Question: Is someone unreliable because they practiced "treasure hunting" and believed in the use of seer stones to find lost objects?

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Question: Is someone unreliable because they practiced "treasure hunting" and believed in the use of seer stones to find lost objects?

To imply that someone is unreliable simply because of things that they believed were valid is a ad hominem attack

Some of Joseph Smith's associates practiced "treasure hunting" and believed in the use of seer stones to locate lost objects. Some claim that many of these individuals believed in "second sight." Do these characteristics make these men unreliable witnesses?

Those who accuse people of being unreliable witnesses because they believed in "treasure hunting" or "second sight" are employing what is known as a "ad hominem" attack on the witnesses' character. The term "ad hominem" is defined, according to Merriam-Webster, as:

  1. appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect.
  2. marked by or being an attack on an opponent's character rather than by an answer to the contentions made.

One can see that this accusation applies both of these definitions:

  1. The terms "treasure hunter" and "second sight" are intended to evoke feelings of prejudice in the 21st-century reader. We typically reject such things as "superstition." Applying these attitudes to how we view 19th-century individuals is called "presentisim."
  2. One critic implies that, despite the fact that the witnesses never denied what they said, that "in light of their superstitions and reputations," we will somehow find their testimony to have less value. The witnesses, incidentally, had reputations for honesty. [1]

How exactly does the belief that one can locate buried treasure by means of a seer stone speak to one's character or honesty?

Some have claimed that this rebuttal is a misapplication of the ad-hominem fallacy. It's easy to claim that an ad-hominem fallacy is misapplied by invoking the fallacy fallacy, which means that an argument can still be true even if it contains a logical fallacy. Thus, even if it's an ad hominem attack, it may still be true and necessary for evaluating someone! This is a common counterclaim to make when an interlocutor accuses you of ad hominem. But let's revert to the original argument being made here. The original argument states that the witnesses are unreliable because some of them hunted for treasure occasionally. It is ad hominem to claim this and does not address the consistency of the witnesses, even when their feelings for Joseph turned sour at different points of their lives. It does not address the multiplicity of occasions when they went on record to testify, the occasions when they went our of their way to correct their testimony when misrepresented by the public press, the both tangible and revelatory nature of their experience, the witnesses other than the 11 that saw the plates and handled them, and so forth. The argument is bunk.

All Three Witnesses left the Church after disagreements with Joseph Smith, yet they never denied having seen the plates and the angel

One must also consider this: The Three Witnesses all left the Church after serious disagreements with Joseph Smith, and yet never denied that they had seen the plates and the angel, even near the end of their lives.

The fact that three different men allowed their name to be printed below a statement saying that they saw an angel, and then continued to affirm that they had seen the angel in public statements (some of them even published in newspapers) until the end of their lives, tends to tip the scale more toward "it really happened" than "it didn't happen." That's the point of a signed statement after all.

Is someone's ability to see something affected by their seeing something else?

As it regards the witnesses, the extent to which any were involved is not certain. Even among historians today, the extent to which Joseph Smith was involved is in dispute. It was originally the idea of his father to undertake the practice. It is in doubt if many of the witnesses were involved at all in treasure seeking. For instance, there is no record of the Whitmers being involved in treasure seeking and magic before the organization of the Church (Not to say that they absolutely weren't. Just that there is no evidence.)But let's think of it this way

As it regards the eight witnesses, even if all of them were treasure hunters, is their ability to see something affected by their seeing something else? It's just a silly question to imply that these eight men can't look at a physical object with their physical eyes when they looked at something else with their physical eye. According to John Whitmer, none of them ever denied seeing the physical plates with their physical eyes.

In the case of the three witnesses, some people have suggested that these men may have hallucinated their experience or only seen things with their "spiritual eyes". Aside from "spiritual eyes" being scriptural language that they were commanded to use, there has never been documented case in the history of scrying of two people hallucinating the same thing at the same time.[2]

It strains credulity to suggest that these men could do that and hold their testimony of the Book of Mormon after falling away from Joseph and the Church.

The following video introduces all witnesses, both formal and informal, to the Book of Mormon, examines several of the hardest-hitting claims against them, and demonstrates the emergent strength of their composite testimonials.


Notes

  1. Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" (original draft posted on the critical website "FutureMissionary.com") (2013)
  2. See Theodore Besterman, Crystal-gazing: a study in the history, distribution, theory and practice of scrying (London: W. Rider & son, 1924), 123. As he writes: “What is perhaps the most interesting of these miscellaneous phenomena can be best described as collective scrying, coming under the general head of simultaneous hallucination. In such a case two or more persons simultaneously see approximately the same vision in the speculum. The qualification is necessary, for in none of the best attested and detailed instances of such visions did the scryers see precisely the same vision. This forms the most puzzling of the various aspects of this puzzling matter.” The closest that someone has gotten to documenting such a case was Grant H. Palmer, Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 194. Palmer writes: "Alan Taylor, director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture, has observed that treasure-seeking groups of that era often encountered spectral apparitions and sinking treasure chests. With expectations high, a suggestion from one participant would trigger a group vision, according to his research. Taylor found that years later some of these groups, still believing their experiences were real, would not deny then and never had." Palmer is citing Alan Taylor, "The Early Republic's Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830," American Quarterly 38 (Spring 1986): 13-14. There are two issues here. First, the insinuation that the power of suggestion could explain a group vision like that of the witnesses. It's perhaps possible; but look at the elaborate circumstances Taylor describes that produce that right atmosphere: "These supernatural encounters were very "real" to those who experienced them. Childhood exposure to treasure tales and their careful performance of elaborate ceremonies at the digging site created a nervous expectation to see the extraordinary. Long hours of strenuous, nighttime digging by flickering lanterns in dark, remote, and cold locales engendered exhaustion. Adherence to strict procedures, especially the rule of silence, produced sustained tension. Finally, seekers tended to bring along a generous supply of alcohol and drank freely to fortify their nerves and warm their bodies. These circumstances developed their anxiously expectant frame of mind to the point that one participant's suggestion, or any unexpected sight or sound, could trigger a group hallucination. Subsequent, repeated narration to others rapidly confirmed, refined, and elaborated the experience." There is no evidence that the witnesses experience was anything like this. It was the middle of the day, in the summer and thus experienced no dark, cold exhaustion. There is no elaborate or strict procedures described for the witnesses experience other then their praying for the experience to occur. The instructions for the witnesses in the contemporary revelations (D&C 5, 17) are also not nearly so elaborate or convoluted. Basic instructions are given in them such as to humble oneself before the Lord and testify to what you see. Absent are injunctions to remain silent to produce suspense or anything else described by Taylor. The second key issue is the assertion by Palmer that “years later some of these groups, still believing their experiences were real, would not deny then and never had.” The evidence cited for this assertion is a 1867 chronicler’s assertion that a Mr. Savage stood by his conviction of his experiences (what exactly those are is not made clear in the article) “as long as he lived,” and could not be “ridiculed out of it.” Note, of course, that Mr. Savage is an individual, not a group. So a single person never denied his experiences (whatever they were) his entire life. The other evidence is from Martin Harris’s Tiffany’s interview. While this is Martin talking about it years later, the conversations he was reporting with money diggers were contemporary with their digging activities. We have no idea if any of the people Martin spoke to “never denied” their experiences, because there is zero follow-up with them in the historical record. These people, like Taylor describes, would have been under elaborate and stressful psychological conditions in order to produce these visions. With the witnesses to the Book of Mormon plates, we have documented testimony of their experience that we can easily examine, held up in that documentary record over a long, long period of time, and we have no evidence that they were placed in unideal psychological circumstances prior to their vision. Palmer then states in a citation: ""For a detailed description of a company of seven men who never denied that they viewed a guardian and his "glittering" metal treasure, see Daniel P. [Judge] Thompson , May Martin: Or the Money Diggers. A Green Mountain Tale (London: J. Clements Lytle, 1841, 19-22." This assertion is patently absurd by Palmer, since May Martin is a fictional novel.