Question: Did the story of Moroni's visit to Joseph Smith evolve from that of a magical spiritual treasure guardian to an "angel"?

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Question: Did the story of Moroni's visit to Joseph Smith evolve from that of a magical spiritual treasure guardian to an "angel"?

The earliest letter and newspaper accounts describe Joseph's claims in religious terms

Some are anxious to paint Joseph's early experiences as linked to "magick" or treasure seeking. They thus argue that Joseph Smith described his first angelic visitor as "a dream" in which "a spirit" visited him three times in one night.

However, the earliest letters and newspapers accounts describe Joseph's claims in religious terms. Gradually, over time, hostile versions of Joseph's claims appear, which introduce "magic" or treasure-seeking elements to the tale.[1] Modern critics have simply followed where Joseph's early critics led them—while ignoring the earliest documents and witness of both friendly and hostile sources.

Newspapers were hostile sources, and tended to focus on polemics and sensationalism

Critics generally gloss over the fact that these newspapers were unremittingly hostile to Joseph and his claims. They were not disinterested, neutral reporters of "both sides of the story." They tended to polemics and sensationalism. Thus, the Palmyra Freeman would write a few weeks earlier that the Book of Mormon was "the greatest piece of superstition that has ever come within our knowledge," and "It is certainly a "new thing" in the history of superstition, bigotry, inconsistency, and foolishness. -- It should, and it doubtless will, be treated with the neglect it merits."[2] It was, continued the Freeman (reprinted in the Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph) "almost invariably treated as it should have been—with contempt".[3]

Other papers followed in this vein, describing the Book of Mormon as "an evidence of fraud, blasphemy and credulity," cooked up by Joseph Smith, "who, by some hocus pocus, acquired such an influence over a wealthy farmer of Wayne county, that the latter mortgaged his farm for $3000, which he paid for printing and binding 5000 copies of the blasphemous work."[4]

Critics wish to invoke the term "spirit" to associate the Book of Mormon predominantly with treasure magic

Critics wish to invoke the term "spirit" to associate the Book of Mormon predominantly with treasure magic. However, a consideration of the complete statements makes it clear that the evidence does not support this interpretation—the religious elements predominate.

For example, a second-hand account from Martin Harris reads, in part:

In the autumn of 1827...Joseph Smith...said that he had been visited by the spirit of the Almighty in a dream...[regarding a hill] containing an ancient record of divine origin....He states that after a third visit from the same spirit in a dream, he proceeded to the spot, removed earth, and there found the bible, together with a large pair of spectacles....[5]

The author obviously does not believe Joseph's story, and so characterizes his experience as "a dream," rather than a vision. But, we note that even at this very early date (1827, reported in 1829), the visit is divine: "the spirit of the Almighty," and Joseph is directed to a "bible" that is "of divine origin."

Other early accounts[6]

The Palmyra (NY) Wayne Sentinel (26 June 1829):

...much speculation has existed, concerning a pretended discovery, through superhuman means, of an ancient record, of a religious and a divine nature and origin, written in ancient characters, impossible to be interpreted by any to whom the special gift has not been imparted by inspiration. It is generally known and spoken of as the "Golden Bible."(emphasis added)

Here again, the religious character of the Book of Mormon is emphasized (even labeled a Bible), with the need for divine inspiration.

A letter from a skeptical member of Joseph's extended family shows a similar pattern—Jesse Smith to Hyrum Smith, 17 June 1829:

Once as I thot my promising Nephew, You wrote to my Father long ago, that after struggling thro various scenes of adversity, you and your family, you had at last taught the very solutary lesson that the God that made the heavens and the earth w[o]uld at onc[e] give success to your endeavours, this if true, is very well, exactly as it should be—but alas what is man when left to his own way, he makes his own gods, if a golden calf, he falls down and worships before it, and says this is my god which brought me out of the land of Vermont—if it be a gold book discovered by the necromancy of infidelity, & dug from the mines of atheism, he writes that the angel of the Lord has revealed to him the hidden treasures of wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation, which has lain in the bowels of the earth for thousands of years [and] is at last made known to him, he says he has eyes to see things that art not, and then has the audacity to say they are; and the angel of the Lord (Devil it should be) has put me in possession of great wealth, gold & silver and precious stones so that I shall have the dominion in all the land of Palmyra.(emphasis added)

Here, Jesse Smith is obviously scornful of the claims being made by Joseph. But, he clearly sees the Book of Mormon in making religious claims: even in hostility, it sees it springing from atheism and infidelity. Treasures are mentioned, but they are "hidden treasures of wisdom & knowledge." Moroni is clearly seen as an "angel of the Lord," and that the finding of the plates was "revealed" by "divine revelation."

Notes

  1. For an analysis of all these early accounts in tabular form, see Larry E. Morris, "'I Should Have an Eye Single to the Glory of God’: Joseph Smith’s Account of the Angel and the Plates (Review of: "From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism")," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 11–82. off-site . See also Mark Ashurst-McGee, "Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 34–100. [{{{url}}} off-site] wiki
  2. [J. A. Hadley], Palmyra Freeman (11August 1829); cited in part on p. 6 of John S. Welch, "Straight (Not Strait) and Narrow," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/1 (2007): 18–25. off-site wiki
  3. “Golden Bible,” Rochester Advertiser and Daily Telegraph (New York) (31 August 1829). Reprinted from Palmyra Freeman, 11 August 1829. off-site
  4. “Blasphemy–‘Book of Mormon,’ alias The Golden Bible,” Rochester Daily Advertiser (New York) (2 April 1830). off-site
  5. "Golden Bible," Rochester (NY) Gem 1 (5 September 1829): 70; cited in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:272.
  6. From Appendix A and B of Larry E. Morris, "'I Should Have an Eye Single to the Glory of God’: Joseph Smith’s Account of the Angel and the Plates (Review of: "From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism")," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 11–82. off-site