Joseph Smith and the Magical Autumnal Equinox

Anyone who regularly interacts with Mormons over Mormon history knows that “most members of [The LDS Church] in the twenty-first century know nothing of Joseph’s magical practices” (>>). I have been studying Mormonism for about ten years, and the depth to which the early Joseph Smith was immersed in a worldview of invoking magic and controlling spirits continues to amaze me. One thing that I recently learned was the significance of the Autumnal equinox to Joseph Smith’s worldview.

D. Michael Quinn writes in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p.120-121:

Smith’s prayer “to commune with some kind of messenger” on 21 September 1823 occurred once the moon had reached its maximum fullness the previous day and just before the autumnal equinox. Th e 1665 edition of Scot’s works (upon which the “Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah” Smith parchment depended) specified, “And in the composition of any Circle for Magical feats, the fittest time is the brightest Moon-light” (Scot 1665b, 215). An occult book published in New York in 1800 also stated, “Dreams are most to be depended on by men at the full of the moon” (Beverly Gipsy 1800, 19). Because the full moon was the preferred time for treasure digging (Dorson 1946, 174; Granger 1977, 225; R. Walker 1984b, 443), it is probably no coincidence that, according to Martin Harris, Smith acted as treasure-seer earlier that night (J. A. Clark 1842, 225). In fact, his prayer “to commune with some kind of messenger” may have been in response to an unsuccessful group effort earlier that evening to locate a treasure in the hill. That Smith’s experience occurred at the autumnal equinox was also significant. Because the planetary hours of invocation began at sunrise which occurred at different times, Sibly’s Occult Sciences had specified that the equinox was the time when the planetary hours of invocation corresponded most closely with the common hours of the clock (1784, 174; also deVore 1947, 179). In the magic world view, the equinox was a time when the earth could be expected to experience the introduction of “broad cultural movements and religious ideas” (Brau 1980, 194, 107).

In “Joseph Smith: America’s Hermetic Prophet”, Lance S. Owens writes:

In this light, the visit of the angel Moroni took on unusual aspects. The angel had appeared on the night of the Autumnal equinox, between midnight and dawn–hours auspicious for a magical invocation. On the day of the equinox Joseph had subsequently made his four annual visits to the hill. When finally he retrieved the plates, it was the eve of the equinox, in the first hour after midnight. Accounts suggested he had been required to take with him that night a consort (his wife), to ride a black horse, and to dress in black–all lending a further magical tenor to the operation.

As a prelude to Halloween, I suggest that the LDS Church put on a pageant during the Autumnal equinox of the story of Joseph Smith’s angelic visitations and retrieval of the plates. Only, of course, if they are willing to include the magic.

Further Reading

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64 Responses to Joseph Smith and the Magical Autumnal Equinox

  1. LDSSTITANIC says:

    GB…I have avoided this thread for the most part (and mostly been deleted at that) because the subject is a bit over my head as it were. However to bluntly say he wasn’t fascinated with the stuff because he never wrote about it?

    Tommyrot I say…the man died with a Jupiter’s talisman on his person…what does that have to do with Christianity? He also wrote the “Holiness to the Lord” parchment and the “Saint Peter Bind Them” parchment. These are both full of occult symbols and were used as talismans as well. This doesn’t show at least a modicum of interest?

  2. Ralph says:

    LDSTITANIC,

    Here is a list of all things in JS possession when he was killed –

    In 1984, Anderson located and published the itemized list of the contents of Joseph Smith’s pockets at his death. The list was originally published in 1885 in Iowa by James W. Woods, Smith’s lawyer, who collected the prophet’s personal effects after the Martyrdom. The contents from the published 1885 printing are as follows:

    “Received, Nauvoo, Illinois, July 2, 1844, of James W. Woods, one hundred and thirty- five dollars and fifty cents in gold and silver and receipt for shroud, one gold finger ring, one gold pen and pencil case, one penknife, one pair of tweezers, one silk and one leather purse, one small pocket wallet containing a note of John P. Green for $50, and a receipt of Heber C. Kimball for a note of hand on Ellen M. Saunders for one thousand dollars, as the property of Joseph Smith. – Emma Smith.”

    I got this info from FAIRLDS (yes I know you hate those guys) and they, as you can see, said this was from JS lawyer’s list. Can you see anything that says or describes a Jupiter’s Talisman? In the same article there is a description of what it should look like and unless you want to read the article you will have to believe me, it could not be mistaken as a coin.

    If you are interested in being fair-minded (ie researching both sides of the story before making your mind up) the article is in FAIRLDS website under the subject magic and occult.

  3. GB says:

    Aaron,
    Your sources are in direct conflict! First Quinn said “on 21 September 1823 occurred once the MOON had reached its maximum FULLNESS THE PREVIOUS DAY”

    And then Denton said “Almanacs published near Smith’s home reported the date was “both the autumnal equinox and a NEW MOON, an excellent time to commence new projects.” (both emphases mine).

    Well, a “full” moon is the complete opposite of a “new” moon in the lunar cycle now isn’t it!

    Obviously at least one of your sources has no credibility at all (not that the other one is so good either).

    See here for reliable data http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/MoonPhase.php

    And while we are asking for sources, what was Denton’s source?

    What specific Almanac did she source?

    Where was it published?

    What evidence does she have (if any) that the Smiths had access to it?

    Does simply having read or even access to an Almanac prove interest in magic and the occult?

    http://www.hermetic.ch/cal_sw/ve/ve.htm provides the dates. Just click the online calculator and put in the dates you want.

    A: Can you provide an example of a text accessible to Smith providing more accurate data on the equinoxes, and then demonstrate that he, a farm boy, was more likely to have read it?

    GB: You are the one insisting that it was important to him, NOT me.

    A: Are you implying that Smith discerned the more exact date of the equinox by using a magical method?

    GB: NO! You are the one insisting that it was important to him, NOT me.

    A: So the timing with the equinox date was merely coincidental?

    GB: Yup. And the annual meeting was simply that, an annual meeting. Annual meetings are very common.

    A: I have seen a host of published sources that draw the connection between Smith’s early activity and the Autumnal equinox.

    GB: Me too. And every one of them started with the supposition that JS was involved in magic and then they stretch all the information to try and make it so.

    All that stretching makes their case VERY VERY thin!!!

  4. germit says:

    Ralph: I generally like your posts, but you have a tendency to nit-pick: did JS own for the greater part of his life a Jupiter talisman?? If he did, then WHY ?? Keep your questions more basic and fundamental, although I’ll hazard a guess that it matters little to you that he owned anything connected to the occult. If you are trying to say “he never owned such a thing” or even “he did, but it doesn’t matter because…” then I’d say you are making a point worth hearing: then show us why you hold that to be true. I’ll be glad to check out the FAIR material, but from what I’ve seen, they TEND to beat small points to a pulp.
    TRYING to see the BIG picture with you: GERMIT

  5. GB, good catch on Denton’s error. I wonder if she understands the distinction between “full moon” and “new moon”. I don’t know what source she is referencing.

    The better historians like Quinn seem to be the ones who have checked Smith’s local almanacs. I can’t find access online to old Almanacs. If anyone finds one, please share the URL.

    Does simply having read or even access to an Almanac prove interest in magic and the occult?

    An absurd straw man.

    Again, you link to a modern source on the equinox dates and times which uses a modern scientific formula. This is anachronistic when dealing with a farm boy of the 1820’s.

    GB: You are the one insisting that it was important to him, NOT me.

    That completely dodges my question about a more scientifically accurate text that is accessible to Smith. I’ll ask again,

    Can you provide an example of a text accessible to Smith providing more accurate data on the equinoxes, and then demonstrate that he, a farm boy, was more likely to have read it?

    GB: Me too. And every one of them started with the supposition that JS was involved in magic and then they stretch all the information to try and make it so.

    GB, modern LDS historians of notoriety within Mormonism like Richard Bushman are clear in admitting that Smith was involved in folk magic. They just try to soften the blow by justifying it. I suggest you pick up a copy of Rough Stone Rolling at your local Deseret Book.

  6. GB says:

    A: I don’t know what source she is referencing.

    GB: She didn’t document her source? What kind of a “scholar” doesn’t provide sources? I wonder if she even had a source! Maybe she just made it up!

    A: The better historians like Quinn seem to be the ones who have checked Smith’s local almanacs.

    GB: Is that an admission that Denton isn’t a good historian?

    seem? SEEM? What kind of academic standard is that?

    Did Quinn not provide a specific source either?

    When setting about to destroy a person’s character and reputation, shouldn’t your scholarship be above question?

    What kind of “Christian” engages in sloppy work, innuendo and supposition when engaged in destroying a person’s character and reputation?

    What is wrong with using scientific calculations to determine facts in the absence of historical documents? Until the almanacs from the years in question are found and made available, the calculations are the best we have. And to ASSUME that the almanacs were in error is shoddy scholarship!

    A better question to ask is; “Can someone provide PROOF that the Almanacs were in error and that they were used by the Smith’s, and that the farm boy Joseph read them?”

    Aaron, how would you like it if people used such shoddy scholarship to destroy YOUR character and reputation?

    So now we have moved from magic and occultism to “folk magic”. What is “folk magic” any way?

    A little Google reveals that “folk magic” is “folk religion” or what is sometimes called “folk Christianity”. So now we are back to those magical Christians again.

    So was Joseph and his “folk magic” any different (in a negative way) from the common “folk Christian” of his day?

  7. germit says:

    GB: and so we’re back to this:

    So was Joseph and his “folk magic” any different (in a negative way) from the common “folk Christian” of his day?

    This would seem to be “Joe was no worse than his neighbors” defense. There is no effort to justify, or even define, what ‘folk magic’ meant to himself or his contemporaries, but if lots of them did it, and they were called ‘christian’ , then how bad could it possibly be ??
    GB: if you have a better defense than that, fetch it out and let us see it. In the meantime , why not tell us PLAINLY what you assessment of JS involvment is MAGIC was ?? Was it white magic, black magic, was it the John Gee ‘sleight of hand/fraud magic’?? Is your view different than that of Bushman and how so??
    In the meantime, the argument that some number of other ‘christians’ were OK with it is as thin an argument as there is. You still get chutzpah points for attempting some kind of defense, most of your friends don’t seem to want to touch this one.
    The point that you don’t seem to want to concede is that JS obviously had SOME kind of attachment to a date on or near the autumnal equinox. Maybe he got that attachment from ‘revelation’, maybe from GOD HIMSELF, but to suggest that it’s just coincidence is being willfully stupid. You can do better. GERMIT

  8. What is wrong with using scientific calculations to determine facts in the absence of historical documents?

    It’s wrong when you use a 20th or 21st century modern scientific formula anachronistically in a 19th century context.

    GB, it seems we are at an impasse. I am appealing to Quinn, someone who has immersed himself in the historical documents, while you are appealing to something anachronistic. I’d be glad to dig deeper to find something perhaps more compelling for you. Stay tuned.

    What is “folk magic” any way?

    In the context of this discussion, it involves using seer stones or a divining rod to find something underground watched over by a kind of guardian spirit, especially but not exclusively at times when the veil between the natural and supernatural world is thought to be thin (i.e. the Autumnal equinox).

  9. GB says:

    Using scientific calculations today to determine facts about past events is NOT anachronistic!

    a•nach•ro•nism
    1. The representation of someone as existing or something as happening in other than chronological, proper, or historical order.

    2. One that is out of its proper or chronological order, especially a person or practice that belongs to an earlier time:

    If I were claiming that JS used scientific calculations to determine the timing of the equinox, then that would be an anachronism. But that isn’t what I am doing, is it?

    A: I am appealing to Quinn, . . . anachronistic.

    GB: LOL! You haven’t shown that Quinn actually looked at the almanacs; if he had he is obligated to provide a reference, which you haven’t shown. So his research is suspect, as is your original premise that the almanacs had the wrong date for the equinox!

    Your misuse of the term “anachronistic” is rather humorous!!

    A: In the context . . . thought to be thin (i.e. the Autumnal equinox).

    GB: So then, all of those magical “folk Christians” also had seer stones, divining rods, etc? Your definition is rather laughable!

    Germit: The point that you don’t seem to want to concede is that JS obviously had SOME kind of attachment to a date on or near the autumnal equinox.

    GB: That is what they call a “bald” assertion. It ISN’T obvious that JS had some kind of attachment to the autumnal equinox. It is NO coincidence that ANNUAL meetings occur on the SAME DATE and on a date that does NOT coincide with an equinox. Hello!!

    However it HASN’T been shown that it was more than a coincidence that the first meeting occurred on the day before the equinox or anything other than a response to prayer.

    Chutzpah is using such shoddy scholarship to assassinate a person’s character and reputation because you don’t like his message.

  10. If I were claiming that JS used scientific calculations to determine the timing of the equinox, then that would be an anachronism. But that isn’t what I am doing, is it?

    You insinuated that Smith probably believed that the Autumnal equinox was in accordance with modern data produced by a modern formula you pointed to. You haven’t pointed to anything compelling that shows Smith’s belief regarding the equinox was in accordance to the data you point to. What I appeal to is the work of a noted historian who has immersed himself in historical literature. As I said, I’d be glad to dig deeper to find something more to your liking, but until then we are at an impasse.

    The more 19th century literature I run across on books.google.com, the more it seems to me that most common people simply assumed that the Autumnal equinox was on September 22.

    GB, the kind of “folk magic” in question here with regard to this topic’s thread has been sufficiently explained. Surely Smith did not engage in every single possible mode of folk magic, and certainly not all those who participated in folk magic did so in the same way that Smith did. But this fact is irrelevant and boring.

    Do you even believe that Smith used seer stones and used them to hunt for buried treasure, or do you throw that claim out as a malicious lie? Really, answer that for us.

    If this thread gets any more boring and redundant I’m going to turn comments off.

  11. germit says:

    GB: if AARON was involved in the occult and the dark arts while simultaneously promoting himself as a man of GOD, I guarantee you he would have people holding his ‘reputation’ to the light for all to see. For those who have no problem with a ‘prophet’ being immersed in the occult, this would be no big deal; for those who have a different standard, they would choose for themselves a different prophet, and perhaps make others aware of AARON’s sin. You either take involvment in the occult lightly, or you think JS had no such involvment, you haven’t really told us where you are with that. Before the thread closes, which sounds like it’s soon, do you want to tell us plainly your take on JS and seer stones, divining rods, etc. ?? Is he being unfairly represented because others were into this stuff ? I know this gets your blood going, but take a breath and give us a direct answer. Thanks, GERMIT

  12. GB says:

    Let’s recap.

    Quinn has impeached his own work by publishing his REVISED edition.

    You insinuated that JS “probably” believed that the Autumnal equinox was NOT in accordance with modern data, but “probably” in accordance with supposedly erroneous data from supposedly available almanacs, supposedly read by JS because it was supposedly important to him.

    Lots of insinuations, suppositions and probables there and very little real scholarship.

    Some questions

    If the advent of an equinox was important to JS, then why was the church organized on Apr 6 and not Mar 21 or whatever supposed data those supposedly important almanacs supposedly had?

    Or why not on the new moon on Mar 24?

    Or the full moon on Apr 8?

    Are “divining rods” similar to the magic rod that Moses turned into a snake?

    Cheers!!

  13. Quinn has impeached his own work by publishing his REVISED edition.

    This is stupid. If you would like to point out a specific, relevant part of the book that was revised, then feel free, otherwise you’re not being constructive.

    Are “divining rods” similar to the magic rod that Moses turned into a snake?

    Perhaps you need me to repeat myself:

    As I have said many times before, the problem with Joseph Smith’s fascination with and participation in folk magic is not that it involves supernaturalism (as though supernaturalism were inherently discounted). The problem, rather, is two-fold:

    1. The intimate tangling of Mormonism’s earliest events and folk magic / money-digging is sanitized to the degree that common Mormon knows nothing significant about it.

    2. This intimate tangling calls into question the nature of Smith’s earliest claims. The pretensions of guardian spirits and vast underground treasures seems to have a direct relationship with Mormonism’s earliest stories.

  14. I’m going to close this thread with the words of Jerry Johnston at MormonTimes.com:

    Did the First Vision happen on March 21, 1820 — the spring equinox?

    Did Peter, James and John visit Joseph and Oliver on June 21 — the summer solstice?

    Those are questions I’ve been noodling this week as the fall equinox approaches. Next Monday, Sept. 22, we officially move into autumn. And many religions will celebrate that day. The dates we associate with changing seasons play a role in many faiths, including Catholicism, Celtic faith and several Native American rituals.

    But only recently have I begun to feel those days might play a large role in Mormon history as well.

    We know Joseph Smith was born on Dec. 23, for example. That’s the day when the “light” first begins returning to the world after a long absence. And we know the Angel Moroni visited him on Sept. 22 for three years running. That’s the autumn equinox, the day when the earth comes to a “turning point” in its course.

    As a farmer, Joseph would have been well aware of such parallels. He lived his life by the calendar. But do those special days for the changing seasons also play a symbolic role in the “planting” and “harvesting” of spiritual things as well?

    I don’t see why not.

    Of course, he puts a positive spin on it, but reading it I can only wonder: Will GB send a him an e-mail disputing the link between Smith and the equinox altogether?

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