Book Review: Early Mormonism and the Magic World View

Quinn, D. Michael. Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (revised and enlarged). 1998. Signature Books.

Anyone who studies the foundational stories of Mormonism (even casually) is likely to encounter information about Joseph Smith and his involvement with the occult and his belief in (and participation in) magic rituals.  Quinn solidly establishes that the entire Smith family and many of the early members of the LDS church held strong beliefs in occult practices, including treasure seeking, seer stones, divining rods, astrology, magical parchments, talismans, and other aspects of folk magic.

Quinn paints a complex picture of how involvement in folk magic influenced Joseph’s view of the world, and how these practices influenced the development of the early church.  Quinn argues that Joseph Smith and his family didn’t consider their involvement with folk magic to be at odds with their belief in Christianity.  Rather, searching for buried treasure and using seer stones was a critical part of how they practiced their Christian faith.

I feel like this book has provided me with some much-needed context surrounding the foundational stories of Mormonism.  The traditional accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, his thrice-repeated visitation from Moroni, his 5-year quest to obtain the gold plates buried in the earth, and his use of seer-stones to produce the Book of Mormon all make a lot more sense after reading this book.  Quinn establish the significance of each of these events to persons with a magic world view.

If you’ve ever been curious about the rumors about Smith’s belief in magic usually repeated by critics of Smith and the LDS church, then this book is the definitive source for setting the record straight.  Don’t be turned off by the near encyclopedic size of this book (650 pages???? wha…???).  Half of it is reference citations that will be of no interest to you. The book is also written in a way that makes it easy to skip a page here and there when Quinn starts to get bogged down with details that only serious historians will care about.  Overall, it’s a much quicker and easier read than I was anticipating and much more accessible to armchair historians than I was expecting.

4 comments to Book Review: Early Mormonism and the Magic World View

  • I guess I need to get it off my bookcase and read it. I had a $100 gift certificate to Amazon and I bought this and a few other books.

    Now, I just need a gift certificate for enough time to read it.

  • @Mike – seriously, don't let the size of the book or the details get you down. There is a lot of detail in here that simply isn't important. Use the "one page skip" method whenever you're feeling bogged down and you'll be through it in no time.

  • Haven't read the book, but you do know that those beliefs were really really common at the time? Even in early 20th century Europe belief in magic, or gnosticism, or other things we find strange, were normal and cool. It's hard to believe how much the world view has changed in just a hundred years – and since 1823 is much longer. The part I don't really like is using those things out of historical context (which I hope the writer doesn't do.)

  • @Tuittu – yes – I guess that's a critical part of the book that I forgot to include in my review. Yes, perhaps the overarching theme of the book was to establish not only that Joseph Smith was into this stuff, but that tons of people were. He does not paint Joesph as some kind of wacko. The book points out that people didn't have a problem believing that Joseph Smith saw angels, spoke with god, found gold plates, and used seer stones because these were common practices. Quinn even points out that many of the early converts to the church joined because they were quite attracted to this sort of stuff.