03) MAGIC: Did Joseph Smith mix Christianity with Nineteenth Century tradition and magical powers? Did he attempt to employ dark arts to discover hidden treasure?
“In the year 1823 my father’s family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother, Alvin. In the month of October, 1825, I hired with an old gentleman by the name of Josiah Stoal, who lived in Chenango county, State of New York. He had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanna county, State of Pennsylvania; and had, previous to my hiring to him, been digging, in order, if possible, to discover the mine. After I went to live with him, he took me, with the rest of his hands, to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.” 1
“Tuesday 8th, I spent with Elder Rigdon in visiting Elder Cahoon and the place he had selected for his residence, and in attending to some of our private, personal affairs; also in the afternoon I answered the questions which were frequently asked me, while on my last journey but one from Kirtland to Missouri, as printed in the Elder’s Journal, vol. 1, number 2, pages 28 and 29, as follows–
1st. “Do you believe the Bible?” If we do, we are the only people under heaven that do, for there are none of the religious sects of the day that do.
2nd. “Wherein do you differ from other sects?” Because we believe the Bible, and all other sects profess to believe their interpretations of the Bible, and their creeds.
3rd. “Will everybody be damned, but Mormons?” Yes, and a great portion of them, unless they repent, and work righteousness.
4th. “How and where did you obtain the Book of Mormon?” Moroni who deposited the plates (from whence the Book of Mormon was translation) in a hill in Manchester, Ontario county, New York, being dead and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I stranslated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon.
5th. “Do you believe Joseph Smith, junior, to be a Prophet?” Yes, and every other man who has the testimony of Jesus, For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. Revelations xix, 10th verse.
6th. “Do the Mormons believe in having all things common.” No!
10th. “Was not Joe Smith a money digger?” Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.
11th. “Did not Joe Smith steal his wife?” Ask her, she was of age, she can answer for herself.” 2
Joseph Fielding Smith
“During the interval of four years, from 1823 to 1827, Joseph Smith was under the necessity of aiding his father’s family in paying their debts and procuring a living. At times he found employment at home and at times abroad, as opportunity afforded. The death of his oldest brother Alvin, in 1823, made it all the more needful that he exert himself for the benefit of the family. In October, 1825, he entered the employ of an aged gentleman named Josiah Stowel. Mr. Stowel had heard of some old Spanish silver mines in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and employed his hired help in searching for hidden treasure. Joseph, after about one month of fruitless search, persuaded this kindly gentleman to forsake the foolish venture. From this employment came the cry that Joseph Smith, the ‘Mormon’ Prophet, was a ‘money- digger.’ ” 3
Gordon B. Hinckley
I have no doubt there was folk magic practiced in those days. Without question there were superstitions and the superstitious. I suppose there was some of this in the days when the Savior walked the earth. There is even some in this age of so-called enlightenment. For instance, some hotels and business buildings skip the numbering of floor thirteen. Does this mean there is something wrong with the building? Of course not. Or with the builders? No.
Similarly, the fact that there were superstitions among the people in the days of Joseph Smith is no evidence whatever that the Church came of such superstition.
Joseph Smith himself wrote or dictated his history. It is his testimony of what occurred, and he sealed that testimony with his life. It is written in language clear and plain and unmistakable. From an ancient record he translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. It is here for all to see and handle and read. Those who have read with faith and inquired in prayer have come to a certain knowledge that it is true. The present effort of trying to find some other explanation for the organization of the Church, for the origin of the Book of Mormon, and for the priesthood with its keys and powers will be similar to other anti-Mormon fads which have come and blossomed and faded. Truth will prevail. A knowledge of that truth comes by effort and study, yes. But it comes primarily as a gift from God to those who seek in faith. 4
“At the time he employed Joseph to use his stone to find Spanish bullion, Josiah Stowell was an upright Presbyterian and an honored man in his community. The so-called credulity of the money-diggers can be read as evidence of their general faith in invisible forces. Christian belief in angels and devils blended with belief in guardian spirits and magical powers. The Smiths were as susceptible as their neighbors to treasure-seeking folklore. In addition to rod and stone divining, the Smiths probably believed in the rudimentary astrology found in the ubiquitous almanacs. Magical parchments handed down in the Hyrum Smith family may have originally belonged to Joseph Sr. The visit of the angel and the discovery of the gold plates would have confirmed the belief in supernatural powers. For people in a magical frame of mind, Moroni sounded like one of the spirits who stood guard over treasure in the tales of treasure-seeking. The similarities may even have made the extraordinary story more credible in the Smith family. Lucy recognized the crossover in prefacing her narrative of the plates with a caution against thinking “that we stopt 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 buisness 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 & the welfare of our souls.” Lucy’s point was that the Smiths were not lazy–they had not stopped their labor to practice magic–but she showed her knowledge of formulas and rituals and associated them with “the welfare of our souls. ” Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture. Lucy told of Moroni describing “the operation of a good Spirit and an evil one” and urging Joseph to “keep your mind always staid upon God that no evil may come into your heart.quot; The angel’s instructions connected the greed of the money-digger with the powers of Satan. Joseph was to follow a different course. It may have taken four years for Joseph to purge himself of his treasure-seeking greed. Joseph Jr. never repudiated the stones or denied their power to find treasure. Remnants of the magical culture stayed with him to the end.” 5
Lucy Mack Smith
A short time before the house was completed, a man by the name of Josiah Stoal came from Chenango county, New York, with the view of getting Joseph to assist him in digging for a silver mine. He came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain means by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.
Joseph endeavored to divert him from his vain pursuit, but he was inflexible in his purpose and offered high wages to those who would dig for him in search of said mine, and still insisted upon having Joseph to work for him. Accordingly, Joseph and several others returned with him and commenced digging. After laboring for the old gentleman about a month, without success, Joseph prevailed upon him to cease his operations, and it was from this circumstance of having worked by the month, at digging for a silver mine, that the very prevalent story arose of Joseph’s having been a money digger. 6
John A. Widtsoe
In October of 1825 he was employed by one Josiah Stoal who lived in Chenango County, State of New York. Thereby hangs an important tale. Mr. Stoal had heard that a Spanish silver mine was supposed to exist in the neighborhood. Thereupon he put his men to work, trying to find the lost treasure. . . . When Joseph arrived, he was put to work with the others and so labored for about a month. This employment started the rumor that he had been a money digger. He freely admitted this event in his life. He says:
After I went to live with him [Josiah Stoal], he took me among the rest of his hands to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose a very prevalent story of my having been a money digger. . . .
Enemies have suggested, and widely circulated the suggestion that Stoal employed Joseph because he was said to have a peepstone by which lost treasure could be located. The suggestion is of course based upon his claim of having had communications with heavenly beings. In fact, shortly after the Church was organized, Hiram Page, who claimed to have a stone by which revelations from the Lord could be obtained, was sternly rebuked by the Prophet. 7
The male members of the Smith family were still under the necessity of occasionally obtaining work outside of cultivating their own farm, in order to sustain themselves and meet the payments on their land. Hence they were sometimes at home and sometimes abroad. About a year after the death of Alvin, in October, 1825, to be exact, Joseph engaged to work for an elderly gentleman, Josiah Stoal, of Bainbridge, Chenango county, in the south part of New York state. . . . Near Bainbridge was an extensive cave, artificially formed some said, others that it was of a natural formation. In any event a local legend had it that it was an old mine formerly worked by Spaniards; and that they had concealed within it much of the treasure they had discovered, and could not take away, and hence had concealed it within the cave.
Mr. Stoal believed this legend and had employed men to explore the cave for the treasure. Having heard of Joseph Smith’s gift of seership, he came to the Smith residence to employ him in this undertaking. Joseph hired out to Mr. Stoal and went with him and the rest of his men to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where for something like a month they vainly sought to find the “hidden treasure.” At the end of that time, and acting under the advice of Joseph Smith, Mr. Stoal gave up the quest. It is mainly from this circumstance that the reputation of “money digger” was fastened upon the Prophet. 8
- Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith History, 1:56 ↩
- Elder’s Journal, vol. 1, number 2, pages 28 and 29, The latter-day Saint’s millenial star, volume 16 pg. 151 ↩
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History, p. 59 ↩
- “Lord, Increase Our Faith,” Ensign, November 1987, pp. 52-53 also Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997], 103 ↩
- Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, pg. 50-51 ↩
- Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother [Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1945], 91 – 92 ↩
- John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith–Seeker after Truth, Prophet of God [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1951], 34 ↩
- B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930], 1: 81 – 82 ↩