Reassessing: The Refiner?s Fire: the making of Mormon cosmology, 1644-1844

By February 25, 2011

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[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.

[4] 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).

[5] 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.

[6] Consider Brooke?s comments in Mormonism in American Historiography, side B.

[7] Walker, ?The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,? BYU Studies 24, no. 4 (fall 1984): 441.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews British Isles Reassessing the Classics


  1. This is fantastic stuff. Thanks to Matt, Steve, and Mark.

    Regarding both Matt’s and Steve’s first points, I remember Bushman’s Library of Congress lecture praising Brooke (which is ironic given his many criticisms of the book) for placing JS on a “transnational” setting.

    Regarding your second point, Matt, I completely agree about the need for an Atlantic framework and the necessity to engage British influence, as I outlined here. Though I focused primarily on how such a shift would help highlight the Mormon concept of divine kingdoms, I think you are spot-on in that it is also needed in other aspects as well.

    I am mostly interested in Brooke’s (somewhat dated) usage of intellectual history, and the ever-driving question of “influence” in early Mormon thought. I’d say more here, but I am saving it for a conference paper this summer.

    Comment by Ben — February 25, 2011 @ 8:18 am

  2. Excellent. Thanks to Matt, Steve, and Mark for putting this together and/or participating. I was surprised at how much I liked Brooke when I recently re-read it for comps.

    I think the Atlantic setting is crucial here, as ideas and practices transmitted from Europe to the Americas that made their way into JS’s theology and cosmology were then transported back across the Atlantic in their newly-Mormonized form and, as you indicate, found an eager audience not only in Britain, but also (a little later) in Scandinavia, Germany, and elsewhere on the continent. There’s been a veritable explosion of scholarship on German pietism since the publication of The Refiner’s Fire, and I think Mormon scholars would do well to familiarize themselves with it. It seems to me like exciting opportunities for research might be found in exploring the religious backgrounds of those European converts, and in the interaction of their beliefs and the Mormonism they encountered in the 1840s and 50s.

    Comment by Christopher — February 25, 2011 @ 8:40 am

  3. I agree that Refiner’s Fire is a great book despite its problems. As most great books, it is a worthy and a lively opponent/interlocutor as one makes important arguments about what early Mormonism was. I argue with Brooke a fair bit in the Early Mormon Conquest of Death book and think that the engagement of Brooke forced me to make my arguments better. I also see my future project on translation as needing to enter the conversation with and about Brooke.

    I haven’t heard much yet about Brooke’s latest book, which looks to be good from the catalog copy.

    Comment by smb — February 25, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  4. Great insights. I especially appreciated Mark’s telling of the reception history, particularly debates about the bible as source. In other words, identifying sources is only part of the story, and does not necessarily serve as an explanation for the particular appropriation of those sources.

    Comment by aquinas — February 25, 2011 @ 11:36 am

  5. I’m of two minds about the book. It was much tighter than Quinn. I appreciated that. But it had some eye rolling parts such as the whole hermetic counterfeiting part.

    Comment by Clark — February 25, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

  6. To add I’m not sure simply saying Joseph read the Bible through hermetic eyes is enough given that many of the hermetic readings weren’t that out of place in more mainstream thought.

    Comment by Clark — February 25, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  7. Thanks for this post. Frankly, I thought that the initial response to Brooke’s book was far too defensive. I liked the book. I think that many of its arguments were strained and some of its conclusions were just plain wrong. On the other hand, I think that his basic approach was correct. FWIW, I had Brooke’s work explicitly in mind when I tried to place Mormon courts in a broader, Atlantic religious tradition — although I tend to think that radical protestantism is probably a better place to start than John Dee — in my BYU Law Review article on civil disputes in Mormon ecclesiastical fora.

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 25, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  8. I found the book fascinating – it was my first introduction to the radical reformation.

    I was less interested in his convoluted transmission of esoterica as in his idea of a prepared people – from the weirdness of the English Civil War to the seekers in the eastern seaboard in America – it was obvious how things could sound strangely familiar to Mormon converts.

    Comment by cadams — February 25, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  9. I think I probably need to reread this volume. I appreciate the commenters emphasis on the Atlantic context for Mormonism. My interest in that may post-date JS a little bit, however. Some of the most interesting magic-like Mormon healing practices I have come across have either been among pre-emigration British Mormons or British converts living in Utah.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 26, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

  10. I find the whole idea of making Mormon theology revolve around “magic” rather than divine intervention ridiculous in the extreme.

    “Magic” is characterized first and foremost by the idea that individuals can summon or command supernatural powers based on accidents of composition, numbering, or language, as opposed to moral considerations such as right and wrong.

    In other words, the magical world view has a defective notion of divine power. The Alma 41 / D&C 121 view is that divine / priesthood power is contingent on righteousness, that it requires spiritual assent to exist at all.

    You can find all sorts of strange artifacts of the magical view of the world here and there to be sure, but as the basis for Mormon theology it is unmitigated nonsense.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 26, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

  11. That’s an old and highly contested view of magic because it arbitrarily favors a definition of “morality” that derives largely from a Christian worldview. Many traditions that practice “magic” thus defined would view many things, such as the correct performance of ritual, as moral that don’t fit into the Judeo-Christian model of morality. The older definition basically works to marginalize non-Western monotheisms and define them as non-religious by virtue of clever wordplay.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 26, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  12. The older definition basically works to marginalize non-Western monotheisms and define them as non-religious by virtue of clever wordplay.

    Not at all, and especially not in the cases of non-Western monotheisms. Monotheisms of all sorts are practically defined by having a divine establishment of normative morality. In other words, not magical powers competing with each other based on some sort of will to power alone.

    For at least five thousand years now, religion (even most polytheistic religions) has been distinguishable from “magic” by emphasizing moral considerations, not power considerations.

    This distinction is so heavily embedded into nearly every culture that to use the term “magic” to refer to all religious belief in the supernatural is to distort the term beyond recognition. Sound discussion is promoted by making careful distinctions, which the traditional definition preserves, not by destroying them.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 26, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  13. For at least five thousand years now, religion (even most polytheistic religions) has been distinguishable from ?magic? by emphasizing moral considerations, not power considerations.

    That simply isn’t the case, but I have a feeling that I’m not going to convince you.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 26, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  14. Great post Matt, thanks for including me. Mark has been one who has engaged Brooke constructively (and thanks for the shout out), Sam has also.

    Christopher, I am aware of the importance of German pietism in this whole milieu, but need to know a lot more about it. Any recommendations? (I still need to get to that book on the Moravians you recommended).

    Mark D…. yeah Taysom’s right. I’ve written a few posts about this if you’re interested.

    Also the title of the paper I’m giving at MHA is ?’The Welfare of Our Souls’: The Smiths? Folk Rites and the False Dichotomy between Religion and Magic”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 26, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  15. Mark D, I’m afraid I agree with Taysom on this, even though I’m not entirely converted to the academic consensus on the issue of magic. The model you describe is mostly a way Protestants used to put indigenous religions down. By and large ‘magic’ is a synonym for subversive or forbidden when used by believers or critics. It’s probably better to talk through specific subversions than to argue that Western esotericism (the current academic term for the conceptual system formerly known as occult/magic) has nothing to do with the theology of early Mormonism. Calling Smith a “magician” is mostly snide and unilluminating, but rejecting the possibility that he was commenting on or reforming or translating elements of Western esotericism is probably also unilluminating.

    Comment by smb — February 26, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  16. smb / Taysom, I think you are wildly misreading my model. Whatever the academic convention is, it is nothing like the dictionary definition either. Here are a couple:

    the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature (Random House unabridged)

    the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces (Merriam Webster)

    The key qualifier in the first definition is “human control”. Divine intervention is the exact opposite. Little or nothing in Mormon theology revolves around “human control” of supernatural power. The priesthood is conceived in terms of delegation (and a rather conditional delegation at that), not control.

    The key part of the second definition is “charms or spells”. Has anyone in Mormonism ever taught that “charms” and “spells” have supernatural power over natural forces?

    Now you say that this is nothing other than a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of magic. I claim that it is nothing of the kind. My claim is that “magic” refers to human control of supernatural powers, as opposed to divine exercise of supernatural powers.

    If someone falls off a cliff and survives by what many consider to be divine intervention, does anyone suggest that a magician must have been present? If someone gives a blessing of healing, is there any suggestion that God had nothing to do with it, that it was simply a matter of the correct incantation?

    The other defining characteristic of “magic” is supernatural power that is independent of moral considerations, i.e. that can be used for both good and evil purposes. If someone casts a spell over stock market traders to manipulate the market, that is “magic”. If God answers a prayer by inspiring a group of people to rush to the scene of an accident, that is not – not on the part of the petitioner at any rate.

    I suggest then that what we call “magic” involves two aspects (1) human control and (2) moral independence. Divine action has never been considered magic, because the human control element is entirely missing. The human control element is what makes magic “magic”, across all cultures and conditions. Otherwise it is just the gods doing this or that, which is par for the course in nearly every religion.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 26, 2011 @ 6:08 pm

  17. Mark D., reading up on the some of the things I posted, particularly the two books, will show you how these categories break down.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 26, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

  18. But Steve, he quoted the dictionary. How can the monographs you suggested ever compete with that?

    Comment by Christopher — February 26, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

  19. Mark, your comment, “whatever the academic convention is, it is nothing like the dictionary definition,” is telling here. Looking at the wider scene, one of the things smb/t have been trying to get across to you is that a definition like that privileges western epistemologies–doesn’t matter if it’s in the dictionary. Generally speaking, what smb/t are talking about predated and shaped later dictionary definitions and “common sense” notions of what these things mean in a way that is fundamentally problematic.

    Plus, why all the hyperbole? “Ridiculous in the extreme,” “unmitigated nonsense,” “wildly misreading.” Just be aware that each of these statements might be read back into what you’ve written here.

    Comment by Jared T — February 26, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

  20. Jared T, The normative sense of any term in English is based on common usage. You seem to be telling me that “magic” is a technical term that doesn’t have anything to do with usage other than within a narrow academic circle.

    If some academic subspecialty wants to define ordinary English language terms in contravention to common usage, that is fine. In this case, however, it is the highway to misunderstanding.

    From now on, every lay English speaker will simply need to know that when Quinn and others speak of the “magic world view” they are not actually talking about magic as virtually anyone anywhere understands the term.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 26, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  21. Actually, Mark, this isn’t an entirely one way road. While academics do need to be careful to define their terms (and most dealing with “religion” and “magic” in any unique way are generally careful to do so), it is also the responsibility of the reader (academic or otherwise) to familiarize herself with the ways in which the author is defining those terms. So to critique Quinn, Brooke, Steve Taysom, or Steve Fleming for defining magic in a way disagreeable or unfamiliar to you because the dictionary contradicts what they say is as absurd as demanding they only use definitions common to the populace at large.

    Comment by Christopher — February 26, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

  22. As for hyperbole goes, I just think that it would be difficult to make a more misleading characterization of religion in general than to reduce every prayer, petition, ceremony, and ritual to an attempt to exercise “human control” of supernatural powers. And in particular using some sort of mystical means that is equally available to those seeking to do both good and evil.

    For example: If someone sacrifices his child on an altar seeking to please some god or another, that is merely an attempt to persuade, often for some hoped for benefit – a a benefit or curse not at the discretion of the offeror, but rather at the discretion of the offered to.

    But if someone sacrifices his child on an altar in the belief that the life force of the child will emanate from the pyre into his own soul, giving him greater power to command the elements for any private purpose, that is what most people consider “magic” – human control of supernatural powers, and in a way that is insensitive to moral purpose, like some sort of technology.

    I know of very few religious traditions that reduce prayer to a form of technology. Prayer is based upon appeal to higher powers, generally morally sensitive ones, not deploying some supernatural technology for private ends.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 26, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

  23. Yup, what Chris said.

    Comment by Jared T — February 26, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

  24. Mark, you lost me at, “I just think…”

    Comment by Jared T — February 26, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

  25. Christopher, generally speaking, to avoid confusion, specialties either pick terms that are not common to the language at large, or they use terms in a precise manner that is at least coherent with the use of terms in the language at large.

    I have read Quinn’s book before, and I don’t recall him bothering to define the term “magic” to include everything spiritual or divine. Maybe someone does somewhere, and if I was more widely read I would have picked that up.

    One of my problems is that it seems to me that “spiritual” and “divine” are more than adequate terms to describe the supernatural in nearly all religious traditions. I don’t understand why anyone would pick the term magic unless he was going out of his way to classify every religious practice with the most irrational superstition – to purposely inflame and offend.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 26, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

  26. Maybe … if I was more widely read I would have picked that up.

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what Taysom, Fleming, et all have been telling you this whole time.

    Comment by Christopher — February 26, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

  27. Mark D., to clarify what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that Mormonism is or was magical. I’m saying that magic is a bogus category and that scholars ought to figure out betters terms to use (while understanding that it’s difficult to get away from using the term). Quinn highlights the problem. Throughout the book he operates with a binary definition: “traditional Christianity” and “magic.” Reading the book, it becomes pretty clear that by “traditional Christianity” he means Protestantism (which isn’t traditional at all) and my “magic” he means “anything that Protestant ministers think is magic.” This is a problem because it privileges a particular theological confession; ie Protestants are right, everybody else is wrong. In fairness to Quinn, these were the assumptions that pretty much all scholars operated under that the time, he wasn’t the only one doing it. The book is very helpful, but these categories were problematic. At the end of the day, I think it’s best to try to figure out ways not to use the term.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 26, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  28. Steve F, I agree there is a problem with the way Quinn uses the term, but broadening the scope of a nearly universally pejorative term doesn’t seem like the way to solve it.

    I am skeptical that many religious traditions consider priests and spiritual leaders to be ubermen who can command supernatural powers without divine assent. Who would want such a terror in his locality in the first place?

    Comment by Mark D. — February 27, 2011 @ 2:18 am

  29. Mark, I think what it comes down to is that you don’t like the use of the term, you can’t fathom its use, you find it universally pejorative, etc. OK already, we got the point.

    Obviously it’s a term that others feel differently about, that despite its flaws it has some descriptive value within certain academic circles (which you, admittedly, have not engaged). Obviously other faithful Christians can use the word without reacting in such a visceral way. With some, like Steve, even expressing a preference for different terminology.

    It’s also clear that no matter what anybody says, that you’re just gonna cross your arms and shake your head, and continue to repeat yourself and say that you don’t like it and you don’t understand why anyone would use it. OK already.

    Maybe you have something constructive to say about the OP?

    Comment by Jared T — February 27, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

  30. I agree with taysom that quinn is severely dated in large part because he appears to employ the worldview Mark D is endorsing. Mark, I think you’re entering a discussion of secondary literature by offering primary literature. It’s not at all uncommon to stagger into a scholarly cabal and feel entirely misunderstood as a participant in the phenomena that the scholars study. The point of scholarship in these circumstances is often to bring particular modes of thinking into conversation with others.

    I think most of us would agree that in a heavily Protestant (+American Enlightenment) influenced cultural setting, the word magic is held to mean something like theurgy (making God obey a human) by many participants, particularly those most allied with the Protestant worldview. Most of us think, though, that what this misses is more interesting and important than what it purports to explain.

    A word of friendly caution to LDS interested in pursuing the course laid out by Mark D, though. If one adopts this worldview, it will be difficult to end up anywhere other than “magic” to describe earliest Mormonism because that’s how Protestants/American Enlightenment tend to describe earliest Mormonism (an attitude exemplified in Quinn’s book). (I will grant that contemporaries used “enthusiasm” as a similar but ultimately distinct category of ideological transgression in explaining Mormons.)

    Comment by smb — February 27, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  31. Sorry for the digression.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 27, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  32. If I may ask, how is hostility to theurgy a particularly Protestant/American Enlightenment phenomenon? Hasn’t Judeo-Christianity been hostile to theurgy for a very long time?

    “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, and so forth?

    Comment by Mark D. — February 27, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

  33. It all makes my head spin (in a non-demonic-possession way, I mean). My favorite sentence in this entire post or comments was by Mark Ashurst-McGee when he said of Joseph Smith, “He knew nothing of the high-browed philosophies of the hermeticists.”

    I just think we are on safer ground to keep things simple, and not try to rise to high-blown theories to cover it all. My impression is that in studying almost any cultural background element to Mormonism, the roots are close and fairly elementary, even if we can never find them all.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 27, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

  34. Mark, no. Judaism often has embraced theurgy. Thus the place of Kabbalism within Orthodox Judaism. Within Christianity it’s a bit more complex. There always has been a tension there. Platonism was, until the rise of Aristotle within Christianity, a strong force. But theurgy is a bit part of Platonism in late antiquity. How this manifest itself within Christianity was sometimes object to and sometimes not. Once you hit the era of the reformation (or earlier with the Renaissance) things get even trickier. The strand of Protestantism which others have noted has been privileged within American culture tended to look very askance at theurgy.

    But that’s rather the point of a lot of these books. There are these strains from both the Renaissance and Reformation which were present but simply repressed by certain strains of Protestantism that were dominant int he power base. Joseph Smith can be seen as manifesting these more marginalized social traditions.

    Now I think Quinn and Brooks unfortunately didn’t do that great a job on explaining all this. But the thesis itself is a pretty strong one I think. I keep hoping for a master tome that does a good job on the subject. Instead (and this is by no means a bad thing) we’re getting more narrow papers and books that are starting to address this.

    Steve, I think you’re being too kind to Quinn by merely having him a part of this Protestant view. I think the biggest problem of his book is that the basic conception isn’t even considered so he ends up with inconsistent uses and no real paradigm to be able to ground his thesis. Certainly it’s often merely what Protestants don’t like. But he’s just all over the map. Brooke does a much better job although I just wished he’d considered more alternative explanations. Both end up with parallels out of control in a Nibleyesque fashion.

    PS – sorry for any typoes – I’m writing without my contacts on.

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2011 @ 1:44 am

  35. Clark, theurgy seems to be used in such a broad sense that it encompasses a lot of relatively benign activities. Many examples seem to be little more than esoteric forms of prayer and meditation.

    The cases of witchcraft so unusual as to motivate capital punishment surely were something more controversial than petitioning various benevolent spirits, were they not? To take a more modern example, the people put to death on accusations of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials were accused of far more than that – contracting with the devil, muttering spells, tormenting the innocent, and so on.

    I don’t doubt the prevalence of all this, by the way, I am just not convinced that most of what that Quinn documents (for example) is in any way central to Mormon theology. The more esoteric doctrines in the Bible, on the other hand, seem universally present.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 28, 2011 @ 2:56 am

  36. Mark, your comments suggests serious misunderstanding about theurgy. Interestingly, here’s the abstract I submitted for the MHA paper I mentioned:

    The Smiths? folk practices have attracted considerable attention from scholars, though Lucy Smith?s statement that the Smiths ?went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac drawing Magic circles or sooth saying ? but while we worked with our hands we endeavored to remember the service of & welfare of our souls? is seen as particularly curious. Scholars often speak of the Smiths combining religion and magic. Yet anthropologists have long argued against the use of magic as a scholarly category and recent research on European folk practices has begun to explore its religious nature. The Smiths? folk practices thus provide ideal grounds for such research, which will help to illuminate the nature of the Smiths? religiosity. I will use such scholarship to argue that the Smiths? folk rites constituted the practice of theurgy, or the performance of rituals for the purpose of coming into the presence of the divine. And theurgy, I will argue, was a central purpose in Joseph Smith?s religiosity.

    I should have added that theurgy also involves “divinization” or the acquiring of godly attributes. Theurgy has often been called magic but it is not a euphemism for magic; it refers to specific kinds of rituals for particular ends.

    Theurgy gets accused of “manipulating the gods” but that is not the right definition. Iamblichus defended theurgy against that charge asserting that the purpose of it was to become one with the gods and to illuminate oneself.

    Mark D., there is an awful lot written on these topics and I would be glad to clarify or suggest further reading.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 28, 2011 @ 10:09 am

  37. Steve F, thanks for the explanation.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 28, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  38. FWIW, I think there are salvageable uses of the term “magic” in a non-pejorative sense. Some practices are more manipulative/coercive than propitiatory–much less submissive. The important thing is the concrete comparison. With all the degrees and shades and problems, even Steve has used the term “love magic” (e.g., potions). The ultimate submission to God in Islam shows that Protestantism is part of this spectrum, not a pole. I don’t think Mark D. is totally off here, though for the most part I consider the term so problematic that I avoid it. Quinn uses not only “magic” but he calls rod divining “rhabdomancy” and he calls dreaming “oneiromancy”. These funcion as distancing terms that don’t help us understand the way early Mormons understood them–as spiritual gifts. In my thesis, I tried to use “divination” to get away from magic/religion. But of course this term has problems of its own–as do “religion” (some debates on this recently that I find goofy) and “secularism” and most important words. So let’s not be so hard on each other.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — February 28, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

  39. Next morning and now I can see. Wow. Lots of typos. Just one correction.

    “theurgy is a bit part of Platonism in late antiquity”

    That should read, “theurgy is a big part of Platonism in late antiquity.”

    Mark, I’m not sure appealing to witchcraft trials as evidence is worth much. I think most of that can be explained by in-group and out-group dynamics as well as ways of settling grudges or even looking for scapegoats for various community stresses. I think theology is probably one of the least strong influences in practice.

    As for theurgy being broad – that’s rather the point isn’t it? These are broad phenomena and are often the victims of irrational persecution by one group of an other.

    Steve noted a good view of theurgy in late antiquity. I’d note that even in modern Mormonism there’s still a common view of “binding God to promises” ala D&C 82:10. I’ve had many encounters with Protestants who attack this precisely on the grounds we’ve been discussing. In Kabbalism the view is that man’s actions can affect the heavenly world. Indeed this is one of the big facets of Kabbalism. The reason Protestants usually viewed all of these as evil magic is because they emphasized the immutability of God in absolute terms. (Culminating arguably in Calvinism) Mormonism tends to take a view of God where he’s involved in real relationships and thus from a Protestant view much of our theology can be viewed in that opposition Steven mentioned.

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  40. Mark Ashurst-McGee, I think that’s important to note. We should also note that many of these movements – especially the influence of the Reinassance “hermeticism” as it moved to Germaic and English areas not to mention its place in France self-described as magic quite often. Some of that was due to the rise of a pagan revivalism against Catholicism and Christianity. (i.e. Bruno) Some of it was due to the nature of the texts being described. And some of it was due to syncretic religious traditions throughout Europe. (Recall that Catholic missionaries often let people adopt a lot of their existing religion and mix it with Christianity)

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

  41. Thanks Mark AM. My apologies to all if I was rude or condescending. I know this is a bit of a threadjack but I see this magic talk as useful to the paper I’ll be giving at MHA. So thanks for your input everyone.

    Mark AM, Clark hits on why I argue that the supplicative/manipulative divide breaks down: Calvinists could push the category very far (moral behavior and even prayer some Calvinists said were attempts to manipulate God rather than submitting to His will). The point is that the division between the two is murky and different practitioners put the line in different places. Mormons were certainly disagree with many Protestants and Mormons would disagree with each other. Ultimately, it’s a theological construct.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 28, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

  42. BTW – for a division that’s not wrapped up in the whole Protestant issue I think making an opposition between technology vs. persuasion is ideal. That’s how I typically discuss it. A lot of magic was more technological whereas some was more persuasive and uncertain. But that technological aspect is quite interesting although it encompasses more than what often is labeled as magic. (Think sympathetic relations from a Platonic worldview in the Renaissance)

    While there were some quasi-technological aspects to early Mormonism those fell by the wayside fairly quickly. Certainly by Nauvoo there wasn’t much of that. Even quasi-technological aids like the seer stone tended to disappear in Joseph’s use. (Although they persisted in Mormon culture for a while) One could even dispute whether things like seer stones or divination rods (rod of Aaron) were in practice viewed technologically. Even within the Book of Mormon a technological device like the Liahonah worked according to faith and appeared more a communication device than a real piece of technology. And that’s pretty early within Mormonism.

    Comment by Clark — March 1, 2011 @ 1:07 am

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  44. Clark, regarding “quasi-technological aids,” I think, again, that healing is a fruitful place to look. E.g., consecrated oil was viewed as therapeutic well into the twentieth century.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 1, 2011 @ 10:01 am

  45. Good point, J Stapley. It remains a popular folk healing tradition especially when mixed with various essential oils. As you might tell from the other thread I’m a very big skeptic about a lot of this alternative medicine stuff. But some stuff actually does work, although I suspect for more mundane chemical reasons. For instance I largely switched to using peppermint oil for stomach queasiness. And truth be told olive oil (whether consecrated or not) does seem to work at least as well as a lot of expensive stuff you buy at various stores for healing dry skin and the like. (Ditto for for treating leather in the car or couch) I’ve also found baking soda works as well if not better than a lot of commercial cleansers. So it’s not all bunk.

    There’s definitely some overlap between what might be called alternative medicine which is technological versus what is religious and magical. Of course that then raises yet a different issue over what is folk science versus what is folk magic. That’s not always an easy division to make. Arguably more difficult than the religion vs. magic distinction.

    Comment by Clark — March 1, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  46. BTW – rereading your comment J. Stapley. For some reason I keep thinking of a Mormon vampire story where consecrated oil is used to defeat them rather than holy water. LOL.

    Comment by Clark — March 2, 2011 @ 3:07 pm


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