With the recent release of photographs of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones, the issue of Mormonism’s “magical” past is again at the forefront of scholarly discussions. I don’t have a problem with seer stones per se. After all, LDS Church history has always involved visions and the Urim and Thummim. Nor do I have a problem with evolving versions of the First Vision, even though the version I frequently repeated on my mission (in the 1960s) may not have been accurate.
The whole issue of treasure hunting, seer stones, magic, and superstition is brought into the focus when the two are combined in a way I hadn’t previous considered. For example according to several prominent historians, when Joseph went to the Sacred Grove, he was not vacillating between various Protestant denominations, but between organized religion and folk magic. For Mormon historian Richard Bushman, the First Vision drove Joseph Smith away from his mother’s Protestantism towards the treasure-seeking culture of his father. So for me, despite past official Church denials, Mormonism was born on the wrong side of the tracks.
In the pendulum’s arc between superstition and reason, Mormonism at its onset was in the superstition camp. But as the Church “matured,” this part of its history was largely glossed over or ignored, even during Joseph Smith’s time. This sanitizing of history left LDS Church leaders open to “blackmail” by the likes of Mark Hoffman.
Over the last few decades, there has been incredible progress towards de-sanitizing Mormon history. This is something that needed to happen. For me, it’s just unfortunate that it has taken so long.
During my formative years, I received the sanitized version of LDS Church history with much of the “folk-magic” past ignored. I suppose you can blame some of this on me, for not being more inquisitive. But some of this is the responsibility of the leadership for not being forthcoming with “inconvenient” historical facts, by encouraging faith-promoting rumors over actual history.
For me, on the arc between reason and superstition, I come down strongly on the side of reason. Its in my genetics, my upbringing, and my overall background. It’s who I am. I’m a fifth-generation Mormon and I want to live in the 21st century and not the 18th or 19th.