There it is. The now famous “chocolate” seer stone, that, earlier this month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brought forth from one of its proverbial closets, explaining, via an Ensign article, that Joseph Smith used this stone in the translation of the gold plates. When this stone was dropped on a mostly unsuspecting public, a dust cloud of protest arose because of the disparity between the way the official Church had, to date, portrayed the translation of the Book of Mormon and reality. As the dust settled, it drew attention to the often-ignored path of early American folk magic which carried Joseph Smith toward his religious epiphanies. Some used this opportunity to decry Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon as de facto frauds. Joseph Smith, they argue, believed in folk magic; folk magic isn’t true; therefore, Joseph Smith is not a true prophet of God. Close the book. Walk away. But, for me, it’s not that simple.
The complaints that the official church has not been transparent about this are worthy of discussion, but my focus today is on the notion that Joseph Smith’s embrace of folk magic destroys his religious claims. The puzzling part isn’t how a prophet of God could believe in magic, or even why God would choose as his prophet someone who entwined his Christianity with magic. After all, Christianity includes irrational, non-objective thinking as a matter of faith. We find, as some say, God in the gaps, in the unexplainable pockets of our reality. What puzzles me is how people of faith can hold tightly to the magical/miraculous components in their religion while devaluing others for doing the same thing. Joseph Smith used a seer stone. Moses had a rod. Neither one makes sense. If we are willing to accept Moses and his rod, accepting Joseph Smith and his seer stone isn’t such a great leap.
With that said, Latter-day Saints are supposed to be a different breed of Christian. Our God is scientific. He is the master of the elements, both physical and ethereal, and the laws which govern them. His perfection is that ability to control these laws, to set them in motion (D&C 93:30) for the benefit of his children. Miracles, then, have a rational, scientific explanation that, put simply, man cannot yet comprehend. This is the distance, at least in part, between ourselves and God. We know a little; He knows all. The other factor that keeps us distant from God is our inability to love and forgive as He does.
The LDS expectation, however, is that the How of miraculous events is within the realm of our mastery, if not here than in the hereafter. LDS believe that, if we are to draw closer to God, we must do so through increasing both our love and our knowledge. In fact, according to LDS theology, mortals may, in perpetuity, literally become as God.
This radical, empowering theology bloomed through Joseph Smith. I don’t define Smith by his beliefs as a young man, but by the philosophies he extolled as he matured. The folk magic of the early 19th century was not radical, but a known and tolerated part of the American religious experience. Many people had seer stones and other magical tokens. Many people purported visions. (Read this book.) In this way, Joseph Smith was ordinary. But let’s not forget that no one else had Joseph’s radical, sweeping vision of humankind’s potential, a vision I see as divine.
Joseph Smith may have begun his religious journey with his face in a hat, but he ended his journey with his head in study. This is the man who created the School of the Prophets, a forum for literal worship through the pursuit of knowledge. In the school, participants tackled secular as well as theological subjects, including philosophy, literature, languages, geography, history, and arithmetic. He surrounded himself with educated men, intellectuals and philosophers of his era, and taught his followers to glorify, honor, and worship God by increasing their understanding of His creations. His is the voice that taught me that “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36) and to “seek … wisdom from the best books,” even “to seek learning through study and faith” (D&C 88:118). Not through magic.
The worship of God through study and faith is a foundational concept of Mormonism. Magic is not. Joseph’s legacy is not manifest in some bizarre (and non-existent) LDS quest for miraculous objects, but in our quest for continual enlightenment. Joseph Smith may have been born into a culture of folk magic, a culture he arguably didn’t entirely overcome, but he died a martyr to a faith that argues we will find God through the coupling of our heart and our mind.
All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. D&C 93:30
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Portrait Credit: “Joseph Smith–Three Views,” by Trevor Southey