Biblical Alchemy

Guest blogger AdamS continues his stint at BCC. See his previous entry here.

One striking feature of early Mormonism is the boldness with which Joseph Smith and other elders re-witnessed ancient sacred events. Through visions, stones and dreams they sought out new insight and interpretation. We take these extended views very seriously; the most obvious examples being the Book of Mormon accounts of Christ’s resurrection, the retranslation of the Bible through revelation, and the Abrahamic texts. A micro-example is from the current New Testament S.S. manual, in which the vision of Orson Whitney is quoted.

Presently He arose and walked to where those Apostles were kneeling—fast asleep! He shook them gently, awoke them, and in a tone of tender reproach, untinctured by the least show of anger or impatience, asked them plaintively if they could not watch with him one hour.

I love how Orson adds details to this often-discussed exchange between the suffering Savior and the sleeping disciples. Christ shakes them gently, his reproach is tender, and his act shows no impatience.

Early alchemical literature is infused with similar extensions of biblical narratives. The most common account addressed by the adepts is The Fall. Often the alchemists infuse Adam with a sophisticated knowledge of alchemical theory and possession of the elixir of life (evidenced by his extreme longevity). My favorite example of this is from The Glory of the World where we learn that:

On the 6th day of the 1st year of the world, that is to say, on the 15th day of March, God created the first man, Adam, of red earth, in a field near Damascus, […] He [Adam] saw that [physical substances] derive their origin from the dry and the moist elements, and that they are again transmuted into the dry and moist. Of all these things Adam took notice, and especially of that which is called the first Matter. For he who knows how all things are transmuted into their first Matter, has no need to ask any questions.[1]

Alchemical skills are also attributed to Moses, who is considered a very knowledgeable alchemical adept. In Goldmakers, the author points out that the Exodus 32:20 operation of transmuting gold into a drinkable substance (called aurum potabile) is a sign of an experienced alchemist. When Moses was competing with the Egyptian magicians, he used a chemical recipe to make the rod turn into a serpent:

…the rod is made of a paste of bay-laurel, quicksilver, and sulphur, and stuck together with the gum of the bush Astralogus from Asia Minor. Such a rod, when thrown upon a charcoal fire, turns into a long writhing mass-pharoah’s serpent-which gives off poisonous fumes.”[2]

To me, such examples signify dissatisfaction with the limited accounts of the bible and an intense longing for deeper understanding of scripture. They may also serve the purpose of making the alchemists seem more orthodox. Alchemists were a persecuted bunch with anti-chrysopoeian laws and papal inquiries threatening them throughout the middle ages. Most of the adepts in that time were devout Christians, and what better way to justify one’s actions than to demonstrate a biblical precedent?


  1. You’re putting up some very entertaining posts, Adam. Maybe the Bloggernacle needs more chemists. But I’m curious: it’s clear the alchemists thought they were creating elixirs with some sort of supernatural properties. What do you think they were doing? That is, do you attribute any supernatural effect to the alchemical project?

    By amalgamating those texts with Whitney’s vision, it seems like you are saying one of the following: (1) The alchemists thought they were dealing with supernatural powers, but they were incorrect, just like Whitney incorrectly thought he was receiving revelation or inspiration (a supernatural dream) when he was just having a natural, everyday dream with religious images.

    Or: (2) The alchemists were actually mixing supernatural brews or compounds, just like Whitney was dealing with supernatural powers in receiving (and recording for our edification) a supernatural dream with a divine message.

    Or: (3) The alchemists were entirely mistaken; there was no supernatural component to their early chemical experimentation (even though they thought there was). But there is a supernatural component to Whitney’s religious dream. Then what’s the purpose of putting the two accounts (the vision and the alchemical texts) together in this post?

    I suppose there’s a fourth option — that the alchemists were dealing with real supernatural effects but Whitney was entirely mistaken in attributing supernatural or divine influence in his dream, so Correlation should really be putting alchemical texts, not Whitney’s vision, in the Sunday School manual — but I’m fairly certain that’s not your point.

  2. Dave, I’m not sure that one has to make the categorizations that you want made. Isn’t it sufficient to say that they were engaged in similar types of projects? Isn’t it similar to calling some of Joseph’s projects midrashic in nature? Such an appellation need not question his inspiration.

    Maybe the Bloggernacle needs more chemists.

    This is self evident (grin).

  3. I’m with Stapley. Adam’s point appears to me to be that many different people have sought and discovered new worlds in the standard texts of the Bible, and placing new revelations in ancient contexts held great power for the participants. Some can still be divine revelations and others not.

    This reminds me of how the Masons placed Masonry in the garden of Eden and Joseph Smith placed marriage there. The patriarchs and Eden seem to represent all our best, a metaphysical time capsule that works in reverse: we place in it those things we most value and revere, and Eden/primal history keeps its polish. (Again, this view is consistent with the view that Masonry did not exist in Eden and marriage did; I’m not staking a claim on truth content, just observing the intellectual and emotional effects of Edenic juxtapositions).

    Adam: are there alchemical traditions about the fruit of the tree? did the alchemists comment on how the Fall came to be physically?

  4. PS, Adam, you seem aptly named for posting on primordial esoteric traditions. Is your last name Kadmon?

  5. Dave,

    My thinking in combining the two stories was very much in line with the responses of J. Stapely and smb. Another distinction I’d like to add is that often the alchemist’s depictions of biblical events are not presented in the revelatory sense we attribute to early mormonism. It was much more common to present them as the natural results of their logic structure. For example, the fact that Adam had the elixir of life was not revealed to the author, but was the obvious conclusion based on the fact that Adam walked with God before the fall (Where he learned the secret of nature) and lived for hundreds of years.

    As far as what the alchemists were mixing, this depends on the text. Many of the biblical extensions were written as complex allegories of actual chemical operations. For example, in The Golden Age Restored (1625, Henricus Madathanus), the Adept has a dream where Solomon stands before him. A woman then appears who

    bared her breast, from a deep wound in which blood and water gushed forth. Her thighs were like half-moons, made by the master; her navel was like a goblet; […] Her garments, which were rancid, ill-savoured, and full of venom, lay at her feet..

    This passage (and surrounding text) is dripping with alchemical symbols of specific metals and chemical operations. While the account does grow more salacious, it seems to consistently present a order of operations to break down base metals, purify the elements, and recombine them in glory (ie silver/gold).

  6. smb,

    From what I’ve read (and remember) they usually take the traditional Christian accounts of the fall as pillars around which they build in the extras. In other words, God formed Adam from the dust, the tree really was a tree, and eating the fruit got him kicked out. I don’t recall a description of the fruit, although I don’t want to come off as overly authoritative on the matter. One project I’ve been very interested in is to collect each of these creation myth accounts in alchemical literature and ask the type of questions you are getting at.

    BTW: My mom certainly did name me with primordial distinctions in mind, but unfortunately she didn’t think to include Kadmon as a middle name.

  7. Adam,
    Your examples of alchemy are of the Old Testament only.
    In John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs it is noted that Isidorus wrote that St. John turned “certain places of wood into gold, and stones by the sea-side into pearls,” and here is the interesting part, ” to satisfy the desire of those whom he had persuaded to renounce their riches; and they afterwards repenting that for worldly treasure they had lost Heaven, the apostle again changed the same into their former substance.”
    Do you have any other examples of New Testament era alchemy, apocryphal or other accounts?
    Do you think the accounts demonstate a test of faith of the believers like this account?
    One cannot overlook that Christ himself was tempted to turn stones to bread, a thing we take for granted he could have done. We accept also his turning water to wine, a kind of alchemy?
    Does the idea that urim and thummin are perhaps better translated as truth and light and our belief from the D&C that all matter is truth and light contribute to the idea that matter could be transformed so significantly by godly powers?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Ed Decker’s famous anti-Mormon movie/book was originally entitled The Goldmakers, but when he realised that title was already taken he managed to remove one letter from the already created art work and, voila, we have the birth of The Godmakers!

  9. mmiles,

    It’s interesting to point out the New Testament stories. I have not seen them nearly as much as those referring to the Old Testament. Your questions got me searching around, and I still can’t find much. Most of the references to Jesus that I find are more to establish themselves as his disciples. I’m going to keep looking…


    I wondered if anyone would catch how much they sound alike. I had no idea that they almost shared the same name.