Joseph Smith/Occultism and magic/Spiritual experiences

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The origin of Joseph Smith's spiritual experiences

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Question: Were Joseph Smith's spiritual experiences originally products of magic and the occult?

Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects

It is a known fact that Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects.[1] Brant Gardner notes,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society.

Joseph's family shared folk magic beliefs that were common to the day. Joseph's mother, Lucy, felt it important to note in her history that the family did not let these magical endeavors prevent the family from doing the necessary work to survive:

But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.[2]

Joseph's involvement with Josiah Stowell's attempt to locate a lost Spanish treasure is well documented in Church history

Stowell requested Joseph's assistance in a mining operation looking for old coins and precious metals. This effort, in fact, resulted in charges being brought against Joseph by Stowell's relatives for being a "glasslooker" in 1826. Joseph was ultimately charged with being a "disorderly person" and released. (For more detailed information, see: Joseph Smith's 1826 glasslooking trial)

Some, however, believe that all of Joseph's early spiritual experiences, particularly the First Vision and the visit of Moroni, were originally magical or occult experiences that were only later couched in spiritual terms. For example, the Hurlbut affidavits relate stories of Moroni's visit that cast the angel in the role of spiritual treasure guardian, with one (Willard Chase) even claiming that the angel appeared in the form of a toad.

D. Michael Quinn has been the most prolific author on the subject of "magic" influences on the origins of Mormonism. According to William Hamblin:

Quinn's overall thesis is that Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saint leaders were fundamentally influenced by occult and magical thought, books, and practices in the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is unmitigated nonsense. Yet the fact that Quinn could not discover a single primary source written by Latter-day Saints that makes any positive statement about magic is hardly dissuasive to a historian of Quinn's inventive capacity.[3]

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power. And, they may have had some ideas about how to access that power that now strike us as inaccurate and even strange. This is not surprising, given the two centuries and massive scientific advances which separate our culture from theirs. However, there is no evidence that Joseph and others considered these things to be "magic," or the "occult," nor did they consider "magic" or the "occult" to be positive things.

Question: What is the distinction between belief in "folk magic" and a religious belief in the supernatural?

The use of the terms "magic" and "occult" are prejudicial, loaded terminology

When critics use the term "magic" or "occult," they are using prejudicial, loaded terminology. Used in a neutral sense, magic might mean only that a person believes in the supernatural, and believes that supernatural can be influenced for the believer's benefit.

However, critics are generally not clear about what definition of magic they are using, and how to distinguish a "magical" belief in the supernatural from a "religious" belief in the supernatural.[4] Scholars of magic and religion have, in fact, come to realize that defining "magic" is probably a hopeless task. John Gee noted:

Defining "magic" as "religious beliefs other than their own"

In 1990, Cambridge University published Stanley Tambiah's Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality, which showed that the definitions of many of the most important writers on "magic" were heavily influenced both by their backgrounds and their personal ideological agendas: they defined "magic" as religious beliefs other than their own. In 1992, the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Magic in the Ancient World failed to come to any agreement on what "magic" was. The plenary speaker, Jonathan Z. Smith, in particular voiced strong opinions:

I see little merit in continuing the use of the substantive term "magic" in second-order, theoretical, academic discourse. We have better and more precise scholarly taxa for each of the phenomena commonly denoted by "magic" which, among other benefits, create more useful categories for comparison. For any culture I am familiar with, we can trade places between the corpus of materials conventionally labeled "magical" and corpora designated by other generic terms (e.g., healing, divining, execrative) with no cognitive loss. Indeed, there would be a gain.[5]

The use of the term "magic" is a negative label for modern Christians

The use of the term "magic" imposes, especially for modern Christians, a negative label at the outset, which explains its popularity for critics. As Professor of Egyptology Robert K. Ritner explained:

Modern Western terms for 'magic' function primarily as designations for that which we as a society do not accept, and which has overtones of the supernatural or the demonic (but not of the divine). It is important to stress that this pejorative connotation has not been grafted onto the notion of magic as the result of any recent theoretical fancy but is inherent in Western terminology virtually from its beginning. It constitutes the essential core of the Western concept of magic.[6]

The Book of Mormon condemns "magic"

Moroni's visit was a turning point for Joseph, for it is important to note that the Book of Mormon itself condemns "magic" whenever it is mentioned:

And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land, even unto the fulfilling of all the words of Abinadi, and also Samuel the Lamanite. Mormon 1:19

Regardless of Joseph's or his family's previous opinions regarding folk magic prior to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, they clearly always believed in and had faith in God. Joseph believed that instruments such as the Urim and Thummim and his seer stone were consecrated by God for their intended use.


Question: What were the attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic"?

The attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic" was always negative

In 1841, Wilford Woodruff recounted an episode of Church disciplinary action:

The President then brought up the case of a Br Moumford, who was holding the office of a Priest, from whome fellowship had been withdrawn by the council of officers in consequence of his practizing fortune Telling, Magic, Black art &c & called upon Elders Woodruff & Cordon to express their feelings upon the subject when Elder Woodruff arose, & spoke Briefly upon the subject, & informed the assembly that we had no such custom or practice in the Church, & that we should not fellowship any individual who Practiced Magic fortune Telling, Black art &c for it was not of God. When It was moved & carried by the whole church that fellowship be withdrawn from Br Moumford.[7]

And, most importantly, the Book of Mormon's treatment of "magic" or "sorcery" is always negative, which seems strange if (as we are asked to believe by the critics) Joseph Smith concocted it while at the same time embracing that same "magic."


Question: Did Joseph Smith and his contemporaries believe in supernatural entities with real power?

Every Christian, Jew, or Muslim who believes in God, angels, and divine power believes in supernatural entities with real power

So, did Joseph Smith and his contemporaries believe in supernatural entities with real power? Yes—and so does every Christian, Jew, or Muslim who believes in God, angels, and divine power to reveal, heal, etc. However, to label these beliefs as "magic" is to beg the question—to argue that Joseph believed in and sought help from powers besides God. Nobody disputes that Joseph and his family believed in the Bible, which condemns divination and witchcraft:

There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Deuteronomy 18:10

Joseph and his family viewed folk magic and the use of seer stones as not falling under Biblical condemnation

Therefore, Joseph and his family viewed folk magic and the use of seer stones as not falling under this Biblical condemnation. It is clear that Joseph and his contemporaries believed that one could gain knowledge from such activities as dowsing (using a rod to find water, ore, or buried treasure) and the use of the seer stones. This does not mean, however, that Joseph understood such activities to be a form of magic.

In Joseph's day, the power of (for example) dowsing was seen as a manifestation of "how the world worked." An article published in 1825 described how the downward bob of a divining rode "closely resembles the dip of the magnetic needle, when traversing a bed or ore."[8] A journal of science reported the idea that "the rod is influenced by ores."[9]

An early British dowser denounced the idea that dowsing for ore was based on magic. "it [the rod] guided mee to the Orifice of a lead mine. [The rod is] of kin to the Load-stone [magnet], drawing Iron to it by a secret vertue, inbred by nature, and not by any conjuration as some have fondly imagined."[10]

Using a divining rod was seen in these examples as a manifestation of natural law, and requiring the grace of God to operate

Thus, divining was seen in these examples as a manifestation of natural law. Just as one might use a compass or lode-stone to find true north, without understanding the principles or mathematics of magnetism which underlay it, so one could use dowsing as a tool, without understanding the principles by which it operated.

It is further clear that those who used divinization by rods, for example, believed that the rod's natural ability also required the grace of God to operate. Hence, practitioners would consecrate their rods, and pray to God to bless their efforts.[11] Of such matters, Oliver Cowdery was told in an early revelation, "without faith you can do nothing."[12] Like any natural ability, Joseph believed that the gift and tools of seership (in the broader sense) could be misused. As he told Brigham Young, "most...who do find [a seer stone] make an evil use of it."[13] And, Emma Smith's hostile brother Alvah would later remember that Joseph told him "that his gift in seeing with a [seer] stone and hat, was a gift from God."[14]


Question: What effect did the Hofmann forgeries have upon the study of early Latter-day Saint history?

D. Michael Quinn wrote his first edition of Mormonism and the Magic World View while still believing that Hofmann's forged "Salamander letter"

One difficulty of assessing the issue of "magic" versus a religious belief in the supernatural is the fact that D. Michael Quinn wrote his first edition of Mormonism and the Magic World View while still believing that Hofmann's forged "Salamander letter" was genuine. He chose to publish his work essentially unaltered, believing nothing needed to be changed,[15] when the truth of the forgeries became known:

Quinn must have begun his research when he still had the Hofmann letters and the salamander to serve as the rock of his hypotheses. It was those solid, indisputable historical documents that would give credibility to the rest of his data and make his case come together. Quinn's speculative notes would merely hang like decorations on the solid mass provided by the Hofmann documents, and the greater would justify the lesser. However, as Quinn approached publication, the Hofmann materials were pulled out from under him, leaving a huge salamander-shaped hole in the center of his theory. . . .

With the salamander letter and other Hofmann materials, Quinn had a respectable argument; without them he had a handful of fragmented and highly speculative research notes. It appears to me that when he was faced with the choice of seeing months of research go down the drain for lack of a credible context to put it in or of putting the best face on it and publishing anyway, Quinn simply made the wrong choice. This would explain why his remaining arguments are so strained and the scanty evidence so overworked. This would explain why the book is such a methodological nightmare. Having lost the turkey at the last minute, Quinn has served us the gravy and trimmings, hoping we won't notice the difference.[16]


Question: How did Joseph Smith use his seer stones as a youth?

Joseph as the village seer: the use of the seer stone prior to the Restoration

Brant Gardner clarifies the role that Joseph and his stone played within the community of Palmyra,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society. He exhibited a talent parallel to others in similar communities. Even in Palmyra he was not unique. In D. Michael Quinn's words: "Until the Book of Mormon thrust young Smith into prominence, Palmyra's most notable seer was Sally Chase, who used a greenish-colored stone. William Stafford also had a seer stone, and Joshua Stafford had a 'peepstone which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center.'" [9] Richard Bushman adds Chauncy Hart, and an unnamed man in Susquehanna County, both of whom had stones with which they found lost objects. [10] [17]

During his tenure as a "village seer," Joseph acquired several seer stones. Joseph first used a neighbor's seer stone (probably that belonging to Palmyra seer Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby's foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822.[18]

The second seer stone was reportedly found while digging a well on the property of William Chase in 1822

Joseph then used this first stone to find a second stone (a white one). The second seer stone was reportedly found on the property of William Chase in 1822 as Chase described it:

In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me.... After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.... The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but I would lend it.[19]

Joseph Smith locates a seer stone while digging a well. Image copyright (c) 2016 by Anthony Sweat.


Revelations in Context on history.lds.org: "Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod"

Revelations in Context on history.lds.org:

Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language and practices. The revelation’s reference to Moses likely resonated with him. The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Ex. 7:9-12; Num. 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery's day similarly believed in divining rods as an instrument for revelation. Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.[20]


Question: Was a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters Joseph Smith's "mentor"?

The idea that Walter's "mantle" fell upon Joseph is the creation of an enemy of Joseph Smith, Abner Cole

It is claimed by some that a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters became popular in the Palmyra area, and that when Walters left the area, "his mantle fell upon" Joseph Smith. However, the idea that "Walters the Magician" was a mentor to Joseph Smith and that his "mantle" fell upon Joseph once Walters left the area originated with Abner Cole. Cole published a mockery of the Book of Mormon called the "Book of Pukei."

Matthew Brown discusses the "Book of Pukei":,

Cole claims in the "Book of Pukei" that the Book of Mormon really came into existence in the following manner:

  • Walters the Magician was involved in witchcraft and money-digging.
  • Walters was summoned to Manchester, New York by a group of wicked, idle, and slothful individuals—one of which was Joseph Smith.
  • Walters took the slothful individuals of Manchester out into the woods on numerous nighttime money-digging excursions. They drew a magic circle, sacrificed a rooster, and dug into the ground but never actually found anything.
  • The slothful group of Manchesterites then decided that Walters was a fraud. Walters himself admitted that he was an imposter and decided to skip town before the strong arm of the law caught up with him.
  • At this point, the mantle of Walters the Magician fell upon Joseph Smith and the rest of the Manchester rabble rallied around him.
  • The "spirit of the money-diggers" (who is identified implicitly with Satan in the text) appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the Golden Bible to him.[21]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Criticisms of Joseph's use of "folk magic" appear in the following publications: “The Book of Mormon and the Mormonites,” Athenaeum, Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art 42 (July 1841): 370–74. off-site; Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints : To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: Printed for J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 28. off-site; John A. Clark, “Gleanings by the Way. No. VII,” Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 18, no. 25 (12 September 1840), ??. off-site; James H. Hunt, Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect (St. Louis: Ustick and Davies, 1844), n.p.. off-site; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 9 (3 March 1838): 34, citing Howe. off-site
  2. Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285.
  3. William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  4. See discussions of this issue in: John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  5. John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; citing Stanley J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Jonathan Z. Smith, "Trading Places," in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 16.
  6. Robert K. Ritner, "Egyptian Magic: Questions of Legitimacy, Religious Orthodoxy and Social Deviance," in Studies in Pharaonic Religion and Society in Honour of J. Gwyn Griffiths , ed. Alan B. Lloyd (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1992), 190; cited in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site] (emphasis in original).
  7. Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 28 March 1841; also cited in Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 2:75. ISBN 0941214133.
  8. "The Divining Rod," The Worchester Magazine and Historical Journal (October 1825): 29; cited in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 66. Buy online
  9. "The Divining Rod," The American Journal of Science and Arts (October 1826): 204; cited in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 65–66.
  10. Gabriel Platts, A Discovery of Subterraneal Treasure (London: 1639), 11–13, emphasis added; cited in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 66. Buy online
  11. See discussion in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 140, 182–192.
  12. A Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ, Organized according to law, on the 6th of April, 1830 (Zion [Independence, Missouri]: W.W. Phelps and Co., 1833) 7:4.
  13. Joseph Smith, cited by Brigham Young, "History of Brigham Young," Millennial Star (20 February 1864), 118–119.; cited in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 184. Buy online
  14. "Mormonism," The Susquehanna Register, and Northern Pennsylvanian (Montrose, Pennsylvania) (1 May 1834): 1, column 4; cited in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 184. Buy online
  15. See footnote 29 in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  16. Stephen E. Robinson, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, by D. Michael Quinn," Brigham Young University Studies 27 no. 4 (1987), 94–95.
  17. Brant A. Gardner, Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, 2009 FAIR Conference presentation. Gardner references [9] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 38. and [10] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 70.
  18. Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 200–215.
  19. Eber Dudley Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 241-242; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 no. 2 (Summer 1982), 48–68.
  20. Jeffrey G. Cannon, "Oliver Cowdery's Gift," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org
  21. Matthew Brown, "Revised or Unaltered? Joseph Smith's Foundational Stories.", 2006 FAIR Conference.