Early Mormonism and the Magic World View – book review

Early Mormonism and the Magic World View – book review

Message dealing with the revised edition from LDS-Bookshelf

from the publisher:
In this ground-breaking book, D. Michael Quinn masterfully reconstructs an earlier age, finding ample evidence for folk magic in nineteenth-century New England, as he does in Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s upbringing. Quinn discovers that Smith’s world was inhabited by supernatural creatures whose existence could be both symbolic and real. He explains that the Smith family’s treasure digging was not unusual for the times and is vital to understanding how early Mormons interpreted developments in their history in ways that differ from modern perceptions. Quinn’s impressive research provides a much-needed background for the environment that produced Mormonism.

This thoroughly researched examination into occult traditions surrounding Smith, his family, and other founding Mormons cannot be understated. Among the practices no longer a part of Mormonism are the use of divining rods for revelation, astrology to determine the best times to conceive children and plant crops, the study of skull contours to understand personality traits, magic formula utilized to discover lost property, and the wearing of protective talismans. Ninety-four photographs and illustrations accompany the text.

Regarding the Revised and Expanded edition:
A friend writes… Mike has come out with his 2nd edition revised and enlarged. His preface is the best offensive writing towards
FARMS I have ever read. His footnotes are exhaustive (there were no footnotes in the 1st edition), and they removed all the annoying sources in the text.

Mike has a footnote about Joseph Smith’s first vision and his sexual sin on page 457 footnote 15 that is quite interesting.

On page 399, footnote 203 Mike suggests that the beginning of the Joseph Knight autobiography that Dean Jesse edited in BYU Studies was not destroyed, but may be in the 1st Presidency vault thanks to Joseph Fielding Smith! This particular autobiography is the best source for much of the Moroni visions. It has all the magic stuff in it, and Mike thinks that Joseph Fielding Smith took the beginning because something was in there that Joseph Fielding Smith did not want out.

Mike points to contemporary evidence that supports a religious revival in the Palmyra area in 1820. Seems to be better support than Backman or Bushman have ever provided.

the following reviewer is a faithful Latter-day Saint:
Here are a few brief comments about Quinn’s new revision of his astounding book (which is double in size from the first edition.) They are not intended to get into deep doctrinal waters which are beyond the purview of AML-List.

This time around Quinn emphasizes several times that, in comparing elements of Mormon history with traditions of Christian mysticism, “parallels are not proof.” His modesty seems to indicate that Quinn’s book is a *theory*; one possible interpretive framework that is necessarily incomplete and merely suggestive. If one reads the book in that spirit, you can be edified and even entertained. In particular, chapters 5 and 6 are a tour-de-force literary analysis of the LDS canon that makes the various deconstructors, post-modernists and new historicists of the modern academy look like little wimps. Quinn’s boldness reminds one of Harold Bloom (whose book “The American Religion” leaned heavily on the first edition of “Early Mormonism.”)

For a perceptive review of the 1987 edition of this book (which still applies) see Benson Whittle in “BYU Studies” Fall 1987 pp. 105-121. He points out how an understanding of the “Hermetic Tradition” (Hugh Nibley’s phrase) in Mormonism can help counter the sterility of creeping Protestantism in LDS culture.

R.W. Rasband

Regarding the first edition:
This is an ingenious and erudite book which carries us further into the world of magic than any previous work on Mormonism. From now on, anyone dealing with magic in relationship to Mormonism will have to start with Quinn’s study. — Richard L. Bushman

Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is nothing less than a scholarly tour de force. It is a highly informative and quite remarkable exercise in detailed research. The involvement of Joseph Smith and his family and many associates in occult beliefs and magical practices is not news. In his own time Smith was dogged with claims of treasure digging, reliance on peep stones, and related occult matters, but muich of the evidence for the more blatant accusations came from sources that the LDS church managed quite successfully over the years to debunk on the ground that enemies of the church are not to be believed, and any writer or witness who criticized Joseph Smith was an enemy. In recent years historians both in and out of the church have chipped away at this shield until now it is impossible to deny the obvious.

The strength of Quinn’s study, it seems to me, is threefold: (1) It exhibits an impressive knowledge of folk magic and its practice in nineteenth-century America; (2) it lays before the reader an astounding array of detailed events and practices, even to the point of overkill; and (3) it clearly establishes, through the corroboration of divergent sources, that in this matter the traditional historians of the church have to some degree either been uninformed or have engaged in a conscious cover-up to protect the Mormon image. I suspect that it has been both of these.

Most churches are invovled in some measure of magical belief and practice, and the Mormon church even today is no exception. Consider the use of sacred words–especially names–exorcisms, or the presumed power of set rituals. But such things are so commonplace and habitual that they are usually not seen as magical. Most Mormons have managed to live comfortably with the claims of a magical translation of the Book of Mormon by regarding it as revelation or inspiration, or something like that; and seer stones, which in Quinn’s account were not uncommon among early church members, have been kept at a bare minimum by the official histories. The prophet’s treasure digging, which has been difficult to ignore, has been regarded as a forgivable youthful aberation. According to Quinn, magic largely disappeared from Mormonism by the end of the century, but most Mormons are aware that some of it is still around. After all, it adds a little spice to religion.

But Quinn exposes far more in the magic line than most well-informed Mormons have ever suspected–witness the very titles of some of his chapters: Divining Rods, Treasure Digging, and Seer Stones; Ritual Magic, Astrology, and Talismans; Magic Parchments and Occult Mentors. No doubt the book holds no surprises for those who are well acquainted with recent research on Mormon origins, considering the present crop of excellent historians of the church, but I confess that I was both surprised and shocked by Quinn’s disclosure of the extent of belief in astrology of early church leaders–that Joseph Smith, for instance, even timed some of his numerous marriages by astrological charts.

Like most studies, Quinn’s work has its weaknesses: a penchant for generalization, for instance, that sometimes overlooks differences in place and time, excessive attention at times to matters more or less irrelevant to the case of Mormonism, and a failure to exploit fully the implications of important instances of magic with which he is concerned. And there is the problem of treating such things as astrology and phrenology as if they were more or less similar in nature to manipulative magic.

Finally, there is one gnawing problem that I have in reading the book. Just where does Quinn himself stand with reference to magic in relation to the belief claims of Mormonism? He is not obligated to discuss his own views, but in the introduction he makes it clear that the magical beliefs and practices of Joseph Smith and his family and associates in no way affect his faith in the truth of Mormonism. He states unequivocally, “I believe in Gods, angels, spirits, and devils, and that they have communicated with humankind” (xx). Perhaps the secret of Quinn’s sturdy faith lies in his position that while magic and religion are not “identical entities,” they are not “polar opposites” (xvi). He is certainly correct that religion has usually, if not always, been infected with what today we regard as magic and superstition. But, at least on the surface, he seems to be remarkably generous in his attitude toward such things, almost as if, after all, they are really God’s way of dealing with the masses, or even with their prophets. They are man’s way of dealing with God, but surely not God’s way of dealing with man. — Sterling McMurrin

William Hamblin (former FARMS board member, famous for his “butthead” “joke”, who now claims that FARMS is not his organization and he is powerless to make any type of administrative decisions at FARMS) writes in response to this page:

Given position supporting “freedom of information” on the web, and your professed willingness to link to “faith-promoting Mormon sites,” I was surprised by the universally glowing reviewing of Quinn’s Early Mormonism on your website.

Has no one ever criticized Quinn’s book? If you are sincere in your claims that you want both sides of the story told, perhaps you should provide a reference to the reviews of Quinn in the FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000), also available on the FARMS Member page: http://farms.byu.edu/web/review/12_2/index.asp

I responded by stating that I did have a link to said page when it was freely accessible and that I would happily link to any and all related FARMS pages (or any other critiques of the book; he didn’t note that I already had a brief review from a faithful Mormon with reference to BYU Studies on the page) if and when they are made available. After all, I already have more than half a dozen links to the few free FARMS pages on the net. This comment of mine didn’t sit well with Mr. Hamblin so he went into a dialogue on FARMS being a “publishing house” and not an organization happy to give away its information for free on the web. He said I was “whining” (even though it appeared, especially since he started the whole discussion, to be just the opposite to me) and it was obvious that we were talking past each other so I didn’t respond to his last message.