History Magazine

Mormon History Machinations

By Cris

Over at Slate, David Haglund has posted a fascinating piece on the life and travails of Mormon historian Michael Quinn. Trained as an academic historian, Quinn obtained his PhD from Yale in 1976. When he applied for a faculty position at BYU, his credentials (and interest in early Mormon history) were viewed with suspicion. The church leader assigned to interview Quinn was Boyd Packer. Packer was less than enthused:

Packer said, “I have a hard time with historians, because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting.” That’s according to Quinn—my request to speak with Packer, whose health has badly deteriorated in recent years, was declined. But Packer certainly said similar things before larger audiences. In 1981, he gave an address to church educators called “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” which was organized around four “cautions.” The second of them is this: “There is a temptation for the writer or teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”

While Packer may have been a dissembler, he wasn’t dumb. In fact, if I didn’t know better I’d think he had been reading Nietzsche (Beyond Good & Evil 39):

Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree.  Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure–or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.”

As Quinn discovered during the course of his research and writing life, too much truth about Mormon history can be dangerous. Though I was not familiar with Quinn until now, I just ordered one his books. Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1998) looks superb, as this blurb suggests:

In this ground-breaking book, D. Michael Quinn masterfully reconstructs an earlier age, finding ample evidence for folk magic in nineteenth-century New England, as he does in Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s upbringing. Quinn discovers that Smith’s world was inhabited by supernatural creatures whose existence could be both symbolic and real. He explains that the Smith family’s treasure digging was not unusual for the times and is vital to understanding how early Mormons interpreted developments in their history in ways that differ from modern perceptions. Quinn’s impressive research provides a much-needed background for the environment that produced Mormonism. This thoroughly researched examination into occult traditions surrounding Smith, his family, and other founding Mormons cannot be understated. Among the practices no longer a part of Mormonism are the use of divining rods for revelation, astrology to determine the best times to conceive children and plant crops, the study of skull contours to understand personality traits, magic formulae utilized to discover lost property, and the wearing of protective talismans.

Mormonism is not, of course, unique in being magical. All religions are magical, with that which is orthodox within any tradition being deemed “not magic.”

Mormon History Machinations

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