Prospectus 3.3: Sources

By October 28, 2011

Here I basically place the work of Quinn, Brooke, and Owens within the context of Christian Platonism that I described in my earlier posts (3.1 and 3.2).  It’s not an in-depth discussion of the sources, but more of an overview.

Sources and Data: The data that suggests that Smith had contact with Neoplatonism comes primarily from three studies:  D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987), John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire (1994), and Lance Owens’s “Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah: The Occult Connection” (1994).[1]  Yet these studies labeled the Neoplatonic tenets “magic,” Hermetic, or “occult,” and thus need to be reinterpreted in the context of Neoplatonism.  Quinn’s Magic World View surfaces the most extensive evidence.  Problems with the term “magic” as a scholarly category are evident in Quinn’s work, but the scope of Quinn’s research was tremendous and suggests many of the ways in which Neoplatonic ideas could have gotten to Joseph Smith.

Quinn documented the Smiths’ involvement in various folk rites, including ritual treasure digging, Smith’s use of a seer stone, and other folk rituals.  Most significantly, he surfaced three manuscripts with various diagrams that are owned by the descendants of Joseph Smith’s brother Hyrum (the family kept a number of artifacts).  Quinn’s extensive research showed that the diagrams were taken from grimoires of Reginald Scot and Ebenezer Sibley for the purposes of what is often called “ritual magic.”[2]  Quinn argued that the Smiths’ likely had what he calls “occult mentors” to teach them such practices.  One such was Lumen Walter, who claimed to have come from a well-off family that sent him to Europe to study.[3]  As I elaborate below, the purposed of these “lamens” were in line with Neoplatonic theurgy (conjuring angels and protection from harm) and the books from which the diagrams were copied use the term theurgy.[4]

Critics of Quinn charged that these grimoires were rare and expensive and that the Smiths’ were unlikely to have owned them.  Owen Davies’s weighed in on the issue in his study of the history of grimoires.  Davies concurred with Quinn that the diagrams on the Smith’s lamens derived from Scot and Sibly, which Davies referred to as “hefty compilations of early modern Neoplatonist wisdom.”  Though Davies agreed that the Smiths were not likely to have owned the books, “Quinn’s thesis,” he asserted, “does not stand or fall on the basis that Smith owned copies of Scot and Sibly, since extracts from all three were to be found in the manuscript grimoires and charms kept by some English cunning-folk and in those sold by the London occult dealer John Denly.  It is quite likely that some of those found their way to America where they were copied once again.”  Thus the Smiths’ lamens and ritual practices can be considered part of what Davies describes as the “democratization of high magic.”[5]

Most impressive was Quinn’s exhaustive study of print texts in Joseph Smith’s environment.  Quinn not only examined the content listings of the libraries in Smith’s vicinity but he also went through the local newspapers for advertisements of books sold in the area.  He compiled a massive list of books available in the area. One book store in Bloomfield claimed to have 12,000 to 14,000 volumes, which came to 3 books for each person in the area; heavy competition forced sellers to offer very cheap prices. A number of works for sale in Smith’s vicinity were influenced by Neoplatonic ideas, including works of Romantic poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, David Ramsey’s The Travels of Cyrus, and Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queen.[6]  Smith’s mother said that Joseph “was less inclined to the study of books than any childe we had but much more given to reflection and deep study.”[7]  However a neighbor wrote that as a youth, Smith was part of a debating club that met to “solve some portenous [sic] questions of moral or political ethics,” suggesting that Smith was engaged with the ideas circulating in his vicinity.[8]

Quinn also studied numerous belief systems and practices deemed occult including Swedenborgianism.  Mormonism had a number of parallels with the visions of Emmanuel Swedenborg including a three-tired heaven (also in Proclus), marriage in heaven (as in Plato’s Symposium), among others (discussed below).  An early Mormon convert who had an interest in Swedenborg asked Smith’s opinion of the visionary in 1839.  Smith replied, “Emmanuel Swedenborg had a view of the world to come, but for daily food he perished.”  Quinn found summaries of Swedenborg in Smith’s local library.[9]

Other occult practices that the Smiths believed, according to Quinn, were astrology and Freemasonry.  The idea that powers emanated from the heavens was central in Neoplatonism and explained in Proclus.[10]  Mormons noticed the similarities between Mormon temple rites and Freemasonry from the beginning.  Quinn noticed these as well but argued that the similarities were “superficial.”  Instead, Quinn argued that Smith’s temple ritual more closely resembled ancient mystery rites and found numerous descriptions of such rites in contemporary sources including in a book that Smith owned.[11]  Mystery rites were very important to the Neoplatonists: both Proclus and the Emperor Julian sought to be initiated into as many mysteries as they could and Proclus saw mystery rites as essential to assent.[12]  Thus Quinn’s research suggests several sources of Smith’s contact with Neoplatonism: theurgical rites suggested by the family lamens and Neoplatonic ideas available in numerous books for sale and on loan in Smith’s vicinity.

In 1994 Brook published his study, which relied heavily on Quinn.  Brooke proposed Hermeticism as an overarching theme and argued that the various “magic” and “occult” sources that Quinn noted were transmitters of Hermetic thought.  Yet Brooke went beyond Quinn’s paradigm, arguing that “Mormonism springs from the sectarian tradition of the Radical Reformation, in fact from its most extreme fringe.”[13]  Steven Ozment argues that early modern radicals were heavily influenced by late medieval mysticism, which was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism.[14]  Brooke tied Mormonism back to the radical sectarians of the English Civil War (Quakers, Baptists, Fifth Monarchist, Ranters, Diggers, Levelers), but also argued for similarities with German sectarians who settled in Pennsylvania.  Smith had direct contact with Quakers and Universalists (two groups that Brooke highlighted).  The Quakers had a meetinghouse in Palmyra and Smith’s earliest backer, Martin Harris, had a Quaker ancestry.[15]  Scholars have argued that the Quaker doctrine of the inner light is Neoplatonic; John Everarde, who promoted ideas similar to the Quakers just prior to their rise, translated Pseudo-Dionysius into English along with the works of early modern Neoplatonic mystics.[16]  Joseph Smith’s grandfather was a Universalist; Proclus taught universal salvation.[17]

Finally, Lance Owens, also in 1994, argued for the influence of Kabbalah, which has considerable similarities to Neoplatonism.[18]  Owens noted the many similarities between Mormonism and Kabbalah and argued for the influence of Alexander Niebaur on Smith.  Niebaur was a Prussian Jew, who converted to Christianity then moved to England, where he converted to Mormonism in 1839.  Neibaur emigrated to Nauvoo in 1841 and “immediately went to work for Joseph Smith.”  Neibaur showed his knowledge of Kabbalah in a two-piece article he wrote on transmigration of souls (a Neoplatonic and Kabbalistic idea) for the Mormon periodical in 1842, where he cited numerous Kabbalistic sources.  In 1844, the year Smith died, Neibaur spent time tutoring Smith in Hebrew and German.  Owens argued that Smith’s King Follett Discourse (at the funeral of King Follett, discussed below) was heavily influenced by Neibaur and Kabbalah.  In the speech, Smith referred to the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1, arguing that it should say that “the head God called forth the Gods” and told them to create, a reading in keeping with both the Kabbalah and Plato’s Timaeus.[19]

Yet Smith had suggested a number of these radical ideas prior to the arrival of Neibaur.  Richard Bushman agrees with Owens that Smith’s later doctrines show similarities to Kabbalah, “but these came on the scene a decade after Joseph’s revelations defined the endowment of power as an encounter with God.  We can scarcely imagine him steeping himself in Kabbalistic literature in Manchester and Harmony,” New York, where Smith started his church.[20]  In his second edition of Magic World View published in 1998, Quinn added a section on Kabbalah in which he identified lengthy descriptions of Kabbalah in histories of the Jews in print in Smith’s day.  John Allen’s Modern Judaism (first edition 1816, second 1830) had a thirty-page summary of the Kabbalah that had wording similar to some of Smith’s Neoplatonic-sounding revelations.[21]  Furthermore, theurgical practices, like the ones suggested by the Smith’s lamens, had long been influenced by Kabbalah.  Richard Kieckhefer argues that the Sworn Book of Honorius, a medieval theurgical text that claimed to create a vision of God, drew on Kabbalah because seeing God was a central purpose in Kabbalah but was a violation of orthodox Christianity.[22]  Early modern theurgist Cornelius Agrippa was also influenced by Kabbalah and made seeing God a central purpose.[23]  Smith’s revelations likewise made seeing God a priority.[24]  Although Smith never immersed himself in Kabbalah, certain aspects of the practice could have influenced him early on.

These studies unearthed the bulk of the evidence.  Additional evidence includes an early Mormon poem that speaks of Adam “emanating” from God similar to a line from John Allen’s summary of Kabbalah in his Modern Judaism (first edition 1816, second 1830) that spoke of “the first emanation of Deity, called Adam Kadmon.”[25]  The poem was likely written by one of Smith’s close associates, perhaps Sydney Rigdon. An adaptation of this poem was printed in the Mormon’s periodical in 1833 that changed the line to say that God “emanated man” rather than Adam.  The change was likely made by W. W. Phelps, the editor of the periodical.[26]  Rigdon and Phelps were both older and better educated than Smith so that this particular incident suggest the possibility of these and others of Smith followers being sources for Neoplatonic ideas.

This dissertation will also expand the discussion to include Joseph Smith’s political thought and utopianism.  Smith long sought to create the perfect society and espoused many ideas found in Plato that were espoused by contemporary utopians.  Thomas More’s Utopia was sold in Smith’s neighborhood and utopian Robert Owen proselytized and set up communities near Mormonism first headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio.[27]



[1] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1987).  Quinn published a revised an expanded edition in 1998; I quote from the later edition.  Lance S. Owens, “Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah: The Occult Connection”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought  27, no. 3 (1994): 117-94.

[2] Quinn, Magic World View, 104-5.

[3] Quinn, Magic World View, 117. Quinn proposed that the Smiths’ lamens were written either by Walters or Justus Winchell (another possible mentor) since they are not in the handwriting of any of the Smiths or other early Mormons (131).  Quinn also said that ritual numbers on the manuscripts came closest to matching the names of either Walters or Winchell, though they were not a perfect fit for either name (134).

[4] Reginald Scott, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, intro. by Hugh Ross Williamson (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), 385.

[5] Owen Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 149, 134, 152, 61.

[6] Quinn, Magic World View, 179-182, 186.   Quinn mentions these and other books to show that “high culture” books were for sale in the area.  For the Neoplatonism of the Romantic poets, Lucas Siorvances, Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 38; Proclus, The Elements of Theology, A Revised Test with Translation, Introduction and Commentary by E. R. Dodds, 2d ed.  (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), xxxiii. For Edmund Spencer, Proclus, Elements of Theology, xxxi.

[7] Quinn, Magic World View, 192.

[8] Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 37-38.

[9] Quinn, Magic World View, 217-18.

[10] Proclus, “On the Priestly Art According to the Greeks,” in Brian Copenhaver, “Hermes Trismegistus, Proclus, and the Question of a Philosophy of Magic in the Renaissance,” in Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Ingrid Merkel and Allen G. Debus (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988) 103-4.

[11] Quinn, Magic World View, 227-30.

[12] Robbert Van Den Berg, “’Becoming Like God’ According to Proclus’ Interpretations of the Timaeus, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the Chaldean Oracles,Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 46, no. 1 (2003): 190.  The emperor Julian also engaged in these practices.  Polymnia Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 37-41.

[13] Brooke, Refiner’s Fire, xv.

[14] Mysticism and Dissent: Religious Ideology and Social Protest in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven: Yale, 1973).

[15] See my work for links between Quakerism and Mormonism.  “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism,” Church History 79, no. 1 (2008): 73-104; “‘The Air, the Tone and Mannerisms of the Quakers’: The Quakers, the Protestant Ethic, and the Quaker Mormons,” Max Weber Studies 8, no. 1 (2008): 99-110; and “‘Congenial to Nearly Every Shade of Radicalism’: The Delaware Valley and the Success of Early Mormonism,” Religion and American Culture, 17, no. 1 (2007): 129-64.

[16] Lucas Siorvances, Proclus: Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 36; David R. Como, Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil Ward England (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004), 219-27.

[17] Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 17, 199; Dominc J. O’Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 109.

[18] Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 41.

[19] Owens, “Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah,” 117-94.

[20] Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 451-52.

[21] Quinn, Magic World View, 297, 301.

[22] Richard Kieckhefer, “The Devil’s Contemplatives: The Liber Iuratus, the Liber Visionum and Christian Appropriation of Jewish Occultism,” in Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic, ed. Clair Fanger (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 255.

[23] Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, trans. by James Freake, edited by Donald Tyson (Woodbury, Minn.: Llewellyn, 1993), xxiii, xxvii, 618, 699.

[24] One of Smith’s revelations declared, “Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am.” Doctrine and Covenants 93:1.

[25] Quinn, Magic World View, 305.

[26] “Songs of Zion,” Evening and Morning Star (May 1833), 96.

[27] Quinn, Magic World View, 181; Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2009), 37-43.

Article filed under Historiography


  1. I think the emanation theory was pretty common prior to the revelation that spirits are matter. (It’s in the Pratt’s “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter” although that’s about 6 years after Rigdon) It does parallel Kabbalism although I’m very skeptical it arises out of Kabbalism. I think it more in keeping with a generic neoPlatonism. (I find the Kabbalistic parallels fascinating but think people converge on them simply because they aren’t aware of the much broader platonic tradition that I think is the major source for Kabbalistic cosmology)

    The danger is of course that it’s easy to read too much into the use of terms like “emanate.” That’s the problem of appeal to a broad cultural influence rather than specific texts. The terms can be in the culture but be there without the content. (Witness horrible misuses of terms like entropy in our own culture)

    As I mentioned I find Lance Owen’s paper pretty bad. Not that I necessarily disagree with the content. (Nibley was making hay with Kabbalistic parallels long before Owens after all) Just that I’m pretty skeptical of the particular parallels he uses. For instance I don’t think there’s compelling evidence Niebaur knew much Kabbalism. Quinn’s arguments in his second edition actually appear to arise out of an extended discussion of Owen’s paper on the old Morm-Ant back in the mid-90’s. (I used to have a full transcript of the discussion that ranged over a few months – but I lost it in a dual hard drive crash a few years ago) I and a few others were able to find even better parallels than Owens but my view is that these are more coincidental.

    I find the Swedenborg parallels much more compelling. Especially relative to the Book of Mormon. (The famous “that same spirit that doth possess at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world” (Alma 32:32) is a very Swedenborg like passage. As you note though Swedenborg is himself heavily partaking of the philosophical currents of the time which can broadly be associated with platonism.

    Ultimately the basic ideas including the levels of heaven and degrees of matter are found in most forms of neoPlatonism. (And Joseph’s material spirits were very much in keeping with philosophical transitions from the end of the Renaissance) I find appeals to specific texts typically uncompelling with a few exceptions. However it seems to me that broadly these ideas were major contemporary ideas in western thought. They seem odd to us now simply because Platonism had largely fallen out of favor in western thought by the end of the 19th century.

    Comment by Clark — October 28, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  2. Steve, how much does your argument depend on the statement that “seeing God was a…violation of orthodox Christianity”? There were several ways to experience (sometimes described as sight) the divine (sometimes described as God) that fell within the realm of orthodoxy, or at least were not heretical. When you start writing, you may need to clarify the contrast you’re making.

    Comment by D. Martin — October 28, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

  3. Good points Clark. When it comes to particular texts, I need to be able to show that there are texts that say these things in JS’s environment, so these guys’ work is a useful beginning. I agree that Swedenborg is very important, I have more research I need to do there. Any other pointers you may have about possible influences are welcome.

    D. Martin. Good point, no doubt it’s more complicated than I’ve said here. The Eucharist was often a vision of Christ, for instance. There was orthodox uneasiness about seeing God, though. Augustine had this whole typology of visions where he placed actual sight at the bottom and most dubious; contemplation was the highest. Ultimately, something like the First Vision by some peasant would have gotten that peasant in a lot of trouble.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 28, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

  4. Steve, have you read Renaissance philosophers like Telesio? I’ve written about him off and on at times. Of course all the Renaissance thinkers are tending to react against scholastic philosophy which is primarily Aristotilean and the main “new” sources are various forms of Platonism along with Stoicism. Yet most still are closer to Aristotle than anyone despite the appearance of revolution. Telesio isn’t well known but he does a lot on material spirits but with a lot of neoPlatonic and Stoic influences. He’s also using a lot of medicine from late antiquity – primarily Galen.

    While these figures in some ways undermine some of the Platonic parallels I think they actually set the cultural basis for a lot of Platonism in the early 19th century much more than the more esoteric texts do. That’s not to discount the esoteric texts but I think the types of debates one finds in the late Renaissance continue on in the cultural climate until you have the rise of German idealism on the Continent and then of course the Cambridge Platonists in England and the Transcendentalists in America. (Each transfiguring Plato in unique ways)

    There are also some very interesting books on the relation between German Idealism and Swedenborg that I think are helpful to situate influences since often it was a broader intellectual climate arising more out of Kant and his devotees that then perfused their way into America.

    Once again none of this is to discount esoteric influences. And of course no one is accusing Joseph Smith of sitting around reading The Phenomenology of Spirit in his spare time from the original German. But one critique I had of Quinn and company is that they tended to privilege esoteric influences – primarily via culture rather than text – yet ignore the broader philosophical influences of idealism. We know, for instance, Emerson writing in the 1830’s was influenced by Hegel and broadly platonic philosophers along with the more original texts. Yet when looking at Joseph it seems like difficult to locate Kabbalism becomes influential than the broad cultural Kantian and Hegelian revolutions.

    Comment by Clark — October 29, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

  5. To add, that might be biting off more than you should for your dissertation. But I think idealism in general was a big issue from the rise of Kant through Hegel and that most definitely was in the air in America as we see with Emerson.

    Comment by Clark — October 29, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  6. Thanks Clark. Telesio sort of rings a bell.

    I read a bit on Emerson’s early thought and I think it went something like this. Harvard got some of Thomas Taylor’s translations of Plato in 1820 which Emerson could have read when he was there. Taylor was a Neoplatonist so the intro and notes to his translations would have that flavor. Emerson also read Cudworth but wasn’t reading full on Neoplatonic texts until the late 1830s. It was in the early 1840s when Alcott went to England to buy those texts and they became big devotees of Proclus at that point. But this all puts them behind JS whose revelations look Neolatonic starting in 1831. Do we know when Emerson started reading Kant and Hegel?

    That’s interesting about the Idealists and Swedenborg. My understanding is that Kant was one of Swedenborg’s biggest critics.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 29, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

  7. Steve: if you want more on the reception of idealism in New England, I’d humbly point you here.

    Comment by Ben Park — October 29, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  8. Emerson was heavily into Swedenborg as well as Jacob Boehme. I don’t know off the top of my head when Emerson got into Hegel. My impression was it was the 1830’s but it’s been a long time since I studied all this. It may well have been later even though even his early texts have a Hegelian tone to me. But I think that’s because of the sort of Platonism he picked up. My memory is that Emerson didn’t like systematic philosophy such as Hegel did so the influence would have been more indirect rather than direct although I’m pretty sure that he was reading him directly in his mature period.

    It’s important to realize that a lot of Hegel’s influence in America came not directly but indirectly through popular figures like Goethe. I think it wasn’t until the late 19th century he became more of a focus in formal American philosophy (by which time he was long out of fashion in Europe)

    It’s interesting though how many people end up moving in a Hegelian direction unintentionally though. (I think Peirce can be seen doing that and his Harvard lectures stunned people with how Hegelian they were in some ways)

    Kant was a big critic of Swedenborg. I actually meant to type Schelling in the above, not Kant. Although obviously Kantian idealism is important in all this.. I have a great book on this topic at home, Schelling and Swedenbor. It goes through the Kant angle too.

    Comment by Clark — October 29, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

  9. Wow Ben. I didn’t know you did your Masters on that. Cool.

    Comment by Clark — October 29, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

  10. Yes very cool Ben.

    Thanks Clark. Quinn lists some of Goethe’s works either on sale or at the library in JS’s vicinity.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 30, 2011 @ 8:29 pm


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