Occult belief was thoroughly entwined in early Mormon culture, commonly affecting practice and doctrine in subtle yet profound ways. Americans of diverse social classes and education embraced inherited superstitions and magical belief structures. Publishers fulfilled the extensive public demand for astrological information and almanacs, producing countless volumes. Despite living in rural areas with predominantly uneducated citizens, the abundance of libraries across the region provided citizens with a vast array of books of all types.
There is ample evidence of the Smith family’s involvement in ritual magic, an extension of their treasure digging occupation. Numerous foundational Mormon families actively believed in apparitions, divining rods, talismans, seer stones, planetary superstitions, lunar cycles, astrology, magical enchantments, even power infused canes and handkerchiefs. Smith family descendants eventually donated and displayed numerous items, including: amulets, talismans, parchments, daggers and canes.
Michael Quinn, one of Mormonism’s most prolific historians, observed that “the official version of early Mormon history is often incomplete in its presentation of material facts and evaluation of evidence; therefore it is inaccurate in many respects. The Smith family’s folk beliefs, treasure digging ventures and their affect on Mormon revelation are perhaps the most troubling topics for Mormon apologists and polemics, who often deny legitimate sources while selectively embracing items which conveniently fit the official Mormon narrative meticulously polished over a span of two centuries.” Quinn’s work, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, is highly recommended to anyone seeking to understand early Church leaders.
See Translation Process for a more thorough examination of how the Book of Mormon came to be.
Upstate New York and Vermont were meccas of treasure-digging. Poor families were infatuated by stories of buried wealth, while treasure quests occasionally attracted even prominent and wealthy participants. Oak Island, the site of tremendous Captain Kidd treasure speculation, lies just off the coast from New York, not far from the Smith’s Palmyra roots. The History Channel produced a series titled The Curse of Oak Island, which chronicles the island’s history of buried treasure lore. Captain Kidd novels were well known in the day, and the Smiths are documented to have loved them. Palmyra resident Ann Eaton added that Kidd was ‘his (Joseph) hero.’
Many Smith neighbors, including Peter Ingersoll and Willard Chase, confirmed the family’s involvement in money digging. (Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, Vogel, p. 36) Several clients testified that Joseph looked into a peep stone in search of buried treasure. He would often suggest that the treasure was nearby; but upon arriving at its location, after much digging, he would announce that it had slipped out of reach so that no one could obtain it, let alone see it. Folklore of the day presented strict protocols to overcome enchantments and guardians, lest the treasure slip away into the ground.
Joseph’s mother, Lucy, elaborated on the family’s affinity for the occult, deeming it an “important interest” when recording her family’s history. “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 soothsaying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation.” While understandably defensive of the slothfulness and disrepute commonly associated with money digging, their loss of land and home in December 1825 while both Joseph Sr. and Jr. were away digging for treasure with Josiah Stowell indicates that they did in fact allow their fascination to get the better of them.
Joseph Knight’s personal history tells of his early acquaintance with Smith. Housed in the LDS archives, this manuscript is “missing at least one beginning page.” The missing portion would cover the period when treasure digging was the primary association of Knight with teenage Joseph. (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 54) The LDS Church is known to have resorted to the removal of pages from troubling journals, as it did with Smith’s original first vision draft. (see First Vision – Thank God for Tape)
Benjamin Franklin addressed the absurdity of money-digging a full century before Smith’s adventures with the practice, observing, “There are among us great numbers of honest artificers and labouring people, who fed with a vain hope of growing suddenly rich, neglect their business, almost to the ruining of themselves and families, and voluntarily endure abundance of fatigue in a fruitless search after imaginary hidden treasure. They wander thro’ the woods and bushes by day, to discover the marks and signs; at midnight they repair to the hopeful spot with spades and pickaxes; full of expectation they labour violently, trembling at the same time in every joint, thro’ fear of certain malicious demons who are said to haunt and guard such places. At length a mighty hole is dug, and perhaps several cartloads of earth thrown out, but alas, no cag or iron pot is found! no seaman’s chest cram’d with Spanish pistoles, or weighty pieces of eight! Then they conclude, that thro’ some mistake in the procedure, some rash word spoke, or some rule of art neglected, the guardian spirit had power to sink it deeper into the earth and convey it out of their reach…” (The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol 1, Jan 1706 – Dec 1734, p. 134-139)
Though LDS apologists portray money digging as harmless folklore, even a training ground for future prophets, Ben Franklin’s commentary reiterates that the practice was known to be fraudulent long before the Smiths engaged in it. Even in Smith’s day, it was illegal to defraud others with claims of lost treasure.
Like Joseph Smith, Benjamin Franklin lacked formal education. Fortunately, Ben relied upon repeatable scientific observations to pioneer humanity’s understanding of electricity, and invented bifocals that enable anyone to see clearly with their natural eyes.
JOSEPH FINDS A ROCK
The Smith’s Manchester neighbors included the Chase family, known money diggers; thus young Joseph learned of Sally Chase’s reputation for locating lost objects using her bluish-green seer stone. He persuaded his parents to let him visit her, and he soon visioned a whitish, opaque rock by looking into Sally’s green seer stone. He described it as being located under a tree near Lake Erie, some distance away.
Joseph’s father suggested that Joseph obtained his first stone at “about fourteen years of age.” However, given the distance Joseph traveled to secure the white rock, Dan Vogel suggests the event occurred “probably in 1822 when he was sixteen years old.” (Early Mormon Documents, Vogel, vol 1, p. 457) This timeline also aligns with Smith’s confession at his 1836 Glass Looker trial to have been engaged in scrying for three years.
In 1822, Willard Chase hired Joseph and Alvin to help dig, as both brothers were at various times engaged in the money digging business. The Church suggests that they were digging a well, while others described it as a treasure hole. Lorenzo Saunders and the Chase’s brother-in-law both claimed that Joseph’s brown rock was found while digging a treasure hole with the Chases, not for the Chases, who merely told others they were digging a well. “They dug that hole for money. Chases and Smiths altogether was digging it.” (Lorenzo Saunders interview, Nov 12, 1884 / Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 42-46)
Regardless of the specific timeline, many sources both friendly and antagonistic confirmed that Smith obtained three different peep stones (seer stones) as a teenager. Dan Vogel’s extensive examination of this period led him to conclude that “He [Joseph] was an aggressive, ambitious leader among Manchester’s treasure seekers.” (Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, Vogel, p. 35)
Dan Vogel meticulously documented the locations of many of Smith’s treasure digs. The LDS Church has suggested that Joseph’s scrying merely served to prepare him for the marvelous visions and revelations he would soon receive.
Joseph would proceed to carry the rock around his neck, in a small pouch of Emma’s construction, regularly consulting it for guidance. In Utah some years later, President Woodruff referred to having “the seer stone that Joseph Smith found by revelation some 30 feet under the earth carried by him through life.”
• The Locations of Smith’s Early Treasure Quests, Dialogue, Dan Vogel
HAVE STONE, WILL TRAVEL
“By 1825, young Joseph had a reputation in Manchester and Palmyra for his activities as a treasure seer, or someone who used a seer stone to locate gold or other valuable objects buried in the earth.” (Ensign, Plates of Gold, Steven E. Snow, LDS Church Historian, Sept 2015)
Lucy Smith validated Joseph’s money digging expertise and related employment when introducing Josiah Stowell’s 1825 journey to New York. She stated that he made the long journey “with a view of getting Joseph to assist him in digging for a silver mine…on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.” (Biographical Sketches, L. Smith, p. 91-92) Prior to obtaining the treasure in 1827 from the Hill Cumorah, the seer stones were the only “keys” he had.
On Nov 1, 1825, an Articles of Agreement was entered into by eleven shareholders, including Stowell, Joseph Smith Junior and Senior, clarifying how they would divide the anticipated spoils of their money digs in Pennsylvania. (Articles of Agreement, reprinted in Salt Lake Tribune, April 23, 1880)
The timing of Stowell’s affiliation could not have been more critical. Having previously lost everything in a failed ginseng enterprise, Joseph Sr. had yet to regain financial stability. Russell Stoddard, a carpenter who labored on the Smith’s framed house – on land they failed to pay for – had sued Joseph Sr. for $66.59 that February. The Smiths owed many other creditors and their mortgage was more than three years delinquent – the unhonored terms of 1822 having already been graciously extended by the land agent to Dec 1825
“Their digging in several places was in compliance with peeper Smith’s revelations, who would attend with his peep-stone in his hat, and his hat drawn over his face, and would tell them how deep they would have to go; but when they would find no trace of the chest of money, he would peep again, and weep like a child, and tell them the enchantment had removed it on account of some sin or thoughtless word; finally the enchantment became so strong that he could not see, and so the business was abandoned.” (J. and H. Lewis, Mormon History / Early Mormon Documents 4:303)
Meanwhile, Stoddard managed to obtain the deed to the Smith property, whereupon he promptly moved to evict them. LDS apologists often expound upon the underhanded tactics he used to obtain the property, without addressing the facts surrounding the long delinquent mortgage, or how the Smiths intended to pay their debts. At the final hour, the Smiths managed to secure the favor of an old Quaker friend, Lemuel Durfee, who purchased the property. He allowed the Smiths to remain for an additional year, in exchange for Samuel Smith’s help on his farm.
Thus we learn that in his family’s moment of greatest need, rather than seeking gainful employment, Joseph Sr. opted to pursue buried treasure in another state. Ironically, Joseph Jr. would mirror the very behavior in 1836, when burdened with debt far beyond his ability to pay, he chose to lead his counselors on a fruitless treasure hunt in Salem, MA.
Rumor and disgrace likely rippled through the small community as the Smiths became renters on their forfeit land. Dan Vogel observed “The fact that he dug for treasure with Stowell’s company in Harmony [PA]…when he should have been working to pay for his Manchester [NY] property undoubtedly contributed to his neighbors’ assessment of his character.” This episode helps to understand why neighbors described the family’s objective to “live without work.” (Joseph Capron statement, Mormonism Unvailed p. 260)
The drama and unwanted publicity amplified the opposition Joseph Smith Jr. would soon face. Within a few short months the money digging crew would be hauled before the law to explain themselves.
THE GLASS LOOKER TRIAL
Mormon apologists previously ignored available evidence of Joseph Smith’s treasure digging, including Cowdery’s 1835 Church history, until a 1970s researcher verified the existence of “The Glass Looker” trial documents.
LDS apologists now accept the court transcripts as a legitimate trial, not a pre-trial examination. BYU historian Marvin Hill observed, “Now, most historians, Mormon or not, who work with the sources, accept as fact Smith’s career as village magician. Too many of his closest friends and family admitted as much, and some of Smith’s own revelations support the contention.” (Marvin S. Hill, Review of Roger Anderson’s book, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined)
Given that no treasure ever materialized, Stowell’s nephew, Peter Bridgeman, became sufficiently concerned over Smith’s fleecing of his family to initiate a complaint. “Mr. Stowell is represented as being not a very bright man, but he had saved considerable money for those times, and Joe Smith managed to get and spend most of it.” (Early Mormon Documents, Vogel, vol. 4, 153)
Smith was arrested in March 1826 for disturbing the peace; a catch-all charge commonly used for charlatans and tricksters, even those “pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found…” Referred to as The Glass Looker in court documents, Joseph admitted to indulging in magic arts and organizing hunts for buried gold. New York law provided punishment for ‘Disorderly Persons,’ whose definition included jugglers (conjurors), diviners and those pretending to have skill in discovering lost goods. The charge aligns with uncle Jesse described Joseph. “He says he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity to say they are, and that the angel of the Lord…has put him in possession of great wealth, gold, silver, precious stones.” (Jesse Smith to Hyrum Smith, June 17, 1829, JS Letterbook 2:59-61)
Various witnesses testified at Joseph’s trial, including Jonathan Thompson, who told Judge Neely that he believed in Smith’s powers. He reported digging with the seer in pursuit of a “chest of money.” He “…struck his spade upon…probably the chest, but on account of an enchantment, the trunk kept settling away from under them while digging…” Josiah Stowell similarly described a dig in which the “money moved down” beyond their reach.
Though Joseph would erroneously dictate through Oliver Cowdery in 1835 that he had been “honorably acquitted”, Judge Neely recorded, “And therefore the court finds the defendant guilty.” Dan Vogel observed, “Joseph told followers that his early persecutions resulted from his visionary claims, but his severest persecution actually stemmed from his activities as a treasure seer…”
The story of Joseph Smith’s arrest and trial for money digging was published in the Salt Lake Messenger in 1971, shortly after the records were discovered. More important than Smith’s conviction, is how the records confirm his ongoing involvement in for-profit treasure seeking immediately prior to bringing forth the Book of Mormon – with that very same rock in his hat. “It is immaterial what the finding of the court was on the technical charge of being a disorderly person and an imposter, what is important is the evidence adduced, and its bearing on the life of Joseph Smith before he announced his claim to be a prophet of God.” (Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism / see also Natural Born Seer, Van Wagoner, p. 227)
Hugh Nibley, a prominent LDS apologist, observed, “…if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith.” (Hugh Nibley, The Mythmakers p. 142. See also The Changing World of Mormonism, Joseph Smith and Money Digging, ch 4)
Joseph Smith Sr.’s testimony framed his son’s money digging talents in religious themes, asserting that “both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre, or its equivalent in earthly treasures.” He hoped the “Son of Righteousness would some day illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him.” (Originator of Mormonism, Purple)
While Joseph Jr.’s favorite brown seer stone lacked the ability to locate Stowell’s Spanish silver, and thereby save the family farm, the unassuming little rock would soon grant Smith Sr.’s wish, becoming sufficiently powerful to dictate the entire Book of Mormon we know today.
• Joseph Smith Papers, Trial Bill of Albert Neely
• Joseph Smith Papers, Appendix: Docket Entry, 20 March 1826 [People v. JS]
• MormonThink: Joseph Smith’s 1826 Conviction
• Tiffany’s Monthly, Interview with Martin Harris, 1859
SLIPPERY, CURSED TREASURE
The notion of slippery treasure, guardians and curses reflects early America folklore. The Book of Mormon elaborates on buried treasure, such that “the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth.” The scene was evidently such that “there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics… the land was cursed.” (Mormon 1:18-19)
“And behold, if a man hide up a treasure in the earth, and the Lord shall say -Let it be accursed…behold, it shall be accursed. And if the Lord shall say -Be thou accursed, that no man shall find these from this time henceforth and forever -behold, no man getteth it henceforth and forever.” (Helaman 12:18-19)
The book at various points describes a complaint common to 1800s treasure seekers. “Yeah, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land.” (Helaman 13:35) Treasure was often said to slip away, thus “they could not hold…nor retain them again.”
In addition of testifying of the gold plates, Martin Harris later shared a fascinating story of his experience digging with the Smiths. “I will tell you a wonderful thing that happened after Joe had found the plates. Three of us took some tools to go to the hill (Cumorah) and hunt for some more boxes, or gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. We got quite excited about it and dug quite carefully around it, and we were ready to take it up, but behold, by some unseen power it slipped back into the hill. We stood there and looked at it, and one of us took a crow bar and tried to drive it through the lid to hold it, but it glanced and broke one corner of the box.” The three which Harris mentioned included Smith Sr., who “insisted upon it”, as well as Smith Jr. They supposedly broke off a chunk of the chest as it receded into the hill, retaining the piece as a memento. (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 61-63 / LDS Church History)
Joseph Smith Sr. possessed a pointed dagger, inscribed with astrological and occult symbols, which his family used to etch circles around digging sites to bind the enchantment. Hyrum’s family inherited the dagger after Joseph Jr.’s death. Masonic temple aprons were also passed down Hyrum’s (the eldest son) lineage.
“Before Smith obtained the gold plate treasure in 1827 from the Hill Cumorah, these stones were the only keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.” The brown stone and the term “Urim and Thummim” became synonymous to Smith, as he always kept the rock about his person. The brown stone was kept in a pouch, made by his wife Emma, suspended around his neck. (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 57, 96)
Brigham Young demonstrated the varied and interchangeable terms early Mormons used to describe nothing more than magic rocks. “I met with the Twelve at Brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon the Interpreters. He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it; he showed us his seer stone.” (Brigham Young, Millenial Star 26:118, Dec. 27, 1841)
Notice how shiny Joseph’s favored brown stone is. “Magic treatises instructed that such a glass or stone should be anointed with olive oil before being consecrated to seeric use.” (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn, p. 40)
The functionality of a seer stone differs little from that of a crystal ball, which is generally made of semi-transparent quartz – one of the most common minerals on the planet. Mystics of all stripes have been gazing into rocks for a very long time.
OBTAINING THE PLATES
Like other carefully scripted LDS narratives, Joseph’s family, friends and neighbors bore witness to a very different process of obtaining the gold plates. Regarding this period of Smith’s life, Dan Vogel instructed, “One must be cautious in reconstructing the original story, especially when citing portions that were influenced by Joseph’s later emendations. (Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, Vogel, p. 47) Over generations, the Church meticulously removed awkward occult and money digging aspects from Smith’s activities, creating the polished narrative most members know today.
Faithful LDS members and non-Mormons alike confirmed that Joseph Smith used his treasure-seeking stone to discover the gold plates. Martin Harris, trusted witness to the plates themselves, confirmed, ”Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase… It was by means of this stone he first discovered the plates.” (Mormonism, Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859)
“He looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit.” (Henry Harris affidavit, 1833) Willard Chase recounted how Joseph told him that without the stone “he would not have obtained the book.” (Willard Chase affidavit, 1833) “It was by looking at this stone in a hat, the light excluded, that Joseph discovered the plates.” The man who typeset the Book of Mormon stated that Smith told him that “by the aid of his wonderful stone he found gold plates on which were inscribed the writings in hieroglyphics.” (John H. Gilbert interview, Dec 3, 1877)
The 1823 Visit
Joseph made three attempts to obtain the plates from the Hill Cumorah on the evening of Sept 21, 1823, the day after the angel first visited him. Willard Chase, Joseph Knight, Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith recounted various aspects, including: three attempts to extract the plates during the visit to Cumorah, Smith’s astonishment when the plates unexpectedly disappeared, and how he was overpowered from touching them again after he had placed them on the ground, seeking to verify if anything else was in the hole.
Upon prying away a large stone, Joseph discovered the plates within a stone box. Lifting the plates from the hole, he set them on the ground to investigate if anything else “would be of some pecuniary advantage to him.” When he returned his attention the plates, they had disappeared from sight, returning to their location in the hole.
Joseph again tried to retrieve them but “was hurled back upon the ground with great violence. When he recovered, the angel was gone.” His story is consistent with early American treasure-digging lore, which posited that treasure would disappear at the slightest breach of the guardian’s requirements.
Lucy Smith elaborated on the specific instructions Joseph had received from the guardian of the gold plates. He was “not to lay the plates down, or put them for a moment out of his hands, until he got into the house and deposited them in a chest or trunk, having a good lock and key.” On this task, Joseph failed. She further suggested that Joseph violated another provision, when he allowed “covetous” desires to enter his mind. (Biographical Sketches, L. Smith, p. 83-86)
Thus, Joseph’s first attempt to retrieve the prize was denied, while the angel provided further instruction to bring Alvin (Joseph’s older brother) the following year on the appointed date. The attestations of friends and family confirm the requirement to bring Alvin. Accounts differ regarding what transpired during subsequent visits.
Powerful Toad / Salamander
Oliver Cowdery elaborated on how Smith was “prevented from obtaining the gold treasure by a thrice-repeated shock that was produced upon his system.” Thrice repeated instructions from guardians or spirits signified truthfulness in occult folklore.
Thus, it should surprise no one that the Angel Moroni first appeared to young Joseph three times in one evening to repeat his instructions. Joseph Smith would later assert that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842, commanding him to proceed with polygamy. During the angel’s third and final appearance, he came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction lest he overcome his reluctance to take teenage wives.
Benjamin Saunders, Joseph’s neighbor, spoke positively of the Smiths. Mormonism Unvailed chose not include his affidavit in 1834 because it was deemed too favorable to Smith. Yet even he reiterated hearing first-hand of the toad from Joseph. “When he took the plates there was something down near the box that looked some like a toad that rose up into a man which forbid him to take the plates…”
Willard Chase’s 1833 affidavit also identified the source of Smith’s fear; “He saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head.”
The 1824 Visit
Joseph is said to have returned to Cumorah in 1824 without Alvin, who had passed away in November of the prior year. Again unsuccessful in obtaining the prize, all accounts agree that the guardian required Smith to bring another person with him on the appointed date of September 22 of the coming year. While not providing specific instruction, Joseph was advised that he would know who the right person was. Joseph Knight recalled Smith describing how the angel advised that he “might have the book if he brought with him the right person.” (Reminiscence, Joseph Knight Sr.)
The 1825 / 1826 Visits
Accounts of any visit to Cumorah in 1825-1826 are lacking. However, Joseph continued to diligently attempt to satisfy the guardian’s requirements. Neighbor and money digging associate Willard Chase recommended fellow necromancer Samuel Lawrence as the man to accompany Smith to the hill. Samuel’s skill as a seer was know within the community; thus Joseph considered him for a time. Willard Chase provided a detailed account of the period.
Joseph revealed the general location of the plates to Lawrence, whereupon he produced his own seer stone and inquired of Joseph if anything else accompanied the plates. Smith said “no,” prompting Lawrence to request that Joseph peer into his [Lawrence’s] stone. At first, Joseph could not see anything through the rock, but a second request to “look again, and see if there was not a large pair of specks with the plates” enabled Smith to vision them.
The unexpected turn of events, presented both opportunity and risk to Smith. In acknowledging Lawrence’s vision, thereby obtaining a friendly witness who would attest to the existence of the unseen plates, Smith became simultaneously stuck with the specs Lawrence introduced. Lawrence’s assistance and visionary prowess would in turn become validated by Smith, thus bolstering his reputation.
The maneuverings of the dueling seers helps to explain why nobody would ever see the spectacles, and why they played only a fleeting role in Smith’s translation narrative. Smith’s association with Lawrence was brief, as he quickly recognized him to be a competitor. He did not take Lawrence to Cumorah, or attempt to retrieve the plates for some time.
The LDS Church confirms that Joseph would task his father with keeping an eye on Samuel Lawrence, on the momentous night in 1827, to ensure he would not attempt to follow Joseph Jr. to search for Cumorah’s treasure. (Saints: The Standard of Truth 1815-1846, 1:4:37)
Perhaps the failed exchange with Samuel Lawrence persuaded Joseph to focus his attention elsewhere; he needed someone else to satisfy the guardian. Numerous friends and family members corroborated the guardian’s requirement that Joseph must be married, and she must accompany him the following September, lest the plates slip away forever. Several BYU professors and scholars affirmed the accuracy of this recounting.
Joseph Knight, who at times employed and supported Joseph, recounted how Smith’s angel instructed him to “do right according to the will of God,” that he might obtain the plates the following year. It would ultimately be Knight’s black horse and carriage that Joseph would borrow when obtaining the plates.
Lorenzo Saunders recalled, “Joseph said that he saw the angel again; the Angel told him he must go and get him a wife and then he could take his wife and…get the plates.” (Lorenzo Saunders interview, Nov 12, 1884) “It was freely talked among the neighbors that Jo Smith said he had a revelation to go to Pennsylvania and get him a wife.” (Sylvia Walker statement, March 20, 1885) Another neighbor recalled “Jo told Emma he had a revelation about the plates, but that he could not obtain them until he had married her.” (William R. Hine affidavit, 1885)
Joseph Smith’s sister, Katharine, summarized the guardian’s requirement, “You will know her when you see her.” She elaborated, “That fall he went down to Pennsylvania and became acquainted with his wife, Miss Hale, and he knew when he saw her that she was the one to go with him to get the records.” Consulting the guidance of his seer stone, Joseph confirmed it was Emma Hale he was to marry.
The urgency to obtain the treasure may help explain why Joseph defied Emma’s father, who disapproved of the relationship, and eloped with Emma in January 1827 after a relatively brief courtship.
The 1827 Visit
In preparation for his final attempt to obtain the plates, Joseph carefully followed occult protocol, borrowing Joseph Knight’s black horse, acquiring black clothes. Many friends and neighbors corroborated the requirement for total blackness during this critical visit to the hill; there even exists a receipt for the purchase of “lamp black” [paint] from Palmyra store four days prior. Smith’s sister stated that he was to appear at 2 o’clock – the powerful hour of Saturday morning over which Smith’s ruling planet Jupiter presided.
Oliver Cowdery’s first published history of Smith’s experience used the words “necromancy” and “enchantment.” Emma’s cousin reported that “she stood with her back toward him while he dug up the box.” He then took the plates and hid them in a hollow black oak tree. (see Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn, p. 147-166)
Smith’s retellings of this episode evolved over time to downplay the occult aspects relayed by contemporary participants. By 1838, Smith was suggesting he located the plates by the “distinctness of the vision which I had had concerning it.” (Joseph Smith, Manuscript History) Later accounts never suggest that the plates were removed from the ground, thus avoiding the awkward details associated with the supernatural rules governing slippery treasure. Ultimately, Smith’s attempts to obtain the plates were said to have merely been forbidden by the messenger. The traditional LDS narrative further distances itself from the magical aspects of the event.
FATHER SMITH’S NEWSPAPER NOTICE
Within days of Smith’s second unsuccessful visit to the hill in 1824, someone discussed exhuming Alvin’s body. Perhaps a family member had mentioned the angel’s requirement that Alvin accompany Joseph, and the predicament his recent death precipitated. Some may have speculated that the Smiths would use Alvin’s body to satisfy the treasure guardian.
The LDS Church acknowledges the guardian’s requirement to bring Alvin, while presenting a narrative at odds with the original documents. Perhaps clarity can be found in Joseph Smith Sr.’s public notice, printed in the Wayne Sentinel to address the rumors, reassuring the community that Alvin’s body was still buried and intact.
Dan Vogel suggests “Joseph Sr.’s explanation for disinterring Alvin’s body is questionable because one should have been able to determine if the grave had been disturbed without exhuming the body. It seems probable, therefore, that Joseph Sr. himself may have been the source of the rumor, that the story was a ruse to exhume Alvin’s body for its use in attempting to get the gold plates.” (Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, Vogel, p. 57)
THE SALAMANDER LETTER
Joseph’s reference to a toad, reptile or salamander which assaulted him as he attempted to obtain the gold plates sparked a long running controversy. As so many primary and secondary accounts refer to a toad like apparition, apologists could not easily discard the topic.
According to occult lore of Joseph’s day, the salamander was the only other amphibian that could appear in human or spirit form. In occult and religious texts, the salamander was the elemental spirit of fire which could manifest itself in human form, living in a region of fire and symbolizing divinity. (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn, p. 147-155)
Mark Hoffman was well versed in Mormon history and knew exactly how to bait the prophets, who despite ongoing public denials, remained acutely aware of Smith’s treasure digging. Hoffman knew the Church purchased documents and artifacts that could damage its narrative, often with only cursory verification, so it could remove the items from the public domain. (Leonard Arrington: The Writing of Mormon History p. 423) This is precisely how the Church handled Joseph Smith’s original 1832 first vision draft, hiding it for approximately 35 years until non-Mormon publicity forced it into daylight.
With such perfect rubes at his disposal, Hoffman created a document which elaborated upon Smith’s occult practices, specifically mentioning the peep stone, enchantment, Alvin’s role, great kettles of coin money, and of course the salamander. Hoffman later testified to investigators that it was “a clumsy job…completed in a day” and that he “…wasn’t fearful of the Church inspiration detecting the forgery.” (The Mormon Murders, Naifeh, Smith p. 429-433) The prophets fell for his fabricated Salamander Letter because they knew Joseph had spoken of it.
The LDS Church confirms direct purchase or acquisition via faithful members of as many as 40 Hoffman forgeries over several years. Despite having spent many hours directly with a conman and soon to be murderer, visiting with him at length, none discerned the ongoing fraud. On one occasion, he presented a document purported to confirm that Smith anointed his son to be his legitimate successor, as rumored and occasionally documented.
Prior to the Salamander Letter being deemed inauthentic, Dallin Oaks defended the letter and Joseph’s use of the word salamander. Later, as the fraud became public knowledge, he derided critics for attacking his speech. Ironically, Jerald Tanner, a prominent anti-Mormon researcher, discerned the letter to be a hoax.
• Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents, Ensign, Dallin Oaks, Oct 1987.
• The Salamander Letter
• Natural Born Seer, Chapter 10, The Glass Looker
TREASURE SEEKING IN LATER YEARS
Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking activities via his various peep stones did not terminate with the formation of The Church of Christ or printing of the Book of Mormon. In August 1836, Smith read an Ohio Telegraph newspaper story of treasure allegedly hidden under a house, and discussed the article with Ebenezer Robinson, a boarder in his home. Desperate with debts he could not pay, Smith traveled to Salem, MA in search of the buried treasure. In persuading them to attend, Smith told Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and his brother Hyrum that it was missionary tour.
Joseph and his comrades stayed for weeks, tracking down clues. Confirming both the purpose of his “mission” and enthusiasm for the pursuit of the prize, Joseph wrote his wife Emma on Aug 19, “…with regard to the [great] object of our mishion [sic] you will be [anxious] to know, we have found the house…very luckily and providentially, as we have one spell been most discouraged.” As the prophet plotted to obtain the house and treasure, he reported, “The house is occupied, and it will require much care and patience to rent or buy it.” Smith soon returned to Kirtland empty-handed, leading many to downplay the awkward fact that the entire Presidency was involved in the treasure scheme.
• Letter to Emma Smith, Salem, Mass., 19 August 1836
OCCULT IN LDS REVELATIONS
Smith’s preoccupation with magic stones crept into the Book of Mormon, as the finger of God magically illuminated sixteen Jaredite stones. Canonized LDS scripture today still explains how to identify devils by shaking their hand. (D&C 129) ‘The appearance of the words “amulet,” “charm,” and “talisman”…from Times and Seasons demonstrates a problem in the efforts of LDS apologists and polemicists to deny that Smith had affinity for the occult.’ (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 270)
The original Book of Commandments 7:3 (later to become D&C 8) stated that Oliver Cowdery had the “gift of the rod,” even the “rod of nature” – as in his divining sticks, which he used to locate objects. Both Oliver and his father were known rodsmen. The Church later changed his “gift” in the awkward revelation to “rod of Aaron,” which is a far cry from what it originally stated and meant.
While Cowdery’s involvement with treasure seeking and magic arts was camouflaged by altering a few words, Brigham Young would later use Oliver’s divining rod to locate the Salt Lake City temple site.
Reliance upon rods and canes for divine inspiration remained a theme of early Mormonism. Heber C. Kimball repeatedly recorded the inspiration his “rod” [likely a cane] channeled. “I inquired by the rod. It was said my family was well that my wife would come to me in the east…” (Heber C Kimball journal, June 6, 1844 LDS Church Archives.) Kimball’s later autobiography would remove the word rod from the text, in similar fashion to other retroactive attempts to distinguish the occult from the divine.
Kimball’s use of the rod continued, as “he went home and used the rod…” (Heber C. Kimball journal Sept. 5, 1844 LDS Church Archives) “The same evening I sat down in my house in the presence of my wife and inquired of the lord by the rod.” (Heber C Kimball journal, Jan 25, 1845) In later years, Heber continued to favor his staff, recording that “in the evening it was told me by the Lord rod…”(H.C. Kimball memorandum, January 21, 1862)
Apologists frequently shroud the use of such folklore tools in religious tones, often instructing that God sometimes works through physical aids. The LDS Church suggests, “As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.” (LDS.org, Book of Mormon Translation essay) The facts of the matter, however, ultimately return to a man holding an ordinary stick or rock, reveling in the enhanced connectivity to deity it allegedly afforded.
Kimball’s ability to perceive the divine will of the Lord has been questioned by many familiar with his history. It was he who introduced his 14 year old daughter in May 1843 to the prophet Smith, in a stated effort gain favor. It was he who taught the sacred principal of sacrificing herself to a man 23 years her senior. Smith afforded Helen 24 hours to respond to the offer, to which she consented to after Smith explained how the relationship would ensure her eternal salvation, along with that of her extended family.
Referring to her father in her autobiographical journal, Helen recorded that “he taught me the principle of celestial marriage, and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him… My father had but one ewe lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter… This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward.” The Kimball family went on to assume many leadership positions within the Church, with Spencer Kimball becoming a Prophet.
Acts 19:12 illustrates how the Apostle Paul sent special handkerchiefs among the people to heal them. In 1837, LDS apostles wrote how, “Many scores of persons were healed by our sending a handkerchief to them.” In 1839, Smith gave a handkerchief to a faithful member to alleviate his sick child, suggesting that the cloth would deliver healing powers. There are numerous recorded instances of attempted faith healing via handkerchiefs; none successful. (see Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 313-4)
Smith occasionally carried a cane with astrological symbols carved around a crown and serpent head. Following Joseph and Hyrum’s death, wood from their caskets was cut into strips and turned into canes. Various canes were distributed among Church leaders; many were blessed in the temples. President Heber C. Kimball spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on March 15, 1857, expounding upon the certain powers of coffin canes. (Journal of Discourses)
ASTROLOGY IN EARLY MORMONISM
“Early Americans openly demonstrated their enthusiasm for astrology…occult sciences. Folk astrology was based on the maxim that people should ‘do nothing without the assistance of the Moon.’ In the 1800s, rationalists opposed the use of astrology in decision-making, yet even many critics admitted that planets and stars directly influenced humanity.” (see Early Mormonism and the Magic World View p. 21-23)
It is important to understand how the scientific method and modern medicine were just coming of age in Joseph’s day. Thus, astrology had not yet diverged from what would later become mainstream science. Germ theory was still debated, as it wasn’t until 1850s that Louis Pasteur gained the upper hand. Prior to that point, many of the best thinkers believed that disease was caused by bad air or rotting organic matter.
The astrological dominance of Jupiter in Smith’s life is well documented and inscribed on numerous ritual items. Smith retained the Jupiter talisman on his person until his death in Carthage – as it functioned as a personal protector – despite having consciously discarded his garments, which symbolized polygamy more than anything else. The talisman was often referred to as a “silver piece.” Many attempted to explain various artifacts as Masonic in origin, but they were astrological.
Charles Bidamon listed various items for sale in 1937, which had belonged to his mother, Emma Smith. The Jupiter Talisman was referred to as “a silver pocket piece which was in the prophet’s pocket at the time of his assassination.” He said Emma “prized this piece very highly on account of its being one of the prophet s intimate possessions”
Nearly every major vision or event in Smith’s life aligns with the astrological timing of Jupiter and the moon. Some even suggest that Smith established the Church on Tuesday, Apr 6 instead of Sunday because it coincided with the full moon – a believed source of power. The dates of Smith’s annual Hill Cumorah visits, even Joseph’s marriage date, perfectly align with Jupiter’s astrological power.
Sometime between 1841 and 1844, as persecution intensified, Smith directed that code names should disguise the identities of senior LDS leaders. The name Smith assigned himself in various revelations, Baurak Ale, is an official link between Mormonism’s founding prophet and his governing planet Jupiter. On April 11, 1844, which happened to be a Thursday, Jupiter’s day, the secretive Council of Fifty anointed Smith as Prophet, King, Priest and Ruler on Earth. The numerous astrological correlations defy coincidence. Starting in the 1880s, the Church began distancing itself from these aspects as those who personally knew Smith passed away. (see Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, ch. 5)
Church Patriarch Eldred G. Smith (deceased) was in possession of many Mormon relics, such as the blood stained shirt worn by Hyrum when he was killed and a box the golden plates were stored in (he refuses repeated offers to test it for gold remnants). Years ago, he would display Hyrum Smith’s Jupiter talisman. The talisman hasn’t been on display for some time at the request of the LDS Church, which has unsuccessfully offered to buy the object for a significant sum.
Joseph Smith’s journal presents an interesting entry on March 14, 1843, as recorded by Willard Richards, likely prompted by the widely observed Great March Comet of 1843. Richards sketched the phenomena, titled Observations in the Night Sky, as Smith dictated a mystical interpretation of a moon halo and sword shaped comet trail.
Smith suggested it was a sign of the times, representing “a union of power and combination of Nations.” Smith further elaborated on the astrological event during the April 6th Conference, relating “signs in the heavens above on the earth beneath” to the return of Christ. LDS newspapers further discussed the phenomenon.
YOU GET YOUR OWN PLANET
LDS doctrine offered worthy members the opportunity to one day build and rule over their own planets. Spencer W. Kimball expounded upon the principle when he said, “Brethren, 225,000 of you are here tonight. I suppose 225,000 of you may become gods. There seems to be plenty of space out there in the universe. And the Lord has proved that he knows how to do it. I think he could make, or probably have us help make, worlds for all of us, for every one of us 225,000.” (Ensign, The Privilege of Holding the Priesthood, October 1975 General Conference, Oct 1975)
More recently, the New Era expounded upon the notion. “I decided if I made it to the highest kingdom and was able to create my own worlds, this is what mine would look like.” (New Era, View from Celestial Ridge, June 1996) Unfortunately, the Church has since backtracked on the doctrine, suggesting that members may not actually receive their own planet.
Q: What made peep rocks so critical to early Mormonism, and why aren’t they special now?
Q: Given that Joseph’s seer stones never found any treasure, was it a confidence scam?
Q: If Joseph truly believed he was capable of finding treasure with his peep stone, why hire himself out to numerous others, why not just obtain the treasure for himself and prosper?
Q: At what point does a collection of related items exceed the probabilities of coincidence and move toward circumstantial proof?
Q: How does it feel to know that the same method of American folk magic Smith used to seek buried treasure, was also the method through which the Book of Mormon was dictated?