Historian Don Bradley made some waves in my previous interview when he said there were Masonic implements with the Gold Plates. It turns out that Clair Barrus has some similar beliefs, and we will talk about Masonic legends and golden plates.
Clair: Lucy Mack Smith writes about this. She says, “Joseph said, ‘Do not be uneasy, mother. All is right. See here, I have got a key.’” He calls it a key. “I knew not what he meant. I took the article of which he spoke into my hands and upon examination found it consisted of two, smooth three-quarter diamonds set in glass. And the glasses were set in silver bows.” This is Joseph Smith’s translating device, but he calls it a key, the same word that is used in the Royal Arch Masonic myth. The high priest puts on a breastplate, uses the key, and he translates the characters that were originally from a gold plate. So I think there’s something going on there. I think this may be what inspired Joseph Smith to go on and allow Mormonism to come forth.
GT: So you think there’s a Masonic connection to the origins? The origin story of the golden plates? Is that [right]?
Clair: I think so. I think that at some point Joseph shifts from a common treasure-seeker to a restorer of ancient scripture, buried scripture written by ancient prophets.
Clair: I think that story and then the idea of how do we translate these and what do we even wear while we’re translating it? I think that also comes from masonry.
Many people in the 19th century believed in magic. We’re not talking parlor tricks. We’re talking about real magic. In our next conversation with Clair Barrus, we will talk about how these magical spirits and magic circles were believed to help people like Joseph Smith find buried treasure. We’ll talk about the combination of magical masonry.
Clair: Lucy Mack Smith, when she was writing her family memoir. She had several drafts, and we have the earlier drafts. In this early draft, she says something to the effect, “Well, we didn’t spend all of our time trying to win the faculty of Abrac, or soothsaying or drawing magic circles, we did attend to our business and took care of it.” That’s it, in essence, and then she doesn’t go on and then the next draft, there’s nothing. So we have this tantalizing tidbit and it’s interesting to go, “Hmm, what in the world is she talking about?” Well, we know, of course, the Smiths were heavily involved in treasure seeking. This phraseology is, I believe, about treasure seeking. But it also has a Masonic origin, an interesting Masonic origin. So Abracadabra was a magic word. It goes way, way back. It probably had something to do with trying to conjure up the deity Abraxas and you can find it in all sorts of books going way back. If you narrow that down, though, to the word Abrac, so Abracadabra. If you draw a triangle, a magic triangle, and the bottom line has Abracadabra, and then it’s a little shorter and shorter. At the top is letter A, that is a magic abracadabra triangle.
Clair: Magic Circle is not in the Leland manuscript, but it is something that the Smiths did, and other treasure seekers [did] when trying to recover a buried treasure. When you draw a magic circle with a dagger, and the Smith’s had a ceremonial dagger with an occult symbol in it, it was quite likely used for drawing magic circles in the ground. When a magician would draw a magic circle, it was used to either keep spirits out or keep them in or to protect the magician that was in the circle or protect others that were in the circle. It was creating a magical barrier that couldn’t be crossed.
GT: When you’re saying magician, you’re not using that in today’s term where it’s just a guy who does optical illusions.
Clair: This is not parlor tricks.
GT: This is actually, they believed they were doing magic.
Clair: Yes, this is ceremonial magic. This is something the Smiths did. If we want, I can read a very interesting quote about Joseph Smith, Sr. Well, I’ll just summarize it. Joseph Smith, Sr. drew two magic circles. Then he puts rods of witch hazel sticks around the two circles and then in the very center he draws in a rod of iron. What he’s really doing is creating a cone. There’s an outer circle and an inner circle and then a point. It’s supposed to represent a 3D cone going down into the ground, holding the treasure at this point inside of this cone. Then Joseph Smith, Sr. walks around the circle three times, and he’s described as muttering. Well, he’s probably using magic words, a spell, some kind of ceremonial magic and maybe the word abracadabra might have been part of it. We don’t know, or Abrac or something. Then that’s supposed to help protect the treasure from the spirits.
Clair: He then goes into the house and asks Joseph Smith, who is looking in his seer stone in the hat and he says, “Joseph.” And then they dig. They had dug, and there’s no treasure. They go in the house, “Joseph what happened?” he says. He [Joseph, Jr.] has been watching the spirit interacting with this cone, these magic circles that Joseph Smith, Sr. has drawn. Joseph [Jr.] said that the Spirit was able to get the treasure and move it through the earth and they lost it. They had made a mistake during some part of the ritual, and that’s why they lost the treasure. It’s a fascinating account. I can’t remember if it’s William Stafford that wrote this. It’s a fascinating account. It gives you [a] very detailed [account] into what the Smiths would do.
There are some active Latter-day Saints who may be surprised to learn about Joseph Smith’s beliefs in magic as well as the connections between freemasonry and LDS Temples to be surprising. Some will even deny the connection. Is this something active, believing Latter-day Saints should be concerned about, or can these connections be reconciled? Clair Barrus will describe how he reconciles Joseph Smith’s history which is surprising to some.
Clair: So, when people come across uncomfortable church history truths or facts, it’s problematic because we’ve been raised on correlated history, and the internet now provides an opportunity to have unvarnished material to ingest. In the black and white paradigm in which the church presents everything: it’s true or false, it’s right or wrong, then then we have a problem, I think, or there’s a problem. It’s setting people up for a problem and a potential failure. I don’t think it will be that way several generations from now. I think the church is in the midst of trying to adjust to that. But [there are a] the scope of paradigms I don’t care for, and I think there are valid paradigms that work with Joseph Smith and all of these facts of church history that work well. But, black and white, true and false, all that, I think we need to reject that and say, “You know what?” Prophets are human, and they made some mistakes. The idea of a restoration of ancient truths–the way I like to look at it is that Joseph Smith was a brilliant prophet in that he was repurposing the raw materials of the esoteric and the questions about the divine and the mystic and the religious and he was a master at taking these raw ingredients that were right in front of him and building something better, something that spoke better to the people of his time.
So, we have this magic stuff. We have masonry. We have Christianity. I think Joseph takes these and builds something new out of them. I think that is the prophetic, revelatory, creative thing that Joseph Smith does. He builds that and then and then a little bit later, there’s more stuff that is informing him and more building blocks are suddenly visible to him and he takes those and synergistically builds something out of that, and on and on and on. It’s couched in the terminology of restorationism, restoring ancient truths. And perhaps it is, but I think that another way to look at it is that it’s building. It’s using the raw materials to build Mormonism that speaks to people, that helps them reach to the divine to answer the questions that everybody has asked from antiquity. Joseph Smith is providing potential answers for us and helping us as we seek to try to try to figure out what’s going on this planet. Why are we here and what in the world is going on? So that’s kind of how I see it.
So the Masonic Temple connection, to me that’s a repurposing of masonry into something that is more in line with the vision that Joseph Smith continues to uncover and build as he goes through his life. This is the latest building and refashioning something from his environment into something new that spoke to those people. And it speaks a lot to a lot of people today, and I think that’s a better way of looking at these things.
Is that how you see it? What are your thoughts concerning Joseph Smith’s use of magic and Masonry?
Very interesting! I wonder though how singular or how common were practices of magic in that time.
I live in an area where despite being a first world country and rooted in a Catholic history, folk magic is still somewhat present in the common folks life (Our hospitals have lists of people with healing gifts just in case, and stories of people heald by them). I’d be interested in learning the evolution of our reaction to magic, the occult and so forth
Everyone always skims past this story from Emma, told to show how uneducated Joseph was:
“Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?” When I answered “Yes,” he replied “Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.”
“I was afraid I had been deceived” is a huge confession on his part that he had trouble 100% believing what he’s reading in his seer stone. This side comment, I feel, is completely undervalued and wonderful insight into his feelings towards his seer stone. It probably represents problems he had in his treasure hunting days as described in the post above.
That little vignette is the reason why i think he really did see things in his seer stone. If I had to “Gospilize” the treasure hunting, I’d say that he could see things but because he’s trying to use his Seer calling to make money, it’s falling apart.
As soon as he stops trying to make money on it (which Moroni essentially tells him to stop doing) he suddenly is able to make things work.
Which brings up another point, the fact that he’s got treasure hunting tools but in the end Moroni has to tell him where to go to the plates. This would be the definitive point where he turns away from Treasure hunting.
For me the big question is this: Did the Lord guide Joseph Smith to implement Masonic rituals into the ultimate LDS ordinances found in the temple, or was this Joseph Smith’s idea? The beauty of the temple and its ordinances are often overshadowed by the ritualistic nature of the experience and I think that’s unfortunate unless it was absolutely necessary (i.e., the Lord’s idea).
Fascinating. Especially the connection between gold plates, the interpreters, and masonic lore. DO we know how widespread treasure hunting was back in the day, and did anyone ever find anything?
Many Mormon history experts have said that revelation is a collaborative effort. I think it is a mistake to put it in terms of “is it the Lord’s idea or Joseph’s.”. Why not both? The brother of Jared came up with the idea of translucent stones to light the ship. Abraham negotiated down to 10 righteous men to spare the city. This shows collaboration. I think it is entirely reasonable to think of Masonic ceremonies in the same way.
Michael Quinn has his book on the magic world view. I expect treasure seeking was likely as common as essential oils, magnets to cure pain, or other medical “cures” outside of established medicine.
“ … the way I like to look at it is that Joseph Smith was a brilliant prophet in that he was repurposing the raw materials of the esoteric and the questions about the divine and the mystic and the religious …”
But he said he actually dug up some gold plates. Is this an example of “repurposing”?
Magical thinking in the nineteenth century and prior is different than magical thinking today. I agree that it is similar to the use of “essential oils, magnets to cure pain, or other medical ‘cures’ outside of established medicine” today.
We have science. It’s time to put away magical thinking.