Unpacking the Supernatural
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
More are discounting the supernatural every day. They believe that all unexplained phenomena have an explanation, even if perhaps it has yet to be discovered. To think otherwise is to ascribe to magical thinking as it has been defined, which defies the spirit of Mormonism’s belief in the natural world under-girding the spiritual one. But it’s also helpful not to ascribe all solutions to a problem within the realm of known science—which is still in its infancy. Thus, when one encounters a problem in the world that has no known answer, especially in the realms of parapsychology, spiritualism, metaphysical, psychic, or mystical, it may helpful to be even more skeptical that we know what’s going on and it somehow has a modern material explanation. It’s easy to declare all things not understood as hoaxes. But perhaps there is another explanation, no matter how far outside the plausibility spectrum it seems.
The Mormon moment began with the ability of Joseph Smith, as a boy, to receive heavenly visitations and visions. Was he receiving messages from “heaven?” Or was it a hallucination? Or was it basic fraud?
For argument’s sake, let’s say some intelligent beings from somewhere else (heaven, higher plane, multiverse) were communicating with Joseph Smith through some sort of unknown mechanism. In terms of 1820 this has been given a supernatural motif. But if we consider it in the arena of popular culture on the Sci-Fi Chanel, it takes on a completely different flavor. In watching the film, Dr. Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch’s character goes through a similar thought experiment in a rather violent, if entertaining way. He was extremely skeptical of things he could not see with his five senses. It took an experiment to show that there were other possibilities. We certainly would consider it more plausible when we see it as science fiction. True, it's not probable that it occurred in this fashion, at least within the realms of known science. But again, the realms of known science are the issue here. He most likely was perpetrating a hoax or hallucinating . . . and if he was we could easily dismiss it. But what if he wasn’t? Would it be worth postulating on the possibility even if remote?
On one level this is simply giving space for rational probability. And with Joseph Smith, we could give space for this as we would any other mystic. Perhaps there is a system that is difficult for the regular person to access which you can accessed by a few people with different genetic abilities, like an X-Man. Perhaps it's learned. There may be some technique worth learning to help others have accessibility, just as is there is with any other human skill. Would it be worth employing personal experiments to test claims? It may not be necessary to test quackery of everything that comes around, but the claims and inferences made by Joseph Smith, and the resulting efforts that came from it, particularly in respect to the traditions and livelihood of Mormons, probably require some time in contemplation, in particular for Mormons. And Joseph Smith is only an example here, even as he is the primary one in question. Other mystics and prophets could be considered in any religion or path. The point in this experiment is to breach something that was previously unknown and to make it known—and in this example, a communication with the internal psyche with other highly-evolved beings. If it were true, how important would that knowledge be? After that question is asked and an answer of yes given, then it may be useful to actually test that claim.
To extend this further to help develop a better sense of uncertainty, what’s the likelihood of humans on earth being the first beings in the universe to have evolved? What’s the likelihood that there is other life out there that’s highly evolved? It’s a theory or hypothesis, what have you, that the universe contains intelligent life, life that has the possibility of traveling to other worlds across time and communicating with beings who are tragically inferior, perhaps even part of a multi-dimensional universe. Now THAT'S probable, enough for the US government to spend research money on finding this life through the SETI (Search for the Extra-Terrestrial) project.
We ascribe to the gods as opposed to aliens, however, a certain morality and omnipotence that supersede alien life in the universe. That's really the only difference since gods and God are alien to our existence. The other assumption is that God or gods are omnipotent, that they can do anything in the universe. And while relatively speaking, they can, the same we human beings are omnipotent to ants. But perhaps these beings are not totally omnipotent despite our disparate vantage-point; they may likely have certain constraints because they exist within the boundaries of physics and laws of the universe. That could explain why they don’t or can’t do certain things or reveal themselves to people whenever or however they want. Say for instance, it takes some effort on the part of a human to do certain things that open the mind so that communication can take place. When such an effort is undertaken, whether it’s Joseph Smith, Moses, or a Buddhist Monk, one could possibly experience certain things from another realm. Mormons call it revelation. It may simply be using a part of the brain that seldom gets any use or is part of the process of human evolution. On the television show, The Man in the High Castle, characters learned to meditate to cross between dimensions and see other planes of existence. None of this could be viewed or seen with the naked eye or ear. It had to be experienced in ways not currently contemplated by human existence.
Some speculate that spiritual experiences happen entirely within the neurons firing in the brain, firmly biological. That’s the best answer from known science, to be true, but what if there is another explanation? What if there is an energy field in the brain where other multi-dimensional beings can communicate with people under certain constraints, sort of like radio or television? Would that be worth knowing? To simply pawn the spiritual experience off as wholly biological ends the scientific speculation and that internalized answer is limiting. And . . . while it may be true . . . but what if it isn’t?
That is worth a trip to Mars and back, to put it into context. So . . . let’s explore some of these visionary phenomena that permeate the foundation of Mormonism.
On the Smith Family and Clairvoyance
One cannot begin to discuss the way in which Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon came to be without first getting a grasp of the Smith family and the environment they lived. The facts used in the discussion on Joseph Smith's prophetic abilities in the next series of posts are derived from several locations generally, Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, Quinn’s Early Mormonism, and the Magical Worldview, and Lucy Mack Smith’s History of Joseph Smith by his Mother. While not comprehensive, it is sufficient to obtain pertinent early facts. Lucy Smith’s example will be included, because even though it’s not a scholarly work, and much of it is polemic, the early chapters give a sense of how this family operated and some of their spiritual inclinations, and it has some autobiographical authenticity.
The Smiths came from a line of clairvoyants, dirt farmers, soldiers, conscripted indentured servitude, debt, and subsistence living. Lucy’s relatives were clairvoyant, the closest examination being the eldest brother, who was a Seeker, and an older sister who was also inclined to visions. Lucy herself believed a miracle from the Lord revived her only daughter when she had fallen deathly ill of a fever. Many of them were dreamers. Joseph Smith’s grandfather, Asael, was a dreamer, as was Joseph Sr. (who curiously enough, also had a vision of the tree of life). It was of little consequence to anyone when Joseph Jr. started having dreams and visions. It was part of the family legacy. The fact is that dreams and visions were common during this early American frontier. The First Vision came with little fanfare at first because it was not unusual. Only decades later was it marketed as a large part of the historical framework of Mormonism. The vision isn't necessarily controversial on its face. The fact that it's used as a framework for proving Mormonism, and that it evolved to increasingly be seen as such, with additions to facts as it moved along . . . does. Does that make the account suspect?
Here are a couple of possible explanations:
Embellishment: Like many stories, they get better with age. The fish story is a classic example. This seems to be the favorite explanation of the First Vision from doubters, except in this case, the vision at some point became a validation of later Church doctrine. It would stand to reason, therefore, that it aged to a point where it could be manipulated to extract a great sense of belief in Joseph’s divine calling and create an organizational impetus for its existence. For almost 50 years, however, Moroni’s vision had been enough to compel Mormonism. From a revisionism standpoint, this is troubling, but typical of the times and the ethics of historians in the 19th Century.
Audience: This deals with the concept of audience, that one telling has a different audience and thus allows for different details. Joseph may have left details out in his earlier renditions simply because it would have goaded the 1830's establishment too much and thus, he retained a bit of discretion. He was till just a farm boy at the time. Thus, he focused the original efforts on ascension and salvation themes, which were less controversial.
The Truth? Was Joseph afraid to say the whole truth because of possible repercussions, or was he or his successors lying later on simply to justify their system? Either explanation is permitted here because this is an anecdotal telling of a personal experience without a second person verifying the story. It's sort of a non-story that way. Skeptics may see organizational aggrandizement to the Church for the later embellishments. That’s a permitted use, but since Joseph Smith himself did not emphasize the First Vision much over his life, it makes sense that this was less of a problem he created, and one that came to life through later organizational marketing efforts. The emphasis is rightly placed there, and not on the original experience.
The Nature of the Vision's Larger Challenge
While being concerned with the differences, one problem that hasn’t come to the forefront of debate—the depictions of Joseph staring into the heavens, is a much larger issue. He was most likely lying on his back, transfigured, and having a closed-eye vision. He even admits the state he was in when he regained consciousness:
“When I came to myself again I found myself lying on back looking up into Heaven.”
To date, this is how other mystics have ascribed spiritual experiences, one being “out-of-body.” The right artist depiction would have him passed out on the ground with a vision above his head. But that doesn’t seem to be as impactful as seeing these things with natural and naked eyes. Thus we have to learn as Mormons to be wary of artful depictions of religious scenes, which are arguable, a larger problem in the overall pantheon of Mormon historical renderings.
Joseph Smith, the Magical Money-Digger
Hyrum's Magic Parchment 1
Quinn’s book is invaluable for anyone to understand the mysticism of the Smiths, who came out of a wider culture of superstition and belief in magic and spiritualism. What’s curious about Quinn, is that although he was later excommunicated for his uncomfortable uncovering of early Mormon history, he maintains a quaint belief in Smith, and seems to keep some of the esoteric beliefs that Mormon leaders today would like us to forget. The fact is that the Smiths had magic parchments, talismans, daggers, and scry-ed for neighbors using peep stones, learning some of it from unsavory locals, and divined for water, seems scandalous. Yet it seems to strengthen Quinn's sentiments for Joseph. To him, it's fascinating to see a prophet coming from a superstitious background—it says something about a God that would take a youth with some perceived problems with scruples and snake oil and make him a Man of God. It’s faintly Biblical in a New Testament fashion. Were tax collectors any better? Naked homeless men like John the Baptist?
However, you can’t isolate the magic and superstition, from the religion of the family. While traversing around looking for treasure, Joseph was also an avid Bible reader and cared for religious and spiritual notions. Smith’s mother goes to lengths to describe the ventures into ginseng and the farming efforts that eventually took them to Palmyra. She does not delve into the unusual part-time jobs of her sons that probably added to the family income, perhaps because it wasn’t all that unusual in the 1820’s. She describes their spiritual lives and their flirting with various denominations, eventually settling on Methodism for half of the family, and Universalism for Joseph Smith Sr. There were many flavors to the Smiths other than money-digging and seer stones. They certainly weren’t shiftless and lazy people.
There are a couple of questions that surround the magic and money-digging venture accusations.
Are they true? – Yes, probably, at least friendly family members have passed down stories that seem to indicate it was true. Other semi-contemporary evidence comes from early Mormon dissidents such as ED Howe in his first anti-Mormon polemic, Mormonism Unvailed. The Hurlbut affidavits from neighbors are the underlying evidence here, although they rely heavily on gossip, not eye witnesses, and are ex post facto by years. This is ascribed embellishment here to discredit the burgeoning movement, but not all of it was false. There were elements of truth to the Hurlbut affidavits that meet up with friendly accounts.
Did it work? – Not sure. Quinn seems to point out that it was rarely successful, but it was successful enough to give Joseph some fame and people would seek him out. Some would say that he was just a good fortune-teller. Others say that he did have some sort of supernatural gift. The jury is out.
Was it Illegal or Unsavory? – It seems that this one is hard to say. While all the high society in the area would turn down their noses at money-digging, many of them secretly did it. It wasn’t all that uncommon. What Joseph and Hyrum did was somewhat normal, kind of like how Mormons today sell all kinds of strange drinks to help with weight loss and cancer and create MLM companies. It wasn’t without controversy, but it certainly wasn’t illegal or completely foreign to people in the area.
Why is it hidden in Church history? – Like many other issues relating to Church history, it seems stories that correlate to a more positive image of the founders are maintained and celebrated while others, not technically hidden, are not emphasized. That's understandable since often Joseph Smith is seen more as a brand than as a human being. It's also unfortunate because it also misses some of his humanity, and frankly, engaging aspects of his upbringing and personality.
Debunking Spiritualism - are we asking the right questions? The question that is the most interesting is the next consideration, that of the existence of spiritualism. There is so much in science not known about spiritualism. Is there some underlying science involved that we do not yet understand? Millions of people today still believe that objects can and do channel information. Perhaps there is a material connection to an underlying energy current that can be used by extra-dimensional beings to communicate to people. Is it possible for people to charge talismans with power so, like a battery, it can be used for these kinds of purposes? Or is it all a hoax?
Many will look to science to solve this problem, but that there really isn’t any good science to disprove it. The most notable exceptions are the work of Houdini and James Randi, two of the most prominent 20th Century bookend debunkers who made a business trying to disprove hucksters who publicly channeled the magic of the occult,. Houdini was the first. He would attend seances in the 1920’s and expose some of the tricks and illusions that channelers would use to imitate psychic experience since this was a very popular and new form of entertainment for the glitterati at the time. Soon these sorts of party tricks would fade and become less acceptable. But at the time, Houdini was motivated to pull of these masks of illusion and expose the fraud. Some could say that his efforts helped the trend to abate. At the other centennial bookend, Randi would offer $1 million to prove a supernatural psychic phenomenon, and he ran the test over 50 years without one successful case. He never had to give up a dollar.
It’s quite possible, however, due to false assumptions of materialism, that the evidence was never possible to collect on the terms Randi or Houdini set. Perhaps real paranormal phenomenon is much more private and cannot be conjured into the public realm very easily, or, that there are sentient actors are on the other side of the equation and they are constrained in some way not to be exposed by debunking tactics or double blind tests. Thus, Randi’s experiments would be akin to a mapmaker trying to GPS pirate loot or paying a person to produce business fraud by simply asking the thieves to make themselves known. The pirates and thieves, angels and demons, may not want their secrets to be known. If we consider such elements of his experiment as a blind spot, we are left to wonder still, if paranormal phenomenon are indeed objectively real.
So once again, we are left with Occam’s razor to decide if it works or not. For those that have not tried to conjur anything, it is completely out of the realm of their understanding. For those that have played with a Ouija board or have chased ghosts, it seems plausible. For those who pray and get answers, it often seems not only plausible but foundational. We do know that there are enough people that claim material channeling of spiritual energy and information that there is something there to at least continue to investigate as a continuing mystery. Whether it’s para-psychological or self-delusional has not been determined because it relies so heavily upon empiricism and escapes objective observation. The process may not be discover-able by double-blind tests a) if there are unknown intelligent entities that can avoid testing or b) we can’t observe them with today’s technology. Thus, we are only left with conjecture.
Curiously, Mormonism today is appalled at such things because it is deemed witchcraft. Thus, they are not discussed. On the other hand, religion in general, and Mormonism is no different, uses material things to channel spiritual energy. Sacrament bread and water come to mind, as do olive oil blessings and temple anointing ceremonies. The gold plates themselves could also be a sort of talisman that channeled divine communication. It’s not unique to Mormonism, but it is clearly fundamental. To be religious means to accept at least some form of material/spiritual channeling.
In the end of the treasure hunting mischief, we do know that Joseph and Hyrum were going around using a stone, in fact, using the very one that Joseph later uses to translate much of the Book of Mormon, to hunt for buried treasure, particularly for Willard Chase. It’s while he is thus engaged that we get to the story of the coming of the Book of Mormon. Concerning the segue of Joseph Smith going from treasure hunter to religious seer let’s consider the following scenarios as possible narratives.
Scenario 1 (Secular Huckster): Joseph Smith is employed using peep stones and other magical items to hunt for buried treasure. He is somewhat successful, at least in convincing his neighbors. He gets the idea to come up with a golden Bible he can translate to make more money. He schemes with his brother to develop this fantastic story. He has absorbed stories from Captain Kidd, the Late War, and other books, and synthesizes these 19th century features into this book, including verbiage and tone from the King James Bible. He also absorbs his own family’s fortunes (or mis-fortunes, and his father’s visionary experiences) into the paradigm. Oliver Cowdery comes on the scene and he finds another accomplice, most likely the source for a View of the Hebrews and creates a work to start a religion. He then creates a back-story to elaborate, including angels and visions. He sets up an elaborate hoax where he memorizes passages and then reads them from a hat with his seer stone. He fashions up actual plates that appear to be gold and hauls them around to perpetuate the hoax. Eventually he ends up at the head of a great religious empire with women, armies, and power, fighting off his enemies in jail to his dying breath when he was caught in the act of illegally perpetrating that power.
Scenario 2 (LDS Seminary): Joseph uses seer stones as a youth, but it’s inconsequential. He repents, which allows Moroni to visit him in the upper room of his house. God and angels then communicate directly to Joseph Smith. Everything he produces that he says comes from God. What Joseph sets up as an organization is also free from error because Joseph received the keys of transmission of that power from the Lord and angels. Thus, it becomes a ship of safety that people can moor themselves to and they won’t be led astray as long as they follow the current prophet.
Scenario 3 (Possible Consideration): Joseph was a clairvoyant on unicorn proportions. He had the capacity for visions and seeing things from beyond from an early age most people could not. He at least believes he can. Whether he developed this or it was natural, the practice of using the stone helps him open his “third eye,” perhaps even ingesting substances like mushrooms to help. He was thus able to receive “visitations” from beings, such as Moroni, where in a transfigured state, helps him to locate artifacts and translate it into the Book of Mormon. This scenario does require the plates to at least be a found artifact and not fabricated because he is hauling something around and people see them, which is not unusual to the times considering the native American artifacts that were constantly being unearthed at the time. Creating them would have been outright fraud. While he may have had some authentic experiences, some of his interpretation of them could be in error, and in essence, he creates a narrative to explain his experiences that are at face value . . . sometimes difficult to parse. At a certain point, he no longer uses the material tools because he thinks he has evolved beyond that need. But he is also not free from error. He still receives information that is incorrect—possibly from other beings from beyond that want to deceive him—or from his own desires or mental projections. His process isn’t perfect but perhaps could have been fine-tuned. He is young and easily manipulated by others who use his gifts to hoist themselves into power. At some point, he becomes a caricature of their own wishes and desires. He is . . . like most fascinating people in history . . . complicated.
His character and nature, the trials he underwent, and the conditions he often lived in throughout his life, seem to preclude scenario one. He never receives the total benefit of the Machiavellian angle. There are too many sacrifices made to engender that belief, such as multiple jail surrenders, or times when he inconveniences himself and his family with housing the indigent and poor. He seems to revel in a working class status. His own early organization was also much less protective of him as leader as say, his successors. He allows for too much democracy and disagreement both in Ohio and in Nauvoo, even with a fiery temper brought to bear. His respect seems less sure in 1844 than it does in 1884. It’s simply not that plausible that his idea was to create a dystopian religious political empire. Or in fine, he was really bad at it, to the point of getting himself killed. He is more of a musing monk than a manipulator. Scenario one does not fit well.
Scenario two is an LDS Church polemic that is rife with error and becomes the springboard for things such as the CES Letter. The perfection train is too difficult to weave.
Scenario three or variations thereof makes the best sense. This includes trying out spiritual processes, such as considering talismans such as seer stones, praying for answers in a “crying out” fashion, meditation, and other forms of spiritual seeking, in addition to simply studying an imperfect history for guidance and asking questions. He was a human being who had some unique gifts that he used to try to make a better way, got caught up in some of the misdirection of effort, which eventually cost him his life. And while it's tempting to look at the historical Joseph as flawed, as he was, the meditative and thoughtful Joseph who taught and expounded, is so much more interesting, and accessible, and able to be tested. One can try out the process he went through for themselves, or in fine, the empirical approach.