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.