Review- Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire”

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John Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844” (1994) – Colonial and early-republic New England and New York become a whole lot weirder — or weirder in a different way — in this book from that most fascinating and fraught subfield, the history of popular (read- not produced by and for academics or other specialists) ideas. Historian John Brooke argues that far from the staid Puritan monoculture we’re used to, the early northeast was rife with assorted oddball sects and people pursuing a Protestant variation on hermetic or occult practices. Massholes who read this book won’t be able to think about Hopkinton, MA or a few other places now known as mere sleepy bedroom communities again, after reading about how they were hotbeds of “perfectionists” or alchemy, in resistance to the mainline Puritan power center in Boston. Hopkinton!

Furthermore, Brooke argues, it was this gestalt of hermetic and perfectionist Protestantism that formed the foundation stone for the theology of Mormonism. Joseph Smith and those around him were steeped in the sort of folk-hermeticism Brooke describes as endemic to the back-country northeast at the time. Brooke depicts these as adapted reiterations of Renaissance-era hermetic concepts and practices: the perfectability of man through gnosis and ritual practice; the belief in secret knowledge of the nature of the cosmos passed down by groups of initiates; assorted proto-scientific practices in medicine, metallurgy, etc.

All of these beliefs, especially when adapted to early American circumstances, hold out the great promise of power in this world, more than contentment in the afterlife. The great innovation of the religions originated in America, be it Mormonism, Scientology, various positive-thinking cults, or at least some of the off-shoots of the Nation of Islam, is offering to unlock what amounts to super-powers for use in this life. Joseph Smith both claimed them for himself — he had a “seeing stone” with which to find buried treasure, and of course, he was the only one who could read the golden tablets — and offered them to his followers. Immersed, as Brooke argues, in a culture of this sort of folk-magic and often driven to equal parts despair by debt and failure and wild hope by the promise of (white, settler) America, the people of the frontier parts of the Northeast were “a prepared people,” ready to hear and follow his message. Among other things, this is a great study in the construction of belief systems almost completely outside of the scope of certified idea-mongers in academia, philosophy, or elsewhere.

More than a scam — or along with being a scam, or anyway creating a scamogenic environment — there was a philosophical through-line here. Much of it involves the rejection of both original sin and of the separation of spirit and matter. Challenging these concepts entailed an attack on much of the religious order that undergird society in Europe and America at the time. It implied antinomianism and the rejection of religious hierarchies (though, often enough, the establishment of new ones), along with whatever kind of occult superpowers people could acquire if they could gain the gnosis of the Primal Adam or whatever.

The rejection of the separation of spirit and matter lays at the heart of some of Mormonism’s more eccentric beliefs, like the idea of multiple ascending material heavens, through which good Mormons ascend like so many wagon trains westward, peopling them with demi-gods (one of the reasons, along with sheer horniness on Smith’s part, why they got into multiple marriages- all the more demi-god/angel babies for space-heaven). It’s not hard to see why all of this would appeal to people ripped from a cold, often authoritarian culture of establishment Protestantism, in New England or Britain or Germany, and starting anew out in the back of beyond, defined by equal parts opportunity and danger.

These sorts of history are fascinating but also frustrating. Establishing the chain of influence is hard enough with professional pedants who leave voluminous paper trails. It’s much harder with extramural people who left fragmentary record, often using obscure or shifting terms (not that that’s so rare in academics!). Brooke makes some leaps and I think overreaches in terms of how much he links Renaissance hermiticism with the folk beliefs of early New England and, in turn, Mormon theology. My sense of it is that the links in the chain are much looser than that. Perhaps it’s more there was a grab-bag (to use the annoying academic term, “reticule,” which means the exact same thing as grab-bag) than a chain of influence. The bag only had so many things in it for an enterprising young sect-leader and/or scam artist to pick, and a lot of the contents of the bag were handed down, originally, from the hermetics (via many hands who also added stuff, took stuff out, did their own weird modifications, etc). I really can’t say how accurate this is. But it mostly colors inside the lines of historical practice (it won the Bancroft, fwiw). And moreover, it’s just cool, and that has to count for something. ****’

Review- Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire”

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