Sunday, September 27, 2009

Joseph Smith Jr’s Cane: A “Thing of Nature”?

To begin this post, perhaps a quick note is appropriate: It is my position that no clear cut line between magic and religion exists. The two categories overlap in many ways. A minority group of scholars argue that this overlap, coupled with the fact that the word has been tinged by polemic use, is justification enough to abandon the word magic altogether. I, however, side with the majority of scholars who remain convinced that both terms can be useful in academic discourse. The word magic should not be thrown away any more than the word religion should be. But with that being said, I do share the concern that the word has been tinged by a polemic past. For this reason, I have favored the more nuanced appellation folk-magic when discussing the magical practices of early Mormons.


A walking cane that Joseph Smith Jr. used when attending formal occasions in Nauvoo, has been an object of controversy in Mormon scholarship over the past two decades. The cane is carved in the shape of a serpent, having (among other things) a shield with Joseph Smith’s initials (“J S”) engraved into it.

Historian D. Michael Quinn, in his ground breaking book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, argues that this symbolism on the cane reveals Joseph Smith’s belief and involvement in astrology and talismanic magic. Quinn brings his reader’s attention to an “x” on the crown found directly above the shield, and says that although some may think this is Saint Andrew’s cross, there are no other Christian symbols on the cane—unless you interpret the serpent as a symbol of the devil (which he thinks unlikely)—and so it is more probable that the “x” is instead the magic sigil of Jupiter.[1]

Although I agree with Quinn that Smith’s cane was probably (at least partially) related to his involvement in folk-magic, I respectfully disagree with his interpretation of the symbolism illustrated thereon. Contrary to what he implies, the serpent is not exclusively a motif for Satan in Christianity. The serpent has also been a symbol for Christ, at times alluding to the bronze serpent Moses lifted, which had the power to heal those who had been bitten by the poisonous vipers, if only they would look to it and live.[2] The New Testament comments on this symbolism, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”[3] The Book of Mormon remarks further:

[A]s he [Moses] lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come. And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.[4]

Several Masons promoted this imagery, illustrating in their artwork the serpent on the staff (or cross). But perhaps most significantly and most relevant to Smith’s cane, Freemasons additionally used the imagery of the “rod of Aaron” in their rituals, which, according to the Old Testament, had turned into a serpent to devour the serpent-rods owned by the Pharaoh’s magicians.[5]

Historian Mark C. Carnes explains that Royal Arch Masons lowered initiates through a secret passageway, into a vault where they would find “a chest ‘having on its top several mysterious characters.’ Inside were a pot of manna, Aaron’s rod, and the ‘long lost book of the law.’”[6] Since the Old Testament says the rod “was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds,” Royal Arch Freemasons therefore designed their Masonic prop with artificial (or real) buds.

Interestingly, this description of the rod (bringing forth buds) seemed a possible explanation for the curious circular protrusion shown on the cane in one of Quinn’s photos, just below the shield. But Quinn’s photos, as helpful as they may have been, did not allow me to view the rest of the object. Had more of these protrusions existed on Smith’s cane, I might be on to something. During my trip to SLC this summer, I finally had the chance to view the entire cane for myself at the Museum of Church History and Art. As can be seen in this photograph that I took during my tour of the museum, the cane (from the shield down) is absolutely covered with these “buds”.

Now back to the “x” on the crown: Would this symbol be appropriate for a cane representing the rod of Aaron? And if the answer is “yes,” would such symbolism be of particular interest to Masons and Joseph Smith Jr? Masons believed that when Aaron was appointed High Priest, Moses marked his forehead with either a + or x shaped cross. “[I]n the ancient Hebrew,” wrote Freemason Albert Mackey, the figure of the tau “x, or +, was that of the cross.”

This tau, tau cross, or tau mark, was of very universal use as a sacred symbol among the ancients… [I]t is a sign of salvation; according to Talmudists, the symbol was much older than the time of Ezekiel, for they say that when Moses anointed Aaron as the high priest, he marked his forehead with this sign.[7]

When a Mason was initiated into “the order of High Priesthood as practiced in America,” explains Mackey, “oil was poured on the head in the form of a crown, that is, in a circle around the head; while in the ointment of the priest it was poured in the form of the Greek letter X, that is, on the top of the head, in the shape of a St. Andrew’s cross.”[8]

Another cross—one which seems to have been overlooked by all scholars thus far—is also found on Smith’s serpent cane: a large inverted cross fills the shield.

This almost certainly is the cross of Peter; an intriguing addition to the symbolic context of the cane, testifying further (it seems) of Joseph Smith’s ecclesiastical authority. The serpent-rod of Aaron and the “x” on the crown speak to the idea that Smith was a great high priest after the order of Aaron, and the inverted cross, a testimonial that Smith had also received priesthood keys from Peter in order to properly preside over Christ’s Church.

Granted, this interpretation hardly negates Quinn’s suggestion that Smith’s cane was designed with aspects of folk-magic in mind. Historians know that some Masons in Joseph Smith’s day were very willing to incorporate folk-magic into their orders. “One [Masonic] official observed,” reports Mark C. Carnes, that younger Masons “were ‘so in love with mysteries’ that they did not care where they came from.”[9] And it is quite telling that Ebenezer Sibley even dedicated his occult manual to "the Ancient and Honourable fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons."[10]

Scholar Clyde R. Frosberg Jr. argues in favor of an interpretation that views Smith’s cane through the bifocal-lens of freemasonry and folk-magic. Not only does the cane depict what appears to be a Masonic insignia on it, he says, but the it also “resembles a Masonic divining rod, or ‘pedum.’”[11]

Also worth noting is how common it was for practitioners of American folk-magic to identify their divining rods with the “rod of Aaron.” As explained in an article (1850) entitled, “A History of the Divining Rod; With the Adventures of an Old Rodsman”:

With a large portion of the simple-hearted people in the agricultural districts of the country, from the earliest ages there has been an implicit belief in the powers and virtues of the Divining Rod—either for the discovery of water, mines, or hidden treasures. This belief, it would seem, has originated from the wonderful powers of the miraculous rod in the hands of Moses and Aaron, imparted to it by the Almighty. Their rod was made from a simply twig of the almond tree; with this, water was discovered and brought forth from the flinty rock.[12]

The Book of Commandments (1833) reported that Oliver Cowdery had the ability to use the magic rod: “Now this is not all, for you [Oliver Cowdery] have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands, for it is the work of God.”[13] The passage was later modified in Doctrine and Covenants, changing the phrase “rod of nature” to “gift of Aaron”:

Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things; Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.[14]

The recent publication of the Joseph Smith Papers volume (Revelations and Translations—Manuscript Revelation Books)[15] has renewed interest in this specific passage. Scholars discovered that an early transcription of the verse initially identified the divining instrument as a “sprout” and a “thing of Nature”.

The passage evolves in the following sequence:

“which is the gift of working with the sprout” --> “which
is the gift of working with the rod” --> “which is the gift of Aaron”

“thing of nature” --> “rod of nature” --> “gift of Aaron”

The editing of this passage removed wording that would have otherwise helped readers to understand that Oliver Cowdery was actually using a divining-rod during the translation process. Consequently many Mormons now assume that the “gift” was merely the Aaronic Priesthood, and nothing more—an interpretation that would (although inaccurate) certainly be more consistent with currant Mormon orthopraxy. Needless to say, the editing of this passage was likely motivated by an increased desire to disassociate Mormonism from its past involvement in folk-magic.

What a fascinating example this is, showing the evolution of Mormon thought and culture!


[1]. See Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1998), 90-91.
[2]. Numbers 21:6-9, KJV. An article (on the duality of serpent symbolism in scripture) that may be of interest to readers (particularly to those who are believing Latter-day Saints), would be Andrew C. Skinner’s “Savior, Satan, and Serpent: The Duality of a Symbol in the Scriptures,” The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World, in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo: FARMS, 2000), 359-384.
[3]. John 3:14-15, KJV.
[4]. Helaman 8:15.
[5]. Exodus 7:9-12, KJV.
[6]. Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (Yale University Press, 1989), 44.
[7]. Albert G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, 791 (Philadelphia: Moss & Company, 1879), (accessed November 7, 2008).
[8]. Ibid., 72.
[9]. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood, 6. This eclecticism fits the prophet Joseph Smith like a glove. The prophet taught, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Joseph Smith (July 9, 1843), History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5: 499.
[10]. Allen G. Debus, “Scientific Truth and Occult Tradition: The Medical World of Ebenezer Sibley (1751-1799),” Medical History 26 (1982): 261. A French anti-Mason reports, “To captivate their [Ginii’s/angels] favor, the Cabalistic Mason is to study what we should call the Conjuring-book. He must be well versed in the names and signs of the planets and constellations; he must also know whether it be a good or evil Genius which presides over it, and which are the numbers that represent them… [T]he Cabalistic Mason will be favoured by these good and evil Gennii, in proportion to the confidence he has in their power; they will appear to him, and they will explain more to him in the magic table, than the human understanding can conceive.” Abbe Baurrl, Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism: A Translation from the French of The Abbe Barruel 2 (New York, 1799): 182-83, (accessed November 16, 2008).
[11]. Clyde R. Frosberg Jr., Equal Rights: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 47. Frosberg also overlooks the inverted cross.
[12]. “A History of the Divining Rod; With the Adventures of an Old Rodsman,” The United States Democratic Review 26, no. 141 (March 1850): 218, (accessed March 27, 2009); as also quoted in Seth L. Bryant, “Latter-Day Anguish and the Epic of greater Mormonism,” (master’s thesis, University of Florida, December 2008), 91. For more information on divining rods and Joseph Smith’s activities in treasure hunting, see Ronald W. Walker, “The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” BYU Studies 24, no. 3 (Fall 1984): 429-59.
[13]. Book of Commandments 7:3.
[14]. Doctrine and Covenants 8:6-8.
[15]. The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 16-17.


Images (in order as presented in this post):

Joseph Smith’s serpent walking cane, from Clyde R. Forsberg Jr.’s Equal Rights: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture, 48. Photograph taken by D. Michael Quinn.

Masonic Mark Jewel (1812), from Masonic Symbols in American Decorative Arts, fig 27.

Photo taken by author of Joseph Smith's serpent walking cane, on display at the Museum of Church History and Art.

Close up photo taken by author of the shield on Joseph Smith's cane.

Scan of an image provided in Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revelation Books (Facsimile Edition), 16.

2 July 2010 Edit--Removed Misinterpreted BoM Quote.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cross: LDS Contempt for the Christian Symbol

As some of my readers already know, I have received media attention lately in the Salt Lake Tribune and Mormon Times (published in the Deseret News). Although both stories covered research that I did for my MA thesis, the second article specifically reacts to the presentation I delivered at last month's SLC Sunstone Symposium.

Overall, I am quite happy with these articles. A couple issues that I have are as follows: The Salt Lake Tribune piece mentions how I (as a teenage kid) stole a cross necklace and wore it to church; but then the article gives the false impression that my mother knew about my theft, and was more concerned about me hiding the necklace than returning it. No. My mother never knew that I stole it (until recently, that is).

The Mormon Times piece is also good, but seems to have been overly concerned about Church PR. I understand and empathize with Latter-day Saints who may not like the words taboo / opposition / contempt / aversion. However, I remain convinced that these labels apply (in one way or another) to the general attitude Mormons have had toward the cross. "General" is the key-word here, since I fully understand that some Mormons embrace the symbol--but these people (as I see it) are hardly representative of the Mormon mainstream. The good news, though, is that the Mormon minority seems to be growing, and that the aversion still existing among most Latter-day Saints is softening. Will the Mormon mainstream ever drop their negative perception of the symbol? I suppose only time will tell. For the moment, the Church seems to be moving in that direction.

Image: Amelia Folsom Young (Briaham Young's polygamous wife). Photograph from Utah State Historical Society Classified Photo Collection, no. 14195.


Edit to add:

I am scheduled to appear as a guest for John Larson's Mormon Expressions podcast. The interview should be available September 22nd at the following link:

Also... here is a newspaper article that may be of interest to readers, which I think compliments my research (about Mormon/Catholic relations) quite nicely:

"Catholic-LDS relations through the years - warming trend follows a cold war," Salt Lake Tribune

Thanks to Seth Bryant for bringing this article to my attention.