Mormons and Alchemy

Guest blogger AdamS concludes his stint at BCC. See previous entries here, here, and here.

My interest in Alchemy began before I knew much about church history beyond the traditional treatments. I was just looking for a hobby subject to relax my mind from the rigors of my chemistry research, and I figured that at least alchemy would inform me about the history of my science. After very little exposure to alchemical literature, however, I felt inundated with Mormon/alchemical correspondences. There were mysterious illusions to a ‘Book M’ in the Fama Fraternitatis. There was a book in the written by Petrus Bonus called the New Pearl of Great Price, and on the inside cover of The Golden Age Restored, James 1:5 is written out word for word. The verse is also prominently displayed in The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians. These scattered items were coupled with what felt like were fundamental connections between the alchemical theories and my own understanding of Mormon thought.

You can imagine my excitement when I quite easily found Lance Owens’ paper: Joseph Smith: America’s Hermetic Prophet. I devoured Refiner’s Fire, by John L. Brooke, which was a fascinating description of early Mormon history seen through a hermetic lens. After the initial excitement wore off, however, I started to realize that the connections between early Mormons and alchemy were actually rather weak. While Brooke’s work was impressive, it relied too heavily on symbols and allusions that are much more simply ascribed to the Bible (Ockham strikes again). I think it is now well accepted that there simply isn’t justification for alchemy playing a direct causal role in the formation of the Mormon Church. That’s not to say there was no influence. The Rosicrucian society adopted a formalized type of spiritual alchemy that is proposed to have influenced the rise of freemasonry. Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View catalogues folk magic among the early saints that was strongly influenced by European hermeticism. Alchemical symbols and hermetic thought are part of our intellectual tradition and they will continue to be found in surprising and interesting places.

Despite the historical details, in my own mind I continue to draw connections and parallels between alchemy and Mormonism. I suppose it’s like many other members of the church who find similarities between Mormonism and whatever they are involved with in their life. The engineers will use the 2nd law of thermodynamics in their gospel formulations, and the physicists will invoke quantum theory in their own spiritual quests. I like alchemy for its complicated mixture of practical laboratory procedures and borderline crazy speculative theories. The alchemist dreams of the Philosophers Stone, but for now he works tirelessly to purify metals, synthesize compounds, and prepare medicines that will heal the body. Something about the alchemist’s quest feels Mormon to me. I’m proud of how our church mixes the practical matters of food storage, family life and service with complex descriptions of heavenly society, intelligences, celestial mechanics. It allows my mind to reach out while keeping me grounded in the importance of what happens now.

Comments

  1. Great post. Incidentally this notion of correspondences is fundamental to a variety of metaphysical traditions as well frankly as many mainline traditions.

    If nothing else, these similarities (I think the definitive treatment of mormonism and metaphysics has yet to be written) remind us of how central these issues are to many if not most humans. What does it mean to speak or to comprehend? Can we affect the world? Is the cosmos aware of us? What happens when we die?
    We shouldn’t be shocked to discover that many other people attempted solutions like ours, nor should we be shocked if our ancestors or leaders saw glimmers of truth in a variety of traditions.

  2. Great stuff. Thanks for a different perspective.

  3. I have had a lot of the same feelings as I have studied 3rd to 10th century liturgical history.

  4. Tell me, Adam, why do you think we love this Rosicrucian stuff so much? What is there in hermetic-lore that so fascinates? I remember standing in the main room of the masonic hall in London and just feeling giddy with excitement with all the symbolism.

  5. RonanJH,

    That’s a great question. My hunch is that it’s the mystery of it all. The idea that there is some secret knowledge out there known to only a few high intellects is very tantalizing. Not only that, but the knowledge they tease us with is one that brings direct and literal power over the elements.

    A fascinating novel that treats this subject directly is Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. It’s as engaging as the Da Vinci code, but much smarter and much more exciting.

  6. Jared Livingston says:

    very intriguing, i had no idea there were any connections. what do you do adam? have you applied your discoveries in the palpable world?

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