Mormonism and Magic

Abra, Kadabra, Alakazam!
My good friend Brandon Habermeyer has an interesting blog post on the relationship between Mormonism and magic. I actually agree with a lot of what Brandon has highlighted in his blog post. I am also pleased that this is a question that has been explored by numerous Mormon historians. I myself remember reading D. Michael Quinn's book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View for the first time when I was in high school.[1] At the time I thought Quinn had made a pretty impressive case that the very foundations of Mormonism rested on a "magical" worldview.


Then I read the highly critical reviews of my BYU professors William Hamblin and John Gee.[2] Hamblin and Gee heavily criticized Quinn for a number of faults, not the least of them being Quinn's apparently highly idiosyncratic use of the term "magic." This is something Gee especially latched onto, arguing that Quinn used "an anachronistic and misleading definition of the term magic that would allow him to equivocate in his use of the term."[3] This is no unimportant point, as how one defines the words "magic," "religion," "spirituality," "mysticism," etc., will, in large part, determine how one assigns meaning to these various practices. As a missionary I would roll my eyes whenever I would hear someone insist that they were "spiritual, but not religious," as if there was a meaningful distinction between the two adjectives. But now I realize that what I thought was an oxymoron was in the mind of many a New Englander an important distinction: being "religious" is bad, because being "religious" means putting on a stuffy suit and going through the motions at some boring church, but being "spiritual" is good, because being "spiritual" means being sensitive to something higher than us. What I'm getting at with this example is that it's important to make sure people are talking about the same thing when they use a certain vocabulary.

So where do I stand now on this question? Do I think a "magic world view" influenced early Mormonism? I actually am somewhere in the middle in all of this. I think Quinn has persuasively shown that Joseph and his family were certainly involved, at least to some degree, in popular 19th century "folk magic." I don't think there's much controversy on that point. I am not, however, entirely persuaded by Quinn that a "magic world view" dominated early Mormonism. I also think some of the examples Quinn brings up as evidence for his claims are a pretty big stretch. I think Hamblin and Gee are correct that Quinn is engaging in a (at times rather desperate) hunt for parallels ("parallelomania," as it's often called).

That being said, I think Mormon historians like Richard Bushman (whom Brandon actually quotes in his blog post), Brant Gardner, and Mark Ashurst-McGee are probably right that Joseph's early involvement with "magic" acted as a sort of preparatory phase to teach him to be receptive to the seemingly "magical" instruments God had prepared to be used in the translation of the Book of Mormon.[4] And why not? If God does indeed speak to his children "in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24), then what's so scandalous about God consecrating Joseph's youthful exploits in magic into genuine prophetic power?

But, says one, Joseph continued to use his "magical" seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon! Why would he do that if God had already prepared the Nephite interpreters for him to use in the translation? True enough, the historical evidence seems to indicate that Joseph continued to use his seer stone in the translations process. So what gives? To answer this, I turn to my friend Roger Nicholson and his explanation.

The use of the seer stone should be of no particular surprise or concern to any Latter-day Saint who accepts that Joseph received a set of sacred stones [the Nephite interpreters] that were consecrated for the purpose of receiving revelation and translation. After all, what precisely is the difference between using one seer stone versus another? One can assume that Joseph continued to use the Nephite interpreters, since they were the instrument that was consecrated specifically for the purpose of translation. However, it is entirely reasonable to assume that God could consecrate any other instrument that He wished to serve that purpose as well. [5] 

Ultimately, I am not so much concerned with what Joseph used (seer stone, Nephite interpreters, etc.) but whether what he accomplished was done by the gift and power of God. If Joseph was translating today, I am convinced that God would have prepared a special iPhone with celestial Google Translate on it for Joseph to use! That example is somewhat tongue in cheek, but the point should be obvious: it's not the "what" but the "how." Joseph translated, as he himself said, through the gift and power of God. Whatever physical instruments were used are, I believe, inconsequential. What matters is that God was behind it. If I may quote the words of Elder Jules Winnfield to his companion Elder Vincent Vega, "Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved." That is the miracle of the translation of the Book of Mormon. Not that Joseph used "magical" seer stones, but that God was involved. 

Does this all mean, then, that I believe in "magic"? Well, again, that depends on how you define the term. Do I believe in a God who interacts with his children and the world around us, and can therefore consecrate certain instruments, like rocks or staffs or arks of covenants, with divine, or "magical," properties? Do I wear "magic underwear," as many like to pejoratively call the temple garments? Do I pray to a deity with the expectation that this deity will in some way influence the world around me for my benefit? ("Heavenly Father, please bless that we can all travel home in safety after this meeting.") Yes. If that is what you mean by "magic" (i.e. belief in a "higher" or "divine" power), then I suppose I do believe in "magic." But the problem is that this is not what many people today think of when they think of "magic." Today "magic" has taken on an entirely new, popular meaning that usually is relegated to the realm of the purely fanciful. Think Harry Potter or The Elder Scrolls series.

I'll have you know that my adventures in Skyrim included me becoming the Arch-Mage of the College of Winterhold, thank you very much. 
So to say that I, or the early Mormons, believe(d) in "magic" becomes somewhat problematic, because what we may mean by "magic" may or may not reflect what others mean by the word "magic." As Samuel Brown has recently explained,

Were the early Mormons magicians? Was Joseph Smith the Wizard of Oz? Recent scholarship makes clear that framing the topic like this begs the question in the pedantic sense of the phrase: the question itself defines the answer. There is no real answer because it is not a question; it is an assertion. When Mormons rejected accusations of magical or occult ties, they were not dissembling. They were saying something very important and true. Framing Mormonism as magic wears a patina of science, but it invokes a troubled, methodologically flawed legacy.[6] 

As such, I would eschew using the word "magic" to describe what I believe, or what Joseph Smith was involved with in his production of the Book of Mormon. The meaning of the word has taken on an entirely new life that would, I believe, only conjure the wrong idea in the minds of modern people. I don't want people to associate the actually divine translation of the Book of Mormon with the antics of a fictional Harry Potter zipping around on a broomstick by lumping them together with the term "magic."

Atheists or sectarians may derisively use the term "magic" to score rhetorical points if they wish ("Oh, you're a theist? So you believe in a magical sky fairy?" or "Oh, you're a Mormon? So you believe that Joseph Smith used a magic rock to translate the Book of Mormon? LOL! #dumbMormon"), but I don't really care about that. Call it whatever you want. What I care about is whether there is a God who is not, as a Deist might imagine, sitting up in the clouds looking proudly over his vast creations while at the same time refusing to get his hands dirty in the affairs of mortality. What I care about is if God consecrated Joseph's "magical" seer stones to give him the divine ability to translate an ancient Nephite record. (Spoiler alert: I believe he did.) Call it "magic" if you wish, but just make sure you realize how you're using the term. 

And now, for my last trick, watch as with this blog post I make my credibility disappear!  

-Notes-

[1]: D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998).

[2]: John Gee, "An Obstacle to Deeper Understanding," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–393.

[3]: Gee, "An Obstacle to Deeper Understanding," 224, emphasis in original.

[4]: Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 48–52; Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 72–80, 184; Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 3–134; "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?" presented at the 2009 FAIR Conference, online here; Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," Master’s Thesis, Utah State University, 2000. See also Mark Ashurst-McGee, "Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 34–100; Larry E. Morris, “‘I Should Have an Eye Single to the Glory of God’: Joseph Smith’s Account of the Angel and the Plates,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 11–81; Kerry Muhlestein, “Seeking Divine Interaction: Joseph Smith’s Varying Searches for the Supernatural,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 77–91. Online here.

[5]: Roger Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 (2013): 187; online here.

[6]: Samuel M. Brown, "The Reluctant Metaphysicians," Mormon Studies Review 1 (2014): 130.

Comments

  1. As always Stevo, I’m impressed by how willing you are to always greet my questions and thoughts with well-reasoned, well-researched responses. Perhaps you can entertain me a bit further ☺ You raise an important point on the nature of semantics, how the meaning of how we use the term “magic” will lead us to see religion as legitimate and divine, or silly and Harry Potter-ish. One challenge I see for Latter-day Saints is how we are to overcome this semantic validation as what we do is legitimate religion, while what others do is magic (in the fictional sense). The reason I’m interested in this obstacle is, for example, largely due to your desire to distance Mormonism from, say, Harry Potter-like fiction, especially when many who lie outside our religious paradigm would see no difference between God consecrating a seer-stone for translation purposes, and God consecrating a broomstick for one to fly around on. To the outsider, both notions are perhaps entertaining but still nevertheless absurd. I guess all of this showcases how delicate the boundary is between the real and the unreal, the fiction from the fact. I guess if there are really sharp distinctions between these two categories of sense, then it must be largely based on how restrictive or open we are towards constructing a cosmology of what we believe is real. The question thus to solve is: What counts as real? (a question I seek to answer here: http://donamajicshow.tumblr.com/post/8660269488/fictional-facts

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    1. Brandon,

      Thanks for your comment. I guess you could say that is the main point of my post. To use a cliché, it is all about semantics. The reason why I am uncomfortable, as apparently Joseph Smith and the early Mormons later were, if Brown is correct, with continuing on using the term "magic" to describe what I believe is precisely because the meaning of the word has taken on a totally new meaning. Same with the word "cult." Even though it simply means "a religious system" or "to show devotion to a religious figure or belief" or something along those lines, I wouldn't comfortably use the word in every day speech precisely because of the unfortunately negative connotations the word now has.

      I agree that to the outside this notion of mine still seems absurd. I'm the first to admit that acceptance of Joseph Smith's claims requires a big leap of faith (a leap that many understandably aren't able to make). That being said, I would offer some of the evidences of the Book of Mormon's antiquity and historicity as evidence that Joseph's "magic" stone really was consecrated to perform a divine translation, and thus help alleviate, as it were, peoples' reluctance to make that leap.

      There's more I could elaborate on, but I think you can get the general gist of what I'm saying.

      Thanks again for your comment and interesting blog post.

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