Criticism of Mormonism/Articles/Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism

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Response to "Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism"

A FairMormon Analysis of: From Captain Kidd's Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism, a work by author: Ronald V. Huggins

Response to "Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism", a work by author: Ronald V. Huggins

This article is found in Ronald V. Huggins, "From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 no. 4 (2003).

Response to claims made in this work


The author states,

Within a month-and-a-half of the Book of Mormon’s first public appearance on the shelves of Grandin’s bookstore in Palmyra an article appeared in the Rochester Gem (May 15, 1830) describing an attempt by one of the Smith sons at finding Kidd’s treasure. It is not clear whether the ‘oracle’ referred to is Joseph or one of his brothers”

Author's source(s)


  • Huggins uses a newspaper article about another Smith family, and tries to make it appear that this is referring to Joseph Smith, Sr.'s family. The article has nothing at all to do with the Book of Mormon or the Church, and says so.
  • The newspaper article certainly seems to offer support for Huggins’s point about the Smiths’ treasure-seeking activities and casts the family in a negative light. The trouble is, the article itself states quite plainly that it is not referring to the Joseph Smith Sr. family. After beginning with a description of the Book of Mormon, the author of the article goes on to say: “This story brings to our mind one of similar nature once played off upon the inhabitants of Rochester and its vicinity, near the close of the last war [of 1812]. . . . If we remember aright, it was in the year 1815, that a family of Smiths moved into these parts, and took up their abode in a miserable hut on the east bank of the river, now near the late David K. Carter’s tavern. They had a wonderful son, of about 18 years of age.”
  • As noted, the Gem article ties the treasure-seeking episode quite specifically to the end of the War of 1812 in the early months of 1815. The Joseph Smith Sr. family was still in Vermont until at least 1816. Nor are they known to have spent any time in the Rochester area. The Smiths described in the article are not the Joseph Smith Sr. family, and the article makes that clear. Even Huggins’s source, Dan Vogel, states in his introduction, “this early report compares the coming forth of the Book of Mormon with the Rochester money diggers.” Huggins manifests a recklessness in handling the documents.


The author quotes Benjamin Saunders as saying,

"‘I heard Joe tell my Mother and Sister how he procured the plates...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’ ”

Author's source(s)


  • Take a careful look at the ellipsis in the quote—Huggins wishes it to appear that Joseph Smith introduced angelic messengers late in the telling of his tale of obtaining the Book of Mormon; he therefore deliberately excludes mention of the angel from his source quote in order to hide its existence.
  • Here's the full quote from Benjamin Saunders, including the portion that the author hid using the ellipsis (in bold):

“I heard Joe tell my Mother and Sister how he procured the plates. He said he was directed by an angel where it was. He went in the night to get the plates. 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.” (emphasis added)

Reviews or responses to issues addressed by this work

Mark Ashurst-McGee, "Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian"

Mark Ashurst-McGee,  The FARMS Review, (2006)
Over the last two decades, many historians have reconsidered the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the context of the early American tradition of treasure hunting. Well into the nineteenth century there were European Americans hunting for buried wealth. Some believed in treasures that were protected by magic spells or guarded by preternatural beings. Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Mormon religion, had participated in several treasure-hunting expeditions in his youth. The church that he later founded rested to a great degree on his claim that an angel named Moroni had appeared to him in 1823 and showed him the location of an ancient scriptural record akin to the Bible, which was inscribed on metal tablets that looked like gold. After four years, Moroni allowed Smith to recover these "golden plates" and translate their characters into English. It was from Smith's published translation—the Book of Mormon—that members of the fledgling church became known as "Mormons." For historians of Mormonism who have treated the golden plates as treasure, Moroni has become a fantastical treasure guardian. In this essay, I argue for the historical validity of the traditional understanding of Moroni as an angel.

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Larry E. Morris, ""I Should Have an Eye Single to the Glory of God": Joseph Smith's Account of the Angel and the Plates"

Larry E. Morris,  The FARMS Review, (2005)
Ronald Huggins, an assistant professor of theological and historical studies at Salt Lake Theological Seminary, claims that Joseph Smith's account of Moroni and the plates originated as a "money-digger's yarn" and was later transformed into "restoration history." Huggins believes that "careful study" allows one "to trace the story's development from its earlier to its later version" (pp. 19, 22).

Huggins's work, however, hardly qualifies as a careful study. In the first place, he does not account for the complex interweaving of faith and folk culture so common in the early 1800s, an interweaving that made it possible for Joseph Smith to initially live in both religious and "treasure-seeking" worlds. Furthermore, Huggins neglects essential primary documents, obscures the timeline, and hides crucial details. A genuinely careful examination of the textual evidence reveals a pattern quite the opposite of that proposed by Huggins: early accounts of Moroni's visit emphasized restoration history, while later versions introduced Captain Kidd and his ghost.

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