Most Mormons know the general details of how Joseph Smith said he first learned about and found the gold plates: on September 21, 1823, Joseph Smith went to bed. After praying for forgiveness of his sins and asking for a divine manifestation, he was visited by the Angel Moroni, who told Joseph about the gold plates buried in a nearby hill. Moroni said he buried the plates many years before, and that Joseph Smith would someday translate what was written on the plates. The next day after telling his father about the vision of the angel, Joseph went to the nearby hill and found the plates in a stone box under a large rock. He was forbidden by the angel to take the plates at that time, but was told to return every year on the same day and that in four years he would be ready to take the plates.
What most Mormons don’t know is how much magic and the occult influenced Joseph Smith, his world view and his experiences with the gold plates. Today most Christians associate magic and the occult with Satanic beliefs and rituals, but in Joseph Smith’s era and location, many people mixed magic and Christianity as if they were completely compatible. I highly recommend D. Michael Quinn’s book “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View” to learn more about this topic. Quinn is a well respected historian of Mormonism. At the time he wrote “Early Mormonism” the LDS church and its apologists were no fans of his research, but just this year Deseret Book published “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones”, a book which relies on Quinn’s work. Over time the LDS church has come to accept the fact that magic heavily influenced early LDS church history.
So how did magic influence the narrative of the gold plates? Here are some examples from Quinn’s book to consider:
- “…a treasure quest was the context Martin Harris described for Smith’s prayer that September night. Joseph Jr. had served as treasure-seer early that evening, according to a non-Mormon’s report of an interview with Harris in the “autumn of 1827.” In fact, Smith’s prayer “to commune with some kind of messenger” may have been in response to that evening’s unsuccessful effort to locate treasure. [Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pg. 143]
- “It was also significant that Smith’s experience occurred at the autumnal equinox…In the magic world view, the equinox was a time when the earth could be expected could be expected to experience the introduction of “broad cultural movements and religion ideas.”” [Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pg. 144]
- “…published guides specified that the hour and day of Joseph Smith’s prayer “to commune with some kind of messenger” was ideal for the invocation of spirits.” [Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pg. 144]
- “Young Joseph walked alone to that hill on 22 September 1823, when the moon was in its second day in Aries, according to Canandaigua’s almanac. Astrological guides specified that this was a day “good to find out treasures hid,” and “conduceth to the findings of treasures.” Both Mormon and non-Mormon sources agreed that Joseph Jr. used his brown treasure-seeking stone to discover the gold plates on this occasion.” [Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pg. 145]
- “Like the Palmyra neighbors, Cowdery also described a folk magic context for the events of September 1823 on the hill. Joseph Jr. “had heard of the power of enchantment, and a thousand like stories, which held the hidden treasures of the earth.” Cowdery’s use of the world “enchantment” is one of many smoking-gun evidences of magic in early Mormon history.” [Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pg. 147]
A common theme in treasure-seeking lore is the idea of treasure being guarded by the spirit of someone associated with the treasure. The guardian prevents treasure-seekers from obtaining the treasure, and tells them to come back after fulfilling some command. The story of Moroni guarding the plates and forbidding Joseph from taking them fits perfectly into the magic world view of treasure-seekers of the 1800’s. In Joseph’s earliest biography, he explained how at his first attempt to retrieve the plates, he was forbidden three times from taking the plates. “Then being excedingly frightened I supposed it had been a dreem Vision but when I consid[e]red I knew that it was not.” Quinn points out we’re not completely sure what frightened Joseph, but two different sources, one hostile and one not, said Joseph either saw a toad or something like a toad that rose up into a man (Moroni). Quinn suggests maybe Joseph saw an actual toad or salamander, as these are common in holes in the area where the plates were retrieved. In the magic world view, Quinn says toads were considered a sign of Satan, and salamanders were a sign of God. Quinn surmises Joseph must have seen a salamander, or else he would have assumed the guardian spirit, Moroni, was evil. I can’t help but wonder if maybe Joseph did see a toad, which scared him because in his world view it was a sign of evil.
This is just a very small sample of how deeply Joseph Smith, his family and some of his associates were involved in magical practices. His magic world view influenced many important parts of his life and his religious experiences: his years of treasure-seeking, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and his obsession with Egyptian (both for the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham). His beliefs in rituals and symbols that had magical powers would eventually tie into Joseph’s adoption of many facets of Freemasonry into the endowment ceremony. Many Mormons participate in these temple ceremonies and wear the undergarments marked with Masonic symbols, without ever realizing where these rituals and symbols came from. It’s a shame, because the history behind how magic influenced the early Mormon church can be fascinating. Understanding the magic world view of Joseph Smith at the time he presented the endowment can put things into context, and maybe shed some light on what Joseph was trying to accomplish with his new rituals.