Peter Levenda, The Angel and the Sorcerer: The Remarkable Story of the Occult Origins of Mormonism and the Rise of Mormons in American Politics. Ibis Press.
This would have been a particularly timely book had Mitt Romney beaten Obama back to the White House. As it is, hopefully it will kickstart more of a debate anyway than merely providing an interesting background to the opening of the musical The Book of Mormon in London. It’s an excellent read, undoubtedly, and succeeds in stirring up controversies of one sort or another, but arguably falls rather flatter on its face in a couple of areas while trying to overdo the sensation.
For a start, while it is true that many Christians and indeed most Mormons would indeed consider using dowsing for treasure hunting – akin to water divining – as an occult-ish practice, your actual occultists and historians of the esoteric would consider it as merely folk magic, or rural superstition. Despite the hype of the subtitle, Smith was no Aleister Crowley – nor even a Dr John Dee.
Still, when one believes that the founder of one’s beloved religion, the farm boy Joseph Smith, found and dug up inscribed golden plates – the Book of Mormon – through divine intervention and it turns out that he was actually infamous for touting his divination skills in the area things do get a bit tricky for the believer. He was even arrested (and basically let off with a caution due to his youth) for offering his services as a treasure digger. It was a scam. Even the realisation that Smith offered several, contradictory, versions of the key note event of locating the golden plates – many years after it took place – would bring, at the very least, a pang to the heart of the devout Mormon.
The fact is that nobody saw the golden plates – the ‘witnesses’ were only allowed to feel them through cloth – and even some of them withdrew their endorsement as time passed. Smith ‘translated’ the hieroglyphics by, as Levenda tells us, a form of ‘scrying’, or sticking his head in a hat in which he had placed a magical stone. This is not the version the Mormon missionaries tell. Mormons (the nickname for ‘Latter Day Saints’) believe Smith used the biblical ‘Urim and Thummim’ – sort of holy spectacles – to translate the plates. Not so. And what of the alleged hieroglyphics themselves? He declared, with all the authority of ‘the prophet, seer and revelator’ of the Lord, that they were a form of ‘reformed Egyptian’. This caused considerably more trouble than it was worth, as a travelling showman later sold him an alleged Egyptian papyrus for what was then a vast amount of money (one of Smith’s acolytes lost all his property through this deal). Smith declared it was ancient Egyptian and packed with divine information, which very ill-advisedly he made public. Well, basically – and you might be ahead of me here – it wasn’t. And his ‘translations’ have become a laughing stock among Egyptologists (but are still causing huge controversy and real heartbreak among thinking Mormons, especially in the UK as we speak).
Levenda treads carefully here. He notes that the ‘occult’ was never very far from religion, commenting: ‘…believers in the basic tenets of Christianity [historically] found themselves living in a world populated by spirits both good and evil’. And of the mindset of ritual magicians’ he provides this neat summary: ‘They do not wait for the divine light to descend. They are in a hurry.’ Smith, with his craving for vision and ritual, was a soul in a tearing hurry.
Key to what he was and what he wanted to be was the Book of Mormon, claimed by Smith and his followers to be the written history of Jewish tribes who travelled to the New World in 600 BC – where, in due course, the risen Jesus appeared to them. Basically the tribes split into the Goodies or the Nephites and the Baddies, the Lamanites. The latter, it was explained, became the Native Americans who were cursed with a dark skin. (Indeed, any person of colour was deemed to have been cursed.)
The problem with the Book of Mormon is not only that there is nil evidence for Jewish genes in the indigenous population of the Americas, but also as Levenda reveals, much of its detail can be traced to other books doing the rounds in Smith’s era. One of the most fascinating revelations was that many aspects of the Book of Mormon can be found in books about the pirate anti-hero Captain Kidd – then a big craze – even the very name ‘Mormon’…
The only major mystery there was how Smith thought he could get away with it if so many readers also had access to the Kidd stories. Perhaps, therefore, Smith’s writings were not conscious hoaxes, but a strangely powerful mix coming hot and fast from an unconscious mind that was overloaded with both frustrated mysticism and frustrated creativity.
As Levenda comments: ‘I submit that the author of the Book of Mormon just might have been one of America’s greatest storytellers, a novelist along the lines of a Melville, minus the humor.’
Minus the humour indeed. Mark Twain, who clearly felt no threat from the author of the Book of Mormon, described it as ‘chloroform in print’. And if matters had been allowed to rest there, perhaps the whole saga might have been forgotten or relegated to the history of novelty writings, rather like the allegedly channelled books of Pearl Curran.
But as Levenda says, ‘And then things got out of hand’… What with the golden plates and ongoing visions, Smith soon found he’d started a religion. (At first simply ‘The Church of Christ’, soon it added ‘… of Latter Day Saints’, otherwise known as the Mormons.) From its poverty-stricken roots in New York State it made the perilous and traumatic journey over the decades to establish the new Zion at Salt Lake City, where it still rules and keeps tight rein on its world-wide empire.
Along the way there were other ‘Zions’. The main settlement was at Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith and his followers – much bolstered by a mass influx of European converts – were determined to flourish. It was here that Smith’s megalomania knew no bounds. He set up not only his own militia – he loved parading around in uniform - but also declared himself King and ran for President of the United States. (He also established a bank – well, at least he printed money. The ensuing furore nearly saw him incarcerated.)
But it was also at Kirtland that Smith built a fine Temple, where devout Mormons could participated in certain semi-secret rituals – being ‘baptised for the dead’ (proxy baptisms) and being married (or ‘sealed’) for time and all eternity. It was this last rite that was to cause much trouble, and still haunts the Latter Day Saints in the 21st century. For a start, Smith declared – ex cathedra – that a man could only reach the highest level of heaven if he was sealed to more than one wife. (His first, and as far as she had been concerned, only wife, Emma, was rather slow to embrace this particular doctrine and later, rather fast to rid herself of any suggestion of it in her life.) The infamous Mormon polygamy was born. No one knows exactly how many ‘spiritual wives’ (though by no means all of them remained on the level of the spirit for much longer than the actual ceremony) Smith possessed – possibly somewhere around the 40 mark. He married women who were already other men’s wives, and among the throng were a 14-year-old (and it is rumoured even younger girls) and his own half sister. Today’s Mormons either simply don’t know about these inconvenient facts or are in the grip of officially promoted denial.
But the actual Temple ceremonies, as Levenda points out, were also interesting because of their very nature. The bloodthirsty oath of secrecy, for example, was lifted almost word for word from that of Freemasonry (Smith and his closest associates were newly-created Master Masons). Mormonism and Freemasonry – now there are prime ingredients for a howling religious scandal that would run and run! Conspiracy theorists take note. Of course true believers tend only to go so far as to admit that Smith may have used Masonic wording, but, they hasten to add, the rituals themselves came straight from the mouth of God.
Not only could a man reach the top level of heaven due to a divinely-sanctioned addiction to matrimony, he could also become a god with his own world to reign over. This belief in the literal divinisation of individuals, Levenda declares, reveals the Hermetic or Gnostic elements of Smith’s religion. In fact, this is where this reviewer takes serious issue with the author. Although the Prophet must indeed have absorbed certain Hermetic strands of Freemasonry, his version is actually a travesty of Hermeticism. For a start, Hermeticists and most Gnostics believed in a personal hotline to the divine – actually more of a insider’s knowledge (gnosis), as every man and woman was perceived as being already made of the divine spark. According to that worldview, no prophet and certainly no polygamous marriages were needed in order to achieve one’s divine status. Nor did it assume the rather child-like form of yet more beardy men on clouds surrounded by gaggles of vapid women in white frocks. And women didn’t have to queue up to marry a man to get into heaven (and incidentally become goddesses and queens, though Mormons feel uncomfortable with the implication of a Heavenly Mother) simply because by their very nature they were already part-divine. One might go so far as to say that Mormonism is an insult to the Hermetic/Gnostic belief system. Besides, Hermeticists do not, as a matter of historical course, kill people or urge others to.
Almost inevitably, Smith and his brother met a violent death at the hands of a mob in 1844 while in ‘protective custody’ at Nauvoo, Illinois. Of course, also inevitably, this instantly created a memorable martydom and the halo’d hero for generations who followed him as a Prophet of the Lord. Actually they literally followed Brigham Young, the ‘American Moses’ (see review above), who may have been a Latter Day ‘Saint’ but there the similarity with goodness rather obviously ended.
Levenda also deals at length with the vexed subject of Mormons in US politics – astutely reminding us that the Romneys were not the first to run for President. Joseph Smith was. He also reveals the involvement of the Latter Day Saints in the hierarchy of the FBI and CIA – part of a veritable Mormon mafia of the usual big business vested interests. But there are worrying religious elements behind all this money- and power-grabbing. For a start all Mormon men during secret Temple rituals swear to avenge Joseph Smith’s death. And as the consensus is that the then US government was behind it, the implications of this are rather far-reaching…
This is a punchy, well-written, highly accessible book. It will leave you startled – or possibly in a dead faint, should you be a devout Mormon, though what are you doing, reading this in the first place? – and it will get you thinking. Like all such books it is highly opinionated and almost certainly just plain wrong on certain key issues. But it has both a heart and a mind, which is surely what we want from iconoclastic works. And despite all the damning revelations, there is something rather touching in that controversial little stream of sympathy for Joseph Smith running under all the vexed history. Was he really a charismatic mentally ill megalomaniac who married children and other men’s wives? Or was he the storyteller for whom everything just got out of hand? See, I told you it would get you thinking. -- Lynn Picknett