Question: Did early members of the "Mormon" Church believe in witchcraft?

Table of Contents

Question: Did early members of the "Mormon" Church believe in witchcraft?

While some members may have believed in witchcraft, all the scriptural and primary evidence portrays their opinion of such things as negative, not positive

[1] There are a number of texts and incidents which indicate a basically negative attitude towards the occult by most early Mormons. Brooke himself notices several incidents manifesting such an anti-occult strain in early LDS thought: George A. Smith, for instance, destroyed magic books brought to America by English converts (p. 239). Likewise, "organizations advocating the occult were suppressed" by Brigham Young in 1855 (p. 287), while, "in 1900 and 1901, church publications launched the first explicit attacks on folk magic" (p. 291). But the evidence of negative attitudes among Mormons to matters occult is much more widespread than Brooke indicates.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain several explicit condemnations of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic. While admitting that there are only "rare references to magic or witchcraft in the Book of Mormon" (p. 176, 177), Brooke nonetheless insists that the "categories of treasure, magic, and sorcery . . . fascinated Joseph Smith" (p. 168). The Book of Mormon maintains that Christ will "cut off witchcrafts out of thy land" (3 Nephi 21:16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and "the magic art" are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1:32, Mormon 2:10). "Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics" are also attributed to "the power of the evil one" (Mormon 1:19). In the Doctrine and Covenants, sorcerers are among those who are "cast down to hell" (DC 76:103,106), who "shall have their part in . . . the second death" (DC 63:17). These are the only references to magical or occult powers in LDS scripture, and they are uniformly and emphatically negative. Brooke's key terms, such as "alchemy," "astrology," "hermeticism," "androgyny," and "cabala," are never mentioned in LDS scripture.

Several early LDS writers were unequivocal in their condemnation of magic and the occult. One brother was "disfellowshipped by the council of officers, for using magic, and telling fortunes &c." The ancient Egyptian use of "omens, charms, unlucky days and magic" is described as "grossly superstitious." Orson Pratt described alchemy as "the pursuit of that vain phantom." His brother Parley was even more forthright:

It is, then, a matter of certainty, according to the things revealed to the ancient Prophets, and renewed unto us, that all the animal magnetic phenomena, all the trances and visions of clairvoyant states, all the phenomena of spiritual knockings, writing mediums, &c., are from impure, unlawful, and unholy sources; and that those holy and chosen vessels which hold the keys of Priesthood in this world, in the spirit world, or in the world of resurrected beings, stand as far aloof from all these improper channels, or unholy mediums, of spiritual communication, as the heavens are higher than the earth, or as the mysteries of the third heaven, which are unlawful to utter, differ from the jargon of sectarian ignorance and folly, or the divinations of foul spirits, abandoned wizards, magic-mongers, jugglers, and fortune-tellers.

Based on this extensive (but admittedly incomplete) survey of early Mormon writings, we can arrive at three logical conclusions:

  1. the unique ideas that critics advocating the "magic" hypothesis claim were central to the origins of Mormonism do not occur in early LDS primary texts;
  2. early Mormons seldom concerned themselves with things occult; but
  3. on the infrequent occasions when they mention the occult, it is without exception viewed negatively.

Notes

  1. This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. [ off-site]. Please consult the original for references and further information. By the nature of a wiki project, the base text may have since been modified and added to.