Coming to Terms with Folk Magic in Mormon History

in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it because I lay it down to cover over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down

(Extract from the so-called Salamander Letter)

Those of you who know me personally know that I have a very laid back personality. I don’t let much bother me, and that includes claims made against the Church. Things roll off my back pretty easily. That may be because I never had to drink from a fire hose; I learned the adult version of Church history, scripture, doctrine and practice slowly, incrementally, over time, and I just don’t remember being particularly bothered by any of those things I learned along the way, with one conspicuous exception: the Salamander Letter.

The Church, to its credit, published the text of the letter (which purported to be a letter written by Martin Harris from Palmyra on October 23, 1830) in the pages of the Church News on August 28, 1985. And for the first and only time that I can recall in my life, I was thrown for a real loop. It was so very weird! It was like looking at Church history through a bizarre fun house mirror. What could this possibly be? I frankly had no idea what to make of it. And it really bothered me.

Well, although I’m not an academic, I’m a frustrated one, and I do have scholarly interests. And so I followed my initial instinct, which was to roll up my sleeves and go to the library. And I began to do some reading on the subject of folk magic, a topic that was completely new to me at the time. At this late date I don’t recall what all I read, except for one article that was the most helpful to me at the time: Jon Butler, “Magic, Astrology, and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760,” American Historical Review 84 (April 1979): 317-46. That article was tremendously helpful to me, because it gave me a context for early American religious folk magic, and due to its parameters the article had nothing to do with Mormonism, which for me laid a useful foundation for then looking at the Mormon side of things.

I followed that up by finding and reading a lot of Mormon historical writing on the subject. Again, at this late date I simply don’t recall everything I read, but I do remember some of the pieces that I found the most useful to me personally. One example was Richard Van Wagoner and Steve Walker, “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing‘,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15/2 (Summer 1982).[1]

Another example was BYU Studies 24/4 (Fall 1984), the entire issue of which was devoted to this topic. (This journal came out just shortly before it was learned that the letter was actually a Mark Hofmann forgery.) Here is the Table of Contents of that issue:

Articles

Title Author Pages
Editor’s Introduction BYU Studies Staff 395
New Documents and Mormon Beginnings Dean C. Jessee 397
The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting Ronald W. Walker 429
Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer Ronald W. Walker 461
Money Digging Folklore and the Beginnings of Mormonism: An Interpretive Suggestion Marvin S. Hill 473
The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching Richard L. Anderson 489

The last example I’ll mention here was D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).[2]

In 1985, when the Salamander Letter was at its height and still widely believed to be authentic, I was a new Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward northwest of the City of Chicago. I figured if I had had to struggle with this, there were probably others in the class who were similarly bothered by it, so I decided on my own motion to devote a class entirely to the Salamander Letter. (By happenstance both the bishop and stake president were in attendance the day I did that class, so the pressure was on!) I passed out copies of the Church News with copies of the letter, and then went through a high level version of what I had learned. Towards the end one brother asked about authenticity, and I recall saying that was the $64,000 question. At that time most Mormon historians believed it was authentic; I believed it was authentic. Ironically, by that time Jerald Tanner, the famed anti-Mormon, had come out with the view that it was not authentic, and I reported that to the class.

That class was possibly one of the finest Gospel Doctrine classes I have ever taught (and I’ve taught a lot of them over the years!) The class was very much needed, and in that time and place no one else was in a position to survey the material responsibly. People were deeply interested and engaged, and they walked out of that class being more intrigued than bothered, which was my hope and goal in teaching the class in the first place.

I don’t think it was very long after that that we learned in fact the letter had been a forgery. But I’m glad that I had to wrestle with it under the assumption that is was authentic. Once it was deemed a forgery, it was all too easy for people to ignore the folk magic context of the Restoration, but for me with the assumption the letter was authentic, ignoring it simply wasn’t an option. I learned far more about folk magic at the time than I ever would have if I had known from the beginning it was a forgery.

So when people are troubled by a picture of a seerstone, my initial reaction is to wonder what all the fuss is about; doesn’t everyone know about that? But then I have to think back about my own very scandalized reaction to reading the Salamander Letter, and that helps to resurrect my sense of empathy for anyone who feels blindsided by this disclosure. Which to me simply suggests that the Church’s current project of pursuing transparency in its history is absolutely the way to go.

[1] This is one reason why I’m flummoxed at the semi-official disapproval of Dialogue. That article is simply outstanding, and anyone who had read only that one piece would not have been surprised in the least by the recent photographs of the seerstone.

[2] He subsequently published a second edition, which I have never read and do not own, as it takes a lot to get me to invest in a second edition when I already have the first in my library. I didn’t agree with everything Quinn said in the book (I particularly remember thinking the Astrology chapter seemed like a stretch to me), but I enjoyed the book and learned from it.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    For those who want to read up on the Mark Hofmann forgery angle to this, there were three books published (I’ve borrowed the cheeky characterizations from a Sunstone review): Salamander (for insiders), A Gathering of Saints (for outsiders), and Mormon Murders (for masochists). Later, Rick Turley published Victims, which tells the story from the institutional church’s position.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Thanks, Kevin. That you broached the issue in Sunday School is salutary–especially since you did so in “earnest seeker after truth” mode, as opposed to raising controversial topics just for the fun of it.

  3. I have such mixed emotions concerning the “transparency” the Church is now beginning to show. As you noted above, it’s been 28 years since Magic World View, when those of us of a certain age were thrust into a new understanding of Mormon origins (although, like many, I had read Bushman’s Origins of Mormonism prior to that, which gave a glimpse). The next decade would produce a ton of articles, symposia, and books covering so many areas and providing so much information it was hard to keep up. But a troubling (for me) thing began to happen as I found the gap between what I was learning and what I felt comfortable – as an very active but very inquisitive latter-day saint – sharing with others began to widen. I eventually took the position that I would provide information to others only when they would come to me with specific questions. Even then I would narrow the focus of their inquiry, attempt to avoid speculation, and be careful not to open up new avenues.

    So, what now? Having read the position papers at lds.org and the latest on the seer stone, I still find myself reticent about talking about these for fear of going beyond the mark and providing others with controversial information that the Church has not yet discussed. So, although I envy you and your openness, in my current position as DWS (designated ward scholar), I’ll probably just keep stuff to myself as I have done for 35 years.

  4. Sorry, that’s supposed to say Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism.

  5. Kevin, Did you forget Salamander by Roberts and Sillito (Signature)?. As for the 2d Edition of Quinn’s book, it has far more footnotes and was corrected as to the forgeries. Worth the money (my feelings about 2d editions was the same as yours).

    Excellent post by the way.

  6. Burt Macklin says:

    Excellent article. I imagine similar responses and openness to the seer stone are very comforting and welcome explanations for difficult topics to understand in Mormonism. My problem is different- there will always be explainations for things like inconvenient salamanders and such – but why were prophets of god bamboozled when anti-Mormon Jerald Tanner saw right through Mark Hofman’s deception? And why has the church heretofore described the translation of the Book of Mormon as being from the gold plates instead of from the seer stone (with Joseph’s head in his hat??). Why is the church bringing the seer stone forward now?

  7. Here is an interesting take on this news that is life-giving for LGBT people. The seer stone can be seen as the technology of the powerless.

    http://latterdaythinking.org/2015/08/10/seer-stones-as-tools-of-the-disempowered/

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Terry H, I mention Salamander in the first comment.

  9. My bad. I saw you mention 3 and then the fourth, which were the four. I found for a complete picture, it was best to read all four (painful though a couple of them were).

  10. pconnornc says:

    A slight tangent to your thesis, but with all the cries for transparency and that the Church had an agenda to bury some of the issues we discuss here, I have always felt this episode revealed insight toward where leader’s hearts were…

    It is my understanding that when Hoffman was trying to sell this to the Church that there was an implied threat that either the Church purchase the letter or it would go public and embarrass the Church. Given this opportunity (again this is my understanding), leaders chose not to purchase the letter because they did not feel it aligned with what they would call a significant artifact and allowed the letter to go public.

    It was unflattering (especially for its time) and was eventually proven false, but leaders were content to led the “truth” come out and not “bury” it.

    To me, that reflects where their hearts and intents lay.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Great write-up, Kevin. I think there are many people who are vocally antagonistic to the church whose minds would be blown by the idea that the Church published the Salamander letter in the Church News. This is also a great example of the idea that it is better to read more when faced with new information. Awesome.

  12. J. Stapley. I’ve found that reading more works for most people who are struggling. The key what they read. By that, I don’t mean correlated or only “positive” material, but articles and books that actually provide the citations (honest ones) so they can weigh the information for themselves. I’d forgotten that the Church News published it, and Kevin’s actions were inspiring.

  13. Even if it weren’t a forgery, would you believe it? Is it so far fetched that people could just be mistaken? I mean, his mother recorded a about Joseph retrieving the plates and being attacked (https://www.lds.org/ensign/2001/01/take-heed-continually-protecting-the-gold-plates?lang=eng). It’s completely absurd. Let’s think for a second. Three different men jump out and hit him with guns to try and get the plates. Ok, so how did they know where to hide? They didn’t know where the plates were otherwise they would have just stolen them. So if they followed him, why wouldn’t they just confront him when he got the plates? They instead chose to backtrack some distance and lay in wait? They couldn’t know that he would come back the same way.

    Why would Joseph hide them at all? They were already in a hiding place. In fact, they were so well hidden that Joseph said that even HE would be unable to remove them unless his intentions were pure before God. So he takes them out just to hide them somewhere nearby immediately thereafter? That makes no sense. Just leave them in the super secure hiding spot until you actually need to take them home.

    Plus, they hit him with GUNS (because guns are for hitting people with). Why wouldn’t they just shoot him? After all, they had a “fear of being detected”. Surely he could identify them if he was left alive. Then they are out run by the guy carrying over a hundred pounds of gold? They don’t shoot him at that point?

    Maybe you can come up with all these supernatural reasons as to how this story could be plausible. Or maybe it’s not just a plausible story…

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I think it’s very plausible that some of Joseph’s neighbors believed he had the plates and tried to get them from him. What you have to remember is that his neighbors were steeped in the same money digging culture that Joseph was.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Terry (4:26) I think that’s true for some people. But I’m not sure it’s true for everyone. I’ll not get upset at someone who reads Rough Stone Rolling and is a bit freaked out. I’m not sure reading more will necessarily help them. At a certain point one has to get down on our knees and ask God. It’s the only way to really resolve our issues. That’s not to say for some reading essays won’t help. For some it may do the opposite though. Depends upon the person.

    Eso (4:36) It’s not that large an area. Is it really that surprising that people who lived in the community knew Joseph’s haunts and hid hoping to rob him? Seems to me this is very believable. And of course it’s also quite believable that sometimes people do stupid things. As to why he didn’t leave them in Hill Cumorah, it’s a very small hill if you look at pictures. He may be worried of leaving a trail or maybe God inspired him that someone would find the original hiding place. Who knows. I don’t see any of this as being terribly problematic. And as Kevin noted, the people in question likely came from the same understanding of treasure digging and other superstitions. As to why they didn’t shoot him, maybe they were afraid of being arrested. (It seems a fair worry – especially in a small community)

    I think there are lots of places for critics to be skeptical of the accounts. I’m not sure this is one of them. I’m not saying Joseph may not have exaggerated some events as he recalled them. That’s rather human and expected. But it seems believable even for those people who think it all was a fraud. Even if it was fraud his neighbors may well have believed elements and come for him.

    pconnornc (1:47) It’s been a long time since I last studied the Hoffman stuff, but my Mission President at the time in Halifax was actually acting as an intermediary to buy the letter. It wouldn’t be the Church buying it but Sorenson was quite wealthy have started up several biotech companies and he planned on donating it to the church later. Interestingly Pres. Sorenson handed copies out to everyone who was interested in the mission. So it was far from hidden at the time there in Nova Scotia. (Sorenson didn’t ultimately purchase the documents as I recall as Hoffman couldn’t verify their authenticity sufficiently for Sorenson’s attorney)

    As a side note to the current seer stone controversy it’s interesting that Elder Oaks overview of the Hoffman situation in the Ensign includes a mention of seer stones.

    It should be recognized that such tools as the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, seerstones, and other articles have been used appropriately in biblical, Book of Mormon, and modern times by those who have the gift and authority to obtain revelation from God in connection with their use. At the same time, scriptural accounts and personal experience show that unauthorized though perhaps well-meaning persons have made inappropriate use of tangible objects while seeking or claiming to receive spiritual guidance. Those who define folk magic to include any use of tangible objects to aid in obtaining spiritual guidance confound the real with the counterfeit. They mislead themselves and their readers.

    Oaks goes on to discuss in the Ensign treasure seeking and Joseph’s use of seer stones. I think I missed this reference when listing a slew of discussions in the Ensign over at BCC. As someone once said, the Church hides information by putting it where no one will find it: in the Ensign!

  16. “his mother recorded a (story) about Joseph retrieving the plates and being attacked…Three different men jump out and hit him with guns to try and get the plates.” (from Eso)

    I had never before noticed the similarity between this event and the Hiram Abiff story from Freemasonry. In both cases, Joseph and Hiram are given the sacred word and told to protect it at all costs. Both are assaulted by three men (in Masonry, they are called Jubela, Jubelo, and Jubelum) in separate instances in order to obtain the master word/plates. Each strikes blows using objects. Each fails to obtain what they seek. Fortunately, Joseph lives. In the masonic story, Abiff dies from the blows.

  17. The seer stone is a much better vehicle than the gold plates. The gold plates contain many anachronisms and translation errors made by the King James Version of the Bible. Why did the church privilege the gold plates over the seer stone as a vehicle for translating the Book of Mormon?

  18. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I have heard multiple people remark that they are waiting for the newly released seer stone to be determined to be a fake. Of course, not a fake seer stone (would be difficult to prove/disprove that it has revelatory powers), but a stone that never actually belonged to or was used by Joseph Smith. The trouble many people had in accepting the salamander letter was assuaged by the determination that it was a forgery. For those having a difficult time accepting the seer stone, and the resulting implications for the translation process, the possibility that it is not authentic gives them hope.

  19. Here’s a twist that I haven’t heard anyone bring up in the many seer stone discussions: Might the seer stone again be used when the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon comes forth?

  20. It is not godly, kind, morally justified, or rational to expect a member of the church to just let folk magic roll off their back, and I’ll explain why. First, the church has heavily taught and emphasized for decades the “true” manner of revelation, emphasizing the limitations based on authority, stewardship, *and* acceptable methods of seeking it.

    When the church releases historical documents or information (as it should) that seem to be outside such teaching it creates some fears and confusion that are not only justified, but prudent. After all, many of us have seen the horror and ugliness that has risen from revelation and related practices run amok.

    I witnessed a ward I was in get torn apart and three marriages end in divorce when a bishop received “confirmation” of manufactured ritual abuse claims from a notorious Utah therapist who used retrieved (or implanted in my opinion) memories to construct a world wide conspiracy theory wherein the church was the head of a secret occult that controlled minds with invisible machines, sadistic rituals and human brainwashing in the wee hours of the night. Without a shred of evidence or reason, and clearly outside the taught confines of authority and stewardship, a whole community was destroyed.

    Many of us know about Dan and Ron Lafferdy and the murders they committed under “divine revelation” which was also out of established bounds. There are many other such situations, both within and outside the church– and the damage and horror caused is often permanent.

    So, yes, when something comes along that seems to suggest that the revelation that led to the restoration of the church might have similarly been out of bounds, it scares people– and justifiably so. To ignore such danger (whether real or only seeming) is irresponsible and to try to coerce or guilt a member for having such fear is complicity oppressive, in my opinion.

    A better way, in my opinion, is to let the discussion needed, to address those just fears, take place– even if it means saying “we are still trying to figure out what this means” or “we feel that this was a mistake”. Even if it means letting some members choose to leave. We don’t have moral justification in trying to trick or coerce people into keeping faith when they have moral concerns or objections. And people who have moral concerns and objections are not evil and damned because they are trying to be moral. Nor are they weak, faithless, overly intellectual, or controlled by Satan. They are our brothers and sisters trying to do what they think is right, just like we are.

  21. Hoodoo is an ever-evolving process, continuously synthesizing from contact with other cultures, religions, and folkways. What is notable about the hoodoo folk process is the use of biblical figures in its practices and in the lives of its practitioners.