerful presentation. I find his introduction great as he explains that he believes in LDS Doctrine, and that no document discovered or undiscovered would change that belief. Quinn is a believing radical and this is evident in his argument. The story is assembled very well and accessible to those not entirely familier with Mormon history, some back ground would make the book much more enjoyable, "No Man Knows My History" would make a good first read.
I only give this book three stars due to Quinn's consistant conflict with FARMS writers that defend the orthodox LDS Church version of the past. I don't believe that FARMS have produced enough quality history to really merit the specific attention Quinn gives them. Quinn does use this time directed at FARMS to further support his argument, and I would strongly recommend this book for those who have read about Mormon history and would like to read more.
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4.0 out of 5 stars One more for my Library Collection April 30 2013
By Carl
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Although I have lots more to shop of items like this, I really have considered buying a second copy to read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Reflection of culture Dec 7 2002
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
One of the problems I keep seeing in history is the attempt to avoid the cultural influences on the subject. There are those who say that Joseph Smith was a charlatan because of his interest in money digging, yet it was a respectable (or at least not considered a scam) by the majority of his peers in the western NY area. If Joseph Smith were a charlatan it comes from other sources that the author did not discuss. He merely put the origins of Mormonism into a context of the culture surrounding him. He attempts to draw no conclusions on the veracity of the revelations received, but does show how the Smith family and later others were influenced by the folklore magic surrounding them. To call this a pro-mormon book would be laughable as many who read this might find their faith in question. However, to call this anti-mormon is almost as comical has he creates no proofs nor demonstrates any counter to the basic LDS claims.
Personally, I found the book enlightening, particularily in the footnotes where he discusses his arguments with FARMS (and almost supports the opinion I had been forming with respect to FARMS). To read this is to find some of the connections on the influence of culture on the style of the phraseology used in the Book of Mormon and further emphasize that there is a significant (which I believe apologists will disagree with) influence from Joseph's background and the events of his surroundings.
I do think that the title doesnt really give the non-historian a good perspective of the book, I would rather title it "Early Mormonism and the Cultural Influences of Folk Magic"
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5.0 out of 5 stars Take it or leave it-the occult behind the cult Sept. 2 2003
Format:Paperback
We should all apprach this book with a take ti or leave it apprach. Perosnally, I love Dr. Quinne's throughly scholarlary book. He has a keen and sharp eye for details, and that is where the devil lives.
I bought several copies for my friends, and demanded that they read it so they can understand the occult behind the cult.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is esential for Studentology. Oct. 26 2002
Format:Paperback
I keep this book on my shelf, so it is handy. NO tricks will ber played on me by Mormon Magic.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Research March 29 2002
Format:Paperback
Again, Quinn has confronted a touchy topic in Mormon history. And again his research is extensive. This is an important topic to understand in Mormon culture, though few do. I did not like how he attacked other historians by name and then disproved their ideas. I would rather just see the facts, and in the footnotes see the names and references of the oposite or incorrect ideas or research. As I read the footnotes I only found one problem. Quinn makes a absolute statement about Josephine Fisher and his reference is anything but absolute almost as if Quinn were attempting to change history. Overall I enjoyed this scholarly work and recommend it to anyone interested in Mormon History, Quinn is a great historian.
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