Criticism of Mormonism/Websites/MormonThink/Translation of the Book of Mormon

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Response to MormonThink page "Translation of the Book of Mormon"



A FAIR Analysis of: MormonThink, a work by author: Anonymous
Mormonthink.chart.translation.book.of.mormon.png

Response to claims made on MormonThink page "Translation of the Book of Mormon"


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Response to claim: "Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery at the same table with the plates in full view of both of them"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

This image below was in the Oct 2006 issue of the Ensign which shows both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery at the same table with the plates in full view of both of them, which is not what is generally taught in the Church.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

This is correct. Some of the Church artwork does not reflect what is generally taught in Church. This is not limited the Church. There is much artwork that does not reflect reality, but rather the thoughts of the artist.
  1. REDIRECTAccuracy of Church art


Question: Why are people concerned about Church artwork?

As the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in some of these images

One of the strangest attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an assault on the Church's art. Now and again, one hears criticism about the representational images which the Church uses in lesson manuals and magazines to illustrate some of the foundational events of Church history.[1]

A common complaint is that Church materials usually show Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by looking at the golden plates, such as in the photo shown here.

Artist's rendition of Joseph and Oliver translating the Book of Mormon.[2]

Here critics charge a clear case of duplicity—Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith are shown translating the Book of Mormon.

But as the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in this image:

  1. Oliver Cowdery did not see the plates as Joseph worked with them.
  2. For much of the translation of the extant Book of Mormon text, Joseph did not have the plates in front of him—they were often hidden outside the home during the translation.
  3. Joseph used a seer stone to translate the plates; he usually did this by placing the stone in his hat to exclude light, and dictating to his scribe.

The reality is that the translation process, for the most part, is represented by this image:

Joseph Smith prepares to translate using the seer stone placed within his hat while Oliver Cowdery acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. (11 May 2015)

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Does Church art always reflect reality?

All art, including Church art, simply reflects the views of the artist: It may not reflect reality

Samuel the Lamanite Prophecies from the City Wall by Arnold Friberg

It is claimed by some that the Church knowingly "lies" or distorts the historical record in its artwork in order to whitewash the past, or for propaganda purposes. [3] For example, some Church sanctioned artwork shows Joseph and Oliver sitting at a table while translating with the plate in the open between them. Daniel C. Peterson provides some examples of how Church art often does not reflect reality, and how this is not evidence of deliberate lying or distortion on the part of the Church:

Look at this famous picture....Now that’s Samuel the Lamanite on a Nephite wall. Are any walls like that described in the Book of Mormon? No. You have these simple things, and they’re considered quite a technical innovation at the time of Moroni, where he digs a trench, piles the mud up, puts a palisade of logs along the top. That’s it. They’re pretty low tech. There’s nothing like this. This is Cuzco or something. But this is hundreds of years after the Book of Mormon and probably nowhere near the Book of Mormon area, and, you know, and you’ve heard me say it before, after Samuel jumps off this Nephite wall you never hear about him again. The obvious reason is....he’s dead. He couldn’t survive that jump. But again, do you draw your understanding of the Book of Mormon from that image? Or, do you draw it from what the book actually says?[4]

Question: Is the Church trying to hide something through its use of artwork?

The manner of the translation is described repeatedly in Church publications, despite the inaccurate artwork

The implication is that the Church's artistic department and/or artists are merely tools in a propaganda campaign meant to subtly and quietly obscure Church history. The suggestion is that the Church trying to "hide" how Joseph really translated the plates.

On the contrary, the manner of the translation is described repeatedly, for example, in the Church's official magazine for English-speaking adults, the Ensign. Richard Lloyd Anderson discussed the "stone in the hat" matter in 1977,[5] and Elder Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer's account to new mission presidents in 1992.[6]

The details of the translation are not certain, and the witnesses do not all agree in every particular. However, Joseph's seer stone in the hat was also discussed by, among others: B.H. Roberts in his New Witnesses for God (1895)[7] and returns somewhat to the matter in Comprehensive History of the Church (1912).[8] Other Church sources to discuss this include The Improvement Era (1939),[9] BYU Studies (1984, 1990)[10] the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1993),[11] and the FARMS Review (1994).[12] LDS authors Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler also mentioned the matter in 2000.[13]

Neal A. Maxwell: "To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark"

Elder Neal A. Maxwell went so far as to use Joseph's hat as a parable; this is hardly the act of someone trying to "hide the truth":

Jacob censured the "stiffnecked" Jews for "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4꞉14). We are looking beyond the mark today, for example, if we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than in what Jesus achieved thereon; or when we neglect Alma's words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon. To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark.[14]

Those who criticize the Church based on its artwork should perhaps take Elder Maxwell's caution to heart.

Artists have been approached by the Church in the past to paint a more accurate scene, yet denied the request for artistic vision.

From Anthony Sweat’s essay “The Gift and Power of Art”:

When I asked Walter Rane about creating an image of the translation with Joseph looking into a hat, he surprised me by telling me that the Church had actually talked to him a few times in the past about producing an image like that but that the projects fell by the wayside as other matters became more pressing. Note how Walter refers to the language of art as to why he never created the image:
At least twice I have been approached by the Church to do that scene [Joseph translating using the hat]. I get into it. When I do the draw- ings I think, “This is going to look really strange to people.” Culturally from our vantage point 200 years later it just looks odd. It probably won’t communicate what the Church wants to communicate. Instead of a person being inspired to translate ancient records it will just be, “What’s going on there?” It will divert people’s attention. In both of those cases I remember being interested and intrigued when the commission was changed (often they [the Church] will just throw out ideas that disappear, not deliberately) but I thought just maybe I should still do it [the image of Joseph translating using the hat]. But some things just don’t work visually. It’s true of a lot of stories in the scriptures. That’s why we see some of the same things being done over and over and not others; some just don’t work visually.[15]

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Why doesn't the art match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in Church publications?

The simplest answer is that artists simply don't always get such matters right

Why, then, does the art not match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in LDS publications?

The simplest answer may be that artists simply don't always get such matters right. The critics' caricature to the contrary, not every aspect of such things is "correlated." Robert J. Matthews of BYU was interviewed by the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and described the difficulties in getting art "right":

JBMS: Do you think there are things that artists could do in portraying the Book of Mormon?

RJM: Possibly. To me it would be particularly helpful if they could illustrate what scholars have done. When I was on the Correlation Committee [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], there were groups producing scripture films. They would send to us for approval the text of the words that were to be spoken. We would read the text and decide whether we liked it or not. They would never send us the artwork for clearance. But when you see the artwork, that makes all the difference in the world. It was always too late then. I decided at that point that it is so difficult to create a motion picture, or any illustration, and not convey more than should be conveyed. If you paint a man or woman, they have to have clothes on. And the minute you paint that clothing, you have said something either right or wrong. It would be a marvelous help if there were artists who could illustrate things that researchers and archaeologists had discovered…

I think people get the main thrust. But sometimes there are things that shouldn't be in pictures because we don't know how to accurately depict them…I think that unwittingly we might make mistakes if we illustrate children's materials based only on the text of the Book of Mormon.[16]

Modern audiences—especially those looking to find fault—have, in a sense, been spoiled by photography. We are accustomed to having images describe how things "really" were. We would be outraged if someone doctored a photo to change its content. This largely unconscious tendency may lead us to expect too much of artists, whose gifts and talents may lie in areas unrelated to textual criticism and the fine details of Church history.

Even this does not tell the whole story. "Every artist," said Henry Ward Beecher, "dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures."[17] This is perhaps nowhere more true than in religious art, where the goal is not so much to convey facts or historical detail, as it is to convey a religious message and sentiment. A picture often is worth a thousand words, and artists often seek to have their audience identify personally with the subject. The goal of religious art is not to alienate the viewer, but to draw him or her in.

Question: How do non-Mormon artists treat the Nativity?

A look at how other religious artists portray the birth of Christ

The critics would benefit from even a cursory tour through religious art. Let us consider, for example, one of the most well-known stories in Christendom: the Nativity of Christ. How have religious artists portrayed this scene?

BRUEGEL Le dénombrement de Bethléem.png   A personal favorite of mine is Belgian painter Pierre Bruegel the Elder. In his Census of Bethlehem (1569, shown at left) he turns Bethlehem into a Renaissance Belgian village. The snow is the first tip-off that all is not historically accurate. But the skaters on the pond, the clothing, and the houses are also all wrong. However, it's unlikely that anyone would suggest Bruegel's tribute was an attempt to perpetuate a fraud.

An Italian work from the thirteenth century gives us The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks (1275, shown at right). There were surely no monks at the Nativity, and the Dominican order was not formed until the early thirteenth century. But any serious claim that this work is merely an attempt to "back date" the order's creation, giving them more prestige would certainly be dismissed by historians, Biblical scholars, and the artistic community.   Nativity with 6 Dominicans.png

Bellini Madonna 1.png  

Renaissance Italian Madonna

Even details of no religious consequence are fair game for artists to get "wrong." Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Mary might seem innocuous enough, until one spots the European castle on the portrait's right, and the thriving Renaissance town on the left.

Non-European cultures

Other cultures follow the same pattern. Korean and Indian artists portray the birth in Bethlehem in their own culture and dress. Certainly, no one would suspect that the artists (as with Bruegel the Elder) hope we will be tricked into believing that Jesus' birth took place in a snow-drenched Korean countryside, while shepherds in Indian costume greeted a sari-wearing Mary with no need for a stable at all under the warm Indian sky?
  Korean Nativity 1.png Indian Nativity 1.png

Jesus mafa 1.png  

African example

For a final example, consider an African rendition of the Nativity, which shows the figures in traditional African forms. If we were to turn the same critical eye on this work that has been turned on LDS art, we might be outraged and troubled by what we see here. But when we set aside that hyper-literal eye, the artistic license becomes acceptable. Clearly, there's a double standard at work when it comes to LDS art.

As the director of Catholic schools in Yaounde, Cameroon argues:

It is urgent and necessary for us to proclaim and to express the message, the life and the whole person of Jesus-Christ in an African artistic language…Many people of different cultures have done it before us and will do it in the future, without betraying the historical Christ, from whom all authentic Christianity arises. We must not restrict ourselves to the historical and cultural forms of a particular people or period.[18]

The goal of religious art is primarily to convey a message. It uses the historical reality of religious events as a means, not an end.

Religious art—in all traditions—is intended, above all, to draw the worshipper into a separate world, where mundane things and events become charged with eternal import. Some dictated words or a baby in a stable become more real, more vital when they are connected recognizably to one's own world, time, and place.

This cannot happen, however, if the image's novelty provides too much of a challenge to the viewer's culture or expectations. Thus, the presentation of a more accurate view of the translation using either the Nephite interpreters (sometimes referred to as "spectacles") or the stone and the hat, automatically raises feelings among people in 21st Century culture that the translation process was strange. This type of activity is viewed with much less approval in our modern culture.

Learn more about art and Church history
Key sources
  • Anthony Sweat, "History and Art: Mediating the Rocky Relationship," Proceedings of the 2020 FAIR Conference (August 2020). link
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • David Keller, "FAIR in Religious News Service," fairblog.org (15 Feb 2008). FAIR link
Navigators


Notes

  1. Note: Most of the images used in this paper are centuries old, and so are in the public domain. I have tried to indicate the creator each of these works of art. No challenge to copyright is intended by their inclusion here for scholarly purposes and illustration. Click each photo for title and author information.
  2. Del Parson, "Translating the Book of Mormon," © Intellectual Reserve, 1997. off-site
  3. Accusations of the Church lying because of inaccurate artwork are offered by the following critical sources: Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 8. ( Index of claims ); MormonThink.com website (as of 8 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/moroniweb.htm; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) 1. ( Index of claims )
  4. Daniel C. Peterson, "Some Reflections on That Letter to a CES Director," FairMormon Conference 2014
  5. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "By the Gift and Power of God," Ensign 7 (September 1977): 83.
  6. Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign 23 (July 1993): 61.
  7. Brigham H. Roberts, "NAME," in New Witnesses for God, 3 Vols., (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909[1895, 1903]), 1:131–136.
  8. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:130–131. GospeLink
  9. Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939), ?.
  10. Dean C. Jessee, "New Documents and Mormon Beginnings," BYU Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984): 397–428.; Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990): 51–52.;
  11. Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  12. Matthew Roper, "A Black Hole That's Not So Black (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book, vol. 1 by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 156–203. off-site
  13. Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2000), commentary on D&C 9.
  14. Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988), 26.
  15. Anthony Sweat, “The Gift and Power of Art," in From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2015), 236–37.
  16. Anonymous, "A Conversation with Robert J. Matthews," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/2 (2003). [88–92] link
  17. Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, 1887.
  18. P. Pondy, "Why an African Christ?" jesusmafa.com. off-site


Question: Why are people concerned about Church artwork?

As the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in some of these images

One of the strangest attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an assault on the Church's art. Now and again, one hears criticism about the representational images which the Church uses in lesson manuals and magazines to illustrate some of the foundational events of Church history.[1]

A common complaint is that Church materials usually show Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by looking at the golden plates, such as in the photo shown here.

Artist's rendition of Joseph and Oliver translating the Book of Mormon.[2]

Here critics charge a clear case of duplicity—Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith are shown translating the Book of Mormon.

But as the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in this image:

  1. Oliver Cowdery did not see the plates as Joseph worked with them.
  2. For much of the translation of the extant Book of Mormon text, Joseph did not have the plates in front of him—they were often hidden outside the home during the translation.
  3. Joseph used a seer stone to translate the plates; he usually did this by placing the stone in his hat to exclude light, and dictating to his scribe.

The reality is that the translation process, for the most part, is represented by this image:

Joseph Smith prepares to translate using the seer stone placed within his hat while Oliver Cowdery acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. (11 May 2015)

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Does Church art always reflect reality?

All art, including Church art, simply reflects the views of the artist: It may not reflect reality

Samuel the Lamanite Prophecies from the City Wall by Arnold Friberg

It is claimed by some that the Church knowingly "lies" or distorts the historical record in its artwork in order to whitewash the past, or for propaganda purposes. [3] For example, some Church sanctioned artwork shows Joseph and Oliver sitting at a table while translating with the plate in the open between them. Daniel C. Peterson provides some examples of how Church art often does not reflect reality, and how this is not evidence of deliberate lying or distortion on the part of the Church:

Look at this famous picture....Now that’s Samuel the Lamanite on a Nephite wall. Are any walls like that described in the Book of Mormon? No. You have these simple things, and they’re considered quite a technical innovation at the time of Moroni, where he digs a trench, piles the mud up, puts a palisade of logs along the top. That’s it. They’re pretty low tech. There’s nothing like this. This is Cuzco or something. But this is hundreds of years after the Book of Mormon and probably nowhere near the Book of Mormon area, and, you know, and you’ve heard me say it before, after Samuel jumps off this Nephite wall you never hear about him again. The obvious reason is....he’s dead. He couldn’t survive that jump. But again, do you draw your understanding of the Book of Mormon from that image? Or, do you draw it from what the book actually says?[4]

Question: Is the Church trying to hide something through its use of artwork?

The manner of the translation is described repeatedly in Church publications, despite the inaccurate artwork

The implication is that the Church's artistic department and/or artists are merely tools in a propaganda campaign meant to subtly and quietly obscure Church history. The suggestion is that the Church trying to "hide" how Joseph really translated the plates.

On the contrary, the manner of the translation is described repeatedly, for example, in the Church's official magazine for English-speaking adults, the Ensign. Richard Lloyd Anderson discussed the "stone in the hat" matter in 1977,[5] and Elder Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer's account to new mission presidents in 1992.[6]

The details of the translation are not certain, and the witnesses do not all agree in every particular. However, Joseph's seer stone in the hat was also discussed by, among others: B.H. Roberts in his New Witnesses for God (1895)[7] and returns somewhat to the matter in Comprehensive History of the Church (1912).[8] Other Church sources to discuss this include The Improvement Era (1939),[9] BYU Studies (1984, 1990)[10] the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1993),[11] and the FARMS Review (1994).[12] LDS authors Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler also mentioned the matter in 2000.[13]

Neal A. Maxwell: "To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark"

Elder Neal A. Maxwell went so far as to use Joseph's hat as a parable; this is hardly the act of someone trying to "hide the truth":

Jacob censured the "stiffnecked" Jews for "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4꞉14). We are looking beyond the mark today, for example, if we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than in what Jesus achieved thereon; or when we neglect Alma's words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon. To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark.[14]

Those who criticize the Church based on its artwork should perhaps take Elder Maxwell's caution to heart.

Artists have been approached by the Church in the past to paint a more accurate scene, yet denied the request for artistic vision.

From Anthony Sweat’s essay “The Gift and Power of Art”:

When I asked Walter Rane about creating an image of the translation with Joseph looking into a hat, he surprised me by telling me that the Church had actually talked to him a few times in the past about producing an image like that but that the projects fell by the wayside as other matters became more pressing. Note how Walter refers to the language of art as to why he never created the image:
At least twice I have been approached by the Church to do that scene [Joseph translating using the hat]. I get into it. When I do the draw- ings I think, “This is going to look really strange to people.” Culturally from our vantage point 200 years later it just looks odd. It probably won’t communicate what the Church wants to communicate. Instead of a person being inspired to translate ancient records it will just be, “What’s going on there?” It will divert people’s attention. In both of those cases I remember being interested and intrigued when the commission was changed (often they [the Church] will just throw out ideas that disappear, not deliberately) but I thought just maybe I should still do it [the image of Joseph translating using the hat]. But some things just don’t work visually. It’s true of a lot of stories in the scriptures. That’s why we see some of the same things being done over and over and not others; some just don’t work visually.[15]

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Why doesn't the art match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in Church publications?

The simplest answer is that artists simply don't always get such matters right

Why, then, does the art not match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in LDS publications?

The simplest answer may be that artists simply don't always get such matters right. The critics' caricature to the contrary, not every aspect of such things is "correlated." Robert J. Matthews of BYU was interviewed by the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and described the difficulties in getting art "right":

JBMS: Do you think there are things that artists could do in portraying the Book of Mormon?

RJM: Possibly. To me it would be particularly helpful if they could illustrate what scholars have done. When I was on the Correlation Committee [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], there were groups producing scripture films. They would send to us for approval the text of the words that were to be spoken. We would read the text and decide whether we liked it or not. They would never send us the artwork for clearance. But when you see the artwork, that makes all the difference in the world. It was always too late then. I decided at that point that it is so difficult to create a motion picture, or any illustration, and not convey more than should be conveyed. If you paint a man or woman, they have to have clothes on. And the minute you paint that clothing, you have said something either right or wrong. It would be a marvelous help if there were artists who could illustrate things that researchers and archaeologists had discovered…

I think people get the main thrust. But sometimes there are things that shouldn't be in pictures because we don't know how to accurately depict them…I think that unwittingly we might make mistakes if we illustrate children's materials based only on the text of the Book of Mormon.[16]

Modern audiences—especially those looking to find fault—have, in a sense, been spoiled by photography. We are accustomed to having images describe how things "really" were. We would be outraged if someone doctored a photo to change its content. This largely unconscious tendency may lead us to expect too much of artists, whose gifts and talents may lie in areas unrelated to textual criticism and the fine details of Church history.

Even this does not tell the whole story. "Every artist," said Henry Ward Beecher, "dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures."[17] This is perhaps nowhere more true than in religious art, where the goal is not so much to convey facts or historical detail, as it is to convey a religious message and sentiment. A picture often is worth a thousand words, and artists often seek to have their audience identify personally with the subject. The goal of religious art is not to alienate the viewer, but to draw him or her in.

Question: How do non-Mormon artists treat the Nativity?

A look at how other religious artists portray the birth of Christ

The critics would benefit from even a cursory tour through religious art. Let us consider, for example, one of the most well-known stories in Christendom: the Nativity of Christ. How have religious artists portrayed this scene?

BRUEGEL Le dénombrement de Bethléem.png   A personal favorite of mine is Belgian painter Pierre Bruegel the Elder. In his Census of Bethlehem (1569, shown at left) he turns Bethlehem into a Renaissance Belgian village. The snow is the first tip-off that all is not historically accurate. But the skaters on the pond, the clothing, and the houses are also all wrong. However, it's unlikely that anyone would suggest Bruegel's tribute was an attempt to perpetuate a fraud.

An Italian work from the thirteenth century gives us The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks (1275, shown at right). There were surely no monks at the Nativity, and the Dominican order was not formed until the early thirteenth century. But any serious claim that this work is merely an attempt to "back date" the order's creation, giving them more prestige would certainly be dismissed by historians, Biblical scholars, and the artistic community.   Nativity with 6 Dominicans.png

Bellini Madonna 1.png  

Renaissance Italian Madonna

Even details of no religious consequence are fair game for artists to get "wrong." Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Mary might seem innocuous enough, until one spots the European castle on the portrait's right, and the thriving Renaissance town on the left.

Non-European cultures

Other cultures follow the same pattern. Korean and Indian artists portray the birth in Bethlehem in their own culture and dress. Certainly, no one would suspect that the artists (as with Bruegel the Elder) hope we will be tricked into believing that Jesus' birth took place in a snow-drenched Korean countryside, while shepherds in Indian costume greeted a sari-wearing Mary with no need for a stable at all under the warm Indian sky?
  Korean Nativity 1.png Indian Nativity 1.png

Jesus mafa 1.png  

African example

For a final example, consider an African rendition of the Nativity, which shows the figures in traditional African forms. If we were to turn the same critical eye on this work that has been turned on LDS art, we might be outraged and troubled by what we see here. But when we set aside that hyper-literal eye, the artistic license becomes acceptable. Clearly, there's a double standard at work when it comes to LDS art.

As the director of Catholic schools in Yaounde, Cameroon argues:

It is urgent and necessary for us to proclaim and to express the message, the life and the whole person of Jesus-Christ in an African artistic language…Many people of different cultures have done it before us and will do it in the future, without betraying the historical Christ, from whom all authentic Christianity arises. We must not restrict ourselves to the historical and cultural forms of a particular people or period.[18]

The goal of religious art is primarily to convey a message. It uses the historical reality of religious events as a means, not an end.

Religious art—in all traditions—is intended, above all, to draw the worshipper into a separate world, where mundane things and events become charged with eternal import. Some dictated words or a baby in a stable become more real, more vital when they are connected recognizably to one's own world, time, and place.

This cannot happen, however, if the image's novelty provides too much of a challenge to the viewer's culture or expectations. Thus, the presentation of a more accurate view of the translation using either the Nephite interpreters (sometimes referred to as "spectacles") or the stone and the hat, automatically raises feelings among people in 21st Century culture that the translation process was strange. This type of activity is viewed with much less approval in our modern culture.

Learn more about art and Church history
Key sources
  • Anthony Sweat, "History and Art: Mediating the Rocky Relationship," Proceedings of the 2020 FAIR Conference (August 2020). link
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • David Keller, "FAIR in Religious News Service," fairblog.org (15 Feb 2008). FAIR link
Navigators


Notes

  1. Note: Most of the images used in this paper are centuries old, and so are in the public domain. I have tried to indicate the creator each of these works of art. No challenge to copyright is intended by their inclusion here for scholarly purposes and illustration. Click each photo for title and author information.
  2. Del Parson, "Translating the Book of Mormon," © Intellectual Reserve, 1997. off-site
  3. Accusations of the Church lying because of inaccurate artwork are offered by the following critical sources: Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 8. ( Index of claims ); MormonThink.com website (as of 8 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/moroniweb.htm; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) 1. ( Index of claims )
  4. Daniel C. Peterson, "Some Reflections on That Letter to a CES Director," FairMormon Conference 2014
  5. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "By the Gift and Power of God," Ensign 7 (September 1977): 83.
  6. Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign 23 (July 1993): 61.
  7. Brigham H. Roberts, "NAME," in New Witnesses for God, 3 Vols., (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909[1895, 1903]), 1:131–136.
  8. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:130–131. GospeLink
  9. Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939), ?.
  10. Dean C. Jessee, "New Documents and Mormon Beginnings," BYU Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984): 397–428.; Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990): 51–52.;
  11. Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  12. Matthew Roper, "A Black Hole That's Not So Black (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book, vol. 1 by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 156–203. off-site
  13. Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2000), commentary on D&C 9.
  14. Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988), 26.
  15. Anthony Sweat, “The Gift and Power of Art," in From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2015), 236–37.
  16. Anonymous, "A Conversation with Robert J. Matthews," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/2 (2003). [88–92] link
  17. Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, 1887.
  18. P. Pondy, "Why an African Christ?" jesusmafa.com. off-site


Question: Why are people concerned about Church artwork?

As the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in some of these images

One of the strangest attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an assault on the Church's art. Now and again, one hears criticism about the representational images which the Church uses in lesson manuals and magazines to illustrate some of the foundational events of Church history.[1]

A common complaint is that Church materials usually show Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by looking at the golden plates, such as in the photo shown here.

Artist's rendition of Joseph and Oliver translating the Book of Mormon.[2]

Here critics charge a clear case of duplicity—Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith are shown translating the Book of Mormon.

But as the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in this image:

  1. Oliver Cowdery did not see the plates as Joseph worked with them.
  2. For much of the translation of the extant Book of Mormon text, Joseph did not have the plates in front of him—they were often hidden outside the home during the translation.
  3. Joseph used a seer stone to translate the plates; he usually did this by placing the stone in his hat to exclude light, and dictating to his scribe.

The reality is that the translation process, for the most part, is represented by this image:

Joseph Smith prepares to translate using the seer stone placed within his hat while Oliver Cowdery acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. (11 May 2015)

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Does Church art always reflect reality?

All art, including Church art, simply reflects the views of the artist: It may not reflect reality

Samuel the Lamanite Prophecies from the City Wall by Arnold Friberg

It is claimed by some that the Church knowingly "lies" or distorts the historical record in its artwork in order to whitewash the past, or for propaganda purposes. [3] For example, some Church sanctioned artwork shows Joseph and Oliver sitting at a table while translating with the plate in the open between them. Daniel C. Peterson provides some examples of how Church art often does not reflect reality, and how this is not evidence of deliberate lying or distortion on the part of the Church:

Look at this famous picture....Now that’s Samuel the Lamanite on a Nephite wall. Are any walls like that described in the Book of Mormon? No. You have these simple things, and they’re considered quite a technical innovation at the time of Moroni, where he digs a trench, piles the mud up, puts a palisade of logs along the top. That’s it. They’re pretty low tech. There’s nothing like this. This is Cuzco or something. But this is hundreds of years after the Book of Mormon and probably nowhere near the Book of Mormon area, and, you know, and you’ve heard me say it before, after Samuel jumps off this Nephite wall you never hear about him again. The obvious reason is....he’s dead. He couldn’t survive that jump. But again, do you draw your understanding of the Book of Mormon from that image? Or, do you draw it from what the book actually says?[4]

Question: Is the Church trying to hide something through its use of artwork?

The manner of the translation is described repeatedly in Church publications, despite the inaccurate artwork

The implication is that the Church's artistic department and/or artists are merely tools in a propaganda campaign meant to subtly and quietly obscure Church history. The suggestion is that the Church trying to "hide" how Joseph really translated the plates.

On the contrary, the manner of the translation is described repeatedly, for example, in the Church's official magazine for English-speaking adults, the Ensign. Richard Lloyd Anderson discussed the "stone in the hat" matter in 1977,[5] and Elder Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer's account to new mission presidents in 1992.[6]

The details of the translation are not certain, and the witnesses do not all agree in every particular. However, Joseph's seer stone in the hat was also discussed by, among others: B.H. Roberts in his New Witnesses for God (1895)[7] and returns somewhat to the matter in Comprehensive History of the Church (1912).[8] Other Church sources to discuss this include The Improvement Era (1939),[9] BYU Studies (1984, 1990)[10] the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1993),[11] and the FARMS Review (1994).[12] LDS authors Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler also mentioned the matter in 2000.[13]

Neal A. Maxwell: "To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark"

Elder Neal A. Maxwell went so far as to use Joseph's hat as a parable; this is hardly the act of someone trying to "hide the truth":

Jacob censured the "stiffnecked" Jews for "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4꞉14). We are looking beyond the mark today, for example, if we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than in what Jesus achieved thereon; or when we neglect Alma's words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon. To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark.[14]

Those who criticize the Church based on its artwork should perhaps take Elder Maxwell's caution to heart.

Artists have been approached by the Church in the past to paint a more accurate scene, yet denied the request for artistic vision.

From Anthony Sweat’s essay “The Gift and Power of Art”:

When I asked Walter Rane about creating an image of the translation with Joseph looking into a hat, he surprised me by telling me that the Church had actually talked to him a few times in the past about producing an image like that but that the projects fell by the wayside as other matters became more pressing. Note how Walter refers to the language of art as to why he never created the image:
At least twice I have been approached by the Church to do that scene [Joseph translating using the hat]. I get into it. When I do the draw- ings I think, “This is going to look really strange to people.” Culturally from our vantage point 200 years later it just looks odd. It probably won’t communicate what the Church wants to communicate. Instead of a person being inspired to translate ancient records it will just be, “What’s going on there?” It will divert people’s attention. In both of those cases I remember being interested and intrigued when the commission was changed (often they [the Church] will just throw out ideas that disappear, not deliberately) but I thought just maybe I should still do it [the image of Joseph translating using the hat]. But some things just don’t work visually. It’s true of a lot of stories in the scriptures. That’s why we see some of the same things being done over and over and not others; some just don’t work visually.[15]

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Why doesn't the art match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in Church publications?

The simplest answer is that artists simply don't always get such matters right

Why, then, does the art not match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in LDS publications?

The simplest answer may be that artists simply don't always get such matters right. The critics' caricature to the contrary, not every aspect of such things is "correlated." Robert J. Matthews of BYU was interviewed by the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and described the difficulties in getting art "right":

JBMS: Do you think there are things that artists could do in portraying the Book of Mormon?

RJM: Possibly. To me it would be particularly helpful if they could illustrate what scholars have done. When I was on the Correlation Committee [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], there were groups producing scripture films. They would send to us for approval the text of the words that were to be spoken. We would read the text and decide whether we liked it or not. They would never send us the artwork for clearance. But when you see the artwork, that makes all the difference in the world. It was always too late then. I decided at that point that it is so difficult to create a motion picture, or any illustration, and not convey more than should be conveyed. If you paint a man or woman, they have to have clothes on. And the minute you paint that clothing, you have said something either right or wrong. It would be a marvelous help if there were artists who could illustrate things that researchers and archaeologists had discovered…

I think people get the main thrust. But sometimes there are things that shouldn't be in pictures because we don't know how to accurately depict them…I think that unwittingly we might make mistakes if we illustrate children's materials based only on the text of the Book of Mormon.[16]

Modern audiences—especially those looking to find fault—have, in a sense, been spoiled by photography. We are accustomed to having images describe how things "really" were. We would be outraged if someone doctored a photo to change its content. This largely unconscious tendency may lead us to expect too much of artists, whose gifts and talents may lie in areas unrelated to textual criticism and the fine details of Church history.

Even this does not tell the whole story. "Every artist," said Henry Ward Beecher, "dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures."[17] This is perhaps nowhere more true than in religious art, where the goal is not so much to convey facts or historical detail, as it is to convey a religious message and sentiment. A picture often is worth a thousand words, and artists often seek to have their audience identify personally with the subject. The goal of religious art is not to alienate the viewer, but to draw him or her in.

Question: How do non-Mormon artists treat the Nativity?

A look at how other religious artists portray the birth of Christ

The critics would benefit from even a cursory tour through religious art. Let us consider, for example, one of the most well-known stories in Christendom: the Nativity of Christ. How have religious artists portrayed this scene?

BRUEGEL Le dénombrement de Bethléem.png   A personal favorite of mine is Belgian painter Pierre Bruegel the Elder. In his Census of Bethlehem (1569, shown at left) he turns Bethlehem into a Renaissance Belgian village. The snow is the first tip-off that all is not historically accurate. But the skaters on the pond, the clothing, and the houses are also all wrong. However, it's unlikely that anyone would suggest Bruegel's tribute was an attempt to perpetuate a fraud.

An Italian work from the thirteenth century gives us The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks (1275, shown at right). There were surely no monks at the Nativity, and the Dominican order was not formed until the early thirteenth century. But any serious claim that this work is merely an attempt to "back date" the order's creation, giving them more prestige would certainly be dismissed by historians, Biblical scholars, and the artistic community.   Nativity with 6 Dominicans.png

Bellini Madonna 1.png  

Renaissance Italian Madonna

Even details of no religious consequence are fair game for artists to get "wrong." Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Mary might seem innocuous enough, until one spots the European castle on the portrait's right, and the thriving Renaissance town on the left.

Non-European cultures

Other cultures follow the same pattern. Korean and Indian artists portray the birth in Bethlehem in their own culture and dress. Certainly, no one would suspect that the artists (as with Bruegel the Elder) hope we will be tricked into believing that Jesus' birth took place in a snow-drenched Korean countryside, while shepherds in Indian costume greeted a sari-wearing Mary with no need for a stable at all under the warm Indian sky?
  Korean Nativity 1.png Indian Nativity 1.png

Jesus mafa 1.png  

African example

For a final example, consider an African rendition of the Nativity, which shows the figures in traditional African forms. If we were to turn the same critical eye on this work that has been turned on LDS art, we might be outraged and troubled by what we see here. But when we set aside that hyper-literal eye, the artistic license becomes acceptable. Clearly, there's a double standard at work when it comes to LDS art.

As the director of Catholic schools in Yaounde, Cameroon argues:

It is urgent and necessary for us to proclaim and to express the message, the life and the whole person of Jesus-Christ in an African artistic language…Many people of different cultures have done it before us and will do it in the future, without betraying the historical Christ, from whom all authentic Christianity arises. We must not restrict ourselves to the historical and cultural forms of a particular people or period.[18]

The goal of religious art is primarily to convey a message. It uses the historical reality of religious events as a means, not an end.

Religious art—in all traditions—is intended, above all, to draw the worshipper into a separate world, where mundane things and events become charged with eternal import. Some dictated words or a baby in a stable become more real, more vital when they are connected recognizably to one's own world, time, and place.

This cannot happen, however, if the image's novelty provides too much of a challenge to the viewer's culture or expectations. Thus, the presentation of a more accurate view of the translation using either the Nephite interpreters (sometimes referred to as "spectacles") or the stone and the hat, automatically raises feelings among people in 21st Century culture that the translation process was strange. This type of activity is viewed with much less approval in our modern culture.

Learn more about art and Church history
Key sources
  • Anthony Sweat, "History and Art: Mediating the Rocky Relationship," Proceedings of the 2020 FAIR Conference (August 2020). link
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • David Keller, "FAIR in Religious News Service," fairblog.org (15 Feb 2008). FAIR link
Navigators


Notes

  1. Note: Most of the images used in this paper are centuries old, and so are in the public domain. I have tried to indicate the creator each of these works of art. No challenge to copyright is intended by their inclusion here for scholarly purposes and illustration. Click each photo for title and author information.
  2. Del Parson, "Translating the Book of Mormon," © Intellectual Reserve, 1997. off-site
  3. Accusations of the Church lying because of inaccurate artwork are offered by the following critical sources: Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 8. ( Index of claims ); MormonThink.com website (as of 8 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/moroniweb.htm; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) 1. ( Index of claims )
  4. Daniel C. Peterson, "Some Reflections on That Letter to a CES Director," FairMormon Conference 2014
  5. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "By the Gift and Power of God," Ensign 7 (September 1977): 83.
  6. Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign 23 (July 1993): 61.
  7. Brigham H. Roberts, "NAME," in New Witnesses for God, 3 Vols., (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909[1895, 1903]), 1:131–136.
  8. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:130–131. GospeLink
  9. Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939), ?.
  10. Dean C. Jessee, "New Documents and Mormon Beginnings," BYU Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984): 397–428.; Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990): 51–52.;
  11. Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  12. Matthew Roper, "A Black Hole That's Not So Black (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book, vol. 1 by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 156–203. off-site
  13. Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2000), commentary on D&C 9.
  14. Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988), 26.
  15. Anthony Sweat, “The Gift and Power of Art," in From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2015), 236–37.
  16. Anonymous, "A Conversation with Robert J. Matthews," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/2 (2003). [88–92] link
  17. Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, 1887.
  18. P. Pondy, "Why an African Christ?" jesusmafa.com. off-site


Question: Why are people concerned about Church artwork?

As the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in some of these images

One of the strangest attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an assault on the Church's art. Now and again, one hears criticism about the representational images which the Church uses in lesson manuals and magazines to illustrate some of the foundational events of Church history.[1]

A common complaint is that Church materials usually show Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by looking at the golden plates, such as in the photo shown here.

Artist's rendition of Joseph and Oliver translating the Book of Mormon.[2]

Here critics charge a clear case of duplicity—Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith are shown translating the Book of Mormon.

But as the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in this image:

  1. Oliver Cowdery did not see the plates as Joseph worked with them.
  2. For much of the translation of the extant Book of Mormon text, Joseph did not have the plates in front of him—they were often hidden outside the home during the translation.
  3. Joseph used a seer stone to translate the plates; he usually did this by placing the stone in his hat to exclude light, and dictating to his scribe.

The reality is that the translation process, for the most part, is represented by this image:

Joseph Smith prepares to translate using the seer stone placed within his hat while Oliver Cowdery acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. (11 May 2015)

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Does Church art always reflect reality?

All art, including Church art, simply reflects the views of the artist: It may not reflect reality

Samuel the Lamanite Prophecies from the City Wall by Arnold Friberg

It is claimed by some that the Church knowingly "lies" or distorts the historical record in its artwork in order to whitewash the past, or for propaganda purposes. [3] For example, some Church sanctioned artwork shows Joseph and Oliver sitting at a table while translating with the plate in the open between them. Daniel C. Peterson provides some examples of how Church art often does not reflect reality, and how this is not evidence of deliberate lying or distortion on the part of the Church:

Look at this famous picture....Now that’s Samuel the Lamanite on a Nephite wall. Are any walls like that described in the Book of Mormon? No. You have these simple things, and they’re considered quite a technical innovation at the time of Moroni, where he digs a trench, piles the mud up, puts a palisade of logs along the top. That’s it. They’re pretty low tech. There’s nothing like this. This is Cuzco or something. But this is hundreds of years after the Book of Mormon and probably nowhere near the Book of Mormon area, and, you know, and you’ve heard me say it before, after Samuel jumps off this Nephite wall you never hear about him again. The obvious reason is....he’s dead. He couldn’t survive that jump. But again, do you draw your understanding of the Book of Mormon from that image? Or, do you draw it from what the book actually says?[4]

Question: Is the Church trying to hide something through its use of artwork?

The manner of the translation is described repeatedly in Church publications, despite the inaccurate artwork

The implication is that the Church's artistic department and/or artists are merely tools in a propaganda campaign meant to subtly and quietly obscure Church history. The suggestion is that the Church trying to "hide" how Joseph really translated the plates.

On the contrary, the manner of the translation is described repeatedly, for example, in the Church's official magazine for English-speaking adults, the Ensign. Richard Lloyd Anderson discussed the "stone in the hat" matter in 1977,[5] and Elder Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer's account to new mission presidents in 1992.[6]

The details of the translation are not certain, and the witnesses do not all agree in every particular. However, Joseph's seer stone in the hat was also discussed by, among others: B.H. Roberts in his New Witnesses for God (1895)[7] and returns somewhat to the matter in Comprehensive History of the Church (1912).[8] Other Church sources to discuss this include The Improvement Era (1939),[9] BYU Studies (1984, 1990)[10] the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1993),[11] and the FARMS Review (1994).[12] LDS authors Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler also mentioned the matter in 2000.[13]

Neal A. Maxwell: "To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark"

Elder Neal A. Maxwell went so far as to use Joseph's hat as a parable; this is hardly the act of someone trying to "hide the truth":

Jacob censured the "stiffnecked" Jews for "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4꞉14). We are looking beyond the mark today, for example, if we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than in what Jesus achieved thereon; or when we neglect Alma's words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon. To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark.[14]

Those who criticize the Church based on its artwork should perhaps take Elder Maxwell's caution to heart.

Artists have been approached by the Church in the past to paint a more accurate scene, yet denied the request for artistic vision.

From Anthony Sweat’s essay “The Gift and Power of Art”:

When I asked Walter Rane about creating an image of the translation with Joseph looking into a hat, he surprised me by telling me that the Church had actually talked to him a few times in the past about producing an image like that but that the projects fell by the wayside as other matters became more pressing. Note how Walter refers to the language of art as to why he never created the image:
At least twice I have been approached by the Church to do that scene [Joseph translating using the hat]. I get into it. When I do the draw- ings I think, “This is going to look really strange to people.” Culturally from our vantage point 200 years later it just looks odd. It probably won’t communicate what the Church wants to communicate. Instead of a person being inspired to translate ancient records it will just be, “What’s going on there?” It will divert people’s attention. In both of those cases I remember being interested and intrigued when the commission was changed (often they [the Church] will just throw out ideas that disappear, not deliberately) but I thought just maybe I should still do it [the image of Joseph translating using the hat]. But some things just don’t work visually. It’s true of a lot of stories in the scriptures. That’s why we see some of the same things being done over and over and not others; some just don’t work visually.[15]

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Why doesn't the art match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in Church publications?

The simplest answer is that artists simply don't always get such matters right

Why, then, does the art not match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in LDS publications?

The simplest answer may be that artists simply don't always get such matters right. The critics' caricature to the contrary, not every aspect of such things is "correlated." Robert J. Matthews of BYU was interviewed by the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and described the difficulties in getting art "right":

JBMS: Do you think there are things that artists could do in portraying the Book of Mormon?

RJM: Possibly. To me it would be particularly helpful if they could illustrate what scholars have done. When I was on the Correlation Committee [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], there were groups producing scripture films. They would send to us for approval the text of the words that were to be spoken. We would read the text and decide whether we liked it or not. They would never send us the artwork for clearance. But when you see the artwork, that makes all the difference in the world. It was always too late then. I decided at that point that it is so difficult to create a motion picture, or any illustration, and not convey more than should be conveyed. If you paint a man or woman, they have to have clothes on. And the minute you paint that clothing, you have said something either right or wrong. It would be a marvelous help if there were artists who could illustrate things that researchers and archaeologists had discovered…

I think people get the main thrust. But sometimes there are things that shouldn't be in pictures because we don't know how to accurately depict them…I think that unwittingly we might make mistakes if we illustrate children's materials based only on the text of the Book of Mormon.[16]

Modern audiences—especially those looking to find fault—have, in a sense, been spoiled by photography. We are accustomed to having images describe how things "really" were. We would be outraged if someone doctored a photo to change its content. This largely unconscious tendency may lead us to expect too much of artists, whose gifts and talents may lie in areas unrelated to textual criticism and the fine details of Church history.

Even this does not tell the whole story. "Every artist," said Henry Ward Beecher, "dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures."[17] This is perhaps nowhere more true than in religious art, where the goal is not so much to convey facts or historical detail, as it is to convey a religious message and sentiment. A picture often is worth a thousand words, and artists often seek to have their audience identify personally with the subject. The goal of religious art is not to alienate the viewer, but to draw him or her in.

Question: How do non-Mormon artists treat the Nativity?

A look at how other religious artists portray the birth of Christ

The critics would benefit from even a cursory tour through religious art. Let us consider, for example, one of the most well-known stories in Christendom: the Nativity of Christ. How have religious artists portrayed this scene?

BRUEGEL Le dénombrement de Bethléem.png   A personal favorite of mine is Belgian painter Pierre Bruegel the Elder. In his Census of Bethlehem (1569, shown at left) he turns Bethlehem into a Renaissance Belgian village. The snow is the first tip-off that all is not historically accurate. But the skaters on the pond, the clothing, and the houses are also all wrong. However, it's unlikely that anyone would suggest Bruegel's tribute was an attempt to perpetuate a fraud.

An Italian work from the thirteenth century gives us The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks (1275, shown at right). There were surely no monks at the Nativity, and the Dominican order was not formed until the early thirteenth century. But any serious claim that this work is merely an attempt to "back date" the order's creation, giving them more prestige would certainly be dismissed by historians, Biblical scholars, and the artistic community.   Nativity with 6 Dominicans.png

Bellini Madonna 1.png  

Renaissance Italian Madonna

Even details of no religious consequence are fair game for artists to get "wrong." Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Mary might seem innocuous enough, until one spots the European castle on the portrait's right, and the thriving Renaissance town on the left.

Non-European cultures

Other cultures follow the same pattern. Korean and Indian artists portray the birth in Bethlehem in their own culture and dress. Certainly, no one would suspect that the artists (as with Bruegel the Elder) hope we will be tricked into believing that Jesus' birth took place in a snow-drenched Korean countryside, while shepherds in Indian costume greeted a sari-wearing Mary with no need for a stable at all under the warm Indian sky?
  Korean Nativity 1.png Indian Nativity 1.png

Jesus mafa 1.png  

African example

For a final example, consider an African rendition of the Nativity, which shows the figures in traditional African forms. If we were to turn the same critical eye on this work that has been turned on LDS art, we might be outraged and troubled by what we see here. But when we set aside that hyper-literal eye, the artistic license becomes acceptable. Clearly, there's a double standard at work when it comes to LDS art.

As the director of Catholic schools in Yaounde, Cameroon argues:

It is urgent and necessary for us to proclaim and to express the message, the life and the whole person of Jesus-Christ in an African artistic language…Many people of different cultures have done it before us and will do it in the future, without betraying the historical Christ, from whom all authentic Christianity arises. We must not restrict ourselves to the historical and cultural forms of a particular people or period.[18]

The goal of religious art is primarily to convey a message. It uses the historical reality of religious events as a means, not an end.

Religious art—in all traditions—is intended, above all, to draw the worshipper into a separate world, where mundane things and events become charged with eternal import. Some dictated words or a baby in a stable become more real, more vital when they are connected recognizably to one's own world, time, and place.

This cannot happen, however, if the image's novelty provides too much of a challenge to the viewer's culture or expectations. Thus, the presentation of a more accurate view of the translation using either the Nephite interpreters (sometimes referred to as "spectacles") or the stone and the hat, automatically raises feelings among people in 21st Century culture that the translation process was strange. This type of activity is viewed with much less approval in our modern culture.

Learn more about art and Church history
Key sources
  • Anthony Sweat, "History and Art: Mediating the Rocky Relationship," Proceedings of the 2020 FAIR Conference (August 2020). link
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • David Keller, "FAIR in Religious News Service," fairblog.org (15 Feb 2008). FAIR link
Navigators


Notes

  1. Note: Most of the images used in this paper are centuries old, and so are in the public domain. I have tried to indicate the creator each of these works of art. No challenge to copyright is intended by their inclusion here for scholarly purposes and illustration. Click each photo for title and author information.
  2. Del Parson, "Translating the Book of Mormon," © Intellectual Reserve, 1997. off-site
  3. Accusations of the Church lying because of inaccurate artwork are offered by the following critical sources: Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 8. ( Index of claims ); MormonThink.com website (as of 8 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/moroniweb.htm; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) 1. ( Index of claims )
  4. Daniel C. Peterson, "Some Reflections on That Letter to a CES Director," FairMormon Conference 2014
  5. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "By the Gift and Power of God," Ensign 7 (September 1977): 83.
  6. Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign 23 (July 1993): 61.
  7. Brigham H. Roberts, "NAME," in New Witnesses for God, 3 Vols., (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909[1895, 1903]), 1:131–136.
  8. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:130–131. GospeLink
  9. Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939), ?.
  10. Dean C. Jessee, "New Documents and Mormon Beginnings," BYU Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984): 397–428.; Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990): 51–52.;
  11. Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  12. Matthew Roper, "A Black Hole That's Not So Black (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book, vol. 1 by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 156–203. off-site
  13. Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2000), commentary on D&C 9.
  14. Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988), 26.
  15. Anthony Sweat, “The Gift and Power of Art," in From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2015), 236–37.
  16. Anonymous, "A Conversation with Robert J. Matthews," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/2 (2003). [88–92] link
  17. Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, 1887.
  18. P. Pondy, "Why an African Christ?" jesusmafa.com. off-site


Question: Why are people concerned about Church artwork?

As the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in some of these images

One of the strangest attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an assault on the Church's art. Now and again, one hears criticism about the representational images which the Church uses in lesson manuals and magazines to illustrate some of the foundational events of Church history.[1]

A common complaint is that Church materials usually show Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by looking at the golden plates, such as in the photo shown here.

Artist's rendition of Joseph and Oliver translating the Book of Mormon.[2]

Here critics charge a clear case of duplicity—Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith are shown translating the Book of Mormon.

But as the critics point out, there are potential historical errors in this image:

  1. Oliver Cowdery did not see the plates as Joseph worked with them.
  2. For much of the translation of the extant Book of Mormon text, Joseph did not have the plates in front of him—they were often hidden outside the home during the translation.
  3. Joseph used a seer stone to translate the plates; he usually did this by placing the stone in his hat to exclude light, and dictating to his scribe.

The reality is that the translation process, for the most part, is represented by this image:

Joseph Smith prepares to translate using the seer stone placed within his hat while Oliver Cowdery acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. (11 May 2015)

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Does Church art always reflect reality?

All art, including Church art, simply reflects the views of the artist: It may not reflect reality

Samuel the Lamanite Prophecies from the City Wall by Arnold Friberg

It is claimed by some that the Church knowingly "lies" or distorts the historical record in its artwork in order to whitewash the past, or for propaganda purposes. [3] For example, some Church sanctioned artwork shows Joseph and Oliver sitting at a table while translating with the plate in the open between them. Daniel C. Peterson provides some examples of how Church art often does not reflect reality, and how this is not evidence of deliberate lying or distortion on the part of the Church:

Look at this famous picture....Now that’s Samuel the Lamanite on a Nephite wall. Are any walls like that described in the Book of Mormon? No. You have these simple things, and they’re considered quite a technical innovation at the time of Moroni, where he digs a trench, piles the mud up, puts a palisade of logs along the top. That’s it. They’re pretty low tech. There’s nothing like this. This is Cuzco or something. But this is hundreds of years after the Book of Mormon and probably nowhere near the Book of Mormon area, and, you know, and you’ve heard me say it before, after Samuel jumps off this Nephite wall you never hear about him again. The obvious reason is....he’s dead. He couldn’t survive that jump. But again, do you draw your understanding of the Book of Mormon from that image? Or, do you draw it from what the book actually says?[4]

Question: Is the Church trying to hide something through its use of artwork?

The manner of the translation is described repeatedly in Church publications, despite the inaccurate artwork

The implication is that the Church's artistic department and/or artists are merely tools in a propaganda campaign meant to subtly and quietly obscure Church history. The suggestion is that the Church trying to "hide" how Joseph really translated the plates.

On the contrary, the manner of the translation is described repeatedly, for example, in the Church's official magazine for English-speaking adults, the Ensign. Richard Lloyd Anderson discussed the "stone in the hat" matter in 1977,[5] and Elder Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer's account to new mission presidents in 1992.[6]

The details of the translation are not certain, and the witnesses do not all agree in every particular. However, Joseph's seer stone in the hat was also discussed by, among others: B.H. Roberts in his New Witnesses for God (1895)[7] and returns somewhat to the matter in Comprehensive History of the Church (1912).[8] Other Church sources to discuss this include The Improvement Era (1939),[9] BYU Studies (1984, 1990)[10] the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1993),[11] and the FARMS Review (1994).[12] LDS authors Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler also mentioned the matter in 2000.[13]

Neal A. Maxwell: "To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark"

Elder Neal A. Maxwell went so far as to use Joseph's hat as a parable; this is hardly the act of someone trying to "hide the truth":

Jacob censured the "stiffnecked" Jews for "looking beyond the mark" (Jacob 4꞉14). We are looking beyond the mark today, for example, if we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than in what Jesus achieved thereon; or when we neglect Alma's words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon. To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark.[14]

Those who criticize the Church based on its artwork should perhaps take Elder Maxwell's caution to heart.

Artists have been approached by the Church in the past to paint a more accurate scene, yet denied the request for artistic vision.

From Anthony Sweat’s essay “The Gift and Power of Art”:

When I asked Walter Rane about creating an image of the translation with Joseph looking into a hat, he surprised me by telling me that the Church had actually talked to him a few times in the past about producing an image like that but that the projects fell by the wayside as other matters became more pressing. Note how Walter refers to the language of art as to why he never created the image:
At least twice I have been approached by the Church to do that scene [Joseph translating using the hat]. I get into it. When I do the draw- ings I think, “This is going to look really strange to people.” Culturally from our vantage point 200 years later it just looks odd. It probably won’t communicate what the Church wants to communicate. Instead of a person being inspired to translate ancient records it will just be, “What’s going on there?” It will divert people’s attention. In both of those cases I remember being interested and intrigued when the commission was changed (often they [the Church] will just throw out ideas that disappear, not deliberately) but I thought just maybe I should still do it [the image of Joseph translating using the hat]. But some things just don’t work visually. It’s true of a lot of stories in the scriptures. That’s why we see some of the same things being done over and over and not others; some just don’t work visually.[15]

Anthony Sweat explains more about the history of artistic depictions of the Book of Mormon translation in this presentation given at the 2020 FAIR Conference

Question: Why doesn't the art match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in Church publications?

The simplest answer is that artists simply don't always get such matters right

Why, then, does the art not match details which have been repeatedly spelled out in LDS publications?

The simplest answer may be that artists simply don't always get such matters right. The critics' caricature to the contrary, not every aspect of such things is "correlated." Robert J. Matthews of BYU was interviewed by the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and described the difficulties in getting art "right":

JBMS: Do you think there are things that artists could do in portraying the Book of Mormon?

RJM: Possibly. To me it would be particularly helpful if they could illustrate what scholars have done. When I was on the Correlation Committee [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], there were groups producing scripture films. They would send to us for approval the text of the words that were to be spoken. We would read the text and decide whether we liked it or not. They would never send us the artwork for clearance. But when you see the artwork, that makes all the difference in the world. It was always too late then. I decided at that point that it is so difficult to create a motion picture, or any illustration, and not convey more than should be conveyed. If you paint a man or woman, they have to have clothes on. And the minute you paint that clothing, you have said something either right or wrong. It would be a marvelous help if there were artists who could illustrate things that researchers and archaeologists had discovered…

I think people get the main thrust. But sometimes there are things that shouldn't be in pictures because we don't know how to accurately depict them…I think that unwittingly we might make mistakes if we illustrate children's materials based only on the text of the Book of Mormon.[16]

Modern audiences—especially those looking to find fault—have, in a sense, been spoiled by photography. We are accustomed to having images describe how things "really" were. We would be outraged if someone doctored a photo to change its content. This largely unconscious tendency may lead us to expect too much of artists, whose gifts and talents may lie in areas unrelated to textual criticism and the fine details of Church history.

Even this does not tell the whole story. "Every artist," said Henry Ward Beecher, "dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures."[17] This is perhaps nowhere more true than in religious art, where the goal is not so much to convey facts or historical detail, as it is to convey a religious message and sentiment. A picture often is worth a thousand words, and artists often seek to have their audience identify personally with the subject. The goal of religious art is not to alienate the viewer, but to draw him or her in.

Question: How do non-Mormon artists treat the Nativity?

A look at how other religious artists portray the birth of Christ

The critics would benefit from even a cursory tour through religious art. Let us consider, for example, one of the most well-known stories in Christendom: the Nativity of Christ. How have religious artists portrayed this scene?

BRUEGEL Le dénombrement de Bethléem.png   A personal favorite of mine is Belgian painter Pierre Bruegel the Elder. In his Census of Bethlehem (1569, shown at left) he turns Bethlehem into a Renaissance Belgian village. The snow is the first tip-off that all is not historically accurate. But the skaters on the pond, the clothing, and the houses are also all wrong. However, it's unlikely that anyone would suggest Bruegel's tribute was an attempt to perpetuate a fraud.

An Italian work from the thirteenth century gives us The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks (1275, shown at right). There were surely no monks at the Nativity, and the Dominican order was not formed until the early thirteenth century. But any serious claim that this work is merely an attempt to "back date" the order's creation, giving them more prestige would certainly be dismissed by historians, Biblical scholars, and the artistic community.   Nativity with 6 Dominicans.png

Bellini Madonna 1.png  

Renaissance Italian Madonna

Even details of no religious consequence are fair game for artists to get "wrong." Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Mary might seem innocuous enough, until one spots the European castle on the portrait's right, and the thriving Renaissance town on the left.

Non-European cultures

Other cultures follow the same pattern. Korean and Indian artists portray the birth in Bethlehem in their own culture and dress. Certainly, no one would suspect that the artists (as with Bruegel the Elder) hope we will be tricked into believing that Jesus' birth took place in a snow-drenched Korean countryside, while shepherds in Indian costume greeted a sari-wearing Mary with no need for a stable at all under the warm Indian sky?
  Korean Nativity 1.png Indian Nativity 1.png

Jesus mafa 1.png  

African example

For a final example, consider an African rendition of the Nativity, which shows the figures in traditional African forms. If we were to turn the same critical eye on this work that has been turned on LDS art, we might be outraged and troubled by what we see here. But when we set aside that hyper-literal eye, the artistic license becomes acceptable. Clearly, there's a double standard at work when it comes to LDS art.

As the director of Catholic schools in Yaounde, Cameroon argues:

It is urgent and necessary for us to proclaim and to express the message, the life and the whole person of Jesus-Christ in an African artistic language…Many people of different cultures have done it before us and will do it in the future, without betraying the historical Christ, from whom all authentic Christianity arises. We must not restrict ourselves to the historical and cultural forms of a particular people or period.[18]

The goal of religious art is primarily to convey a message. It uses the historical reality of religious events as a means, not an end.

Religious art—in all traditions—is intended, above all, to draw the worshipper into a separate world, where mundane things and events become charged with eternal import. Some dictated words or a baby in a stable become more real, more vital when they are connected recognizably to one's own world, time, and place.

This cannot happen, however, if the image's novelty provides too much of a challenge to the viewer's culture or expectations. Thus, the presentation of a more accurate view of the translation using either the Nephite interpreters (sometimes referred to as "spectacles") or the stone and the hat, automatically raises feelings among people in 21st Century culture that the translation process was strange. This type of activity is viewed with much less approval in our modern culture.

Learn more about art and Church history
Key sources
  • Anthony Sweat, "History and Art: Mediating the Rocky Relationship," Proceedings of the 2020 FAIR Conference (August 2020). link
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • David Keller, "FAIR in Religious News Service," fairblog.org (15 Feb 2008). FAIR link
Navigators


Notes

  1. Note: Most of the images used in this paper are centuries old, and so are in the public domain. I have tried to indicate the creator each of these works of art. No challenge to copyright is intended by their inclusion here for scholarly purposes and illustration. Click each photo for title and author information.
  2. Del Parson, "Translating the Book of Mormon," © Intellectual Reserve, 1997. off-site
  3. Accusations of the Church lying because of inaccurate artwork are offered by the following critical sources: Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 8. ( Index of claims ); MormonThink.com website (as of 8 May 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/moroniweb.htm; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002) 1. ( Index of claims )
  4. Daniel C. Peterson, "Some Reflections on That Letter to a CES Director," FairMormon Conference 2014
  5. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "By the Gift and Power of God," Ensign 7 (September 1977): 83.
  6. Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign 23 (July 1993): 61.
  7. Brigham H. Roberts, "NAME," in New Witnesses for God, 3 Vols., (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909[1895, 1903]), 1:131–136.
  8. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:130–131. GospeLink
  9. Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939), ?.
  10. Dean C. Jessee, "New Documents and Mormon Beginnings," BYU Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984): 397–428.; Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990): 51–52.;
  11. Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  12. Matthew Roper, "A Black Hole That's Not So Black (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book, vol. 1 by Jerald and Sandra Tanner)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 156–203. off-site
  13. Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2000), commentary on D&C 9.
  14. Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1988), 26.
  15. Anthony Sweat, “The Gift and Power of Art," in From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2015), 236–37.
  16. Anonymous, "A Conversation with Robert J. Matthews," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/2 (2003). [88–92] link
  17. Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit, 1887.
  18. P. Pondy, "Why an African Christ?" jesusmafa.com. off-site

Response to claim: "he only said that he did it by the 'gift and power of God'"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

When Joseph was asked how exactly he translated the Book of Mormon, he never gave any details, he only said that he did it by the "gift and power of God." In a general conference of the Church in October 1831, in Orange, Ohio, Hyrum Smith asked his brother, Joseph, to give details of the BOM translation method. Joseph replied that "it was not expedient for him to tell more than had already been told about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and it was not well that any greater details be provided."

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

This is correct. Joseph never talked of the details of the translation process. We only have this information second-hand through witnesses to the translation process.


Question: How exactly did Joseph Smith translate the gold plates?

Joseph Smith only stated that he translated the Book of Mormon by the "gift and power of God"

All that we know for certain is that Joseph translated the record "by the gift and power of God." (D&C 135:3) We are given some insight into the spiritual aspect of the translation process, when the Lord says to Oliver Cowdery:

"But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right." (D&C 9:8)

Beyond this, the Church does not take any sort of official stand on the exact method by which the Book of Mormon translation occurred. Joseph Smith himself never recorded the precise physical details of the method of translation:

"Brother Joseph Smith, Jun., said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; and also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things"[1]

It is important to remember that what we do know for certain is that the translation of the Book of Mormon was carried out "by the gift and power of God." These are the only words that Joseph Smith himself used to describe the translation process.


Gospel Topics: "According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words"

Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

[T]he scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument. The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”[2]


Russell M. Nelson: "The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights"

Russell M. Nelson:

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote: “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)[3]


Marcus B. Nash: "This was dictated, word by word, as he looked into instruments the Lord prepared for him, using a hat to shield his eyes from extraneous light"

Marcus B. Nash:

This was not a composition. This was dictated, word by word, as he looked into instruments the Lord prepared for him, using a hat to shield his eyes from extraneous light in order to plainly see the words as they appeared. Contrary to one who translates with the use of a dictionary, as it were, the translation was revelation flowing to him from heaven, and written by scribes (with the inevitable scrivener errors). [4]—(Click here to continue)


Nicholson: "This essay focuses primarily on the methods and instruments used in the translation process and how a faithful Latter-day Saint might view these as further evidence of truthfulness of the restored Gospel"

Roger Nicholson:

This essay seeks to examine the Book of Mormon translation method from the perspective of a regular, nonscholarly, believing member in the twenty-first century, by taking into account both what is learned in Church and what can be learned from historical records that are now easily available. What do we know? What should we know? How can a believing Latter-day Saint reconcile apparently conflicting accounts of the translation process? An examination of the historical sources is used to provide us with a fuller and more complete understanding of the complexity that exists in the early events of the Restoration. These accounts come from both believing and nonbelieving sources, and some skepticism ought to be employed in choosing to accept some of the interpretations offered by some of these sources as fact. However, an examination of these sources provides a larger picture, and the answers to these questions provide an enlightening look into Church history and the evolution of the translation story. This essay focuses primarily on the methods and instruments used in the translation process and how a faithful Latter-day Saint might view these as further evidence of truthfulness of the restored Gospel.[5]—(Click here to continue)


Gardner: "What we will be looking at is the idea that this whole concept of the seer stone working...it’s stone that becomes the trigger that allows the seer to do what the seer does"

Brant Gardner:

A seer stone is a rock. We have seer stones. The church still has them, I’ve seen them. At one point in time I remember going on the temple square and going through the museum there and I saw one and I looked at it and I saw a rock. I didn’t see the translation, I didn’t see anything else I saw a rock. I can pretty much guarantee you that the vast majority of us as we would look at that rock would see, a rock. That does not mean that something isn’t working because they were looking at the rock and that’s what we have to look at. What we will be looking at is the idea that this whole concept of the seer stone working “It’s the seer that’s working,” and it’s stone that becomes the trigger that allows the seer to do what the seer does. So that’s kind of step one and we will talk about how that happens.[6]—(Click here to continue)


Response to claim: "Was Joseph Smith not a money digger? Yes, but it was not a very profitable job for him"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

Most LDS are somewhat aware that Joseph Smith did some treasure seeking in his younger days. A following statement is sometimes quoted in church. This comes from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.120: "Q: 'Was Joseph Smith not a money digger?' 'Yes, but it was not a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.'" This is usually the only thing said at church regarding his treasure-seeking past.
....
What is particularly noteworthy about this incident is the timing of the charges. These documents indicate that Joseph was involved in treasure seeking with a seer stone for profit after he received the First Vision but before he translated the Book of Mormon. How likely is it that the chosen prophet of the restoration would engage in such activities after conversing with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as well as the Angel Moroni? Would he really be doing such activities a year before he dug up the golden plates, after he had met with the angel Moroni for each of the prior three years?

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

Joseph did perform treasure seeking after receiving the First Vision. In fact, there is one account that indicates that the First Vision was the even during which Joseph Smith received the ability to "see" after Jesus Christ touched his eyes. However, the authors try to influence the reader after presenting this fact by asking "how likely" it was that one who had seen God would perform such an activity, implying that the activity was somehow performed fraudulently.
  1. REDIRECTJoseph Smith and money digging#Was Joseph Smith's participation in "money digging" as a youth a blot on his character?

Response to claims made on MormonThink page "Translation of the Book of Mormon"


Jump to details:

  1. REDIRECTJoseph Smith and money digging#Did Joseph Smith "retrofit" his "treasure seeking" to have a religious explanation?

Source:Appleby:Mormonism Consistent:If Mr. Smith dug for money he considered it was a more honorable way of getting it than taking it from the widow and orphan

Response to claim: "In March 1826, the twenty-year-old Joseph Smith was arrested and brought before South Bainbridge justice of the peace"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

In March 1826, the twenty-year-old Joseph Smith was arrested and brought before South Bainbridge justice of the peace Albert Neely under the charge of being a "disorderly person and an impostor." This event stemmed from his employment as a treasure seer (or scryer) for Josiah Stowell and others the previous five months. Joseph was employed by Josiah Stowel to find hidden treasures in the ground by gazing into a stone. He led his employer to believe that he could find buried treasure by looking into a stone placed in a hat. Joseph paid $2.68 for the offense. The judge may have let him go if he agreed to leave the state because of his age.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

It is a fact that relatives of Josiah Stowell had Joseph brought before a judge and accused him of being a disorderly person and an imposter. However, the authors stated that Joseph "paid $2.68 for the offense," implying that this was a fine imposed by the judge. It was not a fine, and Joseph was not convicted of anything during this hearing. The $2.68 bill from the judge was simply a fee for the work he performed. The authors then speculate that the judge "may have let him go if he agreed to leave the state because of his age," without acknowledging that the judge did not find reason to detain him and simply released him.
  1. REDIRECTJoseph Smith's 1826 trial#What is Joseph Smith's 1826 South Bainbridge "trial" for "glasslooking"?
  2. REDIRECTJoseph Smith's 1826 trial#What events resulted in Joseph Smith's 1826 court appearance in South Bainbridge?
  3. REDIRECTJoseph Smith's 1826 trial#''Ensign'' (June 1994): "'''Highlights in the Prophet’s Life''' 20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a "disorderly person," South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York
Articles about Joseph Smith
Highlights in the Prophet’s Life 20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a “disorderly person,” South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York. New York law defined a disorderly person as, among other things, a vagrant or a seeker of “lost goods.” The Prophet had been accused of both: the first charge was false and was made simply to cause trouble; Joseph’s use of a seer stone to see things that others could not see with the naked eye brought the second charge. Those who brought the charges were apparently concerned that Joseph might bilk his employer, Josiah Stowell, out of some money. Mr. Stowell’s testimony clearly said this was not so and that he trusted Joseph Smith.

—Anonymous, "Highlights in the Prophet’s Life," Ensign (Jun 1994): 24. off-site
∗       ∗       ∗


What is Joseph Smith's 1826 South Bainbridge "trial" for "glasslooking"?

Joseph Smith appeared at a pre-trial court hearing in 1826 for "glasslooking"

In 1825 Josiah Stowel sought out the young Joseph Smith, who had a reputation for being able to use his seer stone to locate lost objects, to help him to locate an ancient silver mine. After a few weeks of work, Joseph persuaded Stowel to give up the effort. In 1826, some of Stowel's relatives brought Joseph to court and accused him of "glasslooking" and being a "disorderly person." Several witnesses testified at the hearing.

Joseph was released without being fined or otherwise punished - there was no verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty" because this was only a hearing rather than a trial

Joseph was ultimately released without being fined and had no punishment imposed upon him. Years later, a bill from the judge was discovered which billed for court services.

Gordon Madsen summarized:

"The evidence thus far available about the 1826 trial before Justice Neely leads to the inescapable conclusion that Joseph Smith was acquitted." [7]

A review of all the relevant documents demonstrates that:

  1. The court hearing of 1826 was not a trial, it was an examination
  2. The hearing was likely initiated from religious concerns; i.e. people objected to Joseph's religious claims.
  3. There were seven witnesses.
  4. The witnesses' testimonies have not all been transmitted faithfully.
  5. Most witnesses testified that Joseph did possess a gift of sight

The court hearing was likely initiated by Stowel's relatives as a concern that he was having too much influence on Stowel

It was likely that the court hearing was initiated not so much from a concern about Joseph being a money digger, as concern that Joseph was having an influence on Josiah Stowel. Josiah Stowel was one of the first believers in Joseph Smith. His nephew was probably very concerned about that and was anxious to disrupt their relationship if possible. He did not succeed. The court hearing failed in its purpose, and was only resurrected decades later to accuse Joseph Smith of different crimes to a different people and culture.

Understanding the context of the case removes any threat it may have posed to Joseph's prophetic integrity.

What events resulted in Joseph Smith's 1826 court appearance in South Bainbridge?

Josiah Stowell requested Joseph Smith's help in locating an ancient silver mine

In the spring of 1825 Josiah Stowell visited with Joseph Smith "on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye." [8] Josiah Stowell wanted Joseph to help him in his quest to find treasure in an ancient silver mine. Joseph was reluctant, but Stowell persuaded Joseph to come by offering high wages. According to trial documents, Stowell says Joseph, using a seer stone, "Looked through stone and described Josiah Stowell's house and out houses, while at Palmyra at Sampson Stowell's correctly, that he had told about a painted tree with a man's hand painted upon it by means of said stone." [9]

Joseph ultimately persuaded Stowell to give up looking for the mine

Joseph and his father traveled to southern New York in November of 1825. This was after the crops were harvested and Joseph had finished his visit to the Hill Cumorah that year. They participated with Stowell and the company of workers in digging for the mine for less than a month. Finally Joseph persuaded him to stop. "After laboring for the old gentleman about a month, without success, Joseph prevailed upon him to cease his operations." [10]

Joseph continued to work in the area for Stowell and others. He boarded at the home of Isaac Hale and met Emma Hale, who was one "treasure" he got out of the enterprise.

The following year, Stowell's sons or nephew (depending on which account you follow) brought charges against Joseph and he was taken before Justice Neely

In March of the next year, Stowell's sons or nephew (depending on which account you follow) brought charges against Joseph and he was taken before Justice Neely. The supposed trial record came from Miss Pearsall. "The record of the examination was torn from Neely's docket book by his niece, Emily Persall, and taken to Utah when she went to serve as a missionary under Episcopalian bishop Daniel S. Tuttle." [11] This will be identified as the Pearsall account although Neely possessed it after her death. It is interesting that the first published version of this record didn't appear until after Miss Pearsall had died.

Stowell's relatives felt that Joseph was exercising "unlimited control" over their father or uncle

William D. Purple took notes at the trial and tells us, "In February, 1826, the sons of Mr. Stowell, ...were greatly incensed against Smith, ...saw that the youthful seer had unlimited control over the illusions of their sire... They caused the arrest of Smith as a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood." [12]

Whereas the Pearsall account says: "Warrant issued upon oath of Peter G. Bridgman, [Josiah Stowell's nephew] who informed that one Joseph Smith of Bainbridge was a disorderly person and an imposter...brought before court March 20, 1826" [13]

So, we have what has been called "The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith", even though the records show that this wasn't actually a trial. For many years LDS scholars Francis Kirkham, Hugh Nibley and others expressed serious doubts that such a trial had even taken place.

Why was Joseph fined if he wasn't found guilty of anything?

Joseph was never fined - the bills from Judge Neely and Constable DeZeng were for court costs

The court did not assess a fine against Joseph. There were bills made out by Judge Neely and Constable DeZeng, but these were for costs. Those bills were directed to the County for payment of witnesses, etc., not to Joseph.

Ensign (June 1994): "Highlights in the Prophet’s Life 20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a "disorderly person," South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York

Ensign (June 1994):

Highlights in the Prophet’s Life 20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a "disorderly person," South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York. New York law defined a disorderly person as, among other things, a vagrant or a seeker of "lost goods." The Prophet had been accused of both: the first charge was false and was made simply to cause trouble; Joseph’s use of a seer stone to see things that others could not see with the naked eye brought the second charge. Those who brought the charges were apparently concerned that Joseph might bilk his employer, Josiah Stowell, out of some money. Mr. Stowell’s testimony clearly said this was not so and that he trusted Joseph Smith. [14]

Didn't Hugh Nibley claim that a record of this trial would be "the most damning evidence in existence" against Joseph Smith?

Nibley felt that the "court record" didn't seem to be correct

Hugh Nibley had serious doubts as to whether or not Joseph Smith was actually brought to trial in 1826, and he felt that the only real trial was in 1830. For the most part, Nibley felt that the "court record" didn't seem to be correct. The following quote is taken from Nibley's book "The Myth Makers:"

"if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith."

Why are the 1971 discoveries important?

It was easy to cast doubt on the reality of the 1826 hearing until the bills from Judge Albert Neely and Constable Philip De Zeng were found in 1971. These documents were removed from their purported site of discovery by Dr. Wesley Walters, a well-known anti-Mormon author.

Walters wrote, "Because the two 1826 bills had not only suffered from dampness, but had severe water damage as well, Mr. Poffarl hand-carried the documents to the Yale University's Beinecke Library, which has one of the best document preservation centers in the country." [15] The problem with this action is, once you have removed a document from a historical setting and then try to restore it to the same setting, you can't prove that you have not altered the document.

The actions of Walters and Poffarl compromised the documents. By having the documents removed and only returned under threat of a lawsuit by the County, it opened the possibility that they could be forged documents. They are generally considered to be authentic.

Nibley's real point at issue is not whether or not there was a trial, but whether or not a record existed proving Joseph guilty of deceit

Since Wesley Walters has found some bills related to the trial, the critics now claim that the case is proven and that Nibley has proven their case for them. Nothing is further from the truth. First of all you need to look at the whole quote. Nibley was chastising Tuttle for not actually using the trial record that he had. He was questioning why he would do that if it was so important.

"You knew its immense value as a weapon against Joseph Smith if its authenticity could be established. And the only way to establish authenticity was to get hold of the record book from which the pages had been purportedly torn. After all, you had only Miss Pearsall's word for it that the book ever existed. Why didn't you immediately send he back to find the book or make every effort to get hold of I? Why didn't you "unearth" it, as they later said you did? . . . The authenticity of the record still rests entirely on the confidential testimony of Miss Pearsall to the Bishop. And who was Miss Pearsall? A zealous old maid, apparently: "a woman helper in our mission," who lived right in the Tuttle home and would do anything to assist her superior. The picture I get is that of a gossipy old housekeeper. If this court record is authentic, it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith. Why, then, [speaking to Tuttle] was it not republished in your article in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge after 1891? . . . in 1906 Bishop Tuttle published his Reminiscences of a Missionary Bishop in which he blasts the Mormons as hotly as ever. . . yet in the final summary of his life's experiences he never mentions the story of the court record - his one claim to immortal fame and the gratitude of the human race if it were true!" (Nibley "The Myth Makers", 246)

The Pearsall account, which has never been produced, claims that the defendant was found guilty. The real point at issue is not whether or not there was a trial, but whether or not a record existed proving Joseph guilty of deceit. A document proving such guilt has not been found.

What did critics of the Church during Joseph Smith's lifetime think of the 1826 court hearing?

Critics of Joseph Smith's time ignored the 1826 court hearing

Critics of Joseph Smith's time ignored the 1826 court hearing:

  1. They didn't bring it up in another trial in the same area in 1830.
  2. It was not mentioned in any of the affidavits collected by Hurlbut in 1833, even though he was diligently looking for every piece of dirt he could find.
  3. Although the trial was briefly mentioned in 1831, it was not mentioned again in a published record for 46 years.

The attraction of this event for a later generation of critics, however, lies in the fact that:

  • Society had changed
  • Seer Stones were no longer acceptable
  • Treasure digging was considered abnormal
  • Spiritual gifts were reinterpreted as manifestations of the occult

Many people of the 1800s did not see any differences between what later generations would label as "magic" and religiously-driven activities recorded in the Bible

Many people of the 1800s did not see any differences between what later generations would label as "magic" and religiously-driven activities recorded in the Bible—such as Joseph's silver cup (see Genesis 44:2,5) in which 'he divineth' (which was also practiced by the surrounding pagans and referred to as hydromancy),[16] or the rod of Aaron and its divinely-driven power (Exodus 7:9-12).

The Bible records that Jacob used rods to cause Laban's cattle to produce spotted, and speckled offspring (see Genesis 30:37-39) — one can only imagine what the critics would say should Joseph Smith have attempted such a thing!

In Joseph Smith's own day other Christian leaders were involved in practices which today's critics would call 'occultic'

In Joseph Smith's own day other Christian leaders were involved in practices which today's critics would call 'occultic.' Quinn, for instance, observes that in "1825, a Massachusetts magazine noted with approval that a local clergyman used a forked divining rod.... Similarly, a Methodist minister wrote twenty-three years later that a fellow clergymen in New Jersey had used a divining rod up to the 1830s to locate buried treasure and the 'spirits [that] keep guard over buried coin'...." [17]

Activities of the early 1800s or Biblical times which later generations would view skeptically were simply thought of as part of how the world worked

It is important to realize that every statement about "magic" or the "occult" by LDS authors is a negative one. Joseph and his contemporaries would likely have shocked and dismayed to be charged with practicing "magic." For them, such beliefs were simply how the world worked. Someone might make use of a compass without understanding the principles of magnetism. This mysterious, but apparently effective, device was useful even if its underlying mechanism was not understood. In a similar way, activities of the early 1800s or Biblical times which later generations would view skeptically were simply thought of as part of how the world worked.

But, it is a huge leap from this realization to charging that Joseph and his followers believed they were drawing power from anything but a divine or proper source.

What are the details of Joseph Smith's 1826 "trial" for "glasslooking"?

What records of the court hearing exist?

We have five records of the 1826 hearing. These were published in eight documents.

1. Apr. 9, 1831 - A W. Benton in Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate
2.Oct. 1835 - Oliver Cowdery in Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate
3.1842 letter from Joel K. Noble (not published until 1977)
4.Record torn from Judge Neely docket book by Miss Emily Pearsall (niece)

  • Feb. 1873 - Charles Marshall publishes in Frazer's Magazine (London)
  • Apr. 1873 - Frazer's article reprinted in Eclectic Magazine (N.Y.)
  • 1883 - Tuttle article in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
  • Jan. 1886 - Christian Advocate vol. 2, no. 13 (Salt Lake City, UT)

5. May 3, 1877 - W. D. Purple Chenango Union

It may be that Purple saw the publication in the Eclectic Magazine and that is why he published his account a few years later. There are no complete overlaps in the accounts; we will look at the similarities and differences.

Finally, we have the bills by Judge Neely and Constable Da Zeng which provide some additional useful details.

Document provenance

We don't have the actual record that Miss Pearsall had, but the claimed trail of events leads as follows:

  1. Miss Pearsall tears the record from the docket book of her uncle Judge Neely
  2. She takes the record with her to Utah when she went to work with Bishop Tuttle.
  3. Miss Pearsall dies in 1872.
  4. Charles Marshall copies the record and has it published in Frazer's Magazine in 1873.
  5. Ownership falls to Tuttle after Miss Pearsall's death
  6. Tuttle published in 1883 Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia.
  7. Tuttle gave it to the Methodists who published it in 1886
  8. Then the record was lost.

It will be noticed with interest, that although Bishop Tuttle and others had access to the Pearsall account for several years it was not published until after her death. That combined with the fact that the torn leaves were never allowed to be examined, would cast some doubt on the completeness or accuracy of that which was published.

Do we have a court record?

We know that the supposed "court record" obtained by Miss Pearsall can't be a court record at all.

  1. Misdemeanor trials were not recorded, only felony trials.
  2. No witness signatures—they were required in an official record.
  3. It appears to be a pretrial hearing.
  4. Pretrial hearings cannot deliver guilty verdicts.

Why were the various records made?

This is the reason that the people stated for why they were putting forth this information.

  1. Benton: more complete history of their founder
  2. Cowdery: private character of our brother
  3. Noble: explain the character of the Mormons
  4. Marshal: preserve a piece of information about the prophet
  5. Purple: as a precursor of the advent of the wonder of the age, Mormonism
  6. Tuttle: [to show] In what light he appeared to others
  7. Judge Neely: to collect fees

Unsurprisingly, those who provided these accounts had an agenda. We are not looking at an event through the eyes of an unbiased observer, and most of that bias is directed against Joseph Smith.

Who brought the charges?

If we look at the individuals bringing the charges, we have the following: Benton (1831): The Public Cowdery (1835): very officious person Noble (1842): Civil authority Marshall (1873): Peter G. Bridgman Purple (1877): sons of Mr. Stowell Tuttle (1883): Peter G. Bridgman Judge Neely: The Public

Note that the agreement of Marshall and Tuttle is misleading because they are essentially quoting the same source.

Whether it was Josiah Stowell's sons or his nephew Peter G. Bridgman, it seems to be close family members. We don't know why Peter G. Bridgman brought the charges, but it could easily have been because he was worried that his uncle was accepting Joseph Smith in his religious claims. Josiah did join the church organized by Joseph Smith and stayed faithful his whole life. As for Peter Bridgman, "Within a month after the trial he was licensed as an exhorter by the Methodists and within three years had helped establish the West Bainbridge Methodist Church. Upon his death in 1872 his fellow ministers characterized him as 'an ardent Methodist and any attack upon either the doctrines or the polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, within his field of labor, was sure to be repelled by him with a vigorous hand." [18]

Is it possible that the trial of Joseph Smith was just one of his first attempts to apply a "vigorous hand?"

What was the charge against Joseph Smith?

The charge is listed in the various accounts as:

  1. Benton (1831): a disorderly person
  2. Cowdery (1835): a disorderly person
  3. Noble (1842): under the Vagrant act
  4. Marshall (1873): a disorderly person and an imposter
  5. Purple (1877): a vagrant, without visible means of livelihood
  6. Tuttle (1882): a disorderly person and an imposter
  7. Judge Neely: a misdemeanor

Hugh Nibley indicated how it would be strange that he could be charged without visible means of livelihood, since he was being employed by Stowell and others.

The portion of the statute that would seem to apply was enacted by New York in 1813.

...all persons who not having wherewith to maintain themselves, live idle without employment, and also all persons who go about from door to door, or place themselves in the streets, highways or passages, to beg in the cities or towns where they respectively dwell, and all jugglers, and all persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science, or pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found; ... shall be deemed and adjudged disorderly persons.

What is a juggler? It used to be that a person skilled in sleight of hand was called a juggler, whereas today we would call them a "sleight of hand magician." Thus, a "juggler" was a con man; someone using his 'stage magic' talents to defraud. [19]

But what if you weren't pretending to discover lost goods? What if you actually had a gift where you "could discern things invisible to the natural eye" Could you then be judged guilty of this statute?

How many witnesses testified?

As far as the number of witnesses we have the following:

  1. Benton (1831): not mentioned
  2. Cowdery (1835): not mentioned
  3. Marshall (1873): Five quoted, charges for seven witnesses
  4. Tuttle (1882): Six
  5. Purple (1877): Four
  6. Constable Philip De Zeng: Twelve

What is particularly interesting here is that Tuttle and Marshall are supposedly quoting from the same document. Marshall only quotes 5 witnesses, but at the end, the charges are listed for seven witnesses. The fee was 12-1/2 cents per witness. Eighty-seven and ½ cents divided by twelve ½ cents per witness, gives us seven witnesses. By combining the Purple and Pearsall accounts we can arrive at seven witnesses, and also a motive for not including all the witnesses or letting the record be examined. It is unknown why the constable would have listed twelve witnesses, unless that is the number he summoned to the proceedings. Seven would seem to be the correct number of those that testified.

What witness is excluded from some accounts?

Purple does add a witness that hadn't been included by Marshall or Tuttle: Joseph Smith, Sr. Maybe they didn't want to include the testimony of Joseph's father because his testimony was more religious in nature. He spoke of Joseph's "wonderful triumphs as a seer", that "both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre," and "he trusted that the Son of Righteousness would some day illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him." It is easy to see why this testimony wouldn't be included in a record where you are trying to show that Joseph Smith was a person trying to acquire work as a money digger. Which might be the reason the Tuttle and Marshall omitted the Joseph Smith Sr. testimony.

What verdict was brought against Joseph?

  1. Benton: tried and condemned ... designedly allowed to escape
  2. Cowdery: honorably acquitted
  3. Noble: was condemned, took leg bail
  4. Marshall: guilty?
  5. Tuttle: guilty?
  6. Purple: discharged
  7. Constable De Zeng: not a trial

Noble's statement is hearsay, since there is no evidence that he actually attended this trial. Furthermore, his statement and Benton's statement can't be taken as an indication that Joseph was judged guilty. For example, in Joseph's 1830 trial he was acquitted. The court said that they "find nothing to condemn you, and therefore you are discharged." Then Mr Reid testifies, "They then proceeded to reprimand him severely, not because anything derogatory to his character in any shape had been proven against him by the host of witnesses that had testified during the trial." [20]

The verdict indicated by Marshall and Tuttle is questionable. It seems to be appended as an afterthought. Throughout the document Joseph is referred to as the "prisoner", then after the last testimony, we have one sentence in which he is named a defendant, "And thereupon the Court finds the defendant guilty." Here we have suddenly a declaratory statement that is completely out of character with the rest of the Pearsall document. Also, if this were actually a trial, Joseph wouldn't have testified against himself as the first witness.

The examination was not a trial

Wesley P. Walters has demonstrated that this is not a trial. The Constable's charges of "19 cents attached to the mittimus marks it as the pre-trial 'commitment for want of bail' ...and not the post-trial 'warrant of commitment, on conviction, twenty-five cents." [21]

In the Tanners' anti-Mormon Salt Lake City Messenger, they stated, "Wesley P. Walters had convincingly demonstrated to us that we were dealing with 'an examination.' In a New Conductor Generalis, 1819, page 142, we learn that in an 'examination' the accused is not put under oath but that the witnesses are'" [22]

In all cases but one the witnesses were "sworn", whereas Joseph was examined. Judge Neeley's charges actually uses that precise terminology, "in examination of above cause". Therefore, since this wasn't a trial, one cannot have a guilty verdict.

Summary of testimony

  • Joseph Smith, Jr.: In the Purple account he tells about finding his stone and he exhibits his stone. In the Pearsall record it talks about how Stowell came and got Joseph, "had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school;" He informed Stowell where to find treasures, and buried coins and that he did it for the previous three years. But Joseph did not solicit and declined having anything to do with the business.
  • Joseph Smith Sr.: This testimony is only in the Purple account. We discussed earlier how he felt this power showed that Joseph was a seer and that Joseph Sr. was mortified by the use of the sacred power and that he hoped that eventually it would get used correctly. Since this testimony puts Joseph in a positive light it is understandable why it wasn't included in the published versions of the Pearsall account.
  • Josiah Stowell: His employer's testimony in the Purple account has Josiah say that Joseph could see 50 feet below the surface, described many circumstances to confirm his words. He said, "do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief: I positively know it to be true."
We go to the Pearsall record, for a slightly different account of the Josiah Stowell testimony. It tells how Joseph "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;" Josiah tells about Joseph's being employed part time. It also contains the part that "he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and professed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone." He talked about finding something for Deacon Attelon that looked like gold ore. Josiah talked about Mr. Bacon burying some money and that Joseph described how there was a feather buried with the money. They found the feather but the money was gone. Josiah said that he "had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in prisoner's skill."

Stowell joined the Church in 1830, and died in full fellowship, planning to join the Saints "in Zion."[23]

  • Horace Stowell: This testimony is only found in the Neely record. It is a short testimony that describes where a chest of dollars was buried in Winchester County and that Joseph marked the size of the chest with leaves on the ground.
  • Arad Stowell: This witness went to see Joseph and wanted Joseph to display his skill. He laid out a book on a cloth. While holding a white stone to a candle, he read the book. Arad said that he was disappointed and went away because to him it was obviously a deception, but he doesn't tell us why he thought it was a deception. It would have been nice if he had told us why he thought that. Was it just that he had his mind made up before he went to see Joseph?

There are only three testimonies that are duplicated in both the Purple and Pearsall accounts. They are Joseph Smith, Josiah Stowel and Jonathan Thompson. In the Purple account Thompson said that he could not remember finding anything of value. He stated that Joseph claimed there was a treasure protected by sacrifice and that they had to be armed by fasting and prayer. They struck the treasure with a shovel. One man placed his hand on the treasure, but it gradually sunk out of reach. Joseph believed there was a lack of faith or devotion that caused the failure. They talked about getting the blood from a lamb and sprinkling it around.

Interestingly, the same witness in the Pearsall record says that Joseph indicated where the treasure was. He looked in the hat and told them how it was situated. An Indian had been killed and buried with the treasure. So this detail matches with the Purple account. The treasure kept settling away. Then Joseph talked about salt that could be found in Bainbridge and described money that Thompson had lost 16 years ago. Joseph described the man that had taken it and what happened to the money. There is nothing mentioned about sacrificing sheep or not having sufficient faith and so forth. The Pearsall record is supposedly a more complete written record, but it doesn't have the bleeding sheep, or fasting and prayer that characterizes the Purple account.

What happened to Josiah Stowell? Did he conclude he had been defrauded after the court hearing?

Stowell joined the Church and died in full fellowship

One biographical encyclopedia noted:

Josiah Stowell (sometimes spelled Stoal) was born in Winchester, New Hampshire, 22 March 1770, and later resided at his farm on the Susquehanna River, about 3.2 miles southwest of the village of South Bainbridge (now Afton). This village was part of the township of Bainbridge (now Afton), Chenango County, New York. In October 1825 Stowell was engaged in digging for reported Spanish treasure in the Ouaquaga (Ouaquagua) Mountains of Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Hearing that Joseph Smith Jr. of Manchester, Ontario County, New York, had the ability to "discern things invisible to the natural eye," Mr. Stowell visited Joseph and employed him.

The men lodged at the home of Isaac Hale in Harmony. According to Hale, they dug from early November to about 17 November 1825, when successive failures caused them to withdraw to the Stowell farm. While at the Hale home, Joseph Smith had met Isaac's daughter, Emma. He continued to court her while he was employed in New York by Josiah Stowell and Joseph Knight Sr. After Joseph and Emma were married at South Bainbridge on 18 January 1827, Stowell gave the newlyweds a ride to Manchester, where they resided with Joseph's parents.

Stowell and Knight were both houseguests of the Smiths at Manchester on 21-22 September 1827, when Joseph Smith went to the Hill Cumorah and obtained the gold plates from Moroni. Stowell joined the Church in 1830 but did not go west with the Saints when they moved to Ohio in 1831. Josiah Stowell continued to express his belief in the Prophet and the Book of Mormon as indicated in a letter written by his son, Josiah Stowell Jr., to John S. Fullmer in February 1843. He also dictated a letter to the Prophet in Nauvoo on 19 December 1843 and told him of his desire "to come to Zion the next season"; however, conditions prevented his doing so. Josiah Stowell died in Smithboro, Tioga County, New York, on May 12, 1844. He is buried in the Smithboro Cemetery.[24]

Was Joseph Smith found guilty of being a "con man" in 1826?

Claims about Joseph being found guilty of being a "con man" in court usually revolve around either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Joseph's 1826 court hearing

Claims that Joseph was a "juggler," or "conjurer" were a common 19th century method of dismissing his prophetic claims via ad hominem. Modern-day claims about him being found to be a "con man" are simply the same attack with updated language, usually bolstered by a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Joseph's 1826 court hearing.

Joseph's tendency to assume the best of others, even to his own repeated detriment, also argues for his sincerity. One might legitimately claim that Joseph was mistaken about his prophetic claims, but it will not do to claim that he was cynically, knowingly deceiving others for his own gain.

Claims about Joseph being found guilty of being a "con man" in court usually revolve around either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Joseph's 1826 court hearing:

Main article:1826 trial for "glasslooking"

Even if one rejects Joseph's claims to divine revelation or special abilities, his conduct still does not match that of a "con man"

  • Con men seek out their marks; Joseph was approached for his help by those who had heard about him
  • Con men travel from place to place, staying one step ahead of the law while defrauding their marks; Joseph was known locally and remained in his local area

Brant Gardner noted:

One very subtle but very important aspect of all of the dealings of the village seers is their relationship with their clients. The true cunning men and wise women were fixtures in the community. They received clients; they did not seek them out. In the cases reported about Sally Chase, her clients came to her. We have four descriptions of Joseph as this kind of village seer; and in each case, the client came to him with his problem....[T]hose who were searching for treasure invited the adept, but the cunning man or wise woman did not actively seek their employ.[25]

Broader character traits that argue against the "con-man hypothesis"

When Joseph's career is examined more broadly, there are other factors which argue for his sincerity. Arguably one character trait which gave Joseph repeated trouble was his willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt. His striking ability to accept people at face value, never doubting that their motives were as pure as his own, has many exemplars. The case of W.W. Phelps is one.

Phelps had betrayed Joseph and the Church during the Missouri persecutions, and contributed to Joseph's confinement in Liberty Jail. His signature was on the petition that resulted in the extermination order which led to the Saints' murder and dispossession. After receiving a penitent letter from Phelps, Joseph quickly responded

I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you… I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me… when we read your letter—truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves… It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior… we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God's dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ…

Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal…

"Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last."[26]

So it was that Joseph, while willing to do almost anything―from taking up arms, to petitioning presidents, to launching a campaign of disinformation―to protect the revealed Restoration and the Latter-day Saints, repeatedly opened himself to abuse and worse because of his apparent inability or unwillingness to think the worst of someone in advance of the evidence. Joseph assumed that all men were as purely motivated as he was. "It takes a con to know a con," and Joseph wasn’t a con.[27] If he had been cynically exploiting others, he would have tended to ascribe his own base motives of deception and taking advantage to others, and probably would have been more cautious. But, he did not. Elder B.H. Roberts, a seventy and historian, noted years later that:

[Joseph Smith had] a too implicit trust in [men's] protestations of repentance when overtaken in their sins; a too great tenacity in friendship for men he had once taken into his confidence after they had been proven unworthy of the friendship.…[28]

A prime example of this phenomenon is the case of John C. Bennett. Soon after Bennett's baptism in Nauvoo, Joseph received a letter reporting Bennett's abandonment of wife and children. Joseph knew from personal experience that "it is no uncommon thing for good men to be evil spoken against,"[29] and did nothing precipitous. The accusations against Bennett gained credence when Joseph learned of his attempts to persuade a young woman "that he intended to marry her." Joseph dispatched Hyrum Smith and William Law to make inquiries, and in early July 1841 he learned that Bennett had a wife and children living in the east. Non-LDS sources confirmed Bennett's infidelity: one noted that he "heard it from almost every person in town that [his wife] left him in consequence of his ill treatment of her home and his intimacy with other women." Another source reported that Bennett's wife "declared that she could no longer live with him…it would be the seventh family that he had parted during their union."[30]

When confronted with the evidence privately, Bennett confessed and promised to reform. He did not, though Joseph did not make his sins public until nearly a year later.[31]

See also:John C. Bennett

Other examples of misplaced trust include George M. Hinckle, who sold Joseph out to the Missouri militia (resulting in his near-execution and his imprisonment in Liberty Jail) and William Law, who would help publish the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper which called for Joseph's death and contributed to the martyrdom.

Learn more about Joseph Smith: character
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • Don Bradley, "Knowing Brother Joseph: How the Historical Record Demonstrates the Prophet’s Religious Sincerity," Proceedings of the 2023 FAIR Conference (August 2023). link
  • Gregory Smith, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)," Proceedings of the 2009 FAIR Conference (August 2009). link
Online
  • Brian C. Hales and Gregory L. Smith, "A Response to Grant Palmer's 'Sexual Allegations against Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Polygamy in Nauvoo'," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12/8 (10 October 2014). [183–236] link
Video
  • "Joseph Smith and fraud allegations," BH Roberts Foundation print-link.
Navigators

Source(s) of the criticism—Joseph found guilty of being "a con man"?
Critical sources
Early works that label Joseph a "juggler" or "conjurer"
  • “A hungry lean-faced villain,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 3d series, no. 7 (30 June 1830): xxx. off-site [citation needed]
  • Rev. John Shearer, letter of 18 November 1830; reproduced in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 4:92-93.
  • “Gold Bible, No. 5,” The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 2, no. 14 (28 February 1831): ??. off-site [citation needed]
  • A.W.B. [Abraham W. Benton], “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2/15 (Utica, New York) (9 April 1831): 1.
    "Although [Joseph] constantly failed in his pretensions, still he had his dupes who put implicit confidence in all his words....It is reported, and probably true, that he commenced his juggling by stealing and hiding property belonging to his neighbors, and when inquiry was made, he would look in his wone (his gift and power) and tell where it was."
  • Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 16. (Affidavits examined)

Later works that use the modern terms "con man," "confidence man," or "con game"

  • Harry M. Beardsley, Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931), 43.
  • Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials," Westminster Theological Journal 36/2 (Winter 1974): 141.
  • Wesley P. Walters, "From Occult to Cult With Joseph Smith, Jr.," Journal of Pastoral Practice 1/2 (Summer 1977): 122.
  • Kenneth H. Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty : Mormons in America, 1830–1846 (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 82, see also index. ISBN 0807818291
  • David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon (2nd edition), (McFarland & Company, October 2000), 37 ( Index of claims )
  • Craig Criddle, "Sidney Rigdon:Creating the Book of Mormon," e-paper, sidneyrigdon.com (originally published 8 October 2005; revised 15 Mar 2009), sec 2., part 6.
  • Dale R. Broadhurst, "Joseph Smith: Nineteenth Century Con Man?" sidneyrigdon.com (web paper, accessed 12 November 2010).

Source(s) of the criticism—Joseph's 1826 trial
Critical sources

Notes

  1. History of the Church, 1:220. Volume 1 link
  2. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013).
  3. Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign (July 1993).
  4. Marcus B. Nash, "‘Out of Weakness He Shall Be Made Strong’", 70th Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Devotional (history.lds.org) (3 June 2013).
  5. Roger Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5:121-190 (7 June 2013).
  6. Brant Gardner, "The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011).
  7. Gordon A. Madsen, "Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting," Brigham Young University Studies 30 no. 2 (1990), 106.
  8. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 103.
  9. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 4:252–253.
  10. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 103.
  11. H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (Salt Lake City, Utah: Smith Research Associates [distributed by Signature Books], 1994), 227.
  12. Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959[1942]), 1:479. ASIN B000HMY138.
  13. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 4:248–249..
  14. Anonymous, "Highlights in the Prophet’s Life," Ensign (Jun 1994): 24. off-site
  15. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 153.
  16. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 30 ( Index of claims )
  17. Quinn, 5
  18. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 141–142.
  19. Note too D. Michael Quinn's efforts to distort the clear meaning of this statute as discussed in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]. See also FairMormon Answers link here.
  20. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:211. GospeLink
  21. Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith's Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials," The Westminster Theological Journal 36:2 (1974), 140, note 36.
  22. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger 68 (July 1988): 9.
  23. Larry C. Porter, "Stowell, Josiah," in Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History, edited by Donald Q. Cannon, Richard O. Cowan, Arnold K. Garr (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co., 2000).
  24. Larry C. Porter, "Stowell, Josiah," in Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History, edited by Donald Q. Cannon, Richard O. Cowan, Arnold K. Garr (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co., 2000).
  25. Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 82.
  26. Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, "Dear Brother Phelps, 22 July 1840, Nauvoo, Illinois; cited in History of the Church, [citation needed]:162-164. [citation needed]/1.html&A={{{start}}} Volume [citation needed] link
  27. On the evident sincerity of Joseph in his personal writings, see Paul H. Peterson, "Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 109–110.
  28. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965). GospeLink
  29. "To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to All the Honorable Part of the Community," Times and Seasons 3 no. 17 (1 July 1842), 839. off-site GospeLink
  30. History of the Church, 5:35-37. Volume 5 link
  31. For more details, see a discussion of the entire complex Bennett period here in PDF.
  1. REDIRECTJoseph Smith's 1826 trial#Why was Joseph fined if he wasn't found guilty of anything?

Response to claim: "Joseph never found any treasure for the men that hired him to find treasure using his seer stones"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

Critic's Comment: Joseph never found any treasure for the men that hired him to find treasure using his seer stones. However, he was able to convince them he had the ability by describing things on Josiah Stowel's property such as his house, outhouses and a painted tree. Obviously, he could have found out about these things without having special abilities. Also, it's very easy to plant a tail feather to prove he could 'see' distant things in his stone. When it came to treasure, he would always seem to have an excuse as to why they couldn't find the treasure even though he saw it in his stone. Often Joseph would say that the treasure kept sinking further into the ground as they dug or that the spirits of dead Indians were guarding the treasure and wouldn't let anyone have it.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

This is speculation. If Joseph never found anything, then why did people keep wanting to hire him?


Articles about Joseph Smith

What is the distinction between belief in "folk magic" and a religious belief in the supernatural?

The use of the terms "magic" and "occult" are prejudicial, loaded terminology

When critics use the term "magic" or "occult," they are using prejudicial, loaded terminology. Used in a neutral sense, magic might mean only that a person believes in the supernatural, and believes that supernatural can be influenced for the believer's benefit.

However, critics are generally not clear about what definition of magic they are using, and how to distinguish a "magical" belief in the supernatural from a "religious" belief in the supernatural.[1] Scholars of magic and religion have, in fact, come to realize that defining "magic" is probably a hopeless task. John Gee noted:

Defining "magic" as "religious beliefs other than their own"

In 1990, Cambridge University published Stanley Tambiah's Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality, which showed that the definitions of many of the most important writers on "magic" were heavily influenced both by their backgrounds and their personal ideological agendas: they defined "magic" as religious beliefs other than their own. In 1992, the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Magic in the Ancient World failed to come to any agreement on what "magic" was. The plenary speaker, Jonathan Z. Smith, in particular voiced strong opinions:

I see little merit in continuing the use of the substantive term "magic" in second-order, theoretical, academic discourse. We have better and more precise scholarly taxa for each of the phenomena commonly denoted by "magic" which, among other benefits, create more useful categories for comparison. For any culture I am familiar with, we can trade places between the corpus of materials conventionally labeled "magical" and corpora designated by other generic terms (e.g., healing, divining, execrative) with no cognitive loss. Indeed, there would be a gain.[2]

The use of the term "magic" is a negative label for modern Christians

The use of the term "magic" imposes, especially for modern Christians, a negative label at the outset, which explains its popularity for critics. As Professor of Egyptology Robert K. Ritner explained:

Modern Western terms for 'magic' function primarily as designations for that which we as a society do not accept, and which has overtones of the supernatural or the demonic (but not of the divine). It is important to stress that this pejorative connotation has not been grafted onto the notion of magic as the result of any recent theoretical fancy but is inherent in Western terminology virtually from its beginning. It constitutes the essential core of the Western concept of magic.[3]

The Book of Mormon condemns "magic"

Moroni's visit was a turning point for Joseph, for it is important to note that the Book of Mormon itself condemns "magic" whenever it is mentioned:

And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land, even unto the fulfilling of all the words of Abinadi, and also Samuel the Lamanite. Mormon 1꞉19

Regardless of Joseph's or his family's previous opinions regarding folk magic prior to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, they clearly always believed in and had faith in God. Joseph believed that instruments such as the Urim and Thummim and his seer stone were consecrated by God for their intended use.

Were Joseph Smith's spiritual experiences originally products of magic and the occult?

Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects

It is a known fact that Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects.[4] Brant Gardner notes,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society.

Joseph's family shared folk magic beliefs that were common to the day. Joseph's mother, Lucy, felt it important to note in her history that the family did not let these magical endeavors prevent the family from doing the necessary work to survive:

But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.[5]

Joseph's involvement with Josiah Stowell's attempt to locate a lost Spanish treasure is well documented in Church history

Stowell requested Joseph's assistance in a mining operation looking for old coins and precious metals. This effort, in fact, resulted in charges being brought against Joseph by Stowell's relatives for being a "glasslooker" in 1826. Joseph was ultimately charged with being a "disorderly person" and released. (For more detailed information, see: Joseph Smith's 1826 glasslooking trial)

Some, however, believe that all of Joseph's early spiritual experiences, particularly the First Vision and the visit of Moroni, were originally magical or occult experiences that were only later couched in spiritual terms. For example, the Hurlbut affidavits relate stories of Moroni's visit that cast the angel in the role of spiritual treasure guardian, with one (Willard Chase) even claiming that the angel appeared in the form of a toad.

D. Michael Quinn has been the most prolific author on the subject of "magic" influences on the origins of Mormonism. According to William Hamblin:

Quinn's overall thesis is that Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saint leaders were fundamentally influenced by occult and magical thought, books, and practices in the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is unmitigated nonsense. Yet the fact that Quinn could not discover a single primary source written by Latter-day Saints that makes any positive statement about magic is hardly dissuasive to a historian of Quinn's inventive capacity.[6]

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power. And, they may have had some ideas about how to access that power that now strike us as inaccurate and even strange. This is not surprising, given the two centuries and massive scientific advances which separate our culture from theirs. However, there is no evidence that Joseph and others considered these things to be "magic," or the "occult," nor did they consider "magic" or the "occult" to be positive things.

What were the attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic"?

The attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic" was always negative

In 1841, Wilford Woodruff recounted an episode of Church disciplinary action:

The President then brought up the case of a Br Moumford, who was holding the office of a Priest, from whome fellowship had been withdrawn by the council of officers in consequence of his practizing fortune Telling, Magic, Black art &c & called upon Elders Woodruff & Cordon to express their feelings upon the subject when Elder Woodruff arose, & spoke Briefly upon the subject, & informed the assembly that we had no such custom or practice in the Church, & that we should not fellowship any individual who Practiced Magic fortune Telling, Black art &c for it was not of God. When It was moved & carried by the whole church that fellowship be withdrawn from Br Moumford.[7]

And, most importantly, the Book of Mormon's treatment of "magic" or "sorcery" is always negative, which seems strange if (as we are asked to believe by the critics) Joseph Smith concocted it while at the same time embracing that same "magic."

Joseph Smith locates a seer stone while digging a well. Image copyright (c) 2016 by Anthony Sweat.

How did Joseph Smith use his seer stones as a youth?

Joseph as the village seer: the use of the seer stone prior to the Restoration

Brant Gardner clarifies the role that Joseph and his stone played within the community of Palmyra,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society. He exhibited a talent parallel to others in similar communities. Even in Palmyra he was not unique. In D. Michael Quinn's words: "Until the Book of Mormon thrust young Smith into prominence, Palmyra's most notable seer was Sally Chase, who used a greenish-colored stone. William Stafford also had a seer stone, and Joshua Stafford had a 'peepstone which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center.'" Richard Bushman adds Chauncy Hart, and an unnamed man in Susquehanna County, both of whom had stones with which they found lost objects.[8]

During his tenure as a "village seer," Joseph acquired several seer stones. Joseph first used a neighbor's seer stone (probably that belonging to Palmyra seer Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby's foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822.[9]

The second seer stone was reportedly found while digging a well on the property of William Chase in 1822

Joseph then used this first stone to find a second stone (a white one). The second seer stone was reportedly found on the property of William Chase in 1822 as Chase described it:

In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me.... After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.... The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but I would lend it.[10]


Did Joseph Smith place his seer stone in his hat while looking for lost objects?

Martin Harris recounted that Joseph could find lost objects with one of his seer stones

Martin Harris recounted that Joseph could find lost objects with the second, white stone:

I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and 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. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him--I said, "Take your stone." I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat--the old white hat--and placed 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.[11]

Joseph's mother also indicated that Joseph was sought out by some, including Josiah Stoal, to use the stone to find hidden valuables. He

came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.[12]

Joseph referred to this incident in JS-H 1:55-56.

Stoal eventually joined the Church; some of his family, however, charged Joseph in court for events related to this treasure seeking. Stoal testified in Joseph's defense.

Joseph Knight also said that, at the command of the angel Moroni, Joseph looked into his seer stone to learn who he should marry. He "looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale."[13]

For a detailed response, see: Joseph's 1826 glasslooking trial

How many seer stones did Joseph Smith have in his possession?

Joseph had between two to four seer stones

Joseph first used a neighbor's seer stone (probably Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby's foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822.[14]

Joseph then used this first stone to find a second stone (a white one). The color and sequence of obtaining these stones has often been confused,[15] and readers interested in an in-depth treatment are referred to the endnotes.[16]

Joseph would later discover at least two more seers stones in Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi. These stones seem to have been collected more for their appearance, and there is little evidence of Joseph using them at that late date in his prophetic career.[17]

What did Joseph Smith's seer stones look like?

Witnesses gave descriptions of the stones

One witness reported (of the first, brown stone), from 1826:

It was about the size of a small hen's egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.[18]

The second stone:

[the] Seer Stone was the shape of an egg though not quite so large, of a gray cast something like granite but with white stripes running around it. It was transparent but had no holes, neither on the end or in the sides.[19]

How were Joseph Smith's seer stones involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon?

Joseph may have used his seer stone to view the location of the plates after Moroni told him where they were

There is considerable evidence that the location of the plates and Nephite interpreters (Urim and Thummim) were revealed to Joseph via his second, white seer stone. In 1859, Martin Harris recalled that "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase...It was by means of this stone he first discovered the plates."[20]

Some critics have sought to create a contradiction here, since Joseph's history reported that Moroni revealed the plates to him (JS-H 1꞉34-35,42). This is an example of a false dichotomy: Moroni could easily have told Joseph about the plates and interpreters. The vision to Joseph may well have then come through the seer stone, as some of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (e.g., Section X) would later be revealed. One account matches this theory well:

I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found them [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. he said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his [seer] stone and saw them in the place of deposit.[21]

Joseph was initially more excited about the Nephite interpreters than the gold plates

Joseph Knight recalled that Joseph was more excited about the Nephite interpreters than the gold plates:

After breakfast Joseph called me into the other room, set his foot on the bed, and leaned his head on his hand and said, "Well I am disappointed."

"Well, I said, "I am sorry."

"Well, he said, "I am greatly disappointed. It is ten times better than I expected."

Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates and, said he, they appear to be gold. But, he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plate for, said he, "I can see anything. They are marvelous."[22]

Martin Harris described the Nephite interpreters

Martin Harris later described the Nephite interpreters as "about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre.... They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eights of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which with the two stones, would make eight inches."[23]

Joseph often used the seer stone to translate

Despite having the Nephite interpreters, Joseph Smith often used the seer stone to translate. This led to an episode in which Martin tested the veracity of Joseph's claim to use the second, white stone to translate:[24]

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, "Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt." Martin then confessed that he wished to "stop the mouths of fools" who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.[25]

Joseph used his white seer stone sometimes "for convenience" during the translation of the 116 pages with Martin Harris; later witnesses reported him using his brown seer stone.

Joseph sometimes used the Nephite interpreters in the same manner as his seer stones, even when he was not translating

Mark-Ashurst McGee notes that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters in the same manner as his seer stone, even when he was not translating the plates, and may have removed them from the frame which held them:

On one occasion, while Joseph was digging a well for a woman in Macedon, his wife Emma felt that the plates were in danger and came to tell Joseph. Lucy wrote that Joseph, "having just looked into them before Emma go there[,] he perceived her coming and cmae up out of the well and met her..." [26] It seems doubtful that Joseph would have the eight-inch long pair of glasses with him while at work in the well. It seems that Joseph eventually detached the lenses from their frame and carried them in a pouch as he had his brown seer stone.[27]

For a detailed response, see: Why would Joseph use the "rock in the hat" for the Book of Mormon translation that he previously used for "money digging?"


Why did Joseph Smith eventually stop using the seer stones to receive revelation?

Joseph eventually learned, through divine tutoring, how to receive unmediated revelation

These "Urim and Thummim" were the means of receiving most of the formal revelations until June 1829. That was the time of completing the Book of Mormon, which was translated through the Nephite interpreters and also Joseph's other seer stone(s). After this, seer stones were generally not used while receiving revelation or translation. (The JST and the Book of Abraham translations both began with seer stone usage, but Joseph soon quit using them.[28]) Following his baptism, receipt of the Holy Ghost, and ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood, Joseph seems have felt far less need to resort to the stones.[29] He had learned, through divine tutoring, how to receive unmediated revelation—the Lord had taken him "line upon line" from where he was (surrounded with beliefs about seeing and divining) and brought him to further light, knowledge, and power.

This perspective was reinforced by Orson Pratt, who watched the New Testament revision (JST) and wondered why the use of seer stones/interpreters (as with the Book of Mormon) was not continued:

While this thought passed through the speaker's mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.[30]

Are there any Biblical parallels to Joseph Smith's understanding of the use of seer stones?

The idea of sacred stones acting as revelators to believers is present in the Bible

The idea of sacred stones acting as revelators to believers is present in the Bible, and Joseph Smith embraced a decidedly "non-magical" and "pro-religious" view of them:

In Revelation, John incorporates past religious symbols into his message. Thus the most internally consistent interpretation of the "white stone" combines with the book's assurance that the faithful will become "kings and priests" to the Most High (Rev. 1:6). These eternal priests will be in tune with God's will, like the High Priest with the breastplate of shining stones and the Urim. In Hebrew that term means "light," corresponding to the "white" stone of John's Revelation. This correlation should be obvious, but Joseph Smith is virtually alone in confidence that John sees the redeemed as full High Priests: "Then the white stone mentioned in Rev. 2:17 is the Urim and Thummim, whereby all things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms, even all kingdoms, will be made know." As for genuine religion, Joseph Smith perceived the stone of John's vision not as a stone of chance but as a conduit of enlightenment and a reward of worthiness of character.[31]

What happened to Joseph Smith's seer stones?

The Nephite interpreters were reclaimed by Moroni

As noted above, the Nephite interpreters were apparently reclaimed by Moroni following the loss of the 116 pages, and were only seen again by the Three Witnesses (Testimony of Three).

The seer stone was given to Oliver Cowdery

Van Wagoner and Walker write:

David Whitmer indicated that the seer stone was later given to Oliver Cowdery: "After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished early in the spring of 1830 before April 6th, Joseph gave the Stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the Stone anymore." Whitmer, who was Cowdery's brother-in-law, stated that on Oliver's death in 1848, another brother-in-law, "Phineas Young, a brother of Brigham Young, and an old-time and once intimate friend of the Cowdery family came out from Salt Lake City, and during his visit he contrived to get the stone from its hiding place, through a little deceptive sophistry, extended upon the grief-stricken widow. When he returned to Utah he carried it in triumph to the apostles of Brigham Young's 'lion house.'"...

[Van Wagoner and Walker here confuse the two seer stones, so this section is not included here, given that better information has since come to light.]

...Joseph Fielding Smith, as an apostle, made clear that "the Seer Stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days . . . is now in the possession of the Church." Elder Joseph Anderson, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve and long-time secretary to the First Presidency, clarified in 1971 that the "Seer Stone that Joseph Smith used in the early days of the Church is in possession of the Church and is kept in a safe in Joseph Fielding Smith's office.... [The stone is] slightly smaller than a chicken egg, oval, chocolate in color."[32] (This would be Joseph's first, "shoe-shaped stone," which was given to Oliver Cowdery, and then to his brother-in-law Phineas Young, brother of Brigham Young.[33]

Joseph's second (white) stone is also in the possession of the LDS First Presidency.[34]

Gardner: "Joseph Smith, long before golden plates complicated his position as a local seer, appears to have functioned just as Sally Chase did"

Brant Gardner:

Joseph Smith, long before golden plates complicated his position as a local seer, appears to have functioned just as Sally Chase did. Quinn reports that: "E. W. Vanderhoof [writing in 1905] remembered that his Dutch grandfather once paid Smith seventy-five cents to look into his ‘whitish, glossy, and opaque’ stone to locate a stolen mare. The grandfather soon ‘recovered his beast, which Joe said was somewhere on the lake shore and [was] about to be run over to Canada.’ Vanderhoof groused that ‘anybody could have told him that, as it was invariably the way a horse thief would take to dispose of a stolen animal in those days.'"13 While Vanderhoof reported a positive result of the consultation, it is interesting that his statement includes a qualifier that has the same intent as those added by the Saunders’ brothers. By the end of the century, one wouldn’t want to actually credit a village seer when describing their activities. Nevertheless, it isn’t the effectiveness that is important—it is the nature of the consultation. Sally Chase’s clients consulted her to find things which were lost, and Joseph Smith had at least one client who did the same.[35] —(Click here to continue)

Godfrey: "Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge"

Martin was a shrewd farmer and businessman, and a man of some property. He often warred between belief and doubt. For example, Martin put Joseph to the test during the translation of the 116 pages with the seer stone. He repeatedly subjected Joseph's claims to empirical tests to detect deception or fraud. He came away from those experiences convinced that Joseph was truly able to translate the plates. He was so convinced, he was willing to suffer ridicule and committed significant financial resources to publishing the Book of Mormon.

Kenneth W. Godfrey, Ensign (January 1988):

After returning from a trip to Palmyra to settle his affairs, Martin began to transcribe. From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, "Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt." Martin then confessed that he wished to "stop the mouths of fools" who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.[36]

To learn more about: seer stones in Church publications
Online
  • Richard Lloyd Anderson, "‘By the Gift and Power of God’," Ensign (September 1977): 79.
  • Hyrum Andrus, Joseph Smith, the Man, the Seer (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1960), 102. GL direct link
  • William J. Hamblin, "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies (Review of Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity by Brent Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 434–523. off-site
  • Marvin S. Hill, "Money-Digging Folklore and the Beginnings of Mormonism: An Interpretative Suggestion," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984), ?–??.GospeLink
  • Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939). GL direct link
  • Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2000), D&C 9. GL direct link
  • Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  • Brigham H. Roberts, "A Brief Debate on the Book of Mormon," in Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. (1907), 1:350. Vol 1 GL direct link Vol 2 GL direct linkGL direct link
  • Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," Brigham Young University Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990), 52.GL direct link
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Was a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters Joseph Smith's "mentor"?

The idea that Walter's "mantle" fell upon Joseph is the creation of an enemy of Joseph Smith, Abner Cole

It is claimed by some that a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters became popular in the Palmyra area, and that when Walters left the area, "his mantle fell upon" Joseph Smith. However, the idea that "Walters the Magician" was a mentor to Joseph Smith and that his "mantle" fell upon Joseph once Walters left the area originated with Abner Cole. Cole published a mockery of the Book of Mormon called the "Book of Pukei."

Matthew Brown discusses the "Book of Pukei":,

Cole claims in the "Book of Pukei" that the Book of Mormon really came into existence in the following manner:

  • Walters the Magician was involved in witchcraft and money-digging.
  • Walters was summoned to Manchester, New York by a group of wicked, idle, and slothful individuals—one of which was Joseph Smith.
  • Walters took the slothful individuals of Manchester out into the woods on numerous nighttime money-digging excursions. They drew a magic circle, sacrificed a rooster, and dug into the ground but never actually found anything.
  • The slothful group of Manchesterites then decided that Walters was a fraud. Walters himself admitted that he was an imposter and decided to skip town before the strong arm of the law caught up with him.
  • At this point, the mantle of Walters the Magician fell upon Joseph Smith and the rest of the Manchester rabble rallied around him.
  • The "spirit of the money-diggers" (who is identified implicitly with Satan in the text) appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the Golden Bible to him.[37]

Does Lucy Mack Smith's mention of the "faculty of Abrac" and "magic circles" evidence that "magick" played a strong role in the Smith family's early life?

Lucy Mack Smith denied that her family was involved in wasting time by drawing "magic circles"

Critics generally neglect to provide the entire quote from Lucy. Dr. William J. Hamblin notes that there is "an ambiguously phrased statement of Lucy Mack Smith in which she denied that her family was involved in drawing "Magic circles."

There is no evidence from any Latter-day Saint sources about how to make "magic circles"

William Hamblin notes,

Quinn provides only very limited evidence, from anti-Mormon sources, that the Smiths were involved in making magic circles. He provides no evidence from LDS sources discussing how to make magic circles, describing their use by early Mormons, or establishing Mormon belief in the efficacy of such things.

Quinn does claim to have found one LDS reference supporting the use of magic circles. This is an ambiguously phrased statement of Lucy Mack Smith in which she denied that her family was involved in drawing "Magic circles" (p. 68; cf. 47, 66). Quinn maintains, because of an ambiguity of phraseology, that Lucy Mack Smith is saying that her family drew magic circles. The issue revolves around how the grammar of the original text should be understood. Here is how I read the text (with my understanding of the punctuation and capitalization added).

Now I shall change my theme for the present. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.125

When Lucy's statement is examined in context, it can be seen that she explicitly denies that the Smith's were involved in such things as "magic circles"

Hamblin continues,

Here is how I interpret the referents in the text.

Now I shall change my theme for the present [from a discussion of farming and building to an account of Joseph's vision of Moroni and the golden plates which immediately follows this paragraph]. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic [Joseph's visions] for a season, that we stopped our labor [of farming and building] and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business [farming and building, as the anti-Mormons asserted, claiming the Smiths were lazy]. We never in our lives suffered one important interest [farming and building] to swallow up every other obligation [religion]. But, whilst we worked with our hands [at farming and building] we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls [through religion].

Thus, as I understand the text, Lucy Smith declares she is changing her theme to the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In the public mind, that story is associated with claims that the Smiths were lazy and involved in magical activities. By the time Lucy Smith wrote this text in 1845, anti-Mormons were alleging that Joseph had been seeking treasure by drawing magic circles. She explicitly denies that they were involved in such things. She also denies that the Smiths were lazy. She wants to emphasize that, although she is not going to mention farming and building activities for a while, these activities were still going on. Quinn wants to understand the antecedent of "one important interest" as "trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying" (p. 68). I believe that the antecedent of "one important interest" is "all kinds of business," meaning farming and building. Quinn maintains the phrase to the neglect of means that they pursued magic to some degree, but not to the extent that they completely neglected their farming. I believe that the phrase to the neglect of means that they did not pursue magic at all, and therefore did not neglect their farming and building at all: they were not pursuing magic and thereby neglecting their business.

Lucy's narrative focuses on religious and business concerns, and does not discuss magic

Hamblin concludes,

Although the phrasing is a bit ambiguous, the matter can easily be resolved by reference to the rest of Lucy's narrative. Contra Quinn, Lucy Smith's text provides no other mention of the supposedly "important interest" of magical activities but does deal prominently with their religious and business concerns. If magic activities were such an important part of Joseph Smith's life and Lucy was speaking of them in a positive sense as "important interests," why did she not talk about them further in any unambiguous passage? My interpretation fits much better into the context of Lucy Smith's narrative as a whole, in which she amply discusses farming and family life, as well as religion and Joseph's revelations—the two important interests of the family—but makes no other mention of magic. As Richard Bushman notes, "Lucy Smith's main point was that the Smiths were not lazy as the [anti-Mormon] affidavits claimed—they had not stopped their labor to practice magic."126 Thus, ironically, Quinn is claiming that Lucy Smith's denial of the false claims that the Smith family was engaged in magical activities has magically become a confirmation of those very magical activities she is denying![38]

Did Joseph Smith, Sr. practice "divination"?

Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths, claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination"

It has been claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination," and that this is evidence for the strong role which "magick" played in the Smith family's early life. This claim relies on one of the Hurlburt-Howe affidavits, given by Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths.

Ingersoll's affidavit reads:

‘Was a neighbor of Smith from 1822 to 1830. The general employment of the family was digging for money. Smith senior once asked me to go with him to see whether a mineral rod would work in my hand, saying he was confident it would. As my oxen were eating, and being myself at leisure, I went with him. When he arrived near the place where he thought there was money, he cut a small witch-hazel, and gave me direction how to hold it. He then went off some rods, telling me to say to the rod, ‘Work to the money,’ which I did in an audible voice. He rebuked me for speaking it loud, saying it must be spoken in a whisper. While the old man was standing off some rods, throwing himself into various shapes, I told him the rod did not work. He seemed much surprised, and said he thought he saw it move. It was now time for me to return to my labor. On my return I picked up a small stone, and was carelessly tossing it from one hand to the other. Said he, (looking very earnestly,) ‘What are you going to do with that stone?’ ‘Throw it at the birds,’ I replied. ‘No,’ said the old man, ‘it is of great worth.’ I gave it to him. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you only knew the value there is back of my house!’ and pointing to a place near, ‘There,’ said he, ‘is one chest of gold and another of silver.’ He then put the stone which I had given him into his hat, and stooping forward, he bowed and made sundry maneuvers, quite similar to those of a stool-pigeon. At length he took down his hat, and, being very much exhausted, said, in a faint voice, ‘If you knew what I had seen, you would believe.’ His son, Alvin, went through the same performance, which was equally disgusting.

‘Another time the said Joseph senior told me that the best time for digging money was in the heat of summer, when the heat of the sun caused the chests of money to rise near the top of the ground. ‘You notice,’ said he, ‘the large stones on the top of the ground; we call them rocks, and they truly appear so, but they are in fact, most of them chests of money raised by the heat of the sun.’’....[39]

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony. It is telling that the critics often wish to jettison Ingersoll's claims as those of a teller-of-tall-tales or a liar when it is clear that he cannot be trusted. Yet, when no evidence exists (pro- or con-) save Ingersoll's testimony, they then present his witness as a reliable data point for conclusions about the early years of Joseph Smith and his family. Of Ingersoll's claims, Richard L. Anderson noted:

Peter lived near Joseph Smith and was employed to go with him to Pennsylvania to move Emma's personal property to the Smith farm in the fall of 1827. Ingersoll claims that after this, Joseph told him he brought home white sand in his work frock and walked into the house to find "the family" (parents, Emma, brothers and sisters) eating. When they asked what he carried, he "very gravely" told them (for the first time) that he had a "golden Bible" and had received a revelation that no one could see it and live. At that point (according to Ingersoll), Joseph offered to let the family see, but they fearfully refused, and Ingersoll says that Joseph added, "Now, I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun."

Rodger Anderson [author of the book under review by Anderson] agrees with me that this is just a tall tale. Why? Family sources prove they looked forward to getting the plates long before this late 1827 occurrence, and Joseph had far more respect for his family than the anecdote allows. So Rodger Anderson thinks that Ingersoll at first believed Joseph and then retaliated: "it seems likely that Ingersoll created the story as a way of striking back at Smith for his own gullibility in swallowing a story he later became convinced was a hoax" (p. 56). That may be, and there are perhaps others making affidavits with similar motives. But the more provable point is that good stories die hard. Facts were obviously bent to make Joseph Smith the butt of many a joke. So anecdotes could be yarns good for a guffaw around a pot-bellied stove.

Ingersoll has another story in this class. Joseph planned to move Emma and the plates to Pennsylvania at the end of 1827. Then Ingersoll has Joseph playing a religious mind game with Martin Harris: "I . . . told him that I had a command to ask the first honest man I met with, for fifty dollars in money, and he would let me have it. I saw at once, said Jo, that it took his notion, for he promptly give me the fifty." Willard Chase tells a similar story, not identifying his source. But in this case both Joseph Smith and Martin Harris gave their recollections. Both say that Martin was converted to Joseph Smith's revelations first and then offered the money out of conviction, not because of sudden street-side flattery. The best historical evidence is not something told by another party, especially one with hostility to the person he is reporting....

Rodger Anderson recoils at my suggestion that the affidavits were "contaminated by Hurlbut," but he has merely argued harder for one road to this same result. Rodger Anderson then contends that Hurlbut's influence does not matter, since many of the statements were signed under oath before a magistrate. This is one of scores of irrelevancies. The question is credibility, not form. As Jesus essentially said in the Sermon on the Mount, the honest person is regularly believable, not just under oath. Nor does the act of signing settle all, since it is hardly human nature to read the fine print of a contract or all details of prewritten petitions. Rodger Anderson finds Ingersoll's sand-for-plates story "the most dubious" (p. 56) and thus admits that Ingersoll is "the possible exception" in "knowingly swearing to a lie" (p. 114). But Ingersoll does not tell taller stories than many others glinting in the hostile statements reprinted by Rodger Anderson. Like the persecuting orthodox from the Pharisees to the Puritans, the New York community was performing an act of moral virtue to purge itself of the stigma of an offending new religion. Hurlbut contributed to the process of mutual contamination of similar stories and catch-words....

Rodger Anderson closes his survey with the appeal to accept "the Hurlbut-Deming affidavits" as significant "primary documents relating to Joseph Smith's early life and the origins of Mormonism" (p. 114). Some tell of "early life," but many only repeat tall tales or disclose the prejudice that Joseph Smith said faced him from the beginning. There are some authentic facts about the outward life of young Joseph, but his inner life makes him significant. It is this other half that the testimonials brashly claim to penetrate but cannot. To the extent that the Prophet's spiritual experiences are the primary issue, the Hurlbut-Deming statements are not primary documents.

Here I have discussed some aspects of their objective shortcomings, but I do not intend to take much time answering countercharges. Those who think like Rodger Anderson will continue to reason that the Hurlbut-Deming materials contain serious history because "many based their descriptions on close association with the Joseph Smith, Sr., family" (p. 114). That is too sloppy for my taste. Downgrading a reputation is serious business, and I want a reasonable burden of proof to be met on each major contention. Knowing the family is not enough—knowing specific incidents is required. The mathematics of true personal history is fairly simple: half-truths added to others still retain their category of half-truths; conclusions without personal knowledge have zero value; and any number multiplied by zero is still zero.

A final, highly personal reaction: I once discussed a negative biography with a friend, literature professor Neal Lambert. After pointing out shortcomings in method and evidence, I self-consciously added an intuitive judgment: "and I think there is a poor tone to the book." Instantly picking up my apologetic manner, Neal answered vigorously, "But tone is everything." In reality, attitude penetrates the judgments we make, whether in gathering the Hurlbut-Deming materials or in defending them. With few exceptions, the mind-set of these testimonials is skeptical, hypercritical, ridiculing. But history is a serious effort to understand, and tools with the above labels have limited value.[40]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Peter Ingersoll: Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 232-237, 248-249. (Affidavits examined) Partially reproduced in "The Origin of Mormonism," Christian Enquirer (New York) 5/51 (25 September 1852): [1]. Also available in full in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:40-45.

Did early members of the "Mormon" Church believe in witchcraft?

While some members may have believed in witchcraft, all the scriptural and primary evidence portrays their opinion of such things as negative, not positive

[41] There are a number of texts and incidents which indicate a basically negative attitude towards the occult by most early Mormons. Brooke himself notices several incidents manifesting such an anti-occult strain in early LDS thought: George A. Smith, for instance, destroyed magic books brought to America by English converts (p. 239). Likewise, "organizations advocating the occult were suppressed" by Brigham Young in 1855 (p. 287), while, "in 1900 and 1901, church publications launched the first explicit attacks on folk magic" (p. 291). But the evidence of negative attitudes among Mormons to matters occult is much more widespread than Brooke indicates.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain several explicit condemnations of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic. While admitting that there are only "rare references to magic or witchcraft in the Book of Mormon" (p. 176, 177), Brooke nonetheless insists that the "categories of treasure, magic, and sorcery . . . fascinated Joseph Smith" (p. 168). The Book of Mormon maintains that Christ will "cut off witchcrafts out of thy land" (3 Nephi 21꞉16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and "the magic art" are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1꞉32, Mormon 2꞉10). "Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics" are also attributed to "the power of the evil one" (Mormon 1꞉19). In the Doctrine and Covenants, sorcerers are among those who are "cast down to hell" (D&C 76꞉103,106), who "shall have their part in . . . the second death" (D&C 63꞉17). These are the only references to magical or occult powers in LDS scripture, and they are uniformly and emphatically negative. Brooke's key terms, such as "alchemy," "astrology," "hermeticism," "androgyny," and "cabala," are never mentioned in LDS scripture.

Several early LDS writers were unequivocal in their condemnation of magic and the occult. One brother was "disfellowshipped by the council of officers, for using magic, and telling fortunes &c." The ancient Egyptian use of "omens, charms, unlucky days and magic" is described as "grossly superstitious." Orson Pratt described alchemy as "the pursuit of that vain phantom." His brother Parley was even more forthright:

It is, then, a matter of certainty, according to the things revealed to the ancient Prophets, and renewed unto us, that all the animal magnetic phenomena, all the trances and visions of clairvoyant states, all the phenomena of spiritual knockings, writing mediums, &c., are from impure, unlawful, and unholy sources; and that those holy and chosen vessels which hold the keys of Priesthood in this world, in the spirit world, or in the world of resurrected beings, stand as far aloof from all these improper channels, or unholy mediums, of spiritual communication, as the heavens are higher than the earth, or as the mysteries of the third heaven, which are unlawful to utter, differ from the jargon of sectarian ignorance and folly, or the divinations of foul spirits, abandoned wizards, magic-mongers, jugglers, and fortune-tellers.

Based on this extensive (but admittedly incomplete) survey of early Mormon writings, we can arrive at three logical conclusions:

  1. the unique ideas that critics advocating the "magic" hypothesis claim were central to the origins of Mormonism do not occur in early LDS primary texts;
  2. early Mormons seldom concerned themselves with things occult; but
  3. on the infrequent occasions when they mention the occult, it is without exception viewed negatively.

Was the fact that the recovery of the Book of Mormon plates occurred on the autumnal equinox somehow significant?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #193: Why Did Moroni Deliver the Plates on September 22? (Video)

There are many religious traditions (including Judaism) that use the equinoxes as part of their religious calendar

Joseph's meetings with Moroni and the recovery of the Book of Mormon occurred on the autumnal equinox, a date with astrological and magical significance. Some have speculated that this is evidence of Joseph Smith's preoccupation with "magick." However, there are many religious traditions (including Judaism) that use the equinoxes as part of their religious calendar. Thus, the presence of a significant "astrological" date may be coincidental or present for religious, not "magical" reasons. This again highlights the problems with "magic" as a category.

In this instance, critics presume that their claims about Joseph's preoccupation with magic is an accurate description of his attempt to recover the plates (see circular reasoning). If, however, there are other explanations for receiving the plates on the evening of 21–22 September 1827, then this cannot be used as evidence for pre-occupation with a "magic world view."

The recovery of the Book of Mormon plates occurred on a vital date in the Jewish calendar: Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year

The Book of Mormon claims to be a religious text, with a world-view sharing close affinities with Judaism. Interestingly, the plates' recovery occurred on a vital date in the Jewish calendar:

Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year (which had begun at sundown on 21 September 1827). At Rosh ha-Shanah the faithful were commanded to set a day aside as "a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation" (Leviticus 23:24).[42]

Rosh ha-Shanah also begins the Asseret Yemei Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance) which precede the holiest day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur, the day of the atonement. Likewise, the Book of Mormon claimed to come forth to preach repentance, and prepare the way for Christ's second coming.

Rosh ha-Shanah is celebrated by the blowing of the ram's horn (shofar), just as Jesus' apocalyptic teachings foretold that the elect would be gathered by angels "with a great sound of a trumpet" (Matthew 24:31). The Revelation of St. John features angels with trumpets as part of the preparation or heralding of Christ's second coming (e.g., Revelation 8:2,6; compare D&C 77꞉12). The Book of Mormon portrays itself squarely within this tradition, heralding and preparing the way for the gathering of the elect and the return of Christ (1 Nephi 13꞉34-42).

In the Jerusalem temple, "at the autumnal equinox the rays of the sun could enter the [holy of holies] because the whole of the edifice faced east."[43] Thus, on a date in which the idea of divine illumination, light, and knowledge streaming into God's earthly temple was so prominent, a new divine revelation of scripture fits at least as well as Quinn's claim that this date has astrological significance for "the introduction of 'broad cultural movements and religious ideas'."[44]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph Smith derive his religious ideas in part from a mysticism called Kabbalah?

There is little actual evidence to support this

It is claimed that Joseph Smith's religious ideas derived in part from Kabbalah, a type of (usually Jewish) mysticism. Critics and the unwary presume that because a few lengthy works have been written about Joseph Smith and kabbalistic ideas, this is sufficient grounds for presuming a connection. The evidence behind this connection, is, however, on shaky evidential ground.

Before swallowing the critics' explanation, one should study the extensive reviews which illustrate numerous problems with this approach thus far.

It is not the job of the Saints to prove that kaballah did not influence Joseph Smith. It is the job of his critics to prove that it did. And, thus far, that proof has not been forthcoming. Extensive reviews of the works which purport to find this strain in Joseph Smith's thought are available (see below).

It is difficult to prove a negative—how might we prove that Joseph's ideas were not from Kabbalah? Rather, we can consider a number of the problems with this intellectual construct, and then ask if there are not perhaps better ways to understand Joseph's thought.

Some authors merely describe LDS doctrine or practice in kabbalistic or "hermetical" terms

Some authors merely describe LDS doctrine or practice in kabbalistic or "hermetical" terms, and then presume that by doing so they have proved that these ideas were, in fact, drawn from kabbalah. This is circular reasoning.

For example, one review wrote that:

Throughout his book, Brooke's approach might be characterized as scholarship by adjective (see, e.g., pp. 240, 294). Time and again, he places the adjective "hermetic" or "alchemical" before a noun relating to Mormonism and then proceeds as if the mere act of juxtaposing the two terms—essentially without argument—had established that the ill-defined adjective really applies. He holds that "certainly Joseph Smith was predisposed to a hermetic interpretation of sacred history and processes from his boyhood" (p. 208). But what does this mean? What is a "hermetic interpretation" here? Although Brooke himself seems to have a predisposition to a "hermetic interpretation" of almost everything in sight, Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly did not have the remotest idea of what hermeticism was.

Simply labeling Mormon celestial marriage "hermetic" and "alchemical" (as on pp. 214, 257-58, 281) does not make it such. Frequently, in a kind of fallacy of misplaced concretion, Brooke is misled by his own metaphors to misread nineteenth-century realities (as in his use of the terms "alchemy" and "transmutation" in discussing the Kirtland Bank [pp. 222-23; cf. 227-28]), and even twentieth-century Utah (as when he describes modern financial scams in Utah as "alchemical" [p. 299]). On at least one occasion, Fawn Brodie's (twentieth-century) portrayal of Sidney Rigdon as engaged in a metaphorical "witchhunt" inspires Brooke—evidently by sheer word association—to claim that Joseph Smith (!) saw himself as literally surrounded by witches (p. 230).[45]

This is a common approach, with another author falling victim to the same tendency:

Owens's entire thesis also suffers repeatedly from semantic equivocation—using a term "in two or more senses within a single argument, so that a conclusion appears to follow when in fact it does not."61 Owens does not adequately recognize the fact that the semantic domain of words can vary radically from individual to individual, through translation, by shifts in meaning through time, or because of idiosyncratic use by different contemporary communities.62 For Owens it is often sufficient to assert that he feels that kabbalistic or hermetic ideas "resonate" with his understanding of Latter-day Saint thought (p. 132). Thus, in an attempt to demonstrate affiliations between the Latter-day Saint world view and that of esotericists, Owens presents a number of ideas that he claims represent parallels between his understanding of the kabbalistic and hermetic traditions and his view of Latter-day Saint theology, but that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be only vaguely similar, if at all....

Owens frequently implicitly redefines kabbalistic and hermetic terms in a way that would have been foreign to both the original esoteric believers and to early Latter-day Saints. In an effort to make ideas seem similar, he is forced to severely distort both what esotericists and Latter-day Saints believe.[46]

Some critics stretch LDS scripture to the breaking point in an effort to "prove" their argument

...when a Book of Mormon passage denounces "works of darkness" (Alma 37꞉23), Brooke asserts that "although he never mentions them by name, Smith had declared an occult war on the witchlike art of the counterfeiters" (p. 178). Really? Nothing in the passage calls for such an interpretation, any more than does the analogous phrase in Ephesians 5:11. There can be little doubt, of course, that the early Latter-day Saints, like most of their contemporaries on the American frontier, suffered from counterfeiters' schemes and regarded them as enemies.....But that scarcely justifies Professor Brooke's arbitrary allegorical speculations. Besides, as readers will notice, Brooke cannot really decide whether the Mormons opposed counterfeiting or favored it. Either option will suffice for him, since either will allow him to claim that they were fascinated by it and since, taken together, they constitute a historical hypothesis that is virtually impervious to historical proof or disproof.[45]

Some critics ignore the common biblical sources for ideas in LDS thought, and instead argue that these ideas came from much more obscure hermetic thought

It is universally acknowledged that biblical quotations, paraphrases, and imagery fill all early LDS scripture, writings, and sermons. Time and again early Latter-day Saints explicitly point to biblical precedents for their doctrines and practices. Joseph Smith and all the early Mormon elders taught and defended their doctrines from the Bible. Even in the great King Follett discourse—which Brooke sees as a cornucopia of "hermetic" doctrine—Joseph declared "I am going to prove it [the doctrine of multiple gods] to you by the Bible." The text is filled with biblical quotations and allusions. Never do the early Saints claim they are following hermetic or alchemical precedents. Brooke, however, generously sets out to correct this lapse for them....[45]

Although far less problematically or extensively than Brooke, Owens also ignores obvious biblical antecedents to Latter-day Saint thought in favor of alleged hermetic or alchemical antecedents. Owens informs us that "Paracelsus also prophesied of the coming of the prophet "Elias' as part of a universal restoration, another idea possibly affecting the work of Joseph Smith" (p. 163 n. 90). Quite true. But why does Owens fail to mention the strong biblical tradition of the return of Elijah/Elias, the clear source for this idea for both Paracelsus and Joseph Smith? [46]

Critics cannot produce primary sources from the early Saints expressing their interest in kabbalah or hermeticism

Furthermore, critics tend to ignore or downplay evidence of an opposition to "magic" or "the occult" among early Saints:

...there are a number of texts and incidents which indicate a basically negative attitude towards the occult by most early Mormons. Brooke himself notices several incidents manifesting such an anti-occult strain in early LDS thought: George A. Smith, for instance, destroyed magic books brought to America by English converts (p. 239). Likewise, "organizations advocating the occult were suppressed" by Brigham Young in 1855 (p. 287), while, "in 1900 and 1901, church publications launched the first explicit attacks on folk magic" (p. 291).36 But the evidence of negative attitudes among Mormons to matters occult is much more widespread than Brooke indicates.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain several explicit condemnations of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic....The Book of Mormon maintains that Christ will "cut off witchcrafts out of thy land" (3 Nephi 21:16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and "the magic art" are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1:32, Mormon 2:10). "Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics" are also attributed to "the power of the evil one" (Mormon 1:19). In the Doctrine and Covenants, sorcerers are among those who are "cast down to hell" (D&C 76:103, 106), who "shall have their part in . . . the second death" (D&C 63:17).37 These are the only references to magical or occult powers in LDS scripture, and they are uniformly and emphatically negative. Brooke's key terms, such as "alchemy," "astrology," "hermeticism," "androgyny," and "cabala," are never mentioned in LDS scripture.[45]

In another case, critics present

background material [that is] is often dated or misrepresented. Owens's use of sources, both primary and secondary, is problematic at a number of levels. First, he ignores nearly all earlier writings by Latter-day Saint scholars on the significance of the possible parallels between Latter-day Saint ideas and the Western esoteric tradition. There is, in fact, a growing body of Latter-day Saint literature that has examined some of these alleged parallels, and presented possible interpretations of the relationship between the esoteric tradition and the gospel. Why is Nibley not even mentioned by Owens, despite the fact that he has been writing on this subject for four decades?9 Robert F. Smith's discussion of many of these issues is ignored....

Furthermore, for the most part, Owens's account of the Western esoteric tradition does not rely on primary sources, or even translations of primary sources, but on secondary summaries, which he often misunderstands or misrepresents. This unfamiliarity with both the primary and secondary sources may in part explain the numerous errors that occur throughout his article....[46]

Critics often fail to provide any specifics to link these ideas to the members of the Church—generally because there aren't any such sources.

This does not deter critics, however, from a chain of speculation, supposition, and probability that hides the fact that no evidence whatever has been presented:

Owens insists that "any backwoods rodsman divining for buried treasures in New York in 1820 may have known about the [esoteric] tradition" and that "there undoubtedly existed individuals [in the early nineteenth-century United States] who were deeply cognizant of Hermeticism, its lore, rituals, and aspirations. And this group probably included an occasional associate of treasure diggers" (p. 159). Elsewhere Owens asserts that "there must have been more than a few" people in frontier New York who had been influenced by the hermetic, kabbalistic, and alchemical traditions (p. 165, emphasis added to all these citations). Evidence, please! Who exactly were these individuals? What exactly did they know? How exactly did they gain their unusual knowledge? Exactly when and where did they live? With whom exactly did they associate? What exactly did they teach their associates? What evidence—any evidence at all—does Owens provide for any of his speculations? [46]

Reliance on late, anti-Mormon accounts

Given the lack of material to support this hypothesis in the words of Joseph Smith or his followers, critics turn to their enemies:

...in large part Brooke relies on late secondhand anti-Mormon accounts—taken at face value—while rejecting or ignoring eye-witness contemporary Mormon accounts of the same events or ideas....

In a book purportedly analyzing the thought of Joseph Smith, it is remarkable how infrequently Joseph himself is actually quoted. Instead we find what Joseph's enemies wanted others to believe he was saying and doing. Thus, while it may be true that some early non-Mormons or anti-Mormons occasionally described some activities of Joseph Smith and the Saints as somehow related to "magic," it is purely a derogatory outsider view. The Saints never describe their own beliefs and activities in those terms. Brooke has a disturbing tendency to cite standard LDS sources and histories on noncontroversial matters—thereby establishing an impression of impartiality—while, on disputed points, using anti-Mormon sources without explaining the Mormon perspective or interpretation.[47]

Sometimes, critics even give "magical" meaning to common words used by Joseph Smith in a completely different context

in a breathtaking case of academic legerdemain, he takes common terms that occur with specialized technical meanings in hermetic and alchemical thought—terms such as "furnace," "refine," "stone," "metal," etc.—and proposes the existence of such common terms in Mormon writings as a subtle but irrefutable indication that Mormons had hermetic and alchemical ideas in the backs of their minds all along. In fact, so subtle is the impact of hermetic and alchemical thought on Joseph that "the hermetic implications of his theology may not even have been clear to Smith himself" (p. 208)! This is truly an alchemical transmutation of baseless assertions into pure academic fool's gold.[45]

Or:

Owens ignores two other obvious explanations: that both esoteric and Latter-day Saint ideas derive from a similar source, e.g., the Bible, or that Joseph Smith received true revelation, as opposed to some ill-defined type of Jungian "personal cognition." [46]

Some critics' relative unfamiliarity with LDS history is made clear by repeated self-contradiction and historical blunders

Brooke's presentation of early Mormon history is likewise plagued by repeated blunders. His depiction of a Joseph Smith who is "bitter," "suspicious," and "anxious" (p. 135)—a description helpful to Brooke's environmentalist reading of the Book of Mormon—flies in the face of Brooke's own claim that "by all accounts he was a gregarious, playful character" (p. 180; cf. JS-H 1:28). It may also seem remarkable to some that Joseph believed that "the simultaneous emergence of counterfeiting and the spurious Masonry of the corrupt country Grand Lodge in the early 1820s was an affliction on the people, the consequence of their rejection of Joseph Smith as a preacher of the gospel" (p. 177), since Joseph had not yet restored the gospel or begun to preach in the early 1820s. Brooke has Joseph and Oliver being "baptized into the Priesthood of Aaron" (p. 156), even though their baptism and their ordination to the priesthood were clearly two separate events.66 Furthermore, he uses the alleged counterfeiting activities of Theodore Turley, Peter Hawes, Joseph H. Jackson, Marenus Eaton, and Edward Bonney to propose a continued Mormon fascination with counterfeiting, and thereby, with alchemy (pp. 269-70), despite the fact that Jackson, Eaton, and Bonney were not LDS! And Brooke seems unsure as to whether John Taylor's Mediation and Atonement "was of great significance doctrinally, because it marked the rejection of the Adam-God concept," (p. 289) or whether the "rejection of the Adam-God doctrine [was] something that John Taylor had not really attempted" (p. 291).[45]

Errors also extend beyond LDS matters into the history of "magick" thought itself:

Owens makes an unsupported claim that the alchemists' ""philosopher's stone' [was] the antecedent of Joseph Smith's "seer's stone'" (p. 136). In fact, the philosopher's stone (lapis philosophorum) was thought to have been composed of primordial matter, the quintessentia—the fifth element after air, water, fire, and earth. Unlike Joseph's seer stone, it was not really a literal "stone" at all, but primordial matter (materia prima)—"this stone therefore is no stone," as notes a famous alchemical text.26 Sometimes described as a powder the color of sulfur, the philosopher's stone was used for the transmutation of matter and had little or nothing to do with divination. Indeed, the use of stones and mirrors for divination antedates the origin of the idea of the philosopher's stone. There is no relationship beyond the fact that both happen to be called a stone....

Owens claims that the concept that "God was once as man now is . . . could, by various exegetical approaches, be found in the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition" (pp. 178-79). It is understandable that he provides neither primary nor secondary evidence for this assertion, since no hermetic or kabbalistic texts make such a claim. Unlike Latter-day Saint concepts of God and divinization, the metaphysical presuppositions of both hermeticism and kabbalism are fundamentally Neoplatonic.[46]

Even the complete absence of evidence is no bar to the critic:

Owens speculates at great length about possible Rosicrucian influences on Joseph Smith (pp. 138-54), asserting (with absolutely no evidence) that Luman Walter was influenced by Rosicrucian ideas (p. 162). Once again, however, Owens ignores the annoying fact that the Rosicrucian movement was effectively dead at the time of Joseph Smith. In England "the Gold and Rosy Cross appears to have had no English members and was virtually extinct by 1793."...

Thus Joseph Smith was alive precisely during the period of the least influence of Kabbalah, hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism, all of which had seriously declined by the late eighteenth century—before Joseph's birth—and would revive only in the late nineteenth century, after Joseph's death. Owens never recognizes these developments, but instead consistently quotes sources earlier and later than Joseph Smith as indicative of the ideas supposedly found in Joseph's day.[46]

Some critics do not seem to even understand modern LDS thought and history well

For example:

Professor Brooke's ignorance of contemporary Mormonism hurts him in amusing ways. Even the cold fusion claims made at the University of Utah a few years ago are pressed into service as illustrations of Mormon hermeticism: They are interesting, Brooke declares, "given Mormon doctrines on the nature of matter" (p. 299). He never troubles himself, though, to explain how the experiments of the two non-Mormon chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman are even remotely helpful as indicators of Latter-day Saint attitudes and beliefs.

It is probably significant that Brooke's mistakes are not random; rather, his presentation consistently misrepresents LDS scripture, doctrine, and history in ways that tend to support his thesis by making LDS ideas seem closer to his hermetic prototypes. These are not minor errors involving marginal characters or events in LDS scripture and history; nor are they mere matters of interpretation. Rather, for the most part, they are fundamental errors, clearly demonstrating Brooke's feeble grasp of the primary texts.[45]

Did Joseph Smith have a Jupiter talisman on his person at the time of his death?

The only source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person is Charles Bidamon, made long after the death of Joseph and Emma

Did Joseph have this Talisman on him when he was murdered? What would it mean if he did?

This well circulated claim finds its origins in a 1974 talk by Dr. Reed Durham. Durham said that Joseph "evidently [had a Talisman] on his person when he was martyred. The talisman, originally purchased from the Emma Smith Bidamon family, fully notarized by that family to be authentic and to have belonged to Joseph Smith, can now be identified as a Jupiter talisman."[48]

There is only one source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person, and that source is Charles Bidamon. Bidamon's statement was made long after the death of Joseph and Emma, relied on memories from his youth, and was undergirded by financial motives.

The idea that Joseph Smith might have had a Jupiter Talisman in his possession is used by critics of the Church as proof of his fascination with the occult. As one work put it: "The fact that Smith owned a Jupiter talisman shows that his fascination with the occult was not just a childish fad. At the time of his death, Smith had on his person this talisman....[49]

By contrast, contemporary evidence demonstrates that Joseph did not have such a Talisman in his possession at his death.

Durham, the source of the idea in modern discourse, would later say:

I now wish I had presented some of my material differently… For instance, at the present time, after rechecking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and a non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So, the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable!... [One author who was presented wrote:] "Dr. Durham also told me he was trying to play the "devil’s advocate" in his Nauvoo speech, which is what many there, including myself, sensed. Unfortunately others took the words to further their purposes."[50]

What is the source of the story about Joseph Smith possessing a Jupiter talisman?

The source of the Talisman story, upon which Dr. Durham based his remarks, was Wilford C. Wood, who was told it by Charles Bidamon, the son of Lewis Bidamon

Lewis was Emma Smith's non-Mormon second husband. Charles was born following an affair between Lewis Bidamon and Nancy Abercrombie, which occurred while Lewis was married to Emma. Charles was taken in by Emma when four years old, and raised by her until her death 11 years later.[51] (This action says much for Emma's charity.)

The talisman, or "silver pocket piece" as described in 1937, appeared on a list of items purportedly own by Joseph Smith which were to be sold by Charles Bidamon

Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote that the Talisman, or "silver pocket piece" as described in 1937, appeared on a list of items purportedly own by Joseph Smith which were to be sold by Charles Bidamon. One item listed was "a silver pocket piece which was in the Prophet's pocket at the time of his assassination."[52]:541 Wilford Wood, who collected Mormon memorabilia, purchased it in 1938 along with a document from Bidamon certifying that the Prophet possessed it when murdered. The affidavit sworn to by Charles Bidamon at the time of Wilford C. Wood's purchase was very specific:

This piece came to me through the relationship of my father, Major L. C. Bidamon, who married the Prophet Joseph Smith's widow, Emma Smith. I certify that I have many times heard her say, when being interviewed, and showing the piece, that it was in the Prophet's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage, Ill.[52]:558

Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, and notes that at the time of her death he was only fifteen years old

Anderson noted that Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, and notes that at the time of her death he was only fifteen years old.

Durham based his comments on Wood's description for the item which was: "This piece [the Talisman] was in Joseph Smith's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage Jail."[52]:558[53] However, a list of the items in Joseph's possession at the time of his death was provided to Emma following the martyrdom. On this list there was no mention made of any Talisman-like item. If there had been such an article, it ought to have been listed.

The list of items in Joseph's possession at the time of his death did not list the talisman among them

In 1984, Anderson located and published the itemized list of the contents of Joseph Smith's pockets at his death. The list was originally published in 1885 in Iowa by James W. Woods, Smith's lawyer, who collected the prophet's personal effects after the Martyrdom. The contents from the published 1885 printing are as follows:

Received, Nauvoo, Illinois, July 2, 1844, of James W. Woods, one hundred and thirty- five dollars and fifty cents in gold and silver and receipt for shroud, one gold finger ring, one gold pen and pencil case, one penknife, one pair of tweezers, one silk and one leather purse, one small pocket wallet containing a note of John P. Green for $50, and a receipt of Heber C. Kimball for a note of hand on Ellen M. Saunders for one thousand dollars, as the property of Joseph Smith. - Emma Smith.[52]:558[54]

No Talisman or item like it is listed. It could not be mistaken for a coin or even a "Masonic Jewel" as Durham first thought. Anderson described the Talisman as being "an inch-and-a-half in diameter and covered with symbols and a prayer on one side and square of sixteen Hebrew characters on the other."[52]:541 Significant is the fact that no associate of Joseph Smith has ever mentioned anything like this medallion. There are no interviews that ever record Emma mentioning any such item as attested to by Charles Bidamon, though he claimed she often spoke of it.

Stephen Robinson: "In the case of the Jupiter coin, this same extrapolation error is compounded with a very uncritical acceptance of the artifact in the first place"

Of the matter of the Jupiter talisman that is alleged to have been among Joseph Smith's possessions at the time of his death, Stephen Robinson wrote:

In the case of the Jupiter coin, this same extrapolation error is compounded with a very uncritical acceptance of the artifact in the first place. If the coin were Joseph's, that fact alone would tell us nothing about what it meant to him. But in fact there is insufficient evidence to prove that the artifact ever belonged to the Prophet. The coin was completely unknown until 1930 when an aging Charles Bidamon sold it to Wilford Wood. The only evidence that it was Joseph's is an affidavit of Bidamon, who stood to gain financially by so representing it. Quinn [and any other critic who embraces this theory] uncritically accepts Bidamon's affidavit as solid proof that the coin was Joseph's. Yet the coin was not mentioned in the 1844 list of Joseph's possessions returned to Emma. Quinn negotiates this difficulty by suggesting the coin must have been worn around Joseph's neck under his shirt. But in so doing Quinn impeaches his only witness for the coin's authenticity, for Bidamon's affidavit, the only evidence linking the coin to Joseph, specifically and solemnly swears that the coin was in Joseph's pocket at Carthage. The real empirical evidence here is just too weak to prove that the coin was really Joseph's, let alone to extrapolate a conclusion from mere possession of the artifact that Joseph must have believed in and practiced magic. The recent Hofmann affair should have taught us that an affidavit from the seller, especially a 1930 affidavit to third hand information contradicted by the 1844 evidence, just isn't enough 'proof' to hang your hat on.[55]

Could the list of items on Joseph's person at the time of his death have been incomplete?

Bidamon's certification clearly states that the Talisman was "in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred," yet it does not appear in the list of his possessions at the time of his death

More recent arguments contend that Wood’s list was exaggerated or was an all together different type of list. For example, some suggest that since neither Joseph's gun or hat were on the report, the list must not be complete. It should be obvious, however, that these items were not found on Joseph's person. The record clearly states that he dropped his gun and left it behind before being murdered. As for the hat, even if he had been wearing it indoors, it seems unlikely to have remained on his head after a gun-fight and fall from a second-story window.

Critics also argue that the Talisman was not accounted for was because it ought to have been worn around the neck, hidden from view and secret to all (including Emma no less). Thus, the argument runs, it was overlooked in the inventory. While it may be true that Talismans are worn around the neck, Bidamon's certification clearly states that the Talisman was "in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred." So which is it? In his pocket like a lucky charm or secretly worn around his neck as such an item should properly be used? In either case, the record is clear that he did not have a Talisman on his person at the time of his death. The rest is speculation.

The critics also resort to arguing that a prisoner could not possibly have had a penknife, so how accurate can the list of Joseph's possessions be? Obviously, the fact that he had a gun makes the possession of a knife a matter of no consequence.[56] Critics will dismiss contemporary evidence simply because it is inconvenient.

"at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman"

As a final note to the saga, when Durham was later asked how he felt about his speech regarding the Talisman, he replied:

I now wish I had presented some of my material differently." "For instance, at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable.[57]

What is the probability that Joseph Smith possessed items related to "magic"?

Probability problems

This claim rests upon a lengthy chain of supposition:[58]

  1. Joseph himself owned the item (e.g., parchment, Mars dagger, or Jupiter talisman).
  2. His possession dates to his early days of "treasure seeking."
  3. He used them for magical purposes.
  4. He made them himself or commissioned them.
  5. He therefore must have used magic books to make them.
  6. He therefore must have had an occult mentor to help him with the difficult process of understanding the magical books and making these items.
  7. This occult mentor transmitted extensive arcane hermetic lore to Joseph beyond the knowledge necessary to make the artifacts.

Theses seven propositions are simply a tissue of assumptions, assertions, and speculations. There is no contemporary primary evidence that Joseph himself owned or used these items. We do not know when, how, or why these items became heirlooms of the Hyrum Smith family. Again, there is no contemporary primary evidence that mentions Joseph or anyone in his family using these artifacts—as Quinn himself noted, "possession alone may not be proof of use." There is no evidence that Joseph ever had any magic books. There is no evidence that Joseph ever had an occult mentor who helped him make or use these items.

Improbability

The methodology used by the critics is a classic example of what one could call the miracle of the addition of the probabilities. The case relies on a rickety tower of unproven propositions that do not provide certainty, rather a geometrically increasing improbability. Probabilities are multiplied, not added. Combining two propositions, each of which has a 50% probability, does not create a 100% probability, it creates a 25% probability that both are true together:

  • chance of proposition #1 being true = 50% = 0.5
  • chance of proposition #2 being true = 50% = 0.5
  • chance of BOTH being true = .5 x .5 = .25 = 25%

Allowing each of these seven propositions a 50% probability—a very generous allowance—creates a .0078% probability that the combination of all seven propositions is true. And this is only one element of a very complex and convoluted argument, with literally dozens of similar unverified assertions. The result is a monumentally high improbability that the overall thesis is correct.

A non-response to this argument

D. Michael Quinn, a major proponent of the "magick" argument, responded to the above by claiming that "Only when cumulative evidence runs contrary to the FARMS agenda, do polemicists like Hamblin want readers to view each piece of evidence as though it existed in isolation."[59]

Replied Hamblin:

Quinn misunderstands and misrepresents my position on what I have called the "miracle of the addition of the probabilities"....

[Quinn's rebuttal discusses] the process of the verification of historical evidence. The issue was unproven propositions, not parallel evidence.

Quinn...proposed that a series of "magic" artifacts provide evidence that Joseph Smith practiced magic. My position is that, in order for us to accept any particular artifact as a single piece of evidence, we must first accept several unproven propositions, each of which may be true or false, but none of which is proven. The more unproven propositions one must accept to validate a piece of evidence, the greater the probability that the evidence is not, in fact, authentic. Thus, two historiographical processes are under discussion. One is the authentication of a particular piece of evidence: did Joseph own a magical talisman and use it to perform magical rites? The second is the cumulative significance of previously authenticated evidence in proving a particular thesis: does the authentication of the use of the talisman demonstrate that Joseph was a magician who adhered to a magical worldview? Quinn apparently cannot distinguish between these two phases of the historical endeavor, which goes far to account for some of the numerous failings in his book....

Of course the probative value of evidence is cumulative. The more evidence you have, the greater the probability that your overall thesis is true. Thus, if Quinn can demonstrate that the talisman and the parchment and the dagger all belonged to the Smith family and were used for magical purposes, it would be more probable that his overall thesis is true than if he could establish only that the Smiths owned and used just one of those three items. But my argument is that the authenticity of each of these pieces of evidence rests on half a dozen unproven propositions and assumptions.[6]

Was a "magic dagger" once owned by Hyrum Smith?

Everyone in the nineteenth-century frontier had at least one dagger, and this one was not designed for ceremonial magic or treasure hunting

It is claimed that the Smith family owned a magic dagger that was among Hyrum Smith's heirlooms. They cite this as proof of the Smith family's deep involvement in ritual magick.

William Hamblin discusses a dagger that was discovered to be among the the Hyrum Smith family heirlooms. The dagger is claimed by historian D. Michael Quinn to be associated with the practice of magic:

The big problem for Quinn is that a dagger is usually just a dagger. Everyone in the nineteenth-century frontier had at least one, and most people had many. Some daggers were inscribed; others were not. Daggers were bought and sold just like any other tool and could easily pass from one owner to another. Given the data presented above, we do not know when, where, or how Hyrum obtained his dagger, or even if he really did. Since there is no documentation on the dagger until 1963, it could have been obtained by one of his descendants after his death and later accidentally confused with Hy rum's heirlooms. We do not know what it meant to Hyrum (assuming he owned it). Was it simply a dagger with some strange marks? Was it a gift to him from a Masonic friend? All of this is speculation—but it is no more speculative than Quinn's theories. Whatever the origin and purpose of the dagger, though, it is quite clear that, based on the evidence Quinn himself has presented, it does not match the magic daggers designed for making magic circles nor does it match the astrology of any of the Smiths.[6]

Hamblin concludes that,

[D. Michael] Quinn, and those who have followed him, have completely misunderstood or misrepresented the purpose of the dagger. The inclusion of the astrological sigil for Scorpio means the dagger was designed for someone born under the sign of Scorpio. None of the Smiths was. Therefore, it was not made for the Smiths. Quinn demonstrates no understanding of talismanic magic. The inclusion of the talismanic sigils for Mars means it was designed to grant victory in battle or litigation. It was not designed for ceremonial magic or treasure hunting, as Quinn claims. Quinn cites sources from after 1870 as evidence for what the Smiths supposedly believed, while completely misrepresenting those sources. The only possible conclusion to draw from all this is that the dagger was made for an unknown person, and, if it somehow came into the possession of Hyrum Smith, it was obtained secondhand with the engravings already made. This conforms with the late Smith family tradition that remembers the signs on the blade as "Masonic" rather than magical.[6]

Does the Book of Mormon’s reference to "slippery treasures" stem from Joseph Smith’s involvement in money digging and the occult?

Review of the Criticism

Some readers of the Book of Mormon and other critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have criticized the Book of Mormon’s reference to "slippery treasures".[60] This reference has been cited as evidence to them that the supposed "magic world view" of Joseph Smith and perhaps his associates influenced the composition of the Book of Mormon for those portions of the Book of Mormon that reference such "slippery treasures."

Book of Mormon Central: Why Did Samuel Say the Wealth of Some Nephites Would Become "Slippery"?

This charge/question has been examined in detail by Book of Mormon Central. Readers are invited to become acquainted with their material to address the question.

Book of Mormon Central:

Samuel the Lamanite’s famous prophetic warnings are found in Helaman 13–15. His pronouncement began with a massive rebuke of the pride, greed, iniquities, priestcrafts, ingratitude, and foolishness of wicked Nephites who were willing to embrace false prophets while utterly rejecting the righteous prophets (Helaman 13:25–29). Samuel pulled no punches. In this context, he used the word "slippery" three times, and the word "slipped" once (vv. 30–36).

Did Joseph Smith's family own "magic parchments" which suggest their involvement in the "occult"?

There is no evidence that Joseph knew of, possessed, or used magical parchments

It is claimed that the Smith family owned "magic parchments," suggesting their involvement in the "occult." However, there is no evidence that Joseph knew of, possessed, or used magical parchments. All we know is that some parchments were eventually "heirlooms" of the Hyrum Smith family, but their provenance is not clear.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Notes

  1. See discussions of this issue in: John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  2. John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; citing Stanley J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Jonathan Z. Smith, "Trading Places," in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 16.
  3. Robert K. Ritner, "Egyptian Magic: Questions of Legitimacy, Religious Orthodoxy and Social Deviance," in Studies in Pharaonic Religion and Society in Honour of J. Gwyn Griffiths , ed. Alan B. Lloyd (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1992), 190; cited in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site] (emphasis in original).
  4. Criticisms of Joseph's use of "folk magic" appear in the following publications: “The Book of Mormon and the Mormonites,” Athenaeum, Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art 42 (July 1841): 370–74. off-site; Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints : To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: Printed for J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 28. off-site; John A. Clark, “Gleanings by the Way. No. VII,” Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 18, no. 25 (12 September 1840), ??. off-site; James H. Hunt, Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect (St. Louis: Ustick and Davies, 1844), n.p.. off-site; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 9 (3 March 1838): 34, citing Howe. off-site
  5. Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  7. Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 28 March 1841; also cited in Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 2:75. ISBN 0941214133.
  8. Brant A. Gardner, Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, FAIR Conference 2009. Gardner references D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 38. and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 70.
  9. 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), 200–215.
  10. Eber Dudley Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 241-242; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 no. 2 (Summer 1982): 48–68.
  11. Joel Tiffany, Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 164;cited in Van Wagoner and Walker, 55.
  12. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853),91–92.
  13. Dean C. Jessee, "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," Brigham Young University Studies 17 no. 1 (August 1976).; cited in 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), 281. Buy online
  14. 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), 200–215.
  15. See, for example, Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:129. GospeLink; Roberts was followed by Richard S. Van Wagoner, Dan Vogel, Ogden Kraut, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, and D. Michael Quinn. See discussion in Ashurst-McGee, 247n317.
  16. 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), 200–283.
  17. 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), 200–201.
  18. W. D. Purple, The Chenango Union (3 May 1877); cited in Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959[1942]), 2:365. ASIN B000HMY138. (See Van Wagoner and Walker, 54.)
  19. Richard Marcellas Robinson, "The History of a Nephite Coin," manuscript, 20 December 1834, Church archives; cited in 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), 264. Buy online
  20. Mormonism—II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 163, see also 169; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 286.
  21. Henry Harris, statement in E.D. Howe Mormonism Unvailed (1833), 252; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 290.
  22. Joseph Knight, cited in Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1981), 6. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized. The original text reads: "After Brackfist Joseph Cald me in to the other Room and he sit his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, well I am Dissopented. Well, say I, I am sorrey. Well, says he, I am grateley Dissopnted. It is ten times Better then I expected. Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummim than he Did of the plates for says he, I can see anything. They are Marvelous."
  23. Joel Tiffany, "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 165–166; cited in VanWagoner and Walker, footnote 27.
  24. Tiffany, 163.
  25. Told in Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988): 6.
  26. Lucy Smith, "Preliminary Manuscript," 64, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:333-34. Cited in 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), 320–326.
  27. 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), 320–326.
  28. 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), 334–337.
  29. 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), 332–333.
  30. Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman ; citing Orson Pratt, "Discourse at Brigham City," 27 June 1874, Ogden (Utah) Junction, cited in Orson Pratt, "Two Days´ Meeting at Brigham City," Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498–499.
  31. Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman
  32. Van Wagoner and Walker, 58–59 (citations removed).
  33. Van Wagoner and Walker, 58–59 (citations removed). See also 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), 230.
  34. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View 242–247.
  35. Brant A. Gardner, "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?," Proceedings of the 2009 FAIR Conference (August 2009).
  36. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988).
  37. Matthew Brown, "Revised or Unaltered? Joseph Smith's Foundational Stories.", 2006 FAIR Conference.
  38. William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site] (emphasis in original) Hamblin cites Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285. and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 73. ISBN 0252060121.
  39. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 235-236. (Affidavits examined) Reproduced in "The Origin of Mormonism," Christian Enquirer (New York) 5/51 (25 September 1852): [1]. Also available in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:40-45.
  40. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Review of Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined by Rodger I. Anderson," FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80. off-site [Anderson's references have been silently removed from this citation.]
  41. This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site. Please consult the original for references and further information. By the nature of a wiki project, the base text may have since been modified and added to.
  42. 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
  43. Bruce Chilton, "Jesus’ Dispute in the Temple and the Origin of the Eucharist," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 no. 4, 22–23.
  44. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 121 ( Index of claims )
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 45.4 45.5 45.6 William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, "Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge] (Review of The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 by John L. Brooke)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 3–58. off-site
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 46.3 46.4 46.5 46.6 William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site
  47. William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, "Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge] (Review of The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 by John L. Brooke)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 3–58. off-site(italics in original)
  48. Dr. Reed Durham’s Presidential Address before the Mormon History Association on 20 April 1974.
  49. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 225. ( Index of claims )
  50. https://www.fairmormon.org/archive/publications/the-truth-about-the-god-makers
  51. Jerald R. Johansen, After the Martyrdom: What Happened to the Family of Joseph Smith (Springville, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 2004[1997]), 79. ISBN 0882905961. off-site
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 52.3 52.4 Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman
  53. Original coming from LaMar C. Berett, The Wilford Wood Collection, Vol. 1 (Provo, UT: Wilford C. Wood Foundation, 1972), 173.
  54. Anderson points to its original source in J. W. Woods "The Mormon Prophet," Daily Democrat (Ottumwa, Iowa), 10 May 1885; and in Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (Des Moines: Homestead Publishing Co., 1916), 271.
  55. Stephen E. Robinson, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, by D. Michael Quinn," Brigham Young University Studies 27 no. 4 (1987), 94–95.
  56. These are examples of later arguments by Quinn in an attempt to refute Anderson.
  57. Gilbert W. Scharffs, The Truth about ‘The God Makers’ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Publishers Press, 1989; republished by Bookcraft, 1994), 180. Full text FAIR link ISBN 088494963X.
  58. This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site. By the nature of a wiki project, it has since been modified and added to.
  59. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 355—56 n. 121 ( Index of claims )
  60. Robert N. Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis, MO: Clayton Publishing House, 1980), 105; D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998), 61, 196–197.
Articles about Joseph Smith

What is the distinction between belief in "folk magic" and a religious belief in the supernatural?

The use of the terms "magic" and "occult" are prejudicial, loaded terminology

When critics use the term "magic" or "occult," they are using prejudicial, loaded terminology. Used in a neutral sense, magic might mean only that a person believes in the supernatural, and believes that supernatural can be influenced for the believer's benefit.

However, critics are generally not clear about what definition of magic they are using, and how to distinguish a "magical" belief in the supernatural from a "religious" belief in the supernatural.[1] Scholars of magic and religion have, in fact, come to realize that defining "magic" is probably a hopeless task. John Gee noted:

Defining "magic" as "religious beliefs other than their own"

In 1990, Cambridge University published Stanley Tambiah's Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality, which showed that the definitions of many of the most important writers on "magic" were heavily influenced both by their backgrounds and their personal ideological agendas: they defined "magic" as religious beliefs other than their own. In 1992, the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Magic in the Ancient World failed to come to any agreement on what "magic" was. The plenary speaker, Jonathan Z. Smith, in particular voiced strong opinions:

I see little merit in continuing the use of the substantive term "magic" in second-order, theoretical, academic discourse. We have better and more precise scholarly taxa for each of the phenomena commonly denoted by "magic" which, among other benefits, create more useful categories for comparison. For any culture I am familiar with, we can trade places between the corpus of materials conventionally labeled "magical" and corpora designated by other generic terms (e.g., healing, divining, execrative) with no cognitive loss. Indeed, there would be a gain.[2]

The use of the term "magic" is a negative label for modern Christians

The use of the term "magic" imposes, especially for modern Christians, a negative label at the outset, which explains its popularity for critics. As Professor of Egyptology Robert K. Ritner explained:

Modern Western terms for 'magic' function primarily as designations for that which we as a society do not accept, and which has overtones of the supernatural or the demonic (but not of the divine). It is important to stress that this pejorative connotation has not been grafted onto the notion of magic as the result of any recent theoretical fancy but is inherent in Western terminology virtually from its beginning. It constitutes the essential core of the Western concept of magic.[3]

The Book of Mormon condemns "magic"

Moroni's visit was a turning point for Joseph, for it is important to note that the Book of Mormon itself condemns "magic" whenever it is mentioned:

And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land, even unto the fulfilling of all the words of Abinadi, and also Samuel the Lamanite. Mormon 1꞉19

Regardless of Joseph's or his family's previous opinions regarding folk magic prior to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, they clearly always believed in and had faith in God. Joseph believed that instruments such as the Urim and Thummim and his seer stone were consecrated by God for their intended use.

Were Joseph Smith's spiritual experiences originally products of magic and the occult?

Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects

It is a known fact that Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects.[4] Brant Gardner notes,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society.

Joseph's family shared folk magic beliefs that were common to the day. Joseph's mother, Lucy, felt it important to note in her history that the family did not let these magical endeavors prevent the family from doing the necessary work to survive:

But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.[5]

Joseph's involvement with Josiah Stowell's attempt to locate a lost Spanish treasure is well documented in Church history

Stowell requested Joseph's assistance in a mining operation looking for old coins and precious metals. This effort, in fact, resulted in charges being brought against Joseph by Stowell's relatives for being a "glasslooker" in 1826. Joseph was ultimately charged with being a "disorderly person" and released. (For more detailed information, see: Joseph Smith's 1826 glasslooking trial)

Some, however, believe that all of Joseph's early spiritual experiences, particularly the First Vision and the visit of Moroni, were originally magical or occult experiences that were only later couched in spiritual terms. For example, the Hurlbut affidavits relate stories of Moroni's visit that cast the angel in the role of spiritual treasure guardian, with one (Willard Chase) even claiming that the angel appeared in the form of a toad.

D. Michael Quinn has been the most prolific author on the subject of "magic" influences on the origins of Mormonism. According to William Hamblin:

Quinn's overall thesis is that Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saint leaders were fundamentally influenced by occult and magical thought, books, and practices in the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is unmitigated nonsense. Yet the fact that Quinn could not discover a single primary source written by Latter-day Saints that makes any positive statement about magic is hardly dissuasive to a historian of Quinn's inventive capacity.[6]

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power. And, they may have had some ideas about how to access that power that now strike us as inaccurate and even strange. This is not surprising, given the two centuries and massive scientific advances which separate our culture from theirs. However, there is no evidence that Joseph and others considered these things to be "magic," or the "occult," nor did they consider "magic" or the "occult" to be positive things.

What were the attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic"?

The attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic" was always negative

In 1841, Wilford Woodruff recounted an episode of Church disciplinary action:

The President then brought up the case of a Br Moumford, who was holding the office of a Priest, from whome fellowship had been withdrawn by the council of officers in consequence of his practizing fortune Telling, Magic, Black art &c & called upon Elders Woodruff & Cordon to express their feelings upon the subject when Elder Woodruff arose, & spoke Briefly upon the subject, & informed the assembly that we had no such custom or practice in the Church, & that we should not fellowship any individual who Practiced Magic fortune Telling, Black art &c for it was not of God. When It was moved & carried by the whole church that fellowship be withdrawn from Br Moumford.[7]

And, most importantly, the Book of Mormon's treatment of "magic" or "sorcery" is always negative, which seems strange if (as we are asked to believe by the critics) Joseph Smith concocted it while at the same time embracing that same "magic."

Joseph Smith locates a seer stone while digging a well. Image copyright (c) 2016 by Anthony Sweat.

How did Joseph Smith use his seer stones as a youth?

Joseph as the village seer: the use of the seer stone prior to the Restoration

Brant Gardner clarifies the role that Joseph and his stone played within the community of Palmyra,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society. He exhibited a talent parallel to others in similar communities. Even in Palmyra he was not unique. In D. Michael Quinn's words: "Until the Book of Mormon thrust young Smith into prominence, Palmyra's most notable seer was Sally Chase, who used a greenish-colored stone. William Stafford also had a seer stone, and Joshua Stafford had a 'peepstone which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center.'" Richard Bushman adds Chauncy Hart, and an unnamed man in Susquehanna County, both of whom had stones with which they found lost objects.[8]

During his tenure as a "village seer," Joseph acquired several seer stones. Joseph first used a neighbor's seer stone (probably that belonging to Palmyra seer Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby's foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822.[9]

The second seer stone was reportedly found while digging a well on the property of William Chase in 1822

Joseph then used this first stone to find a second stone (a white one). The second seer stone was reportedly found on the property of William Chase in 1822 as Chase described it:

In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me.... After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.... The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but I would lend it.[10]


Did Joseph Smith place his seer stone in his hat while looking for lost objects?

Martin Harris recounted that Joseph could find lost objects with one of his seer stones

Martin Harris recounted that Joseph could find lost objects with the second, white stone:

I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and 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. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him--I said, "Take your stone." I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat--the old white hat--and placed 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.[11]

Joseph's mother also indicated that Joseph was sought out by some, including Josiah Stoal, to use the stone to find hidden valuables. He

came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.[12]

Joseph referred to this incident in JS-H 1:55-56.

Stoal eventually joined the Church; some of his family, however, charged Joseph in court for events related to this treasure seeking. Stoal testified in Joseph's defense.

Joseph Knight also said that, at the command of the angel Moroni, Joseph looked into his seer stone to learn who he should marry. He "looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale."[13]

For a detailed response, see: Joseph's 1826 glasslooking trial

How many seer stones did Joseph Smith have in his possession?

Joseph had between two to four seer stones

Joseph first used a neighbor's seer stone (probably Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby's foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822.[14]

Joseph then used this first stone to find a second stone (a white one). The color and sequence of obtaining these stones has often been confused,[15] and readers interested in an in-depth treatment are referred to the endnotes.[16]

Joseph would later discover at least two more seers stones in Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi. These stones seem to have been collected more for their appearance, and there is little evidence of Joseph using them at that late date in his prophetic career.[17]

What did Joseph Smith's seer stones look like?

Witnesses gave descriptions of the stones

One witness reported (of the first, brown stone), from 1826:

It was about the size of a small hen's egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.[18]

The second stone:

[the] Seer Stone was the shape of an egg though not quite so large, of a gray cast something like granite but with white stripes running around it. It was transparent but had no holes, neither on the end or in the sides.[19]

How were Joseph Smith's seer stones involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon?

Joseph may have used his seer stone to view the location of the plates after Moroni told him where they were

There is considerable evidence that the location of the plates and Nephite interpreters (Urim and Thummim) were revealed to Joseph via his second, white seer stone. In 1859, Martin Harris recalled that "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase...It was by means of this stone he first discovered the plates."[20]

Some critics have sought to create a contradiction here, since Joseph's history reported that Moroni revealed the plates to him (JS-H 1꞉34-35,42). This is an example of a false dichotomy: Moroni could easily have told Joseph about the plates and interpreters. The vision to Joseph may well have then come through the seer stone, as some of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (e.g., Section X) would later be revealed. One account matches this theory well:

I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found them [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. he said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his [seer] stone and saw them in the place of deposit.[21]

Joseph was initially more excited about the Nephite interpreters than the gold plates

Joseph Knight recalled that Joseph was more excited about the Nephite interpreters than the gold plates:

After breakfast Joseph called me into the other room, set his foot on the bed, and leaned his head on his hand and said, "Well I am disappointed."

"Well, I said, "I am sorry."

"Well, he said, "I am greatly disappointed. It is ten times better than I expected."

Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates and, said he, they appear to be gold. But, he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plate for, said he, "I can see anything. They are marvelous."[22]

Martin Harris described the Nephite interpreters

Martin Harris later described the Nephite interpreters as "about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre.... They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eights of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which with the two stones, would make eight inches."[23]

Joseph often used the seer stone to translate

Despite having the Nephite interpreters, Joseph Smith often used the seer stone to translate. This led to an episode in which Martin tested the veracity of Joseph's claim to use the second, white stone to translate:[24]

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, "Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt." Martin then confessed that he wished to "stop the mouths of fools" who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.[25]

Joseph used his white seer stone sometimes "for convenience" during the translation of the 116 pages with Martin Harris; later witnesses reported him using his brown seer stone.

Joseph sometimes used the Nephite interpreters in the same manner as his seer stones, even when he was not translating

Mark-Ashurst McGee notes that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters in the same manner as his seer stone, even when he was not translating the plates, and may have removed them from the frame which held them:

On one occasion, while Joseph was digging a well for a woman in Macedon, his wife Emma felt that the plates were in danger and came to tell Joseph. Lucy wrote that Joseph, "having just looked into them before Emma go there[,] he perceived her coming and cmae up out of the well and met her..." [26] It seems doubtful that Joseph would have the eight-inch long pair of glasses with him while at work in the well. It seems that Joseph eventually detached the lenses from their frame and carried them in a pouch as he had his brown seer stone.[27]

For a detailed response, see: Why would Joseph use the "rock in the hat" for the Book of Mormon translation that he previously used for "money digging?"


Why did Joseph Smith eventually stop using the seer stones to receive revelation?

Joseph eventually learned, through divine tutoring, how to receive unmediated revelation

These "Urim and Thummim" were the means of receiving most of the formal revelations until June 1829. That was the time of completing the Book of Mormon, which was translated through the Nephite interpreters and also Joseph's other seer stone(s). After this, seer stones were generally not used while receiving revelation or translation. (The JST and the Book of Abraham translations both began with seer stone usage, but Joseph soon quit using them.[28]) Following his baptism, receipt of the Holy Ghost, and ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood, Joseph seems have felt far less need to resort to the stones.[29] He had learned, through divine tutoring, how to receive unmediated revelation—the Lord had taken him "line upon line" from where he was (surrounded with beliefs about seeing and divining) and brought him to further light, knowledge, and power.

This perspective was reinforced by Orson Pratt, who watched the New Testament revision (JST) and wondered why the use of seer stones/interpreters (as with the Book of Mormon) was not continued:

While this thought passed through the speaker's mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.[30]

Are there any Biblical parallels to Joseph Smith's understanding of the use of seer stones?

The idea of sacred stones acting as revelators to believers is present in the Bible

The idea of sacred stones acting as revelators to believers is present in the Bible, and Joseph Smith embraced a decidedly "non-magical" and "pro-religious" view of them:

In Revelation, John incorporates past religious symbols into his message. Thus the most internally consistent interpretation of the "white stone" combines with the book's assurance that the faithful will become "kings and priests" to the Most High (Rev. 1:6). These eternal priests will be in tune with God's will, like the High Priest with the breastplate of shining stones and the Urim. In Hebrew that term means "light," corresponding to the "white" stone of John's Revelation. This correlation should be obvious, but Joseph Smith is virtually alone in confidence that John sees the redeemed as full High Priests: "Then the white stone mentioned in Rev. 2:17 is the Urim and Thummim, whereby all things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms, even all kingdoms, will be made know." As for genuine religion, Joseph Smith perceived the stone of John's vision not as a stone of chance but as a conduit of enlightenment and a reward of worthiness of character.[31]

What happened to Joseph Smith's seer stones?

The Nephite interpreters were reclaimed by Moroni

As noted above, the Nephite interpreters were apparently reclaimed by Moroni following the loss of the 116 pages, and were only seen again by the Three Witnesses (Testimony of Three).

The seer stone was given to Oliver Cowdery

Van Wagoner and Walker write:

David Whitmer indicated that the seer stone was later given to Oliver Cowdery: "After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished early in the spring of 1830 before April 6th, Joseph gave the Stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the Stone anymore." Whitmer, who was Cowdery's brother-in-law, stated that on Oliver's death in 1848, another brother-in-law, "Phineas Young, a brother of Brigham Young, and an old-time and once intimate friend of the Cowdery family came out from Salt Lake City, and during his visit he contrived to get the stone from its hiding place, through a little deceptive sophistry, extended upon the grief-stricken widow. When he returned to Utah he carried it in triumph to the apostles of Brigham Young's 'lion house.'"...

[Van Wagoner and Walker here confuse the two seer stones, so this section is not included here, given that better information has since come to light.]

...Joseph Fielding Smith, as an apostle, made clear that "the Seer Stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days . . . is now in the possession of the Church." Elder Joseph Anderson, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve and long-time secretary to the First Presidency, clarified in 1971 that the "Seer Stone that Joseph Smith used in the early days of the Church is in possession of the Church and is kept in a safe in Joseph Fielding Smith's office.... [The stone is] slightly smaller than a chicken egg, oval, chocolate in color."[32] (This would be Joseph's first, "shoe-shaped stone," which was given to Oliver Cowdery, and then to his brother-in-law Phineas Young, brother of Brigham Young.[33]

Joseph's second (white) stone is also in the possession of the LDS First Presidency.[34]

Gardner: "Joseph Smith, long before golden plates complicated his position as a local seer, appears to have functioned just as Sally Chase did"

Brant Gardner:

Joseph Smith, long before golden plates complicated his position as a local seer, appears to have functioned just as Sally Chase did. Quinn reports that: "E. W. Vanderhoof [writing in 1905] remembered that his Dutch grandfather once paid Smith seventy-five cents to look into his ‘whitish, glossy, and opaque’ stone to locate a stolen mare. The grandfather soon ‘recovered his beast, which Joe said was somewhere on the lake shore and [was] about to be run over to Canada.’ Vanderhoof groused that ‘anybody could have told him that, as it was invariably the way a horse thief would take to dispose of a stolen animal in those days.'"13 While Vanderhoof reported a positive result of the consultation, it is interesting that his statement includes a qualifier that has the same intent as those added by the Saunders’ brothers. By the end of the century, one wouldn’t want to actually credit a village seer when describing their activities. Nevertheless, it isn’t the effectiveness that is important—it is the nature of the consultation. Sally Chase’s clients consulted her to find things which were lost, and Joseph Smith had at least one client who did the same.[35] —(Click here to continue)

Godfrey: "Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge"

Martin was a shrewd farmer and businessman, and a man of some property. He often warred between belief and doubt. For example, Martin put Joseph to the test during the translation of the 116 pages with the seer stone. He repeatedly subjected Joseph's claims to empirical tests to detect deception or fraud. He came away from those experiences convinced that Joseph was truly able to translate the plates. He was so convinced, he was willing to suffer ridicule and committed significant financial resources to publishing the Book of Mormon.

Kenneth W. Godfrey, Ensign (January 1988):

After returning from a trip to Palmyra to settle his affairs, Martin began to transcribe. From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, "Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt." Martin then confessed that he wished to "stop the mouths of fools" who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.[36]

To learn more about: seer stones in Church publications
Online
  • Richard Lloyd Anderson, "‘By the Gift and Power of God’," Ensign (September 1977): 79.
  • Hyrum Andrus, Joseph Smith, the Man, the Seer (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1960), 102. GL direct link
  • William J. Hamblin, "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies (Review of Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity by Brent Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 434–523. off-site
  • Marvin S. Hill, "Money-Digging Folklore and the Beginnings of Mormonism: An Interpretative Suggestion," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984), ?–??.GospeLink
  • Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939). GL direct link
  • Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2000), D&C 9. GL direct link
  • Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  • Brigham H. Roberts, "A Brief Debate on the Book of Mormon," in Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. (1907), 1:350. Vol 1 GL direct link Vol 2 GL direct linkGL direct link
  • Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," Brigham Young University Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990), 52.GL direct link
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Was a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters Joseph Smith's "mentor"?

The idea that Walter's "mantle" fell upon Joseph is the creation of an enemy of Joseph Smith, Abner Cole

It is claimed by some that a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters became popular in the Palmyra area, and that when Walters left the area, "his mantle fell upon" Joseph Smith. However, the idea that "Walters the Magician" was a mentor to Joseph Smith and that his "mantle" fell upon Joseph once Walters left the area originated with Abner Cole. Cole published a mockery of the Book of Mormon called the "Book of Pukei."

Matthew Brown discusses the "Book of Pukei":,

Cole claims in the "Book of Pukei" that the Book of Mormon really came into existence in the following manner:

  • Walters the Magician was involved in witchcraft and money-digging.
  • Walters was summoned to Manchester, New York by a group of wicked, idle, and slothful individuals—one of which was Joseph Smith.
  • Walters took the slothful individuals of Manchester out into the woods on numerous nighttime money-digging excursions. They drew a magic circle, sacrificed a rooster, and dug into the ground but never actually found anything.
  • The slothful group of Manchesterites then decided that Walters was a fraud. Walters himself admitted that he was an imposter and decided to skip town before the strong arm of the law caught up with him.
  • At this point, the mantle of Walters the Magician fell upon Joseph Smith and the rest of the Manchester rabble rallied around him.
  • The "spirit of the money-diggers" (who is identified implicitly with Satan in the text) appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the Golden Bible to him.[37]

Does Lucy Mack Smith's mention of the "faculty of Abrac" and "magic circles" evidence that "magick" played a strong role in the Smith family's early life?

Lucy Mack Smith denied that her family was involved in wasting time by drawing "magic circles"

Critics generally neglect to provide the entire quote from Lucy. Dr. William J. Hamblin notes that there is "an ambiguously phrased statement of Lucy Mack Smith in which she denied that her family was involved in drawing "Magic circles."

There is no evidence from any Latter-day Saint sources about how to make "magic circles"

William Hamblin notes,

Quinn provides only very limited evidence, from anti-Mormon sources, that the Smiths were involved in making magic circles. He provides no evidence from LDS sources discussing how to make magic circles, describing their use by early Mormons, or establishing Mormon belief in the efficacy of such things.

Quinn does claim to have found one LDS reference supporting the use of magic circles. This is an ambiguously phrased statement of Lucy Mack Smith in which she denied that her family was involved in drawing "Magic circles" (p. 68; cf. 47, 66). Quinn maintains, because of an ambiguity of phraseology, that Lucy Mack Smith is saying that her family drew magic circles. The issue revolves around how the grammar of the original text should be understood. Here is how I read the text (with my understanding of the punctuation and capitalization added).

Now I shall change my theme for the present. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.125

When Lucy's statement is examined in context, it can be seen that she explicitly denies that the Smith's were involved in such things as "magic circles"

Hamblin continues,

Here is how I interpret the referents in the text.

Now I shall change my theme for the present [from a discussion of farming and building to an account of Joseph's vision of Moroni and the golden plates which immediately follows this paragraph]. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic [Joseph's visions] for a season, that we stopped our labor [of farming and building] and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business [farming and building, as the anti-Mormons asserted, claiming the Smiths were lazy]. We never in our lives suffered one important interest [farming and building] to swallow up every other obligation [religion]. But, whilst we worked with our hands [at farming and building] we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls [through religion].

Thus, as I understand the text, Lucy Smith declares she is changing her theme to the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In the public mind, that story is associated with claims that the Smiths were lazy and involved in magical activities. By the time Lucy Smith wrote this text in 1845, anti-Mormons were alleging that Joseph had been seeking treasure by drawing magic circles. She explicitly denies that they were involved in such things. She also denies that the Smiths were lazy. She wants to emphasize that, although she is not going to mention farming and building activities for a while, these activities were still going on. Quinn wants to understand the antecedent of "one important interest" as "trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying" (p. 68). I believe that the antecedent of "one important interest" is "all kinds of business," meaning farming and building. Quinn maintains the phrase to the neglect of means that they pursued magic to some degree, but not to the extent that they completely neglected their farming. I believe that the phrase to the neglect of means that they did not pursue magic at all, and therefore did not neglect their farming and building at all: they were not pursuing magic and thereby neglecting their business.

Lucy's narrative focuses on religious and business concerns, and does not discuss magic

Hamblin concludes,

Although the phrasing is a bit ambiguous, the matter can easily be resolved by reference to the rest of Lucy's narrative. Contra Quinn, Lucy Smith's text provides no other mention of the supposedly "important interest" of magical activities but does deal prominently with their religious and business concerns. If magic activities were such an important part of Joseph Smith's life and Lucy was speaking of them in a positive sense as "important interests," why did she not talk about them further in any unambiguous passage? My interpretation fits much better into the context of Lucy Smith's narrative as a whole, in which she amply discusses farming and family life, as well as religion and Joseph's revelations—the two important interests of the family—but makes no other mention of magic. As Richard Bushman notes, "Lucy Smith's main point was that the Smiths were not lazy as the [anti-Mormon] affidavits claimed—they had not stopped their labor to practice magic."126 Thus, ironically, Quinn is claiming that Lucy Smith's denial of the false claims that the Smith family was engaged in magical activities has magically become a confirmation of those very magical activities she is denying![38]

Did Joseph Smith, Sr. practice "divination"?

Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths, claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination"

It has been claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination," and that this is evidence for the strong role which "magick" played in the Smith family's early life. This claim relies on one of the Hurlburt-Howe affidavits, given by Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths.

Ingersoll's affidavit reads:

‘Was a neighbor of Smith from 1822 to 1830. The general employment of the family was digging for money. Smith senior once asked me to go with him to see whether a mineral rod would work in my hand, saying he was confident it would. As my oxen were eating, and being myself at leisure, I went with him. When he arrived near the place where he thought there was money, he cut a small witch-hazel, and gave me direction how to hold it. He then went off some rods, telling me to say to the rod, ‘Work to the money,’ which I did in an audible voice. He rebuked me for speaking it loud, saying it must be spoken in a whisper. While the old man was standing off some rods, throwing himself into various shapes, I told him the rod did not work. He seemed much surprised, and said he thought he saw it move. It was now time for me to return to my labor. On my return I picked up a small stone, and was carelessly tossing it from one hand to the other. Said he, (looking very earnestly,) ‘What are you going to do with that stone?’ ‘Throw it at the birds,’ I replied. ‘No,’ said the old man, ‘it is of great worth.’ I gave it to him. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you only knew the value there is back of my house!’ and pointing to a place near, ‘There,’ said he, ‘is one chest of gold and another of silver.’ He then put the stone which I had given him into his hat, and stooping forward, he bowed and made sundry maneuvers, quite similar to those of a stool-pigeon. At length he took down his hat, and, being very much exhausted, said, in a faint voice, ‘If you knew what I had seen, you would believe.’ His son, Alvin, went through the same performance, which was equally disgusting.

‘Another time the said Joseph senior told me that the best time for digging money was in the heat of summer, when the heat of the sun caused the chests of money to rise near the top of the ground. ‘You notice,’ said he, ‘the large stones on the top of the ground; we call them rocks, and they truly appear so, but they are in fact, most of them chests of money raised by the heat of the sun.’’....[39]

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony. It is telling that the critics often wish to jettison Ingersoll's claims as those of a teller-of-tall-tales or a liar when it is clear that he cannot be trusted. Yet, when no evidence exists (pro- or con-) save Ingersoll's testimony, they then present his witness as a reliable data point for conclusions about the early years of Joseph Smith and his family. Of Ingersoll's claims, Richard L. Anderson noted:

Peter lived near Joseph Smith and was employed to go with him to Pennsylvania to move Emma's personal property to the Smith farm in the fall of 1827. Ingersoll claims that after this, Joseph told him he brought home white sand in his work frock and walked into the house to find "the family" (parents, Emma, brothers and sisters) eating. When they asked what he carried, he "very gravely" told them (for the first time) that he had a "golden Bible" and had received a revelation that no one could see it and live. At that point (according to Ingersoll), Joseph offered to let the family see, but they fearfully refused, and Ingersoll says that Joseph added, "Now, I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun."

Rodger Anderson [author of the book under review by Anderson] agrees with me that this is just a tall tale. Why? Family sources prove they looked forward to getting the plates long before this late 1827 occurrence, and Joseph had far more respect for his family than the anecdote allows. So Rodger Anderson thinks that Ingersoll at first believed Joseph and then retaliated: "it seems likely that Ingersoll created the story as a way of striking back at Smith for his own gullibility in swallowing a story he later became convinced was a hoax" (p. 56). That may be, and there are perhaps others making affidavits with similar motives. But the more provable point is that good stories die hard. Facts were obviously bent to make Joseph Smith the butt of many a joke. So anecdotes could be yarns good for a guffaw around a pot-bellied stove.

Ingersoll has another story in this class. Joseph planned to move Emma and the plates to Pennsylvania at the end of 1827. Then Ingersoll has Joseph playing a religious mind game with Martin Harris: "I . . . told him that I had a command to ask the first honest man I met with, for fifty dollars in money, and he would let me have it. I saw at once, said Jo, that it took his notion, for he promptly give me the fifty." Willard Chase tells a similar story, not identifying his source. But in this case both Joseph Smith and Martin Harris gave their recollections. Both say that Martin was converted to Joseph Smith's revelations first and then offered the money out of conviction, not because of sudden street-side flattery. The best historical evidence is not something told by another party, especially one with hostility to the person he is reporting....

Rodger Anderson recoils at my suggestion that the affidavits were "contaminated by Hurlbut," but he has merely argued harder for one road to this same result. Rodger Anderson then contends that Hurlbut's influence does not matter, since many of the statements were signed under oath before a magistrate. This is one of scores of irrelevancies. The question is credibility, not form. As Jesus essentially said in the Sermon on the Mount, the honest person is regularly believable, not just under oath. Nor does the act of signing settle all, since it is hardly human nature to read the fine print of a contract or all details of prewritten petitions. Rodger Anderson finds Ingersoll's sand-for-plates story "the most dubious" (p. 56) and thus admits that Ingersoll is "the possible exception" in "knowingly swearing to a lie" (p. 114). But Ingersoll does not tell taller stories than many others glinting in the hostile statements reprinted by Rodger Anderson. Like the persecuting orthodox from the Pharisees to the Puritans, the New York community was performing an act of moral virtue to purge itself of the stigma of an offending new religion. Hurlbut contributed to the process of mutual contamination of similar stories and catch-words....

Rodger Anderson closes his survey with the appeal to accept "the Hurlbut-Deming affidavits" as significant "primary documents relating to Joseph Smith's early life and the origins of Mormonism" (p. 114). Some tell of "early life," but many only repeat tall tales or disclose the prejudice that Joseph Smith said faced him from the beginning. There are some authentic facts about the outward life of young Joseph, but his inner life makes him significant. It is this other half that the testimonials brashly claim to penetrate but cannot. To the extent that the Prophet's spiritual experiences are the primary issue, the Hurlbut-Deming statements are not primary documents.

Here I have discussed some aspects of their objective shortcomings, but I do not intend to take much time answering countercharges. Those who think like Rodger Anderson will continue to reason that the Hurlbut-Deming materials contain serious history because "many based their descriptions on close association with the Joseph Smith, Sr., family" (p. 114). That is too sloppy for my taste. Downgrading a reputation is serious business, and I want a reasonable burden of proof to be met on each major contention. Knowing the family is not enough—knowing specific incidents is required. The mathematics of true personal history is fairly simple: half-truths added to others still retain their category of half-truths; conclusions without personal knowledge have zero value; and any number multiplied by zero is still zero.

A final, highly personal reaction: I once discussed a negative biography with a friend, literature professor Neal Lambert. After pointing out shortcomings in method and evidence, I self-consciously added an intuitive judgment: "and I think there is a poor tone to the book." Instantly picking up my apologetic manner, Neal answered vigorously, "But tone is everything." In reality, attitude penetrates the judgments we make, whether in gathering the Hurlbut-Deming materials or in defending them. With few exceptions, the mind-set of these testimonials is skeptical, hypercritical, ridiculing. But history is a serious effort to understand, and tools with the above labels have limited value.[40]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Peter Ingersoll: Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 232-237, 248-249. (Affidavits examined) Partially reproduced in "The Origin of Mormonism," Christian Enquirer (New York) 5/51 (25 September 1852): [1]. Also available in full in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:40-45.

Did early members of the "Mormon" Church believe in witchcraft?

While some members may have believed in witchcraft, all the scriptural and primary evidence portrays their opinion of such things as negative, not positive

[41] There are a number of texts and incidents which indicate a basically negative attitude towards the occult by most early Mormons. Brooke himself notices several incidents manifesting such an anti-occult strain in early LDS thought: George A. Smith, for instance, destroyed magic books brought to America by English converts (p. 239). Likewise, "organizations advocating the occult were suppressed" by Brigham Young in 1855 (p. 287), while, "in 1900 and 1901, church publications launched the first explicit attacks on folk magic" (p. 291). But the evidence of negative attitudes among Mormons to matters occult is much more widespread than Brooke indicates.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain several explicit condemnations of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic. While admitting that there are only "rare references to magic or witchcraft in the Book of Mormon" (p. 176, 177), Brooke nonetheless insists that the "categories of treasure, magic, and sorcery . . . fascinated Joseph Smith" (p. 168). The Book of Mormon maintains that Christ will "cut off witchcrafts out of thy land" (3 Nephi 21꞉16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and "the magic art" are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1꞉32, Mormon 2꞉10). "Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics" are also attributed to "the power of the evil one" (Mormon 1꞉19). In the Doctrine and Covenants, sorcerers are among those who are "cast down to hell" (D&C 76꞉103,106), who "shall have their part in . . . the second death" (D&C 63꞉17). These are the only references to magical or occult powers in LDS scripture, and they are uniformly and emphatically negative. Brooke's key terms, such as "alchemy," "astrology," "hermeticism," "androgyny," and "cabala," are never mentioned in LDS scripture.

Several early LDS writers were unequivocal in their condemnation of magic and the occult. One brother was "disfellowshipped by the council of officers, for using magic, and telling fortunes &c." The ancient Egyptian use of "omens, charms, unlucky days and magic" is described as "grossly superstitious." Orson Pratt described alchemy as "the pursuit of that vain phantom." His brother Parley was even more forthright:

It is, then, a matter of certainty, according to the things revealed to the ancient Prophets, and renewed unto us, that all the animal magnetic phenomena, all the trances and visions of clairvoyant states, all the phenomena of spiritual knockings, writing mediums, &c., are from impure, unlawful, and unholy sources; and that those holy and chosen vessels which hold the keys of Priesthood in this world, in the spirit world, or in the world of resurrected beings, stand as far aloof from all these improper channels, or unholy mediums, of spiritual communication, as the heavens are higher than the earth, or as the mysteries of the third heaven, which are unlawful to utter, differ from the jargon of sectarian ignorance and folly, or the divinations of foul spirits, abandoned wizards, magic-mongers, jugglers, and fortune-tellers.

Based on this extensive (but admittedly incomplete) survey of early Mormon writings, we can arrive at three logical conclusions:

  1. the unique ideas that critics advocating the "magic" hypothesis claim were central to the origins of Mormonism do not occur in early LDS primary texts;
  2. early Mormons seldom concerned themselves with things occult; but
  3. on the infrequent occasions when they mention the occult, it is without exception viewed negatively.

Was the fact that the recovery of the Book of Mormon plates occurred on the autumnal equinox somehow significant?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #193: Why Did Moroni Deliver the Plates on September 22? (Video)

There are many religious traditions (including Judaism) that use the equinoxes as part of their religious calendar

Joseph's meetings with Moroni and the recovery of the Book of Mormon occurred on the autumnal equinox, a date with astrological and magical significance. Some have speculated that this is evidence of Joseph Smith's preoccupation with "magick." However, there are many religious traditions (including Judaism) that use the equinoxes as part of their religious calendar. Thus, the presence of a significant "astrological" date may be coincidental or present for religious, not "magical" reasons. This again highlights the problems with "magic" as a category.

In this instance, critics presume that their claims about Joseph's preoccupation with magic is an accurate description of his attempt to recover the plates (see circular reasoning). If, however, there are other explanations for receiving the plates on the evening of 21–22 September 1827, then this cannot be used as evidence for pre-occupation with a "magic world view."

The recovery of the Book of Mormon plates occurred on a vital date in the Jewish calendar: Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year

The Book of Mormon claims to be a religious text, with a world-view sharing close affinities with Judaism. Interestingly, the plates' recovery occurred on a vital date in the Jewish calendar:

Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year (which had begun at sundown on 21 September 1827). At Rosh ha-Shanah the faithful were commanded to set a day aside as "a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation" (Leviticus 23:24).[42]

Rosh ha-Shanah also begins the Asseret Yemei Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance) which precede the holiest day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur, the day of the atonement. Likewise, the Book of Mormon claimed to come forth to preach repentance, and prepare the way for Christ's second coming.

Rosh ha-Shanah is celebrated by the blowing of the ram's horn (shofar), just as Jesus' apocalyptic teachings foretold that the elect would be gathered by angels "with a great sound of a trumpet" (Matthew 24:31). The Revelation of St. John features angels with trumpets as part of the preparation or heralding of Christ's second coming (e.g., Revelation 8:2,6; compare D&C 77꞉12). The Book of Mormon portrays itself squarely within this tradition, heralding and preparing the way for the gathering of the elect and the return of Christ (1 Nephi 13꞉34-42).

In the Jerusalem temple, "at the autumnal equinox the rays of the sun could enter the [holy of holies] because the whole of the edifice faced east."[43] Thus, on a date in which the idea of divine illumination, light, and knowledge streaming into God's earthly temple was so prominent, a new divine revelation of scripture fits at least as well as Quinn's claim that this date has astrological significance for "the introduction of 'broad cultural movements and religious ideas'."[44]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph Smith derive his religious ideas in part from a mysticism called Kabbalah?

There is little actual evidence to support this

It is claimed that Joseph Smith's religious ideas derived in part from Kabbalah, a type of (usually Jewish) mysticism. Critics and the unwary presume that because a few lengthy works have been written about Joseph Smith and kabbalistic ideas, this is sufficient grounds for presuming a connection. The evidence behind this connection, is, however, on shaky evidential ground.

Before swallowing the critics' explanation, one should study the extensive reviews which illustrate numerous problems with this approach thus far.

It is not the job of the Saints to prove that kaballah did not influence Joseph Smith. It is the job of his critics to prove that it did. And, thus far, that proof has not been forthcoming. Extensive reviews of the works which purport to find this strain in Joseph Smith's thought are available (see below).

It is difficult to prove a negative—how might we prove that Joseph's ideas were not from Kabbalah? Rather, we can consider a number of the problems with this intellectual construct, and then ask if there are not perhaps better ways to understand Joseph's thought.

Some authors merely describe LDS doctrine or practice in kabbalistic or "hermetical" terms

Some authors merely describe LDS doctrine or practice in kabbalistic or "hermetical" terms, and then presume that by doing so they have proved that these ideas were, in fact, drawn from kabbalah. This is circular reasoning.

For example, one review wrote that:

Throughout his book, Brooke's approach might be characterized as scholarship by adjective (see, e.g., pp. 240, 294). Time and again, he places the adjective "hermetic" or "alchemical" before a noun relating to Mormonism and then proceeds as if the mere act of juxtaposing the two terms—essentially without argument—had established that the ill-defined adjective really applies. He holds that "certainly Joseph Smith was predisposed to a hermetic interpretation of sacred history and processes from his boyhood" (p. 208). But what does this mean? What is a "hermetic interpretation" here? Although Brooke himself seems to have a predisposition to a "hermetic interpretation" of almost everything in sight, Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly did not have the remotest idea of what hermeticism was.

Simply labeling Mormon celestial marriage "hermetic" and "alchemical" (as on pp. 214, 257-58, 281) does not make it such. Frequently, in a kind of fallacy of misplaced concretion, Brooke is misled by his own metaphors to misread nineteenth-century realities (as in his use of the terms "alchemy" and "transmutation" in discussing the Kirtland Bank [pp. 222-23; cf. 227-28]), and even twentieth-century Utah (as when he describes modern financial scams in Utah as "alchemical" [p. 299]). On at least one occasion, Fawn Brodie's (twentieth-century) portrayal of Sidney Rigdon as engaged in a metaphorical "witchhunt" inspires Brooke—evidently by sheer word association—to claim that Joseph Smith (!) saw himself as literally surrounded by witches (p. 230).[45]

This is a common approach, with another author falling victim to the same tendency:

Owens's entire thesis also suffers repeatedly from semantic equivocation—using a term "in two or more senses within a single argument, so that a conclusion appears to follow when in fact it does not."61 Owens does not adequately recognize the fact that the semantic domain of words can vary radically from individual to individual, through translation, by shifts in meaning through time, or because of idiosyncratic use by different contemporary communities.62 For Owens it is often sufficient to assert that he feels that kabbalistic or hermetic ideas "resonate" with his understanding of Latter-day Saint thought (p. 132). Thus, in an attempt to demonstrate affiliations between the Latter-day Saint world view and that of esotericists, Owens presents a number of ideas that he claims represent parallels between his understanding of the kabbalistic and hermetic traditions and his view of Latter-day Saint theology, but that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be only vaguely similar, if at all....

Owens frequently implicitly redefines kabbalistic and hermetic terms in a way that would have been foreign to both the original esoteric believers and to early Latter-day Saints. In an effort to make ideas seem similar, he is forced to severely distort both what esotericists and Latter-day Saints believe.[46]

Some critics stretch LDS scripture to the breaking point in an effort to "prove" their argument

...when a Book of Mormon passage denounces "works of darkness" (Alma 37꞉23), Brooke asserts that "although he never mentions them by name, Smith had declared an occult war on the witchlike art of the counterfeiters" (p. 178). Really? Nothing in the passage calls for such an interpretation, any more than does the analogous phrase in Ephesians 5:11. There can be little doubt, of course, that the early Latter-day Saints, like most of their contemporaries on the American frontier, suffered from counterfeiters' schemes and regarded them as enemies.....But that scarcely justifies Professor Brooke's arbitrary allegorical speculations. Besides, as readers will notice, Brooke cannot really decide whether the Mormons opposed counterfeiting or favored it. Either option will suffice for him, since either will allow him to claim that they were fascinated by it and since, taken together, they constitute a historical hypothesis that is virtually impervious to historical proof or disproof.[45]

Some critics ignore the common biblical sources for ideas in LDS thought, and instead argue that these ideas came from much more obscure hermetic thought

It is universally acknowledged that biblical quotations, paraphrases, and imagery fill all early LDS scripture, writings, and sermons. Time and again early Latter-day Saints explicitly point to biblical precedents for their doctrines and practices. Joseph Smith and all the early Mormon elders taught and defended their doctrines from the Bible. Even in the great King Follett discourse—which Brooke sees as a cornucopia of "hermetic" doctrine—Joseph declared "I am going to prove it [the doctrine of multiple gods] to you by the Bible." The text is filled with biblical quotations and allusions. Never do the early Saints claim they are following hermetic or alchemical precedents. Brooke, however, generously sets out to correct this lapse for them....[45]

Although far less problematically or extensively than Brooke, Owens also ignores obvious biblical antecedents to Latter-day Saint thought in favor of alleged hermetic or alchemical antecedents. Owens informs us that "Paracelsus also prophesied of the coming of the prophet "Elias' as part of a universal restoration, another idea possibly affecting the work of Joseph Smith" (p. 163 n. 90). Quite true. But why does Owens fail to mention the strong biblical tradition of the return of Elijah/Elias, the clear source for this idea for both Paracelsus and Joseph Smith? [46]

Critics cannot produce primary sources from the early Saints expressing their interest in kabbalah or hermeticism

Furthermore, critics tend to ignore or downplay evidence of an opposition to "magic" or "the occult" among early Saints:

...there are a number of texts and incidents which indicate a basically negative attitude towards the occult by most early Mormons. Brooke himself notices several incidents manifesting such an anti-occult strain in early LDS thought: George A. Smith, for instance, destroyed magic books brought to America by English converts (p. 239). Likewise, "organizations advocating the occult were suppressed" by Brigham Young in 1855 (p. 287), while, "in 1900 and 1901, church publications launched the first explicit attacks on folk magic" (p. 291).36 But the evidence of negative attitudes among Mormons to matters occult is much more widespread than Brooke indicates.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain several explicit condemnations of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic....The Book of Mormon maintains that Christ will "cut off witchcrafts out of thy land" (3 Nephi 21:16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and "the magic art" are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1:32, Mormon 2:10). "Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics" are also attributed to "the power of the evil one" (Mormon 1:19). In the Doctrine and Covenants, sorcerers are among those who are "cast down to hell" (D&C 76:103, 106), who "shall have their part in . . . the second death" (D&C 63:17).37 These are the only references to magical or occult powers in LDS scripture, and they are uniformly and emphatically negative. Brooke's key terms, such as "alchemy," "astrology," "hermeticism," "androgyny," and "cabala," are never mentioned in LDS scripture.[45]

In another case, critics present

background material [that is] is often dated or misrepresented. Owens's use of sources, both primary and secondary, is problematic at a number of levels. First, he ignores nearly all earlier writings by Latter-day Saint scholars on the significance of the possible parallels between Latter-day Saint ideas and the Western esoteric tradition. There is, in fact, a growing body of Latter-day Saint literature that has examined some of these alleged parallels, and presented possible interpretations of the relationship between the esoteric tradition and the gospel. Why is Nibley not even mentioned by Owens, despite the fact that he has been writing on this subject for four decades?9 Robert F. Smith's discussion of many of these issues is ignored....

Furthermore, for the most part, Owens's account of the Western esoteric tradition does not rely on primary sources, or even translations of primary sources, but on secondary summaries, which he often misunderstands or misrepresents. This unfamiliarity with both the primary and secondary sources may in part explain the numerous errors that occur throughout his article....[46]

Critics often fail to provide any specifics to link these ideas to the members of the Church—generally because there aren't any such sources.

This does not deter critics, however, from a chain of speculation, supposition, and probability that hides the fact that no evidence whatever has been presented:

Owens insists that "any backwoods rodsman divining for buried treasures in New York in 1820 may have known about the [esoteric] tradition" and that "there undoubtedly existed individuals [in the early nineteenth-century United States] who were deeply cognizant of Hermeticism, its lore, rituals, and aspirations. And this group probably included an occasional associate of treasure diggers" (p. 159). Elsewhere Owens asserts that "there must have been more than a few" people in frontier New York who had been influenced by the hermetic, kabbalistic, and alchemical traditions (p. 165, emphasis added to all these citations). Evidence, please! Who exactly were these individuals? What exactly did they know? How exactly did they gain their unusual knowledge? Exactly when and where did they live? With whom exactly did they associate? What exactly did they teach their associates? What evidence—any evidence at all—does Owens provide for any of his speculations? [46]

Reliance on late, anti-Mormon accounts

Given the lack of material to support this hypothesis in the words of Joseph Smith or his followers, critics turn to their enemies:

...in large part Brooke relies on late secondhand anti-Mormon accounts—taken at face value—while rejecting or ignoring eye-witness contemporary Mormon accounts of the same events or ideas....

In a book purportedly analyzing the thought of Joseph Smith, it is remarkable how infrequently Joseph himself is actually quoted. Instead we find what Joseph's enemies wanted others to believe he was saying and doing. Thus, while it may be true that some early non-Mormons or anti-Mormons occasionally described some activities of Joseph Smith and the Saints as somehow related to "magic," it is purely a derogatory outsider view. The Saints never describe their own beliefs and activities in those terms. Brooke has a disturbing tendency to cite standard LDS sources and histories on noncontroversial matters—thereby establishing an impression of impartiality—while, on disputed points, using anti-Mormon sources without explaining the Mormon perspective or interpretation.[47]

Sometimes, critics even give "magical" meaning to common words used by Joseph Smith in a completely different context

in a breathtaking case of academic legerdemain, he takes common terms that occur with specialized technical meanings in hermetic and alchemical thought—terms such as "furnace," "refine," "stone," "metal," etc.—and proposes the existence of such common terms in Mormon writings as a subtle but irrefutable indication that Mormons had hermetic and alchemical ideas in the backs of their minds all along. In fact, so subtle is the impact of hermetic and alchemical thought on Joseph that "the hermetic implications of his theology may not even have been clear to Smith himself" (p. 208)! This is truly an alchemical transmutation of baseless assertions into pure academic fool's gold.[45]

Or:

Owens ignores two other obvious explanations: that both esoteric and Latter-day Saint ideas derive from a similar source, e.g., the Bible, or that Joseph Smith received true revelation, as opposed to some ill-defined type of Jungian "personal cognition." [46]

Some critics' relative unfamiliarity with LDS history is made clear by repeated self-contradiction and historical blunders

Brooke's presentation of early Mormon history is likewise plagued by repeated blunders. His depiction of a Joseph Smith who is "bitter," "suspicious," and "anxious" (p. 135)—a description helpful to Brooke's environmentalist reading of the Book of Mormon—flies in the face of Brooke's own claim that "by all accounts he was a gregarious, playful character" (p. 180; cf. JS-H 1:28). It may also seem remarkable to some that Joseph believed that "the simultaneous emergence of counterfeiting and the spurious Masonry of the corrupt country Grand Lodge in the early 1820s was an affliction on the people, the consequence of their rejection of Joseph Smith as a preacher of the gospel" (p. 177), since Joseph had not yet restored the gospel or begun to preach in the early 1820s. Brooke has Joseph and Oliver being "baptized into the Priesthood of Aaron" (p. 156), even though their baptism and their ordination to the priesthood were clearly two separate events.66 Furthermore, he uses the alleged counterfeiting activities of Theodore Turley, Peter Hawes, Joseph H. Jackson, Marenus Eaton, and Edward Bonney to propose a continued Mormon fascination with counterfeiting, and thereby, with alchemy (pp. 269-70), despite the fact that Jackson, Eaton, and Bonney were not LDS! And Brooke seems unsure as to whether John Taylor's Mediation and Atonement "was of great significance doctrinally, because it marked the rejection of the Adam-God concept," (p. 289) or whether the "rejection of the Adam-God doctrine [was] something that John Taylor had not really attempted" (p. 291).[45]

Errors also extend beyond LDS matters into the history of "magick" thought itself:

Owens makes an unsupported claim that the alchemists' ""philosopher's stone' [was] the antecedent of Joseph Smith's "seer's stone'" (p. 136). In fact, the philosopher's stone (lapis philosophorum) was thought to have been composed of primordial matter, the quintessentia—the fifth element after air, water, fire, and earth. Unlike Joseph's seer stone, it was not really a literal "stone" at all, but primordial matter (materia prima)—"this stone therefore is no stone," as notes a famous alchemical text.26 Sometimes described as a powder the color of sulfur, the philosopher's stone was used for the transmutation of matter and had little or nothing to do with divination. Indeed, the use of stones and mirrors for divination antedates the origin of the idea of the philosopher's stone. There is no relationship beyond the fact that both happen to be called a stone....

Owens claims that the concept that "God was once as man now is . . . could, by various exegetical approaches, be found in the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition" (pp. 178-79). It is understandable that he provides neither primary nor secondary evidence for this assertion, since no hermetic or kabbalistic texts make such a claim. Unlike Latter-day Saint concepts of God and divinization, the metaphysical presuppositions of both hermeticism and kabbalism are fundamentally Neoplatonic.[46]

Even the complete absence of evidence is no bar to the critic:

Owens speculates at great length about possible Rosicrucian influences on Joseph Smith (pp. 138-54), asserting (with absolutely no evidence) that Luman Walter was influenced by Rosicrucian ideas (p. 162). Once again, however, Owens ignores the annoying fact that the Rosicrucian movement was effectively dead at the time of Joseph Smith. In England "the Gold and Rosy Cross appears to have had no English members and was virtually extinct by 1793."...

Thus Joseph Smith was alive precisely during the period of the least influence of Kabbalah, hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism, all of which had seriously declined by the late eighteenth century—before Joseph's birth—and would revive only in the late nineteenth century, after Joseph's death. Owens never recognizes these developments, but instead consistently quotes sources earlier and later than Joseph Smith as indicative of the ideas supposedly found in Joseph's day.[46]

Some critics do not seem to even understand modern LDS thought and history well

For example:

Professor Brooke's ignorance of contemporary Mormonism hurts him in amusing ways. Even the cold fusion claims made at the University of Utah a few years ago are pressed into service as illustrations of Mormon hermeticism: They are interesting, Brooke declares, "given Mormon doctrines on the nature of matter" (p. 299). He never troubles himself, though, to explain how the experiments of the two non-Mormon chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman are even remotely helpful as indicators of Latter-day Saint attitudes and beliefs.

It is probably significant that Brooke's mistakes are not random; rather, his presentation consistently misrepresents LDS scripture, doctrine, and history in ways that tend to support his thesis by making LDS ideas seem closer to his hermetic prototypes. These are not minor errors involving marginal characters or events in LDS scripture and history; nor are they mere matters of interpretation. Rather, for the most part, they are fundamental errors, clearly demonstrating Brooke's feeble grasp of the primary texts.[45]

Did Joseph Smith have a Jupiter talisman on his person at the time of his death?

The only source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person is Charles Bidamon, made long after the death of Joseph and Emma

Did Joseph have this Talisman on him when he was murdered? What would it mean if he did?

This well circulated claim finds its origins in a 1974 talk by Dr. Reed Durham. Durham said that Joseph "evidently [had a Talisman] on his person when he was martyred. The talisman, originally purchased from the Emma Smith Bidamon family, fully notarized by that family to be authentic and to have belonged to Joseph Smith, can now be identified as a Jupiter talisman."[48]

There is only one source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person, and that source is Charles Bidamon. Bidamon's statement was made long after the death of Joseph and Emma, relied on memories from his youth, and was undergirded by financial motives.

The idea that Joseph Smith might have had a Jupiter Talisman in his possession is used by critics of the Church as proof of his fascination with the occult. As one work put it: "The fact that Smith owned a Jupiter talisman shows that his fascination with the occult was not just a childish fad. At the time of his death, Smith had on his person this talisman....[49]

By contrast, contemporary evidence demonstrates that Joseph did not have such a Talisman in his possession at his death.

Durham, the source of the idea in modern discourse, would later say:

I now wish I had presented some of my material differently… For instance, at the present time, after rechecking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and a non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So, the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable!... [One author who was presented wrote:] "Dr. Durham also told me he was trying to play the "devil’s advocate" in his Nauvoo speech, which is what many there, including myself, sensed. Unfortunately others took the words to further their purposes."[50]

What is the source of the story about Joseph Smith possessing a Jupiter talisman?

The source of the Talisman story, upon which Dr. Durham based his remarks, was Wilford C. Wood, who was told it by Charles Bidamon, the son of Lewis Bidamon

Lewis was Emma Smith's non-Mormon second husband. Charles was born following an affair between Lewis Bidamon and Nancy Abercrombie, which occurred while Lewis was married to Emma. Charles was taken in by Emma when four years old, and raised by her until her death 11 years later.[51] (This action says much for Emma's charity.)

The talisman, or "silver pocket piece" as described in 1937, appeared on a list of items purportedly own by Joseph Smith which were to be sold by Charles Bidamon

Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote that the Talisman, or "silver pocket piece" as described in 1937, appeared on a list of items purportedly own by Joseph Smith which were to be sold by Charles Bidamon. One item listed was "a silver pocket piece which was in the Prophet's pocket at the time of his assassination."[52]:541 Wilford Wood, who collected Mormon memorabilia, purchased it in 1938 along with a document from Bidamon certifying that the Prophet possessed it when murdered. The affidavit sworn to by Charles Bidamon at the time of Wilford C. Wood's purchase was very specific:

This piece came to me through the relationship of my father, Major L. C. Bidamon, who married the Prophet Joseph Smith's widow, Emma Smith. I certify that I have many times heard her say, when being interviewed, and showing the piece, that it was in the Prophet's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage, Ill.[52]:558

Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, and notes that at the time of her death he was only fifteen years old

Anderson noted that Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, and notes that at the time of her death he was only fifteen years old.

Durham based his comments on Wood's description for the item which was: "This piece [the Talisman] was in Joseph Smith's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage Jail."[52]:558[53] However, a list of the items in Joseph's possession at the time of his death was provided to Emma following the martyrdom. On this list there was no mention made of any Talisman-like item. If there had been such an article, it ought to have been listed.

The list of items in Joseph's possession at the time of his death did not list the talisman among them

In 1984, Anderson located and published the itemized list of the contents of Joseph Smith's pockets at his death. The list was originally published in 1885 in Iowa by James W. Woods, Smith's lawyer, who collected the prophet's personal effects after the Martyrdom. The contents from the published 1885 printing are as follows:

Received, Nauvoo, Illinois, July 2, 1844, of James W. Woods, one hundred and thirty- five dollars and fifty cents in gold and silver and receipt for shroud, one gold finger ring, one gold pen and pencil case, one penknife, one pair of tweezers, one silk and one leather purse, one small pocket wallet containing a note of John P. Green for $50, and a receipt of Heber C. Kimball for a note of hand on Ellen M. Saunders for one thousand dollars, as the property of Joseph Smith. - Emma Smith.[52]:558[54]

No Talisman or item like it is listed. It could not be mistaken for a coin or even a "Masonic Jewel" as Durham first thought. Anderson described the Talisman as being "an inch-and-a-half in diameter and covered with symbols and a prayer on one side and square of sixteen Hebrew characters on the other."[52]:541 Significant is the fact that no associate of Joseph Smith has ever mentioned anything like this medallion. There are no interviews that ever record Emma mentioning any such item as attested to by Charles Bidamon, though he claimed she often spoke of it.

Stephen Robinson: "In the case of the Jupiter coin, this same extrapolation error is compounded with a very uncritical acceptance of the artifact in the first place"

Of the matter of the Jupiter talisman that is alleged to have been among Joseph Smith's possessions at the time of his death, Stephen Robinson wrote:

In the case of the Jupiter coin, this same extrapolation error is compounded with a very uncritical acceptance of the artifact in the first place. If the coin were Joseph's, that fact alone would tell us nothing about what it meant to him. But in fact there is insufficient evidence to prove that the artifact ever belonged to the Prophet. The coin was completely unknown until 1930 when an aging Charles Bidamon sold it to Wilford Wood. The only evidence that it was Joseph's is an affidavit of Bidamon, who stood to gain financially by so representing it. Quinn [and any other critic who embraces this theory] uncritically accepts Bidamon's affidavit as solid proof that the coin was Joseph's. Yet the coin was not mentioned in the 1844 list of Joseph's possessions returned to Emma. Quinn negotiates this difficulty by suggesting the coin must have been worn around Joseph's neck under his shirt. But in so doing Quinn impeaches his only witness for the coin's authenticity, for Bidamon's affidavit, the only evidence linking the coin to Joseph, specifically and solemnly swears that the coin was in Joseph's pocket at Carthage. The real empirical evidence here is just too weak to prove that the coin was really Joseph's, let alone to extrapolate a conclusion from mere possession of the artifact that Joseph must have believed in and practiced magic. The recent Hofmann affair should have taught us that an affidavit from the seller, especially a 1930 affidavit to third hand information contradicted by the 1844 evidence, just isn't enough 'proof' to hang your hat on.[55]

Could the list of items on Joseph's person at the time of his death have been incomplete?

Bidamon's certification clearly states that the Talisman was "in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred," yet it does not appear in the list of his possessions at the time of his death

More recent arguments contend that Wood’s list was exaggerated or was an all together different type of list. For example, some suggest that since neither Joseph's gun or hat were on the report, the list must not be complete. It should be obvious, however, that these items were not found on Joseph's person. The record clearly states that he dropped his gun and left it behind before being murdered. As for the hat, even if he had been wearing it indoors, it seems unlikely to have remained on his head after a gun-fight and fall from a second-story window.

Critics also argue that the Talisman was not accounted for was because it ought to have been worn around the neck, hidden from view and secret to all (including Emma no less). Thus, the argument runs, it was overlooked in the inventory. While it may be true that Talismans are worn around the neck, Bidamon's certification clearly states that the Talisman was "in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred." So which is it? In his pocket like a lucky charm or secretly worn around his neck as such an item should properly be used? In either case, the record is clear that he did not have a Talisman on his person at the time of his death. The rest is speculation.

The critics also resort to arguing that a prisoner could not possibly have had a penknife, so how accurate can the list of Joseph's possessions be? Obviously, the fact that he had a gun makes the possession of a knife a matter of no consequence.[56] Critics will dismiss contemporary evidence simply because it is inconvenient.

"at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman"

As a final note to the saga, when Durham was later asked how he felt about his speech regarding the Talisman, he replied:

I now wish I had presented some of my material differently." "For instance, at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable.[57]

What is the probability that Joseph Smith possessed items related to "magic"?

Probability problems

This claim rests upon a lengthy chain of supposition:[58]

  1. Joseph himself owned the item (e.g., parchment, Mars dagger, or Jupiter talisman).
  2. His possession dates to his early days of "treasure seeking."
  3. He used them for magical purposes.
  4. He made them himself or commissioned them.
  5. He therefore must have used magic books to make them.
  6. He therefore must have had an occult mentor to help him with the difficult process of understanding the magical books and making these items.
  7. This occult mentor transmitted extensive arcane hermetic lore to Joseph beyond the knowledge necessary to make the artifacts.

Theses seven propositions are simply a tissue of assumptions, assertions, and speculations. There is no contemporary primary evidence that Joseph himself owned or used these items. We do not know when, how, or why these items became heirlooms of the Hyrum Smith family. Again, there is no contemporary primary evidence that mentions Joseph or anyone in his family using these artifacts—as Quinn himself noted, "possession alone may not be proof of use." There is no evidence that Joseph ever had any magic books. There is no evidence that Joseph ever had an occult mentor who helped him make or use these items.

Improbability

The methodology used by the critics is a classic example of what one could call the miracle of the addition of the probabilities. The case relies on a rickety tower of unproven propositions that do not provide certainty, rather a geometrically increasing improbability. Probabilities are multiplied, not added. Combining two propositions, each of which has a 50% probability, does not create a 100% probability, it creates a 25% probability that both are true together:

  • chance of proposition #1 being true = 50% = 0.5
  • chance of proposition #2 being true = 50% = 0.5
  • chance of BOTH being true = .5 x .5 = .25 = 25%

Allowing each of these seven propositions a 50% probability—a very generous allowance—creates a .0078% probability that the combination of all seven propositions is true. And this is only one element of a very complex and convoluted argument, with literally dozens of similar unverified assertions. The result is a monumentally high improbability that the overall thesis is correct.

A non-response to this argument

D. Michael Quinn, a major proponent of the "magick" argument, responded to the above by claiming that "Only when cumulative evidence runs contrary to the FARMS agenda, do polemicists like Hamblin want readers to view each piece of evidence as though it existed in isolation."[59]

Replied Hamblin:

Quinn misunderstands and misrepresents my position on what I have called the "miracle of the addition of the probabilities"....

[Quinn's rebuttal discusses] the process of the verification of historical evidence. The issue was unproven propositions, not parallel evidence.

Quinn...proposed that a series of "magic" artifacts provide evidence that Joseph Smith practiced magic. My position is that, in order for us to accept any particular artifact as a single piece of evidence, we must first accept several unproven propositions, each of which may be true or false, but none of which is proven. The more unproven propositions one must accept to validate a piece of evidence, the greater the probability that the evidence is not, in fact, authentic. Thus, two historiographical processes are under discussion. One is the authentication of a particular piece of evidence: did Joseph own a magical talisman and use it to perform magical rites? The second is the cumulative significance of previously authenticated evidence in proving a particular thesis: does the authentication of the use of the talisman demonstrate that Joseph was a magician who adhered to a magical worldview? Quinn apparently cannot distinguish between these two phases of the historical endeavor, which goes far to account for some of the numerous failings in his book....

Of course the probative value of evidence is cumulative. The more evidence you have, the greater the probability that your overall thesis is true. Thus, if Quinn can demonstrate that the talisman and the parchment and the dagger all belonged to the Smith family and were used for magical purposes, it would be more probable that his overall thesis is true than if he could establish only that the Smiths owned and used just one of those three items. But my argument is that the authenticity of each of these pieces of evidence rests on half a dozen unproven propositions and assumptions.[6]

Was a "magic dagger" once owned by Hyrum Smith?

Everyone in the nineteenth-century frontier had at least one dagger, and this one was not designed for ceremonial magic or treasure hunting

It is claimed that the Smith family owned a magic dagger that was among Hyrum Smith's heirlooms. They cite this as proof of the Smith family's deep involvement in ritual magick.

William Hamblin discusses a dagger that was discovered to be among the the Hyrum Smith family heirlooms. The dagger is claimed by historian D. Michael Quinn to be associated with the practice of magic:

The big problem for Quinn is that a dagger is usually just a dagger. Everyone in the nineteenth-century frontier had at least one, and most people had many. Some daggers were inscribed; others were not. Daggers were bought and sold just like any other tool and could easily pass from one owner to another. Given the data presented above, we do not know when, where, or how Hyrum obtained his dagger, or even if he really did. Since there is no documentation on the dagger until 1963, it could have been obtained by one of his descendants after his death and later accidentally confused with Hy rum's heirlooms. We do not know what it meant to Hyrum (assuming he owned it). Was it simply a dagger with some strange marks? Was it a gift to him from a Masonic friend? All of this is speculation—but it is no more speculative than Quinn's theories. Whatever the origin and purpose of the dagger, though, it is quite clear that, based on the evidence Quinn himself has presented, it does not match the magic daggers designed for making magic circles nor does it match the astrology of any of the Smiths.[6]

Hamblin concludes that,

[D. Michael] Quinn, and those who have followed him, have completely misunderstood or misrepresented the purpose of the dagger. The inclusion of the astrological sigil for Scorpio means the dagger was designed for someone born under the sign of Scorpio. None of the Smiths was. Therefore, it was not made for the Smiths. Quinn demonstrates no understanding of talismanic magic. The inclusion of the talismanic sigils for Mars means it was designed to grant victory in battle or litigation. It was not designed for ceremonial magic or treasure hunting, as Quinn claims. Quinn cites sources from after 1870 as evidence for what the Smiths supposedly believed, while completely misrepresenting those sources. The only possible conclusion to draw from all this is that the dagger was made for an unknown person, and, if it somehow came into the possession of Hyrum Smith, it was obtained secondhand with the engravings already made. This conforms with the late Smith family tradition that remembers the signs on the blade as "Masonic" rather than magical.[6]

Does the Book of Mormon’s reference to "slippery treasures" stem from Joseph Smith’s involvement in money digging and the occult?

Review of the Criticism

Some readers of the Book of Mormon and other critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have criticized the Book of Mormon’s reference to "slippery treasures".[60] This reference has been cited as evidence to them that the supposed "magic world view" of Joseph Smith and perhaps his associates influenced the composition of the Book of Mormon for those portions of the Book of Mormon that reference such "slippery treasures."

Book of Mormon Central: Why Did Samuel Say the Wealth of Some Nephites Would Become "Slippery"?

This charge/question has been examined in detail by Book of Mormon Central. Readers are invited to become acquainted with their material to address the question.

Book of Mormon Central:

Samuel the Lamanite’s famous prophetic warnings are found in Helaman 13–15. His pronouncement began with a massive rebuke of the pride, greed, iniquities, priestcrafts, ingratitude, and foolishness of wicked Nephites who were willing to embrace false prophets while utterly rejecting the righteous prophets (Helaman 13:25–29). Samuel pulled no punches. In this context, he used the word "slippery" three times, and the word "slipped" once (vv. 30–36).

Did Joseph Smith's family own "magic parchments" which suggest their involvement in the "occult"?

There is no evidence that Joseph knew of, possessed, or used magical parchments

It is claimed that the Smith family owned "magic parchments," suggesting their involvement in the "occult." However, there is no evidence that Joseph knew of, possessed, or used magical parchments. All we know is that some parchments were eventually "heirlooms" of the Hyrum Smith family, but their provenance is not clear.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Notes

  1. See discussions of this issue in: John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  2. John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; citing Stanley J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Jonathan Z. Smith, "Trading Places," in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 16.
  3. Robert K. Ritner, "Egyptian Magic: Questions of Legitimacy, Religious Orthodoxy and Social Deviance," in Studies in Pharaonic Religion and Society in Honour of J. Gwyn Griffiths , ed. Alan B. Lloyd (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1992), 190; cited in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site] (emphasis in original).
  4. Criticisms of Joseph's use of "folk magic" appear in the following publications: “The Book of Mormon and the Mormonites,” Athenaeum, Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art 42 (July 1841): 370–74. off-site; Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints : To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: Printed for J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 28. off-site; John A. Clark, “Gleanings by the Way. No. VII,” Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 18, no. 25 (12 September 1840), ??. off-site; James H. Hunt, Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect (St. Louis: Ustick and Davies, 1844), n.p.. off-site; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 9 (3 March 1838): 34, citing Howe. off-site
  5. Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  7. Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 28 March 1841; also cited in Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 2:75. ISBN 0941214133.
  8. Brant A. Gardner, Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, FAIR Conference 2009. Gardner references D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 38. and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 70.
  9. 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), 200–215.
  10. Eber Dudley Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 241-242; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 no. 2 (Summer 1982): 48–68.
  11. Joel Tiffany, Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 164;cited in Van Wagoner and Walker, 55.
  12. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853),91–92.
  13. Dean C. Jessee, "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," Brigham Young University Studies 17 no. 1 (August 1976).; cited in 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), 281. Buy online
  14. 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), 200–215.
  15. See, for example, Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:129. GospeLink; Roberts was followed by Richard S. Van Wagoner, Dan Vogel, Ogden Kraut, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, and D. Michael Quinn. See discussion in Ashurst-McGee, 247n317.
  16. 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), 200–283.
  17. 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), 200–201.
  18. W. D. Purple, The Chenango Union (3 May 1877); cited in Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959[1942]), 2:365. ASIN B000HMY138. (See Van Wagoner and Walker, 54.)
  19. Richard Marcellas Robinson, "The History of a Nephite Coin," manuscript, 20 December 1834, Church archives; cited in 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), 264. Buy online
  20. Mormonism—II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 163, see also 169; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 286.
  21. Henry Harris, statement in E.D. Howe Mormonism Unvailed (1833), 252; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 290.
  22. Joseph Knight, cited in Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1981), 6. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized. The original text reads: "After Brackfist Joseph Cald me in to the other Room and he sit his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, well I am Dissopented. Well, say I, I am sorrey. Well, says he, I am grateley Dissopnted. It is ten times Better then I expected. Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummim than he Did of the plates for says he, I can see anything. They are Marvelous."
  23. Joel Tiffany, "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 165–166; cited in VanWagoner and Walker, footnote 27.
  24. Tiffany, 163.
  25. Told in Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988): 6.
  26. Lucy Smith, "Preliminary Manuscript," 64, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:333-34. Cited in 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), 320–326.
  27. 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), 320–326.
  28. 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), 334–337.
  29. 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), 332–333.
  30. Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman ; citing Orson Pratt, "Discourse at Brigham City," 27 June 1874, Ogden (Utah) Junction, cited in Orson Pratt, "Two Days´ Meeting at Brigham City," Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498–499.
  31. Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman
  32. Van Wagoner and Walker, 58–59 (citations removed).
  33. Van Wagoner and Walker, 58–59 (citations removed). See also 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), 230.
  34. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View 242–247.
  35. Brant A. Gardner, "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?," Proceedings of the 2009 FAIR Conference (August 2009).
  36. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988).
  37. Matthew Brown, "Revised or Unaltered? Joseph Smith's Foundational Stories.", 2006 FAIR Conference.
  38. William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site] (emphasis in original) Hamblin cites Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285. and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 73. ISBN 0252060121.
  39. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 235-236. (Affidavits examined) Reproduced in "The Origin of Mormonism," Christian Enquirer (New York) 5/51 (25 September 1852): [1]. Also available in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:40-45.
  40. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Review of Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined by Rodger I. Anderson," FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80. off-site [Anderson's references have been silently removed from this citation.]
  41. This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site. Please consult the original for references and further information. By the nature of a wiki project, the base text may have since been modified and added to.
  42. 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
  43. Bruce Chilton, "Jesus’ Dispute in the Temple and the Origin of the Eucharist," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 no. 4, 22–23.
  44. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 121 ( Index of claims )
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 45.4 45.5 45.6 William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, "Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge] (Review of The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 by John L. Brooke)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 3–58. off-site
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 46.3 46.4 46.5 46.6 William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site
  47. William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, "Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge] (Review of The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 by John L. Brooke)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 3–58. off-site(italics in original)
  48. Dr. Reed Durham’s Presidential Address before the Mormon History Association on 20 April 1974.
  49. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 225. ( Index of claims )
  50. https://www.fairmormon.org/archive/publications/the-truth-about-the-god-makers
  51. Jerald R. Johansen, After the Martyrdom: What Happened to the Family of Joseph Smith (Springville, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 2004[1997]), 79. ISBN 0882905961. off-site
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 52.3 52.4 Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman
  53. Original coming from LaMar C. Berett, The Wilford Wood Collection, Vol. 1 (Provo, UT: Wilford C. Wood Foundation, 1972), 173.
  54. Anderson points to its original source in J. W. Woods "The Mormon Prophet," Daily Democrat (Ottumwa, Iowa), 10 May 1885; and in Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (Des Moines: Homestead Publishing Co., 1916), 271.
  55. Stephen E. Robinson, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, by D. Michael Quinn," Brigham Young University Studies 27 no. 4 (1987), 94–95.
  56. These are examples of later arguments by Quinn in an attempt to refute Anderson.
  57. Gilbert W. Scharffs, The Truth about ‘The God Makers’ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Publishers Press, 1989; republished by Bookcraft, 1994), 180. Full text FAIR link ISBN 088494963X.
  58. This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site. By the nature of a wiki project, it has since been modified and added to.
  59. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 355—56 n. 121 ( Index of claims )
  60. Robert N. Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis, MO: Clayton Publishing House, 1980), 105; D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998), 61, 196–197.
  1. REDIRECTJoseph Smith and folk magic or the occult#Did Joseph Smith place his seer stone in his hat while looking for lost objects?

Response to claim: "there is evidence that he found the plates using a seer stone"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

Although Moroni is commonly believed to have instructed young Joseph on where the plates were in Hill Cumorah, there is evidence that he found the plates using a seer stone that he had previously used for treasure-seeking

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

It is true that there is an account that states that after the angel Moroni told Joseph of the plates' location, that he looked into his seer stone and saw the location at the hill.


Response to claim: "It is troublesome that a common stone found some 24 feet beneath the ground on Mr. Chase's property had the exact same seering ability as the sacred Urim and Thummim"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

Critic's comment: It is troublesome that a common stone found some 24 feet beneath the ground on Mr. Chase's property had the exact same seering ability as the sacred Urim and Thummim that was preserved in a stone box for 1,500 years. If the stones were so common, why the need to preserve the Urim and Thummim? Why punish Joseph with taking away the Urim and Thummim when he all along had a seer stone capable of the same function? Had the seer stone Joseph used been given to him by an angel, or had directed him to this stone, then this would make more sense. However, there is nothing to indicate why the stone found on Mr. Chase's property had the same ability as the sacred Urim and Thummim.

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

Why is this troubling? God could grant Joseph any ability or make any stone work for Joseph that He wanted. There is an account that indicates that Joseph received his ability to "see" during the First Vision after Jesus Christ touched his eyes.


Articles about Joseph Smith

What is the distinction between belief in "folk magic" and a religious belief in the supernatural?

The use of the terms "magic" and "occult" are prejudicial, loaded terminology

When critics use the term "magic" or "occult," they are using prejudicial, loaded terminology. Used in a neutral sense, magic might mean only that a person believes in the supernatural, and believes that supernatural can be influenced for the believer's benefit.

However, critics are generally not clear about what definition of magic they are using, and how to distinguish a "magical" belief in the supernatural from a "religious" belief in the supernatural.[1] Scholars of magic and religion have, in fact, come to realize that defining "magic" is probably a hopeless task. John Gee noted:

Defining "magic" as "religious beliefs other than their own"

In 1990, Cambridge University published Stanley Tambiah's Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality, which showed that the definitions of many of the most important writers on "magic" were heavily influenced both by their backgrounds and their personal ideological agendas: they defined "magic" as religious beliefs other than their own. In 1992, the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Magic in the Ancient World failed to come to any agreement on what "magic" was. The plenary speaker, Jonathan Z. Smith, in particular voiced strong opinions:

I see little merit in continuing the use of the substantive term "magic" in second-order, theoretical, academic discourse. We have better and more precise scholarly taxa for each of the phenomena commonly denoted by "magic" which, among other benefits, create more useful categories for comparison. For any culture I am familiar with, we can trade places between the corpus of materials conventionally labeled "magical" and corpora designated by other generic terms (e.g., healing, divining, execrative) with no cognitive loss. Indeed, there would be a gain.[2]

The use of the term "magic" is a negative label for modern Christians

The use of the term "magic" imposes, especially for modern Christians, a negative label at the outset, which explains its popularity for critics. As Professor of Egyptology Robert K. Ritner explained:

Modern Western terms for 'magic' function primarily as designations for that which we as a society do not accept, and which has overtones of the supernatural or the demonic (but not of the divine). It is important to stress that this pejorative connotation has not been grafted onto the notion of magic as the result of any recent theoretical fancy but is inherent in Western terminology virtually from its beginning. It constitutes the essential core of the Western concept of magic.[3]

The Book of Mormon condemns "magic"

Moroni's visit was a turning point for Joseph, for it is important to note that the Book of Mormon itself condemns "magic" whenever it is mentioned:

And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land, even unto the fulfilling of all the words of Abinadi, and also Samuel the Lamanite. Mormon 1꞉19

Regardless of Joseph's or his family's previous opinions regarding folk magic prior to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, they clearly always believed in and had faith in God. Joseph believed that instruments such as the Urim and Thummim and his seer stone were consecrated by God for their intended use.

Were Joseph Smith's spiritual experiences originally products of magic and the occult?

Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects

It is a known fact that Joseph's family believed in folk magic, and that Joseph himself used several different seer stones in order to locate lost objects.[4] Brant Gardner notes,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society.

Joseph's family shared folk magic beliefs that were common to the day. Joseph's mother, Lucy, felt it important to note in her history that the family did not let these magical endeavors prevent the family from doing the necessary work to survive:

But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.[5]

Joseph's involvement with Josiah Stowell's attempt to locate a lost Spanish treasure is well documented in Church history

Stowell requested Joseph's assistance in a mining operation looking for old coins and precious metals. This effort, in fact, resulted in charges being brought against Joseph by Stowell's relatives for being a "glasslooker" in 1826. Joseph was ultimately charged with being a "disorderly person" and released. (For more detailed information, see: Joseph Smith's 1826 glasslooking trial)

Some, however, believe that all of Joseph's early spiritual experiences, particularly the First Vision and the visit of Moroni, were originally magical or occult experiences that were only later couched in spiritual terms. For example, the Hurlbut affidavits relate stories of Moroni's visit that cast the angel in the role of spiritual treasure guardian, with one (Willard Chase) even claiming that the angel appeared in the form of a toad.

D. Michael Quinn has been the most prolific author on the subject of "magic" influences on the origins of Mormonism. According to William Hamblin:

Quinn's overall thesis is that Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saint leaders were fundamentally influenced by occult and magical thought, books, and practices in the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is unmitigated nonsense. Yet the fact that Quinn could not discover a single primary source written by Latter-day Saints that makes any positive statement about magic is hardly dissuasive to a historian of Quinn's inventive capacity.[6]

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power

Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly believed in supernatural power. And, they may have had some ideas about how to access that power that now strike us as inaccurate and even strange. This is not surprising, given the two centuries and massive scientific advances which separate our culture from theirs. However, there is no evidence that Joseph and others considered these things to be "magic," or the "occult," nor did they consider "magic" or the "occult" to be positive things.

What were the attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic"?

The attitudes of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries toward "magic" was always negative

In 1841, Wilford Woodruff recounted an episode of Church disciplinary action:

The President then brought up the case of a Br Moumford, who was holding the office of a Priest, from whome fellowship had been withdrawn by the council of officers in consequence of his practizing fortune Telling, Magic, Black art &c & called upon Elders Woodruff & Cordon to express their feelings upon the subject when Elder Woodruff arose, & spoke Briefly upon the subject, & informed the assembly that we had no such custom or practice in the Church, & that we should not fellowship any individual who Practiced Magic fortune Telling, Black art &c for it was not of God. When It was moved & carried by the whole church that fellowship be withdrawn from Br Moumford.[7]

And, most importantly, the Book of Mormon's treatment of "magic" or "sorcery" is always negative, which seems strange if (as we are asked to believe by the critics) Joseph Smith concocted it while at the same time embracing that same "magic."

Joseph Smith locates a seer stone while digging a well. Image copyright (c) 2016 by Anthony Sweat.

How did Joseph Smith use his seer stones as a youth?

Joseph as the village seer: the use of the seer stone prior to the Restoration

Brant Gardner clarifies the role that Joseph and his stone played within the community of Palmyra,

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society. He exhibited a talent parallel to others in similar communities. Even in Palmyra he was not unique. In D. Michael Quinn's words: "Until the Book of Mormon thrust young Smith into prominence, Palmyra's most notable seer was Sally Chase, who used a greenish-colored stone. William Stafford also had a seer stone, and Joshua Stafford had a 'peepstone which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center.'" Richard Bushman adds Chauncy Hart, and an unnamed man in Susquehanna County, both of whom had stones with which they found lost objects.[8]

During his tenure as a "village seer," Joseph acquired several seer stones. Joseph first used a neighbor's seer stone (probably that belonging to Palmyra seer Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby's foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822.[9]

The second seer stone was reportedly found while digging a well on the property of William Chase in 1822

Joseph then used this first stone to find a second stone (a white one). The second seer stone was reportedly found on the property of William Chase in 1822 as Chase described it:

In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me.... After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.... The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but I would lend it.[10]


Did Joseph Smith place his seer stone in his hat while looking for lost objects?

Martin Harris recounted that Joseph could find lost objects with one of his seer stones

Martin Harris recounted that Joseph could find lost objects with the second, white stone:

I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and 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. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him--I said, "Take your stone." I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat--the old white hat--and placed 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.[11]

Joseph's mother also indicated that Joseph was sought out by some, including Josiah Stoal, to use the stone to find hidden valuables. He

came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.[12]

Joseph referred to this incident in JS-H 1:55-56.

Stoal eventually joined the Church; some of his family, however, charged Joseph in court for events related to this treasure seeking. Stoal testified in Joseph's defense.

Joseph Knight also said that, at the command of the angel Moroni, Joseph looked into his seer stone to learn who he should marry. He "looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale."[13]

For a detailed response, see: Joseph's 1826 glasslooking trial

How many seer stones did Joseph Smith have in his possession?

Joseph had between two to four seer stones

Joseph first used a neighbor's seer stone (probably Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby's foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822.[14]

Joseph then used this first stone to find a second stone (a white one). The color and sequence of obtaining these stones has often been confused,[15] and readers interested in an in-depth treatment are referred to the endnotes.[16]

Joseph would later discover at least two more seers stones in Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi. These stones seem to have been collected more for their appearance, and there is little evidence of Joseph using them at that late date in his prophetic career.[17]

What did Joseph Smith's seer stones look like?

Witnesses gave descriptions of the stones

One witness reported (of the first, brown stone), from 1826:

It was about the size of a small hen's egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.[18]

The second stone:

[the] Seer Stone was the shape of an egg though not quite so large, of a gray cast something like granite but with white stripes running around it. It was transparent but had no holes, neither on the end or in the sides.[19]

How were Joseph Smith's seer stones involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon?

Joseph may have used his seer stone to view the location of the plates after Moroni told him where they were

There is considerable evidence that the location of the plates and Nephite interpreters (Urim and Thummim) were revealed to Joseph via his second, white seer stone. In 1859, Martin Harris recalled that "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase...It was by means of this stone he first discovered the plates."[20]

Some critics have sought to create a contradiction here, since Joseph's history reported that Moroni revealed the plates to him (JS-H 1꞉34-35,42). This is an example of a false dichotomy: Moroni could easily have told Joseph about the plates and interpreters. The vision to Joseph may well have then come through the seer stone, as some of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (e.g., Section X) would later be revealed. One account matches this theory well:

I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found them [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. he said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his [seer] stone and saw them in the place of deposit.[21]

Joseph was initially more excited about the Nephite interpreters than the gold plates

Joseph Knight recalled that Joseph was more excited about the Nephite interpreters than the gold plates:

After breakfast Joseph called me into the other room, set his foot on the bed, and leaned his head on his hand and said, "Well I am disappointed."

"Well, I said, "I am sorry."

"Well, he said, "I am greatly disappointed. It is ten times better than I expected."

Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates and, said he, they appear to be gold. But, he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plate for, said he, "I can see anything. They are marvelous."[22]

Martin Harris described the Nephite interpreters

Martin Harris later described the Nephite interpreters as "about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre.... They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eights of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which with the two stones, would make eight inches."[23]

Joseph often used the seer stone to translate

Despite having the Nephite interpreters, Joseph Smith often used the seer stone to translate. This led to an episode in which Martin tested the veracity of Joseph's claim to use the second, white stone to translate:[24]

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, "Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt." Martin then confessed that he wished to "stop the mouths of fools" who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.[25]

Joseph used his white seer stone sometimes "for convenience" during the translation of the 116 pages with Martin Harris; later witnesses reported him using his brown seer stone.

Joseph sometimes used the Nephite interpreters in the same manner as his seer stones, even when he was not translating

Mark-Ashurst McGee notes that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters in the same manner as his seer stone, even when he was not translating the plates, and may have removed them from the frame which held them:

On one occasion, while Joseph was digging a well for a woman in Macedon, his wife Emma felt that the plates were in danger and came to tell Joseph. Lucy wrote that Joseph, "having just looked into them before Emma go there[,] he perceived her coming and cmae up out of the well and met her..." [26] It seems doubtful that Joseph would have the eight-inch long pair of glasses with him while at work in the well. It seems that Joseph eventually detached the lenses from their frame and carried them in a pouch as he had his brown seer stone.[27]

For a detailed response, see: Why would Joseph use the "rock in the hat" for the Book of Mormon translation that he previously used for "money digging?"


Why did Joseph Smith eventually stop using the seer stones to receive revelation?

Joseph eventually learned, through divine tutoring, how to receive unmediated revelation

These "Urim and Thummim" were the means of receiving most of the formal revelations until June 1829. That was the time of completing the Book of Mormon, which was translated through the Nephite interpreters and also Joseph's other seer stone(s). After this, seer stones were generally not used while receiving revelation or translation. (The JST and the Book of Abraham translations both began with seer stone usage, but Joseph soon quit using them.[28]) Following his baptism, receipt of the Holy Ghost, and ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood, Joseph seems have felt far less need to resort to the stones.[29] He had learned, through divine tutoring, how to receive unmediated revelation—the Lord had taken him "line upon line" from where he was (surrounded with beliefs about seeing and divining) and brought him to further light, knowledge, and power.

This perspective was reinforced by Orson Pratt, who watched the New Testament revision (JST) and wondered why the use of seer stones/interpreters (as with the Book of Mormon) was not continued:

While this thought passed through the speaker's mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.[30]

Are there any Biblical parallels to Joseph Smith's understanding of the use of seer stones?

The idea of sacred stones acting as revelators to believers is present in the Bible

The idea of sacred stones acting as revelators to believers is present in the Bible, and Joseph Smith embraced a decidedly "non-magical" and "pro-religious" view of them:

In Revelation, John incorporates past religious symbols into his message. Thus the most internally consistent interpretation of the "white stone" combines with the book's assurance that the faithful will become "kings and priests" to the Most High (Rev. 1:6). These eternal priests will be in tune with God's will, like the High Priest with the breastplate of shining stones and the Urim. In Hebrew that term means "light," corresponding to the "white" stone of John's Revelation. This correlation should be obvious, but Joseph Smith is virtually alone in confidence that John sees the redeemed as full High Priests: "Then the white stone mentioned in Rev. 2:17 is the Urim and Thummim, whereby all things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms, even all kingdoms, will be made know." As for genuine religion, Joseph Smith perceived the stone of John's vision not as a stone of chance but as a conduit of enlightenment and a reward of worthiness of character.[31]

What happened to Joseph Smith's seer stones?

The Nephite interpreters were reclaimed by Moroni

As noted above, the Nephite interpreters were apparently reclaimed by Moroni following the loss of the 116 pages, and were only seen again by the Three Witnesses (Testimony of Three).

The seer stone was given to Oliver Cowdery

Van Wagoner and Walker write:

David Whitmer indicated that the seer stone was later given to Oliver Cowdery: "After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished early in the spring of 1830 before April 6th, Joseph gave the Stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the Stone anymore." Whitmer, who was Cowdery's brother-in-law, stated that on Oliver's death in 1848, another brother-in-law, "Phineas Young, a brother of Brigham Young, and an old-time and once intimate friend of the Cowdery family came out from Salt Lake City, and during his visit he contrived to get the stone from its hiding place, through a little deceptive sophistry, extended upon the grief-stricken widow. When he returned to Utah he carried it in triumph to the apostles of Brigham Young's 'lion house.'"...

[Van Wagoner and Walker here confuse the two seer stones, so this section is not included here, given that better information has since come to light.]

...Joseph Fielding Smith, as an apostle, made clear that "the Seer Stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days . . . is now in the possession of the Church." Elder Joseph Anderson, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve and long-time secretary to the First Presidency, clarified in 1971 that the "Seer Stone that Joseph Smith used in the early days of the Church is in possession of the Church and is kept in a safe in Joseph Fielding Smith's office.... [The stone is] slightly smaller than a chicken egg, oval, chocolate in color."[32] (This would be Joseph's first, "shoe-shaped stone," which was given to Oliver Cowdery, and then to his brother-in-law Phineas Young, brother of Brigham Young.[33]

Joseph's second (white) stone is also in the possession of the LDS First Presidency.[34]

Gardner: "Joseph Smith, long before golden plates complicated his position as a local seer, appears to have functioned just as Sally Chase did"

Brant Gardner:

Joseph Smith, long before golden plates complicated his position as a local seer, appears to have functioned just as Sally Chase did. Quinn reports that: "E. W. Vanderhoof [writing in 1905] remembered that his Dutch grandfather once paid Smith seventy-five cents to look into his ‘whitish, glossy, and opaque’ stone to locate a stolen mare. The grandfather soon ‘recovered his beast, which Joe said was somewhere on the lake shore and [was] about to be run over to Canada.’ Vanderhoof groused that ‘anybody could have told him that, as it was invariably the way a horse thief would take to dispose of a stolen animal in those days.'"13 While Vanderhoof reported a positive result of the consultation, it is interesting that his statement includes a qualifier that has the same intent as those added by the Saunders’ brothers. By the end of the century, one wouldn’t want to actually credit a village seer when describing their activities. Nevertheless, it isn’t the effectiveness that is important—it is the nature of the consultation. Sally Chase’s clients consulted her to find things which were lost, and Joseph Smith had at least one client who did the same.[35] —(Click here to continue)

Godfrey: "Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge"

Martin was a shrewd farmer and businessman, and a man of some property. He often warred between belief and doubt. For example, Martin put Joseph to the test during the translation of the 116 pages with the seer stone. He repeatedly subjected Joseph's claims to empirical tests to detect deception or fraud. He came away from those experiences convinced that Joseph was truly able to translate the plates. He was so convinced, he was willing to suffer ridicule and committed significant financial resources to publishing the Book of Mormon.

Kenneth W. Godfrey, Ensign (January 1988):

After returning from a trip to Palmyra to settle his affairs, Martin began to transcribe. From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, "Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt." Martin then confessed that he wished to "stop the mouths of fools" who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.[36]

To learn more about: seer stones in Church publications
Online
  • Richard Lloyd Anderson, "‘By the Gift and Power of God’," Ensign (September 1977): 79.
  • Hyrum Andrus, Joseph Smith, the Man, the Seer (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1960), 102. GL direct link
  • William J. Hamblin, "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies (Review of Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity by Brent Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 434–523. off-site
  • Marvin S. Hill, "Money-Digging Folklore and the Beginnings of Mormonism: An Interpretative Suggestion," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (Fall 1984), ?–??.GospeLink
  • Francis W. Kirkham, "The Manner of Translating The BOOK of MORMON," Improvement Era (1939). GL direct link
  • Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2000), D&C 9. GL direct link
  • Stephen D. Ricks, "Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993). [201–206] link
  • Brigham H. Roberts, "A Brief Debate on the Book of Mormon," in Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. (1907), 1:350. Vol 1 GL direct link Vol 2 GL direct linkGL direct link
  • Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," Brigham Young University Studies 30 no. 1 (Winter 1990), 52.GL direct link
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Was a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters Joseph Smith's "mentor"?

The idea that Walter's "mantle" fell upon Joseph is the creation of an enemy of Joseph Smith, Abner Cole

It is claimed by some that a "vagabond fortune-teller" named Walters became popular in the Palmyra area, and that when Walters left the area, "his mantle fell upon" Joseph Smith. However, the idea that "Walters the Magician" was a mentor to Joseph Smith and that his "mantle" fell upon Joseph once Walters left the area originated with Abner Cole. Cole published a mockery of the Book of Mormon called the "Book of Pukei."

Matthew Brown discusses the "Book of Pukei":,

Cole claims in the "Book of Pukei" that the Book of Mormon really came into existence in the following manner:

  • Walters the Magician was involved in witchcraft and money-digging.
  • Walters was summoned to Manchester, New York by a group of wicked, idle, and slothful individuals—one of which was Joseph Smith.
  • Walters took the slothful individuals of Manchester out into the woods on numerous nighttime money-digging excursions. They drew a magic circle, sacrificed a rooster, and dug into the ground but never actually found anything.
  • The slothful group of Manchesterites then decided that Walters was a fraud. Walters himself admitted that he was an imposter and decided to skip town before the strong arm of the law caught up with him.
  • At this point, the mantle of Walters the Magician fell upon Joseph Smith and the rest of the Manchester rabble rallied around him.
  • The "spirit of the money-diggers" (who is identified implicitly with Satan in the text) appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the Golden Bible to him.[37]

Does Lucy Mack Smith's mention of the "faculty of Abrac" and "magic circles" evidence that "magick" played a strong role in the Smith family's early life?

Lucy Mack Smith denied that her family was involved in wasting time by drawing "magic circles"

Critics generally neglect to provide the entire quote from Lucy. Dr. William J. Hamblin notes that there is "an ambiguously phrased statement of Lucy Mack Smith in which she denied that her family was involved in drawing "Magic circles."

There is no evidence from any Latter-day Saint sources about how to make "magic circles"

William Hamblin notes,

Quinn provides only very limited evidence, from anti-Mormon sources, that the Smiths were involved in making magic circles. He provides no evidence from LDS sources discussing how to make magic circles, describing their use by early Mormons, or establishing Mormon belief in the efficacy of such things.

Quinn does claim to have found one LDS reference supporting the use of magic circles. This is an ambiguously phrased statement of Lucy Mack Smith in which she denied that her family was involved in drawing "Magic circles" (p. 68; cf. 47, 66). Quinn maintains, because of an ambiguity of phraseology, that Lucy Mack Smith is saying that her family drew magic circles. The issue revolves around how the grammar of the original text should be understood. Here is how I read the text (with my understanding of the punctuation and capitalization added).

Now I shall change my theme for the present. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic for a season, that we stopped our labor and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business. We never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation. But, whilst we worked with our hands, we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls.125

When Lucy's statement is examined in context, it can be seen that she explicitly denies that the Smith's were involved in such things as "magic circles"

Hamblin continues,

Here is how I interpret the referents in the text.

Now I shall change my theme for the present [from a discussion of farming and building to an account of Joseph's vision of Moroni and the golden plates which immediately follows this paragraph]. But let not my reader suppose that, because I shall pursue another topic [Joseph's visions] for a season, that we stopped our labor [of farming and building] and went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of business [farming and building, as the anti-Mormons asserted, claiming the Smiths were lazy]. We never in our lives suffered one important interest [farming and building] to swallow up every other obligation [religion]. But, whilst we worked with our hands [at farming and building] we endeavored to remember the service of, and the welfare of our souls [through religion].

Thus, as I understand the text, Lucy Smith declares she is changing her theme to the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In the public mind, that story is associated with claims that the Smiths were lazy and involved in magical activities. By the time Lucy Smith wrote this text in 1845, anti-Mormons were alleging that Joseph had been seeking treasure by drawing magic circles. She explicitly denies that they were involved in such things. She also denies that the Smiths were lazy. She wants to emphasize that, although she is not going to mention farming and building activities for a while, these activities were still going on. Quinn wants to understand the antecedent of "one important interest" as "trying to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing Magic circles or sooth saying" (p. 68). I believe that the antecedent of "one important interest" is "all kinds of business," meaning farming and building. Quinn maintains the phrase to the neglect of means that they pursued magic to some degree, but not to the extent that they completely neglected their farming. I believe that the phrase to the neglect of means that they did not pursue magic at all, and therefore did not neglect their farming and building at all: they were not pursuing magic and thereby neglecting their business.

Lucy's narrative focuses on religious and business concerns, and does not discuss magic

Hamblin concludes,

Although the phrasing is a bit ambiguous, the matter can easily be resolved by reference to the rest of Lucy's narrative. Contra Quinn, Lucy Smith's text provides no other mention of the supposedly "important interest" of magical activities but does deal prominently with their religious and business concerns. If magic activities were such an important part of Joseph Smith's life and Lucy was speaking of them in a positive sense as "important interests," why did she not talk about them further in any unambiguous passage? My interpretation fits much better into the context of Lucy Smith's narrative as a whole, in which she amply discusses farming and family life, as well as religion and Joseph's revelations—the two important interests of the family—but makes no other mention of magic. As Richard Bushman notes, "Lucy Smith's main point was that the Smiths were not lazy as the [anti-Mormon] affidavits claimed—they had not stopped their labor to practice magic."126 Thus, ironically, Quinn is claiming that Lucy Smith's denial of the false claims that the Smith family was engaged in magical activities has magically become a confirmation of those very magical activities she is denying![38]

Did Joseph Smith, Sr. practice "divination"?

Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths, claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination"

It has been claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination," and that this is evidence for the strong role which "magick" played in the Smith family's early life. This claim relies on one of the Hurlburt-Howe affidavits, given by Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths.

Ingersoll's affidavit reads:

‘Was a neighbor of Smith from 1822 to 1830. The general employment of the family was digging for money. Smith senior once asked me to go with him to see whether a mineral rod would work in my hand, saying he was confident it would. As my oxen were eating, and being myself at leisure, I went with him. When he arrived near the place where he thought there was money, he cut a small witch-hazel, and gave me direction how to hold it. He then went off some rods, telling me to say to the rod, ‘Work to the money,’ which I did in an audible voice. He rebuked me for speaking it loud, saying it must be spoken in a whisper. While the old man was standing off some rods, throwing himself into various shapes, I told him the rod did not work. He seemed much surprised, and said he thought he saw it move. It was now time for me to return to my labor. On my return I picked up a small stone, and was carelessly tossing it from one hand to the other. Said he, (looking very earnestly,) ‘What are you going to do with that stone?’ ‘Throw it at the birds,’ I replied. ‘No,’ said the old man, ‘it is of great worth.’ I gave it to him. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you only knew the value there is back of my house!’ and pointing to a place near, ‘There,’ said he, ‘is one chest of gold and another of silver.’ He then put the stone which I had given him into his hat, and stooping forward, he bowed and made sundry maneuvers, quite similar to those of a stool-pigeon. At length he took down his hat, and, being very much exhausted, said, in a faint voice, ‘If you knew what I had seen, you would believe.’ His son, Alvin, went through the same performance, which was equally disgusting.

‘Another time the said Joseph senior told me that the best time for digging money was in the heat of summer, when the heat of the sun caused the chests of money to rise near the top of the ground. ‘You notice,’ said he, ‘the large stones on the top of the ground; we call them rocks, and they truly appear so, but they are in fact, most of them chests of money raised by the heat of the sun.’’....[39]

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony. It is telling that the critics often wish to jettison Ingersoll's claims as those of a teller-of-tall-tales or a liar when it is clear that he cannot be trusted. Yet, when no evidence exists (pro- or con-) save Ingersoll's testimony, they then present his witness as a reliable data point for conclusions about the early years of Joseph Smith and his family. Of Ingersoll's claims, Richard L. Anderson noted:

Peter lived near Joseph Smith and was employed to go with him to Pennsylvania to move Emma's personal property to the Smith farm in the fall of 1827. Ingersoll claims that after this, Joseph told him he brought home white sand in his work frock and walked into the house to find "the family" (parents, Emma, brothers and sisters) eating. When they asked what he carried, he "very gravely" told them (for the first time) that he had a "golden Bible" and had received a revelation that no one could see it and live. At that point (according to Ingersoll), Joseph offered to let the family see, but they fearfully refused, and Ingersoll says that Joseph added, "Now, I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun."

Rodger Anderson [author of the book under review by Anderson] agrees with me that this is just a tall tale. Why? Family sources prove they looked forward to getting the plates long before this late 1827 occurrence, and Joseph had far more respect for his family than the anecdote allows. So Rodger Anderson thinks that Ingersoll at first believed Joseph and then retaliated: "it seems likely that Ingersoll created the story as a way of striking back at Smith for his own gullibility in swallowing a story he later became convinced was a hoax" (p. 56). That may be, and there are perhaps others making affidavits with similar motives. But the more provable point is that good stories die hard. Facts were obviously bent to make Joseph Smith the butt of many a joke. So anecdotes could be yarns good for a guffaw around a pot-bellied stove.

Ingersoll has another story in this class. Joseph planned to move Emma and the plates to Pennsylvania at the end of 1827. Then Ingersoll has Joseph playing a religious mind game with Martin Harris: "I . . . told him that I had a command to ask the first honest man I met with, for fifty dollars in money, and he would let me have it. I saw at once, said Jo, that it took his notion, for he promptly give me the fifty." Willard Chase tells a similar story, not identifying his source. But in this case both Joseph Smith and Martin Harris gave their recollections. Both say that Martin was converted to Joseph Smith's revelations first and then offered the money out of conviction, not because of sudden street-side flattery. The best historical evidence is not something told by another party, especially one with hostility to the person he is reporting....

Rodger Anderson recoils at my suggestion that the affidavits were "contaminated by Hurlbut," but he has merely argued harder for one road to this same result. Rodger Anderson then contends that Hurlbut's influence does not matter, since many of the statements were signed under oath before a magistrate. This is one of scores of irrelevancies. The question is credibility, not form. As Jesus essentially said in the Sermon on the Mount, the honest person is regularly believable, not just under oath. Nor does the act of signing settle all, since it is hardly human nature to read the fine print of a contract or all details of prewritten petitions. Rodger Anderson finds Ingersoll's sand-for-plates story "the most dubious" (p. 56) and thus admits that Ingersoll is "the possible exception" in "knowingly swearing to a lie" (p. 114). But Ingersoll does not tell taller stories than many others glinting in the hostile statements reprinted by Rodger Anderson. Like the persecuting orthodox from the Pharisees to the Puritans, the New York community was performing an act of moral virtue to purge itself of the stigma of an offending new religion. Hurlbut contributed to the process of mutual contamination of similar stories and catch-words....

Rodger Anderson closes his survey with the appeal to accept "the Hurlbut-Deming affidavits" as significant "primary documents relating to Joseph Smith's early life and the origins of Mormonism" (p. 114). Some tell of "early life," but many only repeat tall tales or disclose the prejudice that Joseph Smith said faced him from the beginning. There are some authentic facts about the outward life of young Joseph, but his inner life makes him significant. It is this other half that the testimonials brashly claim to penetrate but cannot. To the extent that the Prophet's spiritual experiences are the primary issue, the Hurlbut-Deming statements are not primary documents.

Here I have discussed some aspects of their objective shortcomings, but I do not intend to take much time answering countercharges. Those who think like Rodger Anderson will continue to reason that the Hurlbut-Deming materials contain serious history because "many based their descriptions on close association with the Joseph Smith, Sr., family" (p. 114). That is too sloppy for my taste. Downgrading a reputation is serious business, and I want a reasonable burden of proof to be met on each major contention. Knowing the family is not enough—knowing specific incidents is required. The mathematics of true personal history is fairly simple: half-truths added to others still retain their category of half-truths; conclusions without personal knowledge have zero value; and any number multiplied by zero is still zero.

A final, highly personal reaction: I once discussed a negative biography with a friend, literature professor Neal Lambert. After pointing out shortcomings in method and evidence, I self-consciously added an intuitive judgment: "and I think there is a poor tone to the book." Instantly picking up my apologetic manner, Neal answered vigorously, "But tone is everything." In reality, attitude penetrates the judgments we make, whether in gathering the Hurlbut-Deming materials or in defending them. With few exceptions, the mind-set of these testimonials is skeptical, hypercritical, ridiculing. But history is a serious effort to understand, and tools with the above labels have limited value.[40]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Peter Ingersoll: Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 232-237, 248-249. (Affidavits examined) Partially reproduced in "The Origin of Mormonism," Christian Enquirer (New York) 5/51 (25 September 1852): [1]. Also available in full in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:40-45.

Did early members of the "Mormon" Church believe in witchcraft?

While some members may have believed in witchcraft, all the scriptural and primary evidence portrays their opinion of such things as negative, not positive

[41] There are a number of texts and incidents which indicate a basically negative attitude towards the occult by most early Mormons. Brooke himself notices several incidents manifesting such an anti-occult strain in early LDS thought: George A. Smith, for instance, destroyed magic books brought to America by English converts (p. 239). Likewise, "organizations advocating the occult were suppressed" by Brigham Young in 1855 (p. 287), while, "in 1900 and 1901, church publications launched the first explicit attacks on folk magic" (p. 291). But the evidence of negative attitudes among Mormons to matters occult is much more widespread than Brooke indicates.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain several explicit condemnations of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic. While admitting that there are only "rare references to magic or witchcraft in the Book of Mormon" (p. 176, 177), Brooke nonetheless insists that the "categories of treasure, magic, and sorcery . . . fascinated Joseph Smith" (p. 168). The Book of Mormon maintains that Christ will "cut off witchcrafts out of thy land" (3 Nephi 21꞉16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and "the magic art" are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1꞉32, Mormon 2꞉10). "Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics" are also attributed to "the power of the evil one" (Mormon 1꞉19). In the Doctrine and Covenants, sorcerers are among those who are "cast down to hell" (D&C 76꞉103,106), who "shall have their part in . . . the second death" (D&C 63꞉17). These are the only references to magical or occult powers in LDS scripture, and they are uniformly and emphatically negative. Brooke's key terms, such as "alchemy," "astrology," "hermeticism," "androgyny," and "cabala," are never mentioned in LDS scripture.

Several early LDS writers were unequivocal in their condemnation of magic and the occult. One brother was "disfellowshipped by the council of officers, for using magic, and telling fortunes &c." The ancient Egyptian use of "omens, charms, unlucky days and magic" is described as "grossly superstitious." Orson Pratt described alchemy as "the pursuit of that vain phantom." His brother Parley was even more forthright:

It is, then, a matter of certainty, according to the things revealed to the ancient Prophets, and renewed unto us, that all the animal magnetic phenomena, all the trances and visions of clairvoyant states, all the phenomena of spiritual knockings, writing mediums, &c., are from impure, unlawful, and unholy sources; and that those holy and chosen vessels which hold the keys of Priesthood in this world, in the spirit world, or in the world of resurrected beings, stand as far aloof from all these improper channels, or unholy mediums, of spiritual communication, as the heavens are higher than the earth, or as the mysteries of the third heaven, which are unlawful to utter, differ from the jargon of sectarian ignorance and folly, or the divinations of foul spirits, abandoned wizards, magic-mongers, jugglers, and fortune-tellers.

Based on this extensive (but admittedly incomplete) survey of early Mormon writings, we can arrive at three logical conclusions:

  1. the unique ideas that critics advocating the "magic" hypothesis claim were central to the origins of Mormonism do not occur in early LDS primary texts;
  2. early Mormons seldom concerned themselves with things occult; but
  3. on the infrequent occasions when they mention the occult, it is without exception viewed negatively.

Was the fact that the recovery of the Book of Mormon plates occurred on the autumnal equinox somehow significant?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #193: Why Did Moroni Deliver the Plates on September 22? (Video)

There are many religious traditions (including Judaism) that use the equinoxes as part of their religious calendar

Joseph's meetings with Moroni and the recovery of the Book of Mormon occurred on the autumnal equinox, a date with astrological and magical significance. Some have speculated that this is evidence of Joseph Smith's preoccupation with "magick." However, there are many religious traditions (including Judaism) that use the equinoxes as part of their religious calendar. Thus, the presence of a significant "astrological" date may be coincidental or present for religious, not "magical" reasons. This again highlights the problems with "magic" as a category.

In this instance, critics presume that their claims about Joseph's preoccupation with magic is an accurate description of his attempt to recover the plates (see circular reasoning). If, however, there are other explanations for receiving the plates on the evening of 21–22 September 1827, then this cannot be used as evidence for pre-occupation with a "magic world view."

The recovery of the Book of Mormon plates occurred on a vital date in the Jewish calendar: Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year

The Book of Mormon claims to be a religious text, with a world-view sharing close affinities with Judaism. Interestingly, the plates' recovery occurred on a vital date in the Jewish calendar:

Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year (which had begun at sundown on 21 September 1827). At Rosh ha-Shanah the faithful were commanded to set a day aside as "a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation" (Leviticus 23:24).[42]

Rosh ha-Shanah also begins the Asseret Yemei Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance) which precede the holiest day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur, the day of the atonement. Likewise, the Book of Mormon claimed to come forth to preach repentance, and prepare the way for Christ's second coming.

Rosh ha-Shanah is celebrated by the blowing of the ram's horn (shofar), just as Jesus' apocalyptic teachings foretold that the elect would be gathered by angels "with a great sound of a trumpet" (Matthew 24:31). The Revelation of St. John features angels with trumpets as part of the preparation or heralding of Christ's second coming (e.g., Revelation 8:2,6; compare D&C 77꞉12). The Book of Mormon portrays itself squarely within this tradition, heralding and preparing the way for the gathering of the elect and the return of Christ (1 Nephi 13꞉34-42).

In the Jerusalem temple, "at the autumnal equinox the rays of the sun could enter the [holy of holies] because the whole of the edifice faced east."[43] Thus, on a date in which the idea of divine illumination, light, and knowledge streaming into God's earthly temple was so prominent, a new divine revelation of scripture fits at least as well as Quinn's claim that this date has astrological significance for "the introduction of 'broad cultural movements and religious ideas'."[44]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph Smith derive his religious ideas in part from a mysticism called Kabbalah?

There is little actual evidence to support this

It is claimed that Joseph Smith's religious ideas derived in part from Kabbalah, a type of (usually Jewish) mysticism. Critics and the unwary presume that because a few lengthy works have been written about Joseph Smith and kabbalistic ideas, this is sufficient grounds for presuming a connection. The evidence behind this connection, is, however, on shaky evidential ground.

Before swallowing the critics' explanation, one should study the extensive reviews which illustrate numerous problems with this approach thus far.

It is not the job of the Saints to prove that kaballah did not influence Joseph Smith. It is the job of his critics to prove that it did. And, thus far, that proof has not been forthcoming. Extensive reviews of the works which purport to find this strain in Joseph Smith's thought are available (see below).

It is difficult to prove a negative—how might we prove that Joseph's ideas were not from Kabbalah? Rather, we can consider a number of the problems with this intellectual construct, and then ask if there are not perhaps better ways to understand Joseph's thought.

Some authors merely describe LDS doctrine or practice in kabbalistic or "hermetical" terms

Some authors merely describe LDS doctrine or practice in kabbalistic or "hermetical" terms, and then presume that by doing so they have proved that these ideas were, in fact, drawn from kabbalah. This is circular reasoning.

For example, one review wrote that:

Throughout his book, Brooke's approach might be characterized as scholarship by adjective (see, e.g., pp. 240, 294). Time and again, he places the adjective "hermetic" or "alchemical" before a noun relating to Mormonism and then proceeds as if the mere act of juxtaposing the two terms—essentially without argument—had established that the ill-defined adjective really applies. He holds that "certainly Joseph Smith was predisposed to a hermetic interpretation of sacred history and processes from his boyhood" (p. 208). But what does this mean? What is a "hermetic interpretation" here? Although Brooke himself seems to have a predisposition to a "hermetic interpretation" of almost everything in sight, Joseph Smith and his followers undoubtedly did not have the remotest idea of what hermeticism was.

Simply labeling Mormon celestial marriage "hermetic" and "alchemical" (as on pp. 214, 257-58, 281) does not make it such. Frequently, in a kind of fallacy of misplaced concretion, Brooke is misled by his own metaphors to misread nineteenth-century realities (as in his use of the terms "alchemy" and "transmutation" in discussing the Kirtland Bank [pp. 222-23; cf. 227-28]), and even twentieth-century Utah (as when he describes modern financial scams in Utah as "alchemical" [p. 299]). On at least one occasion, Fawn Brodie's (twentieth-century) portrayal of Sidney Rigdon as engaged in a metaphorical "witchhunt" inspires Brooke—evidently by sheer word association—to claim that Joseph Smith (!) saw himself as literally surrounded by witches (p. 230).[45]

This is a common approach, with another author falling victim to the same tendency:

Owens's entire thesis also suffers repeatedly from semantic equivocation—using a term "in two or more senses within a single argument, so that a conclusion appears to follow when in fact it does not."61 Owens does not adequately recognize the fact that the semantic domain of words can vary radically from individual to individual, through translation, by shifts in meaning through time, or because of idiosyncratic use by different contemporary communities.62 For Owens it is often sufficient to assert that he feels that kabbalistic or hermetic ideas "resonate" with his understanding of Latter-day Saint thought (p. 132). Thus, in an attempt to demonstrate affiliations between the Latter-day Saint world view and that of esotericists, Owens presents a number of ideas that he claims represent parallels between his understanding of the kabbalistic and hermetic traditions and his view of Latter-day Saint theology, but that, upon closer inspection, turn out to be only vaguely similar, if at all....

Owens frequently implicitly redefines kabbalistic and hermetic terms in a way that would have been foreign to both the original esoteric believers and to early Latter-day Saints. In an effort to make ideas seem similar, he is forced to severely distort both what esotericists and Latter-day Saints believe.[46]

Some critics stretch LDS scripture to the breaking point in an effort to "prove" their argument

...when a Book of Mormon passage denounces "works of darkness" (Alma 37꞉23), Brooke asserts that "although he never mentions them by name, Smith had declared an occult war on the witchlike art of the counterfeiters" (p. 178). Really? Nothing in the passage calls for such an interpretation, any more than does the analogous phrase in Ephesians 5:11. There can be little doubt, of course, that the early Latter-day Saints, like most of their contemporaries on the American frontier, suffered from counterfeiters' schemes and regarded them as enemies.....But that scarcely justifies Professor Brooke's arbitrary allegorical speculations. Besides, as readers will notice, Brooke cannot really decide whether the Mormons opposed counterfeiting or favored it. Either option will suffice for him, since either will allow him to claim that they were fascinated by it and since, taken together, they constitute a historical hypothesis that is virtually impervious to historical proof or disproof.[45]

Some critics ignore the common biblical sources for ideas in LDS thought, and instead argue that these ideas came from much more obscure hermetic thought

It is universally acknowledged that biblical quotations, paraphrases, and imagery fill all early LDS scripture, writings, and sermons. Time and again early Latter-day Saints explicitly point to biblical precedents for their doctrines and practices. Joseph Smith and all the early Mormon elders taught and defended their doctrines from the Bible. Even in the great King Follett discourse—which Brooke sees as a cornucopia of "hermetic" doctrine—Joseph declared "I am going to prove it [the doctrine of multiple gods] to you by the Bible." The text is filled with biblical quotations and allusions. Never do the early Saints claim they are following hermetic or alchemical precedents. Brooke, however, generously sets out to correct this lapse for them....[45]

Although far less problematically or extensively than Brooke, Owens also ignores obvious biblical antecedents to Latter-day Saint thought in favor of alleged hermetic or alchemical antecedents. Owens informs us that "Paracelsus also prophesied of the coming of the prophet "Elias' as part of a universal restoration, another idea possibly affecting the work of Joseph Smith" (p. 163 n. 90). Quite true. But why does Owens fail to mention the strong biblical tradition of the return of Elijah/Elias, the clear source for this idea for both Paracelsus and Joseph Smith? [46]

Critics cannot produce primary sources from the early Saints expressing their interest in kabbalah or hermeticism

Furthermore, critics tend to ignore or downplay evidence of an opposition to "magic" or "the occult" among early Saints:

...there are a number of texts and incidents which indicate a basically negative attitude towards the occult by most early Mormons. Brooke himself notices several incidents manifesting such an anti-occult strain in early LDS thought: George A. Smith, for instance, destroyed magic books brought to America by English converts (p. 239). Likewise, "organizations advocating the occult were suppressed" by Brigham Young in 1855 (p. 287), while, "in 1900 and 1901, church publications launched the first explicit attacks on folk magic" (p. 291).36 But the evidence of negative attitudes among Mormons to matters occult is much more widespread than Brooke indicates.

The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants contain several explicit condemnations of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic....The Book of Mormon maintains that Christ will "cut off witchcrafts out of thy land" (3 Nephi 21:16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and "the magic art" are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1:32, Mormon 2:10). "Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics" are also attributed to "the power of the evil one" (Mormon 1:19). In the Doctrine and Covenants, sorcerers are among those who are "cast down to hell" (D&C 76:103, 106), who "shall have their part in . . . the second death" (D&C 63:17).37 These are the only references to magical or occult powers in LDS scripture, and they are uniformly and emphatically negative. Brooke's key terms, such as "alchemy," "astrology," "hermeticism," "androgyny," and "cabala," are never mentioned in LDS scripture.[45]

In another case, critics present

background material [that is] is often dated or misrepresented. Owens's use of sources, both primary and secondary, is problematic at a number of levels. First, he ignores nearly all earlier writings by Latter-day Saint scholars on the significance of the possible parallels between Latter-day Saint ideas and the Western esoteric tradition. There is, in fact, a growing body of Latter-day Saint literature that has examined some of these alleged parallels, and presented possible interpretations of the relationship between the esoteric tradition and the gospel. Why is Nibley not even mentioned by Owens, despite the fact that he has been writing on this subject for four decades?9 Robert F. Smith's discussion of many of these issues is ignored....

Furthermore, for the most part, Owens's account of the Western esoteric tradition does not rely on primary sources, or even translations of primary sources, but on secondary summaries, which he often misunderstands or misrepresents. This unfamiliarity with both the primary and secondary sources may in part explain the numerous errors that occur throughout his article....[46]

Critics often fail to provide any specifics to link these ideas to the members of the Church—generally because there aren't any such sources.

This does not deter critics, however, from a chain of speculation, supposition, and probability that hides the fact that no evidence whatever has been presented:

Owens insists that "any backwoods rodsman divining for buried treasures in New York in 1820 may have known about the [esoteric] tradition" and that "there undoubtedly existed individuals [in the early nineteenth-century United States] who were deeply cognizant of Hermeticism, its lore, rituals, and aspirations. And this group probably included an occasional associate of treasure diggers" (p. 159). Elsewhere Owens asserts that "there must have been more than a few" people in frontier New York who had been influenced by the hermetic, kabbalistic, and alchemical traditions (p. 165, emphasis added to all these citations). Evidence, please! Who exactly were these individuals? What exactly did they know? How exactly did they gain their unusual knowledge? Exactly when and where did they live? With whom exactly did they associate? What exactly did they teach their associates? What evidence—any evidence at all—does Owens provide for any of his speculations? [46]

Reliance on late, anti-Mormon accounts

Given the lack of material to support this hypothesis in the words of Joseph Smith or his followers, critics turn to their enemies:

...in large part Brooke relies on late secondhand anti-Mormon accounts—taken at face value—while rejecting or ignoring eye-witness contemporary Mormon accounts of the same events or ideas....

In a book purportedly analyzing the thought of Joseph Smith, it is remarkable how infrequently Joseph himself is actually quoted. Instead we find what Joseph's enemies wanted others to believe he was saying and doing. Thus, while it may be true that some early non-Mormons or anti-Mormons occasionally described some activities of Joseph Smith and the Saints as somehow related to "magic," it is purely a derogatory outsider view. The Saints never describe their own beliefs and activities in those terms. Brooke has a disturbing tendency to cite standard LDS sources and histories on noncontroversial matters—thereby establishing an impression of impartiality—while, on disputed points, using anti-Mormon sources without explaining the Mormon perspective or interpretation.[47]

Sometimes, critics even give "magical" meaning to common words used by Joseph Smith in a completely different context

in a breathtaking case of academic legerdemain, he takes common terms that occur with specialized technical meanings in hermetic and alchemical thought—terms such as "furnace," "refine," "stone," "metal," etc.—and proposes the existence of such common terms in Mormon writings as a subtle but irrefutable indication that Mormons had hermetic and alchemical ideas in the backs of their minds all along. In fact, so subtle is the impact of hermetic and alchemical thought on Joseph that "the hermetic implications of his theology may not even have been clear to Smith himself" (p. 208)! This is truly an alchemical transmutation of baseless assertions into pure academic fool's gold.[45]

Or:

Owens ignores two other obvious explanations: that both esoteric and Latter-day Saint ideas derive from a similar source, e.g., the Bible, or that Joseph Smith received true revelation, as opposed to some ill-defined type of Jungian "personal cognition." [46]

Some critics' relative unfamiliarity with LDS history is made clear by repeated self-contradiction and historical blunders

Brooke's presentation of early Mormon history is likewise plagued by repeated blunders. His depiction of a Joseph Smith who is "bitter," "suspicious," and "anxious" (p. 135)—a description helpful to Brooke's environmentalist reading of the Book of Mormon—flies in the face of Brooke's own claim that "by all accounts he was a gregarious, playful character" (p. 180; cf. JS-H 1:28). It may also seem remarkable to some that Joseph believed that "the simultaneous emergence of counterfeiting and the spurious Masonry of the corrupt country Grand Lodge in the early 1820s was an affliction on the people, the consequence of their rejection of Joseph Smith as a preacher of the gospel" (p. 177), since Joseph had not yet restored the gospel or begun to preach in the early 1820s. Brooke has Joseph and Oliver being "baptized into the Priesthood of Aaron" (p. 156), even though their baptism and their ordination to the priesthood were clearly two separate events.66 Furthermore, he uses the alleged counterfeiting activities of Theodore Turley, Peter Hawes, Joseph H. Jackson, Marenus Eaton, and Edward Bonney to propose a continued Mormon fascination with counterfeiting, and thereby, with alchemy (pp. 269-70), despite the fact that Jackson, Eaton, and Bonney were not LDS! And Brooke seems unsure as to whether John Taylor's Mediation and Atonement "was of great significance doctrinally, because it marked the rejection of the Adam-God concept," (p. 289) or whether the "rejection of the Adam-God doctrine [was] something that John Taylor had not really attempted" (p. 291).[45]

Errors also extend beyond LDS matters into the history of "magick" thought itself:

Owens makes an unsupported claim that the alchemists' ""philosopher's stone' [was] the antecedent of Joseph Smith's "seer's stone'" (p. 136). In fact, the philosopher's stone (lapis philosophorum) was thought to have been composed of primordial matter, the quintessentia—the fifth element after air, water, fire, and earth. Unlike Joseph's seer stone, it was not really a literal "stone" at all, but primordial matter (materia prima)—"this stone therefore is no stone," as notes a famous alchemical text.26 Sometimes described as a powder the color of sulfur, the philosopher's stone was used for the transmutation of matter and had little or nothing to do with divination. Indeed, the use of stones and mirrors for divination antedates the origin of the idea of the philosopher's stone. There is no relationship beyond the fact that both happen to be called a stone....

Owens claims that the concept that "God was once as man now is . . . could, by various exegetical approaches, be found in the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition" (pp. 178-79). It is understandable that he provides neither primary nor secondary evidence for this assertion, since no hermetic or kabbalistic texts make such a claim. Unlike Latter-day Saint concepts of God and divinization, the metaphysical presuppositions of both hermeticism and kabbalism are fundamentally Neoplatonic.[46]

Even the complete absence of evidence is no bar to the critic:

Owens speculates at great length about possible Rosicrucian influences on Joseph Smith (pp. 138-54), asserting (with absolutely no evidence) that Luman Walter was influenced by Rosicrucian ideas (p. 162). Once again, however, Owens ignores the annoying fact that the Rosicrucian movement was effectively dead at the time of Joseph Smith. In England "the Gold and Rosy Cross appears to have had no English members and was virtually extinct by 1793."...

Thus Joseph Smith was alive precisely during the period of the least influence of Kabbalah, hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism, all of which had seriously declined by the late eighteenth century—before Joseph's birth—and would revive only in the late nineteenth century, after Joseph's death. Owens never recognizes these developments, but instead consistently quotes sources earlier and later than Joseph Smith as indicative of the ideas supposedly found in Joseph's day.[46]

Some critics do not seem to even understand modern LDS thought and history well

For example:

Professor Brooke's ignorance of contemporary Mormonism hurts him in amusing ways. Even the cold fusion claims made at the University of Utah a few years ago are pressed into service as illustrations of Mormon hermeticism: They are interesting, Brooke declares, "given Mormon doctrines on the nature of matter" (p. 299). He never troubles himself, though, to explain how the experiments of the two non-Mormon chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman are even remotely helpful as indicators of Latter-day Saint attitudes and beliefs.

It is probably significant that Brooke's mistakes are not random; rather, his presentation consistently misrepresents LDS scripture, doctrine, and history in ways that tend to support his thesis by making LDS ideas seem closer to his hermetic prototypes. These are not minor errors involving marginal characters or events in LDS scripture and history; nor are they mere matters of interpretation. Rather, for the most part, they are fundamental errors, clearly demonstrating Brooke's feeble grasp of the primary texts.[45]

Did Joseph Smith have a Jupiter talisman on his person at the time of his death?

The only source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person is Charles Bidamon, made long after the death of Joseph and Emma

Did Joseph have this Talisman on him when he was murdered? What would it mean if he did?

This well circulated claim finds its origins in a 1974 talk by Dr. Reed Durham. Durham said that Joseph "evidently [had a Talisman] on his person when he was martyred. The talisman, originally purchased from the Emma Smith Bidamon family, fully notarized by that family to be authentic and to have belonged to Joseph Smith, can now be identified as a Jupiter talisman."[48]

There is only one source of evidence that claims Joseph Smith had the Jupiter Talisman on his person, and that source is Charles Bidamon. Bidamon's statement was made long after the death of Joseph and Emma, relied on memories from his youth, and was undergirded by financial motives.

The idea that Joseph Smith might have had a Jupiter Talisman in his possession is used by critics of the Church as proof of his fascination with the occult. As one work put it: "The fact that Smith owned a Jupiter talisman shows that his fascination with the occult was not just a childish fad. At the time of his death, Smith had on his person this talisman....[49]

By contrast, contemporary evidence demonstrates that Joseph did not have such a Talisman in his possession at his death.

Durham, the source of the idea in modern discourse, would later say:

I now wish I had presented some of my material differently… For instance, at the present time, after rechecking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and a non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So, the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable!... [One author who was presented wrote:] "Dr. Durham also told me he was trying to play the "devil’s advocate" in his Nauvoo speech, which is what many there, including myself, sensed. Unfortunately others took the words to further their purposes."[50]

What is the source of the story about Joseph Smith possessing a Jupiter talisman?

The source of the Talisman story, upon which Dr. Durham based his remarks, was Wilford C. Wood, who was told it by Charles Bidamon, the son of Lewis Bidamon

Lewis was Emma Smith's non-Mormon second husband. Charles was born following an affair between Lewis Bidamon and Nancy Abercrombie, which occurred while Lewis was married to Emma. Charles was taken in by Emma when four years old, and raised by her until her death 11 years later.[51] (This action says much for Emma's charity.)

The talisman, or "silver pocket piece" as described in 1937, appeared on a list of items purportedly own by Joseph Smith which were to be sold by Charles Bidamon

Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote that the Talisman, or "silver pocket piece" as described in 1937, appeared on a list of items purportedly own by Joseph Smith which were to be sold by Charles Bidamon. One item listed was "a silver pocket piece which was in the Prophet's pocket at the time of his assassination."[52]:541 Wilford Wood, who collected Mormon memorabilia, purchased it in 1938 along with a document from Bidamon certifying that the Prophet possessed it when murdered. The affidavit sworn to by Charles Bidamon at the time of Wilford C. Wood's purchase was very specific:

This piece came to me through the relationship of my father, Major L. C. Bidamon, who married the Prophet Joseph Smith's widow, Emma Smith. I certify that I have many times heard her say, when being interviewed, and showing the piece, that it was in the Prophet's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage, Ill.[52]:558

Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, and notes that at the time of her death he was only fifteen years old

Anderson noted that Bidamon waited fifty-eight years after Emma’s death to make his certification, and notes that at the time of her death he was only fifteen years old.

Durham based his comments on Wood's description for the item which was: "This piece [the Talisman] was in Joseph Smith's pocket when he was martyred at Carthage Jail."[52]:558[53] However, a list of the items in Joseph's possession at the time of his death was provided to Emma following the martyrdom. On this list there was no mention made of any Talisman-like item. If there had been such an article, it ought to have been listed.

The list of items in Joseph's possession at the time of his death did not list the talisman among them

In 1984, Anderson located and published the itemized list of the contents of Joseph Smith's pockets at his death. The list was originally published in 1885 in Iowa by James W. Woods, Smith's lawyer, who collected the prophet's personal effects after the Martyrdom. The contents from the published 1885 printing are as follows:

Received, Nauvoo, Illinois, July 2, 1844, of James W. Woods, one hundred and thirty- five dollars and fifty cents in gold and silver and receipt for shroud, one gold finger ring, one gold pen and pencil case, one penknife, one pair of tweezers, one silk and one leather purse, one small pocket wallet containing a note of John P. Green for $50, and a receipt of Heber C. Kimball for a note of hand on Ellen M. Saunders for one thousand dollars, as the property of Joseph Smith. - Emma Smith.[52]:558[54]

No Talisman or item like it is listed. It could not be mistaken for a coin or even a "Masonic Jewel" as Durham first thought. Anderson described the Talisman as being "an inch-and-a-half in diameter and covered with symbols and a prayer on one side and square of sixteen Hebrew characters on the other."[52]:541 Significant is the fact that no associate of Joseph Smith has ever mentioned anything like this medallion. There are no interviews that ever record Emma mentioning any such item as attested to by Charles Bidamon, though he claimed she often spoke of it.

Stephen Robinson: "In the case of the Jupiter coin, this same extrapolation error is compounded with a very uncritical acceptance of the artifact in the first place"

Of the matter of the Jupiter talisman that is alleged to have been among Joseph Smith's possessions at the time of his death, Stephen Robinson wrote:

In the case of the Jupiter coin, this same extrapolation error is compounded with a very uncritical acceptance of the artifact in the first place. If the coin were Joseph's, that fact alone would tell us nothing about what it meant to him. But in fact there is insufficient evidence to prove that the artifact ever belonged to the Prophet. The coin was completely unknown until 1930 when an aging Charles Bidamon sold it to Wilford Wood. The only evidence that it was Joseph's is an affidavit of Bidamon, who stood to gain financially by so representing it. Quinn [and any other critic who embraces this theory] uncritically accepts Bidamon's affidavit as solid proof that the coin was Joseph's. Yet the coin was not mentioned in the 1844 list of Joseph's possessions returned to Emma. Quinn negotiates this difficulty by suggesting the coin must have been worn around Joseph's neck under his shirt. But in so doing Quinn impeaches his only witness for the coin's authenticity, for Bidamon's affidavit, the only evidence linking the coin to Joseph, specifically and solemnly swears that the coin was in Joseph's pocket at Carthage. The real empirical evidence here is just too weak to prove that the coin was really Joseph's, let alone to extrapolate a conclusion from mere possession of the artifact that Joseph must have believed in and practiced magic. The recent Hofmann affair should have taught us that an affidavit from the seller, especially a 1930 affidavit to third hand information contradicted by the 1844 evidence, just isn't enough 'proof' to hang your hat on.[55]

Could the list of items on Joseph's person at the time of his death have been incomplete?

Bidamon's certification clearly states that the Talisman was "in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred," yet it does not appear in the list of his possessions at the time of his death

More recent arguments contend that Wood’s list was exaggerated or was an all together different type of list. For example, some suggest that since neither Joseph's gun or hat were on the report, the list must not be complete. It should be obvious, however, that these items were not found on Joseph's person. The record clearly states that he dropped his gun and left it behind before being murdered. As for the hat, even if he had been wearing it indoors, it seems unlikely to have remained on his head after a gun-fight and fall from a second-story window.

Critics also argue that the Talisman was not accounted for was because it ought to have been worn around the neck, hidden from view and secret to all (including Emma no less). Thus, the argument runs, it was overlooked in the inventory. While it may be true that Talismans are worn around the neck, Bidamon's certification clearly states that the Talisman was "in the Prophet’s pocket when he was martyred." So which is it? In his pocket like a lucky charm or secretly worn around his neck as such an item should properly be used? In either case, the record is clear that he did not have a Talisman on his person at the time of his death. The rest is speculation.

The critics also resort to arguing that a prisoner could not possibly have had a penknife, so how accurate can the list of Joseph's possessions be? Obviously, the fact that he had a gun makes the possession of a knife a matter of no consequence.[56] Critics will dismiss contemporary evidence simply because it is inconvenient.

"at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman"

As a final note to the saga, when Durham was later asked how he felt about his speech regarding the Talisman, he replied:

I now wish I had presented some of my material differently." "For instance, at the present time, after checking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter Talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable.[57]

What is the probability that Joseph Smith possessed items related to "magic"?

Probability problems

This claim rests upon a lengthy chain of supposition:[58]

  1. Joseph himself owned the item (e.g., parchment, Mars dagger, or Jupiter talisman).
  2. His possession dates to his early days of "treasure seeking."
  3. He used them for magical purposes.
  4. He made them himself or commissioned them.
  5. He therefore must have used magic books to make them.
  6. He therefore must have had an occult mentor to help him with the difficult process of understanding the magical books and making these items.
  7. This occult mentor transmitted extensive arcane hermetic lore to Joseph beyond the knowledge necessary to make the artifacts.

Theses seven propositions are simply a tissue of assumptions, assertions, and speculations. There is no contemporary primary evidence that Joseph himself owned or used these items. We do not know when, how, or why these items became heirlooms of the Hyrum Smith family. Again, there is no contemporary primary evidence that mentions Joseph or anyone in his family using these artifacts—as Quinn himself noted, "possession alone may not be proof of use." There is no evidence that Joseph ever had any magic books. There is no evidence that Joseph ever had an occult mentor who helped him make or use these items.

Improbability

The methodology used by the critics is a classic example of what one could call the miracle of the addition of the probabilities. The case relies on a rickety tower of unproven propositions that do not provide certainty, rather a geometrically increasing improbability. Probabilities are multiplied, not added. Combining two propositions, each of which has a 50% probability, does not create a 100% probability, it creates a 25% probability that both are true together:

  • chance of proposition #1 being true = 50% = 0.5
  • chance of proposition #2 being true = 50% = 0.5
  • chance of BOTH being true = .5 x .5 = .25 = 25%

Allowing each of these seven propositions a 50% probability—a very generous allowance—creates a .0078% probability that the combination of all seven propositions is true. And this is only one element of a very complex and convoluted argument, with literally dozens of similar unverified assertions. The result is a monumentally high improbability that the overall thesis is correct.

A non-response to this argument

D. Michael Quinn, a major proponent of the "magick" argument, responded to the above by claiming that "Only when cumulative evidence runs contrary to the FARMS agenda, do polemicists like Hamblin want readers to view each piece of evidence as though it existed in isolation."[59]

Replied Hamblin:

Quinn misunderstands and misrepresents my position on what I have called the "miracle of the addition of the probabilities"....

[Quinn's rebuttal discusses] the process of the verification of historical evidence. The issue was unproven propositions, not parallel evidence.

Quinn...proposed that a series of "magic" artifacts provide evidence that Joseph Smith practiced magic. My position is that, in order for us to accept any particular artifact as a single piece of evidence, we must first accept several unproven propositions, each of which may be true or false, but none of which is proven. The more unproven propositions one must accept to validate a piece of evidence, the greater the probability that the evidence is not, in fact, authentic. Thus, two historiographical processes are under discussion. One is the authentication of a particular piece of evidence: did Joseph own a magical talisman and use it to perform magical rites? The second is the cumulative significance of previously authenticated evidence in proving a particular thesis: does the authentication of the use of the talisman demonstrate that Joseph was a magician who adhered to a magical worldview? Quinn apparently cannot distinguish between these two phases of the historical endeavor, which goes far to account for some of the numerous failings in his book....

Of course the probative value of evidence is cumulative. The more evidence you have, the greater the probability that your overall thesis is true. Thus, if Quinn can demonstrate that the talisman and the parchment and the dagger all belonged to the Smith family and were used for magical purposes, it would be more probable that his overall thesis is true than if he could establish only that the Smiths owned and used just one of those three items. But my argument is that the authenticity of each of these pieces of evidence rests on half a dozen unproven propositions and assumptions.[6]

Was a "magic dagger" once owned by Hyrum Smith?

Everyone in the nineteenth-century frontier had at least one dagger, and this one was not designed for ceremonial magic or treasure hunting

It is claimed that the Smith family owned a magic dagger that was among Hyrum Smith's heirlooms. They cite this as proof of the Smith family's deep involvement in ritual magick.

William Hamblin discusses a dagger that was discovered to be among the the Hyrum Smith family heirlooms. The dagger is claimed by historian D. Michael Quinn to be associated with the practice of magic:

The big problem for Quinn is that a dagger is usually just a dagger. Everyone in the nineteenth-century frontier had at least one, and most people had many. Some daggers were inscribed; others were not. Daggers were bought and sold just like any other tool and could easily pass from one owner to another. Given the data presented above, we do not know when, where, or how Hyrum obtained his dagger, or even if he really did. Since there is no documentation on the dagger until 1963, it could have been obtained by one of his descendants after his death and later accidentally confused with Hy rum's heirlooms. We do not know what it meant to Hyrum (assuming he owned it). Was it simply a dagger with some strange marks? Was it a gift to him from a Masonic friend? All of this is speculation—but it is no more speculative than Quinn's theories. Whatever the origin and purpose of the dagger, though, it is quite clear that, based on the evidence Quinn himself has presented, it does not match the magic daggers designed for making magic circles nor does it match the astrology of any of the Smiths.[6]

Hamblin concludes that,

[D. Michael] Quinn, and those who have followed him, have completely misunderstood or misrepresented the purpose of the dagger. The inclusion of the astrological sigil for Scorpio means the dagger was designed for someone born under the sign of Scorpio. None of the Smiths was. Therefore, it was not made for the Smiths. Quinn demonstrates no understanding of talismanic magic. The inclusion of the talismanic sigils for Mars means it was designed to grant victory in battle or litigation. It was not designed for ceremonial magic or treasure hunting, as Quinn claims. Quinn cites sources from after 1870 as evidence for what the Smiths supposedly believed, while completely misrepresenting those sources. The only possible conclusion to draw from all this is that the dagger was made for an unknown person, and, if it somehow came into the possession of Hyrum Smith, it was obtained secondhand with the engravings already made. This conforms with the late Smith family tradition that remembers the signs on the blade as "Masonic" rather than magical.[6]

Does the Book of Mormon’s reference to "slippery treasures" stem from Joseph Smith’s involvement in money digging and the occult?

Review of the Criticism

Some readers of the Book of Mormon and other critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have criticized the Book of Mormon’s reference to "slippery treasures".[60] This reference has been cited as evidence to them that the supposed "magic world view" of Joseph Smith and perhaps his associates influenced the composition of the Book of Mormon for those portions of the Book of Mormon that reference such "slippery treasures."

Book of Mormon Central: Why Did Samuel Say the Wealth of Some Nephites Would Become "Slippery"?

This charge/question has been examined in detail by Book of Mormon Central. Readers are invited to become acquainted with their material to address the question.

Book of Mormon Central:

Samuel the Lamanite’s famous prophetic warnings are found in Helaman 13–15. His pronouncement began with a massive rebuke of the pride, greed, iniquities, priestcrafts, ingratitude, and foolishness of wicked Nephites who were willing to embrace false prophets while utterly rejecting the righteous prophets (Helaman 13:25–29). Samuel pulled no punches. In this context, he used the word "slippery" three times, and the word "slipped" once (vv. 30–36).

Did Joseph Smith's family own "magic parchments" which suggest their involvement in the "occult"?

There is no evidence that Joseph knew of, possessed, or used magical parchments

It is claimed that the Smith family owned "magic parchments," suggesting their involvement in the "occult." However, there is no evidence that Joseph knew of, possessed, or used magical parchments. All we know is that some parchments were eventually "heirlooms" of the Hyrum Smith family, but their provenance is not clear.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Notes

  1. See discussions of this issue in: John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]; William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  2. John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]; citing Stanley J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Jonathan Z. Smith, "Trading Places," in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 16.
  3. Robert K. Ritner, "Egyptian Magic: Questions of Legitimacy, Religious Orthodoxy and Social Deviance," in Studies in Pharaonic Religion and Society in Honour of J. Gwyn Griffiths , ed. Alan B. Lloyd (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1992), 190; cited in John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site] (emphasis in original).
  4. Criticisms of Joseph's use of "folk magic" appear in the following publications: “The Book of Mormon and the Mormonites,” Athenaeum, Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art 42 (July 1841): 370–74. off-site; Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints : To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: Printed for J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 28. off-site; John A. Clark, “Gleanings by the Way. No. VII,” Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 18, no. 25 (12 September 1840), ??. off-site; James H. Hunt, Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect (St. Louis: Ustick and Davies, 1844), n.p.. off-site; MormonThink.com website (as of 28 April 2012). Page: http://mormonthink.com/transbomweb.htm; La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 9 (3 March 1838): 34, citing Howe. off-site
  5. Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  7. Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 28 March 1841; also cited in Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 2:75. ISBN 0941214133.
  8. Brant A. Gardner, Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, FAIR Conference 2009. Gardner references D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 38. and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 70.
  9. 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), 200–215.
  10. Eber Dudley Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 241-242; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 no. 2 (Summer 1982): 48–68.
  11. Joel Tiffany, Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 164;cited in Van Wagoner and Walker, 55.
  12. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853),91–92.
  13. Dean C. Jessee, "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," Brigham Young University Studies 17 no. 1 (August 1976).; cited in 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), 281. Buy online
  14. 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), 200–215.
  15. See, for example, Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:129. GospeLink; Roberts was followed by Richard S. Van Wagoner, Dan Vogel, Ogden Kraut, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, and D. Michael Quinn. See discussion in Ashurst-McGee, 247n317.
  16. 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), 200–283.
  17. 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), 200–201.
  18. W. D. Purple, The Chenango Union (3 May 1877); cited in Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959[1942]), 2:365. ASIN B000HMY138. (See Van Wagoner and Walker, 54.)
  19. Richard Marcellas Robinson, "The History of a Nephite Coin," manuscript, 20 December 1834, Church archives; cited in 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), 264. Buy online
  20. Mormonism—II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 163, see also 169; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 286.
  21. Henry Harris, statement in E.D. Howe Mormonism Unvailed (1833), 252; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 290.
  22. Joseph Knight, cited in Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1981), 6. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized. The original text reads: "After Brackfist Joseph Cald me in to the other Room and he sit his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, well I am Dissopented. Well, say I, I am sorrey. Well, says he, I am grateley Dissopnted. It is ten times Better then I expected. Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummim than he Did of the plates for says he, I can see anything. They are Marvelous."
  23. Joel Tiffany, "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 165–166; cited in VanWagoner and Walker, footnote 27.
  24. Tiffany, 163.
  25. Told in Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988): 6.
  26. Lucy Smith, "Preliminary Manuscript," 64, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:333-34. Cited in 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), 320–326.
  27. 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), 320–326.
  28. 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), 334–337.
  29. 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), 332–333.
  30. Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman ; citing Orson Pratt, "Discourse at Brigham City," 27 June 1874, Ogden (Utah) Junction, cited in Orson Pratt, "Two Days´ Meeting at Brigham City," Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498–499.
  31. Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman
  32. Van Wagoner and Walker, 58–59 (citations removed).
  33. Van Wagoner and Walker, 58–59 (citations removed). See also 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), 230.
  34. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View 242–247.
  35. Brant A. Gardner, "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?," Proceedings of the 2009 FAIR Conference (August 2009).
  36. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988).
  37. Matthew Brown, "Revised or Unaltered? Joseph Smith's Foundational Stories.", 2006 FAIR Conference.
  38. William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site] (emphasis in original) Hamblin cites Luck Mack Smith, 1845 manuscript history transcribed without punctuation, in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:285. and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, 1987), 73. ISBN 0252060121.
  39. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 235-236. (Affidavits examined) Reproduced in "The Origin of Mormonism," Christian Enquirer (New York) 5/51 (25 September 1852): [1]. Also available in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:40-45.
  40. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Review of Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined by Rodger I. Anderson," FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80. off-site [Anderson's references have been silently removed from this citation.]
  41. This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site. Please consult the original for references and further information. By the nature of a wiki project, the base text may have since been modified and added to.
  42. 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
  43. Bruce Chilton, "Jesus’ Dispute in the Temple and the Origin of the Eucharist," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 no. 4, 22–23.
  44. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 121 ( Index of claims )
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 45.4 45.5 45.6 William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, "Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge] (Review of The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 by John L. Brooke)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 3–58. off-site
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 46.3 46.4 46.5 46.6 William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site
  47. William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, "Mormon in the Fiery Furnace Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge] (Review of The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 by John L. Brooke)," FARMS Review of Books 6/2 (1994): 3–58. off-site(italics in original)
  48. Dr. Reed Durham’s Presidential Address before the Mormon History Association on 20 April 1974.
  49. Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 225. ( Index of claims )
  50. https://www.fairmormon.org/archive/publications/the-truth-about-the-god-makers
  51. Jerald R. Johansen, After the Martyrdom: What Happened to the Family of Joseph Smith (Springville, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 2004[1997]), 79. ISBN 0882905961. off-site
  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 52.3 52.4 Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
    Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
    Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman
  53. Original coming from LaMar C. Berett, The Wilford Wood Collection, Vol. 1 (Provo, UT: Wilford C. Wood Foundation, 1972), 173.
  54. Anderson points to its original source in J. W. Woods "The Mormon Prophet," Daily Democrat (Ottumwa, Iowa), 10 May 1885; and in Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (Des Moines: Homestead Publishing Co., 1916), 271.
  55. Stephen E. Robinson, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, by D. Michael Quinn," Brigham Young University Studies 27 no. 4 (1987), 94–95.
  56. These are examples of later arguments by Quinn in an attempt to refute Anderson.
  57. Gilbert W. Scharffs, The Truth about ‘The God Makers’ (Salt Lake City, Utah: Publishers Press, 1989; republished by Bookcraft, 1994), 180. Full text FAIR link ISBN 088494963X.
  58. This section of the response was based on William J. Hamblin, "'Everything Is Everything': Was Joseph Smith Influenced by Kabbalah? Review of Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection by Lance S. Owens," FARMS Review of Books 8/2 (1996): 251–325. off-site. By the nature of a wiki project, it has since been modified and added to.
  59. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 355—56 n. 121 ( Index of claims )
  60. Robert N. Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis, MO: Clayton Publishing House, 1980), 105; D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998), 61, 196–197.

Response to claim: "Why doesn't the Church openly talk about this stone today?"

The author(s) of MormonThink make(s) the following claim:

Critic's Comment: Why doesn't the Church openly talk about this stone today? How many members know about it? This is the stone Joseph put in a hat and looked at to bring forth the Book of Mormon! In 2006, the LDS Church had a special display at their Church Museum of different Joseph Smith artifacts. They had a mock-up of the gold plates but they chose not to display any of Joseph Smith's seer stones. Since one of these stones was used to translate all of the published Book of Mormon, one wonders why it wasn't included in the display. There is no prohibition known to not show these stones. In fact, several authors and historians have seen the stones in the Church's vaults. Is there something embarrassing about having the Book of Mormon translated through the use of this stone?

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim contains propaganda - The author, or the author's source, is providing information or ideas in a slanted way in order to instill a particular attitude or response in the reader

The authors are implying that the Church is embarrassed about the use of the stone simply because it is not on display, but they have no evidence to support this in the face of its mention in multiple Church publications, and now in a Gospel Topics essay.


Question: Has the Church tried to hide Joseph's use of a seer stone?

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork. Part of the reason for this is the conflation of the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone under the name "Urim and Thummim." In church, we discuss the Urim and Thummim with the assumption that it is always the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument.

That said, the Church has been very frank about the seer stone's use, though the product of the translation of the Book of Mormon is usually given much more attention that the process. Note the mention of the stone in the official children's magazine, The Friend (available online at lds.org):

"To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone."
—“A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sep 1974, 7 off-site

Text translated with the Nephite interpreters was lost with the 116 pages given to Martin Harris—see D&C 3. The Church's Historical Record records Joseph's use of the seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text:

As a chastisement for this carelessness [loss of the 116 pages], the Urim and Thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord and was presented a strange oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat which it was promised should answer the same purpose. With this stone all the present book was translated. [Note that the chronology of Joseph's acquisition of the stone is here somewhat confused. The use of the stone, however, is clearly indicated.][1]

References to the stone are not confined to the distant past. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Twelve Apostles described the process clearly in an Ensign article:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.[2]

It would be strange to try to hide something by having an apostle talk about it, and then send the account to every LDS home in the official magazine!

Why have the stone and hat not received more mentions in popular Church History works?

We already know that Joseph Smith was reluctant to describe the translation process in detail.[3] Brigham Young University professor Stephen Ricks feels that Joseph’s “reticence was probably well justified and may have been due to the inordinate interest which some of the early Saints had shown in the seer stone or to the negative and sometimes bitter reactions he encountered when he had reported some of his sacred experiences to others.”[4] Thus, Joseph never discussed the details regarding which translation instrument he used to both translate the Book of Mormon and to receive revelation. Joseph simply told people that he received his early revelations through the “Urim and Thummim.”

During the 1930s, Dr. Francis Kirkham endeavored to “gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon.”[5] Many of these articles were obtained from newspaper collections located in the New York area and have recently been made available in an online database hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.[6]

As we have seen, many of these news accounts refer to the use of the spectacles or stone together with a hat, consistent with the late statements of Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, in the October 1939 Improvement Era, quoted the accounts of the stone and the hat given by Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, however, did not accept the eyewitness accounts that Joseph actually used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon, concluding that “the statements of both of these men are to be explained by the eagerness of old age to call upon a fading and uncertain memory for the details of events which still remained real and objective to them.”[7] In his 1951 book A New Witness For Christ in America, Kirkham believed that “it may not have been expedient for the Prophet to try and explain the method of translation for the reason his hearers would lack the capacity to understand. It seemed sufficient to them at that time to know that the translation had been made by the gift and power of God.”[8] Kirkham goes on to say that, “After a lapse of forty years of time, both David Whitmer and Martin Harris attempted to give the method of the translation. Evidently the Prophet did not tell them the method.”[9] Despite the fact that elements of Harris’s and Whitmer’s story were consistent with each other, Kirkham simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth.

In 1956, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith knew of the seer stone (and acknowledged that the Church had the stone in its posession), but did not believe that Joseph actually used it during the translation of the Book of Mormon.

SEER STONE NOT USED IN BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION. We have been taught since the days of the Prophet that the Urim and Thummim were returned with the plates to the angel. We have no record of the Prophet having the Urim and Thummim after the organization of the Church. Statements of translations by the Urim and Thummim after that date are evidently errors.[10]

Like Kirkham, Joseph Fielding Smith simply refused to accept accounts of Joseph having utilized his seer stone for the purpose of translation as having any validity. In his opinion, such accounts were simply erroneous due to the fact that he believed they were hearsay and that Ether 3:22-24 states that the Urim and Thummim were preserved for the act of translation. Since the Book of Mormon does not mention the seer stone, the seer stone was evidently inferior to him.

During the twentieth century, the story of Joseph translating behind a curtain while employing the Nephite interpreters as the Urim and Thummim remained firmly established and generally uncontested among the general Church membership. Latter-day Saint scholars, however, continued to research the stories of Joseph’s use of the seer stone. Such references never made it into the general Church curriculum or the awareness of the general Church membership. If you were a scholar, then you knew that Joseph used a seer stone. If you were a regular Church member, then you knew that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters. Discussions of Joseph’s use of “seer stones” or the practice of “treasure seeking” remained primarily in the realm of LDS scholars. During the tenure of Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington, from 1972 and 1982, some attempts were made to make certain elements of Latter-day Saint history more accessible to the average member. One 1976 book produced during this period, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, noted in a straightforward manner Joseph’s acquisition of his seer stone and its use in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Sometime around 1822, before his first visit from the angel Moroni, Joseph was digging a well with Willard Chase, not far from the Smith home, and he discovered a smooth, dark-colored stone, about the size of an egg, that he called a seerstone. He later used it to "help in the translation of the Book of Mormon and also in receiving certain revelations."[11]

The visibility of these issues among the general Church membership began to change significantly in the early 1980s as the result of a very unusual and tragic event: the exposure of the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Suddenly, newspapers were talking about salamanders and treasure guardians in association with some of the Church’s founding events.

Mark Hofmann was a member of the Church who became involved with the acquisition and sale of historic documents during the early 1980s. He seemed to have a knack for acquiring missing documents that were alluded to by other documents related to Church history. For example, Hofmann claimed to have located a blessing in which Joseph Smith III was allegedly promised that he would be the next prophet of the Church. Hofmann also produced what he claimed was the Anthon transcript, which matched a description of the document provided by Charles Anthon himself. The most famous document in the collection of Hofmann forgeries was the Salamander Letter, which was purportedly written by Martin Harris. Hofmann’s documents were so well crafted that they fooled a number of experts in the field, and they were all considered genuine for a period of time. During that period of time, a new wave of Latter-day Saint historical works were produced, taking into account the “magical” aspects emphasized in the Salamander Letter. There was also an effort to reconcile and integrate the new information with existing accounts.[12]

Some of Hofmann’s documents were created based upon existing eyewitness accounts regarding treasure seeking, and to some extent simply amplified concepts that were already known to historians. Once the forgeries were exposed, it became necessary to re-examine what had been written to support the now discredited documents.[13] Although the Hofmann forgeries were discounted, the underlying legitimate historical accounts that fueled their creation began to become more well known among the general Church membership. Joseph’s early involvement with treasure seeking, beyond what had long been documented in Church publications regarding his efforts with Josiah Stowell, became more well known. Elder Dallin Oaks emphasized that this in no way diminished Joseph’s standing as the Prophet of the Restoration.

Some sources close to Joseph Smith claim that in his youth, during his spiritual immaturity prior to his being entrusted with the Book of Mormon plates, he sometimes used a stone in seeking for treasure. Whether this is so or not, we need to remember that no prophet is free from human frailties, especially before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work. Line upon line, young Joseph Smith expanded his faith and understanding and his spiritual gifts matured until he stood with power and stature as the Prophet of the Restoration.[14]


Question: Did Joseph Smith use the Nephite interpreters to translate? Or did he use his own seer stone?

Joseph Smith used both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone, and both were called "Urim and Thummim"

Joseph Smith used both the Nephite Interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation process, yet we only hear of the "Urim and Thummim" being used for this purpose.

  1. He described the instrument as ‘spectacles’ and referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim.
  2. He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed, called ‘seer stones’ because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones.
  3. Records indicate that soon after the founding of the Church in 1830, the Prophet stopped using the seer stones as a regular means of receiving revelations. Instead, he dictated the revelations after inquiring of the Lord without employing an external instrument.

Emma Smith confirmed that Joseph switched between the Nephite interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation

Emma Smith Bidamon described Joseph's use of several stones during translation to Emma Pilgrim on 27 March 1870 (original spelling retained):

Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”[15]

Joseph Smith's small, egg-shaped seer stone. Emma said that "he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color." Photograph by Welden C. Andersen and Richard E. Turley Jr. Copyright © The Church Historian's Press.


Question: What are the Nephite interpreters?

The Nephite interpreters are two seer stones set in a framework resembling a set of "spectacles"

The Lord provided a set of seer stones (which were formerly used by Nephite prophets) along with the plates. The term Nephite interpreters can alternatively refer to the stones themselves or the stones in conjunction with their associated paraphernalia (holding rim and breastplate). Some time after the translation, early saints noticed similarities with the seer stones and related paraphernalia used by High Priests in the Old Testament and began to use the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably with the Nephite interpreters and Joseph's other seer stones as well. The now popular use of the term Urim and Thummim has unfortunately obscured the fact that all such devices belong in the same class of consecrated revelatory aids and that more than one were used in the translation.

The manner in which the interpreters were used was never explained in detail

The Nephite interpreters were intended to assist Joseph in the initial translation process, yet the manner in which they were employed was never explained in detail. The fact that the Nephite interpreters were set in rims resembling a pair of spectacles has led some to believe that they may have been worn like a pair of glasses, with Joseph viewing the characters on the plates through them. This, however, is merely speculation that doesn't take into account that Joseph soon disassembled the fixture, the spacing between seer stones being too wide for his eyes. The accompanying breastplate also appeared to have been used by a larger man. Like its biblical counterpart (the High Priest's breastplate contained 12 gems that symbolized him acting as a mediator between God and Israel), the Nephite breastplate was apparently non-essential to the revelatory process.


Question: Did Joseph Smith use his own seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?

Image from video "Seer Stones and the Translation of the Book of Mormon," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Copyright (c) 2015 Intellectual Reserve

Many eyewitness accounts confirm that Joseph employed his seer stone during part of the translation process

"Emma as Scribe" by Robert T. Pack
Joseph Smith translates using the seer stone placed within his hat while Martin Harris acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Religious Studies Center, BYU, Deseret Book Company (May 11, 2015)

Martin Harris states that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters and then later switched to using the seer stone "for convenience." [16] In fact, Elder Nelson refers to the use of the seer stone in his 1993 talk:

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.) [17]


Gospel Topics: "Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term 'Urim and Thummim' to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters"

"These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable"

Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters. In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumin[at]ed. Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters. Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument. [18]


Ensign (Jan. 2013): "He...referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim...He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed"

Gerrit Dirkmaat (Church History Department - January 2013 Ensign):

Those who believed that Joseph Smith’s revelations contained the voice of the Lord speaking to them also accepted the miraculous ways in which the revelations were received. Some of the Prophet Joseph’s earliest revelations came through the same means by which he translated the Book of Mormon from the gold plates. In the stone box containing the gold plates, Joseph found what Book of Mormon prophets referred to as “interpreters,” or a “stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” (Alma 37:23–24). He described th