It’s my opinion that the further we get from the publication of John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire, a wildly inventive examination of Mormon origins through the lens of various esoteric European -isms (including occultism, the quest for hidden and often mysterical knowledge; hermeticism, a particular brand of the occult supposedly derived from ancient Egypt and for Brooke basically a restorationist concept that sought to regain Adam’s access to God, and the non -ism alchemy, or the transformation of the mundane into the exalted) the more interesting a book it seems. Its flaws – most revolving around the difficulty of transplanting such quirky early modern concepts as these to frontier America, though Brooke gives it a go with the vehicle of Masonry – have been well documented; its strengths have been less well recognized by LDS historians, who have tended to find the book, frankly, weird. Thus, too many of the doorways Brooke opened have remained unused.
However, I think that time vindicates John Brooke; even if his particular conclusions should still be debated, important aspects of his methodology remain. I’ve invited two people with good reason to have informed opinions to offer there herewith.
The JI’s own Steve Fleming, whose dissertation will be perhaps the first major work to really engage with Brooke’s ideas:
Refiner’s Fire did several important things, the first of which was to push Mormon origins beyond Smith’s immediate environment into a more extensive past. Smith, Brooke argued, drew on coherent traditions, rather than simply throwing together a hodgepodge of ideas and practices born of the American frontier. Brooke’s task was an ambitious one, linking Mormonism back to radical sectarians and “hermeticists” of earlier centuries by attempting to show how such ideas found their way to Joseph Smith. This all proved to be challenging but Brooke pointed the way to further research. Such research, unfortunately has been limited likely due to the fact that most Americanists don’t operated in the broad scope that Brooke suggests and also because most Mormon scholars didn’t like the concept to begin with.
In terms of impact, all I can say is that Refiner’s Fire had a major impact on me and that my dissertation plans to be an expansion upon Brooke’s work. Thus I will argue that Brooke was right about the context he chose for Mormonism and that while the term “hermeticism” needs to be adjusted somewhat, it goes a long way in correctly locating Mormonism in the broader history of Christianity.
Mark Ashurst-McGee, author of an awesome thesis on Joseph Smith and folk magic, and editor of the Joseph Smith Papers Project:
I remember first seeing Refiner’s Fire on the way to MHA in Park City in May 1994. I drove up with my buddy Bryan Waterman, who was working at Sunstone and had a pre-publication copy. I read the abstract, with its claim: “This study presents the first extended analysis of Mormon theology to have been written against the backdrop of religion and popular culture in the early modern North Atlantic world, a context that permits the most coherent analysis of Mormon origins.” And I remember thinking to myself, “Who is this guy?”
I was fascinated with the topic and had read Quinn through twice by this time, so I eagerly waded in as soon as the book was published. I read with great interest, and found much of value. Like many others, however, I felt that his central thesis was simply incorrect. Moreover, I found many of his arguments strained beyond credulity. I felt his attempt to trace hermetic influence in Mormonism through the vehicle of speculative freemasonry was about as helpful as tracing the influence of Catholicism in Mormonism through the vehicle of Protestantism. Of course, Steve Fleming is currently doing just that, and in ways that I find promising.
John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire drew particularly heavy fire for its (mis)use of the Bible. Quinn’s main objection to The Refiner’s Fire was that many of the Hermetic parallels Brooke found in Mormonism and Hermeticism were more immediately available to Joseph Smith in the Bible. The same charge was leveled by Mormon sholars Philip L. Barlow, Davis Bitton, William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, and Catholic scholar Massimo Introvigne. Barlow termed this problem a “master defect” and chided Brooke for his “inadequate command of the Bible.” Hamblin, Peterson, and Mitton expressed their indecision as to whether they should charge Brooke with biblical illiteracy or conscious supression of Bible parallels.
I agreed generally with this and especially so in a few cases. But these reviewers hadn’t read the book quite as carefully as they could have. In fact, Brooke had explicitly addressed this very issue in a handful of cases scattered throughout the work. He argued that Hermeticism influenced the way in which Joseph Smith read the Bible. Several years earlier, in The Mormon Experience, Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton had noted early Mormon missionaries’ selective biblicism and the interests driving their selectivism. Even Philip Barlow, in his book Mormons and the Bible, emphasized the importance of early American biblicism as well as the sacred text itself. Notably, a review of The Refiner’s Fire by Grant Underwood—who has written on the need to study the ways in which early Mormons understood the Bible and LDS scriptures—did not critize Brooke on this particular point. Joseph’s use of the Bible differed markedly from that of the mainstream Christians in his day. They spoke little of the rods of Aaron and Moses, the Urim and Thummim, or the gift of prophecy. John L. Brooke had not entirely ignored the Bible as a source of doctrine, but had explored what a background in hermetic magic may have brought to reading it.
Although Joseph read the Bible through a magical lense, this lense wasn’t really hermetic nor was it any other strain of esoterica. To his reading of the Bible, Joseph brought his background in dowsing, scrying, treasure seeking, and other folk practices. He knew nothing of the high-browed philosophies of the hermeticists. Ronald W. Walker noted in 1986 that waterwitches and treasure dowsers identified their forked branches as the staffs of Moses and Aaron. This is the style of biblicism that influenced Joseph Smith’s study of the good book.
Massimo Intorvigne once described magic with an analogy to a three-story palace. On the top floor you have the court magi—the John Dee types steeped in numerology and high esoterica—on the ground floor you have the “low-brow” world of folk magic, and on the middle floor you have some people doing something in the middle. Smith was basically living on the ground floor.
Of course these three floors never existed in complete isolation one from another. There were stairways connecting them. Quinn tried to bring the more esoteric high-magic into Smith’s life via Luman Walters as an “occult mentor” (chapter 4). Here I will mention again the work that Steve Fleming is doing. He seems to be figuring some significant connections between the folk belief of ordinary people and elite magic. I think Fleming will be the one to put Brooke’s project through the refiner’s fire and get out some real gold.
Matt again. Both these guys are offering us useful takes on Brooke – what he did, what he didn’t do, and what is now possible because of him. I’d summarize his contributions as follows:
1) He took Mormon thought seriously, and gave it the respect of proposing a real, sustained, and extraordinarily convoluted intellectual pedigree. Mormonism’s no longer a cult, a religious expression of Jacksonian democracy, or a compensator for people who happened to be dirt poor in northeastern Ohio in the 1830s. It’s a bona fide intellectual tradition, with a profound and deep theology.
2) He’s among the first scholars to place Mormonism solidly in the context of the Atlantic world. It’s cliche to label Mormonism an – or perhaps, the – American religion. This is true in some ways and wildly oversimplified in others. The British shadow over early Mormonism, particularly, is terribly underrated: the British Isles produced a solid chunk of early Mormonism’s members, a fair proportion of its intellectual and ecclesiastical leadership throughout the nineteenth century, and served as the site of publication for a good number of the most important early Mormon tracts. And yet we act as though we don’t really need to know much about British religious history to understand Mormonism. Brooke’s a useful wakeup call here.
3) Finally, in the tradition of Carlo Ginzburg’s the Cheese and the Worms, the work of Natalie Zemon Davis, Brooke’s trying hard to get at what it was actually like to practice religion in the eighteenth and nineteenth century: real religion, the messy bricolage of our daily lives. Lived religion, practice, the blurred boundaries between superstition and faith are all things historians need to take more seriously.
 See Quinn’s comments in Mormonism in American Historiography: John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire and Competing Versions of Mormon Origins, audiocassette of presentations given by John L. Brooke, Clyde Forsburg, Bill Martin, and D. Michael Quinn, at Mormons as Americans, a symposium co-sponsored by the Sunstone Foundation and Boston Univerwsity’s American and New England Studies Program, Boston, November 1995 (Salt Lake City: Sunstone Foundation, 1995), 1995NE-4, side A.
 Philip L. Barlow, “Decoding Mormonism,” Christian Century, 17 January 1996, 52-55; Philip L. Barlow, “Decoding Mormonism,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 16 (1996): 123-31; Davis Bitton, BYU Studies 34, no. 4 (1994): 182-92; William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, “Mormon in the Fiery Furnace: Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge,” The Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 2 (1994): 3-58; William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, in BYU Studies 34, no. 4 (1994-95): 167-81; Massimo Introvigne, presentation given in a session of Mormons as Americans, a symposium co-sponsored by the Sunstone Foundation and Boston University’s American and New England Studies Program, Boston, November 1995; audiocasette recording in Mormonism and the Occult Connection (Salt Lake City: Sunstone Foundation, 1995),1995NE-3, side A. See also Jan Shipp’s introductory essay to The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831–1836, ed. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, BYU Studies; Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 3.
 Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire, 160-61, 197-98, 200, 205, 208, 212, 260. See also p. 133 on Asael Smith’s use of the Bible.
 Arrington and Bitton, The Mormon Experience, 30; Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
 Grant Underwood, “The Earliest Reference Guides to the Book of Mormon: Windows into the Past,” Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985): 69-89; Underwood, Review of The Refiner’s Fire, by Brooke, Pacific Historical Review 65, no. 2 (May 1996): 323-4.
 Consider Brooke’s comments in Mormonism in American Historiography, side B.
 Walker, “The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” BYU Studies 24, no. 4 (fall 1984): 441.