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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
. See Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1998), 90-91.
. 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.
. John 3:14-15, KJV.
. Helaman 8:15.
. Exodus 7:9-12, KJV.
. Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (Yale University Press, 1989), 44.
. Albert G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, 791 (Philadelphia: Moss & Company, 1879), http://books.google.com/books?id=fAgIAAAAQAAJ&pg= (accessed November 7, 2008).
. Ibid., 72.
. 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.
. 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, http://books.google.com/books?id=v-wvAAAAMAAJ (accessed November 16, 2008).
. 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.
. “A History of the Divining Rod; With the Adventures of an Old Rodsman,” The United States Democratic Review 26, no. 141 (March 1850): 218, http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=AGD1642-0026-66 (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.
. Book of Commandments 7:3.
. Doctrine and Covenants 8:6-8.
. 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.