Joseph Smith and Folk Magic

Anyone who regularly interacts with Mormons over Mormon history knows that “most members of [The LDS Church] in the twenty-first century know nothing of Joseph’s magical practices”1. The following is a working draft that is being expanded.

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The significance of the Autumnal equinox

D. Michael Quinn writes2:

Smith’s prayer “to commune with some kind of messenger” on 21 September 1823 occurred once the moon had reached its maximum fullness the previous day and just before the autumnal equinox. The 1665 edition of Scot’s works (upon which the “Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah” Smith parchment depended) specified, “And in the composition of any Circle for Magical feats, the fittest time is the brightest Moon-light” (Scot 1665b, 215). An occult book published in New York in 1800 also stated, “Dreams are most to be depended on by men at the full of the moon” (Beverly Gipsy 1800, 19). Because the full moon was the preferred time for treasure digging (Dorson 1946, 174; Granger 1977, 225; R. Walker 1984b, 443), it is probably no coincidence that, according to Martin Harris, Smith acted as treasure-seer earlier that night (J. A. Clark 1842, 225). In fact, his prayer “to commune with some kind of messenger” may have been in response to an unsuccessful group effort earlier that evening to locate a treasure in the hill. That Smith’s experience occurred at the autumnal equinox was also significant. Because the planetary hours of invocation began at sunrise which occurred at different times, Sibly’s Occult Sciences had specified that the equinox was the time when the planetary hours of invocation corresponded most closely with the common hours of the clock (1784, 174; also deVore 1947, 179). In the magic world view, the equinox was a time when the earth could be expected to experience the introduction of “broad cultural movements and religious ideas” (Brau 1980, 194, 107).

LDS reviewer Benson Whittle in his review of Quinn writes3:

[C]an the reader really accept that Joseph is going to the hill to get the plates by magic? Quinn has been keen to make his readers surmise, on their own if possible, that the practice of magic can truly be fitted into a not disreputable tradition. However, the oft-recurring phrase "folk magic" tends to denigrate the status of Joseph Smith's activities as magus. Did Joseph really "usher in"--nay, conjure--the last dispensation by folk magic? The golden plates, whose existence it is as pointless to question among believers as the resurrection, were buried in the earth, controlled by (a) spirit(s). The young seer, having ascertained the presence and the location of the record, must go to that place at the right time, divested of pecuniary motives and wearing black, and must be in the company of the right person. He must enter the magic circle, divine the trove, summon the spirit, break the spell.

The time was 21 September 1827, the autumnal equinox. Quinn's case at this point--resting on Joseph Smith's reasonably well established knowledge of astrology, on the amulets of parchment, on precise pinpointing of times of invocation reported in friendly histories, on the literature of magic known to have been potentially accessible to Joseph, on the Prophet's known involvement in magical treasure-seeking during that period, on at least one acceptable statement that the plates were located by means of Joseph's "wonderful stone" (123)--effectively places the recovery of the plates in the thick of the magical tradition. As we follow the narrative, disjointed though it be, we realize that the story of the "coming forth" will never be the same again. We witness the magical, autochthonous birth of a new religion, or the first and only great find of the Palmyra area treasure-seeking fraternity, or the enactment by the young prophet of a retrieval rite undertaken to convince believers of the reality of the desired event--or some blend of the above. In any event, if we have been extremely attentive in following--and at some points in industriously ascertaining--the author's case, I believe we are prepared for this major step in the argument and must conclude that it works. The case suddenly seems very strong. If much evidence is tenuous, it must be countered that much of it is very solid. It convinces when the whole, composed of diverse strands, is woven together into a fabric suddenly greater than the sum of its parts. I have hazarded elsewhere that an imaginative act is necessary if one is to appreciate a work of the imagination. Quinn has met the one with the other and has produced a case far from imaginary.

In “Joseph Smith: America’s Hermetic Prophet”, Lance S. Owens writes:

In this light, the visit of the angel Moroni took on unusual aspects. The angel had appeared on the night of the Autumnal equinox, between midnight and dawn–hours auspicious for a magical invocation. On the day of the equinox Joseph had subsequently made his four annual visits to the hill. When finally he retrieved the plates, it was the eve of the equinox, in the first hour after midnight. Accounts suggested he had been required to take with him that night a consort (his wife), to ride a black horse, and to dress in black–all lending a further magical tenor to the operation.

Should we excuse Joseph Smith's occult practices?

A Mormon wrote on Mormon Coffee: “It is quite easy to look back 190 years and laugh at culture and people. In the Palmyra Herald, July 24, 1822 it was stated: ‘digging for money hid in the earth is a very common thing and in this state it is even considered as honorable and profitable employment…’” The Palmyra Herald article was also laughing at the culture and people who practiced money digging. The article quoted was written tongue-in-cheek. An article in the Wayne Sentinel (Palmyra, NY) on February 16, 1825 provides a more serious look at the practice:

“Money digging. — We are sorry to observe even in this enlightened age, so prevalent a disposition to credit the accounts of the marvellous. Even the frightful stories of money being hid under the surface of the earth, and enchanted by the Devil or Robert Kidd, are received by many of our respectable fellow citizens as truths. We had hoped that such a shameful undertaking would never have been acted over [again in] our country, till the following event occurred, not long ago in out vicinity.”

The temptation to excuse Joseph Smith’s occult practices because ‘everybody was doing it’ seems ill advised. In today’s culture, for example, would we make excuses for an LDS apostle who lived for several years in an intimate relationship with a woman, without the benefit of marriage, after he’d been called by God to be a special witness? After all, this sort of living arrangement is an accepted part of our culture. How should we respond to such a man if he excuses himself, saying he was only guilty of “foolish errors” and “the weakness of youth” brought about by a “native cheery temperament”?

Further Reading

Notes