Joseph Smith as shaman?

In reviewing the new PBS documentary, “The Mormons,” the Boston Globe thinks most Mormons will choke on Yale archaeologist Michael Coe’s characterisation of Joseph Smith as a “shaman.”

Mayhap. It’s certainly better than “charlatan.” But I’m wondering, is “shaman” such a bad way to describe the Prophet? “Shaman” has many definitions, but here’s something quick and easy: “an intermediary between the natural and spiritual world, who travels between worlds in a state of trance.”

I imagine “intermediary” sits fairly well, but inter-world travel, “trance”? If that makes you uncomfortable, then consider these: could The Vision (D&C 76) be described as a trance? As for inter-world travel, do you think, had you been out walking the dog in the grove that day, you would have seen the Father and the Son too? In what way was Moroni actually in that shared bedroom all night long? In other words, it what way did Joseph’s visions occur in real time and space?

I agree, it’s a loose fit, but not utterly wacky. I wonder what Coe meant?


  1. It should be no surprise that some possible effects of Romney’s run will bring reproach to the our faith. But, I like to think that it may clear the air on a lot of down-right misconceptions as well. However, those battles will not play out in mainstream media; only in the homes whose interest has been peaked. I know of some investigators who peaked because of the mystic of our religion and not so much its dogma.

    In the end, I believe some people are willing to absolve our apparent “weird”ness to discover the source of our happiness.

  2. Coe has a history of not being particularly kind to the Mormons, as in his rather snitty review of Mormon archaeology some years back. Shaman was chosen to raise hackles, but if you’re willing to be nice to shamans, there are some shamanistic elements in what Smith did, although to characterize him as only a shaman is grossly unfair. And archaeology (particularly non-Biblical) continues to struggle, with anthropology, to understand its relevance today, so having an archaeologist comment scandalously on a modern faith can also be seen as a plea for archaeological legitimacy.

    Catherine Albanese has recently written about Smith as a metaphysician, and that seems a much more credible and less intentionally scandalous position, though even that has problems if it is pushed too far.

  3. Sam,

    I’m just not scandalized by “shaman” provided I get to define the term. As you say, I’m sure Coe’s “shaman” is less flattering.

    But still, I am interested in how Smith accessed the spiritual world. The comment about the grove and about Moroni was meant in all seriousness.

  4. And to be fair to Coe, Mormon archaeology may well deserve “snitty.”

  5. I thought even with the absurdity of Mormon archaeology his snittiness was a little over the top in that old Dialogue article (or was it JMH? memory fading).

    Now for a moment of atypical apologia: By Coe’s standards any modern prophet in the good old-fashioned Biblical sense would be a shaman. So Mormons could take this as a compliment.

    Re: the encounter, the vision vs. visitation debate is long-standing and complex. What is perhaps most interesting about it to me is the extent to which it seems not to have troubled Smith, who did not invest all that much energy in distinguishing the two.

  6. Mark IV says:

    I don’t know anything about Coe and therefore have no insight into what he might have meant. But I cannot imagine very many Mormons I know getting heartburn over JS being described as a shaman by an outsider. Many of us might even take it as a compliment.

  7. Mark,
    If he was being interviewed about the Book of Mormon, he probably used “shaman” in the sense of “mojo dude” as opposed to “gold-plates-possessing-divine-translator” on the one extreme and “country-bumpkin-fraudster” on the other. “Shaman” gives Joseph some credit as a “spiritual genius,” without having to believe in the reality of plates and angels.

    I like “shaman” in all its glory.

  8. Ronan, I suspect, in answering your question if someone was walking by when Joseph had the visitation, would that person had seen it too, I believe not.

    I think Joseph had to have underwent an inner transformation to be able to withstand, let alone behold the glory of the Father and the Son; an inner transformation only disposed to him, outsiders, notwithstanding their personal worthiness, would have only seen Joseph on bended knee, looking up, making his pleading before the Lord.

  9. Mark IV says:

    Ronan, exactly. When an outsider allows for the possibility that Smith might have had some good juju, we needn’t take offense at the particular word he might choose.

  10. Arrow, I suspect so too, but that idea is more radical than we perhaps imagine. It certainly has implications…

  11. Mark,
    So, is good juju better than no juju?

  12. Mark IV says:

    Ronan, you are correct. The spectrum runs from very bad juju (Korihor, Lilburn W. Boggs) through no juju (most of us) on up to very good juju (JS, Mother Teresa, my scoutmaster).

  13. David Brosnahan says:

    Shamans enter their “trance” by getting drunk or using other mind-altering substances. Joseph Smith prophecied in the name of Jesus Christ and by being overcome by the influence of the Holy Ghost.

  14. Well, I think some of that might be splitting hairs (or semantics). If an outsider, all snittiness aside, uses the word “Shaman” for JS, I can overlook the snittiness. There are far, far worse, less enlightened things he has been called.

  15. Then again, maybe that’s just the California-child-of-hippes coming out in me!

  16. jothegrill says:

    RE: 13 please be considerate about what you say concerning other people’s spiritual and cultural leaders… especially when you are trying to defend your own.

  17. is juju like mojo? haven’t heard of juju.

    For a quick reality check, imagine Coe or similar commentator describing Jesus as a shaman or John the Revelator or Paul or Popes or early church fathers (the Protestants get to hide behind sola scriptura and their public historical repudiation of mysticism). Certainly there are shamanistic elements in all of them, but how would Christians perceive this characterization of their founding lights?

    As I write this, it clearly depends on the tone, and we should wait to see what Coe actually said. If Coe provided some qualification or disclaimer, I have no complaint.

    I myself have been interested in mystical elements of Smith’s worldview. The key is not to overstate them and to provide conscientious contextualization. It’s easy to hide behind putative pseudo-scientific objectivity and pretend that blanket pronouncements are merely misinterpreted scholarly statements, but that strikes me as at least lazy and perhaps disingenous.

  18. Some of you may know that my full time job is as Director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium. MIT just hired me full time a few weeks back.

    About a year ago, I produced an OCW course for Utah State University called “The Anthropology of Religion” — offered by a semi-pioneer in Mormon Studies named Dr. Richley Crapo.

    In this course, he discusses all sorts of interesting things about religion generally, that very much apply to Mormonism specifically.

    For example, here is his mini-lecture on Shamans (PC version and Mac version).

    I also found his discussion of “Language, Belief and Religion” to be extremely profound in the Mormon context.

    It turns out that SOOO many of the conversations we hold on the Mormon internet are really re-treads of broader discussions that virtually ALL religions have had at one point or another. Some VERY interesting mini-lectures that illustrate this include: literalism vs. figurativism, diversity and uniformity, restricted and elaborated codes, taboos, sacred & written texts, etc.

    Turns out that Mormonism shares a great deal with religion in general (something I’m sure all of you know much better than I).

    So for me, shaman is a perfectly appropriate term. Parts of us may want to really differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack (a totally natural inclination), and there are genuine differences, I’ll acknowledge. But in my mind and heart, there is much more that unites us than divides us (as these mini-lectures demonstrate).

    Great post, Ronan!!!

  19. Not sure why the PC link above breaks, but here it is to be copied and pasted. It’s a much better resolution than the Mac version: mms://

  20. MIT just hired me full time a few weeks back.

    Congratulations, John.

  21. Last Lemming says:

    “Shaman” was an ingenious choice of words. As you have all proven, it need not be an insult. But I suspect Coe is aware that to the unwashed masses (at least those who are familar with the term at all) it’s just the politically correct term for “witch doctor.” He will get his chorus of outrage, and be well armed with a “who ,me?” defense.

  22. (Apropos the PBS documentary: someone please DVR this and find a way for it to be watched on my TV in Vienna!)

  23. Thanks, Ronan! It’s kinda fun.

  24. I read Coe’s article and was pretty unimpressed. The guy clearly doesn’t like Mormons and believes a PBS documentary will dome Romney’s career. Yawn.

    As far as the word “shaman,” it doesn’t really bother me. Broadly speaking, I consider it a synonym to “prophet.” It’s an odd thing to latch onto as something that might embarass Mormons or derail Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

  25. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    Jess Groesbeck gave a presentation on Joseph Smith as a Shaman at Sunstone a few years back (Salamander days).

  26. I pretty much agree with Sam. Was Joseph any more a shaman than Moses with his burning bush and serpent on a stick? The thing is that Joseph was deeply Christian, even though he started out on his divinatory path as a village seer.

    RE: whether or not you would see the Father and the Son if you would have happened on the site of the first vision. In the July 1908 Improvement Era there is a lengthy discussion on why the first vision was simply a vision. In all fairness, this was put out by the Seventies quorum (having just adopting that magazine as their official organ). Obviously, that perspective waned in later years.

  27. Correction: I meant Alex Beam’s article.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    I’m with you, Ronan: “shaman” sounds just fine so long as I get to say what a shaman is. And Stapley is right, too — how was Moses any less shamanistic?

    And Joseph had all kinds of good juju. And mojo. But they were definitely used for separate purposes.

  29. Stapley,

    The traditional dichotomy is between “visitation” (heavenly figures standing before you in your space and time) and “vision” (waking dream). But when a shaman converses with someone across the worlds, it need not be either of these, but something else entirely…

    (E.g., Moroni was, in a very real sense, in Joseph’s bedroom, but was he in it enough that had one of the Smith family stirred, he would have seen Joseph and Moroni. That’s what I’m driving it, although I don’t quite know how to describe it.)

  30. Yeah, congrats John! I love the OpenCourseWare project.

    “And Joseph had all kinds of good juju. And mojo. But they were definitely used for separate purposes.”

    His juju was used primarily as projectiles to throw at his enemies in movie theaters.

  31. Steve Evans says:

    HP, are you saying Joseph Smith could do a hadouken?

  32. In Mesoamerican studies the term ‘shaman’ has come under severe criticism for its lack of a clear definition and the tendency to apply it to a wide variety of ritual specialists (in 2002 Cecilia Klein et al hammered this point in with “The Role of Shamanism in Mesoamerican Art: a Reassessment”), so most of us have tried to excercise more caution recently in using the term.

    As for Coe’s usage, I have no doube that he meant it as an insult, but I actually like the concept. I took a class on shamanism at UCLA and one thing that stuck with me was the way the call comes to shamans. Typically, someone finds themselves on their deathbeds because of an illness (whether physical or mental or whatever), during which time their spirits essentially travel to the otherworld and receive some kind of instruction or power, and if they recover, it is a sign that they are to become shamans. I’ve often thought of Alma the Younger’s experience as a shamanic call, or any of the other characters in the Book of Mormon who fall down as if dead only to have increased power after the fact. Perhaps Joseph’s shamanic call came earlier than we thought, when his leg brought him nigh unto death.

  33. Mark W., that is a fascinating insight. Kris and I have recently been going over some of those accounts in comparison on early 19th century charismatic manifestation. But this adds a wonderful new dimension to the accounts.

  34. Mark W.- Or Perhaps there was more to the darkness that weighed upon Joseph just prior to the first vision than we know. Interesting speculation…

  35. This is what the seerstones were for, right – to induce a state of trance conducive to visions? Scrying is an old, old technique, and if it wasn’t seerstones, it might well have been a pool of water or an animal liver. Seerstone or crystal ball; it’s the same process, whether done by early modern European magicians or native American shamans. I’ve got a friend who is convinced that Joseph learned how to do it from local Indians and their stone gorgets.

  36. Matt B., I think there is a tremendous amount of evidence that Joseph was raised with seeric expectations and training. Ashurst-McGee’s thesis is, I think, the best work in this matter. I know it was your friends perspective, but while several of Joseph’s seer stones were gorgets, he didn’t get those until Nauvoo (though David Whitmer’s was a gorget, if I remember correctly). I don’t believe that the local indians used gorgets as seer stones.

  37. Does anyone know of any credible, modern-day seers or scryers (in the traditional sense)? LDS or otherwise?

    Do we have any evidence (even anecdotal) that Gordon B. Hinckley or previous LDS prophets used any of these methods?

    I’m sure ya’ll have covered this before, but I really do wish that some of these practices of the early church (tongues, scrying, etc.) existed today with legitimacy.

    It seems like it might really help folks make better sense of it all (not prove it’s all true…mind you…just make more sense).

  38. P.S. I’d also be very interested in some type of BCC poll to determine what percentage of BCC readers consider scrying, glass looking and peep-stone seership as viable means for divine inspiration (vs.most likely fraudulent). For those who believe (as I mentioned above), I’d be very curious to know if they’ve had any first or even second-hand experience in the craft.

    This aspect of Mormonism is genuinely fascinating to me–and I’m totally open to exploration/learning more.

  39. To every season, John.

  40. “to every season…” be instant. He He

  41. Whitmer’s was indeed a gorget.

    “I don’t believe that the local indians used gorgets as seer stones.”

    Mike’s paper (which he presented at MHA a couple of years ago) disputes this, actually – I’ll see if he has anything to say about it and forward him the thread if so.

  42. As I recall, gorgets are Indian grave relics. I don’t recall good evidence that gorgets proper figured as objects of seeing in the culture which produced them (which I think was Woodland rather than 19th century, so it’s mostly archaeological speculation anyway).

    Credible scryers doesn’t make a lot of sense in current culture. Scrying is incredible by its nature in our cultural context.

    I think one problem with your vision, John Dehlin, is that there are contemporary metaphysicians, but they are generally philosophically so far from Mormonism that Mormonism would be uncomfortable acknowledging them. New Age and Age of Aquarius used crystals for channeling energy, healing spirits, and revelation, and I think the modern version of this would best be represented by these heirs of the metaphysical religion. I do know one Mormon who has some seer stones, and though their magics have made him reconsider his disaffection from the church, he does not use them. He fears their power.

    Incidentally, Albanese’s work, while quite long, is readable and gives a good broad introduction to metaphysical religion (I should have a review out in the next couple months).

    Mark W, astral wandering (new name for old idea) has been around for ages. In fact, there is some evidence (Segal in his Life After Death for Anchor Bible Library revisits it) that these astral wanderings were used as some of the first evidence (in classical Greek thought) for a soul that existed separate from the animated body.

    As far as Indian teachers for JSJ, the best story is a legend among late twentieth-century Native Americans that the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake gave Smith the ideas for the Book of Mormon and his early revelations (Taylor’s PhD dissertation lays out all the data, as sparse as it is).

  43. #37 John,
    I bet you dollars to donuts that that number depends entirely upon which country the saint hails from. We have a very anti-folk magic culture. This is definitely not so in the rest of the world.

  44. It turns out that SOOO many of the conversations we hold on the Mormon internet are really re-treads of broader discussions that virtually ALL religions have had at one point or another.

    Very well said.
    I don’t have a problem with shaman. It seems to fit on some levels, at least.

  45. This has been a great discussion. Thanks for posting it.

  46. Brad Kramer says:

    I had the great fortune of cultivating a personal friendship with Hugh Nibley during the last years of his life. I had several conversations that I will never forget, some of which I am reluctant to discuss. I should preface the following with a disclaimer that it is total hearsay, but during one of our conversations about his grandfather, Charles W. Nibley, brother Nibley told me about a conversation they had several decades ago. Charles, then a member of the first presidency, described a discussion he had recently with the other fp members in which they all had differing opinions. The topic was the First Vision. One fp member believed that it was an actual visitation — both personages were physically present in Joseph’s physical environs. One member believed that Joseph was conscious and had a vision/visitation in real time and real space, but that what he saw was only a representation of an otherworldly reality — something like a divine apparition or a holographic representation of real, heavenly beings (which, presumably, would have been seen by passers-by). One member thought Joseph was semi-conscious or in an altered state of consciousness, had a vision/dream — something basically like the description of the D&C 76 revelation (the camera would not have captured this). Nibley told me that his grandfather never informed him which fp member took which position or whether they ever came to a consensus on the question, only that they hadn’t that day and that, between the three of them, there were three very different opinions, and no ill will or contentiousness between them.

    Again, take it for what it’s worth. But I assure you, he did tell me this story.

  47. Here’s what Mike wrote me:

    As far as the seerstone/gorget connection – I do believe JS did get the knowledge via the Native Americans although I don’t think it was first hand. I think it came down through several generations and that JS was one of the last to understand their original use. I still stand by my theory that the gorgets were in fact used for scrying. I was in Independence last year and Ron Romig let me see what the CofC believe to be the egg-shaped, chocolate-colored stone. It was a Native American slate pendant – a contemporary of the gorget. If their identification is correct then Smith was using Native American slate artifacts in the pre-Mormon days. The stone was scratched up a bit. This coupled with the fact that it was thrown in a darkened hat, leads me to think he was not scrying in the traditional sense, but rather creating sensory deprivation which led to “ganzfeld effect” hallucinations. Like much of his world, his form of seership was a conflation of various practices. I know several trance mediums in Mexico through my work with the Fidencista spirit possession movement. They use any number of means to go into their trances – all of them fairly conventional. The most experienced would dictate prophecy to scribes who then distributed them as holy texts. Sound familiar?

  48. Cstanford says:

    I had a conversation with someone on a train once about Joseph Smith: she said she had read or heard a theory that he may have used hallucinogens, like a (very limited) number of shamans do (in fact, most modern shamans enter their trances by way of a repetitive drumbeat). I was curious about shamanism at the time and had read parts of a book about it written by a practitioner. Shamanism accepts the reality of a “spirit world”, but it didn’t seem to be the same “spirit world” that we refer to in the Church. I told my traveling companion I didn’t consider Joseph Smith a shaman. This article and discussion have been interesting.

  49. greenfrog says:

    So the next major bio of Joseph Smith will be penned by Carlos Castaneda? Interesting.

  50. Brad Kramer says:

    Isn’t Castaneda dead?

  51. That is an interesting theory Matt B. If it was at the CoC archives, then it was most certainly the Whitmer stone, which Joseph didn’t use. As it stands now I think that is an interesting speculation, but as of now unfounded.

  52. Matt B, I’m with Stapley. Mike doesn’t seem to offer anything by way of evidence, even to suggest seeric applications in Native American tradition (though grave goods are a reasonable candidate on general principles). This sounds more like metaphysical nibleyism than grounds for reliable inference.

    So I’m in the camp of thinking the position is reasonable (and for my own work, I’m very interested in imagined communities with the Native Americans) but feeling skeptical about the evidence adduced so far. I would love it if there were good evidence.

  53. It’s fair to say, I think, that Mike’s argument is based primarily on anthropological parallels (he’s trained as an anthropologist) – more, probably, than historical evidence. I recall that his paper cites physical descriptions of Smith receiving revelation, and compares certain traits (blood-drained face, etc), to native shamans in order to make his argument about the Ganzfeld effect. So his argument is as much about methodological similarities as it is empirical evidence. It’s of course clear that Native American prophets were using trance objects in the years around JS’s birth – Neolin certainly (he used what he called ‘prayer sticks’), and Sam already mentioned Handsome Lake. Anyway, I’m having lunch with Mike in the next couple of days – I’ll ask him some more about it.

  54. Is anyone aware of evidence that Joseph Smith intended to convey his experiences as being physical visitations as opposed to visions?

    The concensus in the rhetoric in general conference seems to be that the experiences were physical, especially the First Vision. Interestingly we still refer to it as the First *Vision* as opposed to the First *Visitation*.

    The sense I get from Joseph’s accounts is that they were spiritual experiences and not physical ones. They were more along the lines that Lehi expresses in 1 Ne 8:2. The first Vision, Moroni’s visits and D&C 76 all seem intended as not-physical to me in the official accounts. Regarding the John the Baptist visitation, it seems more likely to have been intended as physical but I find it interesting that the Baptist did not perform the actual baptisms.

  55. #37: My father-in-law, who is a strong church member, is also very much into divining and related topics, along with several other members, including their bishop. They have adapted a theory about energies running through the earth to the Holy Ghost and the spirit of Christ running through the earth, and I know he prays with a stone at home, along with some ritualized nature worship adapted to the LDS doctrine. Even though it is nowhere near common knowledge, the bishop knows and gives tacit approval. He told me, after I didn’t laugh at divining or anything else, and I told him about JSJ’s use of stones, etc. He was pretty excited and wanted to know more, but his English isn’t good enough for most sources to be available to him.

    Is this OK? If I didn’t know him, it probably sounds pretty odd. But he is as humble as they come, incredibly generous with his time and resources, and genuinely seeking for a greater share of truth. I can see how this could go terribly wrong, but it seems OK to me.

  56. This blog reminds me of an age old question that I often ponder. What is a Mojo and how do I get it working?

  57. Larry: That’s a whoooooole different post, which would be best addressed, as I understand it, by FMHLisa.

  58. More details – The stone Ron showed Mike was not in fact the Whitmer stone (which is in fact a gorget; the Bidamon stone may also be one); Mike saw Jacob’s stone, and it was in a different box from the stone he discusses above. According to Mike Ron believes it is in fact the famous egg shaped chocolate stone that BH Roberts refers to and that Joseph translated with. There are no photographs circulating. I know Mark disagrees with this identification, but there you go.

    Mike also draws parallels between Joseph’s use of a seerstone and what he calls Iroquois ‘divination stones,’ many of which are identified now as gorgets. He believes Joseph used his in a similar way, and that there is some – though not direct – connection.

    Anyway, I am willing to pass along Mike’s email if any questions remain.

  59. Hm. The Bidamon stone would seem to defy all the descriptions of the brown egg/baby’s foot shaped stone. Moreover, there is apparently matching stone in the FP vault (if I remember correctly). I am kind of intrigued by the Iroquois connection though. In the 18th century, when the Jesuits came, there was a fair amount of Baptism for healing going on among them.

  60. Also I think I misread you. Here is an image of the David Whitmer stone. I think the Jacob Whitmer stone is what you linked to in your first link. So is he saying that Jacob’s or David’s stone is the one that Joseph used? I think the Bidamon stone is one that Joseph picked up from the banks of the Mississippi, if I remember correctly.

  61. From what I understand, the location of the chocolate egg shaped stone is currently in dispute. I know Mark A-M believes that it’s in the FP vault; however Ron obviously disagrees. In any case, it’s neither of the Whitmer stones – it’s the one Joseph found in the well.

  62. Hm. I believe that one, the one from the bottom of the well, didn’t have decoration. Mark A-M makes a compelling case that it was this white stone that was consecrated in Manti by Willford Woodruff (and also consequently in the FP vault).

  63. Was not the well stone the one used in translation, or am I misunderstanding your point? Also not sure what you mean by decoration.


    The Seer Stone referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum, for a Mr. Clark Chase, near Palmyra, N.Y. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it–as described above–as well as by means of the Interpreters found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates. (Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 129)

  64. OK, I was a bit confused. I thought he was saying that Joseph used the Bidamon stone. I’m still confused about the whole CoC archive visit. Is he claiming that either of two stones you linked to are the ones Joseph used?

    Mark A-M sifts through all the accounts and makes for a very compelling case that most historians have been mistaken about the provenance of the various stones. The stone from the purported well digging in the chase yard was actually the white stone, gazelem.

  65. R. Bishop says:

    “shaman” is an attempt to exlude us through simple name calling. Where “cult” no longer has as popular support, another ad hominem is required.

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