Esotericism and the Coded Word: Form and Function Without Substance and the Neo-Colonial Political and Social Imperative of Early Mormon Sacred Cryptography By Dr. Clyde R. Forsberg Jr


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Esotericism and the Coded Word: Form and Function Without Substance and the Neo-Colonial Political and Social Imperative of Early Mormon Sacred Cryptography


Dr. Clyde R. Forsberg Jr.

English and American Studies Department

Aletheia University, Tamsui, Taiwan 251


CESNUR 2010 Conference, Torino, Italy

September 9-11

To begin, I want to credit Antoine Faivre and his defense of esotericism as a method that lends itself very well to the study of new religions, in particular those shrouded in mystery, symbolism, ritual, and coded texts--what I shall call, for lack of a better term, the “coded word.”1 Wouter J. Hanegraaff has identified six distinctive characteristics of all so-called esoteric movements. The first of these, “correspondences,” holds that the universe is a “huge theatre of mirrors, an ensemble of hieroglyphs to be decoded. Everything is a sign; everything conceals and exudes mystery; every object hides a secret.”2 The focus will be the Mormon case and a most worthy example despite a number of brilliant attempts by historians to relocate the tradition on the side of American evangelical Christianity—past and present. An esoteric approach to Mormon sacred cryptography and the esoteric ritual that it engendered, it is hoped, will begin a more thorough discussion of Mormonism’s esoteric roots, and branches, indeed a study that is not so palpably thesis driven, evangelical, and even neo-colonial in nature. In this respect, Jan Shipps’ iconic Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition can be seen as the worst offender, again from an esoteric methodological standpoint.3 Her characterization of Mormonism as an evolution from sect to Church vis-à-vis Ernest Troltsch et al4 proves problematic. As Hanegraaff explains, “Such ‘interpretations’ descend directly from a discredited 19th-century evolutionism which treated the ‘magical worldview’ of the ‘primitive mind’ as an essentially ‘pre-historical’ syndrome in the literal sense of the word. This approach,” he writes, “is now widely regarded as incorrect with respect to the religions of traditional societies, and is equally unwarranted with respect to our subject.”5 What follows then is an experiment in esoteric interpretation vis-à-vis Mormonism’s early sacred cryptography, the neo-Masonic or esoteric ritual system it engendered, as well as the neo-colonial political and social agenda contained therein.

Mormonism’s fascination, if not obsession with coded messages can be traced to the very beginning of the movement and founder Joseph Smith’s translation of the golden plates and publication of the Book of Mormon. An inspired project, the translation was nonetheless not possible without the assistance of a measure of esoteric paraphernalia, the Urim and Thummim. Written in “Reformed Egyptian,”6 the only extant proof of what the hieroglyphics or characters that Smith consulted might have looked light is the famous and still undecipherable “Anthon Transcript,” but a transcript of the one that Martin Harris showed Columbia College Professor Charles Anthon and who later insisted it was a kind of Near Eastern alphabet soup having no real rhyme or reason that he could detect except perhaps to defraud Harris and others.7

Figure 1: “Anthon Transcript” in the Possession of David Whitmer (1887)
The historiography of the Anthon Transcript is almost more interesting than the actual document itself. A wide array of linguistic parallels has been cited: Hieratic, Demotic, Coptic, Hebrew, Mayan/Olmec, and even Gregg’s Shorthand. Moreover, at least two esoteric translations have been put forward and said to correspond perfectly with different sections of the Book of Mormon.8

Figure 2: Book of Mormon Broadside and Hieroglyphs

The problem of how to read and interpret these and other examples of Mormon sacred cryptography has yet to be explored in any systematic way vis-à-vis the various esoteric and Masonic crypto-logical options available to the Mormon Prophet and others at the time. Brigham Young and Oliver Huntington, for example, were both versed in Masonic cryptography as their journal entries attest.9 Templars had a cipher, too, many in fact and herein lies the problem, for one is faced with a dizzying array of competing fraternal cryptographies from which to choose.10 Moreover, the invention of “Deseret,” a Mormon phonetic alphabet and cipher that enjoyed a brief shelf life in pioneer Utah under Young suggests that any search for a direct correlation between Mormon and Masonic cryptograms may well be a fool’s errand. That said, the 20-cent Deseret coin minted in honor of this uniquely Mormon cipher includes such Masonic images as the all-seeing eye and clasped hands, as well as the motto of Royal Arch Masonry—Holiness to the Lord—written as it were in code. One New York Times reviewer observed that its characters were an odd combination of Celtic rune and Pitman shorthand, suggesting a racial or Celtic Anglo-Saxon agenda.11

Figure 3: Royal Arch Cypher in Brigham Young’s Journal (6 Jan. 1842)

Figure 4: Royal Arch Cypher in Oliver Huntington’s Journal (21 Jan. 1844)

Figure 5: The Two (2) Royal Arch Cyphers. In Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor (1866), p. 248

Figure 6: Deseret Alphabet, Book 2 (1854-1877)

Figure 7: Deseret Gold Coin and Royal Arch Motto “Holiness to the Lord”

However, the story does not end with Masonic cryptanalysis, for there are also a goodly number of magical alphabets or ciphers that dare not be ignored and associated with such luminaries of European renaissance occult science as Henrich Cornelius Agrippa and Johannes Trithemius.12 In addition, numerous hieroglyphs for the planets beg to be included and which Agrippa also catalogues. John Dee and Edward Kelly constitute yet another font of endless esoteric crypto logical preservation and invention.13 Much of this esoterica was available to Smith in popular 19th century English works like Francis Barrett’s The Magus (London, 1801).

Figure 8: The Varieties of Magical or Angelic Writing

Figure 9: Characters for the Seven Planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon (from top to bottom)

Figure 10: The Holy Table. In Meric Casaubon's A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed Between John Dee and Some Spirits (London: T. Garthwait, 1659), p. 72

Figure 11: In Mysteriorum Libri Quinque or, Five Books of Mystical Exercises of Dr. John Dee: An Angelic Revelation of Kabbalistic Magic and other Mysteries Occult and Divine revealed to Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly, A.D. 1581 – 1583,

Ed. Joseph Peterson (Wales: Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourceworks, 1985), Book II, Chapter 11.

Figure 12: John Dee’s “Enochian Alphabet” in Ibid.

Finally, and returning to the curious characters that were used to advertise the Book of Mormon, if Hebrew in derivation (though much of the magical orthography is too) then it may be important to note that in my own cursory analysis there is a preponderance of Rabbinic Hebrew characters and easily mistaken (and perhaps intentionally so) for Egyptian cursive, that is, Hieratic and Demotic in particular.14 A number of Samaritan characters are there and consistent with the Masonic reverence for and employment of Samaritan ciphers. As Albert G. Mackey explains in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry:

It is believed by Scholars that, previous to the captivity, the alphabet now called the Samaritan was employed by the Jews in transcribing the copies of the law, and that it was not until their return from Babylon that they adopted, instead of their ancient characters, the Chaldee or square letters, now called the Hebrew, in which the sacred text, as restored by Ezra, was written. Hence, in some rituals, especially those used in the United States, the Samaritan characters find use.15

E. Smith’s 1814 work of Near Eastern comparative philology, entitled A Vocabulary, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian contains the necessary basic information for anyone interested in adapting Samaritan to their own esoteric and ritualistic purposes—Masons and/or Mormons.16

At the same time, grammars and vocabularies of Demotic also in circulation as early Mormonism began to take shape suggest that the so-called Book of Mormon characters may indeed be Egyptian in derivation. Thomas Young’s 1815 work on Demotic is worth noting, many of the characters in a catalogue of his works and essays published in 1831 bear a striking resemblance to those of the Anthon Transcript and broadside already mentioned.17 Characters that are neither Hebrew nor Samaritan, for example, do appear to be Demotic at least in form, but are numbers and months of the year, if Egyptian. Their significance or meaning is unclear at best. Of course, the other Egyptian source text and authority on all things Egyptian and esoteric prior to Champollion was Athanasius Kircher’s magnum opus Oedipus Aegyptiacus: Sigillum Aemeth (Rome, 1652-4) and about which more will be said later in this essay.

Figure 13: Variety of Hebrew Square and Cursive Scripts

Figure 14: The Samaritan Alphabet. E. Smith’s A Vocabulary, Hebrew, Arabic, and
Persian (1814)

Figure 15: Demotic Alphabet, Numbers, and Months. In A Memoir of the Life of Thomas Young (1831)

To be clear, my interest is more in the form and function rather than substance of such early Mormon cryptograms, their translation pretty much anyone’s guess. In fact, any attempt to unravel their substance misses the point, for the objective is to obfuscate, constituting a brilliant defense strategy and certain to confound the wisdom of the world and thus bolster faith. At least, this is certain the Mormon case. But there is a positive function in all of this, as I will also show, that is both political and social in nature. Ironically, this is due in part to the refusal of secular scholarship to employ an esoteric approach in its analysis of hermetic traditions like Mormonism, steering clear of the coded word as a matter of professional courtesy. Part of the problem is an unwillingness to acknowledge that Mormonism and Masonry constitute two competing esoteric traditions in the antebellum American hothouse with a similar reverence for the coded word, and so Mormonism’s cultured defenders would do well to consider how Masonic cryptanalysis works and to what degree it applies to the Book of Mormon and another LDS foundation texts of equal importance and controversy, the Book of Abraham.

The historical convention these days is to recount the Mormon story as a bi-product of evangelical revivalism and anti-Masonry, Smith torn between his father’s deism, his mother’s Presbyterianism, and a penchant for Methodism (frontier revivalism) however fleeting it may have been. In fact, the real story as told by Smith is somewhat different, the boy prophet confined to his room and pouring over his Bible in quiet seclusion as an antebellum American apprentice of Masonry might. Most of the time, we find him digging for buried treasure by day and recounting in remarkable detail and long before the Book of Mormon the exploits of America’s original inhabitants. At a pivotal point in his religious life, Smith is visited by an angel and directed to the secret location of a lost American history inscribed on golden plates which he alone will bring to the attention of a somewhat skeptical evangelical public. About the same time he began the arduous task of translating the golden plates, and whether real or imaginary matters little in hindsight, another New Yorker and Mason, Robert B. Folger, sat down to compose an apology for Masonry entirely his own as well. Importantly, the cipher he created had an unmistakable Egyptian quality. Being a Mason, this makes sense given the reference for Egypt in fraternal lore. The nine most frequent ciphers that he employed can be found in the Mormon ciphers discussed thus far, too. As Scottish Rite historian S. Brent Morris explains:

Folger’s alphabet is unlike any other Masonic cipher, even though several of his symbols can be found in some hauts grades ciphers. This, however, is not surprising because of the small possible number of simple geometric shapes. It is most likely that he invented his system on his own, with inspiration from some other Masonic book or manuscript. However, his technique of stacking his symbols is unique to him and greatly increases the cryptographic security of the system. Based on the mixture of good and bad cryptographic practices and on the evolving nature of the cipher through the manuscript, it can be concluded that Folger was a self-taught amateur who invented a rather good cipher.

Remarkably, Masonic cryptanalysts broke the cipher and so a complete translation is now available.

Figure 16: Page from the So-Called “Folger Manuscript”

Figure 17: Some of Folger’s Repeating Ciphers

Folger was no ordinary Mason, in fact, but something of an iconoclast—so much so that he was expelled from the order for his heretical beliefs not once but twice. A desire to graft Scottish Rite Masonry to the trunk of Christian Masonry or the Knights Templar proved problematic for many within the brotherhood. In Committed to the Flames: The History and Rituals of a Secret Masonic Rite, Arturo De Hoyos and S Brent Morris provide a near complete translation of his writings, pointing out that his penchant for the coded word was a corollary of his desire to see the "Rectified Scottish Rite" (a European offshoot of the Rite of Strict Observance and type of Christian Masonry) take root in America.18 His coded writing includes some of the earliest and most complete transcriptions of the Scottish and Egyptian Rite, as well as the American Order of the Red Cross and Knights Templar degrees. He employed Hebrew characters in places. And not unlike the Mormon prophet, he penned a volume that claimed to be “of great antiquity, [the] splendid monuments of the ancients,” he goes on to say, having “decayed and nations who peopled the countries where these things were written have vanished or are scattered over the face of the earth, their former places of abode are desolate, the languages the book was written in are dead, yet the book survives.”19

A work intended for fellow Masons, why did Folger employ a cipher entirely his own? One might well ask the same question of the Mormon prophet, publishing a radical new Masonic monitor of his own with its fair share of Masonic coded language. Moreover, it did not stop with the Book of Mormon. To answer the question posed As Morris rightly points out; Masonic cryptography is not about secrecy per se, but the symbolism of secrecy. And so, the Reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon characters, and the Egyptian per se that gave us the Book of Abraham all gave the impression of something ancient and thus mysterious and authoritative, consistent with a particular political and social agenda and power structure.

The Cryptography of the Book of Abraham

Only forty-three days before the Mormon prophet and presidential hopeful Joseph Smith Jr. would be shot to death by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, he made the acquaintance of Charles Francis Adams (son of the former President) and Josiah Quincy. Adams was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and would go on to make a name for himself as a Boston, anti-slavery Whig, and Free-Soil candidate for Vice President, and then as Abraham Lincoln’s Minister to England. Quincy was a year from succeeding his father as Boston’s preordained mayor in the Quincy tradition. What possessed these “Boston Brahmins” to make the trek to the Mormon capitol, Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844 is hard to say. Whether they came to praise Caesar or bury him is not altogether that clear either. Smith did not disappoint, and Quincy later wrote about the encounter in somewhat glowing terms in an 1883 work, entitled Figures of the Past:

It is by no means improbable that some future text-book, for the use of generations of yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to the interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. [Italics in original.] And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious commonplace of their descendants. History deals in surprises and paradoxes quite as startling as this. The man who established a religion in this age of free debate, who was and is to-day accepted by hundreds of thousands as a direct emissary from the Most High--such a rare human being is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets. Fanatic, impostor, charlatan, he may have been; but these hard names furnish no solution to the problem he presents to us.20

What follows contains more than a hint of sarcasm. Apparently, when he and Adams arrived in Nauvoo, there was some confusion over their true identity, some presuming that the ex-President, John Quincy Adams, rather than Charles Francis Adams and Josiah Quincy, had come to see the Prophet. “The prophet’s own chariot,” Quincy writes, “soon made its appearance” (p.133). “Happily,” he explains, “Dr. Goforth divided our persons and reduced them to their proper proportions, so that no trace of disappointment was visible in the group of rough-looking Mormons who awaited our descent at the door of the tavern” (p. 133). His description of the Prophet is less than flattering: “a man of commanding appearance, clad in the costume of a journeyman carpenter . . . a hearty, athletic fellow, with blue eyes standing prominently out upon his light complexion, a long nose, and a retreating forehead.” The rest is rather unkind, too, Smith’s work clothes allegedly that of a court jester or circus clown--although Quincy does not come out and say so: “striped pantaloons, a linen jacket, which had not lately seen the washtub, and a beard of some three days growth.” Apparently, Smith put on airs, “as a crowned head might adopt on receiving the heir presumptive of a friendly court . . . that sort of cordiality with which the president of a college might welcome a deserving janitor” (p. 133). This was followed by a display of Smith’s “miraculous gift of understanding all languages, [taking] down a Bible in various tongues, for the purpose of exhibiting his accomplishments in this particular,” and then a visit to the basement where the Prophet’s mother and a private collection of Egyptian antiquities awaited their inspection.

Judging from Quincy’s description, the whole event lacked dignity. That Smith alleged the papyri to be the lost writings of Abraham, Moses, and Aaron did not help matters. “This is my mother, gentlemen. The curiosities we shall see belong to her. They were purchased with her own money, at a cost of six thousand dollars” (p. 136). Quincy recalls being taken aback by “a rude drawing of a man and woman, and a serpent walking upon a pair of legs. I ventured to doubt the propriety, of providing the reptile in question with this unusual means of locomotion.” And Smith’s response proved less than satisfactory: “Why that’s as plain as a pikestaff. . . . Before the Fall snakes went about on legs, just like chickens. They were deprived of them, in punishment for their agency in the ruin of man” (p. 137). Quincy went away more skeptical than ever, detecting “no holier spirit than that of commerce,” in part because of what happened as they were about to leave when the Prophet stopped them and said: “Gentlemen . . . those who see these curiosities generally pay my mother a quarter of a dollar” (p. 137).

The story of the Book of Abraham, how it came into existence, and how it would go on to change the course of Mormon history and theology has yet to receive the attention it deserves. The book is best known as a dark page in the Latter-day Saint canon and as the scriptural basis for the practice of denying the Priesthood to Blacks because of an alleged genealogical connection to Cain through Canaan the son of Ham. Moreover, other revelations and books of scripture that Smith received around this time--an inspired revision of the Bible from which the Book of Moses is taken--retell the story of Cain as an apostate Mason ordained by none other than Satan himself and Grand Master after a fashion.21 The so-called “curiosities” that gave us the Book of Abraham tarred Egypt and thus Africa with the same pro-Masonic/anti-Masonic brush--a cursed bloodline and apostate Priesthood or clandestine Masonic order.

The Book of Abraham became the basis for a new understanding of the political kingdom (Priesthood) and race. In the original or Book of Mormon formulation, one’s race is decided according to one’s faith or lack thereof. A dark skin follows rather than precedes disbelief. The wicked, dark-skinned Anti-Nephi-Lehis, for example, repent of their sins, mix with their brothers the (white) Nephites, and become white thereafter. In the Book of Abraham, on the other hand, belief will not undo or overcome the problem of race. In the evolution of the Mormon understanding of race, the question is not so much a connection to the Priesthood, but whether one drop of African blood automatically and forever disqualifies one from full fellowship, that is, to go through the temple and receive the saving ordinances and endowments or the Priesthood. The important question, then, is what gave impetus to such a radical change in attitude.

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