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Things That Don't Make Sense #3: LDS Ordinances as Vestiges of the Magic World View

I had often wondered how Joseph Smith was able to secure employment as a money-digger or treasure-seeker after the first few attempts came up empty.  Why would people continue to hire him if nobody ever was able to secure the treasures he claimed he could see buried in the earth beneath their feet?  In  Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman,  Early Mormonism and the Magic World by Michael Quinn, and in An Insider's View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer, we get a picture of the Smith family immersed in the magic world view that permeated the 19th-century American cultural milieu.

These three works on early Mormon history reveal how Joseph Smith's treasure-seeking enterprise often worked.  Joseph Smith had a seer stone (more than one, apparently) and the magical gift known as "second sight," by which he could gaze at the stone (either by holding it up to a light, such as a candle or the sun or, alternatively, by placing it in a hat) and in his "mind's eye" he could see, among other things, treasure buried in the ground in the surrounding countryside.   

Joseph was able to convince many of his neighbors that he had this gift of seership.  Typically, folks would hire Joseph to tell them where treasure was buried and to help retrieve the same.  Joseph would look into his peep stone, receive a vision, and direct the expedition to the spot where the treasure was buried.  Here is where it gets interesting.  To obtain the treasure, special rituals and incantations would have to be performed with exacting specificity.  Invariably, the expeditions would fail to retrieve any treasure.  As described by a witness in Joseph Smith's 1826 trial tells of how the search for buried treasure worked:

Jonathan Thompson says that prisoner [Joseph Smith] was requested to look for chest of money; did look, and pretended to know where it was; and that prisoner, Thompson, and Yeomans went in search of it; that Smith arrived at spot first; was at night; that Smith looked in hat while there, and when very dark, told how the chest was situated. After digging several feet, struck upon something sounding like a board or plank. Prisoner would not look again, pretending that he was alarmed on account of the circumstances relating to the trunk being buried, [which] came all fresh to his mind. That the last time he [Joseph Smith] looked he discovered distinctly the two Indians who buried the trunk, that a quarrel ensued between them, and that one of said Indians was killed by the other, and thrown into the hole beside the trunk, to guard it, as he supposed. Thompson says that he believes in the prisoner's professed skill; that the board which he struck his spade upon was probably the chest, but on account of an enchantment the trunk kept settling away from under them when digging, that notwithstanding they continued constantly removing the dirt, yet the trunk kept about the same distance from them. Says prisoner said that it appeared to him that salt might be found at Bainbridge, and that he is certain that prisoner can divine things by means of said stone.

This story is consistent with many others told about Joseph Smith and the treasure-digging enterprise.  Joseph would identify the location of the buried treasure and his cohorts, convinced of  the reality of his gift and the verity of his visions, would follow the rituals he described, utter the magical chants, and dig.   Invariably, they would come up empty-handed; sometimes, as in the account above, they would come tantalizingly close, but alas, no treasure was ever unearthed as a consequence of Joseph's visionary exploits. 

So how did Joseph maintain his reputation as a man with the gift of second sight?  Notice how the witness in the above account continued to maintain a belief that Joseph could "divine things by means of said stone."  For a thorough examination of the issue, see Quinn's book.  But in short, the people believed that the hidden treasures had corresponding spells that had to be broken in order for them to be unearthed.  Guardian spirits stood watch and only by following an exact ritual, saying the right words in the right order, standing in the right place, being in the right frame of mind, etc. could the spell be broken and the guardian spirit defeated.   So, it was easy for Joseph Smith to say something to the effect that "the treasure was there, but it slipped away because we didn't stand in the right place or utter the right words in the right way." And this did not seem incredible to his fellow travelers.  I find it interesting that the idea of treasures being hidden in the earth and slipping away is found in the Book of Mormon.

Today we see a vestige of this magical thinking in the Mormon approach to ordinances, which must be performed with precision in order to be deemed effective.    Consider baptism: for it to be effective  (1) it must be performed by one having proper priesthood authority who is worthy, (2) it must be by immersion with not a hair or a toe popping up over the water, (3) the baptismal prayer must be spoken with exactness, and (4) two priesthood-holding witnesses must aver that these requirements were met.    Any deviation from these requirements renders the baptism ineffective.  Consider also the sacrament prayers.  These, too, must be spoken with undeviating exactness.    President Monson told a heart-warming story this past General Conference about a speech-impaired priest who struggled with the blessing on the bread:

One Sunday two years ago I was attending sacrament meeting in my ward. That's a rarity. There were three priests at the sacrament table, with the young man in the center being somewhat handicapped in movement but particularly so in speech. He tried twice to bless the bread but stumbled badly each time, no doubt embarrassed by his inability to give the prayer perfectly. One of the other priests then took over and gave the blessing on the bread.

During the passing of the bread, I thought to myself, "I just can't let that young man experience failure at the sacrament table." I had a strong feeling that if I didn't doubt, he would be able to bless the water effectively. Inasmuch as I was on the stand near the sacrament table, I leaned over and said to the priest closest to me, pointing to the young man who had experienced the difficulty, "Let him bless the water; it's a shorter prayer." And then I prayed. I didn't want a double failure. I love that passage of scripture which tells us that we should not doubt but believe. 

When it was time to bless the water, that young man knelt again and gave the prayer, perhaps somewhat haltingly but without missing a word. I rejoiced silently. While the deacons were passing the trays, I looked over at the boy and gave him a thumbs-up. He gave me a broad smile. When the young men were excused to sit with their families, he sat on the row between his mother and father. What a joy it was to see his mother give him a big smile and a warm hug, while his father congratulated him and put his arm around his shoulder. All three of them looked in my direction, and I gave them all a thumbs-up. I could see the mother and father wiping tears from their eyes. I felt impressed that this young man would do just fine in the future.

Again, the thinking is that unless the ordinance is performed "just right" it will not be effective.  Might this be a vestige of the magic world view?  The idea that a ritual is only effective if done precisely the right way?

I really don't see why there need be such an emphasis on absolute perfection in uttering the sacrament prayers or performing the baptismal ordinance.  I know that one apologetic defense might be that exactitude in recitation is necessary to prevent unauthorized changes from creeping in to the ordinances.  I find this argument unpersuasive.  The ordinances are protected by canonization and official publications and training of church leaders in orthopraxy.  A minor variation from time to time by one performing the ordinance would not result in wholesale modifications to the standards for performing ordinances.  And even if this is the reason given for rigid enforcement of the sacrament prayers, for example, how to explain the doctrine that improperly performed ordinances are ineffective?  And, can the actual words used be that which makes the ordinance effective?  If so, would we not perform the ordinances in the pure Adamic language?  Or force everyone in the world to perform them in English? If we say it is not the words, but the priesthood authority, why make such a fuss over getting the words just right?  It doesn't make sense.



Not to mention that there is a slight differfence between the sacramental prayers in the BoM and the D&C. ("hath" vs "has" in the bread prayer.) Did the Nephites have it wrong, or did JS translate the BoM incorrectly, or did he give the D&C revelation incorrectly? If two canonical scriptures can have a slight word variation, why the nitpickiness?

Watt Mahoun

"...and only by following an exact ritual, saying the right words in the right order, standing in the right place, being in the right frame of mind, etc. could the spell be broken and the guardian spirit defeated"

This sounds strangely similar to the process outlined in Moroni 10, no?

And it also occured to me as I read about the "slipping away" of the treasure as it was being sought...that this occurs in the BoM about the people burying their treasures, only to have them become "slippery" and impossible to recover due to wickedness, or some such... You make a fascinating point here.

Another note on precison of ordinance: in Lawrence Foster's "Women, Family, and Utopia" he makes the point that Joseph invalidated the authority of all earthly marriages with this concept of authority/precison, and thereby justified the dissolution of marriages in favor of polygamy, including his own acts that would have otherwise been considered adultry. Fascinating, I think.

In answer to your closing questions, I think that the emphasis on exactness is just vestigial of a time when the argument for exactness was essential to supporting and expanding claims of authority in the face of unmeasurable results...which I think is exactly your point in linking the magical world view.

Sweet connect. Thank you.



This is a classic argument of form versus substance. I do not think that an ordinance performed with one misplaced word is taught by the Church to be "ineffective." That is not why the form is so harshly monitored.

Consider times when the sick are blessed either by only one priesthood holder or without oil. Substance is more important, and I think a study of conference writings and the scriptures would bear this out.

I think the emphasis on form is for several reasons, the least of which is the ineffectiveness of the ordinance if not done right. One such reasons is to teach exactness in all things. Go ask Bishop [ ] if lack of form renders an ordinance completely ineffective. I believe he will say no.

I must admit that I am sad to see this site, but I do understand how doubts come about. I know that it is easy to discount "spiritual" experiences you think you felt in the past in light of the factual information that presents itself seemingly so clearly now.

E- I know the same things you know about the church, but I also know the feelings I have felt and I know they have been more than pavlovian reactions. Surely you must believe the same of the experiences I know you have had, back in the early days. . . . I would be interested to hear how much of this [your family] actually know, and how they have reacted.

E: I am not preaching at you. I am happy to see you at church every week despite your doubts. I am happy to see you doing all you can to keep with your family, united in practice if not in belief. I have always liked and admired you and still do, despite the initial disappointment I must admit having felt at finding this blog.

. . .

Please do not think I'm judging you- I'm not. I just feel for what this decision you are making must be costing you in your family and personal life.

I plan to keep on reading, and I sincerely hope you can find a path that makes you happy, in or out of the church (preferably "in," but that is my personal bias... :) )


Anon for now.

Edited by Equality



Thank you for your comments. On the personal matters, I'd like it if you would email me. I took the liberty of editing your post slightly to preserve some level of anonymity for me (I realize I may be fighting the battle of a lost cause now). Based on the form versus substance argument you make and the erudition evident in your comment, I have an idea of your identity.

On your substantive point, I will respond a little later. Thanks for reading my blog. I'm sorry to have disappointed you.



On the efficacy of ordinances not perfectly performed, there is a discussion ongoing at BCC on the subject (I did not see this thread before I made my post yesterday or I would have acknowledged it there). See http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2006/03/is-god-constrained-by-magic/
for the discussion.


Sorry about the personal comments- I know anonymity is important- it is to me. I'm not so much "disappointed" as I am "surprised" but the initial surprise is wearing off and giving way to respect for your opinions and hope for you to find peace in your journey.

I'll e-mail sometime.


Thanks for your series on "Things that don't make sense." The series is useful, and I hope you make it to a count of 100, then publish a book on "One-Hundred Things That Don't Make Sense."


Thanks, GDT. I do have a long list both in my head and on paper. Some might say that a religion need not make sense. For me, although certain faith-based claims can never be empirically proven, I do need a religious system to make sense or it just doesn't work for me.

Stephen M (Ethesis)

Feminist Mormon Housewives isn't the fringe of the LDS world ...


Stephen M (Ethesis):

Do you think Elder Packer would (a) agree or (b) disagree with your last statememt?

mayan elephant

i thought it was jeff h. that described the fringe? or was that a campground he was describing? i get the fringe and the camping area far from the ampitheater but nearby the porta-potties mixed up when it comes to those guys.

Hellmut Lotz

It's certainly easier to explain why no one else is gonna see God as opposed to a treasure.

desert vulture

Good commentary Equality. I don't know if you are aware of the reports of animal sacrifices that Joseph Smith and partners made, at the digging sites, to help with the incantation, as it were. Pretty ghastly stuff. Very nice article, thank you.

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