Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Liahona, a Mineral Compass?

While considering the Smith family involvement in money-digging, and the treasure lore imbedded in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 13:33-36; Mormon 1:18), it has always seemed rather curious to me that Lehi found outside his tent the Liahona (compass), rather than a divining rod (Alma 37: 38-40).

Granted, the Book of Mormon says nothing about the Liahona being used for treasure seeking. Though this be the case, it is also true that some treasure seekers believed the divining rod (like the Liahona) could not only direct the practitioner to desired locations, but the rod could also communicate the will of God.

Some scholars have associated the Liahona with the Masonic globes of Enoch, quoting the following from Thomas Smith Web’s The Freemason’s Montor (1818):

They are the noblest instruments for improving the mind, and giving it the most distinct idea of any problem or proposition, as well as enabling it to solve the same. Contemplating these bodies, we are inspired with a due reverence for the Deity and his works, and are induced to encourage the studies of astronomy, geography, navigation, and the arts dependent on them.

With all due respect to these scholars, I am of the opinion that this connection quickly unravels when the quote’s entire context is considered. Unlike the Book of Mormon narrative’s description of the Liahona, there is nothing in Web’s description to suggest that the globes had mechanical “spindles” to “point the way.” Web instead describes the globes in this way:

These globes are two artificial spherical bodies, on the convex surfaces of which are represented the countries, seas, and various parts of the earth, the face of the heavens, the planetary revolutions, and other important particulars. The sphere with the parts of the earth delineated on its surface is called the terrestrial globe, and that with the constellations and other heavenly bodies, the celestial globe.

Now, considering these two quotes together... of course the terrestrial and celestial globes would “encourage the studies” of “geography [and] navigation,” but this is because the globes were maps, not compasses that could communicate the will of God.
The terrestrial globe, a map of the earth.
The celestial globe, a constellation map.

Is there a better connection to be made elsewhere—perhaps from a 19th century source—that could have been known by a family involved in treasure digging?
While researching 19th century treasure lore yesterday, I stumbled upon the following advertisement in The Plattsburgh Republican, 18 July 1874:

A compass used for treasure digging!! Is this the answer? Could it be that the Smith family assumed mineral compasses could communicate the will of God, like divining rods could? Had they even heard of mineral compasses? Unfortunately, the advertisement was dated fifty years too late, so I then looked for earlier sources and finally ended my search (of all places!) at an Encyclopedia Britannica (1824) entry under Bletonism—“a faculty of perceiving and indicating subterraneous springs and currents by sensation.” Under this entry the following is found: