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:


  1. Interesting stuff, Mike. I don't think it's especially likely since, as you noted, the compass had a more traditional purpose: directing them which direction to travel. Unless they're just clearly apparent, I don't know that we need to look at any other sources beside the traditional use of a compass combined with the revelatory aspects of biblical religion in order to find the inspiration behind the Liahona. But interesting all the same.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Joseph. We both agree that the Liahona was no ordinary compass, but rather was said to innately have special magical/divine powers. Similar to the Rod of Aaron, it could receive direct communication from god (1 Nephi 18:28), and worked according to the faithfulness of those using it (18:12). And similar to the Rod of Aaron, there were things done to the Liahona to "Prepare" it for use (2 Nephi 5:12). If it is given that the BoM is a 19th century document... then would you agree that a Divining rod could have served the purpose just as well? This is where I am coming from. Unlike you, I start with the conclusion that the BoM is19th century, and then ask, "Well... why wasn't a divining rod used in the narrative?" I think my find provides a probable answer to that question, and one that seems far more likely than the Enochian globes connection. Do we agree on that much?

  3. Interesting find Mike. I have to agree that I have long thought that this particular Mormon-Masonic connection has always been in my mind weak if a connection at all. I like this connection and I think that your further analysis in the response above is essential to your argument.

  4. Thanks George!

    One point of clarification for readers. In my response to Joseph Antley, I said "rod of Aaron" instead of "divining rod." Joseph Smith equated the two, as did other treasure seekers of his day.

    Here is a blog entry I wrote last year that provides information about this:

  5. Mike,

    I find your discovery quite interesting. I will have to think about this idea further, but I see possibilities.

    I appreciate your discovery and believe this is what makes history exciting. Discovering new material and causing scholars to look at the evidence differently.

    I do find the Masonic link compelling. The idea that the globe is able to give "the most distinct idea of any problem or proposition, as well as enabling it to solve the same" seems to suggest a link to the Liahona.

    But I believe Smith was quite comfortable pulling ideas from various sources and incorporating them into his theology and teachings.

  6. Fair enough, Joe. While pondering this possibility, here is a beautiful illustration that I found online of terrestrial and celestial globes. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_GTn_xtdv6MA/SwTFw-z2t1I/AAAAAAAAEoU/-BapOxO-KoU/s1600/globes.jpg
    I could be wrong, but I am unaware of any Masonic globes having "spindles," as described in the Book of Mormon. All the best.

  7. @Joe- I understand your thought on this. However, there are other aspects of the Masonic context of these globes that should dissuade a historian from drawing a parallel with the liahona. As mentioned by Mike these globes were associated within the Masonic context interchangeably with the pillars of Enoch, the pillars in front of King Solomon's temple Jachin and Boaz, and with similar pillars within the Masonic lodge. In this context they would have ranged in size from the proportions of a human head to much larger and they would all be physically part of the pillar and not separable from the columns. These physical motifs are widely disparate from what Joseph Smith was describing in the Book of Mormon with regards to the liahona.

    Contrary to apologetic claims to the contrary, Joseph Smith was very well informed about Masonic content in his early years, likely even before the Morgan Affair. Joseph Smith's description of the secret combinations within the Book of Mormon clearly show a sophisticated understanding of Masonic legend and history that is far deeper than what he could have learned from Anti-Masonic sources following the Morgan Affair. Because of Joseph Smith's demonstrated knowledge of detailed information concerning the Fraternity as displayed in the Book of Mormon and repeatedly through the Kirtland and Missouri periods, I would suggest that Joseph Smith understood Masonic workings in detail at the time he wrote the Book of Mormon. For Joseph to have made this association, which is largely can only be made if one doesn't understand the Masonic context, is unlikely.

  8. Mike,

    I want to make clear that I believe your discovery is very important. New information often takes a while to assimilate in ones mind.

    As you point out, the Mineral compass would have the “spindles” to “point the way”, an essential feature found in the Liahona.

    Great work.

  9. Joe,
    I know what you mean. Clair Barrus recently pointed out to me that I was misinterpreting a BoM passage in one of my posts. I had always interpreted it this way, so it took an extra while for me to chew it over and see his point. I appreciate your kind remarks.

    Great points.

  10. Thanks Mike.


    I agree with you and think your point about the globes being on the columns and the large size are problems for the comparison. I am in complete agreement about Smith and his knowledge of Masonry. Mike Homer is working on a book about Mormonism and Masonry. I will send him a link to Mike's post and see if he will comment.

    Rick Grunder's Mormon Parallels has a couple of entries that continue to cause me to believe Smith would adapt the globes for his use.

    Jeremy L[add]CROSS, THE TRUE MASONIC CHART. 1826 writes about the globes, "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. [p. 24]"

    William MORGAN,(1774-1826). ILLUSTRATIONS OF MASONRY, BY ONE OF THE FRATERNITY 1827 wrote, "They also have two large globes or balls, one on each [pillar]; those globes or balls contain on their convex surfaces all the maps and charts of the celestial and terrestrial bodies, they are said to be thus extensive, to denote the universality of masonry, and that a Mason's charity ought to be equally extensive. Their composition is molten, or cast brass, they were cast on the banks of the river Jordan" page 52

  11. @Joe- Hmmmm .... Remembering that these globes are introduced in the Fellow Craft degree which is entirely about obtaining an education in the seven liberal arts and sciences (including astronomy and geometry). I don't find anything in the above statements that suggest a connection to the liahona. Remember that I was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason in Nashville, I am currently serving as the Junior Warden for my lodge in Michigan, I belong to two Masonic bodies of research, I am a 32° Mason, I have not only been the candidate in but given the lectures above discussed multiple times. I have also been a temple worker in three Mormon temples and I am extremely knowledgeable in history of both organizations. I have to say even today after sitting through the rituals multiple times, I don't see what you are getting at here. Just FWIW I am a STRONG advocate of the Mormon-Masonic connection and see MANY connections between the organization which have never been published or discussed in the public arena. Given that I just don't see this one ... Perhaps you can explain what you mean.

  12. George,

    I think we are in more agreement than not. I will defer to you as an expert in both areas.

    My only other comment would be that as a non-Mason, I look at the information completely different than you. Even with Smith being immersed in the Masonic culture, he would not see Masonry symbols as an expert would i.e., someone like yourself.

  13. @Joe- I think you make a good point. My idea is premised on Joseph Smith being much more familiar with Freemasonry during the 1820s than most historian have suggested. That being said, I have a substantial amount of evidence that Joseph Smith was substantially more informed about Freemasonry during thing the New York, Kirtland and Missouri periods than historians have even fathomed.

  14. Lehi's use of the Liahona reminds me somewhat of Isaac Bullard, a prophet with a small band of followers who had settled in Woodstock, NY. Around 1816 he had a rod that would point the direction of travel as they searched for their promised land. The they traveled from New York, to Ohio, and onto Missouri where he identified his "New Jerusalem."

    An 1826 Palmyra newspaper stated that when they "landed at the Little Prairie, [Missouri]. The prophet's staff, which by the direction of its fall had hitherto pointed out the way, now stood still; and he declared that here he was commanded to settle and build a church;"

  15. Here is a source describing a mineral compass as being encased in a curcular brass box:

    “The ores of most frequent occurrence in Sweden, those of magnetic iron, are always more or less polar.... For this reason explorations for iron ore are invariably made with a compass, specially constructed for the purpose. This instrument, invented in the last century by the celebrated Swedish miner, Daniel Tilas, consists of a circular brass box, in which a magnetic needle is horizontally suspended on a long vertical brass pin, by means of a long glass cap. The brass terminates above in a short steel point on which a cap rotates. At the bottom of this is a brass stirrup, provided with fine holes, through which pass the horizontal pins supporting the needle. To enable the needle to dip, there is a long slot cut along the middle of it. Thus the needle can move both in a horizontal and in a vertical plane; and it is balanced in such a way that it takes a horizontal position when acted on by terrestrial magnetism alone. In using this instrument for prospecting purposes, it is necessary to observe merely the dip of the needle. In this way it is easy to ascertain the existence of attractive iron ore, and the approximate extent of the deposits, even when they are covered by other strata or by water.”
    Journal of the Society of Arts (10 December 1897), 67, http://books.google.com/books?id=gVRDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA67#v=onepage&q&f=false

  16. Thanks for sharing that Clair. If the "mineral rod" was believed to do such things, I think it is likely that similar superstitions would have been assumed about the "mineral compass".

    According to Henry Defrance's_Modern Dowser_ (first published in 1930), "Long ago, in the time of Baron de Beausoleil, we read of a certain mineral compass; we are not told much about it, but it seems to have been an accessory of the rod." http://books.google.com/books?id=ClVkji_llAgC&pg=PA121
    Unfortunately, Defrance does not document his report.

  17. Mike Ash's most recent Mormon Times article is about the Liahona.
    He didn't talk about the mineral compass, though. Bummer.

  18. I am doing a radio blog called Liahona TImes at BlogTalkRadio. I would love to discuss the concept of the mineral compass and whether the one you mention in Sweden could be based on ancient knowledge handed down thru the Goths/Gotts people since the days of HA-Goth.