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."

Joseph began to turn away from treasure digging and magic with the appearance of the angel Moroni in 1823

As noted LDS Historian Richard Bushman writes:

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.[4]

It is interesting to note this. It speaks to the fact that these experiences were very real to Joseph and that he should take them seriously. It adds a smoothness to his story and also helps us to understand Joseph's motives much more clearly.

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. Bushman, Richard L. "Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling" New York City: Alfred Knopf Publishing, 2005. Print. Pg. 51