Question: Was Joseph Smith's participation in "money digging" as a youth a blot on his character?

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Question: Was Joseph Smith's participation in "money digging" as a youth a blot on his character?

Money digging was a popular, common and accepted practice in their frontier culture

Joseph Smith and some members of his family participated in "money digging" or looking for buried treasure as a youth. This was a common and accepted practice in their frontier culture, though the Smiths do not seem to have been involved to the extent claimed by some of the exaggerated attacks upon them by former neighbors.

In the young Joseph Smith's time and place, "money digging" was a popular, and sometimes respected activity. When Joseph was 16, the Palmyra Herald printed such remarks.

The local newspapers reported on "money digging" activities

  • "digging for money hid in the earth is a very common thing and in this state it is even considered as honorable and profitable employment"
  • "One gentleman...digging...ten to twelve years, found a sufficient quantity of money to build him a commodious house.
  • "another...dug up...fifty thousand dollars!" [1]

And, in 1825 the Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra reported that buried treasure had been found "by the help of a mineral stone, (which becomes transparent when placed in a hat and the light excluded by the face of him who looks into it)." [2]

The Smith's attitude toward treasure digging was similar to a modern attitudes toward gambling, or buying a lottery ticket

Given the financial difficulties under which the Smith family labored, it would hardly be surprising that they might hope for such a reversal in their fortunes. Richard Bushman has compared the Smith's attitude toward treasure digging with a modern attitudes toward gambling, or buying a lottery ticket. Bushman points out that looking for treasure had little stigma attached to it among all classes in the 17th century, and continued to be respectable among the lower classes into the 18th and 19th. [3]

Despite the claims of critics, it is not clear that Joseph and his family saw their activities as "magical."

Three Concerns to Address about Joseph's digging

There are generally only a few questions that need to be addressed regarding Joseph's money-digging: his motives, his success, and the extent of his involvement. The first question is a question of what Joseph was doing while treasure seeking. Was he simply seeking to con people out of money in an easy way? The second question seems to be one of his abilities. How could he produce the Book of Mormon with something that didn't provide him any miraculous experience?

Success

With regards to his success, it is, at the very least, plausible that he could see things in the stone that were invisible to the naked eye--just not treasure. There is, in fact, no recorded instance indicating that Joseph could see and locate treasure in the stones. There is, however, evidence that he could use the stone for more righteous purposes. A few pieces of historical testimony indicate this.

  • Josiah Stowell. In the spring of 1825 Josiah Stowell visited with Joseph Smith, according to Joseph's mother Lucy, “on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.”[4] There was a Spanish gold mine that Josiah believed Joseph might be able to help locate. When Joseph was brought to court in Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York on trial for charges of being a "disorderly person", Josiah testified in Joseph's defense that he could see things in the stone. There are two records of Josiah's testimony: that of a WD Purple and a Miss Pearsall. The Purple account is quoted first and the Pearsall, second:
The next witness called was Deacon Isaiah Stowell. He confirmed all that is said above in relation to himself, and delineated many other circumstances not necessary to record. He swore that the prisoner possessed all the power he claimed, and declared he could see things fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plain as the witness could see what was on the Justices’ table, and described very many circumstances to confirm his words. Justice Neeley soberly looked at the witness, and in a solemn, dignified voice said: “Deacon Stowell, do I understand you as swearing before God, under the solemn oath you have taken, that you believe the prisoner can see by the aid of the stone fifty feet below the surface of the earth; as plainly as you can see what is on my table?” “Do I believe it?” says Deacon Stowell; “do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief: I positively know it to be true.”
Josiah Stowel [sic] sworn. Says that prisoner had been at his house something like five months. Had been employed by him to work on farm part of time; that he pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were, by means of looking through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes, – once to tell him about money buried on Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for a salt-spring, – and that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and professed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone: that he found the digging part at Bend and Monument Hill as prisoner represented it; that prisoner had looked through said stone for Deacon Attelon, for a mine – did not exactly find it, but got a piece of ore, which resembled gold, he thinks; that prisoner had told by means of this stone where a Mr. Bacon had buried money; that he and prisoner had been in search of it; that prisoner said that it was in a certain root of a stump five feet from surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail-feather; that said Stowel and prisoner thereupon commenced digging, found a tail-feather, but money was gone; that he supposed that money moved down; that prisoner did not offer his services; that he never deceived him; that prisoner looked through stone, and described Josiah Stowel’s house and out-houses while at Palmyra, at Simpson Stowel’s, correctly; that he had told about a painted tree with a man’s hand painted upon it, by means of said stone; that he had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in prisoner’s skill.

There are a few other historical evidence that can be read to demonstrate Joseph's ability to see things in the stone.

  • Martin Harris reminisced in an interview in 1859:
“I…was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw… We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him–I said, ‘Take your stone.’ … He took it and placed it in his hat–the old white hat–and place his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look to one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin.[5]

In the same interview, Martin testified to Joseph's finding of the plates by the power of the seer stone:

In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by means of this stone he first discovered these plates.
  • Henry Harris
“He [Joseph Smith] said he had a revelation from God that told him they [the Book of Mormon plates] were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit.[6]
  • A Mr. Wanderhoof reported that Joseph used his seer stone to find a stolen mare for his grandfather.[7]
  • Willard Chase and Sally Chase. As Richard Bushman has noted:
Willard Chase, one of the Smith's neighbors and a friend of Joseph's, found one of the tones. Chase let Joseph take the stone home, but as soon as it became known "what wonders he could discover by looking in it," Chase wanted it back. As late as 1830, Chase was still trying to get his hands on the stone. His younger brother Abel later told an interviewer that their sister Sally had a stone too. A nearby physician, John Stafford, reported that "the neighbors used to claim Sally Chase could look at a stone she had, and see money. Willard Chase used to dig when she found where the money was." After Joseph obtained the plates, Willard Chase led the group that searched the Smith's house, guided by Sally Chase and a "green glass, through which she could see many very wonderful things.[8]

What may be said about Joseph's abilities to see is that he could see things that allowed him to do good. He could not see that which he was not meant to see.

Motives and Extent of Involvement

It is currently[9] in debate what Joseph's motives were and how much he was involved.

Richard Bushman has written:

At present, a question remains about how involved Joseph Smith was in folk magic. Was he enthusiastically pursuing treausre seeking as a business in the 1820s, or was he a somewhat reluctnat participant, egged on by his father?[10] Was his woldview fundamentally shaped by folk traditions? I think there is substantial evidence of his reluctance, and, in my opinion, the evidence for extensive involvement is tenuous. But this is a matter of degree. No one denies that magic was there, especially iun the mid 1820s. Smith never repudiated folk traditions; he continued to use the seer stone until late in life and used it in the translation process.[11] It certainly had an influence on his outlook, but it was peripheral--not central. Biblical Christianity was the overwhelming influence in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. Folk magic was in the mix but was not the basic ingredient.[12][13]

What we do know is that after the Angel Moroni's appearance in 1823, Joseph began to turn away from treasure seeking. Again from Richard Bushman:

Joseph Jr. never repudiated the seer stones or denied their power to find treasure. Remnants of the magical culture stayed with him to the end. But after 1823, he began to orient himself away from treasure and toward translation. Martin Harris, another early supporter, remembered Joseph saying that "the angel told him he must quite the company of the money-diggers. That there were wicked men among them. He must have no more to do with them. He must not lie, nor swear, nor seal." After 1823, he continued to be involved in treasure expeditions but not as the instigator or leader; perhaps he resisted by dragging his feet. William Stafford depicts Joseph Sr. hunting for gold and going back to the house to seek further instructions from Joseph Jr., as if the son was trying to stay out of the picture while the father pushed on. In 1825, when the family needed money, Joseph Jr. agreed to help Stowell find the Spanish gold, but with misgivings. Lucy said of Stowell's operation that "Joseph endeavored to divert him from his vain pursuit." Alva hale, a son in the household where the Smiths stayed in Harmony while digging for Stowell, said Joseph Jr. told him that the "gift in seeing with a stone" was "a gift from God" but that " 'peeping' was all d—d nonsense"; he had been deceived in his treasure-seeking, but he did not intend to deceive anyone else. By this time, Joseph apparently felt that "seeing" with a sone was the work of a "seer," a religious term, while "peeping" or "glass-looking" was fraudulent.[14]

So, in summary, we may say that:

  • Joseph found a seer stone in 1822 and may have used it to look for treasure.
  • Many people believed that he could see things in the stone. There are testimonials that suggest that he could see things in the stone yet no record that he could find any treasure.
  • His motives, cosmological influences, and extent of involvement for early treasure seeking (1822-25) are still in debate. His motives for his later treasure seeking (1825-26) are to help with finances of his family.
  • Beginning in 1823, after the claimed appearance of the angel Moroni, Joseph oriented himself away from treasure seeking.
  • His scriptural and revelatory productions were largely based in Biblical Christianity. Folk magic was a peripheral ingredient to his work (and there is even explicit condemnation of magic in those scriptural productions [Alma 1:32; 3 Nephi 21:16; Mormon 1:19; 2:10; Doctrine and Covenants 63:17; Doctrine and Covenants 76:103)

For a detailed response, see: Joseph Smith/Occultism and magic

Notes

  1. Palmyra Herald (24 July 1822); cited in Russell Anderson, "The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith," (2002 FAIR Conference presentation.) FairMormon link
  2. "Wonderful Discovery," Wayne Sentinel [Palmyra, New York] (27 December 1825), page 2, col. 4. Reprinted from the Orleans Advocate of Orleans, New York; cited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 170–171.
  3. Richard L. Bushman, "Joseph Smith Miscellany," (Mesa, Arizona: FAIR, 2005 FAIR Conference) FairMormon link
  4. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his Progenitors for Many Generations (Lamoni, Iowa, 1912; republished by Herald Publishing House, 1969), 103.
  5. Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859, 163.
  6. Kirkham, A New Witness For Christ in America, 133.
  7. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 39.
  8. Willard Chase, Affidavit (1833), and Peter Ingersoll, Affidavit (1833), in MoU 238-9; Tucker, Origin, 19; Abel Chase Interview (1881), and John Stafford, Interview (1881), in EMD, 2:85, 106, 121; Caroline Rockwell Smith, Statement (1885), in EMD, 2:199; BioS, 102, 109. For another Palmyra seer stone, see Wayne Sentinel, Dec. 27, 1825
  9. Line written 17 June 2019
  10. Dan Vogel, "The Locations of Joseph Smith's Early Treasure Quests," Dialogue 27, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 91-108
  11. Susan Staker, "Secret Things, Hidden Things: The Seer Story in the Imaginative Economy of Joseph Smith," in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 235-74
  12. Mark Ashurst-McGee, "Moroni: Angel or Treasure Guardian?, Mormon Historical Studies 2, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 39-75
  13. Richard L. Bushman, "Joseph Smith and Money Digging" in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2016) 4
  14. Richard L. Bushman "Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling" (New York City, NY: Alfred Knopf Publishing, 2005) 51