It is one of the strangest stories in the strange history of American religion. On September 21, 1823, angels appeared to a poor, half-literate 17-year-old named Joseph Smith and told him of golden plates, bearing a history of ancient America, hidden on Hill Cumorah, near his father's farm in upstate Manchester, New York. The next day Joseph visited Hill Cumorah and saw the golden plates, but he was not allowed to possess them. He returned to the hill on September 22 in 1824, 1825 and 1826, and each time he viewed the plates, talked with an angel and came back empty-handed.
Finally, in 1827, the angel allowed him to take the gold book. Buried with the plates were ancient devices called the Urim and Thummim, with which Smith decoded the book's "Reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics. Sometimes he dictated his translations to a scribe, who sat on the other side of a curtain. At other times he used a seer stone to decode the plates. At one point Joseph gave 116 pages of the translation to a follower who lost them, and angry angels punished him by repossessing the plates. There followed months of prayer and meditation, then the return of the text and a year-long flurry of translation.
The result, in 1830, was the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In over 500 double-columned, biblical-sounding pages, the Book of Mormon chronicled the story of the Nephites and other Old Testament peoples who sailed to North America in ancient times. The Nephites lived in a covenant with God, went through epic periods of prosperity and privation, received a missionary visit from Jesus following the Crucifixion, then died to the last Nephite in a war with darker-skinned Americans.
Smith followed the Book of Mormon with a blizzard of institution-building prophecies and revelations. He dismissed the Christian churches as a Great Apostasy; he promised men that they could become gods who knew what Adam had known before the Fall; he restored biblical priesthoods; he pronounced marriage to be celestial and eternal (including, eventually, Hebrew polygamy); he revealed that there was no hell, but a three- tiered heaven topped by priest-gods who headed tribal families of the dead that stretched through genealogical millennia. Believers gained access to all this in fantastic temples with secret rooms and secret rituals.
John Brooke's book is a convincing attempt to make sense of these idiosyncratic and, on the face of it, highly dubious revelations. He begins by chiding academics who would reduce Joseph Smith to his nineteenth-century environment, as if Smith's religion was merely a response to some social or economic circumstance. Such simplistic reasoning, in Brooke's view, amounts to "functionalist social science, " a vile expletive indeed. Instead he insists that Mormonism stemmed from the deep cultural memory of Smith himself. Brooke's approach is refreshingly old-fashioned: he simply stayed in the library until he had read everything that pertained to Smith's spiritual and religious ideas and their antecedents. The result is a fine-grained history of ideas, a reconstruction of Mormonism as a new religion with an ancient past.
Brooke's most fundamental claim is that Smith's discoveries originated in combinations of radical sectarianism and the hermetic occult on the post-revolutionary New England frontier. In making that claim, he demolishes the standard textbook explanation of early Mormonism. Noting that nearly all converts were New Englanders, many scholars have concluded that Smith's new church was in some ways a death rattle of Puritanism. In tracing the histories of fifty-three Yankee families that produced converts for Joseph Smith, however, Brooke found few Puritans. Thirty-three of these families had arrived in New England after 1650, with memories tied less to Puritanism than to the radical, magical and perfectionist reformation of the English Ranters, Diggers and Muggletonians. The other twenty families arrived in New England with the Puritans, but their ties to Congregationalism were indifferent at best; without exception, they joined perfectionist, restorationist, anti-Calvinist sects after the Revolution. These families settled into the cracks in Puritan society or along the "sectarian coast" of southeastern New England, a religious hot-house that the Puritans never controlled.
The families that would convert to Mormonism had been socially and spiritually marginal for generations. They worked poor farms and moved often, and they practiced popular magic and joined religious sects that the Puritans condemned. After the Revolution they drifted into the backcountry of Vermont, where revivals of new sects and popular magic united them as outcasts and transformed some into conjurers. These towns contained Methodist, Universalist, New Israelite and Freewill Baptist churches, as well as treasure-divining cults and new lodges of Freemasons.
The Freemasons were particularly important to Mormonism. Royal Arch Masons participated in a romantic revival of hermeticism--an ancient body of occult knowledge that had survived at the margin of European Christianity. Fragments of hermeticism came to North America with the radical sects, but Masons reconstructed hermeticism as a system. Royal Arch Masons spoke of Adam as a god who retained memories of divine knowledge after the Fall. They also told of engraved texts hidden by Adam's descendant Enoch in an arched vault, and of a priesthood that descended from father to son from Adam to the Masons of backwoods Vermont. Many early Mormons--including the scribes to whom Joseph dictated his translation of the Book of Mormon--were Royal Arch Masons.
On his father's side, Smith was descended from a long line of village magicians. Beginning in the wake of Salem witchcraft trials in the 1690s, the Smiths had practiced white witchcraft, offering magical protection from occult evil. They also dabbled in mining and metallurgy, in divining metals, perhaps in alchemy, almost certainly in counterfeiting- -all of which had ties to hermeticism. On his mother's side, Smith inherited a volatile mix of sectarianism and hermeticism. The Macks were from the south coast, where they were surrounded by too many cults and sects to mention, and were in contact with the British and German sectarians of the mid-Atlantic region--particularly with the hermetic radicals at the Ephrata cloister. Both Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr.--whom she married at Tunbridge in 1796--experienced dreams and visions very similar to those that would be granted to their son Joseph.
With this laboriously constructed spiritual genealogy, Brooke, as he puts it, "explores the particular affinities, latent and manifest, running between the religious culture of prophesy and restoration and the occult cultures of popular conjuring and esoteric hermeticism" as they were revealed to Joseph Smith, and as they appeared in the institutionalizing visions that created the Mormon Church.
In 1830-31 the Prophet Joseph gathered the first Mormon community at Kirtland, Ohio. Those who followed him knew little about their new religion. They had the Book of Mormon. They also had Smith, and they knew that he was a prophet of God who would restore ancient truths. Most of all, they had miracles. The institutional Reformation of Anglicans, Calvinists and Lutherans had declared that miracles ended with the end of biblical times, thus creating the "disenchantment of the world" that Max Weber found at the center of Protestant rationalism. Smith, however, recruited followers who had kept occult knowledge alive, who hoped that Mormonism would bring the final triumph of ancient magic. Magic was back in the world. The Kirtland Mormons fainted, spoke in tongues, healed the sick, interpreted lost languages, levitated, had visions of the future (and of ancient times) and received revelations directly from God.
At Kirtland, Smith transformed these disorderly ecstasies into an ordered cosmology and a ritualized church that echoed hermeticism as it had been revived in Royal Arch Masonry. He began with a hierarchy of authoritative priesthoods that included all Mormon men. Two years earlier Smith had restored the Levitical priesthood of Aaron, and now he bestowed it upon "every worthy male member." For the more exalted, he restored the higher Melchizedek priesthood, which shared the Prophet' s magical gifts (healing the sick, withstanding poison, handling snakes and exorcising demons) but not his prophetic powers. And Smith reigned above all, as Prophet, Seer, Revelator.
In the spring of 1836, the Prophet consecrated the first Mormon temple at Kirtland. (Smith recorded that at the dedication "many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels which fact I declared to the congregation.") Temples became the site of priesthood rituals and of believers' direct relations with the divine. Marriage and baptism were temple rites, and by the 1840s they included polygamous marriage and the baptism of the dead. Joseph made his own father the patriarch of the church, and the elder Joseph Smith bestowed "patriarchal blessings" that changed the blood of Mormon converts into the blood of Israelites, a transformation that soon extended to all temple baptisms. (This blood alchemy would again come into play when the Prophet foretold that Mormon men would take Indian women as wives, and that the children of those unions would be "white, delightsome, and just.") Eternal salvation--a gift that came to Christians only from God--was also granted through temple ritual. Through all these means, Joseph Smith made an institutional church out of magical beginnings. It was the most astonishing of his alchemical achievements.
Brooke reconstructs this story of Mormon origins with minimal theoretical pretensions. Despite nods to Mary Douglas, Victor Turner and Jung' s studies of alchemy, Brooke affirms, as more and more historians are affirming these days, that any theory can be overwhelmed by exhaustive and imaginative historical research. Modern psychological and anthropological theory, Brooke seems to say, can only obscure Mormonism's roots in the ancient mysteries that he has uncovered.
Indeed, Brooke's own attempt to employ a vocabulary borrowed from the modern academy provides his book with its only false note. Like commentators from Joseph Smith's day to our own, Brooke cannot avoid questions of authenticity and fraud that surrounded early Mormonism. Taking a flexible view of the matter, he posits a sliding scale of truth and falsity, or, as he puts it, of purity and danger. (The words, but not the meanings that Brooke assigns to them, come from Mary Douglas.) Thus in Brooke's formulation hermetic purity began with Adamic sinlessness and perfect knowledge, but slid through alchemy and on into the worldly dangers of treasure hunting and counterfeiting. "Pure" Masonry retained fragments of divine knowledge; but it was often corrupted, and some Masons in Smith's time were guilty of lying and murder. The early Smith combatted falsity and deception (what Brooke calls "danger") with restored and purified truths. He later blurred those lines, making a pure church that could legitimately use counterfeit means against a dangerous world.
In telling this story as a dance between a disembodied purity and a disembodied danger, Brooke introduces a theoretical vocabulary that is confusing and unnecessary. He might have been better off had he avoided the anthropologists and stayed with Joseph Smith. Smith's contemporaries talked about their world not in terms of purity and danger, but in terms of "Imposture." Americans after 1820 suspected that confidence men, seducers, hucksters, counterfeiters, sneak-thieves and impostures were everywhere. They lived in a new free-market society, a bank-note world that promised rationality and justice, but that many suspected was rigged by insiders. They depended on paper money that was usually authentic, sometimes untrustworthy and too often counterfeit. They worshiped their republic but distrusted every politician. They read cheap fiction and thronged to stage melodramas that portrayed a dark world of deceit and cruelty beneath placid appearances--a world in which heroes used evil means to fight for the greater good. Charles Dickens toured the United States in 1842, noted the American fascination with swindles and confidence games and declared that the "great blemish in the popular mind of America" was "Universal Mistrust."
It was into this deeply suspicious world that Smith introduced his Adamic restoration, demanding that Americans accept its truth upon his word. It was, to say the least, a suspicious request. Moreover, Smith had been suspected of fraud long before he translated the Book of Mormon. Working with a seer stone that he found in a neighbor's well in 1823, he joined his father and a coterie of village conjurers to divine for buried treasure, earning himself a reputation for shiftiness. Three years later he was indicted as a "glass looker" (that is, a conjurer) and a "disorderly person and Imposter." And four years later he revealed the Book of Mormon in ways that were certain to keep suspicion alive. The disappearances and the reappearances of the gold book, the lost pages, the "Reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics that baffled scholars at Columbia and Rutgers (thus proving to Smith that the book was a sealed text "delivered to him that is not learned"), the translation by peep-stone, the business with the curtain, the witnesses who had seen and hefted" the golden plates and the fact that those who were not Joseph Smith's kin later defected: we must conclude that Joseph Smith expected to arouse accusations of fraud.
The aura of deception deepened over the remaining years of his life. The organization of the Mormon Church was eerily secretive. Members gained knowledge by degrees, and none but Smith knew all that had been revealed. Participants in temple rites were told that they could divulge the rituals to outsiders only on pain of death. The introduction of polygamy involved the church in multiple deceptions, both of gentiles and of suspicious Mormons. There were also episodes involving counterfeit money. The Mormon's Kirtland Safety Society Bank Company distributed bank notes until Ohio authorities reminded Smith that only chartered banks could do that; Smith renamed the institution the Kirtland Safety Anti-Banking Society and continued to print notes. It was a good joke, but it got Smith indicted as a counterfeiter.
And then there was the Book of Abraham. In July 1835, a showman named Michael Chandler drove a wagon-load of Egyptian mummies and papyrus scrolls into Kirtland. The Prophet Joseph viewed the scrolls and announced that they were Abraham's account of his sojourn in Egypt, in which Abraham roundly denounced the religious falsities of the Egyptians, and used a Urim and Thummim to witness a vast hierarchy of planets governed by greater and lesser gods who helped the chief God make the universe, and identified blacks and Egyptians as the sons of Ham, and banned them from the priesthood--a proscription that Smith declared scriptural. In 1967 the Chandler scrolls were translated by Mormon scholars. They are nothing more than standard funerary inscriptions written centuries after Abraham's death.
Nineteenth-century Americans received the Mormon restoration as they received other suspicious proposals. Middle-class sentimentalists drew back at the first hint of insincerity, and ignored Smith. But the poor and marginal people to whom Smith pitched his restoration were curious about such things. They acknowledged that the world was untrustworthy, and they tried to live with bravery, humor and guile amid the tricks and the tricksters. Most found Smith an entertaining puzzle and a source of amusements; others assaulted him with pamphlets, with tar and feathers, and finally with bullets. (An Illinois mob shot him to death in 1844.) But believers were utterly loyal, happy in the restoration of prophecy and in a church that vouchsafed to them secret knowledge and secret powers (not to mention the occasional counterfeit bill) with which to contend with a slippery gentile world.
Joseph Smith's church now claims over 10 million members, and it is the fastest-growing Christian church in the world. It encourages the faithful to look forward to future missionary triumphs, not backward to their origins in the occult. Yet Smith's nineteenth-century counterpoint of falsity and truth continues. (The Book of Abraham remains scriptural for the Mormons, defined now as authentic ancient writings envisioned by Smith while staring at the Chandler scrolls.) To those who examine Mormon beginnings and come up doubting, the church has a standard answer: it is easier to believe that the Book of Mormon is ancient and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God than it is to believe that an ignorant farm boy could have made the whole thing up. By excavating the intellectual inheritance on which Smith drew, John Brooke has rendered that answer less effective. Yet he, too, cannot avoid grappling with the Mormon enigma as Joseph Smith presented it--an enigma that demands (as is demanded of no other major American religious figure) that we guess at the authenticity or fraudulence of the founder and the visionary. And so it goes. Smith has been dead for 150 years, and we cannot stop playing his game.