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Book Review: Early Mormonism and the Magic World View

By D. Michael Quinn
Signature Books, 1998
Reviewed by Eric Johnson

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IntroductionEarly Mormonism and the Magic Worldview

The story of Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, is absolutely incredible. Here was a young man living in the early part of the 19th century who came from a family that could not have been any more common than spring leaves on a tree. As the story goes, he claimed that he was approached by God the Father and Jesus, told that all the churches were false, and commissioned to lead the restoration of God’s kingdom upon the earth, which apparently had been lost for almost two millennia. Today millions of people claim that he is more important than anyone else on earth, save Jesus Christ alone, and that his teachings on God, church structure, and new revelation were divine.

Just what made this modern-day Moses tick? A number of books from both LDS and Christian authors have been written explaining their differing perspectives of the life of a man who lived only 38 years. Some of these books have caused quite a controversy. For example, Fawn Brodie was excommunicated when she wrote No Man Knows My History half a century ago. A historical biographer, Brodie did not mix her words as she described the sordid details of the life of the prophet. Hugh Nibley was so disgusted by Brodie’s work that he wrote a response entitled No Ma’am, That’s Not History. His response was quite a disappointment for many, even those within the LDS community.

But as far as books on the life of Smith are concerned, probably no volume has stirred more overall controversy than D. Michael Quinn’s 1987 first-edition book entitled Early Mormonism and the Magic World View [hereafter Early Mormonism]. (The only single volume that may have caused even more hand-wringing from LDS apologists is probably Brent Metcalfe’s book entitled New Approaches to the Book of Mormon. It caused such controversy that the reviewers at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) dedicated an entire volume of their series entitled Review of Books on the Book of Mormon to criticize it.)

Quinn is a former professor at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University who was excommunicated in 1993 for apostasy based on his historical writings. Instead of trying to deny Joseph Smith’s penchant for occultic activities, Quinn—who says he “remains a DNA Mormon“—concluded that Smith’s background truly did involve divining rods, seer stones, a hat to shield his eyes in order to see hidden treasures, amulets, incantations, and rituals to summon spirits. Smith was a magician first class, Quinn believes, but he holds that Mormonism’s founder was also a man of God who used his magical tools to communicate with the Almighty God of this universe.

To say the book caused LDS leadership consternation is truly an understatement. The original volume, which used numerous “subjunctives, qualifiers, and qualified-qualifiers” such as “possibly,” “might,” and “apparently” due to the insistence of his editors who did not want Quinn to lose his church job, went out of print because “escalating publishing costs” made it so that they could not even reissue a paperback version for the 1987 hardcover price. Also, Quinn asked the publisher not to reprint the book until a revised version was ready. Thus, “by the 1990s otherwise-poor college students were paying $100 for a battered copy, while avid collectors shelled out $350 for a ‘mint-condition’ copy of (it)” (p. ix).

As he pointed out on pages ix-x, Quinn’s changes to the revised version were four-fold. One, he switched to endnotes rather than citing within the text, and he dropped a booming bibliography that he claims would have taken 80 pages to print. Second, he added new information. The third change was the addition of material extremely harsh towards his vocal critics—most of whom are LDS scholars—for the abuse he had taken in the previous 11 years. Finally, he wanted to take care of some errors and refine the text.

To read this book will require plenty of time and careful patience. Early Mormonism is not a book to be rushed through. After all, Quinn is famous for his copious endnotes. The book has 685 pages, and 257 of those pages—close to 40 percent of the book!—are endnotes. (A little more than half of the book is text.) You can’t ignore them, though, because he strategically places very important information there. It is also a good idea to consider his sources. Although he lists no bibliography, the endnotes contain the bibliographic information, and if I would guess, I would say that he utilized more than a thousand resources. Unless you look the individual endnote up, you will not know where the reference came from because he usually gives no hint within the text itself.

For this book you will need two bookmarks, and by the end of the book you will have certainly soiled the edges of the back pages, as you have to continually flip back and forth. (Most frustrating is when you put the book down to get a drink, preferably something caffeinated, and your tome falls from the couch to the ground, losing your place not once but twice. Just get used to it.) The 94 pictures and illustrations just before the endnotes are also helpful to reference.

Is Quinn’s book worthy to be read? This is what this limited review will try to determine from an evangelical Christian point of view.

Joseph Smith: Involved with the magic world around him

Quinn admits that what he writes in his book is not what readers might find in a brochure given out at an LDS temple open house.

Instead, they will discover that the LDS prophet certainly participated extensively in some pursuits of folk magic and apparently in others…. I have found that the ‘official version’ of early Mormon history is sometimes incomplete in its presentation and evaluation of evidence. Therefore, official LDS history is inaccurate in certain respects. …LDS apologists often do not inform their readers that pro-Mormon sources corroborate the statements made by anti-Mormons” (p. xxxviii).

According to Quinn, there is no denying any of the accusations “anti-Mormons” have made against Smith for decades. For instance, Quinn goes into a full description of how Smith and his brothers used divining rods—he acknowledges that they were occultic tools with contact with the spirit world—in their seeking buried treasure (pp. 33ff). Smith was also experienced with the seer stones that would give the owner special access to the buried treasures (pp. 41ff). Even Smith’s mother and father were avid seekers after Captain Kidd’s buried treasure, utilizing these seer stones. Quinn gives a good background to the three seer stones owned by Smith, especially the prophet’s favorite, the chocolate brown stone.

Many Mormon scholars criticize the linking of Smith to divining rods and seer stones and say the evidence is inconclusive. To these Quinn writes on page 47:

“Mormons traditionally have rejected outright the nearly contemporary accounts from hostile non-Mormons in favor of LDS accounts written long after the event. For example, Mormons readily accept the accuracy of Joseph Smith’s sermons which were massively reconstructed more than a decade after he spoke. In one instance, the official History of the Church published a 128-word section of his sermon twelve years earlier. This was someone else’s expansion of five words in the original manuscript report of Smith’s sermon. Apologists extend the broadest possible latitude to sources they agree with, yet impose the most stringent demands on sources of information the apologists dislike. Both scholars and casual readers should give greater attention to the reports by Palmyra neighbors of statements and actions the neighbors witnessed.”

Tracing magic footprints from early Judaism into the Age of Reason and beyond, Quinn attempts to show that religious people have, for the most part, always been very involved in these other things. He shows how Christians before Smith’s day were very involved with such things as horoscopes and folk magic. “The majority of early Americans were “unchurched” and participated in folk religion,” he writes (p. 27). Only one of 10 white Americans during Colonial times were churched, Quinn points out, and “several generations of the Smith family were influenced by the magic world view before the 1800s” (p. 31).

The idea that Smith participated in occultic things because they were part of the American society at that time appears to be a very big point with Quinn. He writes,

“…early anti-Mormon authors and modern LDS apologists shared the assumption that if Mormonism’s founding prophet engaged in ‘money-digging,’ then his religious claims could be discredited. However, the substantial evidence of their participation in treasure-seeking in no way discredits Joseph Smith or his family. This was even the view of some of their neighbors who had no interest in the family’s religious claims. Magic and treasure-seeking were an integral part of the Smith family’s religious quest” (p. 30).

Quinn is not happy with attempts by LDS Church revisionists to deny Smith’s foray into the occult and folk magic realm around him. While this is the apparent attitude church members have now, it wasn’t always like this, he says. The attitude change began in the 1880s, he says, when the last of those in the Mormon leadership who had been familiar with Smith and the occultic practices died.

“Their successors had more in common with denominational Christianity than with the folk religion of many first-generation Mormons,” Quinn writes. “It is astonishing how some LDS apologists can misread (or misrepresent) all the above evidence for the magic use of seer stones and divining rods…” (p. 59). After noting that BYU biblical professor Stephen E. Robinson denied that these things had anything to do with magic but rather were influenced by the Bible, Quinn is very strong. “This is self-parody by an LDS polemicist,” he writes in part (p. 60).

The average Latter-day Saint does not want to dwell on his founder’s penchant for using magic stones, peeping into a hat to help him translate scripture, and frequent outings in search for buried treasure. “Modern Mormons are not simply better-educated than their ancestors,” Quinn writes on page 319. “They are differently educated…. Twentieth-century Mormons have adopted the scientific world view…For children from the age of five onward, standardized public education since the 1890s has left no room for the magic world view, except to dismiss it as ‘superstition.'” In addition, “by the last quarter of the twentieth century, the LDS church also became increasingly authoritarian and obsessed with conformity.” (Quinn should know since he was excommunicated in 1993 for his differences with the “only true church upon the face of the earth.”)

Quinn laments, “Modern Latter-day Saints give little, if any, place in their lives for the magic dimensions of folk religion, the esoteric, or the occult” (p. 320). He disagrees with these modern Mormons,

“admir(ing) current Jews, Christians, and Mormons who privately adopt any magic practice that speaks to their inner bliss. Some call this a ‘new age’ religion, but I see it as a very old expression of religiosity” (p. 326).

The facts are that magic and the occult played a huge role in the very foundation of the LDS religion. Quinn works hard to show this to be true, as he factually supports his points. Consider the following:

  • Smith used his divining rod and stone for finding buried treasure as late as the fall of 1825 (p. 54). Saying that Smith’s family and friends were also involved in such escapades, Quinn wrote on page 240: “Joseph Smith (founding prophet and president of the new church) had unquestionably participated in treasure-seeking and stone divination. Evidence indicates that he also used divining rods, a talisman, and implements of ritual magic.” In addition, “two-thirds of Mormonism’s first apostles had some affinity for folk magic” (p. 240).
  • Smith would place his seer stone into a hat and bury his face into the hat “so as to exclude the light, he could see as a clairvoyant” (p. 55). This was supported by such witnesses as Martin Harris and Smith’s wife Emma (pp. 169-173). The fact that the same brown stone Smith used to look for buried treasure was used to “translate” the Book of Mormon is not emphasized by Smith’s followers (p. 172). Yet when Mormonism’s original leadership died off in the 1880s, “LDS authorities typically regarded seer stones as unusual relics of an ever-receding sacred past” (p. 253).
  • Smith was arrested in the mid-1820s “as a disorderly person” because “he was about the country in the character of a glass-looker: pretending to discover lost goods, hidden treasures, mines of gold and silver, etc” (p. 56). Pointing out Christian Wesley Walter’s discovery of the 1826 court record showing how Smith was tried in court for being a “Glass looker,” Quinn says many Mormons vehemently denied this fact because they felt this would show Smith to be a fraud. In fact, LDS researcher Francis W. Kirkham stated that “if such a court record confession could be identified and proved, then it follows that his believers must deny his claimed divine guidance which led them to follow him,” thereby making him “a superstitious fraud” (pp. 56, 57). He adds, “LDS apologist Hugh Nibley also wrote that if genuine, the court record ‘is the most devastating blow to Smith ever delivered.'” However, Quinn, says, this was “a self-defeating line-in-the-sand…to draw, and LDS apologists now accept the transcripts of this 1826 testimony to be valid” (p. 57).
  • While Quinn doesn’t believe that money was Smith’s main motivation for digging for buried treasure, it was certainly a big reason why he did it (p. 65).
  • Smith’s mother Lucy Mack Smith “did not deny that her family participated in occult activities. She simply affirmed that these did not prevent family members from accomplishing other, equally important work” (p. 68). Quinn also pointed out that Smith and his family never denied the allegations of occultism and magic when early antagonists such as Eber D. Howe (Mormonism Unvailed, 1834) produced testimony affirming this truth (p. 323).
  • Drawing magic circles, “which has been central to the ritual magic of incantation, necromancy, and treasure-hunting,” was done by Smith and observed by his neighbors (p. 70; 101). Since Smith owned implements such as a dagger for drawing the circles and seer stones, “it is irrational to claim that the Smiths did not actually use those objects they possessed, which were so important to their acknowledged interest in buried treasure” (p. 322).
  • “Both friendly and unfriendly sources show that astrology was important to members of the Smith family” (p. 72). They believed that the success in their pursuits of buried treasure “depended in a great measure on the state of the moon” (p. 74). In fact, Smith’s mother and father as well as Smith himself and Emma were married on days that coincided with favorable days related to the new moon. Smith founded his church on a Tuesday (April 6, 1830) rather than a Sunday to coincide with the full moon (p. 291). In addition, the children Smith fathered both by his wife Emma and other polygamous wives were, for the most part, conceived in either February or September when his “ruling planet (of Jupiter) governed generation.” Mormon scholars, he notes, don’t like any correlation between astrology and Smith, but “where LDS apologists claim to see only coincidences, I see logical consequences of astrological belief” (pp. 76-79).
  • Quinn wrote: “Throughout his ministry, Joseph Smith affirmed the reality of witchcraft and sorcery. While the 1830 Book of Mormon contained ancient condemnations (Alma 1:32, 3 Ne. 21:16, 24:5, Mormon 1:19, 2:10), his revelations in 1831 and 1832 reaffirmed the reality of sorcerers (D&C 63:17, 76:103)” (p. 291).
  • As far as Smith’s knowledge of occult works and other materials that he could have borrowed from, Quinn says LDS apologists who deny Smith’s access to books are contrary to the evidence. “Newspaper advertisements and library holdings prove access, even if they don’t prove possession or page-turning,” he said (p. 145). “Textual parallels involved books published as recently as the late 1700s and early 1800s. Some of these clearly were available to the Smiths” (p. 322).
  • Palmyra’s bookstores were filled with “sophisticated publications” and rare books that Smith could have accessed (p. 180). “During the 1820s bookstores near Joseph Smith’s home were selling thousands of hardback books for 44 cents to a dollar each” (p. 182). Despite his mother’s insistence that Smith did not read, “he later quoted from, referred to, and owned numerous books which were advertised in his neighborhood as a young man” (p. 192). As far as his familiarity with books on the occult, “the Mormon prophet’s knowledge of such literature is not a myth. The myth is LDS emphasis on Joseph Smith as an ill-read farmboy” (p. 218). Quinn adds, “Of the books Joseph Smith donated shortly before his death, 75 percent of the pre-1830 titles can be verified as either directly available in the Palmyra area or as being promoted there.” A number of these books were out of print for more than a century (p. 189).
  • The idea that the name of Nephi replaced Moroni in the 1842 Smith-published Times and Seasons was not a clerical error, Quinn believes. “Because the names sound nothing alike, clerical error is unlikely in the manuscript recording of Smith’s dictation. The use of Nephi in the manuscript history about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon seems instead to be the prophet’s intentional substitution of another name for Moroni” (p. 199). Nephi’s name is connected with occultism, Quinn points out.
  • A revelation given in D&C 129 in 1843 regarding the determination if someone was a worldly messenger from God or Satan was related to occultism. Smith said a person who wanted to ascertain the difference should try to shake hands with the messenger. Feeling air would mean this was a representative of the devil. The occultic world used a similar test. According to the 1856 Transcendental Magic, which said in part: “What is commonly called Necromancy has nothing in common with resurrection…The proof of this is that spirits, at least the specters pretended to be such, may indeed touch us occasionally, but we cannot touch them…we cannot unmoved feel the hand pass through that which seems a body and yet make contact with nothing” (p. 226).
  • The very idea of three degrees of glory (multiple heavens) is “compatible with occult views. Even ‘degrees of glory’ was an occult phrase connected with the ancient mystical beliefs of Judaism.” Quinn rightly points out that, despite FARMS’ insistence that the idea of the Mormon three-tiered heaven comes from the Bible, “the phrase ‘degrees of glory’ is nowhere in those biblical verses.” The idea occurs with certain English occultists (p. 216). Showing that FARMS was wrong regarding the existence of pseudepigraphic texts mentioning multiple heavens, Quinn declares, “Despite the rhetoric of LDS apologists and polemicists, ‘meaningful content’ occurs within a context and Joseph Smith’s environment included books, practices, and oral traditions of the occult” (p. 217).
  • Although many have presupposed that Mormonism’s temple ceremony has Masonic roots, Quinn disagrees. “I believe that the underlying philosophy and purpose of the two were fundamentally different. Mormon revelation, in fact, proclaimed that the LDS endowment directly restored what Masonry acknowledged it had only some connection with—the occult mysteries of the ancient world” (p. 227). He gave several different examples to support his point, including this: “Freemasonry’s minor emphasis on the heavenly outcome of its rituals was a chasm between Freemasonry and the Mormon endowment. A concept of heavenly ascent was completely absent in many pro-Masonic writings before the 1840s. However, such an ascent was central to the occult mysteries of the ancient world” (p. 229).
  • Other fundamental similarities between the ancient mysteries and the Mormon endowment are: “1) Revealed by God from Beginning, but Distorted through Apostasy…. 2) Worthiness of Initiates…3) Washings and Anointings, New Name, Garment…4) Vows of Non-disclosure…5) The Lesser and Greater Rituals…6) Presentation through Drama…7) Oath of Chastity…8) Sun and Moon…9) Mortals “Exalted” to Godhood…10) Prophets, Priests, and Kings…11) Gods” (pp. 230-234).
  • Mormons are taught that the LDS garment is a physical and spiritual protection, sort of like a spiritual amulet or good luck charm. Quinn notes the irony of how some modern Mormons tend to shy away from this view, although a great number of Latter-day Saints still cling to the idea that bad luck will more likely come when they fail to wear the garments. Quinn also show how Canadian researchers discovered that “Mormons use luck-charms and amulets in sports competition more than non-Mormons.” In fact, the athletes used such practices as “double-knotting one’s shoelaces, wearing socks inside out, wearing ‘lucky’ item of clothing, or wearing a lucky charm” (pp. 276-277).

I’m not quite sure what to make of Quinn’s constant point that Smith’s occultic views were not very different from his day. If people are not following God, it is unclear to me why Quinn would attempt to make folk magic appear innocent and even OK. His argument that many Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries believed like Smith is meaningless because Christianity is not a religion about the people who follow Jesus. Rather it is about following the commands and examples given by God through the Bible. Just as we should not imitate the sins of fellow believers (if they are even believers at all), so too should we not legitimize sin just because the culture around us believes a certain way. I think Quinn goes way too far to show how occultism’s roots could exist within true Christianity, which he believes to be Mormonism.

Warning his young charge Timothy of false doctrine, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:4, 6: “Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith…From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling.” Second Timothy 3:2-5 explains what it would be like in the last days: “For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers…traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof; from such turn away.”

The Bible is very clear that Christians should be wary of the culture around them. Jesus declared that “broad is the way that leadeth to destruction” while true believers who are few in number should “enter in at the strait gate.” The idea that many people (including supposed professing Christians) from the earliest half of the United States’ history were involved in magic does not give an open license for Christians to follow this example. As the proverbial saying given to us by our parents goes, “If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you follow?” Of course not. Again it is puzzling why Quinn spends so much time, effort, and ink showing how “Smith learned from village mentors how to use a divining rod; a seer stone; a hat to shield his eyes in order to see hidden treasures; and amulets, incantations, and rituals to summon spirits.” (back cover).

I agree with Quinn when he says “how different from current norms early American religious practices could be.” I just disagree with the idea that these are the types of things God wanted his people to follow when his revelation to us, the Bible, does not encourage such practices.

Does the Bible teach in a magical worldview?

Quinn spends much of the first chapter attempting to disprove the Anchor Bible’s assertion that the Bible “prohibits the practice of magic or presents it negatively in a number of places.” Quinn believes the Mormon founder was not very different from the biblical prophets who preceded him. His premise is that Smith should be deemed a prophet of God if it is true that the Bible is loaded with magical imagery. After all, if biblical prophets were allowed to explore this world while having solid relationships with God, why couldn’t Smith?

Quinn gives examples in the first few pages of his first chapter to show how the Bible encouraged the use of magic, including:

  • “…Jewish tradition also held that King Solomon’s ‘wisdom included his vast knowledge of magic and medicine'”
  • The Old Testament has “neutral or positive references to a wide range of magical and divinatory practices”
  • “Jewish and Christian lore contains many references to occult incantations, to amulets, charms, spells, exorcisms, all related to speculative angelologies and demonologies”
  • The magical power of God’s name (YHWH)
  • “The patriarch Joseph had a special silver cup in Egypt with which ‘he divineth'”
  • The casting of lots that took place in both the Old and New Testaments
  • Moses’ brass serpent that saved the lives of anyone bitten by snakes just because they looked at it
  • A corpse that came to life upon touching Elisha
  • The healing of people who touched the handkerchiefs of Paul
  • Speaking in tongues

Most amazing is that Quinn does more than hint that Smith’s magic was little different from that practiced by Jesus. He writes on page 4, “In many of the miracles of Jesus, the techniques paralleled closely the magic practices of the ancient world…Like Jesus, pagan magicians used spittle to heal the blind, put their fingers in the ears to heal the deaf, employed the same series of separate acts involved in some of the more detailed Gospel healings, and used foreign words as part of magic spells and incantations.”

He adds on page 5, “Some scholars of the New Testament and ancient history have acknowledged that Jesus performed acts which were closely paralleled by magic practices among the pagans. These Christian scholars have insisted that these ceremonies in the Gospels were not magic, no matter how closely they mirrored contemporary magic practices, because it was Jesus who performed them. That seems an assertion of faith rather than a conclusion based on existing documents.”

The Bible’s View of Occultic Magic

While this review is limited, I would like to show why I disagree with Quinn’s premise that the Bible supports Joseph Smith’s foray into the magical world. The Bible expressly forbade the Jewish people to be involved with such practices as magic, sorcery, and divination. Consider, for instance, Deuteronomy 18:10-11. Among other things, it said no one should be found among God’s people who practiced these things:

  • Divination. This practice involved extracting information or guidance for a god. Examples include Balaam, the soothsayer, who was hired to curse Israel (Num. 22:7; 23:23; Josh. 13:22) and the witch at En Dor (1 Sam. 28). The Bible says we are not to be involved with such practices (2 Kings 9:22; 17:17; 23:24: Isa. 2:6; 8:19; 44:25; 47:9, 12; Jer. 27:9; 29:8; Ezek. 13:9; Micah 5:12; Gal. 5:20). According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [hereafter ISBE] under “Magic”: “Though in many lists in Daniel the various types of Babylonian diviners and sorcerers are mentioned without express disapproval, the entire context makes it clear that such arts are no match for one who depends upon God for wisdom (Dan. 2:27; cf. 2:10)” (p. 215). I’ll talk a little more on this in the section below on lots.
  • Spiritism. According to page 789 in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nelson, 1995): “The root of the word in Hebrew is the verb ‘to know.’ In modern English ‘wizard’ means someone very wise or inventive, a very clever or skillful person. But in the Bible it is always a forbidden thing, a kind of black magic.”
  • Necromancy, or calling up the dead. Again, according to Nelson’s Dictionary: “The Hebrew word translated as ‘magic’ appears only in connection with Egyptian and Babylonian magicians.” The first cluster refers to Joseph in Egypt; the second is connected with the plagues in Egypt; and the third deals with Daniel and the government-sponsored magicians of Babylonia. It should be pointed out that the term is never used in connection with the nation of Israel. As far as the Greek New Testament is concerned, the only time it is used is negatively. Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-25) and Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:6-8) are examples. Another word for magic is related to the English word “pharmacy” and it had to do with drugs. Says the Nelson’s Dictionary: “The denunciations in Revelation 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; and 22:15 apply to those who use drugs to bring on trances during which they claim to have supernatural knowledge or power” (p. 790).

Consider the sources for occultic magic. According to ISBE, “Various magical traditions from the East moved into the West and became, often because of a nostalgia for the ancient and mysterious, part of a growing body of international magical lore. From Assyria and Babylonia came an interest in astrology. From Egypt came an emphasis on the power inherent in the spoken or written word, especially the secret name” (p. 218).

It is true that later rabbinic literature is not unified when it comes to magic. In fact, “while the rabbinic sages were well acquainted with the prohibitions against the various forms of divination and sorcery in the Torah, they were also well acquainted with magical practices. Some even practiced the art themselves” (ISBE, p. 216). Among other reasons, “it appears that they were able to harmonize the biblical prohibitions with the practice of some forms of magic by redefining both” (ibid).

According to ISBE, Jesus was charged several times for practicing magic through His miracles such as healings and exorcisms. “Matt. 10:25 suggests that Jesus’ opponents may have actually nicknamed Him ‘Beelzebul.’ This charge and all that is implies are refuted…(Mk. 3:23-30). In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is three times accused of having a demon, which is an abbreviated way of charging Him with being a fake prophet and a charlatan whose powers to perform miracles come from Satan. Similarly, the accusation that Jesus was an impostor or deceiver must be understood in relation to the charge that He practiced magic, for false prophets and magicians were subject to the death penalty according to the Deuteronomic code (Dt. 13:5; 18:20). Jesus’ Jewish opponents may have used these ancient laws to justify His execution” (ISBE, p. 219).

If Jesus wanted to, He certainly could have credited His powers with magic. However, His work was in accordance to His nature since He is literally God in the flesh. While Quinn would not hold that Jesus is both 100 percent God and 100 percent man, the second member of the Trinity, the Evangelical Christian acknowledges His nature and understands that those things that He did were miraculous, not magical in any way.

While Quinn makes the Jewish mystics seem almost normal for the biblical record, he fails to realize that the New Testament (written after the time when Jewish mysticism had its heyday) condemns the magical worldview. Luke was quite familiar with the technical terminology of magic as evidenced in Acts 8:9-24; 13:4-12; and 19:11-20. “All of these passages describe contests between Christians with miraculous powers and magicians whose powers are derived from incantations and the control of malevolent supernatural forces. The author of Acts carefully demonstrates the superiority of Christianity in each of these encounters” (ISBE, p. 219).

What about Quinn’s list of ways the Bible supports magic? While this was a partial list, let’s consider his points in a short manner and show how these examples do not condone the magical worldview.

  • “…Jewish tradition also held that King Solomon’s ‘wisdom included his vast knowledge of magic and medicine'”We are given so very little information about this that it makes it very hard to respond. But we should point out several things: 1) While Solomon was known as the wisest man in the world, he made some very foolish decisions. In fact, it was soon after his reign in the monarchy that the kingdom split into two. 2) Solomon did some very foolish things, including having almost a thousand women as wives and concubines. Should his polygamous ways make him a man to be followed in practice? 3) The Bible doesn’t fully explain what Quinn calls Solomon’s “knowledge of magic and medicine.”
  • The Old Testament has “neutral or positive references to a wide range of magical and divinatory practices”While we would agree that the Old Testament is “neutral” in some cases (the types of divination that could be credited to God, such as the dreams had by Joseph and Daniel or lots in the right circumstances), one would be hard pressed to state that occultic divination was fine. Again, based on numerous verses as listed above, the Bible condemns the occultic worldview.
  • “Jewish and Christian lore contains many references to occult incantations, to amulets, charms, spells, exorcisms, all related to speculative angelologies and demonologies”Christians follow the Bible, not lore. They acknowledge the existence of Jewish mystics, which appear to have been very popular between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century A.D. Yet traditions don’t mean much to the evangelical Christian since he or she is a follower of the Book, or written word of God.
  • The magical power of God’s name (YHWH)There is nothing magical about the tetragammaton. Rather, it is the holiest name of God. In modern Bibles the translated word LORD is given in all caps to express the holiness of this name. In ancient times YHWH was not even pronounced. In fact, this name is considered to be so sacred among Jews today that the Jewish scroll writers continue to go through a purification rite every time they write out the tetragammaton. There is no magic in this name.
  • “The patriarch Joseph had a special silver cup in Egypt with which ‘he divineth'”Because Genesis 44:5 mentions Joseph’s “divining” cup, Quinn makes it appear that Joseph practiced hydromancy, a form of ancient Near Eastern divination that predicted the future. However, while this cup was said to have belonged to Joseph, could it not have been part of the ruse of entrapping his brothers? This may not help detail Joseph’s spiritual practices, as its use was certainly to frame the severity of Benjamin’s supposed crime. It is an argument from silence to say that Joseph actually practiced a pagan divining rite.While we do know that he received revelation from dreams given to him by God—a form of divination known as oneiromancy—we cannot ascertain if hydromancy was a common practice of Joseph. According to ISBE (“Divination,” 1:972), “…the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Arabians, Greeks, and Romans sought to understand the future primarily through the practice of various techniques of divination monopolized by skilled adepts. In contrast, the central way in which the will of Yahweh was made accessible in ancient Israel and in early Christianity was through the medium of inspired prophetic spokesmen.”
  • The casting of lots that took place in both the Old and New Testaments. Proverbs 16:33 says that “the lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord.” According to ISBE (“Lots,” 3:173): “The use of lots in making decisions, therefore, was regarded as a means of allowing God to make the choice. Lots, though a form of divination, were never a forbidden practice in ancient Israel as were the other forms of divination.” The Urim and Thummim, which was kept in a pocket of the high priest but apparently not used by the time of David, were also tools to get yes-and-no answers from God.In the book of Acts, the disciples decided to nominate another man to fill the twelfth spot. According to Richard Longnecker in the ninth volume of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1981), “The ‘remnant theology’ of Late Judaism made it mandatory that any group that presented itself as ‘the righteous remnant’ of the nation, and had the responsibility of calling the nation to repentance and permeating it for God’s glory, must represent itself as the true Israel, not only in its proclamation, but also in its symbolism” (p. 265). The disciples did not want there to be any question that the successor was not qualified to become an apostle of Jesus.The two qualifications were that the candidate had to have been with Christ since the time Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and that he was a witness to Christ’s resurrection. Two men were qualified to fill this position: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias. The disciples prayed to Jesus before “casting lots” and determining Matthias was the right one (Acts 1:26).What are Christians to make of lots? Does this mean that they should flip a coin when making a decision? Not at all.It should be emphasized that the disciples prayed and used wisdom before seeking God through the lots. (Old Testament passages involving lots include finding a guilty individual; selecting someone for a particular task; dividing the land of Israel; and selecting the scapegoat for the Day of Atonement.) God has spoken in different ways to His people throughout the ages. He walked alongside Abraham. He talked to Moses. And as these passages point out, He made Himself available to His people through lots.Curiously this practice is never again mentioned after Acts 1:26. It was not a normal part of communication from the early church on. This is true because the Holy Spirit was fully given at Pentecost in Acts 2. According to Jesus in John 14:16, the Spirit was not only to be the Spirit of Truth but also the Counselor available to all Christians. “The Spirit was also the Spirit of prophecy, whose departure from Israel had left them with only dice as a means through which God might communicate his will. But now in the wake of the coming of Jesus the Spirit is back, not resting only on a few prophets, but on the whole people of God” (Hard Sayings of the Bible, IVP, 1996, p. 513).

    Joseph Smith’s practices were no way biblical. And why would Smith not rely on the Holy Spirit for counsel and direction rather than magical practices if He was truly directed by God?

  • Moses’ brass serpent that saved the lives of anyone bitten by snakes just because they looked at it. According to Numbers 21:8, God told Moses to put a snake on a pole so that anyone who was bitten from the snake-infested camp could look at it for healing. Jesus mentioned this incident as a precursor to Himself, saying in John 3:14-15 that He would have to be lifted up just like that snake so that everyone believing on Him would receive eternal life. (Also see John 12:31-32.) According to the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, “The bronze serpent is thus a symbol and type of Christ. Israel needs to learn that the Lord is sovereign. He uses the serpent to punish; he also uses it to heal in conjunction with obedience and faith” (p. 99). Just as the sick Israelite could look up to the snake for healing, so too sinners with no hope of healing can look to Jesus. As far as magic is concerned, there is no correlation whatsoever.
  • A corpse that came to life upon touching Elish. How do we explain Elijah’s going up to heaven in a chariot? How do we explain the taking of the sacrifice at Mt. Carmel? And how do we explain this event? Magic? No. Rather, we would say that God continued to use Elisha even after he was dead in this miraculous one-time event. (It had to have been “one-time” because they certainly would have tried to repeat the miracle with other bodies, but we hear no more about this.) Could Elisha’s departure from this world be any more dramatic than his predecessor Elijah?
  • The healing of people who touched the handkerchiefs of Paul and the speaking in tongues. We see several ways how people were possibly healed in the New Testament, including Peter’s shadow (5:15), the edge of Jesus’ cloak (Matt. 9:20), and Paul’s handkerchiefs (Acts 19:12). These items did not have magical qualities, but rather the smallest article or shadow was a representation of having contact with one of God’s men. Writes Richard Longnecker in his commentary on Acts, “The virtue, of course, lay not in the materials themselves but in the power of God and the faith of the recipients” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 496).To equate the above as well as speaking in tongues to magic is not a very strong parallel. Christians believe that God certainly heals. The above passages do not say the recipients had faith in the garments or the shadow of an apostle. Rather, as Jesus so clearly stated, a person with the faith (in God) as small of a mustard seed could move mountains. While God can use whatever He wills to accomplish His purpose, it is important to point out that only a faith in God can result in the miraculous.

In conclusion to this section, it is understood why Quinn has to presuppose that the Bible condones and even encourages the kind of view Joseph Smith had about magic. However, the evidence from the Bible does not support this view.

Returning the fire back to LDS “Scholarship”

There is no doubt that Quinn has a vendetta in re-releasing his book. His LDS critics were merciless in attempting to destroy Quinn’s credibility and hence his career. His honesty was not appreciated by either the leadership or those who are paid in Provo to defend the church from scholarly critics. Now that Quinn is no longer on the membership roles, he took off the proverbial gloves. He abandoned the use of the “could haves” and “might have beens” and instead became quite definitive in his writing. In addition, it is obvious that Quinn wrote as he pleased because LDS leaders no longer hold any authority over him. After all, what can the Mormon prophet do to a man who is already excommunicated?

With pit bull tenacity, Quinn continually went after the writers from FARMS, an organization that was unofficially connected to LDS-owned BYU and officially connected to the university in 1997. Even FARMS apologist Daniel Peterson wondered if this move would allow him and other writers to keep their nasty edge. Perhaps it is for this reason that Peterson, who has boasted that some of his fellow writers were born “with the nastiness gene,” is Quinn’s biggest target.

Why are the writers for FARMS so abusive in their writings? According to Peterson in the eighth volume of FARMS Review of Books, “We did not pick this fight with the Church’s critics, but we will not withdraw from it.” Peterson has also said,” If we have occasionally been guilty of levity at the expense of some of our critics, this has been because they tempted us with irresistible targets. It isn’t our fault…. A few of us, indeed, may have been born that way, with the nastiness gene—which is triggered by arrant humbuggery” (p. 329).

Quinn does not take kindly to the meanness of FARMS. He writes, “I have allowed my polemical critics to have their decade, not just their day….I believe this eleventh-anniversary edition responds to these LDS polemicists with greater honesty and civility than they have given me” (p. xi).

Quinn defines the difference in his mind between polemics and apologetics. According to him, a person who practices polemics engages in “an extreme version of apologetics. Defending a point of view becomes less important than attacking one’s opponents. Aside from their verbal viciousness, polemicists often resort to any method to promote their argument…. Moving beyond apologist persuasion, LDS polemicists furiously (and often fraudulently) attack any non-traditional view of Mormonism. They don’t mince words—they mince truth” (p. x). We should note that, traditionally, polemics does not have as negative a connotation as Quinn makes it out to be. Rather, the noun just means the “art or practice of disputation or controversy, especially in theology.”

Apologists, on the other hand, “take special efforts to defend their cherished point of view…It is not an insult to call someone an ‘apologist’ (which I often do)…” (p. x). This statement was obviously meant for FARMS writers who, for whatever reason, have taken offense to being called “apologists.” I’ll never forget Daniel Peterson’s attack on Bill McKeever in the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5, 1993. In a review on John Ankerberg and John Weldon’s book entitled About Mormonism, Peterson took several pages to divert and tackle an unpublished paper that my colleague and I had written on the “land of Jerusalem.” Listen to the shot Peterson fired at us in footnote number 170, page 77: “McKeever also has the irritating habit, prevalent among many anti-Mormons, of describing those authors with whom he agrees by their academic titles and positions, while referring to those authors with whom he disagrees as ‘LDS apologists.'”

Why was Peterson so insulted at being called an apologist, which really is a simple word meaning a person who practices apologetics (which is the defense of one’s faith)? While many falsely assume it refers to a person who has to apologize, it has no such meaning. Truly this is not a derogatory word, and we at Mormonism Research Ministry have never used it to belittle someone’s credentials. Like Quinn, we who write for MRM welcome the title of apologist.

To show his disdain for those who dislike being called “apologists,” Quinn writes: “‘Polemicist’ is a dishonorable vocation, and I use the term only where I believe it applies.” When referring to FARMS, the word apologist takes a great big back seat in Quinn’s vocabulary, for the most part. Instead, polemicist is the word of choice about 60-70 percent of the time. His disagreement comes because, for FARMS’ writers, “defending Joseph Smith from any association with magic is the primary motivation for their definitional nihilism…. However, the fundamental problem with this tactic of LDS apologists is that denying the legitimacy of the word ‘magic’ or ‘occult sciences’ also denies the self-definition of people before and during Joseph Smith’s time” (p. xxviii).

In Quinn’s own words

There is no other way to explain how hard Quinn went after these men than to just list a few of the well more than a hundred pokes he made against LDS writers, especially those aligning themselves with FARMS. Hopefully this gives the person reading this review a flavor of Quinn’s rebuttal to his critics:

  • Referring to Stephen E. Robinson’s denial of Quinn’s assertion that Smith was connected to the occult, Quinn wrote, “I have no respect for the statement of one reviewer who claimed he had read this chapter (6, “Mormon Scriptures, Magic World View, Rural New York”) carefully….This is simply polemical defensiveness: he refuses to acknowledge the existence of evidence he is afraid others will accept” (p. 234).
  • Again referring to Robinson’s critique, Quinn gave a slight compliment before offering additional unkind words about the BYU professor. “This was the only evidence that he might be a sincere apologist struggling for a perspective he could regard as faithful. If that had been his approach throughout the review, I could regard him with compassion. However, throughout the rest of his review, Robinson showed himself as a mean-spirited polemicist eager to use any insult, distortion, mislabeling, deletion, false analogy, semantic trick, and logical fallacy to defend officially approved LDS history. Within that context the quoted paragraph appears as simply a vulnerable-sounding weapon from the arsenal of an unrelenting polemicist” (p. 403).
  • Quinn uses no less than three full pages of his endnotes (pp. 407-410) to ridicule a parallel Robinson made to make light of a point Quinn made in the first edition of his book. Quinn concluded his diatribe with this slam: “False analogy should have no role in any discourse, particularly by a professor of the New Testament.”
  • Referring to Smith’s promise of blessing to a Kirtland Mormon in 1835 who was attempting to find buried treasure, “LDS apologists like Richard L. Anderson dismiss such promises as ‘poetic elements’ or ‘spiritual metaphor.’ This is an example of ‘present-mindedness’ or the ‘presentist bias’ which ignores the historical context and meaning of experiences in the past, and instead superimposes the perspective of the present” (p. 260).
  • Criticizing FARMS writers for doing a “computer search” that he felt was incomplete and truly dishonest, Quinn lashed out, “(William J.) Hamblin, (Daniel C.) Peterson, and (George L.) Mitton presented only those findings which supported their effort to disassociate magic practices and beliefs from Joseph Smith and early LDS publications. If their key-word search did not actually include ‘amulet,’ ‘charm,’ and ‘talisman’ at some point, this oversight occurred because these FARMS authors did not want to find those terms in early LDS publications. If those terms were included, these FARMS authors deceived their readers…. These FARMS authors also claimed there was allegedly no evidence that Joseph Smith even knew about talismans or magic parchments, and allegedly no evidence that Mormonism’s founding prophet would ever look favorably on such occult artifacts. It would not be helpful for the FARMS agenda to alert readers to the founding prophet’s use of this amulet-talisman-parchment reference in Times and Seasons” (p. 271).
  • Criticizing William J. Hamblin, Quinn writes with a humorous edge on page 351: “Hamblin and I obviously see faith and its defense in very different ways, both as historians and as believers. According to his published comments about me, Hamblin thinks that my commitment to historical analysis has subverted my LDS faith. Having read many of his writings, I think Hamblin’s commitment as a ‘defender’ has subverted his historical training. Polemicism has also warped Hamblin’s judgment of what is religious. In his polemical review of Metcalfe’s book, Hamblin constructed his essay to be published with a repetitive left-margin acrostic (‘Metcalfe is butthead’). The FARMS editor discovered this while the article was in press and required Hamblin to change the acrostics, some of which he still left in recognizable form. As ‘a defender of the Kingdom of God,’ Hamblin tried to deceive a religious journal into publishing the kind of graffiti that teenagers scrawl on the walls of public restrooms…. This is another example of how polemics warps the judgment of its LDS practitioners” (p. 352).
  • Referred to FARMS Louis Midgley as “a polemicist without scruples, willing to say anything to attack whomever he regards as an opponent” (p. 401).
  • Referring to the idea of chiasmus being found in the Book of Mormon, Quinn stated, “As I told (FARMS) John W. Welch in a 1995 letter, I have always admired and praised his discovery of the ancient poetic technique of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. However, I believe that he has done a disservice to all Mormon believers by his decades of misrepresenting America’s pre-1830 knowledge of this biblical parallelism. As stated in my text discussion, Hugh Nibley’s misstatements in 1975 occurred because of his lack of access to information that was not yet published or not easily available to him. This was not the case with John W. Welch, whose publication for the LDS audience since 1969, in my opinion, have manifested an escalating, intentional concealments of pre-1830 American publications about chiasmus” (p. 504).
  • Showing that FARMS writers too often shoot off their guns without properly aiming, Quinn writes, “However, (FARMS) John Gee…ridiculed a non-LDS Egyptologist for writing that Michael Chandler sold Egyptian artifacts ‘to members of the Church of Latter-day Saints’ in 1835. Gee insisted: ‘The name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is [thus] given inaccurately.’ That demonstrates Gee’s ignorance of the fact that ‘Church of Latter Day Saints’ was its official name from 1834-1838” (pp. 531-532).


In the first part of this review, I asked, “Is Quinn’s book worthy to be read?” My answer is quite simple. Yes it is. Every interested Mormon and Christian should read it in conjunction with other excellent books on Smith, including Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History and David Persuitte’s Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon. No matter what your opinion of Quinn is—whether he offends you because he was excommunicated by the Mormon Church, that he is an avowed homosexual, or that he writes historical books that are not what you might call “faith promoting”—he is not a slouch.

As mentioned in this review, I disagree with several of his views. For instance, I don’t agree that the Bible encourages necromancy, magic, dealing with occultic materials, and the like. But when it comes to the facts about how Smith himself was involved in magic, Quinn’s historical points are well documented and leave little to debate. I appreciate that Quinn seems to be very honest, wanting to know just what the facts are all about. To do any different is to be a revisionist, and that is just not honest, as Quinn makes this a big point in his criticism of Mormon apologists, especially those who work at LDS-controlled FARMS. I give the book a 5-star recommendation, as long as the reader promises to read carefully, slowly, and with a critical mind.

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