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The Angel and the Sorcerer
The Remarkable Story of the Occult Origins of Mormonism and the Rise of Mormons in American Politics
By Peter Levenda
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2012 Peter Levenda
All rights reserved.
Samuel Smith v. Mary Easty.
The deposition of Samuell Smith of Boxford aged about 25 years who testifieth and saith that about five years since I was one night at the house of Isaac Estick [Easty] of Topsfield and I was as far as I know not Rude in discorse and the above said Esticks wife said to me I would not have you be so rude in discorse for I might Rue it here after and as I was agoeing home that night about a quarter of a mile from the said Esticks house by a stone wall I Received a little blow on my shoulder with I know not what and the stone wall rattled very much which affrighted me my horse also was affrighted very much but I cannot give the reason of it.
—From the Historical Collection of the Topsfield Historical Society concerning the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692
Joseph Smith, Jr.—the founder of Mormonism—came from a long line of occultists and religious zealots. For instance his ancestor, Samuel Smith, was one of the accusers of Mary Towne Easty who was eventually hanged as a witch at Salem on September 22, 1692. Even his father was well-known as an occultist and exorcist. It should be remembered, however, that Joseph Smith lived in a time and place that was replete with various cults and ceaseless sectarian strife. New prophets were commonplace; new revelations were the subject of endless discussion. There was no single form of Christianity that made it to the shores of the New World in the seventeenth century, but dozens of different denominations some of which spun off even more schismatic groups in the century that followed. Many believers had come to America to escape various forms of religious persecution in England, France and Germany, from both Protestants and Catholics.
In short, North America was colonized largely by heretics.
This was a different set of circumstances when compared to the southern part of what would become the United States as well as Mexico and Latin America. Colonized by Spain, these were areas subject to Roman Catholic influence and—in some cases, particularly those of the Native American populations—forced conversion. The Holy Inquisition arrived in the Americas under the Spanish sword. Christopher Columbus himself had planned his expedition to what would become the "New World" in order to raise money for a new Crusade against the Islamic forces in Jerusalem, an expedition financed by the King of Spain who in the same year had expelled the last remaining Caliphate from the city of Grenada and who was preparing for an assault on the Holy Land...an assault that never actually materialized.
Thus religion was a determining factor in the European "discovery" and subsequent colonization of the American continents. The European settlers who have come to represent for many Americans the romantic notion of pious Puritans and quaint Quakers fleeing persecution in their home countries in order to carve out a life of freedom in the New World were, in some instances, religious bigots themselves. While they may have been escaping religious intolerance in Europe, they lost no time in establishing their own intolerant communities of likeminded faithful in the American colonies.
Others, however, were considerably more enlightened. Alchemy and magic were serious topics of discussion and research in seventeenth century America, at least among the intelligentsia. It should be remembered that several members of the Royal Society in England were alchemists, and these would include Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) and Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Ashmole died the year the Salem witchcraft trials began in the colonies; Newton was fifty years old when the trials and subsequent hangings took place. Educated Englishmen who settled in the New England area brought with them the same intellectual pursuits they enjoyed back home, represented by well-stocked libraries of books on alchemy, magic, theology, astrology, and various forms of spiritualism. Indeed, the seventeenth century Governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop Jr, had a personal library that included more than 250 volumes on occult subjects and was a regular correspondent with some of the most famous occult scholars of the day.
Those who were believers in the basic tenets of Christianity found themselves living in a world populated by spirits both good and evil. The Bible is full of accounts of direct contact with the Divine, of prophets and angels, witches and pagan idolators. The Biblical accounts do not deny the possibility of magic and demonolatry; on the contrary, such practices are recognized in order to be condemned. They are not condemned or prohibited because they are superstition or fantasy, but precisely because they work: a person can evoke spirits to visible appearance, as in the case of the Witch of Endor. A person can use divination to determine the will of God and future events, as in the case of the Urim and Thummim. A person can perform magical feats that are astonishing and spectacular, as in the case of Moses versus the Egyptian priests.
And ritual is efficacious and often necessary, as in the many instances of sacrifice and ritual performed at Solomon's Temple, among other examples from both the Old and the New Testaments.
The Protestant Reformation, however, was among other things a critique of the way in which Roman Catholicism interpreted these examples. The ritual of the Mass and of the practices associated with exorcism, healing, etc. were considered degenerate forms of the original Faith. Luther—himself originally a Catholic priest—railed against the inaccessibility of the Bible and the rituals which were available only in the Latin language which meant that only the well-educated could read the Scriptures; this implied that there was a built-in possibility of corruption in the Church, since the priests could represent the Scriptures in any way they chose, secure in the knowledge that the average Catholic could not hope to read the originals anyway. Luther wanted to strip away the institutionalized obfuscation of Christ's teachings and that required publishing the Bible in the vernacular and removing the mystification of the Church's elaborate rituals.
One of the results of this reform was an arbitrary division between concepts like "religion" and "magic" in the Protestant worldview which became the norm in the West for the next several centuries (up to the late twentieth and early twenty-first century when this dichotomy came to be challenged by a new breed of historians of religion). Roman Catholicism, or "Popery" as it was referred to by Protestants, was tantamount to superstition and magic, a distortion of Christ's original teachings. Religion was pure belief; it was faith in the word of God and in nothing else. Ritual was suspected as being the work of the Devil. By extricating magic from religion, the Reformation had unwittingly pitted all magic against religion. Comfortable—yet purely arbitrary—valuations of "white" or "good" magic versus "black" or "evil" magic became irrelevant. The grace of God descended from On High to the human population below; there was no going in the other direction. There was no possibility of manipulating spiritual forces. Calvinism—the logical conclusion of this sort of fatalism—was the eventual outcome. A human being's destiny was fixed; there was no changing it. The spiritual fate of anyone had been decided long before birth, for God knew everything and therefore had already determined one's destiny.
The reaction against this idea was inevitable. In those pre-Enlightenment days before revolutionary concepts about the rights of human beings became codified, there was a suspicion that human existence was perfectible. There was a belief that life can be improved; that hard work combined with a modicum of luck or divine favor—which can be earned along the way and not predetermined before birth—can result in better circumstances both materially and spiritually. Yet, the prevailing social structures of church and community made it dangerous to express such sentiments openly. The possibility of human perfectibility therefore was something to be pursued in secret, in the study of forbidden books and the practice of forbidden rituals, of magic.
And as human beings can be "perfected," can attain higher spiritual states, so can everything else in creation, and most especially, metals, a belief represented by the equally clandestine practice of alchemy.
Magic can be understood as an expression of the belief that all human experience can be modified, corrected, and improved upon by the deliberate and conscious action of humans themselves. Spiritual power flows in both directions: up and down Jacob's Ladder like the vision of the prophet who saw angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Indeed, those very angels themselves could be summoned, could be made to answer the call of the magician, for is it not Christian theology that states that human beings were elevated above the angels by God?
And did not Jesus say to St Peter that what Peter sealed on earth would be sealed in heaven? (Matthew 16:19)
Alchemy and magic thus share a worldview that is somewhat in contradistinction to that of many organized religions. Both the alchemist and the magician are active participants in creation and especially in their own spiritual development. They believe that creation is ongoing, that the natural evolution of metals is towards the perfect metal, gold; that the natural evolution of human beings is towards the perfect human being, the divine Adam. While the activities of the alchemist and the magician are quite dissimilar—the alchemist in the laboratory, the magician in the temple or in a graveyard at night, or in the woods far from human habitation—they both understand that the forces that exist in the world can be manipulated by the wise operator. They do not wait for the Divine Light to descend. They are in a hurry.
In a very real sense, the alchemist and the magician are scientists. The proof of divinity, of spiritual realities, lies in the direct experience of them and is not taken on faith alone. They require tangible proof that their efforts are rewarded, not in the next life but in this one. The magician wants to see the angels and the demons with his or her own eyes; the alchemist needs to participate in the physical transformation of metals like lead and iron into gold. In a way, a way that normative religion would reject, the alchemist and the magician are determined to prove spiritual reality. Their experiments and rituals are demonstrations of the power of the divine that exists in Creation. They offer tangible evidence of the existence of God and of the veracity of the Scriptures in ways that no average pastor, no seminary-trained minister of Christ, could hope to equal. Yet, for all that, they became outsiders. The alchemist and the magician would never be accepted into the embrace of the church unless they repented of their deeds, unless they destroyed their notebooks and grimoires.
Or unless they went on the offensive, and created their own church.
The Early Life of the Sorcerer
Joseph Smith Jr. was born on December 23, 1805 to Joseph Smith Sr and Lucy Mack Smith in the town of Sharon, Vermont. His parents were familiar with current occult practices at the time, living in the post-Revolutionary War era that was a hotbed of religious experimentation. Joseph Sr. himself was already acquainted with the use of the divining rod for finding buried treasure.
Their fifth child, Joseph Jr., seemed to have been marked at an early age for something important. His birthday was at the winter solstice and nearly on Christmas Eve, the day commonly accepted as the birthday of Jesus. At a young age he developed a bone infection which required his use of crutches for some time. Later, as a pre-pubescent youth with spiritual interests, he began to use the divining rod to find underground sources of water.
His childhood in Vermont took place at a time when there was a tremendous religious revival taking place all over the northern states, from New England to New York and Pennsylvania. The American Revolution, followed by the War of 1812 which began when Joseph Smith Jr was only seven years old, led to tremendous social and economic upheaval in the newly-independent States. His father experienced terrible luck at farming with three years of crop failures in a row and was going bankrupt. He tried to augment his family's meager income with treasure-seeking using a divining rod, but with limited or no success.
A divining rod is normally a forked branch or a specially-made wand of wood or metal that is used to point to the location of buried valuables. The operator holds the forked ends in his/her left and right hand—a bit like a steering wheel—and invokes a higher power to enable him/her to be drawn to the underground location. The rod will then bend towards the spot where the operator should begin digging.
The use of the divining rod was extremely popular throughout that part of the country for more than a hundred years. In fact, the author knew of people using the divining rod in New Hampshire as late as the 1960s, mostly to find water during the drought of 1963–1964.
But finding water or gold was not the only purpose of the divining rod. It could also be used as a means for spiritual communication.
A group known as the Fraternity of Rodmen was active in Vermont at the time the Smiths lived there. The Fraternity was composed of men who—for instance—would use divining rods to determine who built the so-called "Indian burial" mounds by asking if it had been the Egyptians, etc. until the rod would respond at the mention of the Welsh. If the rod did not move, the answer was "no." Any movement was usually interpreted as a "yes."
This went further to the extent that the Fraternity began receiving instructions to build a temple, since they were informed that they were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The idea that the New World was the ultimate destination of the wandering tribes had tremendous currency in those days, and groups like the New Israelites were formed along the lines of that belief. Other groups insisted that the Native Americans were themselves remnants of the Lost Tribes, while such seventeenth-century luminaries as Cotton Mather claimed that the "Red Men" were in fact Devils incarnate since there was no mention of the Native Americans in the Bible.
Eventually, the group known as the Fraternity of Rodmen began making predictions about the end of the world, which was due to take place—according to their reckoning—on January 14, 1802. One eyewitness to those events remembered hearing that Joseph Smith Sr had been involved with the Rodmen and with their failed prediction concerning the apocalypse of 1802.
This event is mentioned to situate the reader in the place and time in which Joseph Smith Jr had been born and raised. Divining rods, angelic communications, and the all-important seer stones or shew stones—ancestors to the crystal ball—were part and parcel of a religious and spiritual environment that saw the genesis and growth of charismatic religious movements side by side with magic, alchemy and other occult practices.
The Smith family eventually left Vermont for the town of Palmyra, New York about 1816, where Joseph Sr tried to improve his circumstances and where his son Joseph Jr began to work with the occult practices he learned from his father. By 1817 at the earliest Joseph Smith Jr began actively divining for water and by 1819 he was using occult methods to find buried treasure.
It should be noted that this is not an isolated phenomenon. Hard-working people who nonetheless find themselves in straitened circumstances—usually through no fault of their own that they can see—often resort to otherworldly measures through desperation. A farmer with useless land, a drought, or sick cattle may find himself willing to try a divining rod, a seer stone, or more elaborate occult rituals in order to achieve some of the luck that falls on his neighbors. These are people who are perfectly willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in life, but find that they have been thwarted through circumstances over which they have no control. Occultism offers a means to seize that control using unconventional methods. This represents a belief that all events are connected through some invisible medium; that there are hidden forces at work in the world which seem to favor one person rather than another. This may be due to astrological influences—something as simple as being in the right place at the right time—or to something more specific. If astrological influences are at work, then it stands to reason that a close observation of astrological timetables would help ensure the successful outcome of any endeavor. Almanacs were the source for much of this information, and it was understood that planting cycles depended on observance of the lunar calendar, for instance, so why would human cycles of health and wealth not depend on similar planetary positions?
Excerpted from The Angel and the Sorcerer by Peter Levenda. Copyright © 2012 Peter Levenda. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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