Early Mormonism and the Magic World View

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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 ...

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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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560850892
  • Publisher: Signature Books, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/1/1998
  • Edition description: 2nd Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 730
  • Sales rank: 408,668
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet 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).

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Read an Excerpt


[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 recently noted, this is a special challenge when we begin to discover that familiar “cultures we study differed from ours in fundamental ways of thinking.”

An essential starting point is the meaning of two words I have already used frequently: occult and magic. For many, occult means evil and magic refers to fantasy or sleight-of-hand entertainment. However, those popular definitions distort the more descriptive meanings of these words in historical context and scholarly usage.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives only these meanings for occult: “deliberately kept hidden, not revealed to others, secret, undisclosed; not to be apprehended or understood, demanding more than ordinary perception or knowledge, abstruse, mysterious, recondite; hidden from view, not able to be seen, concealed; of, relating to, or dealing in matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural agencies or some secret knowledge of them, not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone.” For magic,Webster’s states: “the use of means (as ceremonies, charms, spells) that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being to produce or prevent a particular result (as rain, death, healing) considered not obtainable by natural means and that also include the arts of divination, incantation, sympathetic magic ["magic based on the assumption that a person or thing can be supernaturally affected through its name or an object (as a nail paring, image, or dancer) representing it"], and thaumaturgy ["the performance of miracles"], control of natural forces by the typically direct action of rites, objects, materials, or words considered supernaturally potent; an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source; something that seems to cast a spell or to give an effect of otherworldliness, enchantment; the art of producing unusual illusions by legerdemain.” This lengthy quote from a dictionary was the basis for an example of dishonest polemics by John Gee, “Abracadabra, Isaac, and Jacob,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies 7 (1995), no. 1:59-60. Without acknowledging even in his footnotes that Webster’s was my source, Gee commented on selections from the above passage, as follows: “He only applies the pejorative label to his former religion, but not to any others. Consider how Quinn’s definition of ‘magic’ applies to the prayer through which a born-again Christian becomes saved: It is ‘the use of means (prayer) that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being (God) to produce or prevent a particular result (salvation and damnation respectively) considered not obtainable by natural means (works).’ Therefore, by Quinn’s definition, the prayer through which one becomes born again is magic. Christ’s grace also fits his definition since Quinn also includes any extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source.’” The above phrases in parentheses were Gee’s additions, which he bracketed. I use parentheses here to be sure readers recognize that I made no additions to Gee’s words. There was no possibility that Gee misunderstood the source of his quotes, because the 1987 book introduced them as follows: “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1981) which I have adopted as a guide, gives only these meanings for occult: ?Webster’s also gives the following definitions for magic: ?” Remarkably, Gee (64) then accused me of doing what he had actually done: “We have seen how Quinn takes a fairly innocuous definition and heaps censure and innuendo on it ?” For meaning of polemics, see my Preface.

Those modern definitions reflect an 1820 essay that magic “may generally be described as supposing the existence & agency of certain excessive & undefinable powers, or extending the range of those powers with which we are acquainted to an height beyond the limits which experience authorizes.” My study incorporates all the above definitions of magic except legerdemain. That old-time word refers to sleight-of-hand trickery as practiced by performance “magician” Houdini of the silent-film era or by “illusionist” David Copperfield of our own time. As Robert K. Ritner has written about the oldest-known tradition of magic: “No suggestion of trickery is ever implied in Egyptian terms for magic.”

Our current society’s secular emphasis also affects the adjective “magical.” To most readers, that word refers to stage-illusion or fantasy, neither of which describe the world views and activities emphasized here. This book describes people who did not regard their beliefs as fantasy nor their experiences as “purely imaginary and not physically real,” as one scholar has written concerning the problem in using the word “magical.” My quotes acknowledge that other writers often use “magical” or “magical world view,” but I regard that as subtle secularism rather than grammatical necessity. Aside from quotes, I avoid using the word “magical” in this discussion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2001

    Very detailed and well documented report

    This book is NOT light reading. It is not just another attack on Mormonism, but gets into the very heart and mind of what made Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and others think the way they did. Naturally, the LDS subscribers will differ with opinions expressed in this work, but they cannot deny the detailed work that has gone into it. Excellent reading for the theology student.

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