Lucy Mack Smith and the Faculty of Abrac

In the first draft of Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches, Lucy Mack Smith dictated the following (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.

The significant phrase is, “But let not my reader suppose 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.”

In my opinion, the text is a clear admittance that the family participated in folk magic, which was common for most rural Americans during that time. However, in Bill Hamblin’s review of Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, which is subsequently quoted in the FAIR Wiki article on the subject, he argues that Lucy Mack Smith was denying that the family participated in those activities.

Dr. Hamblin states,

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. [1]

Hamblin’s interpretation seems to be amiss and Quinn’s spot on. Lucy Smith doesn’t deny that the family participated in these activities. Were that her motivation, one would think that she would do it a more direct, less ambiguous way. The phrase “one important interest” clearly draws the reader back to the phrase “the faculty of Abrac, magic circles and soothsaying.” Dr. Hamblin is right, however, that Lucy Smith was responding to the allegations of the Smiths’ laziness; but her argument is clearly that, although the family participated in folk religion, it did not occupy their time at the expense of more important things. She is not stating that the family did not believe in folk magic or participate in treasure-seeking.

This is clear from the historical record, because the family did believe in and participate in at least one of these. Drawing magic circles was a common treasure-seeking ritual (see my treasure-seeking rituals topical guide), and during the time period that Lucy Smith is describing, the family were avid believers in and practitioners of treasure-seeking. According to Porter Rockwell, Lucy Smith and his mother regularly sat and discussed their treasure-dreams.[2] Both friends and enemies described Joseph Smith, Jr. as a treasure-seer (including Lucy Smith in her Biographical Sketches). Antagonistic accounts describe both Joseph Jr. and Joseph Sr. utilizing magic circles in their treasure-quests, and there is no reason to doubt it; if one was searching for buried treasure in the early nineteenth century, magic circles were considered a necessity.

Since the family clearly believed in treasure-lore, and likely believed in other aspects of folk religion (as most rural Americans did), it seems silly to claim that Mother Smith was alluding to anything else in her account. The most clear interpretation, in the context of the statement and in light of the historical record, is that the family believed in folk magic, but did not let it occupy their time over more important endeavors (i.e., farming). Richard Bushman, one of the most knowledgeable historians of early Mormonism (if not the most knowledgeable), agrees with this.[3] He also devotes considerable attention in his biographies to the family’s involvement in ritualistic treasure-seeking.

Dr. Hamblin wrote his review a decade ago, so I don’t know if he still maintains that argument. But we needn’t, in our effort to defend the reputation of the Prophet, spurn anything that suggests that the family was less than perfect, assuming that one considers participation in folk religion (particularly during the time period) a fault, a presentist judgment which seems erroneous in itself. And, in my opinion, this issue hurts the credibility of the FAIR Wiki.

[1]. 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.

[2]. See Elizabeth Kane’s journal (1872), published in Normal R. Bowen and Mary Karen Bowen, eds., A Gentile Account of Life in Utah’s Dixie, 1872-1873, (Salt Lake City: Tanner Trust Fund, 1995), 73.

[3]. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 50-51.

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