America's Hermetic Prophet
by Lance S. Owens
This article first appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions,
Spring 1995. In slightly revised form, it also appears in the book The Prophet
Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith (edited by Bryan Waterman, Signature
Books, 1999). It is reproduced here by permission of the author.
Readers seeking a more in-depth study of the material covered in this short article
might be interested in a longer essay, "Joseph Smith and
Kabbalah: The Occult Connection" by Lance S. Owens – published in Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought, Fall 1994.
Joseph Smith: America's Hermetic Prophet
by Lance S. Owens
You don't know me – you never will. You never knew my heart. No man knows my history.
I cannot tell it; I shall never undertake it. I don't blame anyone for not believing my
history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.
– Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844.
IF THERE IS A RELIGION uniquely and intrinsically American – a religion worked from its
soil, and cast in the ardent furnace of its primal dreams – that religion must be
Mormonism. Founded in 1830 by the then twenty-four year old Joseph Smith, the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as it is formally named) has emerged from relative
insularity during the mid-twentieth century to become a world-wide movement now numbering
nine million members. Patriotic, conservative, influential, and vastly wealthy: modern
Mormonism is a bastion of American culture.
Despite its success and respectability, however, a fundamental crisis looms before
Joseph Smith's church – and the crux of the predicament is Joseph Smith. Late
twentieth-century Mormonism is being forced into an uncomfortable confrontation with its
early nineteenth-century origins – an inevitable encounter given the preeminent import of
the founding prophet to his religion. From the start, Joseph Smith has been cast by his
church as a man more enlightened than any mortal to walk the earth since the passing of
the last biblical apostles. No historical life could be granted a more mythological tenor
than has his. To Mormons, Joseph Smith is, simply, "The Prophet". He bares the
imago Christi. He alone stands as doorkeeper to the last dispensation of time; to him
angels came and restored God's necessary priestly "keys" and powers; he built
the Temple and taught the ancient rituals which therein make of men and women, gods.
But now, one hundred and fifty years after his death, Smith's place in Western
religious history is undergoing an important and creative reevaluation. Historians and
religious critics alike are examining him anew. And in his history's newest reading,
themes unrecognized by its orthodox interpreters are quickly moving to stage center. Quite
simply put, modern Mormonism – guardian of the Prophet's story – has no idea what to do with
the rediscovered, historical, and rather occult Joseph Smith.
Two years ago, Harold Bloom's boldly original work, The American Religion, offered
introduction to this unknown Prophet. The intrinsic and true American religion, pronounces
Bloom in his widely reviewed book, is a kind of Gnosticism – alone a surprising enough
declaration. But in evidence of this American Gnosis and as first hero of his story, Bloom
gives us Joseph Smith. Of the man himself, he judges:
Other Americans have been religion makers....but none of them has the imaginative
vitality of Joseph Smith's revelation, a judgment one makes on the authority of a lifetime
spent in apprehending the visions of great poets and original speculators.... So
self-created was he that he transcends Emerson and Whitman in my imaginative response, and
takes his place with the great figures of our fiction."1
And of his religious creation,
The God of Joseph Smith is a daring revival of the God of some of the Kabbalists and
Gnostics, prophetic sages who, like Smith himself, asserted that they had returned to the
true religion....Mormonism is a purely American Gnosis, for which Joseph Smith was and is
a far more crucial figure than Jesus could be. Smith is not just 'a' prophet, another
prophet, but he is the essential prophet of these latter days, leading into the end time,
whenever it comes.2
Joseph Smith a modern Gnostic prophet? Certainly nowhere within the vast domains of
America religion did this proclamation cause more consternation or amazement than within
its Mormon provinces and borderlands. But Bloom (a self-pronounced "Jewish
Gnostic") is no casual observer; his knowledge of Gnosis and Kabbalah is tempered by
vast experience critiquing the creative matrix of its vision. His thesis deserves – and is
receiving – attention. Joseph Smith is taking on a new visage, and words like
"gnostic", "kabbalistic" and "hermetic" have suddenly gained
a quite prominent place in the vocabulary employed by those trying to understand him. [See sidebar, below: "Was Joseph Smith a Gnostic?"]
In the form now foreshadowed, Joseph Smith's story is, of course, almost entirely
unknown to his church. The oft-repeated orthodox version of the story – and the mythic
function of that story's recounting – remains so central to the Mormon past and present
that it must be heard before exploring the evolving (and in turn, heretical) rereading.
That story begins around 1820 when the adolescent Smith retired to a grove near his
family's farm in Palmyra, New York and knelt in prayer. Troubled over his own deeply
aroused religious yearnings and uncertain where to turn for sustenance, he felt compelled
to petition God's mercy. "The Lord heard my cry in the wilderness", he wrote in
his dairy several years later, "and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord a
pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested
upon me and I was filled with the spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me
and I saw the Lord."3 When he came to himself again,
he was lying on his back, totally drained of strength, looking up at heaven. This was the
new Prophet's first vision.
The young man apparently told several persons about his experience but, outside his own
closely knit family, the account was met with general derision. Then in 1823 there came a
second manifestation. On the night of September 21, while engaged again in prayer, a light
suddenly began filling his room. Within the light there appeared an angelic being.
"His whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like
Joseph Smith's Seer Stone, a possible prototype of the
Urim and Thummim, atop a first edition of the Book of Mormon
The angel – named Moroni – explained there was a book deposited in a nearby hill, a
record written upon gold plates by the ancient inhabitants of the American continent.
Joseph was instructed that in due time he would be allowed to obtain the record and
commence its translation. No sooner had the messenger departed and the vision ceased, than
it began again. Three times the messenger came, each time repeating exactly the same
message. As the cock crowed dawn, the final apparition ended. His experience had occupied
the entire night.
That day Joseph visited the hill. Straightway he found the location shown him in the
vision, and there unearthed a stone box containing the plates. The angel Moroni again
appeared, however, warning he could not yet remove the plates from their resting place.
Instead, he would need return to the spot on this same appointed day each year for four
years. Only on the fourth visit would he be allowed to remove the treasure and begin the
work of translation. Smith did as instructed and four years later, on September 22, 1827,
the angel delivered the record to his charge.
Soon after obtaining the records, Joseph began his translation. The record was engraved
upon the plates in "reformed Egyptian", a language Smith read by gazing into the
"Urim and Thummim", the biblical "seers" delivered to him with the
plates. Called the Book of Mormon after its last ancient redactor and scribe, the record
purportedly contained an abridged history of America's ancient inhabitants – descendants of
a Jewish clan who fled Jerusalem shortly before destruction of the first Temple. Led by
their prophetic patriarch, the wandering Israelites had built a boat, launched themselves
into the ocean, and eventually been washed ashore somewhere in the Americas. After arrival
in the new land, their descendants multiplied greatly, but were plagued by perpetual
fratricidal divisions: a few of the people remained loyal to God, the prophets and their
heritage as descendants of Israel, while many more became unbelieving pagans.
According to the book, Christ had appeared after his resurrection and taught this
American remnant of Israel. For a century thereafter the converted Christians lived in
peace; but, inevitably, dissension returned. About 400 years after Christ's visitation
there came a final series of great wars in which the barbarous unbelievers vanquished the
last of Christ's people. Prior to this final catastrophe, the golden records comprising
the Book of Mormon were hidden up to await the time when God would call them forth again.
The call came in 1830. In March of that year three thousand copies of the Book of
Mormon were printed. A few weeks later the Church of Christ (as it was first named) was
established with Joseph Smith as its prophet, seer and revelator. Though central to the
events, the Book of Mormon was, however, only one element in the complete
"restoration". Smith soon produced several other less noted pseudepigraphic
works, prophetic texts authored under identity of the ancients: books of Enoch, Abraham,
and Moses. After the Angel Moroni (who, we should add, returned and retrieved from Smith
the golden plates), several other angelic messengers also came bearing "keys"
pertaining to the true church of God – priestly powers and consecrations lost in the great
apostasy overtaking Christianity after its first centuries. John the Baptist appeared and
ordained Smith and a disciple to the lesser, or Aaronic, priesthood, granting the
authority to baptize. Next came a visitation of the apostles Peter, James and John, who
ordained Joseph to the higher priesthood after the ancient order of Melchizedek. By 1836,
Elijah, Moses, and Christ had all appeared to the new prophet, restoring the fullness of
God's power and truth.
Duly ordained to the restored priesthood, and with Book of Mormon in hand, Joseph's
disciples fanned out across the northeastern states. Their message was simple: the ancient
church of God had been restored with its powers, priesthood, and with a re-opened canon – a
restoration accomplished by God through a modern prophet. The flock grew quickly.
By 1836, a Mormon communalist society flourished at Kirtland, Ohio (near Cleveland),
and a second gathering of Saints was taking form on the Missouri frontier. But between
1837 and 1839 a series of disasters struck. First, amidst a general financial collapse,
the Kirtland community was abandoned. Then the new Zion in Missouri came under violent
persecution, culminating in the "Mormon war", a conflict which finally forced
all Mormons out of the state under threat of extermination. From this 1839 debacle in
Missouri, the beleaguered Mormon refugees retreated to Illinois, and the new city named by
the Prophet "Nauvoo".
Photograph (c. 1845) of the Mormon temple
constructed at Nauvoo, Illinois
Over the next four years the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo emerged from a swampy
backwater to become, in 1844, one of the largest cities in state of Illinois. Nearly
twenty thousand converts answered the call to Joseph's new Zion, four thousand of them
arriving from England alone. Handsome brick homes and shops lined the city's well-planned
streets; riverboats unloaded at its Mississippi docks. And on the bluff above, overlooking
the city and river, masons raised a new temple after the ancient order of Solomon.
But behind a facade of success, danger and turmoil encompassed the Prophet. By the
Spring of 1844 rumors of his multiple marriages and sexual liaisons, of strange rituals
and unorthodox teachings, heralded growing turmoil within the Mormon community. Plots
abounded. Events were quickly escalating towards scandal and open schism. In early June
prominent Mormon dissidents assembled a press in Nauvoo with the intent to publish a paper
exposing Smith's secret teachings, including the practice called polygamy. The first (and
only) issue of the paper did just that, creating an intolerable situation for Smith. He
responded by declaring the press a public nuisance and ordering it destroyed.
For his enemies, this act of obstructing a free press was the last straw: the Prophet
had proven himself a theocratic tyrant, and played directly into their hands. He was
charged with treason and commanded by the Governor of Illinois to surrender himself.
Hoping to avoid the mob violence sure to be directed at Nauvoo if he resisted or fled,
Smith surrendered to jail in the nearby but hostile village of Carthage, well aware that
he would probably never be allowed to escape alive. As expected, his most rabid enemies
quickly gathered to Carthage, and on June 27, 1844 a mob with painted faces – composed in
part of the militia assigned by the Governor to protect him – battered down the jail doors
and there shot to death both Joseph and his brother, Hyrum.
This summary of Smith's history is widely canonized in published accounts of his life.
But there is another side to the history just now emerging. Ten years ago a bizarre series
of events focused attention on several other even more curious facts – elements never
before integrated into narrations of Joseph Smith's story. When add, they change its tenor
In the early 1980's an obscure book dealer in Salt Lake City named Mark Hofmann began
unearthing a series of previously unknown documents relating to the early history of
Mormonism. Most troublesome among these was a letter purportedly written in 1830 by one of
Joseph's first disciples. Brimming with references to treasures and enchantments, the
letter related how Joseph Smith actually obtained the Book of Mormon not from an angel,
but from a magical white salamander which transfigured itself into a spirit. When
disclosed publicly in 1985, the "Salamander letter" – as it became
known – received prominent discussion in the national media, and stimulated intense new
activity in circles studying early Mormonism.
Unsettled by the damaging publicity brought by the letter, Mormon church authorities
began negotiating with Hofmann to purchase and sequester other "newly
discovered" materials, particularly any that might impugn orthodox versions of their
history. These secret and highly irregular dealings tragically unraveled after a Mormon
historian involved with the documents was the victim of a brutal bomb murder. Complex
forensic investigations revolving around the murder eventually revealed the
"Salamander letter" and several companion documents to be bogus – the
pathologically intuitive creations of Hofmann, a master forger turned killer. 4
By then, however, several historians already had undertaken detailed reevaluations of
Smith, focusing careful attention towards any overlooked associations he might have had
with things magical. Ironically, investigators soon brought to the surface a wealth of
unquestionably genuine historical evidence – much of it long available but either
misunderstood, suppressed, or ignored – substantiating that Smith and his early followers
had multiple involvements with magic, irregular Freemasonry, and traditions generally
Though a work still very much "in progress", Joseph Smith's story is now
being pieced together in a new and entirely unorthodox fashion. 5
Beginning in his late-adolescent years Joseph was first recognized by others to have
paranormal abilities, and between 1822 and 1827 he was enlisted to act as "seer"
for several groups engaged in treasure digging. Not only did he possessed a "seer
stone" into which he could gaze and locate things lost or hidden in the earth, but it
has recently became evident this same stone was probably the "Urim and Thummim"
later used to "translate" portions of the Book of Mormon. According to
contemporary accounts of the book's writing, Joseph would place his "seer stone"
in the crown of his hat, and then bend forward with his arms upon his knees and his face
buried in the hat. Gazing into the stone while in this posture, he would visualize and
then dictate the words to a scribe seated nearby.
One of three magical parchments in possession of the
Joseph Smith family. This one is called the
"Holiness to the Lord" parchment.
The treasure digging activities also had involved magical rituals, and it is likely
Joseph Smith was cognizant of at least the rudiments of ceremonial magic during his
adolescent years. A possible occult mentor to the young Smith has also been identified – a
physician named Dr. Luman Walter. Walter was a distant cousin of Smith's future wife and a
member of the circle associated with Smith's early treasure quests. By contemporary
reports he was not only a physician, but a magician and mesmerist who had traveled
extensively in Europe to obtain "profound learning" – probably including
knowledge of alchemy, Paracelcian medicine, and hermetic lore. Other pieces of evidence
added to the picture. Three very curious parchments and a dagger owned by Joseph Smith's
brother, Hyrum, have been careful preserved by his descendants as sacred relics, handed
down from eldest son to eldest son after his death. Family tradition maintained they were
religious objects somehow used by Hyrum and Joseph. When finally allowed scrutiny by
individuals outside the family, it was recognized they were the implements of a ceremonial
The dagger bears the sigil of Mars. The three parchments, each apparently intended for
a different magical operation, are inscribed with a variety of magic symbols and sigils.
Another heirloom also fell into perspective: a "silver medallion" owned by
Joseph Smith and carried on his person at the time of his murder in Carthage jail, was
identified to be a talisman. It is inscribed front and back with the magic square and
sigil of Jupiter, the astrological force associated with the year of Joseph Smith's birth.
All of these items could have been constructed using the standard texts of ceremonial
magic available in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: Agrippa's Occult
Philosophy, Sibly's Occult Sciences, and Barrett's The Magus.
In this light, the visit of the angel Moroni took on unusual aspects. The angel had
appeared on the night of the Autumnal equinox, between midnight and dawn – hours auspicious
for a magical invocation. On the day of the equinox Joseph had subsequently made his four
annual visits to the hill. When finally he retrieved the plates, it was the eve of the
equinox, in the first hour after midnight. Accounts suggested he had been required to take
with him that night a consort (his wife), to ride a black horse, and to dress in
black – all lending a further magical tenor to the operation.
Historians puzzled over how this information fit into the more commonly recounted story
of Smith. Had the magical parchments been used to invoke the Angel Moroni or other of the
angelic visitors seen by Joseph? And above all, how did this relate to the doctrinal
substance and evolution of Mormonism, which seemed outwardly devoid of a magical tenor?
While ceremonial magic was a virtually unknown – or at least, little documented – element
in Mormonism as encountered by Joseph's followers, other occult aspects in his religion
were openly evident. The most obvious was its irregular Masonic connections. In 1842, two
years before his death, Joseph had embraced Masonry. But long before his own initiation as
a Mason in Nauvoo, he had traveled in company with Masons – a society which included, among
other prominent disciples, Brigham Young. His earliest connection with the Craft probably
came with his brother (and close life-long companion) Hyrum's initiation as a Mason around
1826, just shortly before Joseph began work on the Book of Mormon.6
The silver "Jupiter talisman" that Joseph's
had with him when he
martyred at Carthage jail.
Sometime before 1826, Joseph may even have had contact with the historically important
Masonic figure, Capt. William Morgan. Morgan published the first American authored exposť
of Masonic rites at Batavia, New York in 1826; his disappearance (and assumed murder) just
before the book's printing was widely judged an act of Masonic vengeance and sparked a
national wave of fierce anti-Masonic activity. Given their close geographic
proximity – they lived about twelve miles apart – it is quite possible Morgan and Smith met;
one nineteenth century Masonic historian even suggested that Smith influenced Morgan.
Interestingly, in 1834 the widow of William Morgan, Lucinda, converted to Mormonism
along with her second husband, George Washington Harris. Harris was also a Mason and
former associate of William Morgan. Joseph Smith became closely acquainted with George and
Lucinda around 1836, and sometime thereafter he entered into an intimate relationship with
Lucinda. Eventually Lucinda became one of his ritually wed "spiritual wives" – a
relationship which fully evolved despite her still being married to Harris.
The Prophet's intercourse with Masonry after 1841 became extremely complex. In June of
1841, efforts to establish a Masonic Lodge at Nauvoo began, and a few months later a
dispensation for the Lodge was granted. On March 15, 1842 the lodge was installed, and
that evening Joseph Smith was initiated. The next day he was passed and raised to the
sublime degree of Master Mason. Two days later Smith organize a "Female Relief
Society", perhaps intending it to be a Masonic auxiliary, or the beginning of an
"adoptive", androgynous new Mormon Masonry. Eventually ever officer of the
Female Relief Society also became a spiritual wife and consort of Joseph's, with his first
wife Emma acting as president of the Society (a situation understandably complicated by
the fact that Emma did not completely understand Joseph's relationship with the other
These last three years before his murder in 1844 were unquestionably the most creative
period in a uniquely creative life. Shortly after his Masonic initiations, Smith began
formulating the rituals that would be instituted in his own Mormon Temple, then still
under early phases of construction in Nauvoo. Six weeks later a first version of this
"endowment" (as the ritual was subsequently called) was given by Joseph to a
"Holy Order" of nine disciples, all of whom were Master Masons. Many elements of
the "endowment" ritual directly paralleled Masonic ceremony, a fact plainly
evident to participants. Smith explained to his followers that Masonry was a remnant – even
if somewhat corrupted – of the ancient priesthood God had commissioned him to restore in
its fullness. In turn, essentially every prominent male figure in the Mormon Church who
was present as an adult in Nauvoo became a Master Mason.
Another unusual element entered the matrix of Smith's creativity around this time. From
his associations with ceremonial magic and then Masonry, Smith had almost certainly heard
of "Cabala". But in 1841 a Jew raised in the Polish borderlands of Prussia,
educated at the University of Berlin, and familiar with Kabbalah, joined the Mormon
church, migrated to Nauvoo, and there became Smith's frequent companion and tutor in
Hebrew. Documentation has recently come to light suggesting this individual, Alexander
Neibaur, not only knew Kabbalah, but probably possessed in Nauvoo a copy of its classic
text, the Zohar. Joseph likely became familiar with the Zohar while under the tutelage of
Neibaur. Indeed, it appears Smith's April 7, 1844 public declaration of a plurality of
Gods was supported by an exegesis on the first Hebrew words of Genesis (Bereshith bara
Elohim) drawn from opening section of the Zohar.7
Hyrum Smith, the brother
of the Prophet Joseph Smith
During the period after 1841, Joseph introduced the practice of plural "celestial
marriage" – what later evolved into Mormon polygamy in Utah – to a small group of his
most trusted followers. In this era not only men, but a few women – like Lucinda – secretly
took a "plural" spouse. The sacred wedding ritualized by Smith was a
transformative union that anointed men and women to become "priests and
priestesses", "kings and queens", and then ultimately Goddess and God – the
dual creative substance of Divinity in eternal, tantric intercourse. The ceremony was
intended to be performed in the holiest precincts of his new Temple. By late 1843 Joseph
revealed several ritual extensions to the "endowment", all ultimately
incorporated into Mormon Temple ceremony. This legacy of mysterious initatory rituals
revealed by Joseph Smith between 1842 and 1844 remains little altered as the sacred core
Fifty years later, at the end of the nineteenth century, leaders of the Utah church
would still occasionally state in private that the Mormon temple ritual embodied
"true Masonry" – a fact unknown to most modern Mormons. But then, of course,
almost all of this history is unknown to the average modern Mormon. Even well-educated
"Latter-day Saints" today seldom understand the origins of the compass and
square embroidered upon the breasts of the ritual garment worn by temple initiates. The
relationship of these temple rituals' development with Joseph Smith's occult vision and
the concurrent introduction of Masonry in Nauvoo is now, however, becoming the subject of
intense renewed interest.
In the autumn of 1994 pieces of the prophet puzzle began falling into place; a unifying
pattern was discerned within the unusual array of historical information outlined above.
Joseph Smith's quest for a sacred golden treasure buried in dark earth, his involvement
with ceremonial magic, the angelic visitations, the pseudepigraphic texts he
"translated", his declaration of Masonry as a remnant of priesthood, and his
restoration of a Temple with its central mystery of a sacred wedding – all could be fitted
into one very recently recognized context: Hermeticism.
Not only did Smith have numerous documented associations with historical legacies of
Hermeticism such as magic and Masonry, but his religious creation also evidenced several
parallels with Hermetic ideas. John L. Brooke, professor of history at Tufts University,
has recently explored this subject in a seminal 1994 study of Mormonism and Hermeticism, The
Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.8
Brooke notes the "striking parallels between the Mormon concepts of coequality of
matter and spirit, of the covenant of celestial marriage, and of an ultimate goal of human
godhood and the philosophical traditions of alchemy and Hermeticism, drawn from the
ancient world and fused with Christianity in the Italian Renaissance." Of course, in
this light Harold Bloom's poetic reading of Joseph Smith as a "Gnostic" takes on
broadened nuances: though unnoted by Bloom, Smith's religion-making imagination was allied
in several ways with remnants of an hermetic tradition frequently linked to gnosticism.
A "Sunstone" used in decorating the exterior of
Joseph Smith's Temple in Nauvoo.
In investigating Smith's connection with Hermeticism, historical attention is also
being newly focused on evidences supporting an oft-ignored claim of esoteric lore: the
import of Hermeticism in the evolution of early America's religious consciousness and
political culture. This has broad implications for our understanding of the new nation's
religious history. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there developed within
Europe's religious crucible a complex alloying of Hermeticism and alchemical mysticism
with radical aspirations for Christian reformation. Brooke well documents how this
intersection between dispensational restorationism and the hermetic occult flowed into
early American culture and religion: among Quakers, Pietists, and perfectionists coming to
Pennsylvania and New Jersey between about 1650 and 1730; through the "culture of
print" conveyed by alchemical and hermetic texts brought from Europe; and in the
development of late-eighteenth century esoteric Masonry with its rich foundations in
Kabbalistic, hermetic and alchemical mythology.
As a young man in the company of occult treasure seekers, drawing magic circles and
battling enchantments in the Pennsylvania countryside, Joseph Smith probably first learned
about this alternative and very un-Puritan religious vision. Smith may even have there
heard the old Rosicrucian legend of a sixteen year old prophet named Christian Rosencreutz
and the mysterious Book M which he had translated. Certainly he would have learned of
alchemy's transmutational mystery, and of the Philosopher's Stone. Soon after, the
eighteen year old Smith found his own sacred treasure buried in earth, a treasure golden
and yet – as alchemical lore promised – of substance more subtle than vulgar gold. Gazing
into his seer stone, he saw in the Book of Mormon's golden plates a record of ancient
fratricidal oppositions, and a Christ who brought union.
For a decade, Brooke suggests, Smith's emergent hermetic theology was disguised under
the coloring of traditional Christian restorationism and formed as new Christian church.
But finally, in the last years of his life, the veil was parted:
At Nauvoo he publicly and unequivocally announced his new theology of preexistent
spirits, the unity of matter and spirit, and the divinization of the faithful, and he
privately pursued the consummation of alchemical-celestial marriage as the ultimate
vehicle to this divinity. The alchemical-hermetic term of coniunctio powerfully summarizes
the resolution that Smith had achieved at Nauvoo by the summer of 1844. He had established
a theology of the conjunction – the unification – of the living and the dead, of men and
women, of material and spiritual, of secular and sacred, all united in a "new and
everlasting covenant" over which he would preside as king and god. In these
circumstances the conventional boundary between purity and danger, right and wrong, law
and revolution, simply melted away.... In effect the greater Mormon emergence can be
visualized as meta-alchemical experience running from opposition to union, an experience
shaped and driven by the personality of Joseph Smith.9
How this strange hermetic religion evolved into today's Mormon church is one of the
more interesting questions awaiting detailed study, particularly as the contours of Joseph
Smith's vision become more sharply defined. I can here, however, give only a rough summary
of what followed Smith's death.
Joseph established no clear order of prophetic succession, and in the chaotic period
after his martyrdom several followers claimed his office and prophetic mantle. Brigham
Young, long a loyal apostle to Smith, emerged as the natural organizational leader and was
eventually proclaimed the new "prophet, seer and revelator" – a position he held
until his death three decades later. Forced to abandon Nauvoo in the winter of 1846,
Brigham Young led his people through their difficult flight to the valley of the Great
Salt Lake, and there organized the new Mormon society.
Young staunchly defended the teachings and rituals presented by Smith in Nauvoo,
including the temple ceremonies and the doctrines relating to polygamy. Isolated in the
Rocky Mountain wilderness, he hoped to realize Joseph's millennial dreams and establish
Zion unhampered by a hostile, misunderstanding world. But it was not to be. With the full
force of the United States government and a Victorian public morality marshaled against
the Mormon church, in 1890 the practice of polygamy had to be publicly abandoned. After
its defeat in that epochal battle, Mormonism slowly found accommodation with the world it
had fled. In the process, many elements of Joseph's mystery religion were necessarily veil
or attenuated – and by the late twentieth century, perhaps largely forgotten.
For students of religion, the Prophet Joseph Smith today remains a grand American
enigma – too potent a force to be dismissed uncommented, and yet too complex for facile
categorization. In the final analysis, I must agree with Bloom that "we do not know
Joseph Smith, as he prophesied that even his own could never hope to know him. He requires
strong poets, major novelists, accomplished dramatists to tell his history, and they have
not yet come to him." But the tides may be shifting.10 While the Prophet still awaits
his poets, historians are examining with new wonder this most extraordinary chapter in
American religious history.
A "Gnostic" Joseph Smith?
Harold Bloom's coupling of Joseph Smith to the Gnostic tradition has aroused animated
disagreement among students of Mormonism and Gnosticism alike. Several questions crucial
to modern Gnostic studies are raised by this emerging dialogue: What is the relationship
of later "Gnostic" movements to classical Gnosticism? Were rudiments of the
tradition conveyed to post-classical groups by historical links (oral transmissions, myths
and texts); was it instead the independent product of a recurrent type of creative vision?
Or are dual forces of historical transmission and primary Gnostic experience generally
interdependent, even occultly linked? While Joseph Smith had historical connection with
late remnants of Gnosticism conveyed by Renaissance Hermeticism and Kabbalah, his
religious creation nonetheless clearly derived in large part from a personal experience.
Was that primal creativity "Gnostic"? If so, how did it relate to the matrix of
The complexity of these questions defy simple declarations. Nonetheless, Smith did
apparently espouse themes familiar to Gnosticism – prominent among them being his
affirmation of the reality and necessity of continuing, individual revelation as the
source of salvific knowledge. Joseph Smith and his religion eschewed theology in favor of
the dynamic process of revelation. The result was best summarized in what Bloom remarked
to be "one of the truly remarkable sermons ever preached in America", a
discourse delivered by the Prophet on April 7, 1844. Known as the the King Follett
Discourse, it was Joseph's last major address to his church, presented just ten weeks
before his death at age 38.
"There are but very few beings in the world who understand rightly the character
of God," he began. "If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not
comprehend their own character." Within humankind there is an immortal spark of
intelligence, taught the Prophet, a seed of divine intellect or light which is "as
immortal as, and coequal with, God Himself." God is not, however, to be understood as
one and singular. Turning to Hebrew and an oddly Kabbalistic exegesis of the first three
words of Genesis (an exegesis probably taken directly from the Zohar), Smith pronounced
there are a multitude of Gods emanated from the First God, existing one above the other
without end. He who humankind calls God was Himself once a man; and man, by advancing in
intelligence, knowledge – consciousness – may be exalted with God, become as God.
Near the beginning of his ministry in 1833, Smith declared "the glory of God is
intelligence", eternal and uncreated. Those who wish to find in him a Gnostic have
pointed out that Smith used the word "intelligence" interchangeably with
"knowledge" in his prophetic writings during this period. Indeed, they suggest,
his words might be read poetically to proclaim God's glory is Gnosis – a Gnosis that saves
woman and man by leading them together to a single uncreated and intrinsically divine
- Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 98,
- Ibid., 99, 123.
- Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book Co., 1989), 6. For a detailed examination of Joseph Smith's early years, see Richard
L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1984). Despite many interpretive limitations, Smith's best over-all
biography remains Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1945, 2nd ed. 1971).
- See Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery
Murders (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988); Steven Naifeh and Gregory White
Smith, The Mormon Murders (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988).
- Smith's associations with occult traditions in early America, including extensive
documentation of events discuss here, are comprehensively detailied in D. Michael Quinn, Early
Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987). For a
interpretive reading of this history see Lance S. Owens,
"Joseph Smith Kabbalah: The Occult Connection", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
Thought 27 (Fall 1994): 117-194.
- Joseph Smith's and his religion's interactions with the Masonic tradition are fully
documented in Michael W. Homer, "'Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry': The
Relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
Thought 27 (Fall 1994): 1-113.
- Owens, 178-84.
- John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
- Brooke, 281.
- (Addendum: The successful appearance on Broadway in 2011 of "The Book of Mormon" may suggest one unexpected direction Harold Bloom's intuitions were pointing in 1992, when he penned this comment.)