Ep 152 – Hiding in Plain Sight; Accult
On this episode, we take a brief foray into the magic world view of early Mormon leaders. From astrology to divination to scrying to palmistry, many early leaders of the church were influenced by the magic that underpins Protestant Christian mysticism. Instead of talking about Joseph Smith and his seer stones, we take a look at other prominent early Mormons to attempt to construct their beliefs systems that primed them for belief in the early church. Also, a brief listener mail segment to round out the show!
Scathing Atheist 322 w/Book of Moses
Mormon Stories Spalding theory interview
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
It’s been busy over here at Ground Gnomes mobile studios so I’m warning you at the onset that this episode might be a little shorter than most historical timeline episodes. Last episode you heard was a presentation for a local post-Mormon meetup group in St. George. Some of you may have also seen the recent Mormon Stories interview on the Spalding theory that just aired on their facebook group page earlier this week, soon to be on the actual podcast feed and Mormon stories website. And finally, when this episode airs I’ll be on my way to Sunstone in Short Creek where I’ll be conducting interviews of attendees, which will comprise next week’s episode before we return to the regular swing of things.
So, what’s on the docket today? Well, a little peak behind the curtain here. D. Michael Quinn is the keynote speaker and I’d really like to interview him while there. I’ve had no confirmation whatsoever that I’ll be able to, but Lindsay Park has set me up in a room near the actual symposium to conduct interviews and she’s given me first choice of what to air on this feed and I’ll give the rest to Sunstone to do with what they please. That means, I hope I’ll be able to interview Dr. Quinn, but there’s no guarantee, but what I can guarantee is that whoever we have on for next week’s show is sure to be an elect interview with a supremely called individual.
As for today, I thought we’d tackle an interesting subject in early Mormonism. I’ve been brushing up on Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, one of Quinn’s most well-known books on the early church. It’s something that seems like it’s been done and done so many times in this sphere of post and secular Mormonism and we’ve broached the subject here a few times in the past when the subject matter has called for it. The thing is, the magic world view of the 19th century is truly a bottomless well of information that is so crucial to understanding the cultural frame of reference into which Mormonism was born.
What do I mean by that? Well, we can study Mormon history and the people who converted to it till the day we die, but if we don’t understand the superstitious mindset which allowed early Mormonism to flourish, it becomes much harder to understand why it has become so successful today. Further, we need to understand how these magical underpinnings influence the church today. All religion is superstition, and to know what superstition is considered unapproved, simply ask the superstition held by the majority of people in any given area and they’ll be certain to tell you.
When we examine superstition of the 19th-century, it becomes clear that it’s a set of beliefs many of us find laughable today. People staring at rocks in hats, or using witch hazel sticks to find buried treasure seems otherworldly to us today, but it was how superstitious people sought to understand the world around them. Another point worth noting, superstition doesn’t ever go anywhere, it just grows, adapts, and evolves as competing superstitions, the secular world, and the scientific method push these praxes into antiquity.
When an athlete wears a lucky pair of socks, why? That’s a superstition, albeit utterly benign with the exception of increased foot stank and risk of fungal growth. On the other end, priests walking through a congregation with a massive smoking incense bong or an annual pilgrimage to the mountains of northern Mexico for Peyote cacti is a much more involved and consequential form of superstition. Regardless, they all involve some level of belief in a realm that can’t be observed or placed in a test tube, but still influences, or is influenced by, our actions. Now, a lot of this can come down to confirmation bias. The athlete wearing the lucky socks wins 5 games and looses 5 games, they’re gunna remember the wins and forget the loses. A person gets blessed by a priest with good fortune and they lose their family and home to a fire they’re gunna call it divine providence when the family bible wasn’t burned up.
From a skeptical perspective we can see how this plays out, but for the people believing in it, it’s much harder to see the naturalistic world that actually underpins our subjective realities. But how do we trace it back? So we have a corporatized multi-billion dollar organization with over 150 massive temples and thousands of meeting houses around the world where people believe that God is an alien who grew up with his wives on the planet nearest the star Kolob, but how did it get to this point? Mormonism wasn’t born out of a vacuum; it is quintessentially Americanized Protestantism with myriad superstitious beliefs impregnated in nearly every piece of its doctrine and theology. Superstitions that hide in plain sight. Take a hard look at the Nauvoo and Salt Lake Temples, the symbolism, the stars, moons, astrological symbols, occult hexagonal stars, the architecture of the six spires, the angel that initially adorned the Nauvoo temple, all of it comes down to deeper symbolism that hides. The occult. That’s a working definition of occult in the 19th-century, merely that which is hidden from plain view. Occult practices are varied and fascinating. Occult may seem like something singular you can put a finger on, but occult is more like a label ascribed to many different practices. Folk magic is even a large umbrella term that is used nearly synonymously with occult, but they aren’t the same. Folk magic is a term usually relegated to protection charms, divination or scrying, along with some herbal remedy medicinal practices, and some other practices, whereas the occult usually incorporates much deeper and more time-consuming practices such as spell circles invoked in folk magic, symbolism in numbers and numerology, astrology, sciomancy, necromancy, and other such controversial practices.
To simplify a little bit, a farmer might dabble in folk magic by putting a sigil over the door to their barn to keep it from burning down, while an occultist might spend entire nights in practices of seances, channeling, magic circles, treasure-digging, binding or conjuring spirits, and even the occasional blood magick spell. Add into the complexity, some practitioners of these various arts may draw arbitrary lines as to what superstitions they buy into, verses what they regard as bunk, juggling, or con-work. A person may wholeheartedly believe astrology to be a true way to dictate the conduct of their day, while at the same time calling a guy who uses divining rods idle and shiftless folk. All the while, both people believe in a trinitarian Judeo-Christian god and invoke the name of Jesus Christ in their protection spells. Mormons today will laugh at somebody who puts crystals underneath their pillow to fend off evil spirits all while wearing their garments with symbols cut into the cloth as protection amulets against any physical or spiritual harm.
My point is, the lines separating superstitions are blurry and arbitrary, which makes the entire subject of folk magic in early Mormonism incredibly complex. This also makes it hard to not see everything in early Mormonism through a magic world view lens. For example, Jo performing a certain ceremony on a certain day may have just been the day it happened, or he may have deliberately planned it on that day because it was astrologically favorable to his governing planet, Jupiter. We can’t see the world through his eyes, we don’t know his motivations, so it can be hard to ascribe magical significance to some of his activities when they were steeped in magic and it’s also possible to not claim something as magical when it may not have been.
The definitive work on this subject is Quinn’s book. I’m going to walk us through a bit of his research today in hopefully understandable terms in order to lay some magical foundation to Nauvoo Mormonism, where we currently find our historical timeline.
Let’s get into it. It’s fairly widely known that Jo picked up magic from his dad, Joseph Sr., or Big Daddy Cheese as we’ve always called him on this show. A general practitioner of magic, known as an adept with divining rods, Big Daddy Cheese knew his way around spells and conjuration. As is the case with so much folk tradition and knowledge, Jo Sr. passed these skills down to his sons, with Jo Jr. being one of the most receptive of his brothers. Young Jo may not have attended structured school for any lengthy period of time, but he was smart and clever, and more importantly he was a sponge.
One of the major reasons Quinn’s book is so useful is he aptly illustrates commonly sold books based on bookstore catalogues, newspaper advertisements, and library registries. Throughout the 320 pages of his books he documents hundreds of different occult and magic books available for sale near the Smith home in New York. Now, just because these books were for sale or available at the library does not immediately follow that Jo read all of them. In fact, nobody really claims that Jo was a constant bookworm in his younger years, even though he had a substantial personal library by the end of his 14-year ministry. However, the primary reason this information is useful is to understand what all of Jo’s neighbors and friends were reading. A person can read a book and communicate its contents to an eager inquirer in a short amount of time. These books, coupled with the oral tradition through which much of the occult was passed, illustrates the culture which shaped the young Jo’s mind. Here’s a sampling from just one paragraph when Quinn responds to polemical attacks concerning the availability of some books to the Smith family. Before reading this passage, simply consider what there was to do in frontier America at the time. Drink with buddies, and read. Then take what you read and talk to your buddies about it. No TV, no radio, no structured education, so all of the down-time after farming endeavors were complete, or if you’re a Smith, all the downtime in general, could be filled with reading and chatting with friends about what they recently read, and then putting that information into practice. Of course, the bookstore market responded to this massive public interest in occult and magic books, along with almanacs and farming guides and other necessities. Here we go:
The race to increase book-inventories continued in Canandaigua. In October 1817 its upstart Ontario Bookstore announced new acquisition of “MORE than 2000 Volumes.” However, this staggering increase created a cash-flow problem and in less than two weeks the store announced to the residents of Canandaigua and nearby towns and villages like Palmyra: “CHEAP BOOK SALE! Lovers of Books and Good Bargains, NOW is your Time.” This may have flooded the Palmyra area with books, but the sale did not save the overly confident bookstore. By February 1818 the Ontario Bookstore was out of business. Nevertheless, the remaining Canandaigua Bookstore continued the same level of advertising as when it was combatting its competitor’s 14,000-book-inventory.
In 1824 a state gazetteer counted Canandaigua’s population as 2,000 and commented that his “village” had “an extensive bookstore.” With a town population barely half the size of Bloomfield, Canandaigua’s sole bookstore in 1824 had a far larger book-resident ratio than its competitor did nine years earlier [of 3 books for every man woman and child]. Nevertheless, in September 1827 a new bookstore opened in Canandaigua. Four years later there were still two bookstores in that [small] town. Intense inventory competition by two bookstores in Canandaigua had not saturated the local market.
Palmyra’s newspapers also demonstrate that this village’s bookstores paid to advertise sophisticated books to farmers. Among the advertised books from 1818 to 1829 were Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Andrew Dalzel’s Collectanea Graeca Majora, William Melmoth’s The Letters of Pliny the Consul, the works of Plutarch and of Josephus, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Shakespeare’s complete works, The works of Jonathan Edwards, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, John Locke’s On the Understanding, David Hume’s Philosophical Works, George Berkeley’s Minute Philosophy, Edward Gibbon’s History of Rome, Samuel T. Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets,… James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt’s Shakespeare, the works to Robert Burns, of Alexander Pope, of Gray, of William Cowper, Voltaire’s History of Charles XII, History of England, by Hume and Smollett, Ferguson’s Astronomy, Explained Upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles, Dugald Stewart’s Elements of Philosophy of the Moral and Political Philosophy, Edward Daniel Clarke’s Travels in Greece, Egypt, and the Holy Land, and American State papers and Public Documents from 1789 to 1815. Repeated advertising of such books in the 1820s demonstrated that Palmyra’s booksellers knew local residents bought sophisticated publications, as well as chapbooks…
Rather than acknowledge Palmyra’s sophisticated reading habits, traditional Mormon historians portray the village’s newspaper as advertising only elementary-level books to its rural population. Recently a BYU religion professor wrote: “The newspapers carried frequent advertisements, which give us an insight into the kind of merchandise available to the residents of Palmyra.” As the only comment about books “available” in Palmyra, he wrote: “One bookstore advertised Bibles, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, testaments, Murray’s Grammar, English Readers, Webster’s Spelling Book, Walker’s Dictionary, Daboll’s Arithmetic, Morse’s Geography, Child’s Instruction, and a variety of toy books”. According to this assessment, the village’s residents allegedly had access only to books for elementary school children. To support the myth that Joseph Smith was barely literate with no intellectual curiosity, this publication by BYU’s Department of Church History and Doctrine downgraded the intellectual life of everyone in Palmyra.
Needless to say, there was no dearth of sophisticated books, but most of these are secular non-fiction or history books. The extensive lists elsewhere in Quinn’s book illustrates just as much availability of occult and magic books as the availability of these other non-fictions. Once again, to claim that these books were available to Joseph Smith does not immediately follow that he read every single one and believed and understood the content. That’s would be absurd, nobody has that much reading time, I don’t care who you are. What it does illustrate is that these various books influenced the local farming towns and villages when for many months of the year, farmers had nothing to do other than read and spend time with neighbors and friends. These books, in small degrees, all influenced the cultural milieu of the nearby towns surrounding Palmyra, Jo’s teenage and young adulthood stomping grounds. Jo may not have read these books, but his neighbors probably did and then they would get together a few times a week and talk about what they’d just learned. For an intellectual sponge like Joseph Smith, this would have accelerated his basic knowledge of dozens of disparate concepts to some level of passing familiarity. Couple that with his personal ego and need to be the smartest guy in the room and as a young adult Jo became an expert on everything from scrying, to astrology, to unknown languages.
An interesting cultural detail worth noting at this time, Egyptomania was in full-swing. Western cultures were fascinated and vexed by this elusive ancient culture and the mysteries it contained. People were beginning to learn about a culture so foreign to them and the fact that ancient Egyptian wasn’t known to be translated by American academia by the early 1840s made it even more of a fascination. How were they learning about this? Through reading newspapers and going to Egyptian Antiquities exhibits, which only heightened the excitement and mystery.
Ancient Egypt still produces an entire realm of speculation today. How were the pyramids built 4500 years ago in such a short time without cranes and modern technology or leave any archaeological evidence of the materials and tools used to build them? It must have been aliens! How did all the mounds, pyramids, and cities get built in America before the enlightened Europeans got there?! It must have been white people that the Savage Indians killed off before Columbus got there! History and archaeology still hold many mysteries today and we’ve been digging and studying for a couple centuries, but it was all so new to people in early to mid-19th-century America.
Egypt was viewed as the central focus of ancient magic and occult. Various fraternities who practiced magic and ceremonial ritualism made fantastic claims about the ancient Egyptian roots of their practices. It was widely known in the 19th-century that Free Masonry didn’t actually descend from Solomon’s temple or ancient Egypt, but there were many Masons back then, and even Mason today, who believed the ascendency ritual to have spawned from these early cradles of civilization. All magic traditions were inextricably linked in the magic world view. From ancient Egypt to the mysteries on the plains of Eleusis, to the Zohar and Cabala, to Jesus and his mysteries invoked at the last supper with feet washing, to the post-enlightenment practices that delineated among astrology, alchemy, divination, etc., all of these are westernized interpretations of the same pursuit, understanding the spiritual realm that underpins our mortal existence.
The introduction to the Book of Mormon invokes the pursuit of Egyptian mysteries mingled with Jewish Cabala. Quinn’s take is as follows, with a subsequent paragraph on the allure created by the mysterious Egyptian magical world.
In addition to the magic dimensions of some Book of Mormon names, the opening pages of the text itself suggested other magic parallels. The book’s first historian, Nephi, wrote: “Yea, I make a record in the langague of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Ne. 1:2). Thomas Vaughan’s Magica Adamica, or the Antiquity of Magic… explained: “the learning of the Jews—I mean their Kabalah.” The beginning phrase of this parallel couplet associated the Book of Mormon with the mystery and magic of the Jewish Cabala.
The second part of this phrase further intensified the sense of magic heritage. In support of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, some twentieth-century Mormon scholars have used Egyptian cultural and historical parallels that were unknown in Smith’s era. But within early America’s magic heritage, the reference to Lehi’s knowledge of Egyptian evoked the popular image of ancient Egypt as the center and transmitter of all magic. Likewise, pseudepigrapha scholar James H. Charlesworth has referred to “Egypt, that melting pot of ancient magical lore.”
It’s all an underlying thread, magic. It’s a world view that requires magic to operate. Spirit courses through everything from the rocks to the trees to industrial factories. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this magic world view went anywhere. When people pray to god to help them find their car keys, they eventually find them, regardless of the prayer. When a person’s adrenaline kicks in and they swerve out of the way of a toddler chasing a ball into the street, Jesus took the wheel. When an athlete makes a saving throw to win the game, he thanks Jesus he was wearing his lucky socks or he might have missed his mark. When an actress wins an academy award, they credit God instead of their tens of thousands of hours of practice, years in acting school, and lifetime of achievements which led to that point. We see it every day. Magic world views cut both ways.
We see New Orleans or Paradise California struck by huge natural disasters, pastors run the preaching circuit telling their parishioners that god is angry that we legalized gay marriage or didn’t outlaw abortions. Ethnic or religious minorities are subjugated for decades or centuries and when they retaliate by blowing up churches, it’s persecution against the one true God and his people. A historic cathedral built on the spoils of war and ethnocide burns down in Paris and it’s fulfillment of prophecy because Mother Mary is disappointed that Catholicism has gone too soft and multicultural since the 1960s. Magic and superstition are pervasive and ubiquitous among most people living today. Once again, the lines dividing approved of superstition and heretical superstition are blurry, arbitrary, and adaptive.
Because we draw these arbitrary lines in superstition, it can be tough for many historians, and even laypeople, to wrap their minds around the superstitions that early Mormonism held to. Joseph Smith spoke to god face to face and could read unknown languages, totally! What? A seer stone to find magic buried treasure?! That’s absurd! This is the height of presentism. It’s an historical fallacy where we project the values and beliefs of modern society on people living decades or centuries ago. A point that strikes me about Joseph Smith is his adaptability to different superstitions. His sponge-like mind from his teenage and young adulthood poised him as an interesting and adaptable person when it came to his own theology. He had an incredible ability to learn about some new superstition and mold it into his own superstitious beliefs without any trouble. The only times we see Jo rejecting any set of superstitions is when he came into contact with other contemporary religious leaders who would represent his market competitors. We’ve discussed his derision of Millerite millennialism while preaching his own version of millennialism and eschatology that was in many way indistinct from William Miller. He decried Campbellite Disciple of Christ theology but that was likely because Alexander Campbell had published so much against Sidney Rigdon and Mormonism since its inception. Ann Lee and the Universal Friend were anathema to Jo because he couldn’t imagine a woman leading a religion or being a prophetess. However, dead theologians like Emanuel Swedenborg and Conrad Beissel of the Ephrata Cloister and proprietors of superstition like Peter Buchan and Ebenezer Sibley presented ripe picking grounds to grow Jo’s personal theology.
Early Mormonism was unique, but people arbitrarily grabbing points of philosophy, theology, and superstition floating around them and fashioning a new religion from that unorganized chaos was nothing new.
Jo’s treasure digging and scrying with Precious and Mr. Hat has been done a thousand times on every Mormon history or Mormon-themed podcast. We’ve discussed it a few times on this show. What I’m interested in is the magic beliefs and practices of other early church leaders. If Jo was a practitioner of magic, and his pre-Mormonism friends were almost exclusively fellow magic-minded folks, it would be understandable that his religion would appeal to other magic-minded folk. We know Oliver Cowdery, primary scribe of the Book of Mormon, was quite the diviner with his rod. The 1833 commandment given to him first included the wording of the gift of the rod of nature. After Eber Howe’s explosive expose was published in 1834 poking fun at the magic worldview of early Mormons, the revelation was reworded to the “gift of Aaron”, completely scrubbing the occult context of his divinatory practices.
Similarly, Alvah Beaman was a Palmyra resident before Mormonism, a family friend of the Smiths. He was known as “a grate rodsman” born at the beginning of the American revolution. He, along with another magic practitioner even exhibited some mineral rods they used for divination in the Kirtland Temple shortly before his death in 1837. His daughter, a childhood friend of Joseph and his siblings, ten years his junior, became his wife sometime probably in 1841. The Beaman family were some of the earliest converts to the early New York-era church.
The Whitmers are an interesting example of a family as well. They comprised 5 of the 8 original gold plate witnesses and roughly 30% of the Book of Mormon was translated in the upper floor of their home in Fayette, New York. They lived a mere 4 miles from the Ephrata Cloister which was highly steeped in magic and Rosicrucianism. Let’s talk about the Ephrata and Rosicrucianism before talking about the Whitmers and magic. The Ephrata Cloister was founded by 3 guys in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The charismatic leader, Conrad Beissel is an enigmatic and fascinating guy. He migrated from Germany and created the Ephrata Cloister in 1732. They practiced celibacy, spiritual nirvana in a Christian sense, held to the beliefs of Rosicrucianism, which we’ll discuss in a minute, and also baptized people to grant posthumous salvation for their dead loved ones, citing the same scripture in Paul that Mormons use to theologically justify their posthumous baptisms for the dead. This Ephrata Cloister was 4 miles from the Whitmer home in Pennsylvania before they moved to Fayette, New York. This was a cloister of a religious group like the Shakers in New Labanon, New York founded around the same time as the Ephrata. It’s an entire community of buildings in a little sequestered area in the forest. They wore stark white robes, went through an ego dissolution with the help of a mysterious white powder after a 40-day intensive fast and meditation period, after which the initiate would receive a new name, like a temple name. The last celibate initiate died in 1813 but believing practitioners continued living in the buildings until the 1930s. The Ephrata even provided medical service to over 200 revolutionary war soldiers. The Ephrata was eventually absorbed into a larger German Baptist congregation, but the buildings remained distinctly Ephrata. Today the buildings are maintained by the Pennsylvania historical society and you can see them yourself.
On the occult foundations of this German-Rosicrucian movement, Quinn states on page 102:
Out of Pennsylvania’s environment of religion and magic came early-nineteenth-century American contributions to the published texts of magic. In 1813 Johann Hohman printed an advertisement in a Reading newspaper for Der Freund in der Noth (The Friend in Need), a book of magic charms he recently published in that city. It was falsely designated as a 1790 publication at “Offenbach am Mayne in Deutschland” by a resident of Tyrol. Hohman borrowed the title and content from an occult manuscript that had been circulating as early as 1752 in Pennsylvania. In 1820 Hohman published his own Der Lange Verborgene Freund (The Long Hidden [or Lost] Friend). Reprinted the same year, by 1829 this popular handbook had five editions (one published in Ephrata). Hohman’s occult manual (a grimoire of white magic”) was the only known source for an inscription on one of the Smith family’s magic parchments.
Why is this important? Well, the Ephrata commune knew the importance of a printing press in order to thrive in the ever-growing marketplace of American Protestant Christianity. They printed books for themselves using paper they made, as well as hired out jobs from other religions to help pay the bills. Conrad Beissel, one of the founders of the group even wrote his own hymn book with over 1,000 original compositions. The fact that an occult handbook that was printed in German by the Ephrata Community near where the Whitmer family lived, themselves German-speaking first generation immigrants, was likely used as a source for the Smith family magic lamen is rather striking. If you haven’t seen the smith family lamen, google it right now. It’s a set of magic parchments with various sigils and spells that Quinn expertly traces back to the originations of each source occult handbook that was used to construct every spell and sigil on the parchments. That’s basically the entire premise of his book, seeking to explain the occult and magic context that constructed those magic lamens and shaped Joseph Smith’s theology and superstition. Needless to say, if the Whitmers had an Ephrata connection, which hasn’t been actually documented but is easily deduced from the available evidence, their connection to the occult is certainly rather tenable. Further, we have statements from people who knew the Whitmers prior to Jo appearing on the scene. They weren’t always viewed as favorable, especially by their preacher from whose congregation they defected upon joining Mormonism.
“I am acquainted with the Whitmers… they are gullible to the highest degree and even believe in witches. Hiram Page is likewise full of superstition.”
Continuing on a couple paragraphs about the Whitmers and their Ephrata connection with occult and mysticism from page 239 of Quinn’s book:
The minister’s description fit the cultural background of the Whitmer family before they moved to New York. The Whitmers were originally Pennsylvania Germans, and these early American ethnics were known for their almost universal belief in witchcraft and counter-charms against witchcraft. The Whitmer family’s New York minister recorded that peter Sr. had originally lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. That county’s 1790 federal census listed Peter Whitmer at Cocalico Township, which included Ephrata where Rosicrucian mystics were performing baptisms for the dead. The Whitmer family was about four miles from the Ephrata commune. In 1800 Whitmer was living in Bart, nineteen miles from Ephrata, whose sectarians continued their practices for several more decades. By comparison, six miles was the distance between Manchester village and the town of Palmyra. In addition to sharing the folk beliefs common to nearly all Pennsylvania Germans, for more than a decade Peter Whitmer also lived in close proximity to the Ephrata commune and its Rosicrucianism, alchemy, astrology, treasure-divining, and ceremonial magic. Five of Peter Sr.’s sons and his son-in-law Hiram Page became witnesses to the Book of Mormon…
In 1831 ten Palmyra residents echoed the Whitmer family’s minister at Fayette. The Mormons who converted at Manchester and Palmyra “are profound believers in witchcraft, ghosts, goblins, &c.” By the late nineteenth century, non-Mormon author Charles Marshall extended this observation to an interpration of the early appeal of Mormonis: “It was among an ignorant and credulous people of this kind, capable of believeing in the necromantic virtues of a big stone held in a hat, and of treasure descending perpetually under the spades of the searchers by enchantment, a people already prepared for any bold superstition by previous indulgence in a variety of religious extravagances, that Jospeh Smith found his early coadjutors and first converts.” As stated throughout this book, suchuse of “ignorant” was a denial of the fact that intelligent people believed in the “superstition” he described. Also, one person’s “superstition” is always another’s devout faith.
It think it’s safe to say that every single person in the Whitmer family were very superstitious people. Beyond that, every member of the Smith family, Oliver Cowdery, and Hiram Page were all superstitious. Martin Harris was legendarily superstitious. That’s a way of saying every single person who signed those witness statements in the beginning of every copy of the Book of Mormon believed in the magic world view.
Even the number of witnesses had astrological significance. From 194 in Quinn’s book:
They [the gold plates],… were joined by eight witnesses who saw no [conjured] angel but saw and handled the plates. The divinely commissioned translator and the two groups of witnesses totaled twelve, a holy number in biblical and occult tradition. Occult numerology also identified the combination of one, three, and eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon’s gold plates as linked with Joseph Jr.’s ruling planet in astrology. “Jupiter hath three numbers allotted to him, viz. one, three, eight.”
It wasn’t just Joseph Smith, all of these people believed in divination, sciomancy, conjuration of spirits, necromancy, scrying, rhabdomancy, phrenology, astrology, slippery treasures with guardian spirits, elemental spirits, animal magnetism, palmistry, amulets and protection spells, charms and counter-charms, witchcraft, sorcery, numerology, burying spellbound parchments in the corner of their houses to keep them from burning down, and nearly any other superstition we could conceive of today. Why should we trust their word on this ONE superstition that gold plates, written by Native Americans, were given to Joseph Smith by a conjured angel, who gave him magic rocks to be able to translate it into the Book of Mormon? What possibly qualifies them as credible? But, as Quinn so aptly put it, “one person’s “superstition” is always another’s devout faith.”
Let’s rewind a little to get a foundation for Rosicrucianism because Quinn invoked that term a few times and I said it twice before as well. What is Rosicrucianism? As the claimed history states, it began as a fraternity of physicians and mystics. The founder is an anonymous legend known only as “Father Brother Christian Rosi Cross,” who supposedly formed the fraternity in 1407, being born in 1378. According to legend, it was organized with 8 original disciples who were roaming celibate physician-mystics. They were to administer healings through anointing oil or vegetable powders among other medicinal methods, they were to never accept money for their services, and took a 17th-century version of the Hippocratic Oath. Each member was responsible for finding a single mentee as replacement value for himself. Historians are able to trace the actual foundation of Rosicrucianism to 3 manifestos that served as the canonical foundation. “These were the Fama Fraternitatis RC (The Fame of the Brotherhood of RC, 1614), the Confessio Fraternitatis(The Confession of the Brotherhood of RC, 1615), and the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosicross a.D. MCCCCLIX (1617).”
Once these manifestos were published, Rosicrucianism began to see an influx of those interested in seeking a codified religion of Christian esoteric and mystical arts. The manifestos themselves, and thus the foundation of the fraternal order, was heavily influenced by old philosophies that were quite popular like Cabala, Hermeticism, and Alchemy. Some historians have even noted how Rosicrucianism influenced early Freemasonry as it was gaining traction in Scotland and other European countries. Daniel Mogling created a picture as an early initiate into Rosicrucianism dated to 1618. You can find it on Wikimedia open source and it is FASCINATING! The esoteric symbolism is replete through every aspect of the illustration, it would take years to decode everything. Rosicrucianism was the philosophy that gave birth to the Ephrata Cloister that clearly influenced the Whitmer family; priming them to believe in the magic and superstition they were presented with when Jo and Oliver Cowdery darkened their doorstep with the incomplete BoM manuscript in hand.
So we know the Whitmers, Smiths, and Cowderys, and many of the early New York-era converts were into the magic worldview, but how much deeper does it go? Let’s talk about Bloody Brigham Young for a minute. Bloody Brigham is a fascinating character when it comes to examining his magic world view. First off, when it comes to scrying using a seer stone, it was well-known that only certain magicians had the gift of seeing that which can’t be detected with the natural eyes. JS was widely regarded as having this ability, but Bloody Brigham was quick to let people know in Utah that he didn’t have the same ability.
From Quinn’s book again on page 251
In 1860 Young also preached “that the gift of seeing was a natural gift, that there are thousands in the world who are natural born Seers.” Shortly after the publication of a summary of this sermon, Apostle John Taylor explained to a church congregation the meaning of Young’s remarks in regard to seer stones and church authority: “Brigham Young in saying that He did not profess to be a prophet[,] seer & Revelator as Joseph Smith was, was speaking of men being born Natural Prophets & Seers. Many have the gift of seeing through seer stones without the Priesthood at all. He [Young] had not this gift [of using seer stones] naturally yet He was an Apostle & the Presdet of the Church & Kingdom of God on Earth…” With such statements from church leaders, it is understandable why many Mormon pioneers exercised “this gift” of using seer stones.
Seer stones underlay much of the early Utah-territory church. Quin relates a story of a Samuel R. Parkinson who lost some mules. Parkinson went to a local seer and borrowed the stone. He didn’t see the location of the mules, but instead saw a pair of young women who he thought would be his polygamous wives. Parkinson showed the stone to his first wife who reportedly saw the same image. A few years later when the Parkinsons were visiting an Idaho congregation, they spotted two sister who looked like the image they both saw in the seer stone and they were wedded Samuel Parkinson as his second and third wives.
George D. Watt, the guy responsible for the Journal of Discourses, immigrated to Utah based on a vision he saw in a seer stone while living in England. Bloody Brigham, far from decrying the use of seer stones, endorsed their use, parroting what Jo had told him while he was Jo’s apostle stating: “Joseph said there is a [seer] stone for every person on earth… I don’t know [sic] that I have ever had a desire to have one… The president of the priests has a right to the Urim and Thummim which gives revelation.” The early church simply functioned on magic and Bloody Brigham didn’t take any steps to stop it or curtail those practices.
Where curtailing of the practices of seer stones actually did come into play was when women would use them. A woman in Utah named Sophia Romriell Rushton was using her seer stone to get her own revelations. She gained a reputation in Utah as being a seer and therefore prophetess of sorts, which could easily undermine the patriarchy and social order. Heber the Creeper Kimball was quick to respond: “Those [seer stones] were sacred things & to be used only by the priesthood…”.
Let’s talk Heber the Creeper Kimball for a minute because he practiced a unique version of divination that is much more similar to the biblical usage of the Urim and Thummim. Levitical priests using a Urim and Thummim were basically painted stones they would cast after asking the lord yes or no questions. However the stones landed, that was their answer. Heber the Creeper practiced a form of divination, not by holding sticks and watching how they pointed, but by holding his cane, asking the lord a yes-no question, then dropping the cane, like chicken bones. This is known as rhabdomancy and it was Heber’s preferred form of divination.
Kimball’s justification for the endowment under Jo hearkens to magic and a perfected version of Masonry. People today talk about how the temple endowment ceremonies are based on Masonry, early church leaders knew there were similarities, but they didn’t view it as derivative so much as perfected.
Apostle Heber C. Kimball, a Freemason for many years, expressed his view a month after receiving the Mormon endowment in 1842: “we have received some pressious things through the Prophet on the preasthood that would caus your Soul to rejoice [--] I can not give them to you on paper fore they are not to be ritten… there is a similarity of preast Hood in masonary. Br Joseph ses Masonary was taken from preasthood but has become deg[e]nerated, but menny things are [made] perfect.
It wasn’t just the endowment, but the entire concept of sealing was rooted in occultism and the magic worldview. The foundation of the church on a seemingly random Tuesday in April was rooted in magic. Heber Kimball was a practitioner among many of the earliest leaders of the church.
Magic simply pervaded the early church leadership. Notably, today, if you tour the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers museum, you’ll see in the Bloody Brigham Young display case a small bloodstone amulet. I’ve personally seen it and every one of you who’ve been in that museum may have seen it or may not have noticed it. I would encourage anybody hearing this, the next time you go to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum, spend some time looking at this stone, it’s rather remarkable. I saw it but knew nothing about it until this most recent read-through of Quinn’s book.
Aside from joseph Smith’s Jupiter Talisman, Brigham Young was the next most prominent Mormon with verified use of an amulet. For more than seventy years, the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum in Salt Lake City has displayed a flat green stone with red mineral veins, mounted in a gold frame with eyelets. The museum office index calls this stone an “AMULET,” and the display-case label reads: “BLOODSTONE. Pres. Brigham Young carried this stone on chain when going into unknown or dangerous places.” Its donor was Marion J. Folsom, niece of Young’s plural wife Amelia Folsom Young. In early America the bloodstone was a well-known amulet in folk medicine to prevent or stop bleeding. According to the museum label, Young’s family understood that he used the bloodstone as a protection against dangers other than nosebleeds.
Bloody Brigham wore a bloodstone around his neck as a protection amulet the way every believing Mormon wears their garments as protection amulets today. It was his magic lucky charm the way garments are a temple magic lucky charm for millions of people today.
Protection amulets aren’t just limited to physical objects though. Prominent Mormon Zebedee Coltrin converted in 1835 as a result of a personal visionary experience. The Coltrin family practiced magic incantations as a familial protection spell and kept the tradition alive until around 1900. The spell was never written on paper but passed orally through family members who memorized it perfectly to pass to the next generation. It was a tradition existing for roughly 70 years in the believing Coltrin family circle and probably existed within the family’s personal magic beliefs long before Zebedee converted to the church.
William Clayton, Jo’s personal scribe in Nauvoo from early 1842 until his death 2 years later, knew and saw everything that happened in the church. The theocratic council of fifty minutes are in his hand. Much of the Book of the Law of the Lord is in his hand. Most of Jo’s Nauvoo journal is in his hand. This guy saw everything and believed in magic as well. While in Utah, Clayton sent a letter to New York requesting some pages of their finest blank parchment for, he said, to take some records. Utah had plenty of paper so why not use that paper? Well, a magic handbook from the 1820s helps us understand. This is Peter Buchan’s Witchcraft Detected and Prevented…
“A safeguard for an orchard, park, warran, or field, to take a Thief, &c.
The several places being guarded by one and the same planet, not to be too tedious to you, one and the same thing will indifferently serve to secure any of them from thieves that come to make robbery or depredation, whether it be for the fruits of the earth or any kind of cattle, or to steal away timber in fields or woods; to make which, take the following direction, have a piece of curious clean parchment, made of a sleek skin, cut it with five points or corners in the form of a star, but so large, that you may write in the center of it, what is to be written, viz. [some magical signs] the characters of the celestial governing these affairs, add the character of the planet for the day, as before directed, and suppose it to be Tuesday, Mars that govern that day has this character, which set down thus, [symbol] and this number, 1, 7, 11, 12, 1-2, 1-8th, close it up with virgin’s wax, as I should have told you (you ought to have done with the former, and sprinkle it with the juice of fumitory, and place the same if in a garden in the hole of a wall;) if in a forest, park, or wood, in the hole of a tree, having laid it before in goose tansey; and so whatever any thief takes in these several grounds, he shall not be able to carry off till the sun-rising; but then if not watched he may do it.
Peter Buchan’s book I just read from was extremely popular. The reason I read that entire charm is because it talks about curious clean parchment made of sleek skin, which is then cut and written upon in order to bind a thief from carrying away your property. Seems crazy, right? Well, the next charm is even more delightful:
To drive away Ghosts, or Spirits that haunt a house.
This is a curious secret, and I think never before made public… To do this, take the wool that grows between the two eyes of a black sheep, burnt to powder, and after it has been steeped a night and a day in man’s urine, mix this with the powder of nightshade, or wake Robin, an herb so called, boil them in a quarter of a pint of Aqua Vitae; sprinkle the walls of the chamber you fancy is haunted with it, and no disturbance will happen if you turn your face when you go to repose to the eastward, when in bed, and say your prayers.
Like I said, that was a popular book in the 1820s when it was released and reprinted in like 7 editions and was on sale in the Palmyra bookstore where Jo really got into magic. This is the kind of information we’re dealing with. And please, harbor no illusions that this mindset has gone anywhere. People today believe in similar practices, enchantments, spells, and smudging to drive haunting spirits from their homes. Even if these magic beliefs and practices don’t seem to have any effect on our lives today, I simply find it interesting that there are people today who wear magic charms around their necks while taking selfies on their iphones and send that information around the globe in a few milliseconds. People used to believe witches literally flew around on broomsticks but now a person can buy a personal jetpack for as much as a house in Seattle. People will drive in their cars the equivalent of 3 day’s walk in an hour so they can pray to a god that condemns people who love somebody of the same gender or sends somebody to hell for masturbating. It’s all superstition and it’s ubiquitous among nearly every culture, ethnicity, geography, and group of people.
I guess a question remains, when did the lines in Mormonism get moved? When did they walk back from seer stones and divination, but still hold on to the garments as amulets and the magic spells spoken three times in the temple and god being an alien and all that? When did they begin to relegate the practices apologists try to remove Joseph Smith from into the realm of folk magic, while still believing their own magic? It really happened around the turn of the 20th century. By the mid-1890s Utah was trying to gain statehood and integrate into the broader mainstream of Protestantism. When Joseph F. Smith took over as prophet, nearly all of the old guard from the original Kirtland and Nauvoo Jo years had died off and no longer influenced the church. Joseph F. Smith made a concerted effort to bring Utah into control. He instated curfews, increased regulation of Sabbath day observance, banned face-cards, tightened the ropes on coffee, tea, and alcohol, although it was his successor who was largely responsible for really tightening down on the alcohol part. Joseph F. Smith pushed magic to the fringes of Mormon practice when he couldn’t directly snuff it out.
In this dizzying procession of institution and theology, magic was only an undercurrent. During [Joseph] Smith [Jr’s] presidency, most Mormons had no verified experience with folk magic or the occult. Those who did, including the Mormon founder himself, were usually discreet. “For the Smiths, the Whitmers and the Knights,” wrote one reviewer wit ha taste for the estoeric, “God had to be juggled (conjured) out of his hiding place.” After 1830 the Mormon folk believers were overwhelmingly outnumbered by converts from churches.
Converts to Mormonism came from diverse backgrounds. Some had previously integrated folk magic with conventional beliefs and practices of religion. They were sympathetic to continuing that synthesis. Others seem to have adopted folk magic only after becoming Mormons. For them, something within early Mormonism sanctioned such practices…
Like the rank-and-file, LDS church leaders in the nineteenth century were all along the spectrum of practice, advocacy, indifference, and condemnation of these beliefs and practices. By the mid-twentieth century, church leaders consistently condemned various manifestations of folk magic and the occult. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of modern Mormons have long since assimilated the general American population’s attitude toward magic and the occult. In this respect, current Mormons are virtually indistinguishable from most twentieth-century American Protestants and secular rationalists.
Yet Mormons today draw their arbitrary lines where they see fit. They estrange a child because she’s reading wiccan books by candlelight or he’s reading Harry Potter books and playing with a magic wand he cut from a tree. It’s all superstition. It just so happens that 15 random guys at the head of a multi-billion dollar organization, started by some random guy 185 years ago, claim that only their specific form of superstition will get you to their specific, Field of Reeds, their Elysium, sorry, Valhalla, shit that’s wrong, SugarCandy Mountain? Whatever, you know what I mean.
Scathing did Book of Moses last week and BoA in 2 weeks from when this airs.
Brief listener mail VS and WITHHELD
Copyright Ground Gnomes LLC subject to fair use. Citation example: "Naked Mormonism Podcast (or NMP), Ep #, original air date 04/25/2019"