Part 1: Treasure Digging, Folk Magic, and the Smith Family
General membership of the LDS church are led to believe that Joseph Smith’s involvement in treasure digging was really only ever trivial. The two quotes most often used within LDS Church publications to support this is Joseph Smith’s own third person statement about himself:
- “Was not Joseph Smith a money digger? Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” – Joseph Smith (1)
And this quote by Joseph Smith:
- “I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence, arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.” – Joseph Smith (2)
This term “treasure digging” has never really been defined (3) at length by LDS sources and the explanations given leave much room for misunderstanding. The details are generally told in a way that implies Joseph was hired along with other men to use shovels to dig for treasure at the behest of others who direct where and how these digs take place. The following example is found in an LDS Church periodical:
- “His [Joseph Smith’s] judgment and good sense were continuing to develop, because in the year he turned twenty he was able to persuade his employer to quit digging for treasure. Joseph had gone to work for Josiah Stoal for fourteen dollars a month. Along with many people in this part of New York, Mr. Stoal (Josiah Stowell) dug for buried treasure. (4)
The average LDS member has little awareness of folk magic practices by the Smith family
This presents Joseph as just a hireling, while Josiah Stowell is the key figure pursuing treasure digging. The average LDS member has little awareness of folk magic practices by the Smith family (5) and, by extension, folk magic practiced by a number of individuals in the greater Palmyra area. There are only cursory mentions of any treasure diggers in the Palmyra area with the focus of such being on Sally Chase and her effort to locate the gold plates on the Smith property through the use of her “green glass through which she could see many wonderful things” (6) The general LDS membership is left to think there is little noteworthy of Joseph’s treasure digging, the folk magic practices of the Smith family, or the Palmyra area in general.
However, other insight reveals that Joseph’s treasure digging was actually vast and expansive. Dan Vogel, a scholar of Mormonism, reports at least 17 treasure digging sites in the Palmyra area. (7) Joseph Smith was involved with many of these sites. However, Joseph was not hired to shovel where directed, but rather, he was hired for his skill of locating treasure; which he did by placing a peep stone in a hat, burying his face into the crown of the hat, and telling others where to dig.
Joseph got his first seer stone in 1819 at age 13, one year prior to the claimed “first vision”
These treasure digs were not small holes, but large caves dug into the side of a hill. (8) In these treasure digs as the men directed by Joseph thought they were getting close to the treasure, Joseph would inform them he could see in the stone that the Spanish gold or silver they sought had slipped further into the earth becoming unattainable, and hence no treasure was ever recovered. Folk magic practices of that time dictated that hidden treasures were protected by guardian spirits who could be thwarted off by magic spells, incantations, (9) and animal sacrifices. (10) Joseph got his first seer stone in 1819 at age 13, one year prior to the claimed “first vision”. (11) He later found his second seer stone, the one used for the Book of Mormon translation, in 1822, only one year before his first visit from Moroni. One of Joseph’s treasure digs, unrelated to the Nephite plates, took place on the Hill Cumorah. Joseph is also believed to have been mentored in treasure digging by a scryer named Luman Walters. One source says: In 1822 and 1823, Luman Walter served as a seer for a treasure dig on the property of Abner Cole in Palmyra, Wayne County, New York. Joseph Smith, Sr., Alvin Smith, and Joseph Smith, Jr. reportedly participated in this dig. Walter possessed a magical book and a seer stone, which he used to locate buried treasure. Walter is said to have conducted three unsuccessful digs on the hill Cumorah, but later suggests that only Smith might be able to find the treasure there. The Smith family was heavily involved in folk magic practices such as water witching, scrying and magic incantations, and as already discussed, treasure digging. There is no evidence that Joseph successfully found treasure using these methods. As a result, Joseph was at best self-deluded and at worst knew he really couldn’t find treasure and was therefore deceiving others. Lorenzo Saunders, a neighbor of the Smiths, shared that Joseph Smith’s father, Joseph Smith Sr.:
- “was always telling yarns, he would go to turkey shoots and get tight [i.e., drunk] and he would pretend to put spells on their guns and would tell them they could not shoot a turkey.” (12)
With this information it becomes pretty clear that Joseph’s story of Moroni and gold plates is simply a continuation of his pattern for deceiving others regarding buried treasure and the magical devices he used to try to locate that treasure. Moroni, gold plates, seer stones, and the Hill Cumorah show too much resemblance to the treasure digging culture of Joseph Smith’s youth, his family, and his community; as such it is too much to be a coincidence.
It is impossible to ignore the similarities between Joseph’s earlier treasure digging and his claimed experience with Moroni and the Gold Plates. Upon learning this information an LDS member should at least admit that the Smith’s folk magic practices were superstitious and not based in religion or science and how it obviously influenced later experiences that were claimed to be from God. And at most have a desire to dig further and uncover more actual, factual, truth regarding their religious claims. Enfin: Joseph, in his youth, was either self-deluded or outright deceiving people by letting them pay him to locate treasure, treasure he claimed to see with his seer stone, but never uncovered, and never was found to exist.
1 – Joseph Smith, Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Kirtland, Ohio] 2 no. 3 (July 1838), 43. Also reproduced in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 120; History of the Church 3:29; Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 271.
2 – https://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/js-h/1.11?lang=eng
3 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrying
4 – https://www.lds.org/new-era/1971/01/joseph-smith-as-a-young-man?lang=eng
5 – http://www.conchisle.com/magic.htm
6 – Smith, History of Joseph Smith, 150, 149.
7 – http://undergroundnotes.com/graphics7/Dialogue_V27N03_211.pdf
8 – http://rationalfaiths.com/discovering-the-lost-mormon-cave/
9 – http://publications.mi.byu.edu/publications/review/18/1/S00005-5176a9476bf735McGee.pdf
10 – Emily Coburn, in Emily M. Austin, Mormonism; or, Life Among the Mormons, 1882, pp. 32-33
11 – Brodie, Fawn M. (1971), No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (2nd ed.), New York: Knopf, ISBN 0-394-46967-4.
12 – Lorenzo Saunders, Interviewed by E. L. Kelley, 12 Nov. 1884, 12, E. L. Kelley Papers, “Miscellany,” Community of Christ Archives, Independence, MO (EMD 2:156). In a previous interview, Saunders said Joseph Sr. “would go to Turkey Shoots and get drunk; pretend to enchant their guns so that they could not kill the Turkey. … He would blow in the gun and feel around the lock then tell them it was charmed and they could not kill the turkey” (Lorenzo Saunders, interviewed by William H. Kelley, 17 Sept. 1884, 2, E. L. Kelley Papers, Community of Christ Archives [EMD 2:127]). Saunders described an incident in a Manchester tavern in which the senior Smith became inebriated and on request displayed his genitals for measurement (interview with E. L. Kelley, 12 Nov. 1884, 22 [EMD 2:164]).
Resources for Further Research
http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith/Money_digging http://www.mormonthink.com/QUOTES/gold.htm https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V19N04_20a.pdf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_life_of_Joseph_Smith http://www.mormonstories.org/top10toughissues/peepstones.html http://undergroundnotes.com/graphics7/Dialogue_V27N03_211.pdf https://bycommonconsent.com/2006/09/09/treasure-digging/ http://richkelsey.org/joseph_smith_money_digging_accounts.html http://www.mormondiscussionpodcast.org/2015/09/seer-stones-folk-magic-and-alvins-hand/ http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Reconsidering-Lucy-Mack-Smith%E2%80%99sFolk-Magic-Confession.pdf
adapted from: Mormon Primer