D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Revised and Enlarged Edition. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1998.
In reassessing Quinn’s classic study, I’ll simply say that Stephen Ricks’s and Daniel Peterson’s review of the first edition still applies to the second. The book “reflects deep erudition” and “offers considerable evidence indicating that Joseph Smith, members of his family, and some of his early associates were involved in the use of seer stones, divining rods, amulets, and parchments, as well as in the search for buried treasure.” In other words, Quinn effectively argues his chief assertions.
The book has its quirks though, as Ricks and Peterson point out. Quinn chases down a number of rabbit holes that don’t yield much: the occult similarities of Book of Mormon names, Willard Chase’s and Benjamin Saunder’s toad-like creature, and tracing familial connections gets rather tedious. More substantial is Ricks’s and Peterson critique of Quinn’s use of the term magic. “The assumptions of Quinn’s definition are, to a large extent, the assumptions of normative Protestant Christianity, influenced by Enlightenment rationalism. But are these the optimal presuppositions to use in a work of this type? We think not.”
I’ve made similar arguments around here about “magic” as a problematic term but I want to focus on what I consider to be really great about Magic World View. To explain my enthusiasm for Magic World View, let me explain my approach to scholarship in general. I tend to like most of the things I read and I tend to divide scholarly work into two categories: useful to me and not useful to me. If works are useful, I’m pleased, and, if not, I sort of ignore it. Magic World View is tremendously useful to me. Furthermore, since I consider magic to be a bogus category, the things Quinn shows the Smiths were involved in don’t bother me. I think they’re pretty cool.
Things that particularly impress me include the work Quinn did to track down the sources and meaning of the Smiths’ lamens and rituals objects. This coupled with the work Quinn put into the context of Moroni’s visit really paints a cohesive picture, I would argue (and will at MHA). A lot of work and very helpful to me. Another is the tremendous energy Quinn expended on tracking down the availability of print in the Palmyra area. Quinn goes through all the newspapers to track the books sold and lent and which booksellers were going out of print. The list Quinn complies is impressive (and very helpful). Tracking down the libraries and their conditions of use is likewise impressive.
Owen Davies, the expert on English folk magic, made it a point to endorse Quinn his recent Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. I reviewed another book by Davies here. Davies seldom calls authors out by name, but in Grimoires, he did so with Quinn. “Quinn’s reconstruction of the popular magical beliefs of the social milieu in which the Smiths and their followers lived is convincing, and … it mirrors the continuance of similar magic traditions in the European countries from where the Smiths and their followers emigrated. While there is no evidence that the Smiths and their followers owned copies of Scot, Sibly, or Barrett, there is little doubt that the Smith parchments were used for overly magical protective purposes, and were derived primarily from Scot and Sibly” (149).
Davies then evaluates William Hamblin’s “lengthy, scholarly, and meticulous rebuttal.” “Hamblin makes some pertinent criticisms. Quinn certainly conflated cheap and easily available fortune-telling tracts and astrological works with grimoires and other scarce works of intellectual magic.” However “Hamblin overplays the scarcity of Scot’s Discovery as a possible source. For Hamblin it ‘is the least likely that Joseph would have obtained’. In fact it is the most likely.” Ultimately, argues Davies “Quinn’s thesis does not stand or fall on the basis that Smith owned copies of Scot and Sibly, since extracts from all three were to be found in the manuscript grimoires and charms kept by some English cunning-folk and in those sold by the London occult dealer John Denly. It is quite likely that some of those found their way to America where they were copied once again” (150-51).
Thus, I see Magic World View as a triumph, with the caveat from Ricks and Peterson, “It seems to us that other, less value-laden terms, such as ‘religion,’ ‘popular religion,’ and even ‘folk religion,’ might be used with more profit, objectivity, and, ultimately, less misunderstanding.’”