Cunning folk traditions and the Latter Day Saint movement

This "Holiness to the Lord" laman, or cloth inscribed with astrological signs and symbols, was one of several owned by the Hyrum Smith family[1]

Cunning folk traditions, sometimes referred to as folk magic, were intertwined with the early culture and practice of the Latter Day Saint movement. These traditions were widespread in unorganized religion in the parts of Europe and America where the Latter Day Saint movement began in the 1820s and 1830s.[2][3] Practices of the culture included folk healing, folk medicine, folk magic, and divination, remnants of which have been incorporated or rejected to varying degrees into the liturgy, culture, and practice of modern Latter Day Saints.[4]

Early church leaders were tolerant of these traditions, but by the beginning of the 20th century folk practices were not considered part of the orthopraxy of most branches of the movement, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).[5] The extent that the founder of the movement Joseph Smith and his early followers participated in the culture has been the subject of controversy since before the church's founding in 1830, and continues to this day.[6][7]

Joseph Smith family [ edit ]

The Smith family practiced a form of folk religion,[8] which, although not uncommon in this time and place, was criticized by many contemporary Protestants "as either fraudulent illusion or the workings of the Devil."[9] Both Joseph Smith Sr. and at least two of his sons worked at "money digging," using seer stones in mostly unsuccessful attempts to locate lost items and buried treasure.[10] In a draft of her memoirs, Lucy Mack Smith referred to folk magic:

I shall change my theme for the present, but let not my reader suppose that because I shall pursue another topic for a season that we stopt our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing magic circles or soothsaying, to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of and the welfare of our souls.[11]

D. Michael Quinn has written that Lucy Mack Smith viewed these magical practices as "part of her family's religious quest" while denying that they prevented "family members from accomplishing other, equally important work."[12] Jan Shipps notes that while Smith's "religious claims were rejected by many of the persons who had known him in the 1820s because they remembered him as a practitioner of the magic arts," others of his earliest followers were attracted to his claims "for precisely the same reason."[13]

Smith reports using seer stones in the translation of the Book of Mormon,[14] as well as in the reception of several early revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.[15]

Treasure-seeking activities [ edit ]

From about 1819, Smith regularly practiced scrying, a form of divination in which a "seer" looked into a seer stone to receive supernatural knowledge.[16] Smith usually practiced "peeping" or seeing by putting a stone at the bottom of a white stovepipe hat, putting his face over the hat to block the light, then divining information from the stone.[17] Smith and his father achieved "something of a mysterious local reputation in the profession—mysterious because there is no record that they ever found anything despite the readiness of some local residents to pay for their efforts."[18]

In late 1825, Josiah Stowell, a well-to-do farmer from South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York, who had been searching for a lost Spanish mine near Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania with another seer, traveled to Manchester to hire Smith "on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye."[19] Smith worked for Stowell for nearly a month before prevailing upon him to give up the enterprise.[20]

Visit of Angel Moroni [ edit ]

Smith said that on the night of Sunday, September 21, 1823, an angel visited him and told him of the location of the gold plates that contained the Book of Mormon.[21] While Smith is not known to have explicitly assigned significance to the date, it has been noted that September 21 was an especially auspicious night in astrological terms, being a full moon, and autumnal equinox.[1]

Notable early examples 1820–1838 [ edit ]

In the early 1820s in the region where Joseph Smith grew up there was a subculture that practiced cunning folk traditions, including scrying through the use of "seer stones" or "peep stones".[22][23] Smith's hometown of Palmyra was no exception.[24] Historian D. Michael Quinn states “Until the Book of Mormon thrust young Smith into prominence, Palmyra’s most notable seer was Sally Chase, who used a greenish-colored stone. William Stafford also had a seer stone, and Joshua Stafford had a ‘peepstone which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center.'”[25] Historian Richard Bushman adds Chauncy Hart, and an unnamed man in Susquehanna County, both of whom had stones with which they found lost objects.[26]

Smith's early use of seer stones is well documented but the provenance of each stone and the timeline are unclear. One account describes him borrowing the seer stone of a local girl, possibly Sally Chase, and using it to find his own first stone.[22]

Joseph Smith's mother records that Sally Chase's abilities as a seer were used by locals to try to find and steal the gold plates from Joseph after he had obtained them.[27] "A young woman by the name Chase (Sister to willard Chase) found a green glass, through which she could see many very wonderful things, and, among her great discoveries, she said that she saw, the precise place where 'Joe. Smith kept his gold Bible hid.' And, obedient to her directions, they gathered their forces and laid siege to the cooper shop."

One of Joseph Smith's early revelations, now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, stated that Oliver Cowdery had the power to use a divining rod.[28]

Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, was living with his in-laws the Whitmers in Fayette, New York. Smith arrived in August 1830 to discover Page using a black "seer stone" to produce revelations for the church. The revelations were regarding the organization and location of Zion. Cowdery and the Whitmer family believed the revelations were authentic. In response, Smith announced in a new revelation during the church's September conference that Page's revelations were of the devil (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 28:11). At the conference there was considerable discussion on the topic. Page agreed to discard the stone and the revelations and join in following Smith as the sole revelator for the church. The members present confirmed this unanimously with a vote. The fate of the stone and revelations was not recorded by contemporary sources and has been the subject of interest ever since.[22] Martin Harris's brother Emer stated second-hand in 1856 that the stone was ground to powder and the associated revelations were burned.[29] Apostle Alvin R. Dyer stated that he had discovered Page's seerstone in 1955, that it had been passed down through Jacob Whitmer's family.[30] The validity of this claim has been questioned.[22]

A young woman living at the home of David Whitmer in Ohio in 1838 reported receiving a number of revelations about the downfall of Joseph Smith by looking through a black stone that she had found. Some disaffected church members followed after her.[31]

Nauvoo period 1839–1847 [ edit ]

In 1841, apostles Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith confiscated several seer stones and grimoires from convert William Mountford in Staffordshire, England. The grimoires were destroyed and seer stones were sent to Nauvoo. Joseph Smith examined the stones and stated that they were "Urim and Thummim as good as ever was upon the earth" but that they had been "consecrated to devils."[32]

Cunning folk traditions in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after 1847 [ edit ]

Astrology [ edit ]

Astrological chart and healing remedy created by Steele for his grandchild's illness included in an August 20, 1888 letter. [33][34]

LDS Church members' views towards astrology ranged from acceptance to hostility, but were generally ambivalent, views reflected in the church's leadership.[35] For example, Orson Pratt condemned it, while William Clayton openly sought advice from astrologers into the 1860s.[36][37][38] In 1852, Brigham Young gave his approval to a convert to study and begin practicing astrology, only to change his recommendation a year later, calling it "a dangerous thing to meddle with".[39]

William W. Phelps published an almanac in Utah from 1851 to 1866. The first edition did not include the standard astrological information expected of almanacs, calling them "matters of ancient fancy".[36][40] Later editions did, even while criticizing their effectiveness, an indication that there was a demand for it.[36] Phelps wrote and spoke often against astrology, but by 1857, after Brigham Young told him that astrology was true, Phelps changed his mind, believing instead that astrology was "one of the sciences belonging to the holy Priesthood perverted by vain man."[36] By 1861, Young himself seems to have changed his mind about the utility of astrology, telling an individual who wanted to start an astrology school that, "it would not do to favor Astrology.[41][42]

In 1868, the Salt Lake School of the Prophets decided that "Astrology was in opposition to the work of God. Hence saints should not be engaged in it," which was followed up with an article in the Deseret News decrying it. From that time on astrology has been considered an unacceptable practice.[43]

One notable post-1868 exception was John Steele, who practiced astrology into the 20th century while in good standing with the church in Parowan and Toquerville, taking local leadership positions and eventually being called as a patriarch in 1903.[44] Steele was an early pioneer and worked as the town's preeminent doctor.[45] He was known for the way that he integrated medicine, magic, and astrology.[46]:73 He practiced according to the ideas of Samuel Thomson. One of Thomson's theories was that elimination of toxins was key to curing patients; calomel was sometimes used to induce vomiting.[47] Because Steele's son Robert Henry was killed by calomel, Steele preferred Thomson's herbal medicines.[46]:75 He considered himself a veterinarian, using an herbal "horse taming" mixture,[46]:75–76 and was known for his ability to set broken bones.[46]:76 He was also known for using black magic to fix problems and people in the town solicited him for horoscopes.[46]:77–82 He was called "Doc", and he was often seen wearing a blue cape with red lining. He also carried a cane and rode a horse named Charlie.[48] While practicing as a doctor, Steele still maintained a shoemaking business.[49]

See also [ edit ]

Notes [ edit ]

  1. ^ a b Luffman, Dale E. The Book of Mormons Witness to Its First Readers. Community of Christ Seminary Press, 2013. ebook location 1719 of 4274
  2. ^ Walker, Ronald W. (1984) "Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer," BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 24 : Iss. 4 , Article 5. Available at:
  3. ^ Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2003);
  4. ^ Stapley, Jonathan. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: page 106.
  5. ^ Stapley, Jonathan. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: page 4, 107.
  6. ^ Walker, Ronald W. (1984) "Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer," BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 24 : Iss. 4 , Article 5. Available at:
  7. ^ For a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apologetic point of view, see:
  8. ^ Quinn 1998, p. xx–xxi: A 1985 memorandum sent from the headquarters of the LDS Church Educational System to regional and local administrators read, "Even if the [Mark Hofmann] letters were to be unauthentic, such issues as Joseph Smith's involvement in treasure-seeking and folk magic remain. Ample evidence exists for both of these, even without the letters."
  9. ^ Thomas, Keith (1971), Religion and the Decline of Magic, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, p. 256
  10. ^ Smith 1838a, pp. 42–43 (saying that he had been a "money digger" but that it "was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it"). "Elders Journal", Elders' Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1 (43), July 1838. For a discussion of Smith's money-digging activities by an academic LDS biographer, see Bushman 2005, pp. 48–49.
  11. ^ Smith, Lucy Mack (1844), Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, bk. [3], Nauvoo, IL
  12. ^ Quinn 1998, p. 55: "Joseph Smith's mother did not deny her family participation in occult activities but simply affirmed that these did not prevent family members from accomplishing other, equally important work." In a note at Vogel 1996, p. 285 (n. 84), Dan Vogel argues that this sentence from the draft may have been excised from the 1853 edition of Lucy Mack Smith's memoirs because of its allusion to folk magic, "which was a sensitive subject for those not wishing to give credence to claims made in affidavits collected in 1833 by Philastus Hurlbut."
  13. ^ Shipps 1985, p. 18.
  14. ^ "History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834]," p. 9, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 1, 2020,
  15. ^ Vancleave, James R. B., "letter to Joseph Smith III", in Lyndon W. Cook (ed.), David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, p. 239–40 See also
  16. ^ Seer Stones
  17. ^ Harris (1859, p. 164); Mather (1880, p. 199). According to an account of an interview with Joseph Smith Sr., the 14-year-old Joseph borrowed a stone from a person working as a local crystal gazer Lapham (1870, pp. 305–306) which reportedly showed him the underground location of another stone near his home, which he located at a depth of about twenty-two feet. According to another story, in either 1819 Tucker (1867, p. 19) or 1822 Howe (1834, p. 240), while the older Smith males were digging a well for a Palmyra neighbor, they found an unusual stone Harris (1859, p. 163), described as either white and glassy and shaped like a child's foot or "chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped." Roberts (1930, 1:129). Smith then used this stone as a seer stone.Tucker (1867, p. 20).
  18. ^ Ostling (1999, p. 25).
  19. ^ Vogel (2004, p. 69).
  20. ^ "History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834]," p. 8, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 1, 2020,
  21. ^ "History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2]," p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 21, 2020,
  22. ^ a b c d MacKay, Michael Hubbard; Frederick, Nicholas J. (August 29, 2016). Joseph Smith's Seer Stones. Deseret Book Company. ISBN 9781944394059.
  23. ^ Walker, Ronald W. (1984) "The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting," BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 24 : Iss. 4 , Article 4. Available at:
  24. ^ Walker, Ronald W. (1984) "Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer," BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 24 : Iss. 4 , Article 5. Available at:
  25. ^ D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 38.
  26. ^ Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 70.
  27. ^ Smith, Lucy Mack (1845), Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, Nauvoo, IL, p. 116
  28. ^ Divining Rods
  29. ^ Emer Harris statement, in Utah Stake General Minutes, Local Record 9629, ser. 11, vol. 10 (1855-60), 6 April 1856, Church History Library.
  30. ^ Dyer, Alvin R., Refiner's Fire: The Significance of Events Transpiring in Missouri, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1968), 257-259
  31. ^ Smith, Lucy Mack (1845), Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, Nauvoo, IL, p. 235 "At this time a certain young woman, who was living at David Whitmer’s uttered a prophecy; which she said was given her, by looking through a black stone that she had found. This prophecy gave some altogether a new idea of things. She said, the reason why one third of the church would turn away from Joseph was, because that he was in transgression himself; and would fall from his office on account of the same; that David Whitmer or Martin Harris would fill Joseph’s place: and that the one, who did not succeed him, would be councillor to him who did. This girl soon became an object of great attention among those who were disaffected. Dr. Williams, the ex justice of the peace, became her scribe; and wrote her revelations for her. Jared Carter, who lived in the same house with David Whitmer, soon imbibed the same spirit; and I was informed, that he said in one of their meetings, that he had 'power to raise Joe. Smith to the highest heaven, or Sink him down to the lowest hell.' ... his confession was received, and he was forgiven. But the rest of his party continued obstinate They still held their secret meetings at David Whitmer’s; and when the young woman, who was their instructress was through giving what revelations she intended for the evening, she would jump out of her chair and dance over the floor, boasting of her power until she was perfectly exhausted. Her proselytes would also, in the most vehement manner, proclaim their purity and holiness, and the mighty power which they were going to have."
  32. ^ Stapley, Jonathan. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: page 110.
  33. ^ John Steele papers, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Provo, Utah
  34. ^ Stapley, Jonathan A. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: page 112.
  35. ^ Stapley, Jonathan A. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: pages 112-113.
  36. ^ a b c d David J. Whittaker "Almanacs in the New England Heritage of Mormonism" Brigham Young University Studies Vol. 29, No. 4 (FALL 1989), pp. 89-113
  37. ^ In his 1845, 1846 almanac, Pratt still published astrological information as was standard practice for almanacs, but wrote that they were, "vulgar and erroneous ideas of the Ancients." Orson Pratt, Prophetic Almanac for 1846 (New York: New York Messenger Office, 1845), 2 found online at:
  38. ^ Allen, James B. No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002 pages 328-338
  39. ^ Donald G. Godfrey and Rebecca S. Martineau-McCarty, eds., An Uncommon Common Pioneer: The Journals of James Henry Martineau, 1828-1918 Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008, pages 15, 29, 37
  40. ^ W. W. Phelps, Deseret Almanac 1851, page 2. online at, Deseret Almanac 1853 page 3 online at
  41. ^ "Stapley, Jonathan A. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: footnote 41.
  42. ^ Brigham Young, office journal, December 30, 1861, Box 72, Folder 5. Brigham Young Office Files Church History Library
  43. ^ Stapley, Jonathan A. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: page 113.
  44. ^ Stapley, Jonathan A. The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 2018: page 112.
  45. ^ Krakauer, Jon (2004). Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (First Anchor Books ed.). New York: First Anchor Books. pp. 240–241. ISBN 978-1400032808. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  46. ^ a b c d e Bate, Kerry William (Winter 1994). "John Steele: Medicine Man, Magician, Mormon Patriarch". Utah Historical Quarterly. 62 (1). Retrieved November 19, 2018.
  47. ^ Koehler, Christopher S. W. (January 2001). "Heavy Metal Medicine". Today's Chemist at Work. 10 (1): 61–65. ISSN 1062-094X. Retrieved 2009-02-02.
  48. ^ Van Leer, Twila (December 3, 1996). "'Doc' Mixed Science and Quackery". Deseret News. Deseret News Publishing Company. Retrieved November 19, 2018.
  49. ^ "Toquerville". Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Arizona Gazetteer and Business Directory. R.L Polk & Co. 1884. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
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