Mormonism: Are Our Roots in Ancient Christianity or Treasure Seeking?

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.

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4 Responses to Mormonism: Are Our Roots in Ancient Christianity or Treasure Seeking?

  1. Susan says:

    I am still scratching my head with questions as to why the church chose to show the seer stones. To me personally, it did nothing to boost the faith. In fact, it made it worse.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Catholics have always been overloaded with relics. A piece of the cross, the blood of a saint, the Shroud of Turin, water at Lourdes, etc. Some progressive Catholics are uncomfortable with the veneration given to these relics. Mormonism may he headed in the same direction. Veneration of historic artifacts. Richard Bushman sees this as something positive. Physical representations of our faith and history. Others see relics as pandering to our superstitious side.

      It seems like Mormons have historically looked down on the veneration that Catholic conservatives give to ancient relics. Now we have have our own relics. Maybe Mormons will eventually attach miracles (or visions) to touching or being in proximity to the seer stone. (Although I certainly hope that doesn’t happen.)

      When it comes to seer stones, I wish the LDS Church would emphasize that the BoM was “translated” through inspiration and that the stones and Urim and Thummim were merely items Joseph Smith needed for his own personal comfort. That they had nothing to do with the “translation” process.

  2. kurt says:

    Truth is, if Mormonism had tried to originate today, it most likely would never get off the ground. It’s based on too many absurd notions that require great depths of naivete & ignorance to believe. It has to be said that there might still be a slim chance of it’s emergence in light of the success of Scientology, an even more absurd fairy tale.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      “What if?” is a question that historians like to ask. What if Hitler had won WWII? What if Joseph Smith had lived longer? What if the South had won the Civil War? etc.

      What if Mormonism was born in the 21st Century? Not a bad question. I suspect that since it would be born under different circumstances, and a different cultural and intellectual environment, the origin story would be substantially different. I think I will write a sci-fi short story about your question. Thanks for the idea. But I think I will place the short story in the future, say 2025.

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