Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection

by Lance S. Owens


Part 2: Includes pages 134 - 166 of the published work.

Return to the beginning | Go to Part 3


Alchemy

Essential to understanding the themes animating the Kabbalistic-Hermetic world view is a discussion of alchemy. In popular misconception, alchemy is an immature, empirical, and speculative precursor of chemistry having as its primary concern the transmutation of base metals into gold.40 This simplification touches at only the most superficial veneer of alchemy; in stark contrast, current historical and psychological readings of the alchemical tradition suggest it had complex roots delving into the religious or philosophical subsoils of Western culture and aspirations far more subtle than the production of gold. Indeed, the dictum of medieval alchemists themselves avows this fact: Aurum nostrum no est aurum vulgi ("Our gold is not vulgar gold").

The historical foundations of alchemy rest in the same early Christian epoch and Gnostic cultural milieu that generated the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum and nurtured the early mystical roots of Kabbalah.41 As with Gnosticism and Hermeticism, after the emergence of Christian orthodoxy, alchemy submerged into the darker subsoil of Western culture until the Middle Ages. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries renewed contacts with Arabic and Greek alchemical materials, together with a reawakening interest in heterodox classical knowledge, inaugurated a new study of this ancient "Art." And to this study was eventually add-mixed Kabbalah. No less a figure than Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) became an adept of alchemy and authored numerous alchemical works. To Thomas Aquinas, the great student of Albertus and the signal theologian of the age, alchemical texts are also attributed--a fact suggesting the philosophical and religious tenor of alchemical thought.42 For the next four hundred years, alchemy ran like Ariadne's thread in a labyrinth of creative vision. As the Age of Reason dawned, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and John Locke would secretly correspond on alchemy's occult mysteries; Newton is now well known to have penned more than a million words on the great Art.43 A century and a half later its mystery would command Goethe's masterwork, Faust, considered by C. G. Jung "the final summit" of alchemical philosophy in its last creative extensions.44

Central to alchemy was the declaration of the Tabula smaragdina: That which is below is above, that above is also below. In the alchemical view, matter, the substance below, was the compliment and reflection of the divine realm above. This perception was sometimes daringly extended in the face of Christian dogma to assert that matter was eternal and uncreated, a complement and mirror to the equally divine and uncreated spirit. As Jung observed, "Matter in alchemy is material and spiritual, and spirit spiritual and material."45 Within matter resided a light, the lumen naturae, which was both a reflection and eternal compliment of heaven's celestial glory, the lumen dei. This strange perception was amplified in an array of alchemical metaphors; the core image was a complexio oppositorum--expressed by dualities such as "light and dark," "material and spiritual," "wet and dry," "sun and moon," "manifest and occult," "feminine and masculine"--seeking transformative, salvific, and ultimately creative union. This mending of divisions, above and below, required a work in proxy to be performed by living men and women. Unaided by the alchemist--and his mystical sister and feminine companion--it could not be accomplished. (See Figure 3.)

The treasure sought by the alchemist was often termed the "philosopher's stone" (the antecedent of Joseph Smith's "seer's stone"): the pearl of great price, the stone rejected by the builder, the filius philosophorum.46 Though the alchemical transformation was often described as a transmutation of base metal into gold--and though early alchemists had experimental laboratories and engaged in empirical exploration--the late alchemical literature reveals that ultimately it was the alchemist's own human baseness which sought transmutation into something divine. Thus the alchemist was a necessary agent of creative transmutation: a priest in a hallowed, ancient priesthood; a son of the Widow; a knower of creation's ancient secret; a digger after hidden treasure.47 The heart of this tradition was embodied in its ultimate mysteries: the hierosgamos, or "sacred wedding," and the mysterium coniunctionis, a mysterious union of opposites that eternally wed male to female, matter to spirit, above to below, microcosmos to macrocosmos, humankind to divinity.

 

A Legacy of Occult Societies: Rosicrucians and Masons

By the seventeenth century, the creative mix of Kabbalistic, Hermetic, and alchemical religious philosophies had nurtured among important sectors of Europe's intellectual elite broad aspirations for a more general religious reformation, even a restoration of the ancient and true religion. Insightful individuals at the creative edge of the culture judged their times and urgently sought an alternative to the vehement Reformation and Counter-Reformation madness which would soon bathe Europe in blood. One might easily comprehend how this anxious age would be excited by the mysterious announcement of a noble, secret, and ancient brotherhood calling itself the fraternity of the Rose Cross, summoning the elite of Europe to join in a new reformation.48 Thus began the Rosicrucian enlightenment.

In 1614 the first of the enigmatic documents that would become known as the "Rosicrucian manifestos" was published at Cassel, Germany. Titled the Fama Fraternitatis, or a Discovery of the Fraternity of the Most Noble Order of the Rosy Cross, this strange work was a

trumpet call which was to echo throughout Germany, reverberating thence through Europe. God has revealed to us in the latter days a more perfect knowledge, both of his Son, Jesus Christ, and of Nature. He has raised men endued with great wisdom who might renew all arts and reduce them all to perfection, so that man "might understand his own nobleness, and why he is called Microcosmus, and how far this knowledge extendeth into Nature."49

The Fama proceeded to introduce the history of a mysterious individual called "C. R." Born in 1378, C. R. was the founding father of the Rosicrucian order, a man who had labored long, though unrecognized, towards the general reformation now declared. C. R. (or Christian Rosencreutz as he was subsequently identified) had been an "illuminated man." As a sixteen-year-old boy he had traveled to the East where "the wise received him (as he himself witnesseth) not as a stranger, but as one whom they had long expected; they called him by his name, and showed him other secrets," including an important text called only "the book M." The boy became skilled in language and translation, "so that the year following he translated the book M into good Latin, which he afterwards brought with him." (The "book M" continued to play an important part in the Rosicrucian mythos as one of its treasures; of course, a vague outline of the story told by Joseph Smith might here also be discerned.) C. R. then traveled across Africa to Spain,

hoping well (that since) he himself had so well and so profitably spent his time in his travel, that the learned in Europe would highly rejoice with him, and begin to rule and order all their studies according to those sound and sure foundations. He therefore conferred with the learned in Spain. . . . But it was to them a laughing matter, and being a new thing unto them, they feared that their great name should be lessened, if they should now again begin to learn and acknowledge their many years errors.

Rejected, Brother C.R eventually returned to Germany and quietly established his order among those few men who "through especial revelation should be received into this Fraternity." Among these men alone were shared and transmitted the secrets of the order. After death, C. R.'s body was concealed in a tomb and eventually forgotten; but this lost vault, declared the Fama, had around the year 1604 been again found, opened, and entered. Within its miraculously lighted geometric confines C. R.'s followers discovered an altar, a "brass plate" upon which were engraved mysterious words and glyphs, several records of the order, and the book M. And now, the Fama continued,

like as our door was after so many years wonderfully discovered, also there shall be opened a door to Europe (when the wall is removed) which already doth begin to appear, and with great desire is expected of many. . . . Howbeit we know after a time there will now be a general reformation, both of divine and human things. . . . Our Philosophy also is not a new invention, but as Adam after his fall hath received it, and as Moses and Solomon used it.50

Upon close examination the Fama Fraternitatis presents itself more as an allegory than as actual history, and this was probably its intent. The Rosicrucian mythos was connected closely with the mysteries of alchemy where allegorical legends of buried treasures miraculously rediscovered were particularly prevalent.51 However, the story was generally interpreted literally. And the excitement it incited grew the following year with the publication of the second Rosicrucian manifesto, the Confessio Fraternitatis.52 This second manifesto repeated the message of the first, interpreting and intensifying it, and added a powerful apocalyptic and prophetic note: a great millennial reformation was at hand, and with it, a return to an Adamic knowledge revealed by God:

We ought therefore here observe well, and make it known unto everyone, that God hath certainly and most assuredly concluded to send and grant to the world before her end, which presently thereupon shall ensue, such truth, light, life and glory, as the first man Adam had . . . . So then, the secret hid writings and characters are most necessary for all such things . . . . What before times hath been seen, heard, and smelt, now finally shall be spoken and uttered forth, when the World shall awake out of her heavy and drowsy sleep, and with an open heart, bare-headed, and bare-foot, shall merrily and joyfully meet the new arising Sun.53

One year later, in 1616, a third and final Rosicrucian document appeared, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz. Cast in the form of a long allegory in alchemical symbolism, it bid the wise of Europe approach a sacred royal marriage, a hierosgamos of mysterious mystical intent:

This day, this day, this, this
The Royal Wedding is.
Art thou thereto by birth inclined,
And unto joy of God design'd
Then may'st thou to the mountain tend
Whereon three stately Temples stand,
And there see all from end to end.54

The Rosicrucian manifestos caused a furor throughout Europe and England. Individuals espousing sympathy with Rosicrucian ideals published numerous works lauding the brotherhood's purposes and petitioning acceptance into the order. But to the dismay of all, the Rosicrucian brotherhood never declared itself, never accepted or acknowledged the many aspirants to its fellowship, and indeed perhaps never even really (at least outwardly) existed. While history has identified both the author of the manifestos--Johann Valentin Andreae--and a wider group of individuals sharing in "Rosicrucian" aspirations, the deeper sources and purposes of the movement remain enshrouded in layers of mystery and supposition.

Whatever their actual intent or origins, the manifestos crystallized a broad preexisting alternative, reformative inclination in European society. This was a new/old religious vision steeped in Hermetic, Kabbalistic, alchemical, and in the broader definition, Gnostic, symbolism; a mythos that had been brewing in the pregnant retort of European creativity over two prior centuries.55 The tradition's "doctrines"--imbued as they were with an experimental, experiential, creative and immensely personal vision--found expression in a peculiar symbolic or hieroglyphic language, an idiom alchemical in nature but ever more religious-philosophic than physical-chemical in intent. And interwoven in all was a new working of the old sacred mystery of Kabbalah. This infusion of Kabbalah was aided in the later seventeenth century by Knorr von Rosenroth's translation into Latin of several key Kabbalistic works, including large sections of the Zohar--an effort that was immensely influential in the literate circles devoted to these studies.56 There followed in the mid-to-late-seventeenth century, particularly in England, an alchemical renaissance. During this period the Hermetic "religion" of alchemy was augmented by Kabbalistic imagery and fermented by a high spiritual quest for ultimate, individual knowledge of God. It was this expansive alchemical Hermetic philosophy into which Isaac Newton and his fellows in the new Royal Society delved.57

The arcane Hermetic books produced by Christian philosophers during this period circulated widely among the elite societies and intellects of Europe. These were works composed in the idiom of symbolic language, replete with allegorical pictures hinting at humankind's noble mystery.58 The "hieroglyphic" engravings often play at the theme of the complexio oppositorum, opposites seeking union, a motif conveyed by (or accompanied with) the arcane symbols of Sun and Moon (See Figure 4.) In several figures trumpets herald the new dispensation, an image offered by the second Rosicrucian manifesto.59 Emblematic of humankind having again remembered God's messengers, angels ascend and descend from heaven.60 We repeatedly find illustrated a sacred wedding of King and Queen, their holy conjunction being oft pictured as a carnal coupling which leads through hermaphroditic forms to a new and regal heavenly being. Here too we encounter a symbolic beehive. The industry this beehive metaphorically bids, however, was misunderstood in latter days. In its primary context the "industry" was a secret, laborious concern of alchemical transmutation: a transformation of dark matter into a pure and vital golden elixir--an alchemical opus performed within the alembic "hive" of the soul.61 (See Figure 5.) Intimately associated and reigning over all the emblems of this occult hieroglyphic tongue was the supreme "All-Seeing Eye" of God, the sacred emblem of a perpetual divine and uncreated intelligence, humankind's single unfailing light (See Figure 6). This time, these emblematic books, this philosophy: these are the propagating sources of the symbols finally carved in stone upon Joseph's Nauvoo temple. To this Hermetic-alchemical tradition and its unique vision alone did they pertain, from it alone came an assertion of their sacred import. Early Mormonism's affinity for and incorporation of the same symbolic motifs strongly evidences its intrinsic link with the Hermetic tradition.62 (See Figure 7 & 8.)

The import of myth and metaphor as a vehicle of the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition cannot be overstated. In Gnostic studies the function of myth and symbol as a conduit for the expression of primary vision is well accepted, and classical Gnosticism is now usually classified in terms of its mythic motifs. Likewise, within the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition the intricate interplay of "above and below" bred a unique matrix of myths: stories and symbols which conveyed by metaphor the savor of a primary and encompassing vision of God and humanity. Integrated and developed over several hundred years, this Hermetic-Kabbalistic mythos reached maturation during the seventeenth century. It is during the early and middle years of this key century that the mythos most fully flowered, enveloping the separate traditions of Kabbalah, classical Hermeticism, and alchemy.

A creative mix of symbols and stories played variations on core archetypal themes during this period. Detailed examination of these is beyond this essay. But there is one image which runs as a pervasive subtext, defining the tradition's fuller mythos: the motif of the mysterium coniunctionis. On earth and in heaven two paths intertwined; Man and God echoed to each other a flux of conjunctions. Matter and spirit, light and dark, masculine and feminine: all mingled in the mystery, face to face. An array of opposites were personified as vehicles for the metaphor of this conjunction. To these was linked the companion image of the hierosgamos. It was a mystery foreshadowed by man and woman in first conjunction as Adam and Eve, proxies of creation's primary conundrum. It became the sacred wedding of a King and Queen, the Rex and Regina of alchemy.63 (see Figure 9.) Of course, there followed a parallel theme of the great mystery's knower, the philosopher-priest-king who was the human mediator of conjunction. And playing an important role in the specific form of several motifs (particularly those within the occult fraternities) came variations on the story of Christian Rosencreutz, the book M, the sealed text awaiting translation, the hidden tomb, and the lost buried treasure.

Perhaps in imitation of the mysterious Rose Cross brothers, and certainly in rational response to political exigencies, reformative religious aspirations increasingly inclined during the subsequent century towards the formation of occult brotherhoods and societies. Incongruent as it seems, this expansion of occult interests appeared hand-in-hand with the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." A group of highly informed Englishmen influenced by, or perhaps sharing in, Rosicrucian aspirations and symbolic language probably engendered the first secret Masonic lodges during the mid-seventeenth century.64 The earliest generally accepted documentation of a Masonic initiation is found in the dairy of Elias Ashmole in 1646. Ashmole (1617-92) was an influential scholar and collector of books, a founding member of the Royal Society, and a man with an unquestionably extensive knowledge of Rosicrucian materials. Among the documents preserved in his impressive library are the texts of the Rosicrucian manifestos carefully copied in his own hand; to these manuscripts Ashmole had appended a letter, also in his own hand but apparently addressed to no one, praising the Rosicrucian fraternity and petitioning admission.65

By the late seventeenth century, several occult Hermetic brotherhoods, including Masonic and Rosicrucian societies, existed in England. The relationship these fraternities had to the first Grand Masonic Lodge organized at London in 1717 remains unclear. Although noting that "Masonry underwent gradual changes throughout a period of years stretching from well before 1717 to well after that date," modern authorities on Masonic history usually mark the beginnings of "speculative Masonry" to the decade following organization of this first Grand Lodge.66 Not long after this, around 1750, a specifically Rosicrucian order had been incorporated into French Masonry. Within the initiatory structure of the occult lodges, allegorical "mystery plays" were used to convey, through symbolic ritual, the grounding mythos of Masonry--a mythos which appears to have been fundamentally Hermetic-Kabbalistic.67 Though several renditions of Masonic history still emphasize the role of earlier "craft guilds" as a source of Freemasonry, relatively little evidence supports this claim. Even if one grants the existence of some linkage of eighteenth-century Masonry with earlier craft guilds, this does not diminish the molding force Hermeticism, alchemy and Rosicrucianism had on the fraternity's symbolic and philosophic development. (See Figure 10.) Simply put: Eighteenth-century Masonry was forcefully shaped by esoteric Hermetic-Kabbalistic traditions. While emphasizing this, I allow that several Masonic Lodges eventually evolved with less esoteric underpinnings and much simple fraternal intentions.

Taking note of the increasing influence of Freemasonry in politics and society, German historians began attempting during the latter part of the eighteenth century to trace the historical roots of Masonry. Evidence compiled during this period suggested those roots led not to King Solomon or the craft guilds, but to Rosicrucianism. This view was in wide circulation by the early nineteenth century, and in 1824 the prominent English essayist Thomas De Quincey published a detailed restatement in London Magazine.68 While A. E. Waite rejected this assertion in 1887,69 Frances Yates recently restated a strong case for it. "The European phenomenon of Freemasonry," she concluded in 1972, "almost certainly was connected with the Rosicrucian movement."70 Whatever judgment one favors, it remains clear that during the period of Joseph Smith's life Masonry was not uncommonly believed to be associated with a Rosicrucian legacy of alchemical, Kabbalistic, and Hermetic lore and its reformative religious aspirations.71

The eighteenth century was a fertile breeding ground for occult societies, almost all of which had groundings in a Hermetic-Kabbalistic framework and upon a bedrock of Masonry and Rosicrucianism. Students unfamiliar with their history too commonly assume a consistency and cohesion in these movements, or confound them with the charitable fraternities that are their distant modern cousins. On the contrary, a creative heterogeneity and religion-making mysticism was rampant among these groups.72 Existing orders and lodges were not uncommonly transmuted by the force of strange individuals, new visions, and claims of ever more enlightened, ancient origins. Examples come easily: Adam Weishaupt who sought through his Masonic order of the Illuminati, founded in 1776, to transform German politics and society; the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain (ca. 1710-85), a devotee of alchemy and occult arts, who widely influenced continental lodges of Masonry; Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (ca. 1743-95) who blended Egyptian and Kabbalistic symbolism into his Egyptian Masonic rite, an order which included men, women, and rumors of ritual sexual liaisons73; Martinez de Pasqually (ca. 1715-79) and his Order of Les Elus Cohen (the Elect Priests), claiming a Kabbalistic, Masonic restoration of the ancient priesthood of Judaism, a notion echoed in other esoteric manifestations of Masonry; and Louis Claude de St. Martin (1743-1803), disciple of de Pasqually, who long remained an influence upon French occultism. To these must be added the brilliant Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), founder of a religious movement that touched esoteric Masonry.74 Though several visionary figures stood in this rank of illuminates, eventually the broader manifestations of the movement attracted more than a few opportunistic charlatans. Separating the two is no easier for historians today than it was for their contemporaries.

In summary, common threads of a specific mythos weave through these movements and societies, even if they are not of one common cloth. In the occult inclinations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries one finds a recurrent theme of restoration: restoration of a more perfect, ancient order; of forgotten priesthood; of secret mysteries and rituals; and of lost occult words and powers. Often there mingles in the visionary fabric a practical thread: Man is intrinsically and eternally imbued with uncreated divine intelligence, an elixir by which he may alchemically transmute the dark material world--including its social and political structures--and thus restore Zion upon the earth. It was an opus reflected in allegories, glyphs, and symbols, by a canon reopened and reinterpreted, and in ancient lost books again found: buried, hidden, golden treasures all awaiting men and women who would delve. For seers of this age the tasks at hand were personal, but by nature the inner opus was reflected outwardly: microcosmos and macrocosmos were inextricably linked. This broad world view engendered laborers in an ancient craft, builders of a new temple--a mystical structure ordered above and below by living links of light and vision--and in the Holy of Holies of this sanctum they sought a sacred wedding of transformative union, a mysterium coniunctionis. It was in sum a Hermetic-Kabbalistic mythos, deeply admixed with alchemy, reformed by Rosicrucianism, and conjoined with a Mason's compass and square. And at its esoteric core there shone a distant Gnostic spark.

 

 

Hermeticism and the Magic World View

A decade ago Mormon historians were forced to confront the subject of Joseph Smith and the occult or magic world view, a confrontation caused in part by the "discovery" of the so-called "Salamander" letter. Replete with references to seer stones, treasures, and enchantments, the letter also related that Joseph Smith obtained the Book of Mormon not from an angel, but from a magical white salamander which transfigured itself into a spirit.75 Though the letter was subsequently proved a forgery, for two years historian labored under the assumption that the letter and several companion forgeries were genuine. In the wake of these events the prophet Joseph Smith's spiritual roots came under a careful scrutiny. Ironically, investigators soon brought to the surface a wealth of unquestionably genuine material--much of it long available but either misunderstood or ignored--substantiating that Smith and his family had a variety of interactions with non-orthodox Western religious traditions generally termed "occult." Repercussions from this difficult period in Mormon studies are still playing out.

Cast into the realm of occult history, historians tried to make sense of this "occult" Joseph Smith and early Mormonism. The general interpretation eventually adopted by many investigators structured Joseph Smith's links to the occult within the sociological context of New England folk magic and its "magic world view." D. Michael Quinn's seminal study Early Mormonism and the Magic World View was initiated during this period. In his introduction, Quinn began by exorcising the forgeries and summoning the facts:

the historical issues these forgeries raised . . . require, I believe, a careful re-evaluation of evidence long in existence regarding early Mormonism and magic. . . . Sources [whose authenticity are beyond question] provide evidence of Joseph Smith's participation in treasure digging; the possession and use of instruments and emblems of folk magic by Smith, his family members, and other early LDS leaders; the continued use of such implements for religious purposes in the establishment and early years of Mormonism; and the sincere belief of many early Mormons in the magic world view.76

Subsequently, Quinn moved beyond these simple data. Indeed, "comprehensive" is hardly an adequate description of his survey. Magical rituals, Kabbalah, Hermes Trismegistos, Rosicrucians, Seer's stones, divining rods, Masonic lore, and astrology: Quinn binds them all, by evidence weak and strong, to Joseph. Less integrative than extensive, his study is a foundation work which--as any such work should--leaves far more questions unresolved than answered.

The subject broached by this effort demands further evaluation. A crucial correction, however, must be made to the methodology used in examining the data: the concept of a magic Weltanschauung or "world view" must be balanced with an intensive historical casting of early nineteenth-century occultism's lineages and mythos. Particularly important is a careful examination of Hermeticism and the nature of the religious vision it encouraged.

Faced with a vast subject, Quinn constructed an arena for its study by circumscribing the concept of a "magic world view" within the culture of early America, and then summoning the various facts that drew Joseph Smith and other early Mormons into that circle. The definition of "magic" came from Webster's Third International Dictionary, augmented and slightly expanded. Magic is (and not to quote the whole definition given by Quinn, I will abbreviate) the "use of means . . . that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being to produce or prevent a particular result"; the control of natural forces "by the typically direct action of rites, objects, materials, or words considered supernaturally powerful." Later Quinn adds that magic tends to incorporates an animistic world view and a sense of a chain of causation behind event. Though it can be supplicative, its intent is often coercive.77 One is ill-advised to argue here with Quinn's general approach or definition of magic and its world view; given the many constrains upon such a path-breaking investigation, both are well enough chosen. Nonetheless their static sociological and philological correctness partially obscures a more complex process at play.

Magic came in many forms, high and low. As discussed earlier, in Europe the medieval legacy of magic was transformed between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries by an influx of the highly refined Kabbalistic, Hermetic, and alchemical traditions. During that time magic became--at least for scholarly adherents like Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee--something akin to religion.78 In the Hermetic-Kabbalistic interpretation magic had more to do with obtaining experiential knowledge of God and the celestial hierarchies than with particularistic goals of control and coercion--the "digging for vulgar gold." Both Jewish and Christian practitioners of the "high magical arts" would have judged Webster's definition as applicable more to a reprehensible form of popular or folk magic than to their own pursuits.79 By the seventeenth century this Hermetic magic had become thoroughly intertwined with a wider reformative religious vision and a coherent foundational mythos. This view asserted the human potential for divine communication, progression to ultimate knowledge and even union or identity with God.

Certainly popular magic with its less refined concerns continued to exist; and in terms of pure numbers of practitioners it most likely dominated in the common culture. But British historian Keith Thomas notes the important distinction that must be developed between popular magic and the separate intellectual or elitist trends. Speaking here of developments in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Thomas notes:

It would thus be tempting to explain the practice of popular magic as the reflection of the [alchemical and Hermetic] intellectual interests of contemporary scientists and philosophers. But such a chain of reasoning would almost certainly be mistaken. By this period popular magic and intellectual magic were essentially two different activities, overlapping at certain points, but to a large extent carried on in virtual independence of each other.80

What Thomas calls "intellectual magic" was of course the seventeenth-century mix of Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and alchemy. The point I am making is that magic could be more and less than "magic": whatever terms one may use to define the noun, from the sixteenth century into the early nineteenth century it had at least two different historical manifestations, each with different aspirations and lineages. Popular or folk magic with its magic world view was undoubtedly common in early nineteenth-century America. But there had also entered into the matrix of American religion elements of this other "intellectual" Hermetic mythos. And its world view was much more complex.

By the dawn of the nineteenth century the Hermetic tradition had developed sub rosa several elements characteristic of an incipient heterodox religion, including clear restorational aspirations. From this fertile bed sprang numerous occult fraternities and societies: societies Kabbalistic, alchemical, magical, and Masonic. And though they generally used a Christian vocabulary, the intentions they fostered could appear antithetical to orthodox Christianity. Most particularly, it was a view of man and God intrinsically hostile to dour Puritan presumptions.81 Classic Protestant thought accepted no theogony (genesis or genealogy of God), and in orthodox judgment new divine revelation was, as Meric Casaubon expressed, nothing "else but imposture or melancholy and depraved phantasie, arising from natural causes."82 By contrast, in the Hermetic tradition there emerges a coherent and radically alternative vision which, as Joscelyn Godwin explained,

combines the practical examination of nature with a spiritual view of the universe as an intelligent hierarchy of beings; which draws its wisdom from all possible sources, and which sees the proper end of man as the direct knowledge of God. This kind of belief underlies the [Rosicrucian] manifestoes; it is presupposed in [Robert] Fludd's works and in those of the alchemists; it reappears in the more esoteric aspects of Freemasonry.83

By the late eighteenth century, elements usually associated with the formation of a new religion were present in this alternative tradition: an intricate and extensive mythic framework (derived from Kabbalistic, Hermetic, alchemical, and Rosicrucian materials); an extra-canonical corpus of "sacred" texts (drawn from archaic Hebrew and Hermetic sources); a new symbol system (conveying esoteric meanings); detailed initiatory and ritual formulas; a claim to lineages of ancient priesthood; an affirmation of renewed communication with the celestial realms; and a thoroughly articulated reformative, even millennial, aspiration for a new Adamic restoration. (See Figure 11.)

When I speak of the Hermetic (or Hermetic-Kabbalistic) tradition in the early nineteenth century, I mean this amalgamation of elements along with their underpinning Hermetic mythos. Though any backwoods rodsman divining for buried treasures in Vermont in 1820 may have known about the tradition, it would be erroneous to lump him into it or to see it necessarily reflected in him. Yet here the distinction must be drawn: in this same general time and place there undoubtedly existed individuals who were deeply cognizant of Hermeticism, its lore, rituals, and aspirations. And this group probably included an occasional associate of treasure diggers. Such individuals would have learned about the Hermetic tradition in varying degrees and from various lineages (including esoteric Masonic and Rosicrucian orders), but most certainly not as a transmission of popular magic and folk lore alone.

In summary, the treasure digger's "magic world view," the supernatural method to means, must be distinguished from the more complex Hermetic vision conveyed in the mix of Kabbalah, ceremonial magic, Paracelsian medicine, Rosicrucianism, alchemical symbolism, and several esoteric brands of Masonry. And what a young Joseph Smith could have learned from a rodsman, ensconced only in a magic world view, is less important to his religious development than the kinds of ideas a Hermetic initiate might have stimulated.

 

Joseph Smith, Hermeticism, and Kabbalah

In the period before 1827 Joseph Smith probably had some passing interaction with individuals knowledgeable of Hermeticism and Kabbalah. But to reconstruct the history of that exposure demands consideration of contexts and hypotheses tied to a thin heritage of fact: it is a type of connection that appears likely but which cannot be documented with certainty. The situation changes a bit after 1840. During those last years of Joseph's life evidences linking him to the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition can, when placed in context, appear substantial. In the following discussion, I will sketch some of the evidences linking Joseph to the Hermetic tradition, both early in his prophetic career and later in Nauvoo. And though the shading of fact may seem too light or dark, or in proportions skewed, this is a way of drawing Joseph Smith within his own history that I believe must be confronted by Mormon historians.84

Of course a question arises that lingers as a subtext to the material that follows and must be addressed before proceeding: If Joseph Smith had significant interactions with the Hermetic-Kabbalistic mythos, did they impact his religion-making vision? While it seems to me that they probably would or did, I also acknowledge another possibility: Despite any apparent historical interactions, common patterns connecting Smith's vision to the Hermetic-Kabbalistic mythos may be entirely synchronous (or parallel) rather than causal. And if synchronous, they further could be classed as archetypal manifestations consistent with a recurrent type of "revelatory" experience (such as is witnessed elsewhere in the history of the tradition) or, instead, as pure happenstance.

If one is inclined to look for links, deeper levels of complexity soon intrude. The Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition not only affirmed the existence of an archetypal structure accessible to independent, personal cognition or "revelation": it sought through combined modalities of ritual, symbol, and myth to aid an individual's encounter with this core reality, a reality mirrored in the celestial realm and in the seeker's own self. Accepting that some individuals obtained these experiences, the question of causal versus synchronous links becomes circular: One can argue that contact with various Hermetic ideas, symbols, ceremonies, and myths could (at least occasionally and in the properly predisposed individual) help invoke a numinous and uniquely individual experience. The experience, though personal and self-contained, might become the substratum for creative development of further intuition and insights inherently present in the inciting mythos. Thus a tradition breeds an experience which then replicates anew the tradition. This whole issue recalls the question plaguing historical studies of Gnosticism and its various manifestations: is the tradition conveyed through historically identifiable transmissions; are various historical manifestations of "Gnostic vision" instead creations of a reborn and independent "Gnosis" imbued with similar core insights (what depth psychology calls archetypal patterns); or are both modes of transmission, inner and outer, intrinsically coupled? To these questions I can give no answers; I offer only my intuition that they lurk behind any interpretation of evidences "linking" Joseph Smith to Hermeticism.

D. Michael Quinn extensively details evidences of Joseph's early contact with Hermeticism, though he emphasizes the folk magical aspect. He offers the Smith family's carefully preserved magical parchments and dagger, and the talisman Joseph carried on his person.85 One recognizes the prominent use of Hebrew on both the parchments and talisman, although the reason for this has not been put in clear context by Mormon historians: the Hebrew came from Kabbalah.86 As Quinn documents, knowledge necessary for the preparation of the Smith family magical implements could have been obtained from books of magic available in this time and region, and such materials might have been acquired specifically to aid magical activities associated with treasure seeking. Preparation for and proper performance of a magical ritual--including production of a ceremonial dagger or parchment--was, however, a lengthy and complicated venture demanding knowledge of an arcane vocabulary. The vast host of angels and spirits addressed in different magical rituals had specific names (again drawn from Kabbalah), elaborate magical signs, and varied functions within the natural and celestial hierarchies. From this complexity, magic lore made it clear that there were definite existential dangers in getting the details wrong. It thus seems likely that in addition to information gleaned from books, family members would have augmented their knowledge by associations with individuals experienced in ceremonial magic and the occult arts. In this company Joseph Smith might have first been exposed to a person versed in the deep breadth of Hermeticism.

One individual fits this description: the "occult mentor" identified by Quinn, Dr. Luman Walter(s). Reputed to be a physician and magician (the two were sometimes closely associated in that age), Walter is known to have been in Joseph's and his family's circle of acquaintances prior to 1827. He was also a distant cousin of Joseph's future wife, Emma Hale.87 As Quinn notes, "Brigham Young described the unnamed New York magician as having travel extensively through Europe to obtain `profound learning,'" and others identified Walter as "a physician who studied Mesmerism in Europe before meeting Joseph Smith."88 Walter family records and legend called him "clairvoyant."89 If these statements are generally accurate, Walter had considerable knowledge of Hermetic traditions. During this period in Europe (and to a lesser degree in America) a physician with interests in Mesmer, magic, clairvoyance, and "profound learning" moved in a milieu nurtured by the legacies of Hermeticism. By definition, such a physician stood in a tradition dominated by the medical and esoteric writings of Paracelsus, steeped in alchemy, and associated closely with Rosicrucian philosophy.90 As an individual also interested in hidden treasures, Walter might have taken particular note of Paracelsus' admonition on Kabbalah's import:

All of you . . . who see land beyond the horizon, who read sealed, hidden missives and books, who seek for buried treasures in the earth and in walls, you who teach so much wisdom, such high arts--remember that you must take unto yourselves the teachings of the cabala if you want to accomplish all this. For the cabala builds on a true foundation. Pray and it will be given you, knock and you will be heard, the gate will be opened to you. . . . Everything you desire will flow and be granted you. You will see into the greatest depth of the earth . . . The art of the cabala is beholden to God, it is in alliance with Him, and it is founded on the words of Christ. But if you do not follow the true doctrine of the cabala, but slip into geomancy, you will be led by that spirit which tells you nothing but lies.91

If Walter did have contact with the young Smith, he might have shared some interesting ideas about the occult reformative tradition that had for three centuries been a force working on the creative edge of the Western religious imagination, concepts which might have had influenced a prophetic imagination. Here is the tentative early connection to a legacy of ancient priesthoods, lost books, sacred weddings, modern seers, co-eternal matter, golden treasures, angelic messengers, rebuilt temples, dawning dispensations, and God's glorious intelligence. Perhaps Walter might even have had something to say about the story of the sixteen-year-old Christian Rosencreutz who journeyed to the East and translated the Book M, only to be rejected by the learned of his age. This was a legacy of ideas about man and God unlike anything in the texts of revivalism and seekerism sweeping New York's "burned-over district"92 and yet so much like the religion embraced by the prophet-to-be.

In addition to early influences from a possible occult mentor such as Walter, other eddies of the Hermetic mythos swirled near the young Joseph Smith. Quinn notes, "Pennsylvania was the focal point of ceremonial magic in early America," and "several sources indicate that Joseph Jr. engaged in folk magical activities during the summers of the 1820s away from Palmyra, often in Pennsylvania."93 What Smith encountered in Pennsylvania may again be better termed Hermeticism than folk magic; there is even some possibility that he had direct contact with Rosicrucian ideas. German Pietists who had immigrated to Pennsylvania in the previous century were deeply influenced by Rosicrucianism and the Kabbalistically flavored mysticism of Jacob Boehme. (See Figure 7.) This is a repeat citation) The first American Rosicrucian group had been founded on Wissahickon Creek near Philadelphia just before 1700 by a learned band of theosophists and German Pietists headed by Johannes Kelpius. In 1720 the German mystic and Pietist Johann Conrad Beissel immigrated to Pennsylvania seeking to join that group. He subsequently associated himself with a few of the remaining Wissahickon mystics and later organized a Rosicrucian society, the Ephrata commune, near Lanchaster, Pennsylvania.94 Alderfer notes in his study of the movement, "Ephrata itself, though an inheritor of many strains of mysticism, was a latter-day haven of essentially gnostic ideas and terminology."95

The community survived into the early nineteenth century. During its peak in the mid-eighteenth century it proselytized widely, sending disciples on "pilgrimages" through the surrounding countryside and even into New England.96 Alchemy, Kabbalah, and perhaps Freemasonry all played roles in the mystical philosophy taught at Ephrata.97 A few tentative evidences suggesting loose association of Smith with Rosicrucianism, and perhaps even some residual of the Ephrata commune, are introduced by Quinn.98 But specific contacts aside, one must recognize that the sophisticated Rosicrucian, Kabbalistic, and alchemical ideas represented at Ephrata had been quilted into Pennsylvania's esoteric lore for over one hundred years prior to Joseph's summer visits in the 1820s. If Smith did have contact with individuals influenced by these traditions (of which there must have been more than a few), his knowledge of things Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and alchemical would have been augmented.

Joseph Smith's possible direct exposure to Kabbalah before 1840 deserves specific comment (I will later discuss in detail his studies in Nauvoo). The role of Kabbalah in magic was pervasive enough that even with a curtailed involvement in ceremonial magic, Smith would have heard of the subject. Paracelsus's admonition to treasure seekers (quoted above) represents the importance with which Kabbalistic knowledge was imbued by occultists; in fact, in the period's vocabulary "cabala" was often used as a synonym for "magic" and "occultism." Those Christian esotericists who knew of Kabbalah in the early nineteenth century would have known it principally through Christianized interpretations by then thoroughly amalgamated with Hermetic, alchemical and Rosicrucian notions. While an occasional American occultist might have had some knowledge of Kabbalah in its original Jewish form, study at this basic level required some knowledge of Hebrew, access to original Hebrew Kabbalistic texts or the Latin translations in the Kabbalah Denudata, and (at least in traditional view) an adept Kabbalist as guide.99 Nonetheless, within the context of prevalent transmissions, it is possible Joseph encountered and took interest in some outline of Kabbalah. The most basic form available to him would have been simple representations of the "Tree of Sefiroth" found in Hermetic works published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.100 (see Figure 2.) This depiction of the Sefiroth alone could conveyed a wealth of ideas about an emanational structure in the divine life--ideas which perfused Hermetic ideas and symbols, and which were like those developed in Mormon theology. The power of this archetypal pattern of the Sefiroth to stimulate a religious imagination is witnessed by occasional later Christian "Kabbalistic" works, some of which appear to be almost entirely free associations built from meditations on this structure of the Sefiroth and devoid of any relation to traditional Jewish or Christian Kabbalistic commentaries.

In this vein, a work recently published by Mormon author Joe Sampson is interesting.101 Sampson evaluated Joseph Smith's writings, including the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and noted a pattern of word and concept usage in several verses which reproduces both the common English names and the general hierarchical structure of the Kabbalistic Tree of Sefiroth.102 While Sampson carries his argument beyond what a less intuitive student might discern, several of his examples deserve consideration. And though this Kabbalistic pattern in Smith's revelatory writings may be accidental, it also could suggest some earlier exposure at least to the concept of the Tree of Sefiroth. Sampson extends his thesis by suggesting that Smith's translation of the Book of Abraham from the Egyptian papyrus was a Kabbalistic work in the classic sense. Though Sampson's development of this argument is itself cryptically Kabbalistic, his theme again deserves scrutiny. Kabbalah was, as he notes, the tradition of prophetic interpretation. It encouraged a creative rereading of sacred texts in the quest for a return to the primary vision which was the single source of knowledge and scripture. In nature (if not in content) Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon, his retranslation of Genesis, and his interpretation of the Book of Abraham papyruses all can be seen as expressions of the primary interpretive vision Kabbalah mandated from prophetic consciousness. Whether this was a reflection of Joseph's contact with Kabbalah, or just of Joseph, remains an open question.103 But beyond doubt, this interpretive activity fits within the evolved Hermetic-Kabbalistic vision of a true prophet's work.

 


Go to Part 3 -- pp. 166-194