Reassessing: D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View

By May 14, 2011

D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Revised and Enlarged Edition. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1998.

In reassessing Quinn’s classic study, I’ll simply say that Stephen Ricks’s and Daniel Peterson’s review of the first edition still applies to the second. The book “reflects deep erudition” and “offers considerable evidence indicating that Joseph Smith, members of his family, and some of his early associates were involved in the use of seer stones, divining rods, amulets, and parchments, as well as in the search for buried treasure.” In other words, Quinn effectively argues his chief assertions.

The book has its quirks though, as Ricks and Peterson point out. Quinn chases down a number of rabbit holes that don’t yield much: the occult similarities of Book of Mormon names, Willard Chase’s and Benjamin Saunder’s toad-like creature, and tracing familial connections gets rather tedious. More substantial is Ricks’s and Peterson critique of Quinn’s use of the term magic. “The assumptions of Quinn’s definition are, to a large extent, the assumptions of normative Protestant Christianity, influenced by Enlightenment rationalism. But are these the optimal presuppositions to use in a work of this type? We think not.”

I’ve made similar arguments around here about “magic” as a problematic term but I want to focus on what I consider to be really great about Magic World View. To explain my enthusiasm for Magic World View, let me explain my approach to scholarship in general. I tend to like most of the things I read and I tend to divide scholarly work into two categories: useful to me and not useful to me. If works are useful, I’m pleased, and, if not, I sort of ignore it. Magic World View is tremendously useful to me. Furthermore, since I consider magic to be a bogus category, the things Quinn shows the Smiths were involved in don’t bother me. I think they’re pretty cool.

Things that particularly impress me include the work Quinn did to track down the sources and meaning of the Smiths’ lamens and rituals objects. This coupled with the work Quinn put into the context of Moroni’s visit really paints a cohesive picture, I would argue (and will at MHA). A lot of work and very helpful to me. Another is the tremendous energy Quinn expended on tracking down the availability of print in the Palmyra area. Quinn goes through all the newspapers to track the books sold and lent and which booksellers were going out of print. The list Quinn complies is impressive (and very helpful). Tracking down the libraries and their conditions of use is likewise impressive.

Owen Davies, the expert on English folk magic, made it a point to endorse Quinn his recent Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. I reviewed another book by Davies here. Davies seldom calls authors out by name, but in Grimoires, he did so with Quinn. “Quinn’s reconstruction of the popular magical beliefs of the social milieu in which the Smiths and their followers lived is convincing, and … it mirrors the continuance of similar magic traditions in the European countries from where the Smiths and their followers emigrated. While there is no evidence that the Smiths and their followers owned copies of Scot, Sibly, or Barrett, there is little doubt that the Smith parchments were used for overly magical protective purposes, and were derived primarily from Scot and Sibly” (149).

Davies then evaluates William Hamblin’s “lengthy, scholarly, and meticulous rebuttal.” “Hamblin makes some pertinent criticisms. Quinn certainly conflated cheap and easily available fortune-telling tracts and astrological works with grimoires and other scarce works of intellectual magic.” However “Hamblin overplays the scarcity of Scot’s Discovery as a possible source. For Hamblin it ‘is the least likely that Joseph would have obtained’. In fact it is the most likely.” Ultimately, argues Davies “Quinn’s thesis 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” (150-51).

Thus, I see Magic World View as a triumph, with the caveat from Ricks and Peterson, “It seems to us that other, less value-laden terms, such as ‘religion,’ ‘popular religion,’ and even ‘folk religion,’ might be used with more profit, objectivity, and, ultimately, less misunderstanding.'”

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Reassessing the Classics


  1. Agreed.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 14, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  2. My recollection from reading MWV first edition when it first came out was thinking that the astrology chapter struck me as by far the weakest in the book. When I read it I already accepted Smith involvement in folk magic, and I appreciated Quinn chasing down so many rabbit holes. But I didn’t find his astrology chapter persuasive at all.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 15, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  3. Thanks for this, Steve.

    I have to admit: the thing that struck me most today about this is that Peterson’s and Rick’s review of Quinn had such a positive tone! :)

    Comment by Ben — May 15, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  4. Ben, me too. It’s nice to see this type of straight up substantive critique. Perhaps the venue for Peterson’s & Rick’s review had something to do with that.

    Comment by Randy B. — May 15, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

  5. Thanks for this. I appreciate all you are doing with this area. And I categorize it as ‘useful to me’ in my scheme of things!

    Comment by SteveP — May 15, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

  6. What’s more interesting is how Quinn introduced a whole series of what might be called occult – hermetic studies into the academy. I have books on 19th century mesmerism among classic writers like Poe where the author explicitly mentions Quinn as the main influence. There was even a journal for a while (I don’t know if it is still active) in this whole vein.

    My problem with Quinn is that despite being part of the New Mormon History he honestly has his strongest parallel in Nibley with all the flaws that attend that methodology. He’s less that NMH pioneer in this book than he is a throwback to the classic structuralists like Eliadi, Campbell, and even Jung. But that methodology, I think you’d agree, was very dated by the mid 70’s let along when the second edition of the work emerged (which arguably amplified these characteristics rather than tempered them)

    Comment by Clark — May 15, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

  7. I couldn’t agree more Steve. Nice thoughts.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 16, 2011 @ 7:14 am

  8. Thanks for the review/reassessment, Steve. Great stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — May 16, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  9. Thanks all. Yes, I did think that Ricks and Peterson’s review was very good.

    Kevin, Quinn’s astrology stuff gets a little tedious but I think it merits more consideration. At points it comes across listing so many astrologically auspicious days that it would be hard to miss. I do wonder if some sort of statistical analysis could be put together to test whether JS did in fact chose to do major acts on astrological days at a disproportionate rate. Chris Smith should give that a shot.

    Astrology was so integral to how rural pre-modern people thought that it would surprise me if it didn’t influence JS.

    Also, when Quinn argues that early Mormons dissembled on astrology, it’s important to note that ambivalence toward astrology had been the norm throughout the history of Christianity. In some ways it was seen as good science and good religion but in other ways not and what was legitimate and what wasn’t was always debated. So the astrological stuff that Quinn found is worth noting, but I think needs more analysis.

    Clark, I’m not sure I would characterize Quinn that way. He is very meticulous about noting similarities in sources at hand. This isn’t the same as the diachronic work that Eliade would do. I can understand why scholars who work on these topics would be so laudatory toward Quinn; these folk practices are difficult to trace and it’s rare for scholars to engage these topics so tenaciously.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 16, 2011 @ 10:18 am

  10. Thanks Steve – I came to the use of the word magic via Keith Thomas and also generally see Quinn’s work in the “useful to me” category. Looking forwward to your MHA presentation.

    Comment by Kris — May 16, 2011 @ 10:39 am

  11. It’s true he’s not doing an diachronic analysis as such. But where the similarities pop up is the structuralist annoying tendency to divorce parallels from their context.

    Comment by Clark — May 16, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  12. I think he does the opposite, Clark. Magic World View is very much an attempt to place Mormonism in its historical context.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 16, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  13. Great write-up, Steve. I think I need to go and reread it as it has been a long time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 16, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  14. (For some reason my posts keep ending up in the Spam filter)

    Got to disagree. The problem is that the parallels he finds are divorced from their historic context. If I have time I’ll go nab my copy and give some of his more egregious examples. There’s no really presenting of a historic context to put Mormonism within.

    Now had he done that I think it would have been a good book. Because despite my criticisms of the book as it stands I actually agree with a lot of his thesis. I’ve just been crossing my fingers someone would come along and do it more rigorously and in a better way.

    The second edition was, if anything, worse than the first. (Particularly the Kabbalist passages which seemed more a grudge match against Hamblin and are examples of where a more diachronic analysis pops up at times)

    Comment by Clark — May 16, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  15. I am glad for this positive press, which may make me give the book a third chance. My memory of the book is of an idiosyncratic but mostly reliable bibliography of folk-religion-in-the-esoteric-vein among early Mormons. I liked it when I first read it, then found it profoundly lacking in interpretive scope when I returned to it a few years later with a broader background in American religious history (and somewhat less interest in the Mormon historiographic moment in which it arose). I’m grateful for people willing to spend so much time in rabbit holes (never quite sure whether the hallucinogenic element of a Lewis Carroll allusion is fully intended), though. I’m hopeful, Steve, that you can write something that takes advantage of these bibliographical excavations and makes of this book/topic something synthetically illuminating. I suspect that the receding polemicization of these topics will make it easier to be unfettered by devotional (and anti-devotional) claims when trying to get at the underlying questions of what these cultural phenomena meant (and mean).
    I agree with Kevin that the astrology section felt weakest not least because it fails to appreciate the instability of that designation for this period.

    Comment by smb — May 16, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

  16. Right, Sam, this isn’t an interpretive work. It is what it is. I just reread Alan Taylors treasure digging articles and there’s quite a difference. Quinn’s thesis is pretty straightforward: the Smiths were doing Magic. Still I find Quinn’s efforts to reconstruct the kinds of sources and ideas that swirled in JS’s early environment really impressive. It significantly reduces my time in the rabbit holes (I’m not sure that metaphor is working but Ann Taves said something like “we don’t want you to be chasing down every one of these rabbit holes” after reading one of my prospectus drafts.)

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 16, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

  17. I think Taylor is a good foil here. The one thing I would say is that the book is only mostly reliable, so you may need to double-check certain sources carefully, particularly if you rely on them for a major point. You may still need to drop a periscope down the proverbial rabbit hole even if you don’t have to spelunk your way into it. On the basis of your positive review, though, I promise to re-read Quinn’s book in the prep work on my book on the Art of Translation. Do you recall, other than scrubbing the Hoffmann forgeries and going simian-crazy over the FARMS response in the footnotes, are there major differences between first and second editions?

    Comment by smb — May 16, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  18. I haven’t read the first one. I think Clark read both.

    I do intend to check Quinn’s sources, it’s just helpful that he went through all this material and thus suggests all sorts of good leads.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 16, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

  19. SMB, I don’t have a copy of the first edition although I did read it years ago. It’s much more fleshed out in the second edition although he unfortunately didn’t address the categorical issues folks have mentioned here before. (i.e. ambiguity and perhaps equivocation over the meaning of magic)

    The section on Kabbalah is new and is partially in response to response about the Sunstone article “Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection.” William Hamblin had written a FARMS review that was scathing. However I’m pretty convinced it was also in response to a discussion of that paper at the old Morm-Ant mailing list back in the mid-90’s. There quite a few of us argued that Owen’s paper was horrible but that there were stronger arguments one could made. Interestingly a few of those arguments ended up in Quinn’s second edition although I can’t recall if he mentioned it in the book. I suspect some of the rancor might have arisen out of those discussions although Quinn never participated although Hamblin did. (Hamblin was actually open, as I recall, to allowing for the basic content but just noted the arguments were bad) I used to have a copy of the entire discussion although I may have lost it in a hard drive crash a few years back. (I need to search my backups)

    As I said I’m actually very, very sympathetic to the thesis. Joe Swick (who was also involved in the discussion) was raising quite a few Masonic influences and was working on a book that he later abandoned that probably would have been much better than what Quinn produced. He abandoned it because of the other Masonry book which I think has now been largely abandoned as well unfortunately.

    I keep hoping a good book on all this will come out. There’s a lot promising out there but little has been systemized.

    Comment by Clark — May 16, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

  20. I read both back in the day but only have a paper copy of 2d edition. I’ll add it to my rereading list.

    Comment by smb — May 16, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

  21. “It seems to us that other, less value-laden terms, such as ‘religion,’ ‘popular religion,’ and even ‘folk religion,’ might be used with more profit”

    Probably not.

    I asked a publisher about a work my new-convert wife is crafting at the LA Times‘s Festival of Books held on USC’s campus last month. He pointedly told me that there is a much bigger market for anti-Mormon books than for books supporting the Church. In this light, “magic” likely was used with more profit than would have come with the other terms suggested.

    Comment by manaen — May 17, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

  22. Sorry you keep getting caught in the filter Clark. Quinn’s discussion of sources on the Kabbalah in JS’s environment is particularly helpful to me.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 17, 2011 @ 3:58 pm


Recent Comments

Tona H on History and Presence, Chapter: “I was also struck by Orsi's observations about the curricular material that Catholic teaching sisters had students produce (or color, or learn, or modify). It…”

Tona H on The Dance of Discourse: “I think part of Laurel's gift for that is being so at ease with herself that she just IS herself, no matter where she is,…”

kevinf on Restriction-ism Unveiled!: “Keith, thanks for sharing and answering questions. It helps to have a better understanding about the restriction process. I will just say that when I…”

wvs on The Dance of Discourse: “Joseph, Laurel Ulrich's writing, in particular, shows a remarkable ease in dealing with both worlds. I have doubts about whether it can be learned. But…”

WVS on CfP: 2017 Joseph Smith: “Looks like fun, David. JSP work is really underused as a scholarly tool I think.”

Ben S on The Dance of Discourse: “Excellent post and questions, to which I don't have terribly useful answers. This kind of thing happens all the time at Claremont, even in coursework.…”