Most of us are familiar with Joseph Smith’s well-documented stay in Liberty Jail, and the later criminal charges at Carthage that led to his murder. Many of us also know about the different lawsuits for debt collection, particularly concerning the Kirtland Safety Society. Church history geeks will be familiar with two back-to-back sham trials in 1830 while Joseph was still in New York, in which his enemies scoured the countryside for anyone willing to testify against him with any ridiculous story they could invent. After he was acquitted at the first trial, he was immediately handcuffed and re-arrested for the second trial. It lasted well into the early hours of the morning before he was acquitted a second time.
However, those weren’t the only legal trials in Joseph’s life. In fact, Joseph was involved in over 200 court cases, whether as a defendant, plaintiff, witness, or judge. Brigham Young once estimated that Joseph had been the defendant in about 48 of those cases. According to Joseph Bentley at the previous link, that estimate appears to be pretty accurate. He was found liable for some incurred debts over the years. In none of those criminal cases, however, was he ever confirmed to have been found guilty.
The case being discussed today is Joseph’s 1826 trial for “glass-looking,” another term for using a seer stone. Not much is known of this trial, and several of the records conflict in different ways. The basic gist, though, is that Joseph went to work for Josiah Stowell in November of 1825, trying to locate buried treasure. After about a month, he convinced Stowell to give up the venture, but stayed on with him as a farmhand for several months. In March of 1826, one of Stowell’s relatives brought charges against Joseph, claiming he was scamming Stowell. The outcome of this trial is one of those details that conflict across the different records.
So, what does the LFMW have to say about this trial?
- Trouble With the Law
Between 21-25 years old, Joseph Smith was arrested 4 separate times for fraud.
Sort of. He was arrested four times, but he wasn’t charged with fraud four times. There were the two 1830 cases mentioned above in which he was charged with being “a disorderly person,” which was the corresponding charge in New York for using a seer stone. There was this 1826 case in which he was charged with “glass-looking” as well as being “a disorderly person.” And the fourth case came in 1829, in which Lucy Harris, the wife of Martin, claimed Joseph defrauded her husband. So, he was only charged with fraud once.
The two 1830 cases were dismissed for lack of valid evidence against him, as was the 1829 case. In fact, Lucy Mack Smith recounts that in the 1829 fraud case, the testimony against Joseph was so absurd the judge “told them that they need not call any more of their witnesses but to bring that which had been recorded of the testimony that had been given. This he tore in pieces before their eyes and told them to go home about their business and trouble him no more with such ridiculous folly.”
There’s a reason critics don’t usually mention these three cases. When your evidence is so bad that even the judge calls your claims ridiculous, you don’t really have a leg to stand on.
The outcome of the 1826 case is more murky, though, as we’ll come to see.
Josephsmithpapers.org displays a trial bill for Justice Albert Neely where Josiah Stowell brought charges against Joseph for glass looking and was convicted of misdemeanor.
This sentence is incorrect. The Joseph Smith Papers Project does indeed have the bill for the justice’s trial fees. We also have a bill for the constable. However, that’s the only factual information in that sentence.
Josiah Stowell did not bring those charges against Joseph, and it is unknown whether he was convicted of the misdemeanor. It also doesn’t actually appear to be a trial, but a pre-trial hearing to determine whether or not to bring a trial.
Though one account by William Purple states that Josiah’s sons brought the charges against Joseph, most accounts list Peter G. Bridgman as the accuser. Bridgman was Stowell’s nephew. Stowell actually testified on Joseph’s behalf. So did several of his family members. Stowell later joined the Church and remained a faithful member for the rest of his life. That’s not the behavior of someone who distrusted Joseph and tried to charge him with fraud.
As far as the judgment itself goes, the reports range from Charles Marshall’s purported transcript saying he was found guilty to Abram Benton and Joel King Noble both claiming he was convicted but allowed to escape and/or “took leg bail” to William Purple claiming he was discharged without penalty to Oliver Cowdery saying he was “honorably acquitted” in a letter to W.W. Phelps. You can see why there’s confusion over the outcome.
These are the accounts we have: the William Purple statement, three Pearsall statements, the two court bills, and Oliver Cowdery’s brief comments on the matter.
William Purple claimed to be a friend and associate of Albert Neely, the justice in this case. He says that he was asked to take notes during the hearing. This statement was produced from his note and his memory, though it’s important to note that it was published decades later and Purple had recounted his story many times. This means that inaccuracies were bound to have crept in over the years.
The Pearsall accounts are three purported transcripts of the docket entry of the case, originally provided by Emily Pearsall. However they all differ in places, the original source is missing, and it’s unclear whether the original transcript was altered. According to the Joseph Smith Papers Project:
Although Neely’s docket book is not extant, three documents purporting to be based on the docket entry for State of New York v. JS–A later appeared in print. The published docket entry includes the case name, the date of the proceedings, the name of the complainant—Peter G. Bridgman, Stowell’s nephew—and the charge that JS was a “disorderly person and an Imposter.” It also includes detailed summaries of testimonies by JS and five witnesses recounting JS’s use of a seer stone while in Stowell’s employment. The docket entry concludes with Neely’s purported verdict, “and therefore the court finds the defendant guilty,” as well as the justice’s itemized fee bill totaling $2.68. Several of these details are consistent with Neely’s and De Zeng’s 1826 bills, strongly suggesting that the published transcript was based on an authentic source.
Because of uncertain provenance, however, questions remain regarding the reliability of the printed document, and it is included here as an appendix item. According to later accounts, following Neely’s death the original docket book was inherited by his niece, Emily Pearsall, who served as a Methodist missionary in Utah in the early 1870s. At some point, Pearsall reportedly “tore the leaves” pertaining to the case “out of the record.” In 1872, British journalist Charles Marshall visited Utah, where Pearsall permitted him to copy the “original papers” of Neely’s “judicial proceedings,” which he published in Fraser’s Magazine in England. After Pearsall’s death in 1872, the excised pages passed to Episcopal bishop Daniel S. Tuttle, with whom she had lived in Utah. Unaware of Marshall’s earlier publication, in 1883 Tuttle published a transcript of the document in Philip Schaff’s Religious Encyclopaedia. Finally, in 1886 the anti-Mormon Utah Christian Advocate published a transcript of “the Manuscript” they had obtained from Tuttle. Although “the Manuscript” likely referred to the “original papers” torn from Neely’s docket, it is also possible that the term refers to a copy made by Tuttle. Each printing was apparently made independent of the others, as each contains unique omissions and errors. Without the original source, it remains unknown how accurately any of the published versions represents Neely’s original docket entry.
So, as you can see, it’s convoluted. That makes it difficult to ascertain the facts. I’m sure you’re asking the same question I did: what actually happened?
Well, according to Gordon A. Madsen, the leading expert in this case, 19th century New York courts presided over by a single justice like this in this instance were “on the bottom rung of the legal ladder.” They were called courts of special sessions. These justices weren’t trained lawyers or judges, but affluent men in the community who were tasked with presiding over matters that didn’t amount to serious crimes, but that upset the locals. For criminal cases, they had a few options. They could sentence someone to be held in the house of correction until the next general session of the court for an actual trial, up to a maximum of six months. They could also sentence someone to 60 days of hard labor at the house of corrections instead of a trial. The general session court could fine up to $25 and an additional six months of hard labor for a misdemeanor.
Joseph was not sentenced to any of those things. He was also not brought before a general session court. The bills were sent to the county government for court services, not to Joseph. There is no record of any fine against him, or of him serving any time in relation to this charge. His life is pretty well-documented, so if he served jail time for any length of time longer than about a week, we would be aware of it. There is also no conviction mentioned by any of his detractors from this time period, despite their affidavits being quoted in full in Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed. This all suggests that he was not found guilty.
Additionally, under the law at the time, only Josiah Stowell could bring a complaint against Joseph as the victim of the fraud, but he testified in favor of Joseph. As Madsen explains:
The pivotal testimony, in my view, was that of Josiah Stowell. Both accounts [the Purple and the Pearsall accounts] agree on the facts. The Pearsall account states: “[Joseph] had been employed by him [Stowell] to work on farm part of time; …that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and professed the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone.” The Purple account states:
Justice Neely soberly looked at the witness and in a solemn, dignified voice said, “Deacon Stowell, do I understand you as swearing before God, under the solemn oath you have taken, that you believethe prisoner can see by the aid of the stone fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plainly as you can see what is on my table?” “Do I believe it?” says Deacon Stowell, “do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief. I positively know it to be true.”
From the array of the other witnesses there was no testimony that any of them parted with any money or other thing of value to Joseph Smith. Only Josiah Stowell did so, and then for part-time work on his farm in addition to services rendered in pursuit of treasure. More to the point, he emphatically denied that he had been deceived or defrauded. On the contrary, he “positively” knew the accused could discern the whereabouts of subterranean objects. In short, only Josiah Stowell had any legal basis to complain, and he was not complaining. Hence Purple’s concluding comment: “It is hardly necessary to say that, as the testimony of Deacon Stowell could not be impeached, the prisoner was discharged, and in a few weeks he left the town.” Indeed Justice Neely had no other choice.
The Pearsall account he describes is the Marshall account found in Fraser’s Magazine. This same account is partially quoted by Thomas Faulk in the LFMW:
Prisoner examined: says that he came from the town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowell in Bainbridge … That he had a certain stone which he had occasionally look at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were at a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowell several times, and had informed him where he could find these treasures, and Mr. Stowell had been engaged in digging for them.
Josiah Stowell sworn: says that prisoner had … pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes; once to tell him about money buried in Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania [and] once for gold on Monument Hill.
Jonathon Thompson: says that prisoner was requested to look for chest of money; did look, and pretended to know where it was … Smith looked in his hat while there, and when very dark, and told how the chest was situated…That the last time he looked he discovered distinctly the two Indians who buried the trunk, that a quarrel ensued between them, and that one of said Indians was killed by the other, and thrown into the hold beside the trunk, to guard it, as he supposed.
And therefore the Court find the Defendant guilty.” (Joseph Smith’s 1826 court transcript)
Again, there are issues with omitting part of the text and not showing it. Faulk at least added some editing marks this time around, so I’ll give him props for that, but he also cut out multiple paragraphs of text without indication.
Additionally, this is not the “court transcript.” There was no official court transcript made. Madsen explains:
What really happened? What can we draw from the statutory and case law, the bills, the admittedly incomplete and inconsistent reports of the notetakers, and the even more inconsistent conclusions of the commentators? Let us first resort to The Justice’s Manual as a basis for judging the reliability of the Pearsall and Purple notes and their pretensions at being official. Purple claimed that Justice Neely was his friend and asked him to make notes of the trial. He also admitted telling the story repeatedly over the more than forty years before he submitted his article to the Chenango Union in May 1877. Miss Pearsall, according to Tuttle, had torn her notes from her Uncle Albert Neely’s docket book. How close does either come to meeting the requirements of a transcript of testimony required of a justice of the peace at that time?
The statute provides that in all cases where any conviction shall be had before any court of special sessions, in pursuance of the act hereby amended, it shall be the duty of the justices holding such court of special sessions, to make a certificate of such conviction, under their hands and seals, in which shall be briefly stated the offence, conviction and judgment thereon; and the said justices shall within forty days after such conviction had, cause such certificate to be filed in the office of the clerk of the county in which the offender shall be convicted, and such certificate, under the hands and seals of such justices, or any two of them, and so filed, or the exemplification thereof by such clerk, under his seal of office, shall be good and legal evidence in any court in this state, to prove the facts contained in such certificate or exemplification….
So, if … a court of special sessions convened, and the Pearsall notes were “The Official Trial Record” (as he maintains), where is the certification “under their hands and seals” wherein is “briefly stated the offence, conviction and judgment thereon”? The Purple notes are equally lacking such certification. On the other hand, if (as I maintain) Justice Neely alone tried the matter, and if a conviction resulted, far more particularity would have been needed in such notes demonstrating jurisdiction, the regularity of the proceedings, the conviction, and the sentence. In either event, the record of conviction would have needed to be filed with the county clerk within forty days. No such record as to date been unearthed in the office of the Clerk of Chenango County.
The “he” in question is Reverend Wesley P. Walters, the man who apparently found the two court bills linked above. He wrote a few articles bundled together into a book titled Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials, which included an adjoining pamphlet titled “From Occult to Cult With Joseph Smith,” which Madsen was responding to.
This is almost certainly not an official court transcript that Faulk quoted, and neither is the other record. Both are lacking required elements to meet that designation, and neither of them were ever filed with the county. This suggests that, instead, these are simply the personal notes of Neely regarding the case.
It also needs to be remembered that the provenance of this account is in dispute. No one can confirm where it came from. Neely’s niece just showed up with them one day, and there’s no telling what was altered or where she got them. There’s also no telling what they actually said, because all three transcripts of the papers differ from one another in key points and the originals no longer exist to compare them to.
Those aren’t the only issues with this account. Let’s talk about the word “pretend” for a minute.
The Pearsall account claims that Josiah Stowell said that Joseph “pretended” to have the skill of using a seer stone. However, as we quoted above, in the same account Stowell says he “positively knew” it was true. Stowell did not use the word “pretend.” Neely or Pearsall—or whomever wrote those original papers—did.
Of the word “pretend,” religious anthropologist Manu Padro wrote:
[T]he use of the word “pretended” to describe supernatural claims of miraculous power is not a clear-cut statement about fraud. It is a recategorization of disparaged religious beliefs and practices to better police and penalize them. This is most commonly seen in skeptical English demonologists’ descriptions of non-Calvinist religious traditions from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. This understanding of the word “pretended” also appears in the Pearsall narrative’s depiction of the 1826 pre-trial.
The Pearsall narrative follows this tradition. It relies almost entirely upon “pretended” powers, claiming that Joseph Smith “had pretended to tell by looking at this stone, where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra he had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds.” Oddly, it depicts Josiah Stowell as claiming that Joseph Smith Jr. “pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone.” When compared to statements in both narratives that assert Stowell’s belief in Smith’s abilities, this statement seems to be an insertion or a scribal distortion. In the Pearsall narrative, Johnathon Thompson testified that Joseph Smith Jr. “pretended to know” where the treasure was buried and “pretending that he was alarmed” when they thought their shovels had hit a chest. The Pearsall narrative then claims that Johnathon Thompson believed “in the prisoner’s professed skill, that the board he struck his spade upon was probably the chest but on account of an enchantment, the trunk kept settling away from under them while digging.” This should be compared to the Purple narrative’s version of Johnathon Thompson’s testimony. There, Thompson never presents these alleged practices or beliefs as pretended. On the contrary, the Purple document’s version of the Johnathon Thompson testimony portrays Smith’s folk-Christian beliefs as genuine even if it later repackages them as delusional beliefs leading to unprofitable diabolical witchcraft. Thus, potential scribal distortion also appears in the Johnathon Thompson testimony. The Pearsall narrative’s consistent depiction of Smith’s activities as “pretended” also occurs in its presentation of the Horace Stowell and McMaster testimonies.
The two literary sources for the 1826 pretrial diverge strongly on their description of Smith’s activities as pretended witchcraft and diabolical witchcraft. Of these two accounts, the Purple narrative matches the allegations of diabolism that Smith’s neighbors claimed to have of his activities after 1824. However, the Pearsall account contains the justice’s itemized fee bill, which matches Justice Neeley’s and Constable De Zing’s bill of costs. This conundrum would suggest that the Pearsall account is not a faithful reproduction of the original trial notes. It would appear that working with the original notes, Emily Pearsall may have fabricated an account of the trial by removing elements of folk-Christian belief frequently associated with witchcraft and the allegations of diabolical witchcraft. For example, Joseph Smith Sr.’s and Joseph Smith Jr.’s testimonies, which explicitly characterize treasure seeking as a Christian act in the Purple narrative, are both completely omitted in the Pearsall narrative. These elements of Joseph Smith’s early life would have triggered the skepticism of a late nineteenth-century audience. Their absence in the Pearsall narrative reflects a later reframing of the events. … If the original trial notes included Smith’s confessions’ folk-Christian belief conflated with witchcraft or if it contained allegations of diabolical witchcraft, the recreation of these elements in the Pearsall articles from later in the century would have triggered skepticism among people from Emily Pearsall’s generation of Americans. William Purple, on the other hand, was from an antebellum generation of nineteenth-century Americans who had not internalized this understanding of Salem or skepticism about diabolical witchcraft. Hence, Purple’s account included the folk-Christian confessions from both Joseph Smiths. For William Purple and other believers in diabolical witchcraft, the conflation of folk-Christianity with witchcraft meant that the Smiths’ confessions of folk-Christian activity would have been seen as blasphemous confessions of implicit pacts, which believers imagined to be witchcraft. On the other hand, Emily Pearsall would have been motivated to modify an account of the 1826 pretrial by stripping the actual trial notes of inconvenient and embarrassing material, focusing instead on post-Enlightenment concerns with pretended witchcraft, painting it as fraud. … The Pearsall narrative’s scribal insertion portraying Josiah Stowell as describing Joseph Smith’s practices as pretended suggest that Emily Pearsall may have added and embellished material in her account. This is suggested by alleged accounts of deliberate deception in the Horace Stowell, Arad Stowell, and McMaster testimonies. These accounts of deliberate deception do not appear in the Purple narrative. Further evidence for selective distortion in the Pearsall account can be found in the Pearsall narrative’s guilty verdict, which strongly contradicts William Purple’s claims that the prisoner was discharged on Josiah Stowell’s testimony. The motive and the ways the Pearsall account do not match the larger body of evidence would strongly suggest that such a chain of events shaped the final document used to generate this account. The divergences in these narratives suggest that the allegations in the pre-trial as remembered by William Purple focused on diabolical witchcraft while Emily Pearsall heavily edited her account to create a narrative that focused on post-Enlightenment concerns with pretended powers.
Essentially, there is good evidence to suggest that Emily Pearsall heavily altered her uncle’s trial notes before allowing anyone to copy them. Her papers don’t match the other account’s testimonies, nor do they match the types of stories being told in the testimonies from the 1829 and 1830 trials. The Pearsall papers don’t match the rest of the evidence pointing to an acquittal/dismissal either, as outlined above. So, there’s valid reason to be skeptical of the account Faulk labels as the official “court transcript.”
BYU Professor, Ronald Walker, states that the events surrounding Joseph and the gold plates were very typical of early 19th century folk magic practitioners.
Oof. I’m a big fan of putting things back in context, but that context needs to be correct and this…isn’t. That isn’t what Walker said at all.
What Walker actually said was that Joseph Smith’s personal use of a seer stone was typical of early 19th century folk-magic practitioners. He also said, “I wish to make another point explicit. Nothing in my study should be taken as suggesting that Joseph Smith was merely a product of his folk culture environment. No English or American village adept ever produced a Book of Mormon. None produced a Vision of Moses, the Olive Leaf, the Three Degrees of Glory, or such magisterial ideas as sections 93 and 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants. At every major point in his career, there were second and third witnesses for Joseph Smith’s work. And when he died, he left a church that dwarfed anything that might have been built by a run-of-the-mill village holy man.”
He literally said the opposite of what Faulk claims here. Things like that irritate me. If your position is so strong and your argument is so solid, why do you have to lie in order to make your claims? Why do you have to erase chunks from the quotes you choose, and blatantly twist what the papers you cite actually say? When you pull stunts like that, why do you think we’ll actually trust you over the Holy Ghost and the prophets? I just don’t get it.
Faulk then presents a little table to back up his assertion:
|Common folk magic themes in 19th century New England||Joseph Smith’s story also included|
|Divine visitations||Visitation from the Lord during the First Vision|
|Visions that recur 3 times||Visited by Moroni 3 times in one night|
|The Devil||Overcome by the Devil when he went to the grove to pray|
|Buried box of gold with spirit guardians, often Native Americans||Golden plates buried in a stone box protected by Moroni, a Native American|
|Seer stones in hats||Used the seer stone in a hat to dictate the Book of Mormon|
These are again simplistic distortions of what Walker actually said. For example, Walker’s paper doesn’t discuss divine visitations, unless you consider attempts to conjure ghosts and other spirits as divine. There is no discussion of those spirits or ghosts ever actually appearing to anyone.
As explained in footnote 60 of the paper, the number three was seen as a signifier of completeness in the New Testament: the three gifts of the wise men to the baby Jesus; the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness; the three denials of Peter; the three falls on the road to Golgotha; the three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; the three appearances of the risen Christ to His disciples; etc. It was long taught in Christian mythology that the number was symbolic of the Godhead/Trinity. We actually see the number three popping up all over our society in secular places as well, and it has been a prominent number for centuries. We see it in nursery rhymes such as “Three Blind Mice,” fairy tales such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and idioms like “the third time’s the charm.” Ancient cultures prominently used triskelions, tridents, shamrocks, and other symbols with three prongs to also symbolize completeness, power, or unity. The number three pops up in multiple other incidents Walker lists, in a variety of ways. It’s not actually referred to as being involved with visions in Walker’s paper either, but rather with recurring dreams. Those dreams were not likened to visions, and the trend has scriptural backing. It wasn’t something Joseph just absorbed from his community.
Additionally, he never said he was overcome by “the Devil” when he went to pray, but that it was “thick darkness” in one account, and that his tongue felt swollen so that he could not speak and he heard someone walking behind him but saw no one in another account.
Moroni did not “protect” the golden plates the way a treasure guardian would. The extent of his protection was simply to bury the plates before he died where they would not be damaged or found until the time was right. God was the one protecting them, not Moroni. A treasure guardian’s job was not to lead a seeker to the treasure and to then teach him all about where it came from and the people it belonged to. It’s job was to stop anyone from ever finding the treasure, either by moving it whenever they got close or by inducing them to speak and break their silence, thereby destroying their ability to find the treasure a second time.
The only thing that actually aligns on that table is that seer stones worked best when put inside a hat to block out the light. In Joseph’s day, that was the best means of creating darkness black enough for it to work properly, without straining his eyes.
If Joseph was using the same stone to defraud people as he later used to write the Book of Mormon, then it speaks to the credibility of his claims.
If that were true, I’d agree. But there is no valid evidence whatsoever that Joseph ever committed fraud against anyone. Faulk certainly didn’t provide any, and neither has anyone else. The closest they can find is the Pearsall accounts, which appear to have been heavily altered and do not match the other existing evidence.
It appears that Joseph used a seer stone to sell treasure-hunting services and when that didn’t turn out well for him, he used the same stone to sell religious services.
One of the big points made by many of the papers cited is that Joseph wasn’t selling anything. He didn’t advertise his services. He didn’t seek out people who would hire him. They all approached him, not the other way around. And when it became clear it wasn’t working the way they hoped it would, Joseph was the one to call it off.
Using his personal seer stone sometimes for convenience’s sake instead of dealing with the spectacles that didn’t fit is not “selling religious services.” It’s using one of your spiritual gifts in the service of God, the way that you’re meant to use them. He wasn’t charging God money to translate the plates.
(“sell religious services” is both referring to collecting tithing and also to Joseph’s attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon shortly after publication. He sent Oliver Cowdery, Hyram Page and Josiah Stowell to Toronto, Canada but they returned unsuccessful. http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelationbook-1/15)
Well, that took an abrupt detour, didn’t it? Tithing has been a principle in place since before the time of Abraham. It is also not “selling religious services.” It is giving some of your blessings back to God because He is the one who gave them to you in the first place.
As for the copyright, that deserves more than a quick paragraph of explanation. However, I’m running short on room, so this will have to do for now. The copyright that Joseph attempted to sell was not the intellectual copyright over the contents of the Book of Mormon. It was the printing rights, because certain publishers have the right to publish certain books in certain countries. They were trying to find a publisher who would buy the Canadian publishing rights. Moreover, they were commanded to do so. We have a copy of the revelation at the Joseph Smith Papers Project. That’s a very big difference from what Faulk is trying to imply. Once again, he is incorrect in his statements.
Considering that Joseph did not even use the plates during the translation, considering that folk magic was common in the New England area, and he had been in trouble with the law for treasure hunting, it seems hard to feel confident in the authenticity of the official translation story.
Joseph absolutely used the plates during the translation. He couldn’t read them, but he never claimed to be able to do that. “Translate” is not the proper word for what Joseph did with the plates, though it’s the word that we frequently use. A better word might be “transmit,” and he was the receiver, not the one doing the transmitting. The Spirit was the transmitter.
But the plates were a tangible evidence that his story was true. Numerous people were aware that he had them. They saw them, they held them, they saw the corner peeking out from under a cloth, they rustled their edges, they carried them in a box, etc. There is no denying that Joseph had something that resembled the plates. Why do you think some of his neighbors tried so hard to steal them from him so many times if he didn’t have anything to back up his story?
He also didn’t have the money or the ability to fake them, and no stories ever emerged of anyone helping him create them, the way they did for similar hoaxes.
I don’t find Joseph Smith’s story of the translation of the Book of Mormon difficult to believe. It is not hard for me to feel confident in that. You know why? Because my testimony isn’t built on Rough Stone Rolling or any other history book about Joseph’s life. It’s not built on whichever instrument Joseph used to aid his revelatory process during that translation.
My testimony is built on the Spirit of Christ. That Spirit testifies of the truth, and He has testified to me that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. He has testified to me that the Book of Mormon is exactly what it claims to be. He has testified to me that Christ’s Priesthood was restored to the Earth. He has testified to me that this belongs to Him. He has testified to me that His prophets still lead our church today.
And because He has testified of that to me, I don’t personally care what hobbies Joseph may have had that are a little on the weird side. He’d probably think my hobbies are weird, too.
None of that changes the truthfulness of his claims. None of it changes the facts that the Book of Mormon is both an ancient record of people who really lived and holy scripture. And none of it changes this church from being the true Church of Christ.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.