In my explorations, the first person to actually use the term pious fraud in conjunction with Mormonism was Mark Twain in Roughing It. Surprisingly, the reference was not to Joseph Smith, but to Brigham Young allegedly dressing up as Joseph Smith. This is Twain’s take on the narratives about assuming the prophetic mantle. More recently, Dan Vogel’s biography is essentially a book length defense of an earlier 1996 essay championing the pious fraud model as the most plausible solution framed by Jan Shipps in “The Prophet Puzzle:”
What we have in Mormon historiography is two Josephs: the one who started out digging for money and when he was unsuccessful, turned to propheteering, and the one who had visions and dreamed dreams, restored the church, and revealed the will of the Lord to a sinful world.
While Vogel argues that the pious fraud model can give us special insight into the mind of the prophet, the model is deficient in providing much explanation on other subjects. Richard Bushman pointed this out about Brodie’s (and by extension, I think, Vogel’s) biography in comparison to his own Rough Stone Rolling:
Many will prefer Fawn McKay Brodie’s account in No Man Knows My History. She portrayed Joseph Smith as a pious fraud who became a prophet despite perpetrating a hoax with the Book of Mormon. That does not work for me. In Brodie’s narrative. Mormon believers inevitably become simpleminded dupes. If Smith was a charlatan, everyone who followed him was deluded—including myself and all my Mormon friends. Making Joseph Smith an impostor may accord with our modern view of what is possible and impossible—no gold plates or angels, please—but it does not explain why he succeeded. Why did people then and now believe him? To understand their belief you have to get inside his world, in my opinion,and think of him as his followers did.
Pious fraud theory does a very poor job at handling the existence of the plates. However where students of Mormon history might be persuaded is in Joseph’s pre-translation activities as a village seer. Here Vogel’s thorough-going naturalism has the potential to more plausibly (in an Occam’s razor sense) explain the data in the early accounts. To paraphrase, Vogel asks us what is more plausible: believing in bleeding ghosts, slippery treasure, and seeing things underground that comes with the territory of treasure seeking folklore or simply believing that Joseph Smith deceived people into thinking he had spiritual gifts? As least one regular bloggernacle contributor (a very bright individual I might add) has embraced the latter:
Nor do I believe that God gave Joseph (and only Joseph out of the many, many treasure seers of early 19th-century New England) the power to actually see underground in his seer stones. So I’m left with some idea of Joseph the treasure seer as a fraud and a kind of backwoods con man.
The remarkable forthrightness is commendable, when so many historians merely report the substance of the treasure digging accounts and leave it up to their readers to judge their authenticity. In terms of apologetics, I think it is wise to be agnostic to things that are not part of our common experience like bleeding ghosts and slippery treasure, but I also think we need to go further and try to explain the consequences of choosing one position over another. To play Devil’s Advocate: If Joseph Smith misrepresented what he could see with his seer stone, I see no reason to tar his entire body of work. He was young and could have repented. If the data about his days as a treasure seeker are ambiguous, his religious works are not! Just about every high point in religious innovation came accompanied with profound spiritual experiences witnessed by multiple people.
It is difficult for me to advocate the pious fraud theory in such a manner. It seems to say more about a proponent author’s judgment on whether (and why) Joesph Smith lied on case by case basis (D&C 19, Zelph, polygamy denials, etc.) than it does about Joseph Smith. After polygamy and racial issues, the 3rd most common query to FAIR involves people disoriented by learning about seer stones. I think it is much more helpful to steer these individuals towards the literature that supports a prophet-in-training model as described by Mark Ashurst-McGee and to a lesser extent, Richard Bushman. As long as one doesn’t take the position that any explanation is better than the provided supernatural one, than I think this model holds up fairly well.
I actually think Joseph Smith was able to see treasure underground. He was able see the Book of Mormon in his seer stone before uncovering it. He had a reputation for being able to locate well water. He was able to read from the page of book with his back turned. He offered to beat Martin Harris in a foot race through the woods with a blindfold on and relying only on his seer stone. He located a pin Martin dropped in a pile of straw. He described what inns David Whitmer had stopped at on his 3 day journey from Fayette to Harmony. He described the homestead of Josiah Stowell from a similar distance. He located some animals that had been lost for 3 days for a neighbor and a mare for another neighbor. Stowell found a buried money at “Bend Mountain” as Joseph represented it. Joseph kept tabs on whether the plates were safe through his divining aid. Dale Broadhurst pointed out to me an account where Joseph Smith successfully used his gift as a seer to find where Judge Clark had dropped a wallet in a stream on a cross country trip. Many of these references are quoted in a message board thread I participated a few years ago on. I am aware that I am cherry picking the success accounts and not engaging in responsible source criticism.
Just to move forward, let’s take these anecdotes at face value. The question becomes how did Joseph see all of these objects obscured by distance or dirt? One model that I lack the expertise to thoroughly evaluate and hence leave for others is whether Joseph was crazy or mentally ill. The crazy model does an unsatisfactory poor job of explaining things observed by a group even when the power of suggestion, hypnotization, and propensity to hallucinate are considered.
Another model I won’t consider at length is the one used in the counter-cultists that concede that supernatural power was involved, but that it was all witchcraft and magic of the sort that the Bible strongly condemns. I think the Mormon apologetic response has been adequate in this area. Joseph Smith and many before and after him that had the gift of seeing thoroughly situated in the supernatural narratives of the Biblical good guys like Moses, Aaron, Samuel, Jesus, and the Apostles. In the Bible the presence of true wonder working prophets frequently drew competitors who duplicated miracles but drew power from false gods and evil spirits. If this paradigm has any understanding to offer, it might help explain some of Joseph’s failures as a treasure seer. Mischievous spirits could have been messing with Joseph Smith. It is not trivial that historical sources about Joseph incrementally have him learning how to discern evil spirits and the source of revelation whether it be of man, God, or the devil.
Moroni 7 is one such text that has been put into the service of the pious fraud model. Verse 16 reads in part
I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God
Looking through the lens of pious fraud. this passage might seem to suggest “the end justifies the means.” Restated, it is appropriate to lie if it brings someone closer to Christ. Such a reading, though, can at best be an ad hoc justification for something that has already occurred and produced observable pious results. It can’t be used in concocting a scheme, because the potential for disillusioned faith is immense if exposed. Whether the pious fraud is exposed or not, the impact, in general, is such that it strains the relationship the deceiver has with God. In sum, Mormon’s keys to discernment provide an interpretive framework when intent is not directly knowable. Mormonism has never embraced a strictly utilitarian philosophy if I read my Blake Ostler volumes right.
Vogel concluded an article locating numerous treasure digs by emphasizing Joseph’s failure as a treasure seer in contrast to his later success as a prophet. In some of these accounts of failure Joseph is described as reluctantly participating while being pressured to do so. Mormon apologists can comfortably admit that there were failures but some critics can’t admit to a single success despite overwhelming evidence. Vogel’s favorite story that illustrates that Joseph Smith was a pious fraud involves a friendly witness that described uncovering a feather but the treasure beneath it slipped away. Vogel considers it more plausible that Joseph planted the feather, but we have no evidence either way.
Vogel considers the failure accounts fit well within the general pattern of a charlatan in contrast to other historians have fit Joseph in the backdrop of other religiously-striving visionaries. What is interesting to me is despite having a law in the books against vagrant, defrauding seers and having over four years to build their case; Joseph’s opponents were unable to get a conviction. It seems odd that Joseph would form a profit-sharing company if he didn’t expect to find anything and he stuck around with his employer long after the initial dig was deemed a failure. If Joseph was a deceiving magician he was exceedingly bold to continue to do business in the same locale he was exposed. Perhaps Joseph didn’t read the How to be a Huckster guide very well.
I am open to suggestions how to better frame the issues or represent the arguments for or against the pious fraud model of understanding Joseph Smith and what the challenges of advocating the seer-in-training-model are.