Ep 186 – The Entheogenic Origins of Mormonism: A Working Hypothesis pt.1
On this episode, we begin reading through the academic paper recently published in a special edition of the Journal of Psychedelics Studies authored by Robert Beckstead, Bryce Blankenagel, Cody Noconi, and Michael Winkelman. This segment of the paper covers the background of the Smith family, magic and 19th-century American occultism, herbalism, medicine, Indigenous medicine, Free Masonry, and the entheogenic influence in all these fields. It also discusses psychedelics in the Word of Wisdom, the Book of Mormon, and early Mormon sacramental rituals. The increased need for secrecy was realized by Joseph Smith and the entheogenic practices became closed off to non-initiates. Please send any feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear anything you have to say about the paper.
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
We’ve had a lot of people asking for this and the time has finally arrived. Today we’re going to begin a series on psychedelics in early Mormonism. A little background if you’re new to the show or haven’t heard episodes on it in the past. Back in June of 2016, we discussed the dedication of the Kirtland Temple and I spoke a bit about the possibility that something was in the anointing oil which caused the mass visions and ecstatic experiences. As soon as the episode aired, I received an email from a guy named Cody Noconi.
I am a permaculture designer specializing in micoremmediation and plant medicines. I believe I can help you hone your argument that Joseph Smith was using psychotropic plant medicines and potentially drugging his parishioners with them. I can provide new evidence for several entheogenic candidates, as well as confirmation that the Smith family had the ability and knowhow to do this. It is shockingly easy and efficient to extract medicinal compounds using wine or spirits. I can’t imagine how busy you are with everything, so for the sake of keeping this brief I wont go into more detail. This is a huge topic that I think deserves a lot more attention. If you are interested in discussing this further, I left my contact information below.
We got together, luckily Cody doesn’t live far from me, and that began our collaborative efforts of studying psychedelics in early Mormonism. From that time forward we began writing a paper which we self-published and presented the following year at Sunstone in Salt Lake City, titled Revelation Through Hallucination, a Treatise on the Smith-entheogen Theory. The reception was fantastic. Helping us put together the pamphlet was a previous Sunstone presentation titled Restoration and the Sacred Mushroom, written and published in Sunstone Magazine by Dr. Robert Beckstead in 2007. Fast forward another year and after reading the paper, Robert contacted Cody and I to collaborate with him on an updated version of the paper to be published in a peer-reviewed Psychedelics journal. We gladly agreed and now over a year and a half since that writing process began, the paper was published in a special edition of the Journal of Psychedelic Studies. The reception, again, has been fantastic so far.
Here’s the thing, it’s a long article. Most JPS articles max out at 15 pages but because ours was a special edition it’s just a shade under 50. We had the good fortune of one of the journal’s editors, Michael Winkelman, collaborating on the paper as well and the process was wonderfully expedited and lenient with respect to the standard page limitation. Because the paper is relatively long, we’re going to spend the next few episodes going through it and I’ll add a small bit of commentary, clarification, or further information where necessary. Why? Well, reading Mormon history can be dry sometimes. There’s a barrier of entry to understanding Mormon history academic papers and books because the field builds upon itself. Not many will take the time to sit and read an article, especially if it requires them to have 15 other browsers open to research the information deeper. Listening to it read by one of the authors is simply an easier way to consume the information. It also helps that I’ll be traveling for this upcoming holiday season, like I assume many of you will be as well, and reading through this paper allows me to still get you content even while I’m out of the studio.
But the most important reason I’m reading this paper to all of you great listeners is because I need you. Look, I know y’all are smart, skeptical, and you know your way around Mormon history because you’re listening to this podcast and maybe you’ve read a couple of the main books or even know more about Mormon history than me. We need feedback on this paper. Y’all are far from objective evaluators of this information because I’ve been priming you for a peer-reviewed article like this for years now, but the more feedback we get the better. What’s more, this paper takes a bit of a shotgun approach to the evidence and candidate entheogens. We’ve included a lot of information that may extend this theory beyond the weight the evidence can hold. We want to scrub any untenable points from the theory and bolster that which is strongest. It’s better to put forward your 3 best arguments instead of your 10 good arguments. This paper is the 10 good arguments version of the Smith-entheogen theory and we want it to start a discussion about psychedelics in the field of Mormon history and a discussion about Mormon history in the field of psychedelics. Thus, the subtitle of “A working hypothesis” is best-fitting for the purpose this paper seeks to fill.
Two more points to make. When I presented on this at John Whitmer Historical Conference in September of this year, the primary feedback from the historians in attendance was “show us your work”. Presenting on psychedelics in early Mormonism is cool, talking about it on the podcast is helpful to reach a broad audience, but until a peer-reviewed paper is published, everything else amounts to just talking. Well, now we can show our work. For images, tables, and footnotes, audio is admittedly a tough medium so you’ll find a link to the full article in the show notes.
Final point. Years ago I promised the listeners of this show I’d get you a book on early Mormonism if you hired me full-time. When I made that promise I had no idea what writing a history book required or the process behind it. I feel bad about not keeping to the agreed-upon timeline. Well, here’s its skeleton.
The entheogenic origins of Mormonism: A working hypothesis
* ROBERT BECKSTEAD1 , BRYCE BLANKENAGEL2 , CODY NOCONI3 and MICHAEL WINKELMAN4 ** 1 Retired, Department of Emergency Medicine, Pocatello, ID, USA 2 Naked Mormonism Podcast, Seattle, WA, USA 3 Independent Researcher, Portland, OR, USA 4 Retired, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA (Received: March 19, 2019; accepted: June 8, 2019)
Historical documents relating to early Mormonism suggest that Joseph Smith (1805–1844) employed entheogen-infused sacraments to fulfill his promise that every Mormon convert would experience visions of God and spiritual ecstasies. Early Mormon scriptures and Smith’s teachings contain descriptions consistent with using entheogenic material. Compiled descriptions of Joseph Smith’s earliest visions and early Mormon convert visions reveal the internal symptomology and outward bodily manifestations consistent with using an anticholinergic entheogen. Due to embarrassing symptomology associated with these manifestations, Smith sought for psychoactives with fewer associated outward manifestations. The visionary period of early Mormonism fueled by entheogens played a significant role in the spectacular rise of this American-born religion. The death of Joseph Smith marked the end of visionary Mormonism and the failure or refusal of his successor to utilize entheogens as a part of religious worship. The implications of an entheogenic origin of Mormonism may contribute to the broader discussion of the major world religions with evidence of entheogen use at their foundation and illustrate the value of entheogens in religious experience.
Keywords: Joseph Smith, Mormonism, entheogen, psychedelic, spirituality
The number and quality of spiritual experiences reported by participants in early Mormonism (Welch & Carlson, 2005) far exceeded the daily background frequency reported in today’s general population (Underwood, 2006, 2011). Multiple supernatural and naturalistic explanations have been suggested to account for the sheer number of early Mormon visions and ecstasies, including rational supernaturalism (Erying, 1989; Park, 2008; Widtsoe, 1915), out-of-body experiences (Bushman, 2006; Fillerup, 1996), animal magnetism or Mesmerism (Bunker & Bitton, 1975), prophetic charisma (Foster, 2005), dissociation secondary to childhood trauma (Morain, 1998), enthusiasm associated with the Second Great Awakening (Staker, 2009, pp. 19–26; Taves, 1999), apparent materialization of the sacred during trance (Taves, 2014), pious fraud (Vogel, 2004, p. vii), and automatic writing (Dunn, 2002). However, no single explanation has to date successfully accounted for the number and quality of visions in early Mormonism. Nor can these modalities explain the “on-demand” visions that were neither spontaneous nor the result of prolonged austerities. To date, Joseph Smith’s and early Mormon converts’ visionary experience are neither easily defined nor understood (Waterman, 1999). Against this background, we present compelling evidence suggesting that many early Mormon visionary experiences were facilitated by entheogenic substances that resulted in mood elevation and heightened spiritual awareness among early Mormon converts.
Let’s take a minute to work with these terms briefly as they will heavily play into the rest of the paper. Entheogen is a relatively fluid definition. It was initially coined by psychedelics researchers in the 1970s to describe any plant which facilitates a specific type of altered states of consciousness. Peyote, mushrooms, LSD, MDMA, salvia, ayahuasca, and many others fall into this category. The 70s experienced a moratorium on researching these psychoactive plants and the term psychedelic in popular culture had departed from its previous clinical definition, thus entheogen was coined. More modern psychedelic research has reclaimed the term and entheogen has taken a broader definition. Entheogen now refers largely to the practice in which psychedelics are utilized to facilitate altered states of consciousness. Psychedelics can be used in non-entheogenic contexts, during which they’re often referred to as party drugs. An entheogenic session more often includes meditation, sensory deprivation, administration of the psychedelic, and programming of the trip both before and after the experience. Doing mushrooms with friends and watching a funny movie is taking psychedelics. Doing mushrooms after a period of fasting and meditation with a babysitter, face mask to block the light, relaxing music, and a debrief session afterwards is an entheogenic session in the modern definition. However, things like prayer circles, meditation rings, drum circles, sweat lodges, mystical dancing, specific types of breathwork, tantric sex, and many other ritualistic practices can be used entheogenically, usually utilizing psychoactive plant medicines as a catalyst or facilitator of the session, but can also be done without the psychedelic to achieve similar altered states of consciousness. Put simply, this is the dose, set, and setting equation. Setting is the time and place, set is the mindset with which you enter the entheogenic setting, and dosage refers to the psychoactive plant medicine and the amount ingested. Altered states of consciousness can be achieved through set and setting alone, but dosage increases likelihood of success, especially in large groups, and requires less precision with the set and setting variables.
Let’s get into that term a bit as well, altered states of consciousness. This can mean many things but has a very strict definition within psychedelic and entheogen research. In broader psychology, altered states of consciousness refers to any state of mind not within what we call the Default Mode Network or Default State Network. Default mode network is where your brain is when you’re thinking about what is going on around you. When you daydream, recall a memory, feel an emotion, talk about yourself, or are just “thinking” as we call it when our mind is actively processing something, often based on external stimuli. Default Mode Network is what we call feeling “normal,” even though that term is pretty loaded in and of itself. Altered States of Consciousness disrupt the default mode network. The analogy I use, informed by the book How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan goes like this. When you’re just you doing your you thing, your brain is transmitting information on well-traveled highways of neural pathways. Our brains are wired for efficiency and these pathways are like the canal system of neuronal activity. Psychedelics flood the canals and completely alter the Default Mode Network such that those commonly-used pathways are no longer how the brain is interacting with itself. This is the altered state of consciousness within the psychedelic field. These altered states of consciousness facilitated by entheogenic practices utilizing psychedelics facilitate what we call spiritual or mystical experiences with a high degree of success and reliability. Obviously, the term “spiritual experiences” or “mystical experiences” is quite loaded as well but it refers to the internally-perceived experience of the participant which can manifest in all sorts of incredible ways. From the lowest of seeing meaning, connections, and supernatural phenomena where none exist all the way to the highest transcendent spiritual and mystical experiences of hallucinations, ego-dissolution, loss of self-identity, and profound oneness with everything around the user. Notably, an atheist, a faithful Christian, and a faithful Muslim will experience similar spiritual phenomena when using similar substances in similar entheogenic contexts, although their respective experience and takeaways will largely be informed by their culture and faith tradition or lack thereof and everybody’s threshold for achieving that state of consciousness varies. These spiritual or mystical experiences can be used therapeutically and some early research into treating depression, PTSD, and other mental wellness issues is promising and is, indeed, where these plant medicines got their start in the mid-1940s through the early 1960s before their association with the anti-government counter-culture, and the so-called hippie movement in general.
So, those are some definitions which will become very important to contextualizing this paper. Let’s continue.
In this entheogenic working hypothesis of early Mormonism, we consider the supernatural as natural (Taves, 2014; Winkelman & Baker, 2015) and entheogens as medical therapy (Rucker, Jelen, Flynn, Frowde, & Young, 2016; Winkelman, 2001; Winkelman & Sessa, 2019). Because the two largest factions of Mormonism have opened their libraries to everyone (Spencer, 2009) and “primary source materials are so abundant and available, far more so than for more ancient religions” (Mason, 2015, p. 22), Mormonism may provide insight into the role entheogens played in the early success of traditional religions (see Richards, 2016; Winkelman, 2010, 2013).
Visionary experience as veridical
Converts who reported angelic visitations, ecstasies, and visions of God in 19th-century Mormonism regarded their experiences as veridical and not as imaginary constructs of the mind. The 19th-century publication, The Essential Guide to Datura (“Essential,” n.d.), describes the subjective visionary experience of datura intoxication as “widely perceived to be real.” In reviewing firsthand reports of early Mormon visionary experience, we find overlaps of these with contemporary accounts of visions facilitated by entheogenic substances, and with known symptomology associated with entheogenic use. Defenders and critics of Mormonism may misunderstand this paper’s thesis as questioning the validity of Mormonism’s founding visionary experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. All human experience and insight emerge in the chemistry of the brain, including the achievements of mathematics, science, epistemology, and even morality. To explore how brain chemistry was involved in Joseph Smith’s religious experiences and those of other early Mormon believers and whether entheogens facilitated those experiences is not to question the spiritual validity and power of those experiences but to illuminate how such compelling experiences were accessed then and draw implications for how they may be accessed now. If the preponderance of evidence leads to the conclusion that entheogens facilitated many of Smith’s visionary experiences and those of many early Mormon converts, then another oddity of the rise of Mormonism is explainable, the dramatic decline in reported visionary experience after Joseph Smith’s death.
Entheogens as authentic mystical experience
Clinical research with entheogens (psychedelics) indicates that while they produce varying experiences, they also produce mystical experiences indistinguishable from those produced by non-drug means (i.e., prolonged meditation; see Griffiths, Hurwitz, Davis, Johnson, & Jesse, 2019; Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2006; Richards, 2016). A double-blind study in the 1960s with students at the Harvard Divinity School (Pahnke 1963, 1966) found those sessions facilitated by psilocybin-reported experiences ranked, immediately and decades later, as among the most profound and life-shaping spiritual experiences in their lives (also see Doblin’s, 1991 follow-up study). Richards (2016) reviewed this and other clinical research and examined their implications for issues in religious studies. The profound and undeniable implications of entheogens are their ability to produce genuine mystical experiences that are phenomenologically indistinguishable from the mystical experiences that result from devoted spiritual practices or which occur spontaneously. The clinical research establishes that it is pharmacology rather than personal expectation alone that enables entheogens to produce the standard core mystical features such as union with and intuitive knowledge of God, a sense of transcendence of time and space, a connection with sacredness, a sense of ineffability, and positive mood. This direct encounter with primal religious and mystical experiences provoked by entheogens has profound implications for religious studies in general (Smith, 2000, 2001), and as we will show here, for our understanding of the sacred visionary experience of early Mormonism.
Context of Mormon entheogens
Two salient characteristics of the early Mormon religion, founded by Joseph Smith (Figure 1) in 1830, were: (a) converts who were “seekers” whose “greatest hunger was for spiritual gifts like dreams, visions, tongues, miracles, and spiritual raptures” (Bushman, 2005, p. 147); and (b) converts who would sacrifice everything they possessed, even their own lives, and those of their family, to gather together, establish cities, and build temples to create a New Jerusalem, or Zion in America. While new religions were prevalent in the 19th-century America, the zeal with which Mormons defended their religion speaks to the charismatic power of the founding prophet, a charisma which may have leveraged entheogens for chemically induced spiritual awakening. We propose that the entheogenic context of early Mormon involved sacraments, ordinances, and endowments feeding these seekers’ hunger for primary religious experience. Discovering their yearning could be satisfied in Mormonism, seekers flocked to Joseph Smith (Figure 1), swelling Church membership from a mere 6 in 1830 to 8,000 living in Nauvoo by 1844 rivaling Chicago in population size (Hoyt, 1933, p. 50). Critical to the rise of convert numbers that the Church experienced was that between 1830 and 1836, seeker converts participating in Mormon rituals in which sacraments were ingested or anointing oils applied, had the dreams, speaking in tongues, miracles, and spiritual raptures they sought, with many enjoying visions of God and Jesus Christ (Anderson, K. R., 1996, 2012; Petersen, 1975, pp. 80–81). The experiences surrounding the dedication of the Kirtland temple in 1836 have been called the Mormon Pentecost (Olmstead, 2000), and had a similar impact on the rise of early Mormonism as the early Christian Pentecost had on the rise of Christianity; both sects faced the same charges of drug-related visions (see Acts 2:1–31, “KJV”). Sectarian observers were appalled by the strange behaviors associated with visionary sacrament meetings that Mormons had opened to the public. Of this period, the Cleveland Harold & Gazette reported:
Large [Mormon] meetings, continued for successive days, were held – earnest preachings and alarming exhortations were given ::: swoons, trances, jerkings, and visions were frequent (“The Mormons,” 1839)
A non-Mormon medically trained observer, James J. Moss who witnessed several meetings concluded that the strange behaviors and visions were produced by drinking “medicated” sacramental wine and contemplated stealing a bottle “to see if it were drugged or not” (Moss, 1878). Importantly, Moss, who was a believing Campbellite and had witnessed Methodist enthusiasm during the same period, distinguished between characteristic religious enthusiasm and sensational early Mormon visionary experience. Although Joseph Smith was not present at these meetings, he attended subsequent meetings where the sacrament produced similar bodily manifestations (Bushman, 2005, pp. 156–157). In response to the multiple complaints generated by the strange behaviors of Mormon enthusiasts, Smith closed sacrament meetings to outside observers, restricted attendance to male members only, added anointings with oil, and began construction of a temple in Kirtland, Ohio. During the dedication period of the Kirtland temple in early 1836, en mass visions were once again reported by many of those who participated, with the same accusations of drugged sacramental wine (see below). The evidence for Joseph Smith’s use of entheogens explained in detail in this paper is primarily based on six straightforward phenomena reported or observed during the life of Joseph Smith.
- Entheogens were found in every area the Smith family resided, and
produce visions, and spiritual ecstasies.
2. Joseph Smith was mentored by individuals with experience in esoteric fields of knowledge.
3. Visionary experience in early Mormonism was frequently “on-demand” rather than spontaneous.
4. Joseph Smith devised a method to facilitate dramatic religious experience among his followers (Welch & Carlson, 2005).
5. There was an association between early Mormon visionary experience and participation in Mormon ordinances where bread and wine were served, and oil anointings were received.
6. Visionary experiences of the magnitude experienced during Joseph Smith’s life ceased at his death.
We find the best explanation for these phenomena is Joseph Smith’s personal use of entheogens and his administration of entheogens to early Mormon converts.
Entheogens as the “means”
In contrast to traditional Christianity, Smith consistently understood matter and the body to be sacred, not profane. For Joseph Smith, the physical did not impede the spiritual but was instead the route to the spiritual. This unique aspect of Joseph Smith’s theology and prophetic practice finds expression in his doctrine of “means.” In Smith’s theology, divine action operates through the instrumentality of material causes, including human action and natural law. The Book of Mormon raises this idea to the status of a general law of divine action, asserting: “The Lord God worketh through means” (Smith, 1830, p. 236, emphasis added). Joseph Smith’s doctrine that God operates by “means” and that the physical is a gateway to the spiritual provides a theological rationale for using entheogenic herbs and fungi. In the view of some prominent Mormons, entheogens are not prohibited by Joseph Smith’s dietary “word of wisdom” (see below). Such entheogens would be physical means God has provided for humankind to achieve spiritual ends. Smith’s approach anticipated recent developments in the study of religion, particularly the role physical process plays in religious experience. In this, Smith seemed to anticipate Edward O. Wilson, professor of biology at Harvard and one of the world’s leading experts on biological diversity, who concluded that “we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural science” (Fuller, 2008, p. 4). Joseph Smith likely understood that entheogens were a trigger for religious experience, a fact vindicated when considering entheogens as simple molecules cannot create the richness of early Mormon visions and ecstasies without the human capacity for religious experience. Instead, the religious experience is a product of the body through the actions of endogenous and exogenous neurotransmitters on human cognition. Mormons regularly modify their physical chemistry to promote spiritual experience through the Mormon practice of monthly prayer and fasting, but this is an unreliable method of inducing a transcendent spiritual experience of the nature experienced at the foundation of Mormonism. In Smith’s (1835) “the Word of Wisdom,” he overtly endorses the use of one mind-altering substance for spiritual ends, wine in the sacrament of communion (D&C 89:5). The revelation further teaches that “all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man— every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving” (D&C 89:10-11). Adherence to the prohibition of addictive substances and the use herbs carries the promise of “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” and protection from the “destroying angel” (D&C, 89:19-21). Herbs were a physical means to profound religious experience, experiences that rarely occur without using entheogens. As we discuss, evidence suggests that Smith gained knowledge and skill in working with herbs (D&C, 42:43; 59:17–18; 89:10–11; Haller, 2000; Heinerman, 1975), including entheogens. Joseph Smith’s grandson, Frederick M. Smith, came to the same conclusion as discussed below. Joseph Smith was also a restorationist and advocated a unique form of Native American “restoration” or “revival. From its title page onward, The Book of Mormon advocated a “restoration” of Native temporal and spiritual power and Smith sought alliances with Native Americans and traded objects of spiritual significance with them. If Smith learned of entheogens that bore the imprimatur of Native American shamanism, he would have been likely to seek mentors in their use, not only for himself but also for converts of his Church. Besides facilitating religious visions and spiritual ecstasies, entheogens have remarkable antidepressant properties, suggesting a motivation, possibly unconscious, for their use by the Smith family and in early Mormonism.
Let’s dig in for a minute here because this will figure heavily into the rest of the paper. Quinn’s book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is such an incredible resource, not only to illustrate the magical practices of Joseph and the entire Smith family, but to describe the mindset of many people in western culture at the time. Joseph’s magic wasn’t something which was compartmentalized in his scrying with a magic seer stone, magic and spiritualism was the way he understood the world around him. Magic wasn’t a practice, it was a lens by which to see reality. It wasn’t just in the prayers he spoke but the universe in which he lived. If he woke up and stubbed his toe, had a stomach bug, Emma was mad at him, got a bad letter in the mail, dealt with accusations by a high-ranking member of church leadership and their public defection, little Joseph threw a tantrum because of a fever, a land contract fell through, and it was raining all day when he wanted to preach at the town square, this wasn’t a string of bad luck, this was punishment by gods or spirits who were displeased which happens often this time of year when Mercury is in retrograde. To rectify these punishments and atone for what he did last week it was necessary to speak a specific prayer at a specific time of day with specific people in specific places in the room while eating specific bread and drinking specific wine in a very specific way using the correct hand. But how did he know who were the right people? Set up a non-verbal system to confirm they were also initiates in these esoteric rites… like handshakes or something. A candle flickers, a unique flower sprouts in a special place, he closes his eyes and opens his Bible and points to a specific passage and reads it, all of these things happening around him happened for a reason. That candle flickered because a spirit was responding to something that was said in the room. That unique flower sprouted where it did because something special lies beneath it. God directed his hands to open to that page and point to that passage of the Bible because it means something special and that’s how god communicates with His messengers. This was far from a unique mindset of the day and Joseph could find plenty of facebook groups and subreddits of people who think like this today. What is truly amazing is that many users of psychedelics maintain this same mindset about the plant medicines they use for their own spiritual or mystical practices. The plants don’t just have a verifiable and predictable effect on the person’s brain chemistry, the plants connect them to what they call god. These herbs are placed here by god to help us little humans view its mind and see reality in a way that our Default Mode Network can never perceive. Communicating the mentally-perceived attributes of these plants and fungi is impossible. These experiences are ineffable whether by virtue of existing before language or human language is only beginning to catch up to what these experiences are. For many users, “god” is the only word that comes to mind and even those three letters don’t do the experience justice. For the user, the psychedelic used in the context of entheogenic experiences opens up the world of mysteries the ancients sought to unfold in their religious practices; the same mysteries that built the pyramids, created society, builds symbols into stone edifices, and pervades pop culture, all of which hides in plain sight but can only be seen with initiated eyes once the scales have fallen. God talks to users through the plants. This is the magical world view. While Quinn’s book went so far in discussing and describing what the magic world view was, it missed the entheogenic aspect which catalyzes the theophany so often attendant before the magical world view is adhered to. It was prevalent in western cultures which shaped the founder of Mormonism and it’s alive and well to this day when people drive cars and post photographs of galaxies millions of lightyears away on social media using their smartphones. It truly is a remarkable world we humans have created for ourselves.
Wholesome herbs God hath ordained
That Joseph Smith did not consider entheogens a problem is evident from his attitudes toward herbs. Joseph Smith knew of herbs and their uses and claimed the requisite knowledge and skill to devise and prescribe herbal remedies for others (Heinerman, 1975). Joseph Smith’s development into a village scryer or “seer” involved following the path set forward in several esoteric traditions of the area he grew up, and possibly from his interpretation of biblical passages indicating the ingestion of some material preceding the visions of Ezekiel and John as discussed below. In line with other health edicts of the 19th century, in 1835, Joseph Smith delivered a revelation called “The Word of Wisdom” suggesting dietary practices and the proper and improper use of alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. However, Smith carved out an exception for plant and herb medicine in the Word of Wisdom. And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man. Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof. All these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving (Smith, 1835) The first “anti-Mormon” book, Mormonism Unvailed [sic] by Eber D. Howe (1834), attributed the exemption carved out for “herb[s] in the season thereof ” to Frederick G. Williams’ influence on Joseph Smith (discussed below). Howe referenced Williams’ herbarium on either side of his Kirtland home while disparaging his “communion with spirits from other worlds.” Howe continues,
We are next told that every wholesome herb, God ordained for the use of man!! and we should infer that the writer or the recording angel had been inducted into the modern use of herbs, by the celebrated Doctor. F. G. Williams in Kirtland. F. G. Williams is a revised quack, well known in this vicinity, by his herbarium on either side of his house; but whether he claims protection by right of letters, patent from the General Government, or by communion with spirits from other worlds, we are not authorized to determine. (pp. 229–230)
The Smith family exemption of entheogenic herbs as prohibited substances in the Word of Wisdom seems generational considering that Joseph Jr.’s grandson Frederick M. Smith, also a prophet to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, carved out a similar exemption for peyote as discussed below. We begin by examining the historical setting of entheogenic practices of Joseph Smith Jr. and his ancestors, mentors, and colleagues. We then summarize the evidence for the entheogens available to Joseph Smith and his mentors, followed by descriptions of early Mormon visions and ecstasies we correlate with a clinical syndrome suggestive of intoxication with visionary anticholinergic substances.
HISTORICAL SETTING: ANCESTORS, MENTORS, AND COLLEAGUES
For Joseph Smith to fulfill his promise that every Mormon convert would have visions of God and spiritual ecstasies, he needed assistance from trusted associates who would covertly procure, process, store, and administer entheogens. Several early church leaders (including the Smiths, Cowdery, and Whitmer families in particular) were deeply invested in the study of occult practices, and herbal, plant, pharmaceutical, folk medicine /craft, and the utilization of “spirituous liquors” (Brooke, 1996; Quinn, 1998).
Salem witch trials
The Smith family involvement with the magic world view and possibly entheogenic material went back several generations. For instance, the Smiths were involved with the witch trials in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, that may have been instigated by the psychedelic ergot fungi (Claviceps purpurea). Samuel Smith, Joseph Smith’s great grandfather, gave testimony in April 1692 that Mary Easty threatened him after which he reported, “I received a little blow on my shoulder, and the stone wall rattled very much” (Smith, 1692). After the Salem trials, other generations of his ancestors resided in areas noted for beliefs and practices of folk magic and alchemy (Quinn, 1998, p. 31). European occultism also shaped the cultural milieu in which the witch trials occurred. Mormon historian B. H. Roberts noted, “Indeed it is scarcely conceivable how one could live in New England [in the 18th-19th centuries] and not have shared such beliefs” (Quinn, 1998, p. 29). The hypothesis of ergotism as the culprit in the Salem witch trials of 1692 (Caporael, 1976) is based on the signs of convulsive ergotism including seeing apparitions, feeling pinpricks, pinches, burning sensations, and by symptoms of urinary obstruction. However, those afflicted had none of the constitutional symptoms or residual effects known to occur with ergot poisoning (Woolf, 2000), making poisoning by ergot-infected rye bread less likely. The manifest symptoms were attributed to potions made by Tituba, a South American Arawak Indian or Caribbean enslaved person (Albanese, 2005; Breslaw, 1996) owned by the Reverend Samuel Parris (Dannaway, Piper, & Webster, 2006). Tituba was familiar with Hoodoo religion (Martin, 2006) and plant medicines from her African heritage and could have prepared an anticholinergic such as datura (Caporael, 1976). This could have produced the symptoms ascribed to Parris’ daughter, and her cousin, the first “bewitched” inhabitant of Salem, whose behaviors, resembled the anticholinergic toxidromal (Holstege & Borek, 2012) and dissociative features of Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (Martin, 2006).
Joseph Smith Sr.
The founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr., was born on ~~the~~ December 23, 1805 into a Christian family enmeshed in folk-magic and the occult (Quinn, 1998). Joseph Smith’s father, along with his other sons Alvin and Joseph Jr., engaged in the “more esoteric components of the western New York religious-cultural situation” (Shipps, 1987). Joseph Smith’s earliest mentor was his father, who we believe would have communicated his entheogenic and magico-religious knowledge to his sons.
Joseph Sr.’s knowledge of preparing plant extracts was recorded in 1811 when he collected and crystallized the 2018 equivalent of $57,000 worth of ginseng root (Figure 2) intended for sale in China (Smith, L. M., 1853, p. 49). Administration of ginseng root extract compares well with Modafinil, a widely prescribed pharmaceutical drug used to treat “excessive daytime sleepiness associated with narcolepsy or shift-work” (Neale, Camfield, Reay, Stough, & Scholey, 2013). Having crystallized and likely made use of this psychoactive themselves, the Smith’s would have had no difficulty collecting, processing, and storing more potent psychoactive plants and fungi for their medicinal and magico-religious practices.
Family magical practices
Quinn (1998) has argued that the Smiths, who lived in Vermont, New Hampshire, Upstate New York, and Northern Ohio, engaged several magico-religious practitioners of which Luman Walters (discussed below) played a significant role as mentor to both Joseph and his father (pp. 98–135). The Smith family, including Joseph Jr., possessed and employed several magic-related artifacts including astrological charts, magical parchments, a ceremonial dagger, an alchemical amulet, a silver Jupiter talisman, and a cane that all “manifest direct indebtedness” to occultists including Sibly, Scot, Agrippa, and Barrett (Quinn, 1998, p. 118). Quinn characterizes these occult books of “enormous significance” to the Smith family especially Joseph Jr. whose cane was inscribed with symbols from The Magus conveying the message: “Jupiter reigns over-Joseph Smith” (Ibid). Shown in Figure 3 is the silver Jupiter talisman also bearing the markings of Jupiter. Joseph Smith Jr. possessed a Jupiter talisman, and a cane with a carved “serpent,” a character in the Edenic allegory, and one animal believed to be “governed by both Saturn and Jupiter;” this, Quinn argues, shows that Smith relied on the works of occultists Francis Barrett and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (Quinn, 1998, pp. 90–91). Agrippa (1486–1535) names henbane, mandrake, and black poppy as three herbs “under the power of Jupiter” (Agrippa, 1801). According to Barrett (1801, pp. 89–92), henbane and black poppy are among the herbs used to invoke the “images of spirits” through proper suffumigations involving hemlock, henbane, black poppies, mandrake root, and other plants. Also, Joseph Smith possessed an esoteric Amulet (Quinn, 1998, p. 93) that seems to bear symbols belonging to both alchemy and masonry and representing Psilocybe species mushroom, which we discuss below.
A brief point to make here. When it comes to manipulating plants, whether that’s extraction, storage, reducing, infusing, whatever; the practice is similar with many plants. A person who can crystallize ginseng, like Joseph Sr., could utilize that same foundation of knowledge to manipulate many other plants in similar ways. What does that look like? For many plants you can just drop the roots, stalks, seeds, fruiting bodies, or other parts into an alcoholic solvent of some sort like wine or whiskey. Most medicines were delivered via alcohol. Combinations of multiple plants obviously rendered each psychoactive or medicinal profile of each of them into the mixture and many plant chemicals interact with each other in unique ways. Those mixtures could be administered in many ways like collyriums (eye drops), fuming or suffimigation as it was called (smoking), drank, applied transdermally as an oil or cream, inserted rectally or vaginally, mixed into an herbal tea or boiled in a concoction, injected into the veins; basically any way you could get the plant into you, people have been doing for a long time. The invention of the syringe and pill capsule has revolutionized medicine, but in the 19th century and for millennia before people have been doing all sorts of interesting things to get plant medicines in their bodies. The ability to render plants into a form they could be consumed is a massive skillset with a healthy body of literature and cultural knowledge passed orally through families and entire demographics. Joseph Sr. crystallizing ginseng is merely a window into a set of skills he’d likely cultivated for decades by gleaning it from family members, mentors, and books. They also didn’t have the same cultural prohibitions and perspectives we currently have on these plants. What we view as a psychedelic drug today was just another plant which required a certain expertise to find, harvest, utilize, and consume in a specific way. Herbal knowledge was deeply infused in the magical world view as all wholesome herbs god hath ordained. Some of these plants stop pain, some of them cured infections, some of them were poisonous, some allowed the user to perceive a plane of reality only perceptible through the use of the specific plants. For us to believe that the Smith family and their contemporary Americans had some moratorium or prohibition on certain plants the way we do today is presentism and is a flawed way to study history.
The visions of Joseph Smith’s parents
In 1853, Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, related several family dreams in her book, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and his progenitors for many Generations and from which we learn about Joseph Smith’s life growing up in the magically and religiously charged environments of sparsely populated New England and Upstate New York.
Lucy’s first vision
The golden Amanita muscaria could be the mushroom that best fits Lucy Smith’s remarkable first vision. Lucy’s dream occurred c. 1802–1808, at least 3 years before her husband’s two dreams in 1811 (described below) and 12 years before her son’s first vision. Joseph Sr. had just informed Lucy it was best for her to “desist” attending the Methodist church because his father and older brother were very displeased. Lucy related that
“after praying for some time ::: [she] fell asleep and had the following dream” in which she saw trees that “were very beautiful, they were well proportioned, and towered with majestic beauty to a great height ::: I saw one of them was surrounded with a bright belt, that shone like burnished gold, but far more brilliantly” (Smith, J., 1853, pp. 54–55).
A. muscaria occasionally forms “fairy rings” around the host tree (Figure 4), and the color of a mature A. muscaria, as shown in Figure 5, “takes on a metallic sheen ranging in color from red-orange to golden or bronze” (Heinrich, 2002, p. 14), a feature enhanced by early morning or evening light. Further, aging and drying converts ibotenic acid to the more hallucinogenic and less toxic muscimol and “once completely dry, the golden mushroom’s power is complete” (Heinrich, 2002, p. 170). A golden A. muscaria surrounding its host tree may have been one of Lucy’s waking memories and incorporated into this dream. Lucy’s dream ended with her mood lightened as she concluded that her husband would share her feelings, when “more advanced in life, would ::: rejoice therein; and unto him would be added intelligence, happiness, glory, and everlasting life” (Smith, L. M., 1853, p. 56). Lucy’s dream included a conscious memory of having seen a “burnished gold” ring probably of A. muscaria. If Lucy deliberately tried this entheogenic fungus, she may have done so as treatment for her lifelong depression (Groesbeck, 1988).
Joseph Smith Sr.’s first vision
Two dreams reported by Joseph Smith Sr. strongly suggest experience with entheogens whose content contains not only allisions to entheogens but also some familiarity with esoteric allegory and symbolism.
In what his wife described as his “first vision,” Joseph Sr. found himself entirely alone, although accompanied by an “attendant spirit.” In the “desolate field,” before him, Joseph Sr. saw only dead, fallen timber, and heard only “deathlike silence.” Querying his attendant spirit on the meaning of such desolation and dreariness, Joseph Sr. was told that ahead he would find, “a certain log a box, the contents of which, if you eat thereof, will make you wise.” Shortly after “tasting” the contents, Joseph Sr. reports being threatened by “all manner of beasts ::: bellowing ::: most terrifically.” In the panic, Joseph Sr. escaped on the “fly,” and when he returned to his natural senses, Joseph Sr. found himself “trembling.” Despite the frightful experience, Joseph Sr. reported being “perfectly happy” (Smith, L. M., 1853, p. 57). The following datura experience posted online is impressive for its robust emotional impact, the overlay of visionary material on everyday reality, and the generation of a different reality.
You effectively keep your rational, sober mind along with your ego while on Datura; it’s rather that your sober mind is experiencing a completely different reality. Imagine normal sobriety but as you start to dream while awake. Rather than enlightenment through ego death, the nightshades offer dimensional travel to other planes of reality (deCypher, 2008)
The frightening aspect of Smith’s dream suggests a waking experience with datura fruit and his memory of the biblical warnings of death (“thou shalt surely die”) associated with the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17), coupled with his awareness of reports of fatalities associated with datura poisoning (e.g., Bigelow, 1817). Smith’s guide echoes the serpent in Genesis 3:3, who advises that eating of the fruit “will make you wise.” An element of Joseph Sr.’s first dream reappears in his second dream, thorns. Significantly, thorns are introduced into the world, according to Genesis 3:3, because of the ingestion of the “forbidden fruit” of the tree, perhaps symbolically referencing the thorny mature datura seedpod. What then, was the knowledge that Joseph Sr. received from his spirit guide and his dreams? According to his wife, following his two dreams, Joseph Sr. “seemed more confirmed than ever, in the opinion that there was no order or class of religionists that knew any more concerning the Kingdom of God, than those of the world, or such as made no profession of religion whatever” (Smith, L. M., 1853, p. 60).
A. muscaria dream.
The same year as the first dream, Joseph Sr. had a second entheogen-related dream, which involved basking in ecstasy, the joy, and love associated with the Edenic tree of life. In this dream, which he related to his wife Lucy, a psychopomp leads Joseph Sr. to a tree with,
“beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible, whiter.” As he watched, the chestnut “shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness.” When he partook of the fruit, he experienced something “delicious beyond description” and, inviting his family to eat, they “got down upon [their] knees, and scooped [the fruit] up, eating it by double handfuls” (Smith, L. M., 1853, p. 85).
In this dream, Joseph Sr. incorporates the spiny, thorny fruit of the chestnut, a feature of the first dream, which is similar in appearance to the fruit of datura. Instead of datura, however, the umbrella-shaped fruit scooped from the ground in the second dream evokes images of dazzling white spores dropping from the gills of an A. muscaria against a bright background or on a black surface. Joseph Sr.’s esoteric Christian A. muscaria dream concludes with Joseph Sr. explaining to his wife, Lucy,
“I drew near and began to eat [the fruit] of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I cannot eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating, and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed” (Smith, L. M., 1853, p. 85).
Emma Hale, Joseph’s wife, was gifted in using herbs. One of Emma’s medicines was a healing salve that contained “jimson weed” or Datura stramonium (Bailey, 1952) and when the Sauk Indians visited Nauvoo in 1841, she exchanged recipes for herbal medicines with the wife of Chief Keokuk (Newell & Avery, 1994). In 1867, Emma wrote to her son, Joseph Smith III: “I will tell you now how I make the salve. Of sweet elder bark a good large handful after it is scraped, and as much gymson [jimson] leaves and buds if they are green and tender enough to be pounded up fine” (Bidamon, 1867; Youngreen, 2001, pp. 97, 119). Emma’s grandchildren also reported her use of psychoactive medicinal beer, ginseng, and lobelia, or “Indian tobacco” (Youngreen, 2001, pp. 73, 99). Ginseng has stimulant, antidepressant, and aphrodisiac properties, while lobelia (a hallucinogen and sedative) had entheogenic uses among Native Americans (Alrashedy & Molina, 2016).
Datura is an interesting candidate in the discussion of early Mormon psychedelics. Joseph Sr.’s dream certainly seems to describe it and Emma’s healing salve explicitly describes the use of datura. Contemporary herbal remedy books include datura with its many names as a remedy for all sorts of things but all of them also caution against liberal use as it causes catatonic states, sending persons into convulsions before sending them to their graves. Modern trip reports of datura are absolutely remarkable. The quote we featured from a person using datura in 2008 is only a small window into the power the plant holds. With many psychedelics, the user perceives a reality that can’t possibly exist and knows they’re experiencing the effects. Walls will shimmer, fractal patterns emerge, depth perception is altered, they’ll look at their hands and lines and patterns form or their hands seem like they aren’t attached anymore, all pretty standard. However, with datura, the experience is completely different. The user can see and interact with people that aren’t even there while nothing else in the environment seems altered. Time loses all meaning and users frequently forget they even took a dosage. One trip report I read on the patreon-exclusive version of the John Whitmer presentation episode talked about somebody watching whose line is it anyway while eating cereal for a while and then realizing the tv wasn’t even on. Another sat around in their back yard with a group of friends and conversed for hours while smoking cannabis only to realize the friends weren’t even there. For people believing in spirits and apparitions, datura is the perfect entheogen to facilitate spirit conjuration within the magical and occult context. A person will converse with an image of a spirit or deity when an observer will just see the person writhing on the floor or mumbling while walking around the room. Datura is a crazy drug and I would encourage listeners to read a few trip reports to understand why it stands out as a particularly shining candidate in the Smith-entheogen theory. It’s also EVERYWHERE! I found some on the side of the road in California and different species of datura crop up all across the planet at different times of year. Notably, 2 of the three primary psychoactive ingredients are used in medicine today as an anesthetic and a transdermal patch for seasickness.
Smith always lived close to Native Americans and likely was influenced by shamanic activities. For instance, the Algonquin (Delaware, Fox, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Sauk) in the Northeast and Great Plains, the Iroquois (Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca) in the northeast (Tooker & Sturtevant, 1979, p. xviii) and the Cherokee in the southeast (Hamel & Chiltoskey, 1975, p. 41) and their shamans resided close enough to Joseph Smith that he would have been captivated by their religious and medical practices. In 1822 Seneca Indian Chief, Red Jacket, nephew of Chief Handsome Lake, spoke only miles from where Joseph Smith lived. Red Jacket might have sparked 17-year-old Joseph Smith’s interest in Native American culture and seeking a Native American shamanic mentoring (Taylor, 2010). Joseph Smith demonstrated his interest in Native American life at age 18 when he regaled his family with stories of ancient Indian life (Smith, L. M., 1853, p. 79), and later partially built his prophetic career on a Native platform with The Book of Mormon. Comparative religionist Åke V. Ström (1969) has demonstrated many parallels of Joseph Smith’s teachings and practices with those of Native religions of Northeastern North America, especially that of the Algonquins. The parallels are extensive enough that Ström posits that the boy Joseph may have been heavily influenced by an Algonquin neighbor. Smith’s Native American influences may have included North American entheogens, such as D. stramonium, A. muscaria, and Psilocybe species. The Native Americans used entheogens in medical and spiritual practices such as the Ojibway Midewiwin or Grand Medical Society. The Ojibway (Anishinaabe people) in their legend of Miskwedo described the use and effects of A. muscaria (Navet, 1988). We summarize here the version told by medicine woman Keewaydinoquay Peschel (1979) where Miskwedo, the redtopped mushrooms, the spiritual children of Grandmother Cedar and Grandfather Birch. Two brothers came upon Miskwedo “turning and revolving, buzzing and murmuring, singing a strange song of happiness under a brilliantly sunny sky.” The older brother tried to dissuade his younger brother from eating the mushroom, but defies his brother and merged with the mushroom, becoming a Miskwedo himself. Distraught, the older brother ran home to ask the medicine men what to do; and he was told to return, locate the chief and the wisest Miskwedo, and stick the quill of an eagle feather through each of their stipes to stop them turning and singing songs of happiness, then to do the same to his younger brother and carry him home. He followed the elder’s instruction, and his younger brother turned back into his previous form. However, after returning home, the older brother arose in the morning “with his heart heavy with sadness and foreboding,” while his younger brother “arose smiling each day, his heart filled with happiness, his lips singing merriment.” The older brother became suspicious when, the younger brother urinated more frequently and took longer than before. When the older brother investigated, he found his younger brother with “arms are open wide, spread like the umbrella of a mushroom” with beautiful robes “glowing red, and tufts of white” singing with a “voice of happiness” to the “people following him.” Now and forever, older brothers are unhappy in contrast to the younger brothers who “drink the Elixir of the Great Miskwedo” learning much of “the supernatural and other knowledge” by drinking “the liquid Power of the Sun.” Together, these stories transmit knowledge about A. muscaria, where to look for it, how to recognize it, the joys it can bestow, and the displeasure of authorities if consumed. For instance, these mushrooms are always associated with trees such as cedar and birch and have red tops with white tufts. The experience of ingesting these mushrooms includes transient ego disillusion, unity with the Divine, and mood elevations. The stories also warn of authoritarian displeasure, whom themselves refuse filling their hearts with happiness, try to suppress its use. In The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith relates a similar story about Lehi’s use of entheogens. Lehi comes upon a tree ladened with fruit that filled his soul “with exceeding great joy.” However, others, whose dress was “exceeding fine,” mocked, and pointed their fingers at those “partaking of the fruit.” The scoffing caused some who ate from the tree to feel ashamed and fall “away into forbidden paths” (Smith, J., 1830, p. 20). Midewiwin shaman are believed to possess the power of a long life, even “victory over death” through healing plants and the rituals. Such power strongly suggests that among other herbal remedies, the Midewiwin shaman utilized entheogenic material. Delaware (Tantaquidgeon, 1972, p. 37) and Mohegan (Ibid, pp. 72, 128) peoples were familiar with datura. Native Americans living in Virginia gave a psychoactive brew called “wysoccan” to their young men during a rite of passage, causing a “derangement for 20 days,” strongly suggesting it contained D. stramonium (Schultes, 1975, 9, 142) or A. muscaria (Geraty, 2015). Most North American Eastern Woodland Indian groups reported: “datura as the base of a narcotic drink used in manhood initiation rites” (Goodman, 1993). In 1705, Virginian Indians were reported to have been using datura in their religious ceremonies (Safford, 1922) and there was widespread use of datura in initiation ceremonies in Native North America (Jacobs, 1996). Further, sometimes, Eastern Native Americans would add “datura and other powerful substances ::: to tobacco to prepare a particularly potent smoke” (Fuller, 2008, p. 81). Growing up and into adulthood, Smith lived relatively near to the Algonquin areas of the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Delaware peoples whom all belonged to the Algonquin family. We will explore Smith’s relationships with this group of peoples when we discuss his transactions with the Potawatomi in the early 1840s Nauvoo. However, it is enough to note that Smith likely noted the secretive Midewiwin medical society with its selective membership, graded training of new shamans, and their use psychoactive materials including datura and A. muscaria.
Joseph Smith was influenced at a young age by several categories of esotericism, including esoteric Christianity, spiritual alchemy, and speculative freemasonry (Owens, 1999). Significantly, some members of these esoteric schools of thought had an interest in entheogen use and encoded their knowledge in esoteric works of art. During the 13th century, esoteric Christian artists painted Biblical themes associated with entheogenic mushrooms (Brown & Brown, 2016; also see Brown & Brown in this issue). For instance, in Figure 6 is an “Eden Panel” found in Saint Michael’s Church, Germany (1240 CE) showing Adam and Eve standing, and a serpent coiled on a tree in front of a spotted A. muscaria mushroom cap. Also, in Figure 7, the Edenic tree also takes on the form of an A. muscaria in a ca. 1291 fresco found in Plaincourault Abbey, Indre, France. Figure 8 shows a painting by the Flemish artist, Petrus Christus (c. 1410–1475) portraying the child Christ laying supine on an A. muscaria bed looked over by Joseph, Mary, and winged angels. The relative abundance of Christian A. muscaria syncretic art led Antonio Escohotado (2012) to conclude, “it seems indisputable that there is a connection between visionary mushrooms and Christianity” (p. 73). There are reasons to think that given his esoteric background, Joseph Smith or one of his mentors had access to this art, decrypted it, and then encoded in Smith’s teachings, revelations, and ordinances. Where then did Joseph Smith first learn of alchemy and esoteric Christianity? In his book, Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy, Heinrich (2002, pp. 105–153) discusses the relationship between esoteric Christianity and using A. muscaria as a sacramental meal. According to Heinrich, Jesus unmistakably identifies himself with an entheogenic substance, an elixir of life and bread of heaven, the A. muscaria mushroom shown in Figure 9. Heinrich quotes Jesus telling a woman,
…whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (p. 120)
The “living water,” according to Heinrich, is water-soluble muscimol, the principle psychoactive in A. muscaria. Muscimol is excreted unchanged in the urine, which the shaman or others can consume. Supporting Heinrich’s argument of entheogenic urine, we note Jesus’s saying in John 7:8,
He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
The phrase “out of [Jesus’] belly” may describe entheogenic-laced urine. Due to physiological processes, urine after ingesting A. muscaria is more potent than the tea initially consumed. The entheogenic component of A. muscaria is water-soluble, and when extracted with water, turns the water the color of red wine. Further, the mushrooms upturned cap (Figure 9) and becomes the cup holding the elixir of life, and the mushroom itself becomes the life-giving bread. Heinrich (2002, p. 122) quotes Jesus telling he disciples:
I am the living bread that has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh ::: if you do not eat [my] flesh and drink [my] blood, you will not have life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life ::: for my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink ::: As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me. This is the bread come down from heaven ::: anyone who eats this bread will live forever. (p. 121)
Implied in Heinrich’s discussion of these passages is his confidence that anyone using entheogens in a Christian context will experience “many of the states described ::: in mystical Christianity” (p. 5). Although most of Smith’s revelations and teachings suggest the traditional Christian understandings of Jesus, occasionally he betrayed a different view. For instance, in 1844, Smith is reported to have said,
I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam ::: Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it ::: The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet. (Roberts, 1915, pp. 408–409)
In this statement, Smith seems to suggest that Jesus did not differ from him – meaning that Smith understood Jesus as shaman-like, as a human and not a God. Likewise, Jesus-like Smith healed the “lame arm” of Mrs. John Johnson (Dahl & Cannon, 1997) and raised William Hungtington from the dead (Curtis, 1892).
Owens (1999) argues that Joseph Smith “certainly [learned]. . . about the Philosopher’s Stone and alchemy’s transmutational mystery” (p. 158). Alchemy became a subject of several artists in Europe. Owens argues that Smith likely learned about alchemy from “a physician named Luman Walter(s), who was a distant cousin of Smith’s future wife and a member of the circle associated with the early treasure quests” (p. 16) of which young Joseph was a member. Agreeing with Owens, D. Michael Quinn reasons that Walters was Smith’s teenage mentor and occult advisor (1998, pp. 116–122). In his book, Science, Alchemy and the Great Plague of London William S. Shelley (2017) stated “that alchemical writings concerned chemical processes from their late antique beginning until the Renaissance. Spiritual alchemy originated, it would appear, in the early sixteenth century when Paracelsus [1493–1541] blended his medical practice of alchemy with his interest in the Hermetic-Platonic tradition of Renaissance esotericism” (p. 4). Sometime late in the reign of Queen Elizabethan (1533–1603), alchemical texts “seem to be exclusively spiritual, that is, that have no apparent interest in practical laboratory procedures” (Ibid). English alchemists such as Elisa Ashmole (1617–1692) and Robert Boyle (1627–1691), according to Shelley, “were concerned with one or more substances, termed the red stone, the angelic stone, and otherwise, whose effects were described as spiritual.” Shelley then argues, “these are substances that produced mystical experiences and was implicitly psychoactive” and associates it with “the motif of [Israelite] manna, ::: the hidden manna of Revelation 2:17, ::: [the] hermetic tradition, ::: English alchemical literature from the Tudor period onward,” and in “the twelfth century theology of the school of Laon [northern France], afterward spreading to Cistercian, Franciscan, and other writers” (Ibid). Heinrich (2002) explores the connection between alchemy and entheogens, including the allegorical use of the Rebis such as the one in Figure 10 to transmit privileged knowledge of entheogenic A. muscaria (pp. 172–177, 184). The Rebis is a double-headed hermaphrodite linked to the prima materia, philosophers stone, an elixir of life within the allegory, A. muscaria. According to Lewis Spence (1920, p. 10), one of the “grand objects of alchemy” was the discovery of an elixir to ensure health and prevent death, “elixirs of life” containing herbs and medicinals that Heinrich argues are entheogens. We now examine an amulet in Figure 11 belonging to Joseph Smith and gifted to Eliza R. Snow, his most esoteric plural wife. Figure 12 shows an inverted mushroom species (presumably Psilocybin) comparing favorably to the mushroom-appearing tassels dangling from both the belt worn by the Rebis in Figure 13 and the belt engraved on Joseph Smith’s amulet in Figure 14. It is reasonable to propose that Figures 11 and 13 represent the same thing, Psilocybe species mushrooms.
Mormon historian and former director of the Institute of Religion in Salt Lake City, Reid C. Durham documented Joseph Smith’s Masonic heritage and his adoption of Masonic ritual and iconography found in the Mormon Nauvoo temple endowment (Durham, 1974). The Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, founded at the end of 1839, anticipated the spring of 1842 groundbreaking of the Nauvoo temple. Joseph Smith’s father and older brother, Joseph Sr. and Hyrum, respectively, were both Masons, and Joseph Jr. was likely familiar with Captain William Morgan, famously murdered for publishing the secrets of Masonry in 1826. After Morgan’s death, his widow, Lucinda Morgan, secretly became one of Smith’s 33 known plural wives in 1838 (Compton, 1997). Early Mormon leaders and successors to Joseph Smith, including Brigham Young, the leader of Mormonism’s most successful schism, were deeply involved in Masonry before their conversion to Mormonism (Durham, 1974; Tanner, n.d.). There were masonic motifs, architecture, ritual, and iconography in the Nauvoo, Illinois temple. For example, on the outside architecture of the temple were the masonic sunstones, upside-down fivepointed star stones, moonstones, and a masonic compass and a square weathervane. Inside the temple, the masonic “all-searching eye” was shown on the original architect’s drawing (Stack, 2002). Joseph’s mother, Lucy Smith (Anderson, 2001, p. 23; also see Joseph Smith Papers, 1844–1845) revealed how “for a season that we stopped our labor and went trying to win the faculty of Abrac,” a secret masonic process with roots in much older traditions. Mormon scholar and historian Michael Quinn (1998) reports that the
Faculty of Abrac was a well-known phrase linking magic and divinity. Medieval and early modern magic manuscripts in England used “Abrac” and “Abraca” as one of the names of God in conjurations. [And that] “Abraxas [was a] Gnostic name for God that had become associated with magic.” (pp. 68–67)
In America, as in Europe, speculative masonry subsumed many mysteries in the ancient world (Casey & Gutierrez 2005, p. 222). There is evidence to suggest that these mysteries utilized entheogens including the Greek Eleusinian mysteries (Wasson, Ruck, & Hofmann, 2008, pp. 2–7), the Demeter-Persephone cult (Ibid, pp. 12–15), and the Dionysiac mystery cults (Ibid, pp. 15–18). The Roman Phrygian rites for Magna Mater (Drummond, 2013, p. 46), the Mithraic cults of Persia (Ezdejini, 2016), and the mysteries surrounding the Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis (Berlant, 2005) are all suspected of entheogen use in their rites. According to Chris Bennett (2018), the “imagery of the [Masonic] Lodge, was built with a set and setting that in many ways could be enhanced by the use of entheogens” (p. 681) and the idea that some “masonic drinks may be a remnant of early sacramental potions that contained psychoactive ingredients ::: [has] been pondered for well over a century” (p. 693). For instance, Bennett quotes from an 1835 Masonic history by John Fellows who in rehearsing the entheogens of Ancient Egyptians, Pythagoreans, and Druids, “refers to a soporific cake of honey and medicated grain medicatis frugibus [i.e. drugged]) along with preparations of poppy and other psychoactive substances [with fellow Mason as] its target audience” (Ibid). Bennett then notes Fellow’s informing the candidate that in drinking the potion offered to him during initiation, it is a eucharist by which “the real presence of the Saviour is manifest” (Ibid). In his book, Alchemically Stoned, the 33rd degree Mason P. D. Newman (2017) argues that features of Masonic ceremonies, architecture, and accouterments strongly suggest some Masonic lodges used entheogenic material from Acacia species known to contain the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Shannon (2008) and Nemu (2019; Editor’s Note: see Nemu’s article here) similarly argue for the Hebraic use of the entheogenic Acacia tree. According to Mormon writer Jeffrey Bradshaw (2015), “In the ceremonies of the Royal Arch Degree of the York rite, candidates pass through a series of veils and eventually enter into the divine presence” (p. 162), but in the Nauvoo temple endowment, it “is not a mere representation but is the reality of coming into a heavenly presence” (p. 218). Mormon historian Andrew Ehat (1994) explains, “In temples, we have a staged representation of the step-by-step ascent into the presence of the Eternal while we are yet alive ::: [and] “there should have been a change in us as there certainly was with Moses when he was caught up to celestial realms and saw and heard things unlawful to utter” (pp. 53–54, emphasis added). We argue that the “change” required to be “caught up to celestial realms” required the administration of an entheogen, a change that, like in Kirtland, would produce observable symptomatology. If this hypothesis is correct, an entheogenic endowment may have been the source of Smith’s confidence that converts would in “reality” be “caught up to celestial realms.” The secret that Smith needed converts to keep was the visible symptomology they would observe during the Nauvoo temple endowment.
Policy of secrecy
In an 1841 meeting, Joseph Smith explained a purpose of the lodge is to learn to keep secrets. Smith explained, “the reason we do not have the secrets of the Lord revealed unto us is because we do not keep them” (Roberts, 1908, p. 478) and later observed, “The secret of Masonry is to keep a secret” (Roberts, 1915, p. 59). What did Smith want to keep secret? Besides Smith’s unusual marriage practice (Hales, 2015; Van Wagoner, 1985, 1989) and his kingdom building ambitions (Grow, Esplin, McGee, & Mahas, 2016), we argue it was to keep secret administration of an entheogen in the endowment.
Creating a system of entheogenic administration is certainly a challenge, one which Joseph Smith seems to have embarked upon and expanded throughout his rise to religious prominence in 19th-century America. What we’re illustrating with this paper is the key to Smith’s shamanistic practices could lie in something that is replicable, reliable, and accessible to modern-day testability. As will be demonstrated through parts 2 and 3, Smith made a cognizant shift from openly practicing his shamanistic ritualism largely attended by close members and acolytes but open to the public into very tightly-sealed closed-door meetings with only approved fellow initiates in attendance. The need for increased security and secrecy under the guise of sacredness was required to keep the balance between control and charisma in check. The remainder of the paper will chronicle Smith’s career as a shaman with the foundation established so far. Entheogens had roots in magic and occult esotericism. Entheogens were present in some Masonic initiation rites. Entheogens were present in many Indigenous societies of which Smith took particular interest throughout his life. We believe it is reasonable to conclude entheogens were also present in early Mormonism and can serve to explain the fall of visionary Mormonism after the death of the founder shaman, Joseph Smith in 1844. There’s plenty more to get to but I’ve been going for a while. We’ll do two more parts where we really get into the juicy bits about early Mormon history. Today was merely setting the cultural scene from which Mormonism evolved.
Copyright Ground Gnomes LLC subject to fair use. Citation example: "Naked Mormonism Podcast (or NMP), Ep #, original air date 12/19/2019"