I entered my first semester of graduate school with supreme overconfidence. It was August 2001, three weeks before the terrorist attacks of September 11. I had just graduated from a tiny liberal arts college in central Illinois in May. The school was initially founded by self-exiled Kentucky abolitionists around 1848, at a time of antebellum experimentation. At this little campus with historic red-brick buildings dating back to the 1850s, I had gotten used to being a big fish in a little pond: out of fewer than 500 students, I was one of three honors graduates that year. I worked in the college archives. I knew a lot of history. I thought I was good.
Grad school changed all that. All of a sudden, I was plunged into seminars with people who were much smarter and better prepared than I. By October, I had serious doubts. Did somebody on the admissions committee make a mistake? Was I a fraud? Thankfully, it was around that time that I started to learn how to actually read a monograph. Not word-for-word, can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees reading a book, but reading for content and argument. I finally started attaining this skill in mid-October, around the time I was scheduled to lead the discussion one week in my intro to U.S. history seminar. The reading for the class session I had chosen was John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.
Full disclosure: I am not a Mormon. My understanding is that most Latter Day Saints do not like this book, because it exposes some of the faith’s complex and less-than-divine origins. But having grown up in the Midwest, not too far from Nauvoo, I found it fascinating. Brooke starts with the idea that even though Joseph Smith lived and prophesied in the antebellum period, his “cosmology becomes comprehensible only when it is placed in a setting broader than that of antebellum America” (xvi). In fact, one has to go back at least to the Radical Reformation of the English Civil War era to understand Mormon beliefs.
Alchemy and hermeticism were linked in mid-1600s English thought. “At its core,” clarifies Brooke, “hermetic alchemy offered the possibility of a mystical transmutation encompassing living metals and living mortals” (8). Such ideas were espoused by Quakers and those on the fringes of Puritanism; via such groups and individuals these ideas came to the American colonies in the 1600s. They then persisted through the pietist years of the early 1700s and into the 1820s. Tellingly, Joseph Smith’s family showed an interest in metallurgy, divining, and treasure-hunting in the years before he reportedly discovered a stack of golden tablets buried under Hill Cumorah in upstate New York in 1827. Smith then translated the strange language on these tablets, and his translation became the Book of Mormon. Brooke shows how alchemical vocabulary—especially to “refine”—repeatedly occurs in the Book of Mormon, paralleling Smith’s own interest in metallurgy and exposing a deeper belief in the “refinement” of human beings. Early Mormonism was based on the idea of human perfection, and its “formative…texts revolved around symbols of perfectionism that had deeply hermetic connotations” (163).
This brief explanation scarcely does justice to Brooke’s complex analysis, but it does convey the kind of longue-durée historicism on display throughout The Refiner’s Fire. Smith’s faith was not based in his imagination, as Fawn Brodie famously argued in the 1940s. (A lapsed Mormon and professionally trained historian, Brodie accused Smith of being a spiritual fraud in her 1945 biographical treatment titled No Man Knows My History.) Rather, says Brooke, there existed “some ordered cultural material for this imagination to work upon” (180). Indeed, many of the families who were attracted to the new faith Smith espoused had deep roots in those early New England groups that had embraced hermeticism in the 1600s.
Thankfully, that fall 2001 seminar discussion on The Refiner’s Fire went well enough. I remember fielding a challenge or two from one of my contrarian colleagues, but I survived. Looking back on it now, I sometimes feel like the product of some esoteric, alchemical reaction that happened that first semester: A worthless base-metal thinker was turned into something that—if not quite golden—was at least a little bit more valuable.
In the following years I have kept coming back to The Refiner’s Fire. Every time I pick it up I find myself reading more than I had intended, gaining new insights in the process. Whenever I have a chance to discuss Brooke’s argument in class, the students who get it are utterly enthralled. The tome is a wonderful model of scholarly detective work: Brooke takes a subject that we think we know, pulls it apart, and opens a new window onto the past.
Ultimately, I think that one of the reasons I liked this book so much was that it not only challenged me to think deeply, but it also helped me view the antebellum Midwest—a place I thought I already knew—through a different lens. I could not help but see how greatly the region had been impacted by ideas distant both spatially and temporally from the heartland. The Refiner’s Fire helped me see that to understand an idea, institution or belief system, we have to go back centuries and look at the whole context. This was an important lesson, especially for a young scholar who thought he was a lot smarter than he really was.
Brian M. Ingrassia is an assistant professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (Kansas, 2012). Brian has also been cited extensively, if inaptly, by George Will.
This is the first installment of our 2014 Dog Days Classics series, in which authors return to and reflect on books that influenced them. Earlier essays can be found here.