Joseph Smith/Occultism and magic/Lucy Mack Smith on "faculty of Abrac" and "magic circles"
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Critics claim that Lucy Mack Smith's discussion of the "faculty of Abrac" and "magic circles" is evidence for the strong role which "magick" played in the Smith family's early life.
Critics generally neglect to provide the entire quote from Lucy. Dr. William J. Hamblin notes that there is "an ambiguously phrased statement of Lucy Mack Smith in which she denied that her family was involved in drawing "Magic circles."
[D. Michael] Quinn maintains, because of an ambiguity of phraseology, that Lucy Mack Smith is saying that her family drew magic circles. The issue revolves around how the grammar of the original text should be understood. Here is how I read the text (with my understanding of the punctuation and capitalization added).
- Now I shall change my theme for the present. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.
- Here is how I interpret the referents in the text.
- Now I shall change my theme for the present [from a discussion of farming and building to an account of Joseph's vision of Moroni and the golden plates which immediately follows this paragraph]. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic [Joseph's visions] for a season, that we stopped our labor [of farming and building] and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business [farming and building, as the anti-Mormons asserted, claiming the Smiths were lazy]. We never in our lives suffered one important interest [farming and building] to swallow up every other obligation [religion]. But, whilst we worked with our hands [at farming and building] we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls [through religion].
- Thus, as I understand the text, Lucy Smith declares she is changing her theme to the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In the public mind, that story is associated with claims that the Smiths were lazy and involved in magical activities. By the time Lucy Smith wrote this text in 1845, anti-Mormons were alleging that Joseph had been seeking treasure by drawing magic circles. She explicitly denies that they were involved in such things. She also denies that the Smiths were lazy. She wants to emphasize that, although she is not going to mention farming and building activities for a while, these activities were still going on. Quinn wants to understand the antecedent of "one important interest" as "trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying" (p. 68). I believe that the antecedent of "one important interest" is "all kinds of business," meaning farming and building. Quinn maintains the phrase to the neglect of means that they pursued magic to some degree, but not to the extent that they completely neglected their farming. I believe that the phrase to the neglect of means that they did not pursue magic at all, and therefore did not neglect their farming and building at all: they were not pursuing magic and thereby neglecting their business.
- Although the phrasing is a bit ambiguous, the matter can easily be resolved by reference to the rest of Lucy's narrative. Contra Quinn, Lucy Smith's text provides no other mention of the supposedly "important interest" of magical activities but does deal prominently with their religious and business concerns. If magic activities were such an important part of Joseph Smith's life and Lucy was speaking of them in a positive sense as "important interests," why did she not talk about them further in any unambiguous passage? My interpretation fits much better into the context of Lucy Smith's narrative as a whole, in which she amply discusses farming and family life, as well as religion and Joseph's revelations—the two important interests of the family—but makes no other mention of magic. As Richard Bushman notes, "Lucy Smith's main point was that the Smiths were not lazy as the [anti-Mormon] affidavits claimed—they had not stopped their labor to practice magic." Thus, ironically, Quinn is claiming that Lucy Smith's denial of the false claims that the Smith family was engaged in magical activities has magically become a confirmation of those very magical activities she is denying!
- [note] William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. off-site PDF link (emphasis in original) Hamblin cites Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285. and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 73. ISBN 0252060121.