Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844”

th (7)The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. By John L. Brooke. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). 421 pages, $35.00, hardcover.

Now twenty years old, this work is still a stunningly significant book. It is a classic in Mormon studies, creatively reevaluating historical perceptions and affecting in a unique way the studies that followed.

John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844, ranges broadly to place Joseph Smith and the rise of a new religious tradition squarely within a fresh context that incorporates many of the elements explored by students of Mormonism for the last four decades into a new historical synthesis. Brooke is concerned with Mormon origins, especially the elements that came together to make the Restoration movement such a powerful and compelling force in the 1830s and 1840s.

In a narrative that is much more persuasive than most when approached with an inquiring mind, Brooke argues that Mormon doctrine and cosmology originated neither in Puritan New England not as a result of the Second Great Awakening that took place largely on the American frontier of the early nineteenth century. Instead, he places the church’s ideological roots in Europe in the period of the sixteenth century Reformation, where a core element of religious dissenters questioned traditional Christian concepts and found solace in the hermetic occult.

The author contends that the connections between the occult and the sectarian ideal of restoration with Mormonism helped to forge an exceptionally attractive religious movement throughout the Western world. Integral to this was hermeticism, which claims that humanity could regain the lost and pure world of Adam through the development of a special relationship to God based on religious ritual and sacrifice.

The belief in the occult, which had been exceptionally powerful in Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, had been manifested especially in non-Catholic religions, magic, witchcraft beliefs, Freemasonry, and a host of everyday activities that were accepted as part of the human experience. They ranged from a belief in the visitation of angels to the far more sinister casting of spells on enemies.

Much of this acceptance of the supernatural as an everyday occurrence was lost in the rationality of the “Enlightenment” of the seventeenth century, and our present secular belief system is largely predicated on those ideas.

Joseph Smith challenged that rational system in fundamental ways when he contended that God was not “knowable” through reason, but only through the supernatural hermetic tradition. His “First Vision” was central to that challenge, and his continued reliance on nonrational knowledge thereafter incorporated a fundamental occult tradition into the movement he founded. Brooke brings together an analysis of Mormonism’s occult origins in folk magic and money digging with its later expression in unique theological ideals.

The Refiner’s Fire is an important new study that will not be comfortable reading for some within the Latter-day Saint tradition. But it should be read, even though its celebration of a radical, supernatural, nonrational, religious tradition of European hermetic purity and danger will be discomforting to those who wish the modern Latter-day Saint church to be a mainstream religious institution.

Joseph Smith’s assertions nearly 200 years ago about angelic visitations, prophetic ministry, Zionic community-building, and a restoration of the gospel in its ancient purity was a unique and powerful message in the emergent United States. The Refiner’s Fire helps to explain some of that power, for Smith’s efforts hit at the center of humanity’s desire to know something that was ultimately unknowable from secular rationality.

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